Introduction to Lionel Lincoln (1825)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered: Genesis of Lionel Lincoln; problems of a Revolutionary tale with a Loyalist American hero, and of two mentally disordered characters; intention for a Revolutionary series; careful research of account of the Battle of Bunker Hill

Pages and Pictures, pp. 99-102

Contents: LIONEL LINCOLN. — Difficulties of the task — Character natural, but author’s sympathies not sufficiently aroused — Ralph — Job Pray — Legend of the Thirteen Republics — Extract, Battle of Bunker Hill.

[99] Writing was no longer an experiment. Three highly successful works, each differing from the other in character, had been given to the country. The plan of a fourth romance was now sketched, and the first chapters of Lionel Lincoln were soon written.

The leading idea of this book has been considered as in itself a mistake; Re presenting difficulties which, by their nature, were all but insuperable. It was the wish of the writer to draw, in the character of Lionel Lincoln, the representative of a large and an honorable class of men, intimately connected with the country and its history, by birth and association, but whose political conviction and action were directly opposed to the triumphant party. Thus far there was assuredly nothing impossible in the plan. Majorities give success and its thousand rewards; but they can show no prerogative endowing them with an exclusive claim to the spirit of heroism; on the contrary, the world’s story will prove that the proportions of heroic spirits has often been greater among minorities. Neither was there any thing in the position of the character drawn, or in that of the class he represented, incompatible with a strong interest to be thrown about his person. The feeling of loyalty to a sovereign may be not only natural [100] and strong, but highly honorable also in those born subjects to a crown. It was a feeling which bad great depth in many of the best American hearts of the period of the Revolution — one which long swayed the thought and action of Washington himself. It was a feeling to which, in its best forms, every generous nature can render justice. And in the hour of struggle allegiance to any legitimate established government is not to be lightly thrown off. The very men who, when the contest of the Revolution had once begun, were foremost as statesmen and soldiers in behalf of America, were those whose course in its earlier stages was most clearly marked with an honorable reluctance to utter violent language — to raise the standard of revolt — to give the signal for strife. Such a character as that of Lionel was, therefore, not only natural, but could be proved to have had actual existence. The struggles which each a man, in a similar position, must necessarily go through in the thrilling scenes of a great political revolution, offered, indeed, all the necessary materials for interest in a work of fiction. We have recently seen a distinguished English writer of the present day taking much the same view of the subject; in his “Virginians” he has attempted to give a picture of both sides of the greet struggle, showing twin-brothers taking opposite ground on the question. The error in Mr. Cooper’s novel did not, therefore, lie essentially in the conception of the character of his nominal hero. The greatest obstacle was to be found rather in the position of the author himself: his own sympathies were in fact too strongly enlisted in the opposite direction. While the general outline of the sketch was accurate, and capable of being well filled up, in the details of the work he did not render justice to the character he had himself conceived. He became weary of his task; his own interest in what he had intended for the principal figure of the picture flagged, and, as an inevitable consequence, that of the reader was not sufficiently aroused. A writer of colder temperament, of less earnest sincerity of nature, might have executed the same task much more successfully. In reading Lionel Lincoln, we find that the principal personage does not grow upon us; as we proceed in the book we are constantly expecting some new combination of circumstances, some stirring scene, some great event, which shall bring him into higher and clearer relief. Such events occur, such scenes are given in the narrative; but throughout the book, the figure of Lionel never really fills the eye of the reader, never entirely engrosses his attentions and sympathies. We close the tale with the conviction that we have made the acquaintance of an agreeable, gentlemanly, and honorable young officer of the grenadiers, and nothing more. The author himself was dissatisfied with his work. In his own opinion, a tale connected with the wonderful siege of Boston, and the memorable battle of [101] Bunker Hill, should have presented some more striking character to the reader than that of Lionel Lincoln.

As if to accumulate obstacles for himself, in this book, not content with the embarrassments belonging to the position of the young American officer enlisted on the side of the crown, the author introduced into the tale two additional characters, each in itself full of unusual difficulties. We have good authority, however, for asserting that in both these instances the task was skilfully managed. In Ralph, the father of Major Lincoln, the author has represented an honorable and educated mind, originally strong and sound, now disturbed and clouded by derangement; erratic and infirm, yet dignified, upright, and authoritative, even under the great calamity. In Job Pray, the rude, half-witted Boston boy, the brother of Lionel, he has drawn a nature entirely homely and untutored, but endowed with generous instincts, struggling under the infirmity of partial idiocy. Both sketches assuredly have merit. Our sympathies are awakened in behalf of the deranged father, they are warmly aroused by the half-witted son, while there is nothing forced, no straining at effect, nothing revolting in either. One of the best physicians in the country repeatedly declared that the nice distinctions between the different shades of disordered reason in Ralph and Job, were drawn with truth and skill. In both, instances, the feeling of compassion in the reader’s mind is blended with respect for a great infirmity of our common nature; any representation of a character of this kind which does not excite the latter feeling becomes indeed quite unjustifiable.

The natural channel in which the author’s sympathies were actually flowing, is clearly betrayed in the sketch of Job, who soon becomes a favorite with the reader. His just, yet half-blind indignation against an oppression which had aroused the noblest minds in the country; his prejudices, honest and natural, but violent and vulgar; his instinctive love of country; his affection for his mother; his generous feeling for Lionel; the petty cunning invariably connected with his diseased mind; the little Yankee peculiarities engrafted on his character; the strange blending of courage and cowardice in his infirm nature, make up together a sketch of much truth and merit. The poor half-witted son of Abigail, the tenant of the old warehouse, becomes, in fact, the true hero of the book.

The title-page of the first edition of Lionel Lincoln bore an inscription afterward erased: “A Legend of the Thirteen Republics.” At the time of writing the book, the author had planned a series of works of fiction, to be drawn from the early historical sources of the country — the scene of each tale to be laid in one of the thirteen different colonies which formed the Union. His own love [102] of country had nothing of the petty, provincial, puerile view which would confine patriotism to the limits of one’s own horizon. He was loyal to the whole country in the highest sense of the words — to the Union, which is the soul of its national existence. It was his wish to contribute something to the local literature of each of the different divisions of the republic, His departure for Europe, which prevented his visiting the more southern states, and collecting local details, interfered with his carrying this plan into execution. No second work of the projected series having been written, the reference to the Thirteen Legends was removed from the later editions.

The sketch of the battle of Bunker Hill included in this novel, was carefully written. Every effort to preserve accuracy was made. The principal historical authorities, the state papers, official reports, etc., etc., were studied. A journey to Boston was made for the purpose of going over the ground in person. Even almanacs, and records of the weather, were consulted, to insure greater accuracy in detail. The account of the battle is given as a selection from “Lionel Lincoln.”

Extract: “The Battle of Bunker Hill” [James Fenimore Cooper, Lionel Lincoln (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), Chapters 15-16, pp. 168-188.