James Fenimore Cooper
Born: September 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey
Died: September 14, 1851, Cooperstown, New York
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2015: Arts & Letters

Thanks to a keen understanding of his audience, James Fenimore Cooper became the best-known American novelist of the first half of the 19th century. His fame spread around the world, and his novels helped formulate the mythology of the American frontier.

Cooper was born in New Jersey, but raised in Cooperstown, a settlement founded by his father in upstate New York. By age 13, Cooper was enrolled at Yale University, but he was expelled following a youthful prank. Instead, he joined the crew of a merchant vessel and on several voyages got his first glimpses of England and the Mediterranean. By age 19 he joined the U.S. Navy and quickly rose to the rank of midshipman.

After resigning from the Navy, Cooper decided to try his hand at writing. His interest in the infant American nation’s history and his diverse experiences at sea and in the still unsettled areas of upstate New York provided plenty of inspiration for his life’s work. His second novel, “The Spy,” published in 1821, brought Cooper instant recognition. A tale of espionage during the American Revolution, “The Spy” became a bestseller at home and abroad, a first for an American writer.

Cooper’s next novel, “The Pioneers” (1823), was the first of five books about frontier life that became known as the Leatherstocking Tales. “The Pioneers” introduced readers to Natty Bumpoo, a colorful and fearless character who befriends a Delaware Indian chief named Chingachgook.

Natty Bumpoo (as Hawk-eye) and Chingachgook would reappear three years later as central characters in Cooper’s most famous work, “The Last of the Mohicans,” an action-packed novel set during the French and Indian War. Brimming with romance, betrayal, revenge and heroism, “The Last of the Mohicans” has maintained its appeal for more than two centuries and inspired at least 10 film adaptations. More important, it helped establish the image of the brave and resourceful frontiersman (Hawk-eye) and the noble but doomed native (Chingachgook and his son, Uncas).

Three subsequent novels—”The Prairie” (1827), “The Pathfinder” (1840), and “The Deerslayer” (1841)—completed the Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper also wrote numerous, well-received novels of life at sea, as well as maritime histories. His popularity ebbed somewhat when he attempted social and political commentary, but the reading public never lost its thirst for his Leatherstocking Tales.

Lawsuits and political controversies dogged Cooper in his later years, but he remained prolific, authoring some 14 novels and numerous other works in the last 10 years of his life. After decades of academic and critical analysis, Cooper continues to be hailed as an American original, the nation’s first important novelist.

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