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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.
The 19th century was a leisurely age, and readers were in no hurry for a story to endCooper'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 or by 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.
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
- 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.
4) 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 which 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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