Introduction to The Spy (1821)

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: Biographic information about Cooper at “Angevine”, Scarsdale, 1820-21; Westchester County Revolutionary lore; John Jay as source for idea of Harvey Birch; Cooper’s writing methods; publication and unexpected success at home and abroad; botched French translation; later regret at having included George Washington; Cooper on origins of Harvey Birch (quotation).

Pages and Pictures, pp. 26-36

Contents , Harvey and his father in the cottage. Extract: THE SPY. Westchester county and its traditions of the Revolution — Godfrey’s Cave — Haunted wood — Uncle John — the Silver Grays — Conversation with Governor Jay — Origin of the book — An acute critic — Last chapter written and paged before those preceding it — Unlooked-for success —

[26] To a spirit naturally so free and active as that of the writer of “Precaution” imitation must soon become wearying and irksome in the extreme. Disguise was now thrown off — and forever.

“I will try another book!” he exclaimed, supposing that this second narrative should prove the last.

A field wholly new was chosen. A tale was soon planned. It was to be in one sense historical, yet a book entirely American in scenery, in the characters, and in its spirit. Works of historical romance, brilliant with the proud pageantry of European story, were at that moment filling the eye of the civilized world with their dazzling glamour, displaying figures the most picturesque, yet charmingly natural, thrown into striking groups by a hand the most powerful, the most skilful, which had yet woven the web of English fiction. What materials were there, in our own brief annals, to compare with these treasures of tradition; what was there in our own bare and homely provincial life which could delight the reader’s imagination; what hope had the young American sailor, untutored in authorcraft, when entering the field held by the veteran writer already great in achievement and fame? The question was soon to be decided.

Patriotism was to be the soul of the new book, and the fact that he was about to move over home ground gave new zest to the work. In his warmly-generous nature, still in the glow of youth, love of country flowed from fountains clear, deep and full, and he was perhaps unconscious himself of all the life and spirit which the feeling was about to infuse into the pages of the new tale. The scene was laid in Westchester county, where he was living at the time — a part of [27] the country to which he was always partial; the society found in the different gentlemen’s houses scattered over the county was particularly good, and to one as thoroughly social as himself, in all his tastes and habits, a source of much enjoyment. The genial, temperate climate was also pleasant, while the sea-breezes, even when sweeping over the country in the form of the local “three-days’ storm,” had their own charm for a sailor’s senses.

Many lesser incidents of the Revolution, now wholly forgotten, were at that day still living faces in the minds of the people, scarcely yet remote enough for the shadowy perspective of history. Many of those who had taken an active part in the great struggle were still coming in and going out of their children’s doors — aged men, telling tales of the different events of the conflict, with all the glow of personal interest. Many a gray-haired housewife, as she sat at the wheel, spinning her thread of flax or wool, could talk of the armies she had seen in her girlhood passing her father’s door, marching to and fro, on their way to this or that victory, or retreating, perchance, from this or that defeat. Westchester was full of such recollections. There was no portion of the country whose soil, during the eight eventful years of the war, was so often trodden by friend and foe, alike in arms. The city of New York, unlike any other in the country, was held, from the very first to the very latest days of the war, by strong garrisons of one party or the other. Abandoned by General Washington after the defeat on Long Island, it became from that hour the permanent head-quarters of the British commander-in-chief; while American armies, now standing aloof in conscious weakness of numbers, now advancing nearer with returning strength of reinforcement, kept constant watch, their eyes fixed on that important point. Of course, smaller bodies of troops, of both parties, were in unceasing movement over the adjacent country, foraging, reconnoitring, skirmishing, as the occasion required. Scarce a narrow lane of the many winding roads of the county, fenced with rude stone walls, hedged with brier and vine, shaded with cedar and oak, as they are, along which trim British troops and ragged American soldiers had not marched and countermarched by the light of sun or star. Scarce a farm-house door which had not been darkened by Cow-boy, Hessian, or Skinner, on errand of pillage or violence. Scarce a barnyard which had not been harried, scarce a larder, whether high or low, which had not, time and again, been rifled. Here and there still darker work had been done — homes had been destroyed by fire, good yeoman blood had been shed, life had been taken, husband, father, or brother had fallen in some unrecorded skirmish, the hero of a rustic neighborhood. The entire country between the American outposts on the skirts of the Highlands, and the British works on the island of Manhattan — the Neutral [28] Ground, as it was called by both parties — probably suffered more in this war than the same extent of country in any part of the Union. Scarsdale and Mamaroneck lay within this region. The battlefield of White Plains was close at hand; Fort Washington had stood on a neighboring height; Dobb’s Ferry, so long a central point of interest for the American forces, lay only a few miles beyond. On the daily drive from Angevine to the nearest post-office at Mamaroneck, a spot was passed connected with one of the many local traditions of the neighborhood; in a pretty thicket, covering a piece of swampy land, a cave was shown in which one of the partisans of the day had lain for some time concealed, fed secretly by friendly hands with food stealthily brought at night, until escape was effected. And again, on the way to the little Huguenot church at New Rochelle, the road wound at the foot of a hill, shaded by a pretty grove, which, in spite of its quiet, sunny aspect at the present hour, enjoyed the gloomy honors of a haunted wood — a sharp skirmish had taken place there in the years of the Revolution, and ever and anon, at solemn midnight hours, ghosts were dimly seen gliding to and fro, aye, it was even whispered that the clashing of their swords had been faintly heard, more than once, on some stormy night; in vain might proud incredulity shake its head, the inmates of certain old gray cottages, with moss-grown shingled walls, and projecting ovens, knew better; they believed the fact most firmly.

