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||James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)|
First major American novelist, whose best-known tales of frontier adventure include The Last of the Monicans (1826), an adventure story set in the Lake Champlain. It has been filmed several times, among others in 1936 and 1992. Through his Leatherstocking series Cooper created the archetype of the 18th-century frontiersman, Natty Bumppo. He lives free, close to nature, while the settlers bring 'civilization' that destroys the wilderness. Cooper wrote over thirty novels – he considered The Pathfinder (1841) and The Deerslayer (1840) his best works.
"Few men exhibit greater diversity, or, if we may so express it, greater antithesis of character than the native warrior of North America. In war, he is daring, boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying, and self-devoted; in peace, just, generous, hospitable, revengeful, superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste." (from The Last of the Mohicans)
James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, the son of Quakers, Judge William Cooper and Elisabeth Fenimore Cooper. His father was a representative of the 4th and 6th Congress, and had attained wealth by developing virgin land. The family moved to Cooperstown, New York, which Judge Cooper had founded. James Fenimore spent his youth partly on the family estate on the shores of Otsego Lake. He roamed in the primeval forest and developed a love of nature which marked his books. Cooper was educated in the village school, and in 1800-02 in the household of the rector of St. Peter's.
In his junior year Cooper was expelled from Yale because of a series of pranks, which included training a donkey to sit in a professor's chair. Encouraged by his father, Cooper joined the Navy and served on the Sterling, 1806-07. On his return to the United States, he received a warrant as a midshipman. In 1808 he served on the Vesuvius and on the Wasp in the Atlantic in 1809. These experiences later inspired his sea stories. Upon his father's death in 1809, Cooper became financially independent. He resigned his commission in 1811 and married Susan Augusta De Lancey, who was a descendent of the early governors of New York colony.
From the early 1810s Cooper took up the comfortable life of a gentleman farmer. He lived in Mamaroneck, New York from 1811 to 1814, then in Cooperstown, and from 1817 to 1821 in Scarsdale, New York. A change of fortune connected with his father's estate ended the Coopers' rural idyll. He settled in Westchester, living on his wife's land. He was very fond of reading and one day when he had finished an English novel he said: "I could write a better story than that myself!" When his wife challenged him to write the book Cooper set to work, beginning a prolific literary career.
Cooper's first novel Precaution (1820) was an imitation of Jane Austen's novels and did not meet with great success. His second, The Spy (1821), , set in Westchester Country, was based on Sir Walter Scott's Waverly series, and told an adventure tale about the American Revolution. The protagonist is Harvey Birch, a supposed loyalist who actually is a spy for George Washington, disguised as 'Mr Harper'. The book brought Cooper fame and wealth and he gave up farming. Scott inspired Cooper to draw stereotypes of light and dark, good and evil, and dichotomize the female into the fair and pure and the dark and tainted. The Pioneers (1823) started his preoccupation with a series of frontier adventures and pioneer life, in which he spent about twenty years. The novels depicted the adventures of Natty Bumppo, also called Leatherstocking or Hawkeye, and his Indian companion Chingachgook. The books, which were not written in chronological order, included the classics The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, and The Prairie (1827).
Cooper had the idea of transporting Leatherstocking to the Far West while he was writing The Last of the Mohicans. He had read with care Major Stephen H. Long's account of his expedition up the Platte River. During the spring of 1826 or earlier he met a young Pawnee chief who became the model for Hard-Heart in The Prairie. From the narrative of the Lewis and Clark expedition he took such names as Mahtoree and Weucha for Sioux chiefs. The character of Natty, who stood about six feet in his moccasins, drew upon folk traditions of historical pioneers such as Daniel Boone. Natty's friendship with the Delaware chief Chingachgook established him as a mediating figure between the white, advancing settlers, and the threatened culture of the Native Americans. Natty himself was educated by the Delaware Indians, who gave him the name 'Hawkeye'.
"I will go upon the rock, boys, and look abroad for the savages," said Ishmael shortly after, advancing towards them wit a mien which he intended should be conciliating, at the same time that it was authoritative. "If there is nothing to fear, we will go out on the plain; the day is too good to be lost in words, like women in the towns wrangling over their tea and sugared cakes." (from The Prairie)
The Last of the Mohicans was originally published by Carey and Lea of Philadelphia in two volumes. The great Rousseaun tale of a bon sauvage and the clash between cultures has inspired several films, and many television programs have utilized its plot elements. The feature-length silent version of 1920 focused on the love triangle between Uncas (Albert Rosco), Cora (Barbara Redford), and Magua (Wallace Berry). In Michael Mann's version (1992) Cora is no longer of mixed race, and the interracial relationship between Uncas and Alice is left undeveloped. Uncas and Chingachgook are played for the first time by native American actors, Eric Schweig and Russell Means. "Overall, the confrontation of racial adversaries is still resolved through violence instead of romantic coupling (i.e., Uncas and Cora; or Uncas and Alice; or Hawkeye and a mixed-race Cora), which keeps the centuries-old doctrine of racial purity intact. The next version of The Last of the Mohican will undoubtedly rewrite the racial politics of the story in a way consistent with future needs and sensibilities." (from Novels into Films by John C. Tibbets and James M. Welsh, 1999)
In the beginning of the 1820s Cooper lived in New York City and
participated in its intellectual life and politics. He wrote a series
of sea adventures, starting from The Pilot (1824), a genuine American sea tale about the exploits of John Paul Jones. It was followed by The Red Rover (1827), The Wing-and-Wing (1842), The Two Admirals (1842), Afloat and Ashore (1844), and The Sea Lions (1849).
