An epic endeavor
Wayne Franklin concludes his illuminating biography of James Fenimore Cooper, America’s trailblazing novelist
James Fenimore Cooper is an old-fashioned author, his work the dense, compulsory stuff of mid-level literature-survey courses. Surely, his life and career could have no bearing on our era. Or could they? Consider, for instance, that this early-19th-century writer pioneered the New World frontier, sea adventure, spy, war-romance and polar-exploration genres; allegorical and satirical fantasy tales; and works of urban and rural realism. Look at a bookstore’s shelves or a multiplex’s marquees and ask yourself whether Cooper’s legacy does not, in fact, surround us.
Having helped invent American myths in his early career, he cast a cooler eye on them in later years, questioning the exploitative underside of the westwardho impulse. In his fiction and his journalism, Cooper resisted autocracy and championed democratic values. Although by no means a progressive in today’s sense of the word, he evolved toward an anti-slavery stance and championed the rights of Native Americans.
Maybe Cooper’s not such a relic after all.
Along with characters who remain vivid two centuries later, such as the frontiersman Natty Bumppo and his companion, Mohican Chief Chingachgook, Cooper created another enduring persona: that of the professional American novelist. Scrambling to regain his Upstate New York family’s estate and to keep his patrician wife and their children in respectable comfort, he wrote international bestsellers as though his life depended on it. Beyond that, he negotiated innovative, savvy deals with typesetters, publishers and distributors in America and Europe, even experimenting with self-publishing.
Although such frantic commercial output led to uneven quality, Cooper sketched career blueprints for ambitious American authors who followed him. In addition to his 32 novels, the onetime merchant marine and naval officer also wrote a respected history of the Navy, as well as a variety of other biographical, historical and polemical works. At the time of his death in 1851, at age 62, he was envisioning a volume about the past and future of New York City.
Fate has paired the exceptionally determined, organized and single-minded Cooper with a similarly driven biographer, Wayne Franklin, a professor of English at the University of Connecticut who took the Cooper torch from James Franklin Beard. Beard had gained unprecedented access to Cooper’s papers and intended to write the definitive biography, but, before he died in 1989, his energies went instead toward authoritative new editions of Cooper’s works, journals and correspondence.
The biography, then, fell to Franklin. A decade ago, he brought us the first volume of Cooper’s life, “The Early Years,” which chronicled the novelist’s impetuous youth, his brief enrollment at Yale before being expelled for mischief, his adventures at sea, his exponential literary rise, and his marriage and family.
Now comes the equally ample and lucid second volume, which takes Cooper first through an extended stay in Europe, as he writes and visits with notables including the Marquis de Lafayette and Sir Walter Scott, and journeys through England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. Then, returning to Otsego, N.Y., Cooper reclaims and restores the family home, from which he makes frequent publishing, legal and other business trips to Manhattan, Philadelphia and Michigan — the last to sort out a real estate venture gone sour.
It’s easy to sigh at the sometimes-bends-inducing depth of detail that Franklin offers, and a critic of the first volume did just that, complaining that the problems “with the watchdog archivist actually writing the book are twofold: The archivist thinks every little detail is important, and the watchdog thinks his subject can do no wrong. Franklin is guilty on both points.”
That’s cute but unfair. Franklin acknowledges instances when Cooper’s work is sloppy and cliched, and he takes pains, in both volumes, to dissect the novelist’s failings in matters such as faulty seal-hunting terms and methods in the polar adventure tale “The Sea Lions.” Franklin is indeed eyeball deep in the Cooper estate’s papers, but he also does heroic detective work sourcing other collections; delving into and critiquing the Cooper biographies that preceded his; poring through the books and periodicals by which Cooper might have been instructed and inspired; sorting out the political currents that would have absorbed and distracted the novelist; boning up on the minutiae of libel and real estate statutes through which Cooper scythed his litigious way; and so on.
If all this were a simple, massive data dump, we could reproach Franklin. It’s not, however, because he employs these intricate details to contextualize Cooper’s literary themes and characterizations, explaining, for instance, how the many libel suits the novelist filed were part of a proxy war between Jacksonians like Cooper and Whigs like the powerful newspapermen Horace Greeley and Thurlow Weed.
Academics frequently use the phrase “knowledge work,” and it sometimes sounds vague and pretentious. Here, though, is knowledge work at its most astonishingly scrupulous. Franklin immerses us in Cooper’s internal life even as he illuminates the novelist’s complex times and circumstances. Among those were doctors’ misguided treatments of Cooper’s ailments with mercury compounds that, evidence suggests, poisoned rather than cured him.
To be sure, no casual readers will blithely burrow through these two thick volumes. For decades to come, however, scholars of 19th-century American literature and history can draw from Franklin’s study as an invaluable resource. One leaves his epic endeavor with a rich, unsentimental and jaw-droppingly thorough portrait of a man emblematic of the ideals, ambitions and ambivalences of his America, and, strikingly, ours as well.
James Fenimore Cooper circa 1850, the year before his death at age 62. Along with such vivid characters as the frontiersman Natty Bumppo and Mohican Chief Chingachgook, Cooper created another enduring persona: that of the professional American novelist.
JAMES FENIMORE COOPER The Later Years