At the foot of the hill on which stood the cottage of Angevine, there was a small farm-house, remarkable in one architectural particular, its four walls showing each a different color to the face of the sun — red, yellow, brown, and white. In this comfortable polychromatic dwelling lived a small farmer who came frequently to Angevine, telling his tales of “Godfrey’s Cave,” and the “haunted wood,” or talking over past scenes, in which figured “continentals,” “regulars,” “rebels,” and “refugees” — words carrying strange sounds to our ears to-day. “Uncle John H ------------” was but one of the number of the yeoman neighbors — some of Huguenot, some of English stock — who gladly came to pass a cheerful evening hour with the master of the house, fighting the county battles over with fresh interest, aroused by the spirited questions, the intelligent sympathy of their host. All, as they drank their glass of cider, picked over their hickory-nuts, or pared their Newtown pippin, had countless deeds of violence, more or less flagrant, to relate, of Cow-boy and Skinner; all had some family tradition to repeat, of hairbreadth escape, of daring feat, of harried fields, and houses burned. There was one very remarkable tale-teller of the region, long since deceased, while his family have also passed away, far surpassing most narrators, since the days of the celebrated German, whose reputation in this way was well [29] established in the county; his anecdotes, however, were chiefly confined to the prowess of a near relative, “Major Brom B ------------,” a hero of the great war, who would assuredly have deserved half a dozen pensions had he ever claimed one. This champion commanded, according to the narrator, a family troop, small in number, but most redoubtable in their feats; all related by blood to “Major Brom,” all in uniform of silver gray, and numbering twenty-seven martial spirits in one company. The major was, moreover, the happy owner of a negro, “Bonny,” almost as famous as himself, while his gun, “the Buccaneer,” had not its fellow on the continent. The various adventures of “Major Brom B.,” the twenty-seven silver-grays, Bonny the negro, and Buccaneer the gun, were an unfailing source of entertainment at many firesides in Westchester at that day.

But it was from sources far higher than these, that the leading idea of the new book was derived. Visits to Bedford were very frequent at that period. One summer’s afternoon, while sitting on the broad piazza of the house, Judge Jay and Mr. Cooper were listening with respectful attention to the remarks of the venerable Governor Jay, as he related different facts connected with the history of the Revolution. The conversation turned more particularly on the spirit of true patriotism, as shown by all classes of the people, during the struggle. Governor Jay then observed that there were men whose services at critical moments, in obtaining information for the use of the commander-in-chief had been of the greatest importance, and that repeatedly such services had been undertaken at imminent personal risks, from the most disinterested love of country. He then proceeded to relate a remarkable incident of this nature, with which he had been himself connected. It was from this interesting conversation, that the idea of the character of Harvey Birch was now drawn, as the reader will find, in looking over an ensuing extract referring to the incident.

