The first successful American novelist, James Fenimore Cooper was born on September 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey. He was the son of a judge. A year after his birth, the family moved to Cooperstown, New York, a frontier settlement near Otsego Lake, where his wealthy father owned large amounts of land.
Cooper was sent to Yale at the age of thirteen, but was expelled for pranks, which included training a donkey to sit in a professor’s chair. He became a sailor in the merchant marine, and then as a midshipman in the U.S. navy.
In 1809, Cooper inherited his father’s wealth. Two years later he married Susan DeLancey and settled down as a gentleman farmer. His first novel was Precaution (1820), about English high society. The novel was a failure, but he followed it with The Spy (1821), a historical romance of the American Revolution, and this brought him fame and wealth.
Giving up his life as a farmer, Cooper moved to New York City to continue his career as a writer. After writing many successful sea tales, he published the frontier adventure, The Pioneers (1823), which turned out to be the first of the five books known collectively as the Leather-Stocking Tales. All of these featured the character Natty Bumppo (also known as Hawkeye and Leather-Stocking). The Last of the Mohicans (1826) was the second of the Leather-Stocking Tales. The Deerslayer (1841), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Prairie (1827) are the others in the series.
In 1826, Cooper moved to Europe, where he lived in Paris and traveled extensively. While in Paris he wrote three historical novels set in medieval Europe, as well as books about democracy, politics and society. On his return to the United States in 1833, he continued to write, but also became involved in many legal squabbles with the press. Disliking what he saw as the decline of American democracy, he acquired conservative views and became known as a reactionary.
Cooper died on September 14, 1851, the day before his sixty-second birthday. The Leather-Stocking Tales continued to be read and admired long after his death. In the twentieth century, The Last of the Mohicans, the most popular of the tales, was made into several films, most recently in Michael Mann's 1992 version, and a television series.