“Few Get as Far South as I Have Been”: Stimson in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Sea Lions

Steven P. Harthorn (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2000 Conference of the American Literature Association in Long Beach, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 13, July 2000, pp. 1-6.

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Thomas Philbrick’s landmark study of The Sea Lions in James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction has taught us to read the novel in a way that now seems too obvious for previous generations to have missed. Rather than being just an exciting tale of Antarctic adventure, with bulky religious and love plots along for the ride, The Sea Lions can now be understood as a complex story of spiritual exploration, fitting in with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Symzonia, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and Cooper’s own The Monikins as narratives that set the South Polar regions as destinations of allegorical voyages. 1 Whether or not this symbolic significance makes The Sea Lions a neglected masterpiece is up for grabs; George Dekker, for one, has suggested that the book falls short of that status. 2 The novel is not perfect. Its main drawback is preachiness, especially on religious matters — a preachiness which prompted Holden’s Dollar Magazine (admittedly anti-Cooper from the start) to complain, “The Sea Lions is more of a sermon than a romance,” adding later, “Mr. Cooper is a high Tory in politics and a high churchman in religion, and he means that whoever reads his romances shall know it. We think that he would please his readers better and promote his own interests by serving up his theology and his fictions under separate covers.” 3 Much of this preachiness came from Cooper himself as narrator, as had been his tendency in two of his preceding works, The Crater and Oak Openings.

[2] In The Sea Lions, though, the characters also do their share of preaching. Special contempt has been focused on Stephen Stimson, the old salt who always turns up at the elbow of the hero, Roswell Gardiner (or “Gar’ner”), with suitably orthodox, Trinitarian observations. Somehow Stimson, like the heroine Mary Pratt, has become determined to shake Roswell from his prideful Unitarianism and make him accept either all or none of Christian doctrine. Thus, when Roswell’s schooner finally holds its ground in a gale, leading him to exclaim, “God is with us! ... blessed forever be his holy name!” Stimson is quick to add “And that of his only and true Son,” with such force of conviction that Roswell cannot help but notice (152). 4 This sort of posturing led Thomas Lounsbury to call Stimson “one of the most offensive canters that the whole range of fiction presents.” 5 James Grossman was irritated by Stimson’s “arrogant self-conscious humility” and his flimsy argument that the apostles would not just make up such a strange doctrine as that of the Trinity. 6 Perhaps the general opinion of Stimson was summed up best by Herman Melville, who, despite praising the work as one of Cooper’s “happiest,” lightly poked fun at the “subordinate” religious theme, and at Stimson in particular:

Then we have one Stimson, an old Kennebunk boatsteerer, and Professor of Theology, who, wintering on an ice-berg, discourses most unctuously upon various dogmas. This honest old worthy may possibly be recognized for an old acquaintance by the readers of Cooper’s novels. — But who would have dreamt of his turning up at the South Pole? 7

For the tastes of modern readers, Stimson seems especially out of line: his orthodox sermonizing wins him few friends.

But Stimson is more than a voice of Christian orthodoxy in The Sea Lions. W.B. Gates, in his study of Cooper’s immense debt to Charles Wilkes’s Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition for incidents, atmosphere, and even structure in the novel, discovered that Cooper often used Stimson as a mouthpiece for information he gleaned from Wilkes. 8 Like Wilkes, Stimson sees little to fear in the dreaded Straits of Le Maire (204); like Wilkes, Stimson has spent a winter at Orange Harbor, a chilly port in Tierra del Fuego (374). 9 Thomas Philbrick’s work has expanded Gate’s examination of Cooper’s sources, noting further debts to explorers such as Morrell, Scoresby, Fanning, and Parry. 10 Philbrick has also uncovered information on the sources of our man Stimson. The name Stephen Stimson had come up before in Cooper’s history — in real life as a shipmate (Stephen Stimpson) aboard the Stirling in 1806-07, and in fiction as a sailor on the brig Sea Otter in 1844’s Afloat and Ashore. Philbrick argues that perhaps this huge Kennebunk man suggested some sort of ideal — the “protean image of the seaman.” 11 Still, Gary Williams suggests that another shipmate from the Stirling may account more thoroughly for the Christian behavior of Stimson in The Sea Lions. Williams argues persuasively that Cooper’s reunion with Ned Myers brought him in touch with the sort of powerful, simple, unlettered Christianity that Stimson embodies so thoroughly. 12 Both associations make good [3] sense, and add to our sense of Cooper’s concern with the character.