Strolling peddlers, staff in hand, and pack at the back, were more common visitors at the country-houses of that day than at the present hour, when these personages usually keep their coaches, and may be called speculators, and wandering traders, rather than old-fashioned peddlers. It was after the visit of one of these men, a Yankee peddler of the old sort, to the cottage at Angevine, that Harvey’s lot in life was decided — he was to be a spy, and a peddler. Always rapid in his work, the outline had scarcely been conceived, when the first pages were written. On this occasion, as on all others when writing a book, he first adopted some general leading idea, sketched vaguely in his mind a few of the more prominent characters, and then immediately began his work in its final shape, leaving the details to suggest and develop themselves during the progress of the volume. Excepting when writing history, be is not known to have ever drawn up a written [30] plan, and in one or two instances only were a few brief notes thrown on paper, regarding some particular chapter. In all the details he depended in a great measure on the thought and feeling of the moment. While writing “The Spy,” and one or two of his earliest works, some intimate friend was occasionally consulted. But, ere long, he became quite independent in his action on these matters; and during thirty years of professional writing, there was but one with whom he habitually talked over his plot and characters — one only, who was ever his chief counsellor, one in whose taste and judgment he had great confidence.

On the 17ᵗʰ of September, 1821, “The Spy, a Tale of the Neutral Ground,” was published in New York, by Wiley and Halsted. The book immediately attracted general attention, probably beyond what any American volume had yet done. It was read with delight. The strikingly original character of Harvey Birch, so clearly conceived, so thoroughly carried out, riveted attention, while the glow pervading the whole narrative, gave interest to every chapter. The critics were taken by surprise — they held their breath. That a book so full of talent, should have been written by an author as yet unrecognized among them, was strange indeed. A few ventured to praise. Many waited for the word of command from England, ere committing themselves, the common course of things in all literary matters at that day. Meanwhile in society, the work was meeting with brilliant success. It was found on every table, and enjoyed by all classes of readers. Ere long the character of Harvey Birch became so vividly impressed on the public mind, that people expected to see his thin, stooping figure, gliding across their path, as they drove about the hills and valleys of Westchester.

In Europe, “The Spy” had also great success, the interest inherent in the book being naturally increased by its coming from a country whence so little was then expected, in the way of original literature. In England it was well received; Mr. Cooper was much gratified by a compliment from Miss Edgeworth, who, after expressing the pleasure she had received from the book, sent him a message through a mutual friend, declaring that she liked “Betty Flanagan” particularly, and that an Irish pen could not have drawn her better. French translation soon followed. Some very ludicrous mistakes occur in the first French versions. The name given to the Wharton place, “The Locusts” proved a puzzle; the word was rendered as it was found in the dictionary, “Les Sauterelles” — the Grasshoppers. This might have answered very well, but for one unfortunate fact — a dragoon of Lawton’s troop is represented as tying his horse to one of the locusts on the lawn. Here was a difficulty; the worthy translator, however, belonging evidently to the class “tradutori, traditori,” seems to have taken it for granted, that trans-atlantic grasshoppers must necessarily be of gigantic proportions; nothing [31] daunted, he proceeds gravely to state the remarkable fact, that the dragoon secured his charger by fastening the bridle to one of the grasshoppers before the door — apparently standing there for that purpose! In another chapter, when giving the passage in which Colonel Wellmere is represented as drawing figures on the dining-table with the wine spilled from his glass, as the gentlemen are sitting over their nuts and Madeira, the sage translator takes occasion to insert a note, in which he calls the reader’s attention to a fact showing so clearly the rude style of living in America at that day — even in the house of a man in Mr. Wharton’s position table-linen was unknown. It was soon reported in New York, among Mr. Cooper’s friends, that the book was his own. An amusing incident occurred not long after its publication. The writer was walking in Broadway, when he saw a gentleman, well known to him, cross the street, and advance to meet him; it was a prominent merchant, a man of money, very well known in Wall street. He came on a friendly errand, to congratulate his acquaintance on the new book, and its success. He was loud in its praises.

“An admirable book — never read any thing more full of spirit and interest in my life!”

“I am glad you like it.”

“Like it — to be sure I do. From the moment I opened the first volume I could not leave my chair until I had gone through the last chapter. I sat up all night to read it through!”

“My friend Harvey is much obliged to you.”

“I have one criticism to make, however. You dent object to criticism I hope! I like the book as a whole exceedingly — it is full of interest, every page of it — the character of Harvey is excellent too in most particulars — but there lies the difficulty — you have made one capital mistake in drawing Harvey’s character!”

“Indeed, and what may that be?”

“Why, my dear sir, you have given the man no motive! The character is well drawn in other particulars; but so much the greater pity that you failed on that point. Just look at the facts; here is a man getting into all kinds of scrapes, running his neck into the noose, of his own accord, and where, pray, is his motive? Of course I thought until the last page, that he would be well paid for his services — but just as I expected to see it all made clear as day, he refuses to take the gold General Washington offers him. There was your great mistake — you should have given Harvey some motive!”

