James Fenimore Cooper was one of the first popular American novelists. Born in September 1789 in Burlington, New Jersey, Cooper grew up in Cooperstown, New York, a frontier settlement that he later dramatized in his novels. Cooper had a rambling and unpredictable early life. He attended Yale when he was only thirteen but was expelled for instigating a practical joke. His father forced him to join the Navy. Cooper began writing almost by accident. When reading a popular English novel aloud to his wife one day, Cooper suddenly tossed the book aside and said, “I could write you a better book myself!” He lived up to his claim by writing Precaution in 1820 and The Spy, his first popular success, the following year. For the rest of his life, Cooper attracted a massive readership on both sides of the Atlantic, a following rivaled in size only by that of Sir Walter Scott. When he died in 1851, Cooper was one of the most famous writers in the world.
After achieving success as a novelist, Cooper spent seven years living in Europe, during which time he wrote many of his most memorable stories. Cooper drew on his memories of his childhood on the American frontier, writing high-spirited, often sentimental adventure stories. These frontier romances feature his best-known character, the woodsman Natty Bumppo, also known as “Hawkeye” or “Leatherstocking.” This heroic scout was featured in five novels, known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales: The Pioneers, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer, and, most famously, The Last of the Mohicans.
Written in 1826, The Last of the Mohicans takes place in 1757 during the French and Indian War, when France and England battled for control of the American and Canadian colonies. During this war, the French often allied themselves with Native American tribes in order to gain an advantage over the English, with unpredictable and often tragic results. Descriptions of certain incidents in the novel, such as the massacre of the English soldiers by Huron Indians, embellish accounts of real historical events. Additionally, certain characters in the novel, General Montcalm in particular, are based on real individuals. Creating historically inspired stories was common in nineteenth-century adventure tales. In writing The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper followed the example of his contemporaries Sir Walter Scott and the French writer Alexandre Dumas, whose novel The Three Musketeers takes even greater liberties with historical events and characters than The Last of the Mohicans.
Since his death, Cooper’s reputation has fluctuated wildly. Victor Hugo and D. H. Lawrence admired him, but Mark Twain considered him a national embarrassment. Twain wrote harsh, humorous criticism of Cooper’s stylistic excesses, inaccuracies, and sentimental scenes. Even The Last of the Mohicans, widely considered Cooper’s best work, is an implausible story narrated in a fashion that can seem overwrought to modern readers. Cooper’s work remains important for its portrait of frontier life and its exploration of the traumatic encounters between races and cultures poised on opposite sides of a shrinking frontier.