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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Last of the Mohicans!