James Fenimore Cooper and the Myth of the Citizen Soldier/Sailor

James J. Schramer (Youngstown State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2002 Conference of the American Literature Association in May 2002, Long Beach, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 17, September, 2002, pp. 6-14.

Copyright © 2002, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

One of the enduring narratives of American democracy is what I refer to as myth of the Cincinnatus. The basic elements of the myth are familiar to all of us. Happily engaged in the pursuits of peace, the citizen-soldier or sailor is called by the nation to relinquish some civil liberties in the defense of Liberty. Reluctantly but loyally, the citizen-patriot answers the call. But this is only half of the story. The Cincinnatus narrative demands a return to normalcy. When the war or conflict that necessitated the citizen-soldier’s call to arms has ended, he or she is expected to return to the tranquility of domestic life. As the experience of America’s wars and warriors has taught us, this return to domestic tranquility is sometimes far from smooth. Despite these disturbing intrusions of discomforting facts, we reaffirm the mythology of the American Cincinnatus in times of national crisis. In this paper, which is part of a much longer study of the Cincinnatus figure in American fiction, I would like to explore what James Fenimore Cooper — himself a citizen patriot who reluctantly resigned a naval commission to pursue domestic felicity — has to say about this essential American myth.

Myths are useful ways of dealing with troubling realities. In his study of the relationships between ideology and literature in Jacksonian America, Robert Clark offers a useful analysis of the process whereby an uncomfortable reality is displaced by a comforting mythology. According to Clark, the happy and self-sufficient yeoman symbolized the prevailing ideology of Jacksonian democracy. Viewing the Jacksonian yeoman as a predecessor of R. W. B. Lewis’s American Adam, Clark argues that the conflict between civilization and wilderness characterizing so much of American literature is resolved when the reality of an expansionist America is displaced by the Adamic myth:

[I]n the place of agents of the state (soldiers, cartographers, land speculators, bankers, canal builders) it [the Adamic myth] puts an individual who almost succeeds in living the morally regenerate life which the ideology offers as the justification and goal of the conquest. This individual is in effect the signifier of values that were originally signified in the ideological sign, but these values have now been severed from the bearer to which they were initially attached and are serving to generate a narrative whose relation to real conditions is even more distant than that of the original ideology. (13)

Although the myth has become separated from its ideological origins, it continues to refer to them by “a kind of metonymy.” Clark schematizes this metonymy as follows: “Reality = Farmer; Ideology = Yeoman (allied with moral goodness); Mythology = Adamic Innocence” (15). Applying Clark’s schema to the myth of Cincinnatus, we derive the following equivalencies: Reality = Soldier; Ideology = Citizen-Patriot (republican virtue allied with disinterested self-sacrifice); Mythology = American Cincinnatus.

No friend of either Jacksonian democracy or simplistic patriotic pieties, Cooper essentially deconstructs this mythology by creating heroes who operate within a fictional neutral ground that offers no cover from the realities of war and revolution. As John McWilliams observes, Cooper’s characters “are fixed in precisely those as places where disruptive social forces, be they troops, frontiersmen, Indians, or the rabble, become a serious menace to the harmonious life” (8). In his four novels based on the American revolution (The Spy, The Pilot, Lionel Lincoln, and Wyandotté), Cooper creates a world in which tranquility is shattered, identities are masked, loyalties are questioned, and sign systems are undermined. Although Cooper believed that domesticity shaped and civilized a society, these four novels reveal his doubts about whether it can be established or maintained in the face of revolutionary upheavals. The only characters in these four novels on whom Cooper bestows domestic tranquility are either genteel heroes like Peyton Dunwoodie and Edward Griffith, who retire once peace is declared, or wavering heroes like Lionel Lincoln and Robert Willoughby, who retreat from America to Britain. [To keep this paper within the time and attention limits of a conference presentation, I will focus my remarks on The Spy and The Pilot.]

The Spy: Hearth and Home on the Neutral Ground

The Spy (1821) was Cooper’s second novel, and his first attempt at tackling the problem of representing the American Revolution to his countrymen. As J. E. Morpurgo observes in his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition (1968) of The Spy, Cooper struggled with the consequences of being “an heir to revolution.”

