September 14, 2010

Death of James Fenimore Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper was only one day shy of his 62nd birthday when he died on September 14, 1851, likely due to liver disease. As early as April, he already knew his health was failing; friends could see it as well. After seeking medical advice in New York City, he returned to his home, Otsego Hall, in Cooperstown. He never left that home again. He died on a Sunday, at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Today, Cooper is considered one of the first major novelists in American literature, particularly his masterpiece The Last of the Mohicans (1825). Cooper was revered in his lifetime as the first man of letters in the United States — somewhat ironic for a man who started writing because of a challenge.

As an early biographer noted, Cooper died at a time when many of his friendships were strained. He also had a surprisingly small fortune. His estate, Otsego Hall, was sold and turned into a hotel - leaving the family for the first time since it was constructed (1796-1799). Soon after, it burned down and its remains were demolished.

A group of literary admirers led by anthologist Rufus Wilmot Griswold along with Fitz-Greene Halleck, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant organized a memorial celebration for Cooper. The intent was to raise enough money for a substantial monument at Cooper's grave; it didn't quite work out.

Cooper's most famous character, Natty Bumppo (or Hawkeye) starred in several novels, his life featured from birth to death. In The Prairie, an elderly Hawkeye met his end. After not moving for about an hour, he suddenly springs to his feet. He looked around before uttering his final word, "Here!"

When Middleton and Hart-Heart, who had each involuntarily extended a hand to support the form of the old man, turned to him again, they found, that the subject of their interest was removed forever beyond the necessity of their care... The grave was made beneath the shade of some noble oaks... In due time the stone was placed at its head, with the simple inscription the trapper had himself requested. The only liberty, taken by Middleton, was to add, — "May no wanton hand ever disturb his remains!"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Rob, for this. Cooper isn't, in my humble opinion, very good at dialogue, but he's a master of description--I can see the landscape of the stories so vividly. Alas, the real Natty looked nothing like Daniel Day-Lewis. . . Kit