Reading Cooper For Pleasure

Hugh C. McDougall (Secretary, James Fenimore Cooper Society, Cooperstown)

For nearly two centuries, James Fenimore Cooper’s novels have been read by millions of readers all over the world, in English and dozens of foreign language translations. To read Cooper with pleasure in the 21ˢᵗ century requires some understanding of where he was coming from: the patterns of romance novels that he helped pioneer in the early 19ᵗʰ century; how the American language and writing styles have changed over the years; and how 19ᵗʰ century novels were intended to be read aloud.

That said, Cooper can be read today for his exciting stories, for the window he gives into understanding the American past, and a wise commentator on social and ethical issues that are still important to us. To make the going a bit easier, we suggest you look at our short list of suggestions.


The 19ᵗʰ century was a leisurely age, and readers were in no hurry for a story to end. — Cooper’s novels are long.

  • Cooper’s novels start slowly. The opening chapters very gradually introduce characters and settings, so that the reader comes to know them well. Only then does the plot accelerate to an often hectic pace, as an exciting conclusion approaches.


Most Cooper novels are “Romances”, often set in the past, of the kind popularized by Sir Walter Scott.

  • The hero and heroine are ordinary, educated, middle class, young people of marriageable age, with whom most of Cooper’s readers could identify.
  • The plot is a love story in which their romance is thwarted by events misunderstandings. The hero lives through adventures (sometimes accompanied by the heroine) that demonstrate his valor and good moral character. Eventually the problems are resolved, and in the last chapter the hero and heroine are married and live happily ever after.
  • The hero’s adventures take place in unusual places, unfamiliar to most readers, such as the American frontier, on ships at sea, or in foreign lands. The reader is introduced to exotic and interesting people of all kinds, and often shares the hero’s participation in historical events. These parts of the story are often more interesting than the formal love story.
  • The plot is spiced with mystery: coincidences, hidden secrets, and characters whose true identity is concealed.
  • Characters reveal their true natures, but rarely develop.

Role of the Author

Today, we expect a novel to let us immerse ourselves in the story, forgetting about the author. But, following an 18ᵗʰ century tradition, Cooper

  • Remains in the story, often letting us watch the characters through his eyes, rather than our own.
  • Is descriptive, rarely entering inside characters’ minds, or telling us what they are thinking, except as it can be interpreted from their actions.
  • Writes from a future viewpoint, in which the narrator knows what will happen, but may not for the moment reveal it to the reader.
  • Interjects moral or historical comments, and even digresses to discuss topics quite outside the novel, but suggested by it. Instructing and admonishing his readers was at least as important to Cooper as entertaining them.

Language and Style

The American language has changed.

  • Words as music: Cooper writes in long, balanced, carefully constructed sentences, intended to be listened to, not just scanned in a hurry with the eye. Often his books were read aloud in family groups.
  • Word meanings: He sometimes uses words that are now obsolete (like “acclivity” for “hill”), or with meanings that have changed: (thus “sophisticated” often means “adulterated”; “management” sometimes means “manipulation”).
  • Technical terms: He uses the specialized vocabularies of hunters and frontiersmen, of soldiers and sailors, especially in his many books involving naval warfare. Though his readers might settle for an impression of accuracy, Cooper insisted on really being accurate.
  • Allusions: Cooper often refers to historical events, customs, or even everyday objects, with which his original readers were very familiar, but which readers of today may not recognize.
  • Description: Today we think of places in terms of visual images, but Cooper wrote before photography. He is a master at describing places in words so vivid that we can see them in our minds.

Putting it All Together

  1. Go slowly, reading carefully and listening to the sounds of the words. You may need to read only a chapter at a time. Be prepared for unexpected uses of words, and for words and references you don’t quite understand.
  2. Take time to appreciate the word pictures of a writer describing places and scenes that his original readers could only imagine. Cooper writes like a painter, and he can still bring scenes to vivid visual life to those who listen to his words.
  3. Accept the literary conventions of the early 19ᵗʰ century, the contrived coincidences and half-hidden mysteries of the love story between the official hero and heroine.
  4. Enjoy Cooper’s talent for action narrative, his genius at describing ships and forests, storms and battles, and his fine ear for dialect and the talk of ordinary people.
  5. Finally, listen to the message. Be attentive to what Cooper has to say about America, its manners and customs, its virtues and its defects. Again and again his words still ring true. Cooper speaks to America’s past, but also to its present.

