William Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper, and Generations of Literary Coopers: A Family’s Literary Legacy Defining and Promoting Cooperstown

Francis Rexford Cooley (Independent Scholar)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference: Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in  The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 31.1 (Whole No. 8, Spring 2020): 53-61.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

The literary tradition of the Cooper family of Cooperstown, New York, began with William Cooper, author of A Guide in the Wilderness that promoted the settlement of the “Western Counties of New York.” James Fenimore mined that settlement history for his Leatherstocking Tales. Successive generations of Coopers would preserve and promote the literary legacy of William and James Fenimore Cooper, from Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper in the nineteenth century to Paul Fenimore Coopers Sr. and Jr. in the late twentieth century. The literary tradition of the Coopers is explicitly tied to Cooperstown itself, from William Cooper’s letters promoting and describing the settlement of the town, through James Fenimore Cooper’s idealized recasting of Cooperstown in his novels, and to later generations’ work to preserve, promote, and re-issue William and James Fenimore’s literary works regarding Cooperstown as well as to add their own contributions as authors and editors. Cooperstown both provides the wellspring from which the Cooper family literary tradition has grown and functions as a living preservation of the Leatherstocking region. These legacies have been preserved by succeeding generations of Coopers into the twenty-first century, including Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr.

William Cooper (1754-1809) lent his name to Cooperstown, settling the village on Otsego Lake along the then-frontier. Cooper, as a land speculator in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, aggressively accumulated property, eventually holding some 750,000 acres at one point. ¹ Historian Alan Taylor notes that Cooper “became rich, powerful, and famous by attaching himself to {the} nation’s rapid population growth and territorial expansion at the frontier margins.” ² The Revolution had opened up lands formerly belonging to the Iroquois, a British ally, to speculators such as Cooper who sought settlers to purchase, rent, and farm these lands.

It was from William Cooper’s desire to promote his holdings that A Guide in the Wilderness: or the History of the First Settlements in the Western Counties of New York, with Useful Instructions to Future Settlers (1810) was written and published. Cooper’s Guide was written in the form of a series of letters to William Sampson, a New York lawyer. Sampson was Irish and saw Cooper’s success as a land speculator and in settling [54] Cooperstown as beneficial in promoting Irish immigration to New York. A new influx of settlers would increase the value Cooper’s holdings through either rents or sales and increase the importance of Cooperstown as a commercial hub connecting Lake Ostego with the Susquehanna River. Thus the proposed book would be mutually beneficial to both Sampson and Cooper: Sampson “induced” Cooper into writing a series of letters to him that could be organized into what eventually became A Guide in the Wilderness. ³ William Cooper died in 1809, a year prior to the publication of his Guide in Dublin; although he did not live to see his Guide in print, its publication began a literary tradition linking generations of Coopers together as Cooperstown’s leading family of literature. That role would intertwine family literary (and public) endeavors with Cooperstown and its surrounding environs as a geographic space to be promoted and eventually preserved.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), William Cooper’s son, is associated with the development and creation of American literature. From his first novel, Precaution (1820), to his unfinished history of New York City, The Towns of Manhattan (1851), James Fenimore Cooper proved to be a prolific author writing novels, histories, biographies, and essays. Cooper cast a broad and powerful literary shadow as America’s earliest successful novelist both at home and abroad. His second novel, The Spy (1821), was American literature’s first historical novel, as The Pioneers (1823) would be the first frontier novel, and The Pilot (1823/1824) would be America’s first sea novel. Cooper established and defined multiple genres of early American literature.

Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales featuring Natty Bumppo, beginning with The Pioneers and including The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841), are his most popular and enduring works. The Pioneers, the first novel written in the series, connects directly to William Cooper’s settlement and development of Cooperstown as the novel uses Cooperstown in a fictional setting. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838), a history of the village, provides scholars like Robert Emmett Long “the fullest source for the factual basis of the Pioneers.” James Fenimore Cooper successfully mined the settling of the frontier as practiced and promoted by his father William in A Guide to create the archetypal hero in Natty Bumppo caught between the wilderness and the encroachment of civilization on the frontier in American literature and myth — a myth structure centered round “the Leather Stocking Region,” Otsego County and upstate New York.  [55]

The Leather-Stocking Tales provided James Fenimore Cooper with both literary and financial success. Cooper’s other works have not held up as well in the popular imagination today, and many were harshly criticized upon publication. Critics such as Edgar Allan Poe and, a generation later, Mark Twain wounded Cooper’s literary reputation. Cooper’s reaction to such criticism included his refusal to allow his journals to be published, admonishing his family not to make his papers available for publication or use.

Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894) has been described as the “literary daughter,” “secretary,” “copyist,” “confidant,” and “amanuensis” to her father James Fenimore Cooper. Susan took dictation from her father for his unfinished Towns of Manhattan, preparing it to be published in a truncated format after his death. For scholars of James Fenimore Cooper, Susan’s fifteen introductions for the Houghton, Mifflin and Co. Household Editions of her father’s novels published between 1876 and 1884 have proven invaluable, along with her Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (1861) as well as a number of articles containing extracts and references from James Fenimore Cooper’s letters and diary that appeared in publications including Putnam’s Magazine and Atlantic Monthly. As Rosaly Torna Kurth notes, “these miscellaneous publications [...] are not biographical in form, but biographical in fact.” ¹⁰ It was in this way Susan could circumvent the “prohibition” of an “authorized” biography as per her father’s wishes as interpreted by his widow Susan (Susan’s mother) and her brother Paul. ¹¹ As James Franklin Beard noted, Susan’s published works on her father were “invaluable biographical sources” for Cooper scholars, even though Beard did not necessarily trust her recollections. ¹²

Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper’s literary career, however, was not limited to preserving her father’s legacy. Susan herself wrote a novel, Elinor Wyllys, published anonymously in 1846. While Elinor Wyllys would not be successful, Susan’s Rural Hours (1850) provided her a literary legacy separate from her father. Organized around the four seasons, Rural Hours chronicled Susan’s observations of the natural environment of the Ostego area from March 1848 through February 1849. Henry David Thoreau was aware of, and familiar with, Susan’s work as he composed his masterpiece at Walden, which follows the structure of seasons as Susan did in Rural Hours. ¹³ Rural Hours was revised by Susan for its 1868 and 1887 reprints, and it stands as one of the most influential American environmental works of the nineteenth century. As such, Susan’s work contrasts with her father’s Leather-Stocking Tales, which [56] examined Cooperstown and its environs to create a mythic interpretation of the area and its “history”; Susan’s Rural Hours provides a mid-nineteenth century description of the local environment that moves the Cooper family’s use of Cooperstown away from mining it for literary source material and toward describing the environment as it existed.

Susan was also a very able editor, editing the American edition of Leonard Knapp’s Country Rambles in England: or the Journal of a Naturalist (1853) and The Rhyme and Reason of Country Life or Selections from Field’s Old and Now (1854), an anthology of prose and poems. Susan wrote numerous published articles, sketches, and some fiction until her death. Rosaly Torna Kurth, in her dissertation Susan Fenimore Cooper: A Study of Her Life and Works (1974), assessed Susan as “both a prolific and versatile writer; and for the most part, technically speaking, she wrote well.” ¹⁴ I would say that, examined outside the shadow cast by her father, Susan’s output as a writer and editor is impressive in its own right.