So in Stimson we find embodied the knowledge of Wilkes, the spirit of old, rugged shipmates, and the voice of Christian orthodoxy. This convergence has intrigued me. Why does Cooper invest so much in Stimson? Lounsbury suggested that Cooper had trouble pulling off the religious thesis of the book because it was too close to his heart; 13 perhaps, we might add lightly, Cooper had Stimson even closer to his heart — with results adjusted proportionately. Still, whatever Cooper’s failings may be in carrying out his plan for Stimson, the plan itself is a good one. I would like to suggest that it is no accident that Cooper combined in Stimson the “voice of orthodoxy” and the “voice of Wilkes.” Of all the crewmen in the twin Sea Lions, only Stimson previously has been near the Antarctic. Thus, given the transcendent, symbolic quality of the novel, and the spiritual significance of the bitter, desolate Antarctic winter, Stimson’s experience functions in a spiritual sense as well, making him suitable for voicing orthodoxy. Stimson has “been to the mountain,” as it were; he has weathered trouble and come out stronger, much as Roswell Gardiner will do in the course of the novel.

Stimson is noted early on as “probably the next best seaman, after the master [Roswell]” (114). He possesses practical knowledge that time and time again saves those who will listen. Sometimes that knowledge remains mostly in the realm of the mundane: Stimson’s experience with the Straits of Le Maire, although it allows Roswell to shake Daggett for a time, probably has little additional significance. But even this episode shows Stimson’s confidence and experience in a way that hints of things to come, and, as Cooper notes, establishes Stimson as “a man to be relied on” (211-12). The same goes for Stimson’s remarks that he has rounded Cape Horn eleven times (to Roswell’s six), or that he was among the first to find seals in the South Shetland islands (215). Roswell, in his first voyage as captain of a vessel headed for uncharted lands, repeatedly and confidently places his trust in Stimson. Because of that trust, he is open to Stimson’s teachings on spiritual matters. As the story unfolds, the lines blur between Stimson’s practical wisdom and his spiritual insight. Stimson’s trust in God determines his approach to practical matters. He convinces Gardiner to cease working on the Sabbath day — a suggestion that not only proves spiritually refreshing to the men, but also renews them physically. His spiritual prudence results in a happier, more efficient workforce. 14

In some cases, Stimson’s advice becomes highly charged with symbolic significance. As he dispenses his tips on winter survival (some of which, Gates has noticed, are gleaned from Wilkes 15), the careful reader may detect a spiritual correlation in his words — a double meaning that suggests allegorical possibilities. 16 One example, in particular, stands out. When Roswell and his crew discover that they are bound to spend the winter on Sealer’s Land, Stimson immediately advises acting “as if we had the winter before us” (368). One of Stimson’s first priorities is establishing a regimen of icy baths for the entire crew, to “set everything into actyve movement inside, and bring out warmth from the heart, as it might be. That’s my principle of keeping warm, Captain Gar’ner” (369). Here Cooper not only seems to refer to the practical efficacy of Stimson’s solution, but also seems to hint at a parallel [4] between the physical cleaning, bracing, and conditioning of bodies for cold winter, and the spiritual state — preparing the soul, as it were, to face its cold, wintery night. Given the widespread Victorian interest in healthy bodies as repositories of both physical and spiritual well-being, Cooper’s connection here seems not only possible, but likely. 17 Stimson’s other ideas — weaning the men from the fire, making them sleep under fewer clothes, and stocking them with good hot food and drink — aim not only at preserving fuel, but also at keeping warmth among the men (375-76, 384). It is this imagery of warmth that constantly surrounds Stimson: he administers jolts of scalding hot, life-giving coffee (446-47, etc.); he rekindles the fire in Daggett’s cabin (423); he even speaks of keeping warm by reading the Bible (395). Stimson’s practical knowledge, coming from a man who is both the spokesman for Wilkes and for Christian orthodoxy, becomes charged with a spiritual nature. For him the secular and the spiritual seem to have little distinction. Stimson’s background near the Antarctic is more than just job experience that comes in handy. It is spiritual insight that comes from recognizing human limitations in the face of the overwhelming power of Providence.

Thus when Stimson tells Roswell, “Few get as far south as I have been, to pass a winter” (385), we see both sides. The proper man of God, Cooper seems to suggest, has a right sense of perspective on the world around him. Stimson always knows what to do. His knowledge is saving knowledge. He stands in contrast to Daggett, who discounts Stimson’s stories of the severe Antarctic winter, places his own interest first, and refuses to recognize human limitation. Daggett’s fire dies out; he loses his warmth. Even though Stimson rekindles the flame, Daggett’s fate is sealed. Stimson also stands in contrast to Parson Amen of Oak Openings, who, despite his fervent evangelism, loses sight of the truth. Cooper’s man of God, unlettered and unsophisticated as he is, has a grasp on the necessities of this world and the world to come.

