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Reading Cooper For Pleasure

1999, revised November 2002

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Is Cooper hard to read? Millions have enjoyed him for almost two centuries. Cooper's 32 novels can still be exciting and thought-provoking, but it helps to know where he was coming from. With just a little background, readers for pleasure today can read Cooper with enjoyment and understanding.

1) Pace

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

2) Plot

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

3) 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

4) Language and style

The American language has changed.

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.

Hugh MacDougall, Secretary,
James Fenimore Cooper Society,
Cooperstown, 1999, revised 2002

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