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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 674

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This is the grave of James Fenimore Cooper.

Born in 1789 in Burlington, New Jersey, Cooper grew up in the town his father founded on the frontier of New York. Cooperstown was an openly paternalistic enterprise, with William Cooper intended to be the patriarch of his new community. He was a staunch Federalist and his son would follow in the father’s conservative politics, if not his political party. Cooper went to Yale at the age of 13, but was expelled after a series of pranks that included blowing up another student’s door and locking a donkey in a room on a campus. So he hit the seas for awhile, working on a merchant vessel beginning in 1806. On his first journey, the ship he worked on, which was selling flour in England, was boarded by the English Navy and one of the sailors impressed into the Navy, with the claim he was a deserter. From this day forward, Cooper loathed the idea of any nation having a say over the United States; much later he would turn this view into a desire to create an independent American artistic tradition that avoided European domination. He joined the Navy in 1808 as a midshipman and resigned that two years later.

For the 1810s, Cooper mostly lived the life of the patriarch, dealing with his land. But in 1820, while reading a novel, he decided to try his hand at fiction. His Jane Austen-esque novel Precaution was published later that year and received moderately good reviews. His next novel, The Spy, from 1821, became the first piece of American fiction that was a bestseller outside of the United States. A career was born. He was mostly living in New York at this time and helped start the Bread and Cheese Club, an early intellectual circle of the city’s cultural elite, including William Cullen Bryant, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Samuel. F.B. Morse.

In 1823, Cooper published the first of his five-part series on the settlement of the area around his father’s land. The Leatherstocking series was the first major fiction written in the United States. The Pioneers, the first of the novels and probably the best, did very well; 1826’s The Last of the Mohicans was the most famous and successful. No one really knows Cooper today for anything other than these novels. They were dated fairly early on and Mark Twain’s dismissal of Cooper as a hack a few decades later still stings today. I’m not going to sit here and say they are all great novels, but they were a statement of American westward expansion that certainly fit the mentality of the day. They are classist toward the everyday settlers (fitting Cooper’s pretty reactionary politics about the people who settled his father’s land) and they are most certainly apologias for genocide. But what do we expect from the 1820s? They were indeed influential. D.H. Lawrence for instance found Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels his greatest inspiration.

These books made Cooper a national phenomenon. He became one of the most famous living Americans. So, as many rich Americans would do, he moved to Europe. He knew he could make more money there and send his children to the most elite schools. He became good friends with the Marquis de Lafayette and other American expats such as Samuel Morse. He stayed until 1833, writing several books. Several of these books took on an anti-European turn as he was concerned that the U.S. might emulate Europe and turn its back on republicanism. But they were misread in the U.S. and Cooper took a lot of criticism for abandoning the nation that he represented in his literature.

By the time Cooper returned to the U.S., he was highly concerned about the crass monetary grasp of Americans. He published “A Letter to My Countrymen” in 1833 that warned of a move away from republican virtue. He moved back to Cooperstown and lived in the mansion his father had built, wishing for the old days of the early republic. In 1838, Cooper wrote The American Democrat, which bemoaned the rise of public opinion as mattering in politics, claiming it could corrupt morals and doom democracy. This all came out of his anger that the people of Cooperstown wandered onto his property to hold a public picnic and then attacking him in the press when he published a notice that they could not trespass on his land. He couldn’t even get this published, despite his name. It did however influence some of his later novels, where he saw himself as a writer exposing the vices of the American people instead of one who created American literature. The latter was definitely the more noble goal.

He started writing histories of the U.S. Navy in the 1840s, some of the first of that institution. Cooper had become a Democrat by this point and he was constantly attacked by Whig papers; Cooper responded by trying to sue newspaper editors for libel, which of course just led to greater attacks on him. By this point, he had a sort of weird politics that was very pro-republican, coming out of the time he spent in Europe, but still extremely oligarchical in terms of who should control society. Basically, he was a Jeffersonian a half-century too late. He came back to the Leatherstocking series in the early 1840s, publishing The Pathfinder in 1840 and The Deerslayer in 1841. In fact, he published an astounding 16 novels in the 1840s, mostly forgettable. Even at the time they were forgettable. His literary popularity had plummeted in the last decade of his life. He blamed it on the lack of democratic feeling among the nation’s elites, but mostly it is that his later books are bad.

Cooper died in 1851, in Cooperstown, at the age of 61.

James Fenimore Cooper is buried in Christ Churchyard, Cooperstown, New York.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations. As always, thanks for keeping the internet’s least important series alive. If you would like this series to visit other American writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Norris is in Oakland and Willa Cather is in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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