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James Fenimore Cooper

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In the churchyard of Christ's Church, in the town bearing his name, in the State of New York, rests all that is mortal of James Fenimore Cooper. It is now more than two score of years since he died. The spot is marked by a simple slab of marble. In the public cemetery of Cooperstown stands a noble monument to Leather Stocking. It is crowned with a figure of this immortal character. The personality of Cooper himself must, like the human body, gradually fade away; but certain personalities which he brought into literature are lasting. Cooper the man dies; Cooper the novelist lives.

Cooper the man and Cooper the author are singularly united and yet singularly distinct. His boyhood was spent in scenes which figure in his novels, and certain of the novels seem in certain respects to be only the projection of early experiences through which he passed or of which he constantly heard. Yet there are many qualities manifest in his writings which do not seem to belong to his personality and many elements exhibited in his personality which are not suggested by his stories.

Born in Burlington, N. J., September 15, 1789, he was taken, at the age of about a year, to that part of the State of New York which has since become lastingly associated with his life and work. His early home was one of a considerable degree of affluence. His father, near the close of the Revolution, had become possessed of large tracts of land about the sources of the Susquehanna, and on the borders of the endless forests of Central New York the Cooper family established a home. In this wilderness James Fenimore Cooper spent his boyhood. This settlement was not unlike the ordinary new settlements which are, at various stages of their history, found in many of the States of the American Union. It was picturesque in the richness and diversity of the gifts of nature. Game abounded in water and wood. The years he here lived deeply affected his character and influenced his career. It is reported that in later life he said "he might have chosen for his subject happier periods, more interesting events, and possibly more beauteous scenes, but he could not have taken any that would lie so close to his heart."[13] Apparently the education of books and of formal teachers was less influential than the education of nature. In the schools of Cooperstown and under the tuition of the rector of St. Peter's Church, Albany—a graduate of an English university—and at Yale College, he received whatever of intellectual training he received in his youth. A frontier town, however, offered few facilities in education, and his career at New Haven was cut short in the midst by his dismission for some sort of a college frolic, and even while he was at Yale he confesses that he played the first year and did not work much the rest of the time. The discipline he received, however, from his English master at Albany seems to have been one of the formative factors of his early life.

In the autumn of 1806, at the age of seventeen, Cooper found himself a seaman before the mast in the ship Sterling, endeavoring to secure the training necessary for entering the United States Navy; for to this career it was decided he should devote himself. His entrance to the navy as midshipman in 1808, his marriage to a Miss De Lancey at Mamaroneck, Westchester County, N. Y., in 1811, his retirement from the navy a few months after his marriage, and a somewhat migratory life distinguished by a "gentlemanly" and unprofitable pursuit of agriculture for eight years, represent the chief facts and conditions of his career from the age of nineteen to the age of thirty. Describing the last years of this period Professor Lounsbury says: "His thoughts were principally directed to improving the little estate that had come into his possession. (His father died in 1809.) He planted trees, he built fences, he drained swamps, he planned a lawn. The one thing which he did not do was to write."

On November 10, 1820, in New York, was published a novel in two volumes, bearing the title "Precaution." Its author was James Fenimore Cooper. He was thirty-one years old. He had had no special literary training. But this novel was the beginning of the career of one of the most prolific of American authors. Accident brought this career to this apparently rather unsuccessful man. Reading to his wife one day a novel dealing with English society, and displeased by it, he made the remark, "I believe I could write a better story myself." His wife challenged him; the challenge he accepted; the book followed.

There were no novelists at the close of the second and the beginning of the third decade of our century. Hawthorne was a shy youth fitting for college. John P. Kennedy, by whose side Cooper appears in the picture of Washington Irving and his friends, was entering the Maryland House of Delegates, and twelve years were to elapse before the issue of his story of Virginia country life, "Swallow Barn." Irving and Paulding were writing sketches. Charles B. Brown was dead. Cooper was alone as a novelist.

Destiny thus found Cooper rather than Cooper his destiny. In the next thirty years he wrote no less than seventy books, or important review articles, and not a few of the books were published in two volumes. So prolific a power of authorship is unique enough, and when considered in the light of the absence of literary associations of the first half of his life seems absolutely unique in the history of men of letters. It is, of course, in and through this latter half of his life that Cooper, both as a man and as an author, made his contribution to the common possessions of mankind.

