James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey on September 15, 1789. He was the eleventh of twelve children born to William and Elizabeth Cooper. When James was one year old the family moved to the frontier, and his father established the settlement of Cooperstown at the head of Susquehanna River.
Cooper attended a private preparatory school at Albany, New York, and was then admitted to Yale in 1803. He was expelled from there during his junior year because of a silly prank. His family allowed him to join the navy as a midshipman, but he soon found that more discipline was present in the Navy than at Yale. In 1810 Cooper took a furlough, and never returned to active duty.
After Cooper’s father passed in 1809, he received a nice inheritance. Cooper quickly squandered his inheritance, and at thirty was on the verge of bankruptcy. He decided to try his hand at writing as a career. Carefully modeling his work after Sir Walter Scott’s successful Waverly Novels, he wrote his first novel in 1820 called Precaution. A domestic comedy set in England, lost money, but Cooper had discovered his vocation.
Cooper established his reputation after his second novel, The Spy, and in his third book, the autobiographical Pioneers (1823), Cooper introduced the character of Natty Bumppo, a uniquely American personification of rugged individualism and the pioneer spirit. A second book featuring Bumppo, The Last of the Mohicans written in 1826, quickly became the most widely read work of the day, solidifying Cooper’s popularity in the U.S. and in Europe. Set during the French and Indian War, The Last of the Mohicans chronicles the massacre of the colonial garrison at Fort William Henry and a fictional kidnapping of two pioneer sisters. Cooper knew few Indians, so he drew on a Moravian missionary’s account of two opposing tribes; the Delawares and the “Mingos.” Although this characterization was filled with inaccuracies, the dual image of the opposing tribes allowed Cooper to create a lasting image of the Indian that became a part of the American consciousness for almost two centuries. His public was simultaneously touched romantically at the doomed Indians’ fate and justified in abetting their extermination. The hero of the novel, Natty Bumppo, was incredibly popular, a rebel heroically opposed to industrial society, he was a hero who never married or changed his ideals.
Cooper was a prolific writer, publishing 32 novels, 12 works of nonfiction, a play and numerous pamphlets and articles. His most lasting contributions to American literature were his five books about Natty Bumppo, varying in genre from implausible romantic adventure to realistic narrative. Later anthologized as The Leatherstocking Tales, they are best read in the order written: The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper’s popularity declined in his later years as he entered into the nationalistic and partisan disputes of the Jacksonian era, becoming increasingly contentious toward reviewers and the public.
Cooper died at Cooperstown on September 14, 1851, one day before his sixty-second birthday. Cooper was, and continues to be, and immensely popular writer, and he is generally considered to be the first major American novelist.