The heir to revolution lives most comfortably if he accepts without hesitation the historical grammar that is presented to him by his seniors. Once he questions their certainty — as did Cooper — he comes close to betraying their achievements” (x).

Although Morpurgo sensibly cautions us against reading into The Spy “the signs of [Cooper’s] eventual dissatisfaction with the development of his country“(xiii), those signs are present. In his introduction to the 1831 edition of The Spy, Cooper clearly invites his readers to see this novel as an exploration of the nature and cost of patriotism in its purest form.

There is purity in the real patriotism that elevates its subject above all the grosser motives of selfishness, which, in the nature of things, can never distinguish services to mere kindred and family. It has the beauty of self-elevation without the alloy of personal interest. (5)

In The Spy Cooper explores, the limits of the citizen-patriot’s self-sacrifice. Harvey Birch, a Yankee peddler who spies for General Washington, negotiates the deadly no-man’s land of the “neutral ground,” with no protection other than his knowledge of the landscape and the unspoken approval of the shadowy Harper (Washington). Energetically pursued by Captain Jack Lawton, a stalwart Virginian of unlimited loyalty and limited imagination, Birch eludes capture by disguising both himself and his motives. But this shape shifting deprives Birch of his identity, and his selfless devotion to the revolution costs him hearth, home, and happiness.

The novel begins with the mysterious Harper (later revealed to be General Washington), stopping at Birch’s cottage to ask for lodging. Katy Haynes, Birch’s housekeeper, tells the stranger there is no one home but herself and the “old gentleman” (Harvey’s father). She advises him to go a half-mile up the road to the Wharton estate where he will find better hospitality.

I’m sure ‘twill be much convenienter to them and more agreeable to me; because, as I said before, Harvey is away — I wish he’d take advice and leave off his wandering; he’s well to do in the world, by this time; and ought to leave off his uncertain courses, and settle himself, handsomely, in life, like other men of his years and property. But Harvey Birch will have his own way, and die vagabond after all! (13)

Katy prophetically forecasts Birch’s fate. In the course of this “tale of the neutral ground,” Birch loses his father, his home, and his good name. He dies a vagabond after all. Birch suffers the fate of a hero who becomes separated from communal bonds. To succeed as a spy, he is forced to deny the claims of locality and to disguise his identity.

Unlike the Whartons, whose land symbolizes their position in the community, Birch’s profession marks him as one outside the circle of community. Because his peddling masks his activities as a spy, he must disguise his movements and his motives. Deprived of visible signs of social respectability, Birch is an easy target for the suspicions of his neighbors. His social isolation makes him vulnerable to predation. After the Skinners — renegades who loot and burn, in the name of revolutionary ardor — sack his house, steal the gold he has cached beneath a hearth stone, and hasten the death of his ailing father, Harvey becomes further separated from his surroundings. When a speculator offers to purchase his deed for less than it is worth, Harvey resists at first but then gives in. Like the wandering Jew, he is dispossessed. As he tells Katy, “all places are now alike, and all faces equally strange“(174).

Harvey scarcely finishes his lament when the Skinners return, demanding more money and threatening to bring him to the gallows. Katy offers them the money Harvey had given her after the sale of his property if they will set him free. When the Skinners take her money but refuse to release Harvey, Katy cries out “there is law in the land, I will be righted!” The gang’s leader scornfully reminds her that “The law of the neutral ground is the law of the strongest” (176). As the Skinners leave, they set fire to the house. The next morning all that remains of the Birch homestead is a blackened chimney.

Despite the desolation in the preceding scenes, some critics insist that what happens to Harvey Birch has had the salutary effect of freeing him from the snares of social and familial responsibility. Kay Seymour House sees Birch as an alienated hero, who preserves his individuality by detaching himself from society. House claims that “what to Katy Haynes is vagabondage, is to Harvey freedom; and here, long before Conrad or Faulkner, woman is conformity’s lure and a threat to a man’s ‘own way” (209). According to Harry B. Henderson, Birch is an archetypal renegade “striving for self- definition in a fictive world in which the self can scarcely be conceived to exist outside of a stable social matrix“(52). James D. Wallace argues that Birch must lose everything in preparation for assuming his final identity as the “perfect patriot“(103). Appealing though they may be, with their echoes of D. H. Lawrence’s pronouncements on the stoic isolation of the American hero and their hints of Puritan spiritual preparation, such arguments ignore the significance that Cooper attached to social Stability.

