James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, on September 15, 1789. In 1790, his father, William Cooper, moved the family to Cooperstown, New York, where James spent his youth and received his early education. Cooper's father was the most prominent citizen of the town; the site was founded by him and the name of Cooperstown was adopted in his honor. Although he shared the life of a wealthy landowner and was introduced into the most influential social circles, James was critical of the training he received. For example, he criticized the teachers and schools (private and expensive) that he remembered from his youth.
His bold and independent nature caused him trouble in college. He entered Yale College at the age of 13 but was expelled in 1805, supposedly for exploding gunpowder and arranging for a donkey to occupy a professor's chair in the classroom. The young Cooper, perhaps under parental duress, went to sea. He spent the years from 1806 until 1808 as a common seaman on the Stirling and saw a great deal of the Mediterranean Sea. In 1808 he was commissioned a midshipman in the United States Navy, but by 1811 Cooper had decided that life at sea was not meant for him.
Two events occurred which fortunately directed Cooper toward a career on land. In 1809 his father was killed by a political opponent and left a considerable estate. Taking a furlough from naval service, James resigned a year later, and some critics see in this hasty resignation proof that his period at sea may have been the parents' decision to discipline the son. However, a more important factor in young Cooper's abandonment of a naval career probably was his marriage in 1811 to Susan De Lancey, the daughter of a very rich and influential family from Westchester County. He was accepted into the highest social circles of New York City and began to lead the comfortable existence of a country squire, commuting often between Westchester and Cooperstown. A large family increased his expenses; his brothers spent most of their share of the estate and then borrowed considerable sums from him; and his own business ventures did not turn out successfully.
Cooper decided to become a writer, but the explanations for this decision are still not clear. Prior to the age of 30, Cooper had never composed a serious work of literature; according to some sources, he regarded even the writing of letters as an onerous task. One reason for his decision may, of course, be his financial position, although a lack of money and the attendant need to earn it do not give one the ability to write. However, one reason for his decision is often mentioned: Cooper, reading a mediocre English romance, said casually to his wife that he could write a better book, and she challenged him to do so. In 1820, Cooper published Precaution, a romance in imitation of the popular books of Jane Austen, with a background of English drawing room conversations and gossip. But Precaution won Cooper little praise from critics or the public.
Despite his failure to produce a worthwhile novel, Cooper was not discouraged; and he found a genuine pleasure in writing. He turned to the sources he knew intimately: the sea, and his own country. In 1821 Cooper published The Spy, critically acclaimed as the first important historical novel in American literature. Cooper described the adventures of a romantic hero, Harvey Birch, during the American Revolution around Westchester County. The successful utilization in this book of romantic and American elements established Cooper as a promising writer, and he exploited his winning formula by writing two more books in 1823. The Pilot is the first American novel worthy of the classification of sea fiction, and Cooper made excellent use of his nautical training and experiences. He allegedly intended to improve upon Sir Walter Scott's popular success, The Pirate, and he succeeded. Cooper even became accepted in literary circles as "the American Scott." In that same year, he wrote The Pioneers, the first of the five published "Leatherstocking Tales," which use the character of Natty Bumppo as the central figure.
These successes encouraged Cooper to mine the rich vein he had initially exploited. He quickly published Lionel Lincoln (1825), which deals with the Battle of Bunker Hill and the beginnings of the American Revolution, and The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which returns to the adventures of Natty Bumppo during the French and Indian Wars.
Cooper decided to leave America and live in Europe at this time. His motives for the European residence were several: the education of his children; a change of scenery for relaxation and perhaps for new ideas; and the financial need to secure firm agreements with European publishers about copyrights, royalties, and other matters. He settled in Paris in 1826 and remained in Europe for almost eight years. Cooper's impact upon European literature was very great, and he was welcomed warmly, receiving invitations from all quarters. Again, the social life did not interfere with his literary career because Cooper published in one year, 1827, two novels: The Prairie, the third of the "Leatherstocking Tales," and The Red Rover, a sea story. In addition, he published The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829) about New England in the seventeenth century, and The Water-Witch, a nautical novel. Cooper also utilized his foreign travels and readings by composing three works with European backgrounds: The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833).
However, Cooper's writings in Europe, particularly his books with strongly romantic and foreign elements, did not add appreciably to his literary reputation; and these works are only considered as minor productions by critics. In his less imaginative writings, Cooper antagonized his fellow Americans and his French hosts. He criticized his countrymen too harshly — in their opinion — in Notions of the Americans, although his primary purpose was a defense of the American character. He also mingled unfortunately in French domestic politics in A Letter to General Lafayette, which further disillusioned his compatriots in the United States.
Cooper's return to America in 1833 proved an unhappy event. The growing wave of dissatisfaction among many Americans with a respected and important writer (the first to win fame abroad) caused him to become bitter and hostile. He tried to defend himself in 1834 with A Letter to his Countrymen, which only aroused more controversy, but a further defense in 1838 with The American Democrat helped him little. In brief, Cooper found himself trapped between two worlds: in Europe he could not live without expressing his love and hope for American ideas; in the United States he could not accept without protest the vulgarity and ultra-nationalism, so alien to his aristocratic and cosmopolitan tendencies. He saw a decline of the true pioneer spirit in the onrush of expansion toward the West; and he deplored the failure of Christians to practice Christianity in an increasingly materialistic century. It is not difficult to understand why sensitive, proud, and patriotic readers turned against Cooper and thought that he had betrayed his nation by too lengthy a residence in Europe.
Cooper's last years were marked by constant battles to explain his views and to expound his philosophy about his homeland. He engaged in numerous lengthy embroilments with the press and with his neighbors in Cooperstown with suits for slander, libel, and property rights. Two more contributions to the saga of Natty Bumppo were published: The Pathfinder in 1840 and The Deerslayer in 1841. His study in two volumes, The History of the Navy of the United States Of America, completed in 1839, was recognized as a sound, scholarly reference work. Cooper's last major literary achievement was a trilogy in which he took the side of the landlords in the Anti-Rent War — a position which further lessened his standing in the community and in outside circles. "The Littlepage Manuscripts," as the trilogy is sometimes designated, comprise the three novels, Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1845), and The Redskins (1846), in which Cooper traces the rise and fall of a family on the frontier from about 1740 until 1840. He returned in several other novels to the theme of the sea and continued to apply his views about contemporary manners and social issues to literary works, such as Wyandotte (1843) and The Crater (1848).
After returning to the United States he did not again achieve the critical, popular, and financial rewards won prior to his European residence. However, Cooper was recognized and respected as an eminent representative of American literature because of his 32 novels and other writings. The American public, despite Cooper's quarrels with the press, neighbors, and general opinion, remembered his gifts and achievements during his lifetime. He died on September 14, 1851, at Cooperstown, near his beloved Otsego Lake, the Glimmerglass of The Deerslayer.