The larger part of this period he lived in either New York or Cooperstown. Seven years of it (1826-1833), however, were spent in Europe with his family. The whole of it was, till at least the last years, a pretty stormy time to Cooper personally, as well as a busy one in his writing. From the memory of most people now living the recollection of the lawsuits in which Cooper became involved has faded. They were about as numerous as the books he wrote, and they were of an irritating character which would have wearied out a man less bold and enduring. Of this sort of defence and offence he had had a foretaste during his European residence, when he was often called on to defend his native country from an ignorant and depreciative criticism, which was sixty years ago far more common than now. But he who was the defender of his country when abroad, seems to have become the severe critic of his country when at home. "Condescension in foreigners" is bad enough, but condescension in a native who has lived abroad is far worse. On returning Cooper found an America, as he believed, vastly deteriorated. Morals had become base; manners coarse; commerce fallen into speculation. He was not the man to keep his sentiments locked up in his heart. He wrote, and wrote with fulness and severity of his country and of his countrymen. Thurlow Weed, in 1841, wrote of him: "He has disparaged American lakes, ridiculed American scenery, burlesqued American coin, and even satirized the American flag." He also was so foolish as to reply to certain adverse criticisms made on "The Bravo," and in seeking to bring down the lightning on the head of his reviewer, he brought down both thunder and lightning on his own head and about his ears. It must be added, too, that he did not live at peace with his neighbors. Discussion and litigation as to a piece of land which the people of Cooperstown believed had been given by Cooper's father for public uses was peculiarly exasperating. The citizens, in a public meeting, resolved, "That we recommend and request the trustees of the Franklin Library, in this village, to remove all books of which Cooper is the author from said library." That Cooper was legally right did not at all lessen the bitterness. He attacked the newspapers and the newspapers attacked him. Libel suits followed, which, too, he usually won. Criticism of his "History of the United States Navy" aroused his indignation, and a trial which is a cause célèbre was the result. A time of storm all these years were for Cooper.

All this gives the impression of a man who was constantly "spoiling for a fight." The impression is hardly just, however. He was not quarrelsome; but he was proud, possessed of strong passions and of a deep sense of his own rights. Whenever, therefore, what he regarded as his rights were struck at, he struck back. For one blow received another was given, till what was simply a continued litigation seemed to be his normal condition. But these troublesome scenes have to be read in the books, and are not lingering in the minds of his few remaining contemporaries.

In this period he was constantly engaged in writing. Not only was the number of volumes he produced great, but the variety of subject and treatment was no less great. He even wrote a drama. Yet it is to his novels that one turns as the most precious result of these years. Cooper is, above all other Americans, the writer of the novel of adventure. In his own day, at home and abroad, he was often called the American Scott. The metaphor is true in several senses, besides the one point of both the American and the Scotchman standing for the story of objective life and daring. Like Scott, Cooper wrote a tremendous amount; like Scott, he wrote with great rapidity; like Scott, he burdened his books with long introductions; like Scott, he was careless in literary expression; like Scott, too, into the novel of adventure he put a mighty literary power. It must be said that, unlike the Waverley Novels, Cooper's romances have little of development, and that to the cultivated reader Scott is more attractive. One cannot forbear saying that the women of Cooper's creation are far inferior to Scott's—they are women usually narrow in knowledge, weak in brain and heart, and gentle, if not even insipid, in character. They are as proper as well-draped statues, and almost as lifeless. When Cooper, however, passes from this point of weakness to nature herself, he shows himself a master. His descriptions of nature represent his finest work, and are among the finest to be found anywhere. His sea tales are properly named; they are rather tales of the sea than tales of seamen. The closer, too, is the association of his characters with the scenes of nature the more life-like are they. No one has painted the Indian character, with all its varieties of intellectual and emotional contrasts, with its honor and shame, its tenderness and its severity, as has the author of "The Last of the Mohicans." No one has created a character in American fiction more original, more certain of immortality, or combining more elements worthy of the novelist's best skill than Leather-Stocking.

Among his many stories is large range of excellence. It is usually considered that of his sea tales "The Red Rover" is the best, the product of his early career, and that of the Indian stories "The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" represent his highest achievement, as they are the work of the last years. But in thus distinguishing certain books, no one can forget that in "The Spy," his second work, or "The Pioneers," or "The Pilot," or "The Last of the Mohicans," Cooper has written books which are among the most popular and most powerful of their kind.

James Fenimore Cooper, both as a man and as an author, has entered largely into American life and literature. He was thoroughly human. He was strong, and strength with eccentricities—and Cooper had these—is more attractive and moving than mild weakness attended by the graces of propriety. He was proud without vanity; a good hater, yet beloved to devotion in his home; severe, yet holding himself to a high standard of justice; of mighty passions, yet also of mighty will for their control; loyal to what he would esteem right principle; patriotic though the severest critic of his country; a Puritan in character though condemning the Puritan character of New England; frank, fearless, truthful. He lacked tact, and for the lack he paid the penalty of obloquy; there was little of the compromising or conciliatory in his nature. But he had what men of tact are in peril of lacking—the heroic qualities of mind and heart and will and conscience. He was a faithful husband, a loving father. So scrupulously careful was he of the interests of his children that his own daughter says she was not permitted to read her father's books before she was eighteen. His influence is ever in favor of simple truth and simple righteousness. As Mr. James Russell Lowell says: "I can conceive of no healthier reading for a boy, or girl either, than Scott's novels, or Cooper's, to speak only of the dead. I have found them very good reading, at least, for one young man, for one middle-aged man, and for one who is growing old. No, no—banish the Antiquary, banish Leather-Stocking, and banish all the world! Let us not go about to make life duller than it is."


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