Moreover, in Stimson we find a spiritual man. In one sense, Stimson seems to fill the vacancy left by Mary Pratt when Gardiner leaves shore. Both are fairly self-sufficient, having lost parents at young ages (as has Gardiner). Both press the same line of theological reasoning, too. But the manner in which Stimson expresses his faith has a moving power on Roswell that Mary cannot provide. His masculinity, in itself, serves as a recommendation for his belief. Roswell had come to expect piety in a woman; he even admires Mary for being pious (244). Clearly, though, Roswell’s condescending “admiration” reveals that he has little respect for feminine reasoning on religion. As Roswell, deep in the Antarctic winter, reflects on the scriptures Mary has marked for him, he still resists believing: “Credulous women might have their convictions on the truth of this history, but it was not necessary for men to be as easily duped” (403). Men, Cooper shows, are far less likely to embrace orthodoxy. Deacon Pratt does not understand why Mary could have any objection to marrying Roswell (97), and Roswell himself tells Mary that his reasoning makes more sense when he discusses it with his male friends (119). As the Rev. Mr. Whittle tells Gardiner, “The sea does not produce many orthodox divines” (80). Yet Stimson is one such man. Whereas the Rev. Mr. Whittle embraces Christianity at some expense to his manhood, Stimson is both a full believer and a full man. His superior performance in the execution of manly duties aboard ship, combined with his unapologetic embrace of religion, convince Roswell that he, too, like the rugged, simple apostles that Stimson emulates, can embrace Christianity with masculine assurance.

[5] We should not make the mistake, though, of viewing Stimson as an ideal character. Stimson, like Mary Pratt, has his limitations. He can claim little education: he knows “no more than the facts” about why polar regions are colder than the equator (385), and is stunned to find out that the moon has no water — what will they do for “seafaring folks” there (246)? Stimson also subscribes to the “popular American prejudice” against African-Americans, although he does treat all men, white or black, with human compassion (416-17). And, as most readers will readily observe, he lacks tact. Roswell occasionally finds himself smiling at Stimson’s eager interruptions (262-63), and I find myself wondering if Cooper himself was not annoyed by Stimson at times. So Stimson is not ideal. The closest we come to the ideal is after Roswell Gardiner’s conversion. Roswell becomes the complete Christian man — strong and knowledgeable, both in the ways of the world, and in the ways of the spirit. He is well-read and well-bred. Roswell is, in fact, very much like Cooper himself in 1819 — or, more accurately, as Cooper in 1849 fashioned himself in 1819. And if Stimson is like Ned Myers, we can say this: no matter how great Cooper’s admiration was for Ned, Ned would never be a gentleman. Whether or not that makes Cooper elitist is a matter for dispute. Cooper seems to be arguing for different levels of experience. Stimson himself suggests the same (385). 18 Both Stimson and Roswell are complete in their own ways. Roswell does not cast aside his learning after he converts, but he has human wisdom put into a proper perspective by Stimson’s simple, fervent reasoning.

And what about Stimson’s flimsy argument for the Trinity? From a certain point of view — Grossman’s in particular it looks like folly for Stimson to argue that Roswell, in the nineteenth century, should accept the Trinity because the apostles did back in the first. Stimson’s urging to “abandon reason for faith” (Grossman’s words) seems arrogant and contradictory to Grossman. Stimson presses his claim based on human nature — that is, that the apostles would not lie — while admitting at the same time that the doctrine goes against the “truth of nature, as we know it.” 19 Grossman even suggests that Cooper himself may have been enough of a contrarian to embrace this doctrine simply because it did not adhere to popular notions. Grossman is right in insisting that Stimson’s reasoning proves nothing; nor does the “dangerous” logic of Mary Pratt, who insists that Roswell ought to accept either all or none of Christian doctrine. It is unlikely that Cooper conquered too many Unitarians with this book. Still, from another point of view, Cooper’s reasoning makes sense, for all religions, even Emersonian transcendentalism, are founded partly upon the basis of trust. Trust is a necessary corollary of faith, an outgrowth of humans’ dependency upon each other. Thus it is that Stimson does not press an argument based on universals, but upon the truthfulness of humble men: “these apostles believed what you refuse” (405). Mary pleads with Roswell not just to accept some abstract theological concept of the Trinity, but the “creed of his fathers” (115).

