Perhaps no other American writer stands in greater need of a major reevaluation than Cooper. This is the first treatment of Cooper’s life to be based on full access to his family papers. Cooper’s life, as Franklin relates it, is the story of how, in literature and countless other endeavors, Americans in his period sought to solidify their political and cultural economic independence from Britain and, as the Revolutionary generation died, stipulate what the maturing republic was to become. The first of two volumes, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years covers Cooper’s life from his boyhood up to 1826, when, at the age of thirty-six, he left with his wife and five children for Europe.
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About the Author
American author James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) has been credited with inventing and popularizing a wide variety of genre fiction, including the Western, the spy novel, the high seas adventure tale, and the Revolutionary War romance. America’s first crusading novelist, Cooper reminds us that literature is not a cloistered art; rather, it ought to be intimately engaged with the world.
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JAMES FENIMORE COOPERThe Early Years
By WAYNE FRANKLIN
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2007 Wayne Franklin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Vision
One day in the fall of 1785, New Jersey wheelwright and merchant William Cooper urged his horse up a steep wooded ridge in central New York, eager to inspect a tract of land he was angling to acquire. The long fight against British authority, nowhere bloodier than on the exposed New York border, had been over for only four years, and the 1783 treaty formally ending it was so recent that the countryside still showed deep scars. On his way there, Cooper had passed through a nearby village, Cherry Valley, that had been all but wiped out by raiding Loyalists and their Iroquois Indian allies in 1778. Only now, with British troops gone and such partisans in exile, were the old Scots-Irish villagers venturing back. Elsewhere, but also tentatively, new settlers were starting to move out onto lands under American control at the war's end. Some of them, New England veterans mainly, recalled this area of rolling hills and fruitful river valleys well, having carried out reprisals against the Iroquois there a decade earlier. Finding land increasingly scarce in New England after the war, and willing to risk relocation westward, these Yankees would becomesoldiers in William Cooper's assault on the forests of what soon was known as Otsego County.
The alliance between Cooper and the Yankee settlers was an odd one. Cooper came from a Quaker background in the Delaware valley above Philadelphia. Although no active Friend himself, he had followed the sect's pacifist principles in shunning a direct role in the Revolution. By contrast, the Yankee emigrants sprang from militant Puritan ancestors who had persecuted New England's Quakers and other dissenters. And, although there were Loyalists enough in New England during the Revolution, the Yankee states had sent out hordes of fighters to wage war against Britain. Militarism was as ingrained among Puritans as pacifism was among Quakers. But in this new campaign against the American continent, the sometime Quaker William Cooper and these Puritan offspring would meet and join forces.
The landscape around Cooper's ridge in 1785 was one of many places where such varied peoples would construct their new nation. It was a stunning spot. Rising to a height of some eighteen hundred feet, the ridge afforded an excellent prospect. Across the valley, another undulating hill moved along a parallel southwest-to-northeast axis. Mainly carpeted with a mix of hardwoods and pines, and backed in the western distance by seemingly endless waves of other green hills, the land here looked so promising that it would be hard to keep perceptions separate from dreams. On his route down the well-watered Middlefield valley earlier in the day, Cooper would have observed rich bottomland alternating with upland tracts and wooded summits. Already a practiced developer, he habitually saw future fields and pastures and villages where trees and grasses and brush grew. Now everything he saw appeared to flesh out his visions. Between his hill and the other one opposite glinted a stunning lake, blue-green from lime deposits, narrow and slightly uneven as it ran up between the twin ridges for a full ten miles. At its foot, where the water poured through an outlet to give rise to the Susquehanna River, he knew he could found a village-and soon enough he would, naming it, of course, Cooperstown (Plate 1). But he was hardly oblivious to the merely present beauty of the valley. This was not just a promising site for settlement-it was a profoundly good place in its own right. If the sunlight was strong that day, Lake Otsego no doubt glowed for Cooper's eyes as it still does for those who climb "the Vision," as his hill was christened almost four decades later. If a slight wind ruffled its surface, the water may even have glimmered like shards of glass. How could he not be ravished by what he saw?
It was William Cooper's son James, not yet born in 1785, who named the Vision in 1823 and in 1841 called Lake Otsego "Glimmerglass." Young James Cooper's attachment to the region around his father's village made it inevitable that the novels he began writing in 1820 would circulate around this rich center. The Leather-Stocking series, his famous five-part saga of the white hunter Natty Bumppo and his Mohegan (or Mohican) companion Chingachgook, owed much to the Cooper family's development efforts in post-Revolutionary New York. The first of those novels to be published, The Pioneers (1823), opens on "the Vision," a hill so closely resembling William Cooper's 1785 peak that local residents soon adopted the fictional name for the as-yet-unnamed summit. The last of the Leather-Stocking Tales to be written, The Deerslayer (1841), opens in the woods around the "Glimmerglass," a lake like the jade-green one William Cooper first glimpsed almost sixty years before. That name, too, soon was adopted for the real lake. Together, these two Otsego novels set the framework of James Fenimore Cooper's best imaginings. While the three other Leather-Stocking Tales ranged farther afield, they always recalled the geography of Fenimore Cooper's youth. Natty Bumppo is who he is in all five books because he spent his own youth-and, after many years away, much of his maturity-in this remembered landscape. So in fact did his creator, who passed most of his middle years (1817-1834) wandering elsewhere but who eventually came back to reclaim his old home.
