Fenimore Cooper's America

Alan Taylor examines how the social concerns and ambitions of the new republic and those of the author of Last of the Mohicans intertwined - and how they gave him the canvas to become the United States' first great novelist.

Twentieth-century readers know the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper as the author of the five 'Leatherstocking Tales', including The Last of the Mohicans, set in the North American forest and prairie during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These novels of frontier violence and adventure helped define the American experience and identity, especially for European readers. Although his narrative voice conveys a powerful self-assurance, James Fenimore Cooper, in fact, became a novelist during the early 1820s at the same time that his inherited estate in New York State collapsed under the weight of unpaid debts and court-ordered foreclosures.

Despite a boyish love for 'reading novels and amusing tales', he did not begin to write fiction until he was thirty and only after the frustration of his ambitions as a gentleman farmer, frontier landlord, and mercantile investor.

His father, Judge William Cooper, had become rich by founding, as a land speculation, the frontier village of Cooperstown in central New York State. In 1809 the Judge died, leaving an apparently immense fortune to his widow and six children. But he had saddled the estate with debts that proved crushing during the economic depression of the late 1810s. Unable to cope with the financial crisis, James Fenimore Cooper fled from Cooperstown in 1817, taking refuge with his wife's wealthy and aristocratic family, the DeLanceys of Westchester County, in the Hudson Valley. To his chagrin, they concluded that Cooper was a reckless spendthrift who would inevitably squander his wife's patrimony. Insulted, in late 1822 he angrily removed his family to a rented house on Broadway in New York City.

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