James Fenimore Cooper (17891851) was a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century. Many of his works were historical adventure stories, including the five-volume sequence The Leatherstocking Tales, which includes The Last of the Mohicans, probably the most widely known of his novels.
His works are probably most famous these days for codifying the romantic concept of the Native American Frontier, and for their heroic, chivalrous prose being relentlessly mocked by Mark Twain. (Incidentally, the Defenses are here.) Nonetheless, Cooper, starting with The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821), became the father of the American novel and wrote the first real American adventure stories. He followed the lead of Sir Walter Scott, adapting it to an American environment and democratizing it: where Scott (like Shakespeare) limited his lower-class characters to comic relief roles, Cooper made commoners like Harvey Birch and Natty Bumppo central characters of the work they appeared in. He also instituted an American archetype, that of the misfit or outsider hero at odds with society. The Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841) are the ancestors of the Western, while The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea (1824) was the first of a series of sea novels based on Cooper's personal experiences in the merchant marine and the U.S. Navy, which established another new literary genre and became direct inspirations for Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. (He also spent several years living and working in Paris, which may or may not have inspired later American writers). Cooper also wrote some the earliest spy novels and is credited with some of the first serious portrayals of black and African-descended characters in American literature. During his lifetime Cooper was the first American writer to achieve worldwide renown and commercial success, and also the first one to impress and influence European writers, including not only the makers of the European strain of the Western like Friedrich Gerstacker and Karl May, but also Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reread The Pioneers before describing a tiger hunt in his Novelle (1826). And while Twain tried to tear him down, Cooper still found admirers of his writing in writers as diverse as Henry David Thoreau, George Sand, Joseph Conrad, DH Lawrence and Arno Schmidt.
Works by James Fenimore Cooper with their own pages include:
Other works by James Fenimore Cooper provide examples of:
- The Captivity Narrative: In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), an inversion occurs with Conanchet, a Narraganset boy captured by Connecticut Puritans, resists all efforts to turn him into one of them and escapes. Later, Ruth Heathcote and Whittal Ring are assimilated into the tribe after being captured in a raid by the Narragansetts. Ruth as Narra-mattah becomes the wife of Conanchet and the mother of his son. She only returns to her white family after the death of her husband.
- Dawn of the Wild West:
- The trilogy The Littlepage Manuscripts (Satanstoe, The Chainbearer, and The Redskins) takes place in the "wild west" of colonial America (i.e., western New York).
- Cooper goes even further east with The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, a frontier story set in 17th century Connecticut.
- Democracy Is Bad: Many of Cooper's political tracts and some of his novels, most notably the Littlepage Manuscripts trilogy, bespeak of a growing scepticism towards the American political system, which in many ways overlaps with Democracy in America by his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville. Cooper was a bit of a social conservative who found the emergent Jacksonian democracy, where the masses' influence gradually eclipsed that of the landed and propertied classes, off-putting. The fact that American democracy in his day happily coexisted with slavery and that Cooper sympathized with the American Indians, who were definitely getting the short end of the stick under Andrew Jackson and the administrations that followed, cannot have helped. Still Cooper generally did not hesitate to portray the American republic as superior and more progressive than the monarchies of old Europe.
- Dressing as the Enemy: In The Spy, Harvey Birch pretends to work for the British in order to entrap Loyalist conspirators and spies.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Cooper's unsuccessful first novel Precaution (1820) is a story of three families in England wanting to marry off their childrens, an uninspired imitation of the genre started by Jane Austen. He wrote it because he disliked an English novel of this type so much that he said he could write a better one, and his family took him up on it. He then switched to historical novels of the type created by Walter Scott, but in American settings.
- Guile Hero: Harvey Birch, the eponymous hero of The Spy.
- Half-Breed Discrimination: When Narra-mattah (Ruth Heathcote) shows her baby to her mother in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, the latter is at first not exactly happy about learning that she has a half-Narragansett grandson. However, she does eventually change her tone.
- Historical Domain Character:
- George Washington in The Spy.
- John Paul Jones in The Pilot.
- Conanchet (Canonchet), Metacom ("King Philip") and Uncas (the Mohegan chief) in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.
