American Literature James Fenimore Cooper
by
Keat Murray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0229

Introduction

The preeminent American novelist of the first half of the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper (b. 1789–d. 1851) was a prolific writer best known for his five-novel saga The Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper’s productivity from 1820 to 1851 is virtually unrivaled, publishing thirty-two novels, several books of nonfiction, a few histories, and sundry other works. Cooper’s popularity in the United States and Europe skyrocketed in the 1820s with his first ventures in spy, sea, American Revolution, and frontier fictions, not the least of which was the trilogy that began the Leatherstocking series. Cooper’s sales in the United States dipped quite dramatically in the early 1830s when he published political nonfiction and three European novels, all with strong political overtones. Reviving the Leather-Stocking Tales in 1840 with The Pathfinder and, in 1841, with The Deerslayer vaulted him into popularity once again. His productivity crested in his last full decade, when he published fifteen novels, thereby cementing his reputable place in literary history. From 1960 to the present, critical interest in Cooper has been steadily fruitful, particularly in biography, sociohistorical criticism, and cultural studies. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales remain his most visited writings among scholars and teachers, with more attention shifting recently to his many other novels. Since 1960, four major Cooper projects have undergirded a sustained interest in Cooper’s writings. The first has been the compilation of Cooper’s Letters and Journals edited by James Franklin Beard in 1960–1968 (see Cooper 1960–1968 [cited under Letters]). The collection’s easy accessibility to Cooper’s lively epistles and journals renewed interest in the writer, and the compilation has since become a staple of Cooper studies. Second is another project spearheaded by Beard, who founded “The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper,” or the Cooper Edition (see Beard and Schachterle 1980– [cited under Editions and In the Classroom]). With the publication of its first scholarly edition approved by the Committee on Scholarly Editions of the Modern Language Association in 1980, the Cooper Edition launched its ongoing effort to establish clear texts of Cooper’s writings and publish them for scholarly and pedagogical purposes. Third is the James Fenimore Cooper Society (cited under Bibliographies), founded by Hugh C. MacDougall in 1989, which quickly grew into an international community of Cooper scholars and enthusiasts. The society has published many papers about Cooper’s writings in newsletters, conference proceedings, and its principal publication, the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal (cited under Journals). Fourth is the two-volume Cooper biography by Wayne Franklin, published in 2007 and 2017 (Franklin 2007b and Franklin 2017 [both cited under Biographies]). Franklin’s authoritative biography is informed, in part, by Cooper’s personal papers, which the novelist had requested his family to keep private. Access to the papers gave the biographer a rich store of new information for his portrait of Cooper and the astute readings of the author’s works that season the biography. The new life of Cooper has become an invaluable resource for Cooper studies.

General Overviews

Since the 1960s, major studies of Cooper’s writings have reset the critical conversation about the author’s works. In the 1960s, Philbrick 1961, Ringe 1962, and House 1965 repositioned Cooper studies after a few decades of silence from New Critics had muffled interest in Cooper and the social milieus of his writings. The publication of Cooper’s Letters and Journals by James Franklin Beard (Cooper 1960–1968 [cited under Letters]) reshaped Cooper studies, launching new possibilities, such as the pivotal study McWilliams 1972 on history, politics, and law in Cooper’s writings. Peck 1977 and Railton 1978 bring new attention to Cooper’s poetics and imagination, respectively. Wallace 1986 traces Cooper’s elemental part in creating an American audience for 19th-century novels. Rans 1991 underscores the critical spirit infused in Cooper’s novels. In the wake of the definitive Cooper biography by Wayne Franklin (see Franklin 2007b and Franklin 2017 [both cited under Biographies]), Sivils 2014 and Christophersen 2019 began a new era with these studies of Cooper’s writings in light of 19th-century American social forms, political history, and natural conservation.

  • Christophersen, Bill. Resurrecting Leather-Stocking: Pathfinding in Jacksonian America. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv7r419f

    Christophersen builds on the historical criticism of Kelly 1983 (cited under The Leatherstocking Tales) and Rans 1991 and the two-volume biography Franklin 2007b (cited under Biographies) and Franklin 2017 (cited under Biographies and The Leatherstocking Tales) to argue the Leather-Stocking Tales are firmly rooted in major social and political issues facing the American republic in Cooper’s time. In The Pathfinder, Christophersen reads a crucible in the nation’s democratic history and, thus, asserts the importance of the least explored of the five Bumppo tales. Also cited under The Leatherstocking Tales.