That deeply private domain acquired public fame because Cooper's books were the first American novels to be widely read both at home and abroad. Like Walden Pond and its environs, although more immediately, Lake Otsego and the woods embowering it came to typify a crucial phase in American experience. Cooper, anticipating Henry David Thoreau, expressed his reverence for nature by treating this one microcosm of the American continent with extraordinary affection. Moreover, in going to his pond to live in his cabin, Thoreau was reenacting in ritual form the solitary life Cooper had imagined for his forest hero in the Leather-Stocking saga. The light shining upward from the heavenly water of Walden was in that sense but the refracted glow of Cooper's Glimmerglass. In speaking of the Ganges, Thoreau might also have mentioned the Susquehanna.
This link to Thoreau will suggest that Fenimore Cooper understood his family's story differently from his father. William Cooper, proclaiming settlement an unmitigated good, was profoundly attached to the social values that dominated views of the frontier in his age. Settlers gave order to the disorder of mere nature, thereby justifying their usurpation of Native American rights as well as their destruction of native plants and animals. Looking back on a career spent settling 750,000 acres, William Cooper cast his activities in precisely these terms: "I laid me down to sleep in my watch-coat," he wrote of his first night alone in Otsego, "nothing but the melancholy Wilderness around me." Soon he was taking pride in helping reclaim "such large and fruitful tracts from the waste of the creation." Thoreau, although he earned his keep in part by surveying nature into woodlot, field, and pasture, could not have naively uttered such a phrase as the waste of the creation. But neither could William Cooper's youngest son. In The Pioneers, as Natty Bumppo reminds the reader, it is the settlers who bring their "wasty ways" into nature with them (PIO 2:46), rending the fabric of the forest and deracinating the order previously established there by God and the children of God, meaning primarily the Indians but also Natty himself.
In that same novel, Natty Bumppo recalls for his young companion Oliver Edwards how loneliness sometimes drove him to a hilltop prospect overlooking the settled Hudson valley. When asked by Edwards what he saw from there, the old man replies with unhesitating eloquence, "Creation! ... all creation, lad." Not the waste of the creation, but rather creation itself, the very fullness of life, the ripeness of "all that God had done or man could do" (PIO 2:108). Although Fenimore Cooper appreciated his father's accomplishments, he did not unthinkingly endorse them. Raised amid the natural beauty of Otsego, and infected with his own generation's more romantic attitudes, he knew nature as a source of order-and humanity as too often the cause of disharmony or worse.
There were other reasons for the family contrasts. When William Cooper died in 1809, he left a seemingly ample legacy for his five grown sons and one adult daughter. Across the following decade, however, circumstances would desolate his leavings. By the time his frontier accomplishments were reimagined in The Pioneers, his heirs were virtually penniless-and Fenimore Cooper, exiled from Cooperstown, was his father's sole surviving son, the others having died broke if not also broken. His father's mansion overlooking Lake Otsego was one casualty of the collapse when it was auctioned in 1821 to help pay off a creditor of the Cooper estate. Another consequence struck the novelist even closer to home. As he worked on The Pioneers in New York City, that same creditor sought to seize and sell the meager furnishings in the novelist's modest rented quarters. Cooper had not been back to Lake Otsego in five years, and another twelve would pass before he managed a return. The novel and the memories it embalmed-a mere string of words-were his only real inheritance.
These reverses had turned Cooper toward the idea of authorship in the first place, since he thought that writing might offer a chance to recoup lost revenue and lost self-esteem. Given the depth of his emotional distress, it is hardly surprising that The Pioneers, his third published novel, presented its frontier themes in complex, even conflicted ways. But the twists were not simply imported from the family story. The whole Leather-Stocking series evolved as a meditation on the competing historical, legal, and moral claims to the American continent. So upsetting was Cooper's personal sense of loss that it made him uncommonly sensitive to the losses others suffered not only on the frontier-the Indians first of all-but also in other zones of American experience. When he turned to the American Revolution in books such as The Spy (1821), for instance, he understood as few contemporaries did the conflicting claims that had moved Americans during that war. Cooper had no doubt about the justness of the Revolution as a war of liberation from British imperial control, but he was nonetheless intrigued by those Americans who had opposed the war, fought on behalf of Britain, or simply remained neutral. His enduring view of the Revolution as a civil war, not just a struggle for national liberation from a colonial empire, was unusual at the time. It drew on his own family's Quaker ties as well as the costly Loyalism of his wife's family, the once wealthy and powerful DeLanceys. It also drew on the woeful tales he had picked up from good people on all sides of the war, tales that struck home often enough because they echoed Cooper's own. Dispossession became the major theme in his works because it was the major theme of his early experience.
