by Jim Marquardt
If you paid attention in school, you know that James Fenimore Cooper, born in 1789, was the world-famous author of early American novels. If you’re up on local lore, you probably know that he financed whaling expeditions out of Sag Harbor. But, did you know that Cooper was thrown out of Yale in his third year for blowing up the door of another student, and that during his early maturity he was embroiled in numerous lawsuits over money he owed, and that in later years he stirred things up in Europe and fought bitter libel battles with newspaper editors?
When Cooper came out on the short end of a fracas with fellow Yalie, John Boyle, he mixed gunpowder in the college lab and poured it into the keyhole of Boyle’s dormitory door. The explosion scared Boyle and did considerable damage to the door. All of this and more are detailed in “James Fenimore Cooper The Early Years,” a biography by Professor Wayne Franklin of the University of Connecticut.
Though Cooper was taunted by critics — one called his works “monumental in their cumulative dullness” — he holds a prominent place in literary history. Says Franklin, Cooper was the first to write major types of American fiction – Westerns, Sea Tales, Revolutionary War romances – all of which influenced future American writers. Encylopedia Brittanica calls him the first major novelist of the United States. He is best known for his wilderness books, the Leather-Stocking tales, which included “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Deerslayer” and “The Pathfinder,” and introduced famous literary figures Natty Bumpo, Hawkeye and Uncas. Cooper’s novels reflected the emerging character of the infant republic, and were presciently sensitive to the environment and the plight of native peoples.
Cooper went to sea in 1806 at the age of 17 as a merchant seaman, and a couple of years later as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. He came from a distinguished family, his father a Federalist congressman who founded Cooperstown in Upstate New York. When his father died, James inherited sizable land holdings along with many debts. He borrowed money from another Yale man and when he later questioned the usurious rates of the loan, a legal dispute dragged on in the courts for years.
In 1811 Cooper married Susan Augusta DeLancey from Mamaroneck who had relatives among the established Dering, Nicoll and Sylvester families of Sag Harbor and Shelter Island. In visits to the East End, Cooper became friends with Charles T. Dering whose mother was a Sylvester, a prosperous clan from Shelter Island (the family mansion was the subject of an article in the NY Times on April 11th). Charles’s uncle was Henry P. Dering, a leading citizen of Sag Harbor and its first custom collector. Cooper thought whaling could be a way out of his tight circumstances and he partnered with Charles Dering to buy “Union,” a 260-ton, 92-ft vessel. Outfitting “Union” for its first whaling voyage cost $5,000, nearly $100,000 in today’s money, forcing Cooper to sell some of the land he inherited. The first whale hunt off Brazil and Patagonia was successful and after paying the captain and crew, Cooper realized around $10,000. He spent a large chunk of it to outfit “Union” for a second voyage and was soon borrowing again, using the ship as collateral.
In 1820 Cooper published his first novel “Precaution,” but his big break came in 1823 when the novel “Pioneers” launched the popular Leather-Stocking series. His financial condition improved considerably and in 1826 Cooper took his family to Paris where he had many admirers, remaining there for seven years. During that time he spoke out against right-wing movements in Europe while at the same time he was criticized back in the U.S. by newspapers allied with the Whigs, a forerunner of the Republican Party. The newspapers were sympathetic to French rightists and in opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s espousal of an egalitarian society. The battles intensified when Cooper returned home and published “A Letter to His Countrymen” which criticized American culture. Suits and countersuits raged. Cooper won most of the conflicts but felt his reputation had been sullied, making him more private and protective of his personal papers, which only became fully available in the early 1990s.
When we studied early American fiction, it was easy to mistake Cooper, with his posh-sounding name, as a fusty, wealthy patrician with distinguished family connections. But in his early years he had to scramble just to support his wife and family, and between his college days at Yale and the end of his life he never shied away from a fight.