Author of the famous five-part Leatherstocking series, twenty-seven other novels, and a box of historical and miscellaneous works, James Fenimore Cooper remains one of the most innovative yet most misunderstood figures in the history of U.S. culture. Almost single-handedly in the 1820s, Cooper invented the key forms of U.S. fiction—the Western, the sea tale, the Revolutionary romance—forms that set a suggestive agenda for subsequent writers, even for Hollywood and television. In producing and shrewdly marketing fully 10 percent of all U.S. novels in the 1820s, most of them best sellers, Cooper made it possible for other aspiring authors to earn a living by their writings. Cooper can be said to have invented not just an assortment of literary genres but the very career of the U.S. writer.
Despite Cooper’s importance, he continues to be profoundly misunderstood, and this is partly his own fault. Although it was becoming common for writers in the early nineteenth century to indulge public curiosity about their lives, the usually chatty Cooper turned reticent when asked for biographical details. Whereas contemporaries, such as Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving, made prior arrangements for authorized biographies, Cooper refused to follow suit. When nearing death in 1851, he insisted that his wife and children protect his life and his papers from outsiders. His private documents remained out of reach to most scholars until the 1990s.
The biographical problem is only one reason for Cooper’s languishing reputation. From the outset, he was also subjected to various criticisms that, when combined with later politically motivated assaults, have hampered true appreciation of his work. Critics have at times faulted him for his occasional bad grammar, his leisurely pacing, and his general inability to eclipse his greatest contemporary, Sir Walter Scott.
The criticisms were not without merit. But the problems in Cooper’s first books need to be understood in their proper context. At least some of Cooper’s failings were owing to the very newness of what he was attempting. Robert E. Spiller summed up this point in 1931 by noting that Cooper “always suffered from the crudities of the experimenter.”
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