The second volume of a majestic biography covers the 19th-century author’s most productive decades.
In 1826, Cooper (1789-1851) and his family sailed to Europe, where they traveled for the next seven years before returning to America in 1833. Franklin (English/Univ. of Connecticut; James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years, 2007, etc.) begins his engrossing, sharply perceptive narrative with this sojourn, which proved crucial in shaping Cooper’s artistic aims, professional identity, and political views for the next quarter century. Despite recent successes, the author of The Last of the Mohicans, published just before he left America, was never certain that literature was a viable means of support, and Franklin focuses on Cooper’s ongoing efforts to manage the complex and often stressful business of writing. He provides a rich personal, cultural, and political context for all of Cooper’s work, including plans that never came to fruition. Cooper could be a difficult man—“urbanity is not his forte,” one acquaintance remarked—and his opinions on politics and religion incited some virulent responses. A staunch defender of the American republic against European detractors, Cooper evolved into a critic of what he saw as oligarchic values: “money is a bad foundation for power,” he announced. While in Europe, wounded by critical attacks in the press, Cooper announced that he was giving up writing fiction entirely. But he did not: he needed the income, Franklin says, and the rhythm of his life revolved around writing. Moreover, he had become so deeply “a fixture of the national imaginary” that his countrymen “would not consent” to his giving up. Prolific and apparently tireless, he incorporated political critique into many of his later novels. Even as the literary marketplace changed, Cooper “remained a vital force.” Franklin’s erudition is astonishing: his sources afford him an intimacy that is rare in any biography, and yet his voice is modest and even speculative at times. He does not pretend to know more than what is possible. Nevertheless, this is a masterful biography that well deserves to be called definitive.
It is unimaginable that any life of Cooper will surpass this fascinating book.