Although Katy Haynes’ concern for Harvey is certainly motivated by her own desire for security, her opinions on marriage and respectability should not be so readily dismissed. In The Spy and his other novels about the Revolution, Cooper’s female characters voice his own misgivings about the socially disruptive energies unleashed by war and revolution. Although many of Cooper’s “females,” are one-dimensional, from their talk and their reactions to the scenes they passively witness, we gain a view of war denied the combatants. It is in the drawing room of the Wharton estate rather than on the battlefield that the characters in The Spy reflect on the human cost of what Cooper recognized as a civil war.

Like the locusts trees from which their estate derives its name, the Whartons are imports. Mr. Wharton has tried to transplant the values of English society into a county that distrusts Tory ways. Moreover, his family has divided loyalties. His son, Henry, is a captain in the Royal Army. Sarah, his oldest daughter, having fallen in love with a British colonel, champions the Loyalist cause. While his youngest daughter, Frances, ardently supports the rebels. The wavering paterfamilias, Mr. Wharton, seeks a middle way. “I have near friends in both armies,” he tells Harper, .and I dread a victory by either, as a source of certain private misfortunes“(21). As Wharton learns, one cannot steer a middle course in the no-man’s land of the “Neutral Ground.”

The Locusts provides no retreat from the forces of history. War darkens the margins of the once tranquil landscape. Formerly productive land lies barren and deserted. Most of the Wharton estate is unoccupied.

A few scattering dwellings were to be seen in different parts of his domain, but they were fast falling to decay, and were untenanted. The proximity of the country to the contending armies had nearly banished the pursuits of agriculture from the land. It was useless for the husbandman to devote his time, and the labour of his hands, to obtain overflowing garners, that the first foraging party would empty. (119-20)

Like the lines from Gray, Goldsmith, and Crabbe he places in his chapter headings, Cooper’s description of the neutral ground constitutes an elegy upon a deserted landscape. Cooper believes in the civilizing and nurturing function of the pastoral middle ground. However, as John McWilliams notes, “in novel after novel, Cooper shows us that the exigencies of the neutral ground prevent its ready transformation into his pastoral ideal” (McWilliams 10).

The realities of warfare on the neutral ground not only prevent the realization of a pastoral ideal, they also deny the idealization of heroism. Because it is borderless and undefined, the neutral ground is empty space. What occurs here has little significance. As McWilliams points out, the ground changes hands so often that no one claims it. “Any acts of heroism that transpire within it thus become historically meaningless, however crucial to the individual characters“(53). In heroic epics, the commonplace is transformed; the prosaic is poeticized. The neutral ground in The Spy is unpoeticized space. It is a pastoral landscape bereft of pastoral symbols, a vacant space within which human action, heroic or unheroic, is valueless.

Harvey Birch can never take credit for any of his actions because to do so would entail revealing his true intentions and destroying his value as a spy. Toward the end of the war, as Washington prepares to move his army south to engage Cornwallis, he meets Birch and offers him money for his services. When Birch refuses the gold — “not a dollar of your gold will I touch; poor America has need of it all!” (383), Washington rewards him with words. Writing out a testament to Birch’s and speaking, as one critic puts it, “with a mouthful eagle feathers” (House 214), Washington pronounces his final benediction over the humble hero.