First, though, came possession, the theme of his father's more expansive life. William Cooper (Plate 2) had been born in 1754 in the then rural town of Byberry, a dozen miles north of Philadelphia, amid a scattering of Quaker relatives who were mostly small farmers. His parents, James and Hannah Hibbs Cooper, were by no means wealthy, but their secular outlook and generally upward economic path may have helped produce the ambitious spirit of their second son. By the time he was fifteen, they thus had left tiny Byberry for Lower Dublin, a larger and more prosperous town nearer to Philadelphia that was wholly without Quaker institutions but full of economic opportunity. Eventually, James Cooper came to own a substantial Lower Dublin farm and was prosperous enough that, after Hannah's death, he employed seven servants to help him work it. By the end of the 1780s, then remarried, the restless man had moved again, this time to Chester County, a more sparsely settled region southwest of Philadelphia, where he purchased an even larger property. He was busy raising a second family there when he died in 1795.
From early in life, James and Hannah Cooper's second son was equally alienated from the family's Quaker legacy and equally mobile. Before his parents left Byberry in the late 1760s, William, no more than thirteen or fourteen, seems already to have gone off into the world on his own. Persistent family stories suggest that he quarreled with his father and ran away, an entirely believable possibility. He may have gone to sea, as an older brother probably did, or simply been working in Philadelphia, with which he became intimately familiar early in life. Eventually, his path led him back for a time to Byberry, where he served an apprenticeship in the wheelwright's trade, gaining a modest niche as a propertyless householder on the town's last pre-Revolutionary tax list.
These marks of application, surprising given his earlier restlessness, reflected Cooper's changing circumstances: married at nineteen and a father at twenty, he suddenly had serious responsibilities to shoulder. The marriage appears to have been a somewhat hasty affair. At some point, Cooper's wanderings had taken him across the Delaware River to the rural town of Willingboro, near the west Jersey capital of Burlington. There he met and courted Elizabeth Fenimore, a woman three years older than himself. She took to the lively Cooper, but her prosperous parents, Richard and Hannah Fenimore, were unimpressed with his apparently humble prospects. Not to be denied, the young wheelwright hurried Elizabeth off in November 1774 to the Willingboro mansion of Gov. William Franklin, who married the couple in a businesslike civil ceremony. Prudently, Cooper immediately departed with his bride back across the Delaware and resumed his trade at Byberry.
Early in the Revolution, the couple appears to have moved south to Philadelphia, where Cooper's future partner in the Otsego business, Jersey-born Andrew Craig, was then living with his wife and children. Either together or separately, the two families migrated to the Burlington area around the time the brief British occupation of the Pennsylvania capital ended in 1778. Thereafter, having already flattered the Fenimores by naming their first two children after them, William and Elizabeth Cooper were finally able to tap Richard Fenimore's considerable but long-withheld largesse. On a substantial property in Willingboro apparently given to him by his father-in-law, William Cooper set up a combination store and tavern in his family's house. Soon, having erected a few other buildings to sell or rent out, he named the modest cluster of structures Cooper-town, thereby launching his career as a land developer.
His straggling Jersey hamlet never attracted William Cooper's energies the way his bigger, bolder Otsego venture would. That was partly because, always eager for some new opportunity, he did not stay put in Willingboro. After a few years as a mere storekeeper, he relocated to the livelier precincts of Burlington proper, where he put on airs as a full-fledged "merchant." He had considerable financial and social success, counting the leading men of the city among his customers and enjoying the confidence of his neighbors, who in 1786 chose him as a member of their city council. But the needs of his relentlessly expanding family, packed into small rented quarters through these years, outran his accomplishments. By the time his eleventh child, James, was born in a narrow stucco-clad two-story dwelling on High Street (now the headquarters of the county historical society), on September 15, 1789, William Cooper already had made his New York journey and, within a year, was ready to take the infant "Jem" and his six surviving siblings north to their new home on the shores of green-tinted Lake Otsego.
Merchant Cooper had snared his Otsego lands from business associates in Burlington who had claims on the tangled estate of a notorious frontier trader named George Croghan. With the help of Sir William Johnson, British superintendent of northern Indians, Croghan had finagled his way to the control of vast holdings in several areas, among them a tract of a hundred thousand acres in Otsego that included the future site of Cooperstown. Habitually cash poor but well-connected and persuasive, Croghan had mortgaged his Otsego patent in 1768 to Gov. William Franklin of New Jersey-the same man who, coincidentally enough, was to preside over the marriage of William Cooper and Elizabeth Fenimore six years later. Franklin in turn had quickly laid off some of the debt on a local group of investors known as the Burlington Company, in which he eventually would become a shareholder.
Excerpted from JAMES FENIMORE COOPER by WAYNE FRANKLIN Copyright © 2007 by Wayne Franklin. Excerpted by permission.
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