Old Yale  
spacer spacer spacer
yalealumnimagazine.com   about the Yale Alumni Magazine   classified & display advertising   back issues 1992-present   our blogs   The Yale Classifieds   yam@yale.edu   support us


The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.

The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.


Leatherstocking at Yale

James Fenimore Cooper did not attend commencement when his class graduated in 1806. A year earlier, Cooper, who was later to become the first best-selling novelist of the United States, had been expelled for misconduct. No one knows why. Some have speculated that he was involved in a brawl; others suspect unsanctioned experiments with explosives. There was even a tale about bringing a donkey to class.


Cooper was admitted to Yale in 1803 when he was 13.

The 11th of 12 children, Cooper grew up in Cooperstown, New York. The town had been founded by his father, a judge, landowner, and member of Congress. The young boy was sent to boarding school in Albany, where he was so well prepared for college that he was admitted to Yale in 1803 when he was 13. (At the time, most freshmen entering college were in their upper teens.) Only one letter survives from his college days, written to his father on March 22, 1804. The two-line missive expressed the perennial undergraduate complaint: “I have not a copper of money and am much in want of a little.”

Cooper was expelled in the summer of 1805. A few months after the expulsion, a classmate named Daniel Mulford recorded this complaint in his diary: “We who are in College live in a kind of a little Monarchy, the President [Timothy Dwight '69] with his privy council (the professors & tutors) have full and absolute power to do with us what they please as far as it respects the business and behaviour of College. … They will admit almost anybody however bad into College as it were upon trial, and then if we play any tricks which they don’t like … they excommunicate us.”

Yale English professor Thomas Lounsbury '59 tried to discover the nature of Cooper’s “trick” when researching his 1882 Cooper biography. Lounsbury could conclude only that “a frolic in which he was engaged during his third year was attended by consequences more serious than disfavor.” Cooper family tradition is that he was expelled for an explosion set off in a friend's room by “the clever use of a keyhole.” Other biographies recount a prank in which the young man trained a donkey to sit in a professor’s chair. Still another rumor proposed that Cooper had set off a bomb in chapel. Interestingly, Cooper’s brother had been expelled from Princeton in 1802 for allegedly taking part in burning down Nassau Hall.


When his inheritance was gone, Cooper turned to writing.

Several years after leaving Yale, Cooper joined the Navy and served until 1811. He had married and inherited a substantial legacy. When it was gone, he turned to writing at the age of 30 to support his wife and growing family. Over three decades he published 32 novels and many nonfiction works. Generally regarded as the first major American writer of fiction, Cooper was best known for his portrayal of an idealized American wilderness inhabited by patriotic heroes and noble Native Americans. Cooper’s longest lasting contribution to literature is the classic American character Natty Bumppo (Leatherstocking), a frontiersman who appears in several of his novels, most notably as the intrepid scout in The Last of the Mohicans. Cooper was the most popular author of his time. On the day of its publication in 1823, The Pioneers sold 3,500 copies before noon.

Cooper never graduated from Yale (though four of his great-grandsons did in the early twentieth century) or from any other college. In a passage in an 1845 book, Satanstoe, he derided American higher education. The characters are discussing where the young hero will attend college (his father has already ruled out Harvard as too distant):

We had the choice of two [schools], in both of which the learned languages and the sciences are taught, to a degree, and in a perfection, that is surprising for a new country. These colleges are Yale, at New Haven, in Connecticut, and Nassau Hall, which was then at Newark, New Jersey, after having been a short time at Elizabethtown, but which has since been established at Princeton. Mr. Worden laughed at both; said that neither had as much learning as a second-rate English grammar-school; and that a lower-form boy, at Eton or Westminster, could take a master’s degree at either, and pass for a prodigy in the bargain.

Yet Cooper remained a loyal alumnus and kept up a correspondence with Professor Benjamin Silliman '96 for many years. The author remembered his Yale years with fondness, as he confided to Silliman a quarter of a century later in a letter written from Paris: “My misfortune was extreme youth” and an education “far beyond most of my classmates in Latin,” he wrote. “If ever I write my Memoir, the college part of it will not be the least amusing.” Cooper reminded Silliman of an incident in which a tutor was “scraped in the hall”:

Now I was charged with being one of his assailants, by himself, and was arraigned before you all in conclave. You presided, and appealed to my honor to know whether I scraped or not. I told you that I did not, for I disliked the manner of assailing a man en masse. You believed me, for we understood each other, and I was dismissed without even a reproof. … This little court made a pleasant impression on me which I remember to this day. I hope to return next summer, and certainly I shall come and take a look at old Yale.  the end


©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. yam@yale.edu