Term Paper: James Fenimore Cooper the Life and Times

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James Fenimore Cooper

The Life and Times of James Fenimore Cooper

Sometimes people find their niche in life because they know what they want to do from an early age and pursue educational and vocational opportunities that will help them achieve it. Others, though, seem to stumble onto success and this appears to be the case with James Fenimore Cooper who became a writer either out of necessity or by accident, depending on which account one believes, but the fact remains this author continues to delight modern readers with his vivid accounts of life in the early American frontier. To determine how Cooper achieved this lofty achievement, this paper provides a brief biography of the author, a review of some of his major works, and a discussion of their influence on modern American society. A summary of the research and important findings are provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

According to Davis (1994), in his historical novels, Cooper recognized that there was going to be some inevitable consequences with Native Americans resulting from the European settlers' expansion into the frontier. For example, in many of his works, Cooper addressed the issue of "Indian nature," especially the possibility of "civilizing the savage" that were reflective of later debates concerning Indian removal and the future of relations between Euro-Americans and Native Americans, including their use of "fire-water" (Davis 216). According to Davis, "Cooper's portrayals of Native American drinking thus contributed in their own way to the contemporary debate concerning 'Indian nature'" (215). While these early accounts about Native Americans' use of alcohol may have contributed to later stereotypical perceptions about Native Americans, his stories about the American wilderness and the kinds of people it took to tame it were heady stuff and he was enormously popular at home and abroad as a result. In this regard, Dekker and Williams (1997) report that, "The reasons for Cooper's astounding popularity in nineteenth-century Europe may be conjectured from a superb review of Cooper that appeared in the Paris Globe [19 June and 2 July, 1827]. Cooper emerges as a vivid portrayer of low-born, solitary heroes who exercise the height of human virtues and human potentialities amid the sublimity of an unspoiled landscape" (29). As yet another biographer notes, "Indeed, he became the most influential American writer of the nineteenth century. In particular, Cooper created the stock characters -- the noble but doomed Indian, the resourceful frontiersman and the loyal slave - as well as the favorite settings, especially the violent frontier, that characterized most historical romances through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth" (Taylor 22). The author might well add the "and the twenty-first" as well, because Cooper's stories remain de rigueur reading throughout the nations' schools today, with perhaps the most well-known being the five "Leatherstocking Tales," described further below.

In his essay, "Fenimore Cooper's America," Taylor (1996) reports that, "Twentieth-century readers know the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper as the author of the five 'Leatherstocking Tales... set in the North American forest and prairie during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These novels of frontier violence and adventure helped define the American experience and identity, especially for European readers" (21). Indeed, European readers must have had a high opinion of Americans in general based on these accounts, because Bumppo was the right man at the right time in the American frontier. For example, Becker enthuses that, "There is no hero in American fiction who takes you with him into his time and place more completely than Natty Bumppo on his life journey through the five Leatherstocking Tales" (5).

The title, order of publication and a brief synopsis of the five Leatherstocking Tales is provided below:

The Pioneers (1823). Old soldiers may fade away, but they still have to deal with the harsh realities of life while they are still alive, and Bumppo is going to need to keep moving if he is going to stay ahead of the increasing number of settlers (Becker 5). According to Davis (1994), "Perhaps the most famous of Cooper's examples of Native American drinking is Old John Mohegan from the Pioneers" (216).

The Last of the Mohicans: a Narrative of 1757 (1826). This tale provides an exciting account of Bumppo adventures while serving as an army scout

The Prairie (1827). In this tale, Bumppo has journeyed further into the western plains. Although in his late eighties, he is certainly not in his dotage and manages to handle forest fires and buffalo stampedes. As Becker notes, "The last tremendous effort of his life is to rise from his sickbed as the sun goes down, answer 'Here,' and fall back, dead" (6).

The Pathfinder (1840). This tale has a romantic interest, but also plenty of action when Bumppo defends the blockhouse (Becker 5).

The Deerslayer (1841). In this tale, Bumppo is a young hunter who is raised among the Delaware Indians; in the process, he learns the Indian ways of surviving in the early 18th century American wilderness of New York State; Becker reports, "The perfect woodsman, he needs plenty of room; loving the forest, he has the keen senses and cool nerve needed to keep alive there" (5). According to Dekker and Williams, "He has chosen for the scene of his story the Otsego lake, on whose banks he lived and died, and whose scenery he has introduced into three, if not more, of his novels" (253).

It is little wonder that these stories captured the imagination of the readers of the day, or that they continue to be enjoyed by modern readers. Indeed, Bummpo was the prototypical embodiment of American resourcefulness and individuality during a highly formative period in the country history. For instance, Taylor notes that, "In Harvey Birch, of the Spy and Natty Bumppo of the Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper created the essential American hero of innumerable novels, stories and films: the socially marginal and rootless loner operating in a violent no-man's land beyond the rule of law, but guided by his own superior code of justice" (22). Likewise, as Becker points out about Bumppo: "Generous, resourceful, not so fond of traders as of Indians, his way through these five romances has been that of the pioneer through a period when America was taking shape" (6).

In fact, it would not be until frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone several decades later before Bumppo would see his equal, and these tales are liberally sprinkled with enough adventure, romance and warfare to keep early 18th century readers waiting for more. This was an especially good thing for Cooper, since Taylor points out that the author had champagne tastes but was not even managing a beer budget until he started to write. "Despite a boyish love for 'reading novels and amusing tales,'" Taylor notes that Cooper "did not begin to write fiction until he was thirty and only after the frustration of his ambitions as a gentleman farmer, frontier landlord, and mercantile investor" (21). This biographer indicates that Cooper's decision to turn to writing was based on the fact that his wife's family viewed him as a ne'er-do-well and refused to help him when his fortunes failed, and even his creditors refused to foreclose on his belongings because of their shabbiness (Taylor 21).

Yet another biographer suggests that Cooper's decision to begin writing was an "accident," and was, like Mary Shelley's decision to write Frankenstein, was the result of a wager:

When James Fenimore Cooper published Precaution at the age of thirty-one, he was a gentleman farmer turned novelist by accident.... On a dare from his wife, however, the man who did not like to write even a letter set out to compose a better book than the English one he had been reading to her. Although it is doubtful that he won his bet with Precaution, he launched a career that was to end thirty-one years later only after the publication of some thirty-two novels and at least a dozen volumes of non-fiction. (Ringe 17)

This prolific rate of writing must have been particularly challenging from a creative perspective because Cooper did not have all that much to work with in terms of American history; after all, the country was brand-spanking-new. According to Steinbrink (19760, Cooper regretted (and may have even resented the fact) that he was writing during a period in American history when "there was simply not enough of it" (336). In fact, Cooper's choice of themes in some of his works was a matter of necessity rather than choice, with his portrayals of warfare being directed by the topical events of the day. For instance, Steinbrink points out, "That the Spy should deal with the War of Independence must have seemed, under the circumstances, more an inevitability than a matter of choice to Cooper in 1821. At the very least, he was tapping the richest native source available to him" (337). Furthermore, in the case of the Spy, at least, Cooper was breaking some new ground because the espionage… [END OF PREVIEW]

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