James Fenimore Cooper

Contributed by Rene' Treffeisen

James Fenimore Cooper.  "One of the few immortal names."  Easily first on the roll of 
fame in Otsego County stands the bold pioneer of American letters, the literary
pathfinder of the Western World, James Fenimore cooper. "We must admire," says Mr.
Bancroft, "the noble courage with which he entered on a course which none before him
had tried; the glory which he justly won was reflected on his country, and deserves
the grateful recognition of all who survive him." In accordance with the earnest
desire of Mr. Cooper on his deathbed, his family have refrained from giving to the
public any detailed account of his life and works. Hence the non-existence of any
authorized biography, and the scantiness of material, outside the products of his own
pen, from which to present even the outlines of his carreer. Within a few years his
story as a man of letters has been told in graphic style, with discriminating criticism
and cheerful meed of praise, by Professor Lounsbury, who partial bibliography of Mr.
Cooper's writings includes first editions of his books, a few magazine articles, and
two or three of his most important newspaper contributions; seventy in all, and the
list not an exhaustive one. In Burlington, N. J. September 15 1789, to William ad Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper was
born a son, James, the eleventh of a family of twelve children. The father was of
English-Quaker descent, the mother of Swedish lineage. The future novelist had barely
entered his second year when he arrived with his parents at their new home in
Cooperstown, October 10 1790, or two years after the village was laid out, and four
years from the beginning of the settlement of Cooper's patent. Here, amid this
beautiful and impressive scenery, were spent his early formative years. he attended
the village academy, and later was sent to Albany to prepare for college under the
tuition of an English clergyman. It is evident that hte lessons which sank deepest
into his heart and mind were those which Mother Nature taught him. As Edward Everett
said of him when he was gone, "He owe a part of his inspriration to the magnificent
nature which surrounded him, to the lakes, forests, and Indian traditions of a great
State." Entering Yale as a lad of thirteen, well fitted for the Freshman class in its second
term, he showed little liking for the college curriculum, but a marked fondness for
outdoor pursuits, for woodland and seaside rambles. So it came to pass that his
third year at Yale was his last. Life on the ocean wave was more suited to his
adventurous disposition. His father having been a Member of congress, he might hope
for promotion in the navy. After a year before the mast in the merchant service,
voyaging to London and the Straits of Gibraltar, young Cooper received his commission
as a midshipmen January 1, 1808, and during the next three years was assigned to serve
at different points, one winter being spent on the shores of Lake Ontario with a party
detailed to build a brig for the defense of that inland sea. His marriage, January 1, 1811, with Miss Susan De lancey, of Westchester County, led
to the resignation of his position in the navy a few months later. The home life that
followed, whether in Westchester, Cooperstown, New York, Italy r Switzerland, was
exceptionally happy. Severn children were born, all but two of whom reached maturity.
A daughter, Susan, now living, herself an author, became her fahter's secretary as he
grew advanced in years. Mr. Cooper's first book, "Precaution", a novel of English society, was written at the
age of thirty, just to show what he could do with his pen, and with no thought of
adopting the literary profession. It was published by the advice of friends in 1820.
The book was found readable at that time; it is chiefly worth mentioning now as a first
literary effort, and as the beginning of much that was better. In "The Spy," a tale of
the Revolution, was published in 1821, the author stood on familiar soil, the scene
being laid in Westchester, "the Neutral Ground," and scored a billiant success, showing
himself possessed of genius. In the "Pioneers," 1823, Mr. Cooper led his readers to
the picturesque shores of Otsego Lake, and through the pimeval forests encircling it
in his boyhood. It is in this novel that he first introduces leather-stocking, the
ever-welcome "Philosopher of the woods," whom Mr. Bryant termed one of the noblest as
well as most striking and original creations of fiction. The other Leatherstocking
tales, giving them in the order of their appearance, are: "The Last of the Mohicans,"
1826; "The Prairie," 1827; "The Pathfinder," 1840; "The Deerslayer," 1841. This is
the dramatic dequence - fifth, second, fourth, first, third. Mr. Lounsbury places
"The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" a the head of Cooper's novels as artistic
creations. "The Last of the Mohicans," a glowing success from the first, he
pronounces to be the one in which the interest not only never halts, but never sinks.
"The Prairie," too grave and quiet to be very popular, is marked as the "most poetical"
of all his tales. The genuine sea-story owes its origin to Cooper. Foreboding friends
tried to dissuade him from the daring experiment of introducing into fiction the details
of the management of ships at sea, as he proposed to do after reading "The Pirate,"
which he could see to be the work of a landsman. He persisted in thinking it might be
done effectively. The result was "The Pilot," given to the public in January, 1824,
and received with much applause both in this country and Europe. His other great
sea-novel, "The Red Rover," came out in 1828. Mr. Cooper, accompanied by his wife an dchildren, went to Europe in 1826, where he
remained a little more than seven years, still employing his pen in writing American
novels. His experience in foreign lands bore fruit in several volumes of sketches
and gleanings. Visiting Cooperstown in 1834, after an absence of sixteen years, Mr.
Cooper soon decided to make Otsego Hall, his fahter's old place his permanent home.
Here accordingly were passed his remaining years, and here, after a few months of
invalidism, he died September 14, 1851. His last novel, "The Ways of the Hour," was
published in 1850. A manuscript on the towns of Manhattan was left unfinished. A
letter written in 1833 by Professor S. F. B. Morse testifies that Cooper's works were
published as soon as he produced them in thirty-four different places in Europe, and
that they had been met with in the Turkish and Persian languages, and of course in
various dialects. Mr. Cooper was a kind-hearted, generous man, best loved where best known; at home or
abroad, a patriotic American, intensely National. Of a strong, self-reliant nature,
a man of lofty principles, he wrote what he felt to be truth, after taking pains to
ascertain facts - as in the Naval History - even when to do this was to "stem popular
prejudice," and to "walk in ways far from pleasantness and peach." His novels have
many merits, and whatever defects may be pointed out by the cultivated critics, they
continue to have, as booksellers and librarians cordially testify, hosts of admiring
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