That Providence destines this country to some great and glorious fate I must believe, while I witness the patriotism that pervades the bosom of her lowest citizens. It must be dreadful to a mind like yours to descend into the grave, branded as a foe of liberty; but you already know the lives that would be sacrificed, should your real character be revealed. It is impossible to do you justice now, but I fearlessly entrust you with this certificate; should we never meet again, it may be serviceable to your children. (385)

The suggestion that he can return to domestic life now that his neighbors believe him to be a British agent stirs Birch to reply “Children! ... can I give to a family the infamy of my name?’ (385). Three decades after this interview, still alone, still unknown, Birch is killed while serving as a private soldier at the battle of Lundy’s Lane during the War of 1812. Clutched in the dead man’s hand is a tin box containing his sole reward — Washington’s testament to his loyalty: “Harvey Birch has for years been an unrequited servant of his country. Though man does not, may God reward him for his conduct!“(392)

Although he shows us Washington pontificating on the selfless patriotism that animates even the lowest of the republic’s citizens, Cooper does not fully endorse Harvey Birch as an American Cincinnatus. For all his plebeian virtue, Birch is not aristocratic enough for this role. He is not even that Jacksonian aristocrat — the sturdy yeoman. Although he and his father own a small plot of land, Birch makes his living as an itinerant tradesman, as a peddler. Birch remains a hero without a home. Before his redemption at Lundy’s Lane he has lost everything that even resembles a home. His patriotism costs him more than the comforts of home; it also costs him his good name. As he reminds Washington, he has no need of heirs for he has nothing to bequeath; his only legacy is infamy.

The Pilot: Steering a Wayward Course for Home

In The Pilot (1823), Cooper questions not only the price of patriotism but also its motivation. Mr. Gray, the pilot of the novel’s title, is a thinly disguised portrait of John Paul Jones. Unlike Harvey Birch, Jones is not a self-effacing hero. “If Harvey Birch’s patriotism is proven by his anonymity and silence,” notes one critic, “Jones’s patriotism is discredited by rhetoric and a desire for notoriety” (McWilliams 70). Jones is motivated as much by his desire for glory as he is by devotion to America’s cause. He and the other characters in The Pilot, writes James Franklin Beard, are “trapped in a maze of conflicts between irreconcilable public an private purposes“(91).

These conflicts between private desire and public duty are dramatized in the outcomes of the three romances that form the plot. Lieutenants Edward Griffith, Richard Barnstable, and a mysterious pilot, who calls himself Mr. Gray, are part of an American naval force whose mission to the coast of England is to take prisoners to be used in exchanges with the British government. When Barnstable and Griffith learn that the target of the raid will be the manor in which their respective wives to be, Katherine Plowden and Cecilia Howard, are being kept under congenial house arrest by Cecilia’s uncle, Colonel Howard, they see a chance to serve both their hearts and their country. Unknown to Gray, his former fiancée, Alice Dunscombe, is a houseguest at the manor.

Cooper’s portrays these three women as if they were figures in a triptych depicting American and British attitudes toward revolution and rebellion. Like Frances Wharton in The Spy, Katherine is a charming and saucy little rebel. Less spirited than Katherine, Cecilia wants the revolution to succeed but adopts a conciliatory tone in the presence of her Loyalist uncle. Although she avoids Colonel Howard’s inflammatory rhetoric on the subject, Alice thinks rebellion violates familial and societal bonds.

Many there are, who sever the dearest ties of this life, by madly rushing into its sinful vortex, for I fain think the heart grows hard with the sight of human calamity, and becomes callous to the miseries its owner inflicts; especially where he acts the wrongs of our own kith an kin, regardless who or how many that are dear to us suffer by our evil deeds. (114)

The conflict between Alice Dunscombe and her commitment to the sanctity of home and homeland, and John Gray’s insistence that he operates in a realm unrestricted by geography or the claims of the heart gives the novel’s plot its dramatic tension.

In their first meeting in St. Ruth’s abbey, Alice and John quickly get into a debate over the morality of the rebellion. When Alice accuses him of turning against his homeland and his king, John spurns her arguments, claiming that he owes allegiance to no sovereign.

I was born a citizen of this orb, and I claim to be a citizen of it. A man with a soul, not to be limited by the arbitrary boundaries of tyrants and hirelings, but one who has the right as well as the inclination to grapple with oppression, in whose name soever it is exercised, or in whatever hollow and specious shape it founds its claim to abuse our race. (151)

Alice replies that his “new and disorganizing systems of rule, or rather misrule” ignore the geography of the heart. “It is the heart which tells us where our home is, and how to love it” (151). John accuses her of talking “like a weak and prejudice woman ... who would shackle nations with the ties that bind the young and feeble of your own sex together” (151). Alice replies that nations can be united by no higher or holier ties.

