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1949 biography of Cooper, linking his very many works to events in his personal life

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James Fenimore Cooper - Crusader for "a man's right to be different from one's neighbors"

  • Nov 7, 2010

Six decades ago (1949) James Grossman gave to the world JAMES FENIMORE COOPER (1789 - 1851). His book is an unhurried but not excessively detailed stroll through the life, times and written works of "the American (i. e., Sir Walter) Scott," of Cooperstown, New York.   ***   


We follow young James Cooper's life from his birth in New Jersey to removal with parents at age 14 months to the pioneer settlement of Cooperstown (named for Judge William Cooper, his father), his being tutored in Philadelphia by an Episcopalian priest, his three years at Yale, his time as a boy merchant seaman before the mast, including his first visit to England. Next Cooper is three years a junior officer in the young U. S. Navy. He marries a young woman of the famously New York Tory De Lancey family. Ere long James is launched on his 30-year career as a writer. He,wife Susan, and their chldren, after studying French for a year, sail off to France in 1826. Fresh from publishing his most famous work, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, Cooper then spent over seven years in Europe, including England, Switzerland, Italy and above all France. There he continued writing novels about America, but also issued his first (of several to come) "novel of ideas," THE BRAVO," (1831) about 18th Century Venice. Returned to the United States in 1833, living at times in Manhattan, at times in Cooperstown, Cooper was shocked at the decline in public morality and the rise in feverish greed for land, other assets and cash in his homeland.   ***   


Much of the rest of his life was given to defense of his ideas as to what a perfect USA should be and criticizing what the real USA had in fact become. He fought his critics through  law suits for libel or slander (which he usually won) but saw his popularity sink among readers. Fame was, however, partially redeemed by his final two (of five) Leatherstocking Tales about Natty Bumppo: THE PATHFINDER and THE DEERSLAYER. Cooper wrote  stories of adventure by land and by sea (he had invented the sea adventure tale -- in THE PILOT, about John Paul Jones). He also wrote five books of his travels in Europe, a history of the United States Navy and much controversy in magazines and newspapers.   ***   


Cooper's ideas were often well worth pondering, but more often than not ponderously expressed. According to James Grossman, the underlying theme of Cooper's life and his novels is that every man has the right to be different from his neighbors. We see this in fictitious Natty Bumppo, always being driven by dominant, judgmental, prejudiced white society to seek salvation in forests and prairies. We also see it in Fenimore Cooper himself: starting with his insistence on his inherited property rights in the face of the dislike of his contemporary neighbors in Cooperstown. Cooper hated both public opinion and demagogic practitioners of public relations like newspaper editor Steadfast Dodge in the novel HOMEWARD BOUND and its sequel HOME AS FOUND.  ***   


Grossman's COOPER is easy or difficult to read depending on how much you already know of James Fenimore Cooper's books. I quickly bounced off a first reading of Grossman two years ago when I had already read eight Cooper's books. Grossman referred to another 30 works which I had not yet read and his summaries of their contents clearly assumed that I already knew them -- which, obviously, I did not. I have now read 80% or more of Cooper's published works and Grossman's COOPER now makes very good sense. It is like one long book review of books I have already read. If you  have read only one or two books of "the American Scott," you will not, however, enjoy, I suspect, James Grossman's JAMES FENIMORE COOPER.  -OOO-

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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #6
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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