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James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey on September 15, 1789. He was born the eleventh of twelve children to William and Elizabeth Cooper. His real name is James Kent Cooper, he tried to change it so he could inherit some of his mother’s wealth, but the court system would not allow it. He uses Fenimore as his penname (Hart 133). When he was about one year old, his family moved to the frontier of Lake Otsego, New York. His father established the settlement of Cooperstown at the basin of the Susquehanna River (Ulger 336).
Cooper’s parents sent him to a private prep school in Albany, New York and from there, he was accepted into Yale. He remained at Yale for two years, until he was expelled for a childish prank. Cooper’s father made him join the armed forces and he chose the United States Navy in 1802. He signed on as a seaman on a vessel bound from Maine to England and received his commission. Cooper soon found out that more discipline was present in the Navy than at Yale (Hart 138). After two years, Cooper took a furlough and was assigned to a group of naval officers who were trying to establishing a fresh-water navy in the Great Lakes region. He did not like the assignment but he knew that as long as his father was alive that he had nothing else to do (Crystal 789).
The death of Cooper’s father and his marriage are the two things that brought a change to his life. The death of his father was a tragedy at the hands of a political opponent, and this caused him to inherit, together with his brothers, a portion of a large estate unfortunately soon dissipated by all of them. Second was his marriage to Susan De Lancey in 1811, at the time he was twenty-one and she was only eighteen (Haycraft 178).
In 1820, Cooper published his first literary work, Precaution, on a challenge from his wife. This novel was a disappointment to Cooper. He published his second work of American Literature, The Spy, and a year later in 1821. This novel was modeled after Sir Walters Scott’s Waverly, with the exception that it was set during the American Revolution. The Spy brought Cooper international recognition and wealth. Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers, was the first of five novels of a series that made up the “Leatherstocking Tales.
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Cooper and his wife had five children when they moved to Europe in 1826 and stayed there until 1833 so their children would have the best education available at the time. When Cooper and his family returned to America in 1833, he found that he was quite unpopular due to his work “Notions of the Americans” and “Letter to General Lafayette.” He wrote these two works while he and his family were still living in Europe (Ulger 357). He left New York City mainly because of his unpopularity and the harsh feelings being shown to his family. Cooper decided to go back to Cooperstown, New York. He decided that he and his family were going to live like his family and raise his children as he was raised (Haycraft 179).
Cooper died on September 14, 1851, one day before his sixty-second birthday. His works reflects that of Shakespeare and Milton, and used late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century poets as a guiding light for his writings. He also used the Bible, which he had studied as a young man, to mirror its names and its style or language. He saw that the role of literature was that of a way to enhance everyday life. Cooper was, and continues to be an immensely popular writer, as well as, he is generally considered to be the first major American novelist (Ulger 357).
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia. New York: U of Cambridge P, 1998.
Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1965.
Haycraft, Howard and Stanley J. Kunitz. American Authors: 1600-1900. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1977.
Howse, Ray Semon. Cooper: Sea Tales. New York: The Library of America, 1991.
Ulger, Leonard. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. St. Paul: U of Minnesota, 1974.