Read in this light, the love plot and the unusual doppelganger plot intertwine intricately. The Roswell-Daggett relationship becomes a parallel to the Roswell-Mary Pratt relationship, making Mary’s insistence on Roswell’s conversion seem less “unfair,” to use Grossman’s term. When Roswell enters into an agreement of trust with Daggett, he nearly loses his life because of his consort’s greedy, faithless [6] pride. Likewise, Cooper suggests that the spiritual co-dependency marriage demands is no trivial matter. 21

Read in this light, too, a strange passage from earlier in the book takes on a much clearer significance. In Chapter V, Jason Daggett is at Deacon Pratt’s house, looking over the charts left by his deceased kinsman — charts which, of course, have been expurgated of their valuable secrets by the Deacon. Roswell, who looks on, knows nothing of the deception. Daggett, obviously frustrated by the lack of information in the charts, complains:

“It is strange that so old a seafaring man should wear out a chart, and make no observations on it! ... All my charts are written over and marked off, just as if I meant to get out an edition for myself.” “Men differ in their tastes and habits,” answered Roswell Gardiner, carelessly. “Some navigators are forever finding rocks, and white water, and scribbling on their charts, or in the newspapers when they get back; but I never knew any good come of it. The men who make the charts are most to be trusted” (84)

Read in any other context, Roswell’s remark seems out of place. Why does he emphasize the trustworthiness of chart-makers? Yet if we see the charts here as evocations of the “chart” of Scripture, Roswell reveals the contradiction he is later to purge from his nature. If Roswell can place his life in the hands of mapmakers, surely, Cooper suggests, it is no big leap for him to place his soul — his eternal life — in the hands of apostles who had witnessed Christ’s ministry on earth. Stimson’s manly example shows him how it can be done.

So Stephen Stimson, annoying as he may seem, becomes essential to our understanding of Cooper’s religious thought in The Sea Lions. Whether or not Cooper was the “high Tory in politics” that Holden’s Dollar Magazine claimed, he was a “high churchman in religion,” (even the brother-in-law of an Episcopalian bishop). One issue that high churchmen in Cooper’s day were promoting, especially across the Atlantic in England, was that of Christian manliness, or what has come to be known as “muscular Christianity.” The novels of Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes are most often studied as the literary expressions of this movement, but Cooper may also deserve a look here. Cooper’s insistence on manliness as a moral and spiritual as well as a physical quality places him parallel to, if not within, some currents of this movement. Exactly how Cooper does fit in may not yet be clear, but The Sea Lions, much like The Crater and The Oak Openings, shows Cooper actively engaging such religious issues of his day. Since Parrington and Spiller in the 1920s and 30s, critics have taken Cooper’s social criticism as a topic worthy of serious consideration. But too often criticism of Cooper’s religious novels and characters has not moved far enough past the “successful/unsuccessful” line of aesthetic criticism, reacting against the way Cooper’s didacticism affects the artistry of his composition. Stimson is indeed preachy and perhaps not all that likeable. But likeable or not, he forms a crucial part of the intricate voyage of life Cooper contemplates in The Sea Lions.


1 Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 228-29.

2 George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967), 215.

3 “Holden’s Review,” Holden’s Dollar Magazine 3 (June 1849): 369.

4 James Fenimore Cooper, The Sea Lions (New York: W.A. Townsend, 1861).

5 Thomas Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1882), 259.

6 James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper ([New York]: William Sloane Associates, 1949), 234.

7 [Herman Melville], “Cooper’s New Novel,” Literary World 5 (April 1849): 370.

8 W.B. Gates, “Cooper’s The Sea Lions and Wilkes’ Narrative,” PMLA 45 (1950): 1069-75.

9 Gates 1071, 1074.

10 Philbrick 216-25.

11 Philbrick 240, 239.

12 James Gary Williams, James Fenimore Cooper and Christianity: A Study of the Religious Novels (Diss., Cornell University, 1973): 242-44.

13 Lounsbury 259.

14 It also provides Cooper with a convenient break from the mundane task of sealing. Many significant events in the middle of the story occur on Sabbaths: Daggett’s schooner is sighted on one Sunday, and Daggett recklessly slides off a cliff on another.

15 Gates 1074-75.

16 Such doubling should not surprise us when we recall Cooper’s interest in the doppelganger motif; The Sea Lions as a whole reveals his fascination with doubling.

17 See, for instance, Bruce Haley, The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

18 As does Norman Vance in The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 21: “[T]he gentleman or noble person, like the Victorian manly Christian, had to achieve virtue in the affairs of society and the state as well as in himself.”

19 Grossman 234-35.

20 As Cooper’s daughter Caroline became engaged to Henry F. Phinney during the time he was writing The Sea Lions, causing Cooper much “astonishment,” we can always entertain the possibility that the subject of marriage was occupying his mind quite a bit at the time. See James F. Beard, ed., Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 6 vols., 1960-68), V, 391-92.