  • House, Kay Seymour. Cooper’s Americans. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965.

    This comprehensive study across Cooper’s oeuvre has served as a wellspring for Cooper scholars in the decades that followed. The book probes the novelist’s sustained interest in delineating American social milieux and the characters that populate them. Working from Cooper’s “exaggerated sensitivity to cultural differences” (p. 10), House differentiates Cooper’s diverse populations and gauges the flaws they reveal about the country as well as their contributions to the novelist’s broad American mosaic.

  • McWilliams, John P. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520336759

    This important study of Cooper’s fiction and nonfiction recharted Cooper studies for decades and was among the first to benefit from Beard’s six-volume Letters and Journals. Describing a typical Cooper tale as “an uneasy mélange of derring-do with abstract political and social commentary” (p. 6), McWilliams attempts to reconcile Cooper the romancer with Cooper the political and social critic, drawing on Cooper’s conceptions of law and justice in pre-constitutional and constitutional America.

  • Peck, H. Daniel. A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

    Peck’s illuminating study of spatial imagery and the pastoral in Cooper’s fiction contributed to a reevaluation of the novelist’s artistry and vision. In Cooper’s post-Mohicans fiction Peck sees significant change in the author’s imaginative vision of the forest, sylvan lakes, and landscapes. The “ordered space” of natural scenes corresponds to elemental themes in which nature functions as a refuge from human history.

  • Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674420601

    Philbrick reads Cooper as an innovative, pivotal figure in developing American sea fiction from romance to realism. The empirical details of Cooper’s naval experience and his sublime seascapes underpin the maritime nationalism of his early sea romances peppered with democratic heroes. His last sea novel, The Sea Lions, an exercise in symbolic realism, weds maritime experience and moral crises to ponder humanity’s condition in the universe. Also cited under Sea Fiction.

  • Railton, Stephen. Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

    The critical-biographical study is informed by psychoanalysis but does not posit a Freudian analysis of Cooper’s writings. Seeking to make “a concise biographical narrative out of the relationship between Cooper’s emotional life and his literary career” (p. xii), Railton’s book rejects Formalism’s disregard for Cooper and pulls relevant passages from his novels and letters to marshal a compelling study. Pioneers, Deerslayer, Home as Found, and Wyandotté are among the featured writings. Also cited under Biographies.

  • Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

    Finding that Cooper “unrelentingly forces the reader into a critical rather than a convinced posture” (p. xix), Rans shelves the fascination with abstracting an American mythos from Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales to read the novel series as an “interpretation of a real history” (p. xix). Cooper is not a celebrant of the young country but a candid critic of the republic who places before the attentive reader the troubling contradictions inherent in American life. Also cited under The Leatherstocking Tales.

  • Ringe, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1962.

    With formalism waning, Ringe reset interest in the sociopolitical criticism that underlies all of Cooper’s writings. Two-thirds of the volume pays much-needed attention to the novelist’s post-1829 writings. Ringe argues that Cooper’s intellectual position is consistent across his works, particularly in presenting readers with a nexus between social and moral themes, where democracy emerges as the most promising, but not infallible, means for “uniting stability and change in one social order” (p. 150).

  • Sivils, Matthew Wynn. American Environmental Fiction, 1782–1847. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014.

    Readings of three novels—The Pioneers, The Prairie, and The Crater—comprise the last half of Sivils’s smart study of early environmental fiction. Beginning with chapters on imagining natural communities and contemporary juvenile literature, Sivils draws from natural history, travel literature, correspondence, and literary criticism to arrive at Cooper’s environmental vision, which condemns the human tendency to arrogantly alter and pilfer natural environments rather than adapt to them.

  • Wallace, James D. Early Cooper and His Audience. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

    Cooper’s The Spy and The Pioneers initiated his profound influence in creating an American readership for himself and other 19th-century novelists. While paying close attention to book reviews and sales, Cooper was uncompromising about what he believed the young country—east to west, urban to rural—needed from a novelist: fiction that engaged readers in history, social forms, and regions, with characters across the social spectrum, including the margins.

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