James Fenimore Cooper (1858-1936), grandson of the famed author, was neither as prolific a writer nor varied in his writing as his aunt, Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper. The younger James’s main contribution to the literary legacy of the Cooper family lay within his resolve to republish long-out-of-print works by his great-grandfather William and his aunt Susan, and his editing of a portion of his grandfather’s correspondence for publication. He arranged to have 300 copies of William Cooper’s Guide reprinted with a new introduction written by himself in 1897 and then again with a third printing in 1936. That same year, Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown and Sketch of William Cooper was published. James heavily relied upon “legends and traditions” passed down to him, as he noted in his forward to his The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (1921) — the “Northern County” being Otsego. Many of these were “told ... by members of an older generation,” meaning primarily his aunt Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper, whose Small Family Memories (1883) and stories told to her nephew would help him put together these works. ¹⁵ James would also have his aunt Susan’s Small Family Memories republished in the Introduction to The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, which he edited and published through Yale University Press in 1922. The publication of the famed author’s correspondence under the editorship of his grandson James provided Cooper scholars a much broader insight into the author’s mindset than the bits and hints of his letters and diary Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper published in small articles during the later part of her writing career. The publication of this correspondence — an act considered inconceivable during Susan Augusta Fenimore [57] Cooper’s lifetime — was important to the rehabilitation of James Fenimore Cooper’s literary legacy from the weighty criticisms of Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and other critics. James wrote articles using the family papers at his disposal to defend or correct what he perceived as inaccuracies and slights to the family legacy, essentially fulfilling a role as gentleman scholar defending the Cooper family’s history — and, by extension, Cooperstown’s past. ¹⁶ Additionally, he would serve at President of the Baseball Museum in Cooperstown as it prepared to transform into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, providing an economic linchpin for the Cooperstown economy.

His son, Paul Fenimore Cooper, Sr. (1899-1970), would carve out a literary legacy separate from the shadow of James Fenimore Cooper the famed author. Paul Sr. wrote four books during his lifetime: Tricks of Women and Other Albanian Tales (1928), Tal: His Marvelous Adventures with Noom-Zor-Noom (1929), Island of the Lost (1961), and Dindle (1964). Tricks of Women and Other Albanian Tales grew out of Paul Sr.’s time studying abroad at Trinity College in Cambridge. ¹⁷ The stories were gathered from Albanian folk tales in the Tosk dialect which Paul Sr. translated into English after their initial translation from Tosk. In all, seventeen folk tales were brought together in book form. Paul Sr.’s work with these tales influenced his next book, Tal: His Marvelous Adventures with Noom-Zor-Noom. ¹⁸ The tale of Tal, “a boy with golden hair” who joins Nom Zor Noom and his donkey Millitinkle (who wears bells upon his ears), was written for children. In this tale, Tal goes with Noom Zor Noom and Millitinkle on a journey for King Tazzarin and has a series of adventures punctuated by stories told to him by Noom Zor Noom. In the end it is revealed that Tal is really King Tazzarin’s son and rightful heir. Tal has become something of a minor classic in children’s literature, being reissued in 1957 and most recently in 2001 by Purple House Press.

It would be over three decades until Paul Sr. had his next book published, though he did arrange for a reprinting of William Cooper’s Guide in 1949. This new book, Island of the Lost (1961), was a non-fiction examination of Sir John Franklin’s fateful Arctic expedition. Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., noted that Paul Sr.’s focus on the Arctic was part of a theme of the frontier that ran through the family’s literary legacy. ¹⁹ Paul Sr. followed up with another children’s book, Dindle, in 1964, about a dwarf who saves a kingdom from a dragon. Paul Fenimore Cooper, Sr., established his own literary legacy separate from James Fenimore Cooper and Cooperstown. Tricks of Women and Other Albanian Tales covered neglected field of folk tales from Eastern Europe and helped [58] preserve them, and Tal has proven to be a lasting contribution to American children’s literature.

Paul Fenimore Cooper, Jr., (1930-1988) received his Ph. D in physics from Harvard University in 1958. His dissertation, “Cross Sections and Asymmetries of Pickup Deuterons at 145 Mev” stands as his major written work. In addition, Paul Jr. was co-author of a number of scientific articles. Paul Jr. also wrote a short introduction for the 1986 printing of William Cooper’s Guide. Though Paul Jr.’s literary contributions would at first glance seem to be limited to academic scientific works, it would be his work with — and later control of — the Cooper family’s possession of a large number of papers of both James Fenimore Cooper and William Cooper that would play a major role in two major works, one related to James Fenimore Cooper and one related to William Cooper.