James Fenimore Cooper is best known for his five “Leather-Stocking Tales“ (The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer), but many of his other stories can be as exciting and interesting as those about Natty Bumppo and his Indian friends.

The Leatherstocking Tales

Cooper is best known for the five “Leatherstocking Tales,” written between 1823 and 1841. They are separate stories, and can be enjoyed individually. Through them all, however, strides the buckskin-clad figure of Natty Bumppo, called “Leatherstocking” by the settlers, and “Deerslayer,” “Pathfinder,” and “Hawkeye” by his Indian friends. An ungainly but philosophical frontiersman, Leatherstocking is the first truly American hero. His reverence for the wilderness, his skill as scout and marksman, his restlessness and enthusiasm for adventure, his cool courage in the face of death, his belief in fair play for men and chivalry towards women, and even his faithful Indian companion Chingachgook, have been copied by popular American fiction right up to the latest Western, and helped form America’s image of itself.

There has long been controversy as to the orderin which the Leatherstocking Tales should be read — in the order that Cooper composed them (as listed below), or in the “chronological” order of Natty Bumppo’s fictional life (i.e.: Deerslayer; Mohicans; Pathfinder; Pioneers; Prairie). We, and probably a majority of serious Cooper readers, recommend the order in which Cooper wrote the books, because the character of Natty Bumppo developed gradually over the some 15 years during which they were composed.

  • The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna: In 1793 the aging Leatherstocking hunts on the outskirts of the New York frontier village of Templeton (Cooperstown). With his old Indian friend he shelters a mysterious young stranger who has fallen in love with Elizabeth, daughter of the village’s founder. The wasteful ways of the rough settlers conflict with Judge Temple’s efforts to preserve timber, fish, and game, and Leatherstocking finds the rules of civilization incompatible with his wilderness ways. The Pioneersis America’s first eloquent plea for the conservation of natural resources. Cooper drew heavily on memories of early Cooperstown people, places, and scenes in this affectionate portrait of frontier life. [first published in 1823]
  • The Last of the Mohicans; or, A Narrative of 1757: The scene is Lake George during the French and Indian War. Leatherstocking (Hawkeye) and his Indian friends Chingachgook and Uncas lead Cora and Alice Munro and their companions into the besieged Fort William Henry, and, after its capture by the French, on an action-packed escape through the war-torn Adirondack wilderness. [1826]
  • The Prairie: A Tale: In 1804 Leatherstocking, now in his eighties, has fled the frontier to the prairies beyond the Mississippi, where roving bands of Pawnees and Sioux fight in an ocean (or desert) of grass that seems to symbolize how man can destroy his environment. Here the old scout saves an expedition seeking to rescue the beautiful Inez Middleton, held captive by Ishmael Bush and his clan of white outlaws. [1827]
  • The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea. Oswego, in 1759, is a remote British outpost on the shore of Lake Ontario. Leatherstocking and his Indian friend aid the besieged garrison and the crew of the warship Scud, and falls in love with Mabel Dunham, the Sergeant’s daughter. Cooper drew heavily on his own experience as a U.S. Naval Officer on Lake Ontario before the War of 1812. [1840]
  • The Deerslayer or, The First War Path: The setting is Lake Otsego, the Glimmerglass. It is the same setting as The Pioneers but in 1745 it a placid lake deep in the colonial wilderness. Young Leatherstocking, with his Indian friend Chingachgook, finds his manhood as he faces death and torture to save Hetty and Judith Hutter, and the Indian maiden Wah-ta-Wah, from a band of hostile Indians, and meets the challenge of Judith’s love. [1841]