Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Birth of James Fenimore Cooper

Novelist James Fenimore Cooper was born September 15, 1789.* By rights, he should be considered among the first man of letters in the United States, alongside Washington Irving, Charles Brockden Brown and others. Of course, few of these names are recognized today and, when they are, they're not always considered major players. Irving may still be read but many literary scholars show disdain for his work as being too silly or comical. Cooper is largely forgotten, despite his immense popularity in his lifetime for works like The Last of the Mohicans — which wasn't on the curriculum when I was in school (or in college, for that matter).

Poe solicited contributions from Cooper while the former was working for the Southern Literary Messenger. Even though Poe recognized Cooper's draw, he questioned his legitimacy as a writer (his request for contributions noted they were seeking Cooper's "name" to give the magazine weight). One review from Poe, published in 1840, attacked Cooper's characterization. "We did not look for character in it, for that is not Cooper's forte; nor did we expect that his heroine would be aught better than the inanimate thing she is." Of course, Cooper's depiction of female characters is still the subject of criticism today.

In a review in Graham's Magazine (November 1843) titled "Wyandotté, or The Hutted Knoll. A Tale, By the Author of 'The Pathfinder,' 'Deerslayer,' 'Last of the Mohicans,' 'Pioneers,' 'Prairie,' &c., &c.," Poe noted that Cooper's latest production was "precisely similar to the novels enumerated in the title" (a complaint which is still issued today). Interest in these works, Poe argues, is based on "first the nature of the theme; secondly, upon a Robinson Crusoe-like detail in its management; and thirdly, upon the frequently repeated portraiture of the half-civilized Indian." Having summarized the model for all of Cooper's works, Poe concludes: "It will be at once seen that there is nothing original in this story... It is even excessively commonplace."

Poe satirized Cooper in a short story called "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq." The briefly mentioned character Mr. Fatquack is considered a genius for his writing but his novel, Dish-Clout, only earns him a whopping 62 (and a half) cents. In a review of another writer, Poe notes the emergence of "native writers": "It is not because we have no Mr. Coopers but because it has been demonstrated that we might, at any moment, have as many Mr. Coopers as we please." Was Poe right? Was Cooper just another dime-a-dozen American prose writer who got more praise than he deserved? Is Cooper's falling reputation evidence of this? I'd love to hear thoughts on this.

*Incidentally, he died one day short of his 62nd birthday on September 14, 1851. Rufus Griswold was one of the many figures who organized a memorial to him in New York.

1 comment:

Amateur Reader said...

I did a week on The Deerslayer last year. There was a lot more to him than I had guessed.

Poe, of course, was obligated to read all of Cooper's books. I can see how that would damage one's estimation of Cooper. I've only read the best one.