- Christopher Columbus in Mercedes of Castile.
- Historical Fiction
- Honour Before Reason: In The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish Conanchet dies affirming the warrior's code of the Narragansetts, refusing either to convert to Christianity or to make peace with the Mohegans in order to save something insignificant as his own life.
- Humans Are Bastards: A frequent theme of Cooper's, especially as he became more critical of American society and its land-grabs after his return from Europe. The growing corruption of individuals as "civilization" expands became a the major theme of his Littlepage Manuscripts trilogy of Satanstoe, The Chainbearer and The Redskins, or: Indian and Injin (1845-1846).
- The Maiden Name Debate: James Cooper added "Fenimore" to his name in order to honour the wish of his mother that her family name be preserved after her death. During the 19th century this was still often treated as a double-barrelled surname, thus both George Sand and Mark Twain wrote articles in which Cooper is mentioned as "Fenimore Cooper" in the title.
- Meaningful Name: As most of the characters in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish are 17th-century Puritans, the novel abounds in biblical names and names like Charity, Content and Submission. There are also two preachers, Meek Wolfe and Meek Lamb.
- Moustache de Plume: Inverted. With his first novel, the anonymously published Precaution, Cooper successfully created the impression that it was written by an Englishwoman (it even went to two printings in Britain). He later published two short stories as "Jane Morgan".
- Named After Someone Famous: Reflecting the customs of the times in which the novels are set, some black characters, both slaves and freemen, have names from Roman history and Greek mythology, such as Caesar in The Spy, Agamemnon ("Aggy") in The Pioneers, and Scipio Africanus and Cassandra in The Red Rover.
- Protagonist-Centered Morality: The way different tribes and nations are portrayed to a large extent depends on whether they belong to the protagonists or antagonists of the novel in question. For instance, the Mohican Uncas is a protagonist of The Last of the Mohicans and portrayed very positively, while his namesake Uncas, the Mohegan chief in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, is a more sinister character.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Harvey Birch in The Spy refuses the money George Washington offers to reward him for his patriotic services: "not a dollar of your gold will touch; poor America has need for it all!" This is based on a real-life case related as an anecdote by Cooper's friend John Jay.
- Sea Stories: The novels The Pilot, The Red Rover, The Water-Witch: or the Skimmer of the Seas, Homeward Bound: or The Chase, Mercedes of Castile: or, The Voyage to Cathay, The Two Admirals, Afloat and Ashore, The Crater, or, Vulcan's Peak: A Tale of the Pacific, Jake Tier: or The Florida Reefs, and The Sea Lions: The Lost Sealers, as well as the short stories No Steamboats and An Execution at Sea. The Pathfinder, set on Lake Ontario, is a cross-breed between the frontier novel and the sea novel. Cooper also wrote non-fiction works on the history of the U.S. Navy and biographies of famous American sailors and his former shipmate Ned Myers.
- Spy Fiction: The Spy (1821) and The Bravo (1831, set in Venice) are two of the earliest examples of the genre.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Roderick in The Red Rover.
- The "The" Title: Most of Cooper's novels have titles conforming to this pattern, starting with The Spy (1821) and ending with The Ways of the Hour (1850). Of those that don't, many have a secondary title that does, such as Lionel Lincoln: or The Leaguer of Boston, Homeward Bound: or The Chase: A Tale of the Sea, and Wyandotte: or The Hutted Knoll.
- Together in Death: Conanchet and Narra-wattah (Ruth Heathcote) in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.
- Uncleanliness Is Next to Ungodliness: Averted. In the first edition of The Spy, Harvey Birch has the disgusting habit of spitting tobacco juice.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: A common staple of many of Cooper's novels.
- The Spy: 33 years after the main events, during the War of 1812, a conversation reveals the fate of various characters.
- The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish: A modern-day narrator visits the town of Wish-ton-Wish and inspects the gravestones of the characters.
- Whodunit: Cooper's last novel, The Ways of the Hour, a courtroom mystery which among other things contains criticism of the American judiciary. It appeared in 1850, a few years after Edgar Allan Poe's seminal C. Auguste Dupin stories.
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Most of Cooper's sea novels and his non-fiction naval books fall into this category.