Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013
8 Pages, Grade: High School Third Year
Memoirs and Storybooks
In 1852 Herman Melville sent a letter to a memorial honoring the recently deceased, James Fenimore Cooper. In his letter, Melville remarked, “…his works are among the earliest I can remember, as in my boyhood procuring a vivid and awakening power upon my mind” (Melville 30). Melville was not the only author to be enchanted by Cooper’s writing; while his popular character, Natty Bumppo, was blazing trails across the beautiful, native land of America, Cooper was blazing the trail for American literature. On September 15, 1789, James Cooper, son of the wealthy William Cooper, was born at Burlington, New Jersey. The boy grew up on the ancient, unturned soil of a new nation. As a young man, he was enlisted into the naval service by his father, thereby allowing Cooper to survey the world beyond America (Evans). When he later began writing, James Fenimore Cooper’s literary efforts were shaped by various encounters of his lifetime.
Cooper grew up in a time when America was still ensconced in traditional British culture. It should not come as a surprise that the first book written by America’s first novelist was chiefly a British novel. Prompted by his wife’s challenge when he claimed the English novel he had been reading to her was rubbish, she dared him to write something better. So he did, or rather, he tried. His first novel, Precaution, is a Britannic melodrama similar to the works of Jane Austen. Indeed, some even believe the title was a parody of Austen’s Persuasion (Grossman 17). Cooper was so deeply influenced by the American trend of mimicking Europe in the arts that he went as far as to publish his novel anonymously; he hoped his readers would assume the novel was written by an Englishman, safeguarding the novel’s authenticity from the rebel taint of American association (18). By opening his career with Precaution, Cooper adhered to the social status quo of the era and the precept that Americans were artistically inept.
In contrast to the works of Jane Austen, Cooper’s book was not only flat but also incongruous, yet the mediocrity of his first novel is partially the result of its conventional focus upon British culture. Nevertheless, Cooper’s safe debut inspired him to continue writing. He followed the dull novel based in England with a novel about a town in Westchester County during the Revolutionary War. Entitled The Spy, the book was a revolution of its own, for it was the first distinctly American novel ever written. Furthermore, The Spy is the foundation of James Fenimore Cooper’s lifelong success as a writer (Wallace). In Precaution, Cooper had adequately followed the literary trend of imitating Britain, but in the The Spy Cooper rejected all that surrounded him to lead the United States toward its own national literature.
When he was scarcely seventeen, Cooper was sent on voyage to Europe upon the common vessel, Stirling. Arranged by his father, the trip was meant to prepare him for enlistment in the navy since Cooper had been expelled from Yale College the previous year for his excessive pranks. It was the beginning of a short naval career yet the spark of inspiration for numerous of his later books (Long 15). In one particular instance, a former shipmate from Stirling wrote to James Fenimore Cooper thirty-seven years after their nautical expedition together. Edward Myers wrote to inquire if the writer was the same “Mr. Cooper” with whom he had sailed; Myers also indicated that Cooper had saved his life while they were abroad. As the two old friends reestablished their relationship, Cooper learned more about the adventurous life Myers had experienced in his many years as a sailor, and he began recording the sailor’s memoirs. The finished work was called Ned Myers, or A Life Before the Mast. In this book, Cooper embraced the truth of Myers’s story as the narrative offers a much less romanticized perspective on life at sea. This comes in part from the book’s central figure being merely a common seaman who is often inebriated (Grossman 183-184). If it were not for Cooper’s initial tour at sea, and perhaps the pranks that sent him off in the first place, his raw and utterly earnest capturing of the life of Edward Myers would not have been possible.
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