Are not the relations of domestic life of God’s establishing, and have not nations grown from families, as branches spread from the stem, till the tree overshadows the land! ‘Tis an ancient and sacred tie that binds man to his nation, neither can it be severed without infamy. (151).

In this first confrontation between Alice and John, Cooper sets up the themes that he wants to explore in this novel. The most apparent of these is the disparity between public deeds and private desires. John Paul Jones may be motivated by intense devotion to the Revolution, but he is also driven by his desire for glory. He refuses to listen to Alice because she sees the passion beneath his patriotism. Jones may dismiss Alice, but Cooper does not. As he did in The Spy, Cooper uses a female character to give voice to his misgivings about the Revolution and its heroes. Alice stands for the stable values of domesticity; Jones represents revolutionary anarchy.

This conflict between domesticity and anarchy is in turn related to a subtler theme: the tension between male and female visions of society. H. Daniel Peck sees the opposing forces in The Pilot not in the geopolitical terms of America versus Britain, but in psychosexual terms, as male energy versus female passivity. in “A Repossession of America,” Peck argues that the sea and nautical life represent “masculine energy”; whereas “Land, and particularly architectural structures, suggest order, tradition, and civilization — values which in Cooper’s imagination are feminine” (591). Noting that St. Ruth’s abbey is “womb-like, warm, protective, and luxurious,” Peck locates “the spatial and moral tension” of this novel in the assault led by agents of the masculine world of the sea against a feminine enclosure of civilized space” (592). Like so many other enclosed spaces in Cooper’s fiction, it proves unable to withstand the inevitable assault.

After the Americans take Colonel Howard prisoner, and are removing the ladies to their ship, Cecilia looks back on the abbey for the last time.

The dark and rugged outline of the edifice was clearly delineated against the northern sky, while the open windows and neglected doors, permitted a view of the solitude within. Twenty tapers were shedding their useless light in the empty apartments, as if in mockery of the deserted walls. (348)

Like the skeletal chimney memorializing Harvey Birch’s homestead or the smoking ruins of the Wharton’s estate, the deserted abbey symbolizes yet another retreat from the forces of history that has failed. This stronghold of feminine and domestic values cannot withstand the socially disruptive forces of war.

As for the masculine forces of the sea, all the Americans have to show for their luckless adventure is an aging Tory captive and his two female wards. Only Barnstable and Griffith have won what they sought. Gray loses both his chance for glory and the promise of any future happiness with Alice, who refuses to accompany her companions into what for her would be exile. Before they part, John tells Alice that she will have to decide whether their separation will be forever. Alice replies, “Let it be then forever, John” (361). Trying to put the best face on her rejection, John suggests her decision “may have been determined by prudence — for what is there in my fate that would tempt a woman to wish that she might share it!” (361) Blinded by his pride, John fails to see that his boastful assertion of a warrior’s identity is among the reasons Alice has rejected him. As she explains, “You have gained a name John, among the warriors of the age ... and it is a name that may be said to be written in blood” (361). He stridently replies that it is “The blood of my enemies, Alice! The blood of the slaves of despotism! ... the blood of the enemies of freedom!” (362)

When she points out that it is also the blood of his countrymen, he tries to minimize her arguments by accusing her of blindly holding onto the attachments of youth. In response, she asserts her rights to a mature female identity: “I have lived and thought only as a woman ... and when it shall be necessary for me to live otherwise, I should wish to die” (362). His response equates femaleness with slavery, and maleness with freedom. “Ay, there lie the first seeds of slavery! A dependent woman is sure to make the mother of craven and abject wretches, who dishonor the name of man!” (362) Alice spurns his argument, rejecting motherhood. “I shall never be the mother of children good or bad. Singly and unsupported have I lived; alone and unlamented must I be carried to my grave” (362). In this exchange, Alice voices Cooper’s doubts about the ease with which domestic and social harmony can be restored in the aftermath of a revolution. A man like John Paul Jones who has found a new identity in the chaos of war and has redefined himself as a servant not so much of a nation but of a cause can never accept the anonymity of peace. He needs the revolution as much as it needs him.

