It was a curious set of circumstances that in 1820 drove James Cooper (the 'middle surname' Fenimore would not be added for another six years), the son of one of post-independence America's wealthiest land speculators, to embark on a career in the dubious and unpredictable world of novel-writing. Almost nothing in Cooper's life up until that year, in which he turned 31, indicates an interest in fiction, or in the arts. Resolutely unliterary, Cooper 'disliked writing even a letter', or so family legend has it. He'd spent his twenties as a midshipman in the navy, though to his chagrin he never saw action, and as a gentleman farmer, first on land bequeathed him by his father on the shores of Lake Otsego in upstate New York; and then on a 42-acre property in Scarsdale that belonged to his wife's family, who owned much of Westchester County. He had enjoyed dabbling in politics, and had been a leading figure in a movement intended to improve American agricultural practices. In the wake of the crash in land prices of 1819, however, and the consequent unravelling of Judge Cooper's complex, heavily mortgaged estate, he found himself at the mercy of a slew of ruthless creditors - rather as his heroines in novel after novel find themselves at the mercy of some ruthless tribe of Iroquois or Sioux. Noting the success of Sir Walter Scott, from whose life and writing he learned so much, Cooper found in fiction a means of restoring his family's fortunes.
LRB 25 September 2008 | PDF Download