At a later day, when revising “The Spy” for the last edition, the author was dissatisfied with many thing in his work, and once remarked that he should like [32] to write it entirely anew. On several occasions he expressed a regret that he should have introduced General Washington, personally, into a work of fiction, veneration for the character of the great man increasing with his own years.

The following account of the Spy is given in Mr. Cooper’s words:

“The author has often been asked if there were any foundation in real life, for the delineation of the principal character in this book. He can give no clearer answer to the question, than by laying before his readers a simple statement of the facts connected with its original publication.

“Many years since, the writer of this volume was at the residence of an illustrious man, who had been employed in various situations of high trust during the darkest days of the American Revolution. The discourse turned upon the effects which great political excitement produce on character, and the purifying consequences of a love of country, when that sentiment is powerfully and generally awakened in a people. He, who, from his years, his services, and his knowledge of men, was best qualified to take the lead in such a conversation, was the principal speaker. After dwelling on the marked manner in which the great struggle of the nation, during the war of 1775, had given a new and honorable direction to the thoughts and practices of multitudes whose time had formerly been engrossed by the most vulgar concerns of life, he illustrated his opinions by relating an anecdote, the truth of which he could attest as a personal witness.

“The dispute between England and the United States of America, though not strictly a family quarrel, had many of the features of a civil war. The people of [33] the latter were never properly and constitutionally subject to the people of the former, but the inhabitants of both countries owed allegiance to a common king. The Americans, as a nation, disavowed this allegiance, and the English, choosing to support their sovereign in the attempt to regain his power, most of the feelings of an internal struggle were involved in the conflict. A large proportion of the emigrants from Europe, then established in the colonies, took part with the crown; and there were many districts in which their influence, united to that of the Americans who refused to lay aside their allegiance, gave a decided preponderance to the royal cause. America was then too young, and too much in need of every heart and hand, to regard these partial divisions, small as they were in actual amount, with indifference. The evil was greatly increased by the activity of the English in profiting by these internal dissensions; and it became doubly serious when it was found that attempts were made to raise various corps of provincial troops, who were to be banded with those from Europe, to reduce the young republic to subjection. Congress named an especial and a secret committee, therefore, for the express purpose of defeating this object. Of this committee Mr. ------------, the narrator of the anecdote, was chairman.

“In the discharge of the novel duties which had now devolved on him, Mr.-------- had occasion to employ an agent whose services differed but little from those of a common spy. This man, as will easily be understood, belonged to a condition in life which rendered him the least reluctant to appear in so equivocal a character. He was poor, ignorant, so far as the usual instruction was concerned; but cool, shrewd, and fearless by nature. It was his office to learn in what part of the country the agents of the crown were making their secret efforts to embody men, to repair to the place, enlist, appear zealous in the cause he affected to serve, and otherwise to get possession of as many of the secrets of the enemy as possible. The last he of course communicated to his employers, who took all the means in their power to counteract the plans of the English, and frequently with success.

“It will readily be conceived that a service like this was attended with great personal hazard. In addition to the danger of discovery, there was the daily risk of falling into the hands of the Americans themselves, who invariably visited sins of this nature more severely on the natives of the country than on the Europeans who fell into their hands. In fact, the agent of Mr.-------- was several times arrested by the local authorities; and, in one instance, he was actually condemned by his exasperated countrymen to the gallows. Speedy and private orders to his gaoler alone saved him from an ignominious death. He was permitted to escape; and this seeming, and indeed actual peril was of great aid in supporting his assumed character among the English. By the Americans, in his little sphere, [34] he was denounced as a bold and inveterate tory. In this manner he continued to serve his country in secret during the early years of the struggle, hourly environed by danger, and the constant subject of unmerited opprobrium.

“In the year — — , Mr.-------- was named to a high and honorable employment at a European court. Before vacating his seat in Congress, he reported to that body an outline of the circumstances related, necessarily suppressing the name of his agent, and demanding an appropriation in behalf of a man who had been of so much use, at so great risk. A suitable sum was voted, and its delivery was confided to the chairman of the secret committee.