From 1826 to 1833 Cooper lived in Europe, where he published romances and unsuccessful books about democracy, politics, and society. He served as the US consul at Lyons and travelled a great deal. In Europe he became friends with Sir Walter Scott and Marquis de Lafayette, who partly inspired his essay Notions of America (1828). He was especially inspired by Italy and lived in Tasso's villa at Sorrento, but literary meetings in London annoyed him and the Thames river did not impress him, it was "a stream of trivial expanse." The British writer D.H. Lawrence called him later "A gentleman in the worst sense."
During the last decades of his life Cooper was earning less from his books but was forced to go on writing for income. In 1833 Cooper returned to the Unites States, but he refused to attend a dinner planned in his honor. Cooper first lived in New York City and then in Cooperstown. Feeling ill-treated by journalists, he fought the press with libel suits, winning most of his cases. However, with his biting opinions he also lost friends, and his lack of circumspection was especially vulnerable to such criticism as presented by Mark Twain in his essay Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences (1895). His later works include Satanstoe (1845), a historical novel of manners, The Chainbearer (1845), and The Red-Skins (1846), which form the trilogy called 'The Littlepage Manuscripts'. The novels deal with the anti-rent controversy and its historical background. Cooper defended in the work the landlords' rights – the tenants of the New York had refused to pay rent and the author saw in the controversy a crisis in American democracy. In The American Democrat Cooper also expressed his political and social views. Cooper died at Otsego Hall, on September 14, 1851. He was buried in the cemetery of Cooperstown. His wife followed him four months later.
The Leatherstocking Tales are a series of novels set in the early frontier period of American history. The Deerslayer depicts Natty Bumppo's experiences as a young man. The events take place in the 1740s in the upstate New York, where Deerslayer is joined by his Mohican friend, Chingachgook, to rescue two frontiersmen. The Last of the Mohicans in set in the 1757 during the Seven Years' War between the French and the British. Hawkeye / Bumppo and his friends Chingachgook and Uncas with a group of English civilians are betrayed by their Indian guide Magua. Hawkeye revenges the death of his friend Uncas and an English lady, Cora, and kills Magua. The Pathfinder is also set during the war, and tells a story of betrayal and love. Jasper Western, a sailor is suspected of being disloyal to the English, is arrested to the despair of Mabel, who is in love with him. The real traitor is Muir, the lieutenant who had accused Jasper. He is killed by Arrowhead, a Tuscarora Indian. The Pioneers is set in 1793 in Otsego County in the recently settled region of New York state. Natty Bumppo, now known as Leatherstocking, and his friend Oliver Edwards befriend Judge Temple and his daughter Elisabeth. Chingachgook dies in a forest fire in spite of Bumppo's efforts to save him. Oliver Edward's lost grandfather is found and Oliver and Elisabeth are betrothed at the end. The Prairie is set in 1804. Natty Bumppo meets a wagon train and helps it to evade an Indian raiding party. The travellers endure a prairie fire, a buffalo stampede, and capture by the Sioux. In the end of the tale Bumppo peacefully dies on the prairie, surrounded by his friends."A valiant, a just, and a wise warrior, has gone on the path which will lead him to the blessed grounds of his people!" he said. "When the voice of the Wahcondah called him, he was ready to answer. Go, my children; remember the just chief of the Palefaces, and clear your own tracks from briers!"
For further reading: Studies in Classic American Literature (1923, includes D.H. Lawrence's two influential essays); Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth by Henry Nash Smith (1950); Frontier: American Literature and the American West by Edwin Fussell (1965); Cooper's Americans by Kay Seymour House (1965); Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimoore Cooper's America by John P. McWilliams (1972); A World By Itself by H. Daniel Peck (1977); Plotting America's Past by William P. Kelly (1983); Early Cooper and His Audience by J.D. Wallace (1986); James Fenimoore Cooper by Donald A. Ringe (1988); Cooper's Leather-stocking Novels by Geoffrey Rans (1991); James Fenimore Cooper by Alan Frank Dyer (1991); New Essays on "The Last of the Mohicans", ed. by H. Daniel Peck (1992); The Lasting of the Mohicans by Martin Barker and Roger Sabin (1996) James Fenimore Cooper's Landscapes by Nalle Valtiala (1998); James Fenimore Cooper by William B. Clymer (2000). See also: Owen Wister, Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, Karl May
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