An epic en­deavor

Wayne Franklin con­cludes his il­lu­mi­nat­ing bi­og­ra­phy of James Fen­i­more Cooper, Amer­ica’s trail­blaz­ing novelist

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - ALEXAN­DER C. KAFKA book­world@wash­ Alexan­der C. Kafka has writ­ten for The Wash­ing­ton Post, the Bos­ton Globe and the Chicago Tri­bune.

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.

By Wayne Franklin Yale Univer­sity Press. 805 pp. $45


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