James Fenimore Cooper, (1789-1851), was an American novelist and social critic. He is best known for THE LEATHER-STOCKING TALES, five novels about Natty Bumppo, a frontiersman. The character has other names in the series, including Leatherstocking. In THE LEATHER-STOCKING TALES, Cooper became the first author to seriously portray American frontier scenes and characters.
In THE LEATHER-STOCKING TALES, Cooper described Natty Bumppo's retreat from the advancing settlement of the forest. The novels introduce Natty Bumppo as a young man and follow him to old age and death. THE LEATHER-STOCKING TALES, in the order of the hero's life, are THE DEERSLAYER (1841), THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS
(1826), THE PATHFINDER (1840), THE PIONEERS (1823), and THE PRAIRIE (1827). These action-filled stories contrast two ways of life. Natty Bumppo and his brave, noble Indian friends live a life of freedom close to nature. The settlers bring civilization and social order, but they also selfishly or thoughtlessly misuse the wilderness.
Cooper's conservative ideas about society are reflected in many of his writings. His works show his concern for the freedom of individuals and the rights of property owners. Cooper declared that he believed in democracy. However, he said he feared that majority rule would bring disorder and injustice. Although he was deeply patriotic, Cooper thought that the United States should be governed by a small aristocracy of cultured and public-spirited landowners.
Cooper wrote several nonfiction works criticizing American life. The best known include the essays "A Letter to his Countrymen" (1834) and "The American Democrat" (1838). He also wrote fiction about his ideals on civic leadership, including HOMEWARD BOUND (1838) and HOME AS FOUND (1838). Cooper defends property rights in three novels called THE LITTLEPAGE MANUSCRIPTS. They are SATANSTOE (1845), THE CHAINBEARER (1845), and THE REDSKINS (1846).
Cooper wrote the first American novel about the sea, THE PILOT (1823). This romance has a memorable character, Long Tom Coffin, who, like Natty Bumppo, is a daring figure who lives close to nature. Cooper also wrote other historical tales of exciting sea chases.
Cooper was born on Sept. 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey. He was raised in the scenic lakeside community of Cooperstown, New York, which was named for his father, William Cooper. THE PIONEERS and THE DEERSLAYER are set in this lake region. Cooper served in the U.S. Navy from 1808 to 1811. He settled in upstate New York, intending to become a gentleman farmer.
Cooper wrote his first novel, PRECAUTION, in 1820, but it received little critical praise. His next novel was THE SPY (1821), a story about families during the Revolutionary War. Its immediate success encouraged Cooper to devote himself to writing. He died on Sept. 14, 1851.
Alan Gribben, Ph.D., Department Head and Distinguished Research Professor, Department of English, Auburn University Montgomery.
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