James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years by Wayne Franklin - review by Richard Gray

Richard Gray

How To Write A Hero

James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years


Yale University Press 679pp £25

If any single person was the creator of the myth of the American West, it was James Fenimore Cooper. But he was far more than that. He was the founding father of the American historical novel; he helped develop and popularise such widely diverse literary forms as the sea novel, the novel of manners, political satire, and the dynastic novel. He reflected, in all his fiction, on themes and issues of vital concern to the new republic: the destruction of the wilderness and the American Indian in the name of ‘settlement’, the competing priorities of freedom and social order, and the potential conflict between the creed of self-reliance and the need for a communal ethic. ‘Cooper set the terms of American dreaming,’ as Wayne Franklin puts it in this first volume of a major new biography. Moreover, as Cooper struggled to see his books into print at a time when the publishing industry was in its infancy, he helped establish the material as well as the imaginative foundations of American writing – not just the modes in which American books might be written, but also the means by which they could be produced, distributed and read. In short, he stands at the beginning of American literature as both a great tradition and a marketable commodity.

Using archival material previously unavailable to biographers, Franklin traces the first thirty-six years of Cooper’s life, up to the moment of his departure with his family to Europe, where he was to find his international fame confirmed as ‘le grand écrivain américain’. Cooper grew up in Cooperstown, we learn, a

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