“Mr.-------- took the necessary means to summon his agent to a personal interview. They met in a wood at midnight. Here Mr.-------- complimented his companion on his fidelity and adroitness; explained the necessity of their communications being closed; and finally tendered the money. The other drew back, and declined receiving it. “The country has need of all its means,” he said; “as for myself, I can work, or gain a livelihood in various ways.” Persuasion was useless, for patriotism was uppermost in the heart of this remarkable individual; and Mr.-------- departed, bearing with him the gold he had brought, and a deep respect for the man who had so long hazarded his life, unrequited, for the cause they served in common.

“The writer is under an impression that, at a later day, the agent of Mr.-------- consented to receive a remuneration for what he had done; but it was not until his country was entirely in a condition to bestow it.

“It is scarcely necessary to add, that an anecdote like this, simply but forcibly told by one of its principal actors, made a deep impression on all who heard it. Many years later, circumstances which it is unnecessary to relate, and of an entirely adventitious nature, induced the writer to publish a novel, which proved to be, what he little foresaw at the time, the first of a tolerably long series. The same adventitious causes which gave birth to the book, determined its scene and its general character. The former was laid in a foreign country; and the latter embraced a crude effort to describe foreign manners. When this tale was published, it became matter of reproach among the author’s friends, that he, an American in heart as in birth, should give to the world a work which aided perhaps, in some slight degree, to feed the imagination of the young and unpractised among his own countrymen, by pictures drawn from a state of society so different from that to which he belonged. The writer, while he knew how much of what he had done was purely accidental, felt the reproach to be one that, in a measure, was just. As the only atonement in his power, he determined to inflict a second book, whose subject should admit of no cavil, not only on the world, but on him[35]self. He chose patriotism for his theme; and to those who read this introduction and the book itself, it is scarcely necessary to add, that he took the hero of the anecdote just related as the best illustration of his subject.

“Since the original publication of “The Spy,” there have appeared several accounts of different persons who are supposed to have been in the author’s mind while writing the book. As Mr.-------- did not mention the name of his agent, the writer never knew any more of his identity with this or that individual than has been here explained. Both Washington and Sir Henry Clinton had an unusual number of secret emissaries; in a war that partook so much of a domestic character, and in which the contending parties were people of the same blood and language, it could scarcely be otherwise.

“The style of the book has been revised by the author in this edition. In this respect, he has endeavored to make it more worthy of the favor with which it has been received; though he is compelled to admit there are faults so interwoven with the structure of the tale that, as in the case of a decayed edifice, it would cost perhaps less to reconstruct than to repair. Five-and-twenty years have been as ages with most things connected with America. Among other advances, that of her literature has not been the least. So little was expected from the publication of an original work of this description, at the time it was written, that the first volume of “The Spy” was actually printed several months before the author felt a sufficient inducement to write a line of the second. The efforts expended on a hopeless task are rarely worthy of him who makes them, however low it may be necessary to rate the standard of his general merit.

“One other anecdote connected with the history of this book, may give the reader some idea of the hopes of an American author, in the first quarter of the present century. As the second volume was slowly printing, from manuscript that was barely dry when it went into the compositor’s hands, the publisher intimated that the work might grow to a length that would consume the profits. To set his mind at rest, the last chapter was actually written, printed, and paged, several weeks before the chapters which precede it were even thought of. This circumstance, while it cannot excuse, may serve to explain the manner in which the actors are hurried off the scene.

“A great change has come over the country since this book was originally written. The nation is passing from the gristle into the bone, and the common mind is beginning to keep even pace with the growth of the body politic. The march from Vera Cruz to Mexico was made under the orders of that gallant soldier who, a quarter of a century before, was mentioned with honor in the last chapter of this very book. Glorious as was that march, and brilliant as were its [36] results in a military point of view, a stride was then made by the nation, in a moral sense, that has hastened it, by an age, in its progress toward real independence and high political influence. The guns that filled the valley of the Aztecs with their thunder, have been heard in echoes on the other side of the Atlantic, producing equally hope or apprehension.

“There is now no enemy to fear, but the one that resides within. By accustoming ourselves to regard even the people as erring beings, and by using the restraints that wisdom has adduced from experience, there is much reason to hope that the same Providence which has so well aided us in our infancy, may continue to smile on our manhood.

“COOPERSTOWN, March 29, 1849.” [James Fenimore Cooper, 1849 Introduction to a revised edition of The Spy (New York: W.A. Townsend, 1859), pp. v-xii]

Excerpts: (1) “Birch in His Cottage” [The Spy (New York: W.A. Townsend, 1859), Chapter 10, pp. 139-151]; (2) “The Highlands” [ibid, Chapter 25, pp. 338-339]