When James Fenimore Cooper died on Sepember 14, 1851, a day before his 62nd birthday, friends and admirers planned a gala to celebrate the life and career of America’s first great novelist. The committee included prominent literary men such as Washington Irving and Rufus W. Griswold (the late Edgar Allan Poe’s literary executor and frenemy). By late February 1852, when they finally gathered at New York’s Metropolitan Hall, the event had become something of a Who’s Who in American letters. Daniel Webster himself gave a speech praising Cooper’s merits, and William Cullen Bryant, author of the still-anthologized poem “Thanatopsis,” delivered a “Discourse on the Life and Genius of Cooper.” The proceedings even came out as a commemorative book later that year: It was a posthumous fête as only 19th-century American literati could deliver.
Those who couldn’t attend sent letters, which were read aloud to the assembly. Emerson wrote with an offer to help pay for a planned statue of Cooper. Melville wrote that Cooper’s fiction had worked “a vivid and awakening power upon my mind” and predicted that “a grateful posterity will take the best care of Fenimore Cooper.” In his letter, Longfellow nodded to Cooper’s international fame: “I was in no country of Europe where the name of Cooper was not familiarly known.” Hawthorne, too, wrote that he could claim “many years of most sincere and unwavering admiration” of the novelist, and hoped that Americans might recognize the value of their growing national literature. For “time and death,” he wrote, “have begun to hallow it.”
Time and death, however, have not exactly hallowed Cooper’s fiction. We’ve all heard of The Last of the Mohicans (probably thanks to the 1992 film with Daniel Day-Lewis), but Cooper has fallen out of favor with critics, teachers, and readers. His style is prolix, and his portraits of Native Americans and women are often simplistic; plus, his books don’t have nearly enough vampires or angsty superhumans. For a long time, though, Cooper was one of America’s most important writers; he published 32 novels, including sea tales, a murder mystery, and a dystopian novel; he penned travel writings, political tracts, and biographies. But his greatest contribution lies in his five novels collectively known as “The Leatherstocking Tales.” Natty Bumppo, the hero of these books, was once as well known as Captain America is today: The crafty, honest woodsman with crack-shot aim thrilled readers around the world as he rescued captives and tracked enemies across the wild landscape of the American frontier. So what happened to consign James Fenimore Cooper’s works to the dustbin of rarely read if not quite forgotten classics? And what do his books have to offer us today?
We might partly blame one young man who was not invited to the Cooper memorial celebration: Samuel Clemens. In 1852, the 16-year-old Clemens was still a decade away from becoming Mark Twain and was just starting to pen his first sketches. But much later, in 1895, he published a hilarious essay in the North American Review, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences.” Cooper scholar and biographer Wayne Franklin termed it “the most famous literary assassination,” and the essay became one of the founding manifestos of American Realism. Twain satirized Cooper’s frontier fiction for its implausible scenes and its lapses in historical and even mathematical detail.
Probably with ever-present cigar clenched firmly between his teeth, Twain wrote that “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” Lampooning Cooper’s plot devices, Twain renamed The Leatherstocking Tales “the Broken Twig series,” since, he claimed, stealthy characters were so often discovered when they accidentally stepped on a dry twig. Cooper’s fiction “has no lifelikeness,” Twain the Realist growled, “no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality.” “He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.”
Twain’s essay remains a staple in American-literature courses, unlike Cooper’s novels. Has James Fenimore Cooper, then, lost his relevance? Not quite: With The Pioneers (1823), Cooper actually invented the frontier novel, a genre that continues to live on in western fiction, film, and television. In a sense, you can’t have Longmire or Louis L’Amour without Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
In fact, Cooper’s fiction has quietly endured in its own right, although not with the widespread popularity it once had. The Last of the Mohicans has never gone out of print. Pegasus Books even released a gorgeous illustrated edition of the novel this summer. The Library of America — our own contemporary Who’s Who of American letters — has also published three volumes of Cooper’s fiction, with another one on the way this fall.
So, contra Mark Twain, why should we still read Cooper’s frontier fiction?
First, Cooper’s frontier fiction still matters because it provides us with something many of our contemporaries love to sneer at: an ideal. In his Romantic vision of the American wilderness, his heroes have simple virtues such as courage, loyalty, honesty, and perseverance. Our age seems to relish moral complexity and ambiguity; our heroes are flawed, edgy, burdened with dark secrets. But Hawkeye, as Natty Bumppo is known to some, is brave and truthful. He knows who he is and puts his life on the line for his friends — whether white settlers or Native Americans. Sure, in real life, our loves contain self-interest, and our courage gets mingled with fear and doubt; but stories can offer us an ideal vision of the good life for which we can strive.
Second, Cooper’s wild frontier world does something we all secretly long for: It radically strips life down to what matters most. This is also what attracts us to survival stories and post-apocalyptic fiction. We know in our souls that paying bills, wrangling with the cable company, and worrying about our social-media profiles just isn’t what human life is meant to be. When they leave civilization, Cooper’s characters leave behind everything nonessential and must focus on love, survival, friendship, and justice.
Third, Cooper’s fiction has a bit more social and ethical nuance than it might seem. One of his greatest heroines, Cora Munro (from The Last of the Mohicans), is of mixed race, since her mother was descended from African slaves. It is she who questions racist and ethnocentric assumptions on the part of the whites, asking, “Should we distrust the man, because his manners are not our manners, and that his skin is dark!” Even Magua, one of Cooper’s Native American villains, gives voice to legitimate grievances against white settlers, and Hawkeye himself blames whites for some of the violence between the tribes. A progressive Cooper was not, but we should acknowledge the good sense present even in novels that share the usual 19th-century American errors about race and culture. Let’s not throw the books out with the bathwater.
Finally, The Leatherstocking Tales simply have some great stuff in them. For all his long-windedness, Cooper is the master of light and shadow; his American landscape is surreal, rugged, beautiful, and dangerous. The Last of the Mohicans has an exciting gunfight set on a waterfall. In The Prairie (my favorite), the aged Natty Bumppo has some amazing scenes: a deadly bison stampede, an epic prairie fire, his own death. Just read them, all the way through, and you’ll see what I mean. Mark Twain is perhaps our greatest literary humorist; but just this once, I hope James Fenimore Cooper might get the last laugh.