Obsessed with leaving his mark on history, John rejects Alice’s assertion that man’s true locus is within the domestic circle of home and family. He insists upon an autonomous, anarchical self-unfettered by any contending claims of place or patriarchy. Identifying his claim to selfhood with that of the emerging nation, he proudly tells Alice that American “can form a world of itself” (364). When she asks whether men can “be born in such a land, and not know the feeling of that binds a human being to the place of his birth” (364), John rejects both her world and her words.

Forever harping on that word, home! ... Is a man a stick or a stone, that he must be cast into the fire, or buried in a wall, wherever his fate may have doomed him to appear on the earth? (364)

In response to this outburst of male egotism, Alice reasserts the primacy of her language and her vision. To Alice, home is vital.

It is the dearest of all terms to every woman, John, for it embraces the dearest of all ties! If your dames of America are ignorant of its charms, all the favors God has lavished on their land will avail their happiness but little. (364)

There can be no compromise. Alice refuses to surrender her vision of domestic harmony; John refuses to accept an image that to him signifies slavery. Although he lays claim to an American identity, John is really a citizen of the world. He has no place that he can truly call home. If he accepts Alice’s definition of home, he denies the cause with which he has allied himself; yet, in rejecting Alice’s world, he condemns himself to wandering.

The antithesis of Jones and his restless wandering is Edward Griffith. In Cecilia Howard, Griffith finds a wife who complements his breeding and sentiments. She and Griffith become the caretakers in this novel: they arrange for the Colonel’s body to be buried in Holland; they care for the widowed mother of Boltrope, the ship’s master who dies from wounds received in the battle with the British warship. True to the myth of the American Cincinnatus, Griffith serves in the navy only until the end of the war, “when he withdrew from the ocean and devoted the remainder of his life to the conjoint duties of a husband and a good citizen” (424). Some twelve years after his fateful cruise into British waters, when he reads a newspaper account of Gray’s (Jones’) death, Griffith delivers a eulogy on the enigmatic pilot.

His devotion to America proceeded from desire of distinction, his ruling passion, and perhaps a little from resentment at some injustice he claimed to have suffered at the hands of his own countrymen. ... Neither did he at all merit the obloquy he received from his enemies. His love of liberty may be more questionable; for if he commenced his deeds in the cause of these free states, they terminated in the service of a despot!(165).

With its tangled knot of qualifiers, Griffith’s eulogy only adds to the ambiguities in Cooper’s portrait of an American hero. Jones fights for freedom, but he also fights for personal reasons. He acts bravely and decisively but also rashly. He proudly claims to be a citizen of everywhere but he is a hero who belongs nowhere. He begins his naval career opposing one despot (George III), only to end that career serving another (Catherine the Great of Russia). Unlike Griffith, who is Cooper’s middle-of-the road hero, Jones is a study in excess. Griffith resolves the conflicts between public and private duties that Jones cannot resolve. Unlike Jones, he serves the Revolution for principled rather than personal reasons. Mitigating Jones’ self-aggrandizing anarchism, Griffith emerges as the real hero (at least for Cooper) of this historical romance.

Works Cited

  • Beard, James Franklin, “Cooper and the Revolutionary Mythos.” Early American Literature 11 (1976): 84-104.
  • Clark, Robert, History, Ideology, and Myth in American Fiction, 1823-1852. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pilot; A Tale of the Sea. 1824. Ed. Kay Seymour House. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.
  • ------, The Spy; A Tale of the Neutral Ground. 1821. Ed. J. E. Murpurgo. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Henderson, Harry B. III, Versions of the Past: The Historical Novel in American Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • House, Kay Seymour, Cooper’s Americans. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1966.
  • McWilliams, John P. Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972.
  • Peck, H. Daniel, “A Repossession of America: The Revolution in Cooper’s Trilogy of Nautical Romances.” Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976): 589-605.
  • Wallace, James D., Early Cooper and His Audience. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.