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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Cherokee Memorials
- Louise Amelia Smith Clappe
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Corridos
- Caroline Stansbury Kirkland
- Nat Love
- John Rollin Ridge
- Catharine Maria Sedgwick
- Walt Whitman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

James Fenimore Cooper
[1161] John Wesley Jarvis, James Fenimore Cooper (1822), courtesy of the New York State Historical Assocation.

James Fenimore Cooper Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
At the height of his fame in the early nineteenth century, James Fenimore Cooper was America's foremost novelist and one of the most successful writers in the world. Judgments on his stature as a novelist have been less generous since that time, but few would dispute the cultural significance of his innovative tales. Building on the example of the British novelist Sir Walter Scott, Cooper wrote the first American historical novels and in the process made subjects such as Native Americans, the western wilderness, and the democratic political system compelling and popular topics for fiction.

Cooper was raised in Cooperstown, the village his father founded in the forests of upstate New York. His third novel, The Pioneers, is closely based on his memories of growing up in this frontier community. Cooper was sent to Yale as an adolescent, but was quickly expelled for his poor academic performance and his habit of playing pranks. In need of a career, he enlisted in the merchant marines and the navy, experiences he would later draw on in his popular seafaring novels, including The Pilot and The Red Rover. Cooper inherited a substantial estate from his father in 1810, left the navy, and married Susan De Lancey, a woman from a wealthy New York family. Expecting to live as a privileged landowner, he was distressed when the following years brought financial setbacks, debt, and the loss of much of his inherited land.

In 1820, Cooper changed the course of his life when he wrote his first work of fiction, Precaution, a conventional novel of manners set in England. According to legend, Cooper wrote the book only because his wife challenged him to make good on his boast that he could write a better novel than the one she was reading. Despite his initial offhand attitude toward writing, Cooper took the American Revolution as the subject for his second book and composed the first important American historical novel, The Spy (1821). It met with enormous critical and financial success. In 1822 he moved his family to New York City to pursue his new career in earnest. Cooper founded the "Bread and Cheese" in the city, a social club for men committed to nurturing American culture. Through the club, Cooper associated with leading New York merchants, professionals, and artists, including many of the Hudson River School painters, whose depictions of nature are so frequently associated with Cooper's literary descriptions of the American wilderness. In 1823 Cooper published The Pioneers, the first of his five Leather-Stocking novels and the most autobiographical of his books. In it he introduced Natty Bumppo (known as the "Leather-Stocking"), who seized the American imagination as the independent backwoods hunter and friend to the Indians. Figured as a sort of personification of the American wilderness, Natty helped construct the mythology of the frontier and fuel American nostalgia for an idealized past before "civilization" intruded into the woods. Cooper followed The Pioneers with other successful novels, including The Last of the Mohicans, which chronicles Natty's adventures in upstate New York during the French and Indian War of 1754-63.

At the peak of his success, Cooper took his family on a grand tour of Europe, where they were introduced to prominent political figures and artists. He continued writing and publishing novels from abroad, but many of these works were poorly received by the American press. Bitter at what he perceived as the American public's betrayal of him, Cooper announced in 1834 that he was going to give up novel writing and retire in seclusion to Cooperstown. From that point on he had a vexed relationship with his American audience, a problem exacerbated by his frequent involvement in petty lawsuits and his increasingly conservative harangues about the sociopolitical state of the country. Despite his threat to stop writing, Cooper actually wrote prolifically until his death, producing a total of thirty-two novels, along with several political tracts, works of history, and biographies.

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