He was only 13 years old when he enrolled at Yale University, though he was expelled in his junior year. One legend claims he spent too much time "frolicking" in the woods nearby rather than studying. It was then that he had a desire to go to sea, an experience which inspired much of his writing. Young Cooper joined the crew of a merchant vessel at age 16 and sailed to England (family tradition suggested it was at the insistence of the teenager's father). On September 15, 1807, his 18th birthday, Cooper returned to the United States aboard the Stirling. Soon, he joined the U.S. Navy and ultimately earned the rank of Midshipman before resigning. Ten years later, on his 28th birthday, his mother Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper was buried; she died at the age of 66.
Only three years after the death of his mother, Cooper almost arbitrarily chose to become a writer. Novels like The Last of the Mohicans made him among the first American novelists. He also wrote a substantial History of the United States Navy (dedicated to those who served as officers in that organization). He admitted it was an "imperfect" record. His introduction to the book begins:
As in a single life, man passes through the several stages of his physical and moral existence, from infancy to age, so will the American of the present generation, witness the advance of his country, from the feebleness, doubts and caution of a state of conscious weakness, to the healthfulness and vigour of strength. So rapid, however, have been the transitions, that opinion has not kept pace with the facts of the country. Thus it is, that we so often find even statesmen reasoning on the policy of the republic, after the manner of their youth, in apparent ignorance of all the important changes that have occurred within the last forty years; for, to adapt the argument to the level of circumstances, in a country like this, requires a mind of incessant activity, and one accustomed to reason in advance, rather than in the rear of events.
Cooper's own life witnessed several stages in the existence of American literature from its "feeble" beginnings. When he died in 1851, one day shy of his 62nd birthday, he had become an icon and a legend, and editors and writers came forward to honor him shortly after his death.