James Cooper—he added “Fenimore” later—was born on September 15, 1789 in Burlington, New Jersey. He came from a devout, but eclectic religious family. While his parents were Quakers, they also attended Episcopal and Presbyterian services. The twelfth of thirteen children, of which only four brothers and two sisters survived childhood, Cooper attended a boarding school in Albany, New York, and then Yale College from 1803—1805. In 1806 he received a commission in the United States Navy and was eventually assigned to recruit sailors in New York City. In 1810, Cooper met Susan Augusta De Lancey, resigned his commission, and married her on New Year’s Day, 1811.
Cooper’s career as a writer began almost as a whim. The Cooper family had the custom of reading aloud during the long evenings. They had a standing order with a New York bookseller to receive the latest novels from England. While Cooper was reading one of these newly imported novels aloud, he threw it aside and exclaimed, “I could write you a better book than that myself!” Although his wife laughed at the idea, he was soon established as an exciting new presence on the nascent American literary scene. His most brilliant pieces of fiction were The Leatherstocking Tales—comprised of The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie—all of which featured Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s quintessential American hero. While Cooper’s fiction certainly lacks the technical aspects of verisimilitude that contemporary novel readers have come to expect—a defect mercilessly exposed by the ever critical Mark Twain—his fiction captured the romantic landscape and imagination of the American frontier like no other author.
At the height of his popularity as a novelist, Cooper took his family to Europe to live there for seventeen years. When he returned to America in 1833, he entered into the controversial legal actions that would color the remainder of his life. In 1836 he plunged into a series of lawsuits designed to force his townspeople and a widening circle of Whig editors to respect the sanctity of private property and truth in journalism. The American Democrat (1838) lectured Americans on their political and social responsibilities. A keen observer of the political and cultural life of the United States, he never forgot the importance of civility and moral decency within his land of the free and home of the brave.