This edited article about James Fennimore Cooper originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 730 published on 10 January 1976.
When he was a boy, James Fenimore Cooper lived more like a redskin than a paleface. He grew up in the midst of Indian country and loved to wander through the wild, wooded valleys which surrounded his village home.
By the time he was 12, he was an expert in woodcraft and Red Indian lore. He could track a man or an animal for miles without being seen or heard. He spent days fending for himself in a solitary “wigwam” made of leaves and branches, and noted everything about the lives of his redskin friends.
James, who was born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789, was the son of a wealthy judge. His father hoped that the boy would enter the law, but James hankered after a more active life.
He decided to go to sea and joined the crew of the merchant-ship Sterling, which was sailing from New York to Cowes, in the Isle of Wight.
The voyage across the Atlantic took 40 days, with high seas and fierce winds for much of the time. The ship delivered its cargo safely and then went on to London, where James explored every mile of the West End. “I felt very odd in my sailor rig,” he said afterwards, “but I hoisted in a wonderful deal of material about how the English people live.”
Two years later, in 1808, he left the merchant service and entered the ranks of the United States Navy. He was commissioned as a midshipman and was sent to Lake Ontario to help guard the port of Oswego against possible British attack.
Cooper was then aged 19, and he passed the following 12 months as a shipwright. He assisted in the construction of a 16-gun brig, the Oneida, and was aboard the vessel when she was launched in the spring of 1809.
In 1811, he married and retired from the navy at the early age of 21. His young wife, Susan, could not bear the thought of being on her own, so Cooper settled uneasily down to leading the life of a country gentleman.
Uncertain what to do with himself, he planted trees, drained the swamps around his estate on Long Island Sound, and devoted himself to his large and growing family. By the beginning of 1820, however, he was greatly dissatisfied with his situation. Apart from a happy marriage, he had achieved nothing, and he felt that his chances of making a name for himself had passed him by.
Then, one day, he happened to read aloud to his wife some chapters from an English novel of “society life.” As the story moved daintily and predictably forward, Cooper flung the book from him with disgust.
“This is not how Londoners really spend their time!” he exclaimed. “I could write a more truthful book about them myself.”
Encouraged by his enthusiastic wife, this is just what he started to do. He called his novel Precaution, and he poured into it all the observations he had made years earlier of English upper-class life. When the book was published in the following autumn, its author’s outspoken views caused a sensation.
Cooper followed this with a novel called The Spy, which was based upon the career of a former espionage agent. The book was written in a half-hearted and stilted manner, and he decided that in future he would keep to subjects which were more familiar to him.
His mind went back to the activities of his boyhood, when he roamed through country which for hundreds of years had been the home and hunting ground of the Indians, and he started to write a novel called The Pioneers.
This was set in a small village which had been founded by a judge – much as Cooper’s own father had founded the village of Cooperstown, New York.
The central character of the book is an adventurer called Natty Bumppo. Although he is a white man, Bumppo prefers the more “natural” life and ways of the redskins. He deplores the selfish exploitation of the Indians by the white settlers and goes to live in the wilderness. The Indians give him the name Hawk-Eye.
Bumppo is so much like Cooper that parts of the novel read like an autobiography.
The Pioneers was successfully published in 1823, and in the same year Cooper made literary history by writing The Pilot – the first American novel of the sea.
The book’s hero, Mr. Gray, is modelled on the famous American naval commander, John Paul Jones, who sailed audaciously round the coasts of Britain when war broke out between England and America in 1778. His fictitious adventures in The Pilot are equally exciting.
From then on, Cooper remained in his true niche as a writer. His yarns about redskins and sailors were eagerly read by everybody, and he made Natty Bumppo (whose adventures were suggested by those of the Kentucky pioneer, Daniel Boone) the central character of a string of popular novels.
The books, which included The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, and The Redskins, also brought Cooper much unpopularity. His championing of the persecuted redskins was not welcomed by some of his fellow citizens. To them, Cooper was no less than a traitor: and their abuse made him leave the United States and come to Europe, where he lived for seven years.
Despite being repeatedly attacked in the American newspapers, Cooper continued to write what he believed until he finally announced that, “The quill and I are divorced.” He died in Cooperstown in 1851, and to the very end he maintained that his books had been inspired not by hatred, but by love.
“I want to make my country even better than it already is,” he said.
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