Paul Fenimore Cooper Jr. worked for a number of years with Harvard University’s cyclotron. It was his work with the cyclotron from which his academic co-authorships mainly emerged. ²⁰ It was also from this academic environment that Paul Jr. would play an important role in the work of James Franklin Beard of Clark University, a leading scholar on the writings of James Fenimore Cooper. Paul Jr. with his father sorted and catalogued the Cooper family papers. Paul Jr., “with his interest in technology and his access to Harvard, took charge of the computerized cataloging and cross-referencing of the collection.” ²¹ It would be this relationship that would lead Paul Sr., Henry S.F. Cooper, Sr., and Paul Jr. to lend a number of James Fenimore Cooper’s papers to James Franklin Beard and eventually donate those and other papers to the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worchester, Massachusetts. ²² These papers allowed James Franklin Beard to edit the six-volume The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University from 1960 to 1968. The Beard-Cooper family relationship eventually led to Beard being selected to produce a definitive authorized biography of James Fenimore Cooper. Unfortunately, Professor Beard passed away in 1989 before he could complete his biography of Cooper. However, the release of long-sequestered papers of James Fenimore Cooper proved to be a blessing to modern Cooper scholars.

James Franklin Beard was not the only scholar Paul Jr. provided Cooper family papers to. Alan Taylor was granted access “to the collection of the correspondence and business records” of William Cooper without restriction. ²³ The archive was, as Taylor describes it, “carefully preserved, systematically organized, and thoughtfully cataloged [59] by a man who devoted the last decade of his life to caring for his ancestors’ papers.” ²⁴ Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., noted that Paul Sr. prior to his death also played a role with his son in organizing the William Cooper papers. ²⁵ Rather than being a “natural enemy” of biographers, Paul Jr., an academic himself, was Taylor’s ally. ²⁶ Though Paul Jr. died shortly after giving access to Taylor, the resulting work, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (1995) received the Pulitzer Prize in History. Paul Jr.’s contribution to the Cooper family literary legacy was to elevate both William and James Fenimore Cooper’s historical profiles by providing access to the family’s long-denied papers. The most academic (a physicist) and least literary of successive Cooper writers proved to be the one who was able to most ignore the “prohibition” against divulging the Cooper papers to biographers. In addition to his donation of manuscripts by James Fenimore Cooper and other materials to AAS (of which Paul Jr. was a member since 1973), the papers of William Cooper that Paul Jr. painstakingly cataloged became the basis for the Paul Fenimore Cooper, Jr., Archives at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, providing access to documents long denied. Thus Paul Jr. has brought both James Fenimore Cooper and William Cooper to a new generation of readers and scholars in ways that prior Cooper generations could not.

Paul Jr.’s cousin Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr. (1933-2016), by contrast, wrote for one of America’s most literary of magazines, The New Yorker, from 1958 to 1993, contributing many “Talk of the Town” columns for that periodical. Henry wrote a number of non-fiction books on the United States space program, including XIII: The Apollo Flight That Failed (1972). While Henry’s literary focus centered upon New York City and the U.S. Space Program, his endeavors regarding the Cooper family legacy and Cooperstown concentrated upon the preservation of Cooperstown and Otsego County. Henry was instrumental in the foundation of the Friends of P.R.O.T.E.C.T in 1981, which became Otsego 2000 in 1988 in order to protect the “environmental, agricultural, and historic resources” of Cooperstown, Otsego County, and Central New York. ²⁷ The Leather Stocking region of New York was, to Henry, an area needing “conservation” and “sensible planning.” ²⁸ Henry saw these themes in both James Fenimore’s writings, which were “among the very first attempts in American Art or Literature to portray the wilderness as something beautiful and worth preserving,” and William’s planning of the settlement of Cooperstown based upon “useful goods and services other settlers required of a town; only in a [60] tightly-knit community of small lots would you find the critical mass of people to build a commercial economy.” Henry’s work with Ostego 2000 can be seen as continuing the Cooper family legacy of promoting the sensible settlement and preservation of William Cooper’s Town as well as being tied firmly to the family’s literary roots.

Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., delved into Cooperstown’s history and its cultural institutions as an editor and author. He provided editorial assistance for The Cooperstown Country Club: An Informal History (1980). In 1990 he co-authored with Gretchen Sullivan Sarin The Smithy: A History of Cooperstown’s Oldest Building. He wrote the introduction for Otsego Lake Past and Present, published in 2005. In these works, Henry echoes his grandfather, James Fenimore Cooper (1858-1938), in his work as a writer and editor of the local history of Cooperstown and its immediate surroundings, a region that has heavily influenced generations of Cooper authors.

Six generations of Coopers have built a literary legacy unequaled in the history of American culture and literature. From William Cooper’s A Guide in the Wilderness promoting the settlement of the Cooperstown region, to James Fenimore Cooper’s prolific literary output, to Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours, the first three generations of Cooper authors built a literary legacy that has engaged readers, critics, and scholars from the nineteenth century to present. From James Fenimore Cooper (1858-1938) through Paul Fenimore Cooper, Sr. and Jr. to Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., that literary legacy has been extended to the twenty-first century through their own contributions to preserve the literary legacy they inherited and to expand upon that legacy with their own unique literary contributions.


1. For an example of William Cooper’s land purchases, see James Fenimore Cooper (1858-1938), “William Cooper and Andrew Craig’s Purchase of Croghan’s Land,” The QuarterlyJournal 12, no. 4 (1931): 390-396.

2. Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 4.

3. Ibid, 317.

4. See Robert Emmett Long, JamesFenimoreCooper (New York: Continuum, 1990), 35-36, and Robert E. Spiller, JamesFenimoreCooper (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965), 15-17, among others.

5. Long, 35.

6. The State of New York’s Division of Tourism ceased using Central Leatherstocking Region in 2010, opting to use Central Region instead in its publications and highway signs. [61]

7. See Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” and “Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses,” in Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891-1910 (New York: Library of America, 1992) and Edgar Allan Poe, “James Fenimore Cooper,” in Poe: Essays and Reviews (New York: Library of America, 1984).

8. Long, 28; Rosaly Torna Kurth, “Susan Fenimore Cooper: A Study of Her Life and Works” (dissertation, Fordham University, 1974), xii, 221; Wayne Franklin, “Under the Table: Susan Fenimore Cooper and the Construction of Her Father’s Reputation,” in Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson (eds.), Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on Rural Hours and Other Works (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 3.

9. Kurth, xi.

10. Kurth, xiii.

11. Kurth, 222; James Fenimore Cooper (1858-1938), TheCorrespondence of James Fenimore Cooper, Vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922), 3.

12. Kurth, xiii, 223. and Franklin, 4-5.

13. Kurth, 147. Kurth notes Thoreau was familiar with RuralHours.

14. Kurth, 432.

15. James Fenimore Cooper (1858-1938), Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921), ix.

16. See James Fenimore Cooper, “Croghan’s Land,” 390-396.

17. Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., “Introduction,” Tal: His Marvelous Adventures with Noom-Zor-Noom (1929; Cynthiana, KY: Purple House Press, 2001), iii-vi.

18. Ibid.

19. Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., “Remarks of Mr. Henry S. F. Cooper at Dedication of Paul Fenimore Cooper, Jr. Archives Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY, August 14, 1991.” Hartwick College, Paul F. Cooper Jr. Archives.

20. For example, A. F. Kuckes, Richard Wilson, and Paul F. Cooper, Jr., “On the Deuteron as a Free Nucleon @ 145 mev,” Annals of Physics 13, no. 3 (June 1961): 463-464. This was a conference paper abstract.

21. Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., “Remarks,” 6.

22. John B. Hench, “Obituaries: James Franklin Beard, Jr.,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 100 (April 1990): 21-25; James Franklin Beard (ed.), The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960), 1:xxxvi-xxxviii, 1:347, 6:352.

23. Taylor, 533.

24. Ibid.

25. Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., “Remarks,” 6.

26. Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journalof American History 88, no. 1 (June 2001), 134-135.

27. Denise Richardson, Daily Star (Oneonta, NY), 1 February 2016.

28. Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., “Remarks.”