The “keen-eyed critic of the ocean”: James Fenimore Cooper’s Invention of the Sea Novel

Luis Iglesias (University of Southern Mississippi)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2006 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 23, June 2006, pp. 1-7.

Copyright © 2006, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In the introduction to The Red Rover (1828), James Fenimore Cooper’s second sea novel, Cooper imagined the novel’s ideal reader as a “keen-eyed critic of the ocean.” For Cooper, his new novel required a particularly attentive and experienced reader who would appreciate the tale’s accuracy in representing the maritime world and its fidelity to the “traits of a people who, from the nature of things, can never be much known.” 1 Cooper’s attention to audience, here and in the other introductions to his numerous works, reveals his recognition that his novels were addressing new audiences at the same time that he was consolidating an authorial identity. And yet, though he presented his novel in terms of its specialized readership, he was also attentive to the novel’s participation in a literary marketplace with an appetite for a wide variety of novelistic materials.

Cooper is almost always appreciated as a writer of the American frontier. But, considered more closely, even his accounts of the wilderness in the Leatherstocking novels are projected frequently in the terms of the sea. As Thomas Philbrick has noted in his influential study of Cooper’s sea fictions, during the first half of the 19 th century America’s economic manifest destiny lay toward the Atlantic. Cooper was not only a witness to American maritime ambitions but also he was an active participant. His careers before becoming an author included the merchant marine, naval service, and, at one time, part ownership of a whaling ship. I would suggest that as important as Cooper’s invention of Natty Bumppo is, his invention of the sea novel provides a broader consideration of the emergence of national narrative. Rather than looking west, toward the frontier that has dominated the cultural reading of American literary invention, these novels look east to nautical history in order to re-conceptualize national narratives within the fluid landscape of the Atlantic. The maritime setting gives Copper license to explore new strategies for presenting American materials, open to a world of languages, customs, and encounters distinct from the epic western expansion with which the Leatherstocking novels are so persistently identified.

I believe that Cooper’s sea novels expose the complicated work of defining the nation in terms of its relation to international exchange at the same time they embrace the particularities of American maritime culture. The sea novels literally and figuratively expose the bifurcated nationality that emerges as America consolidates itself internally in the act of nation building and multinationally as it extends itself throughout the Atlantic world. These novels make visible the formal and thematic tensions arising from the need to balance borrowed generic conventions and indigenous materials, national history and maritime detail, and national authorship and international reception.

Of course, Cooper did not create the sea novel out of whole cloth. The sea voyage narrative has an ancient and classical history. 2 In his study of British and American maritime fiction, John Peck argues that stories about the sea are intimately connected with the rise of the English novel. From its earliest emergence with Daniel Defoe, the English novel has reflected Britain’s military and commercial dominance of the seas. And yet, though maritime adventures figure importantly in novels by Defoe, Tobias Smollett, and, even, Jane Austen, the sea story is an episode in these novels, an adventure that allows the novel’s hero (or heroine) to get from one point in the story to another. Whether through scenes of a shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe, a voyage to the new world in Moll Flanders, or impressment into naval service in Roderick Random, these novels imagine the maritime world populated with landsmen (and women) who find themselves at sea. English sea fictions tend to view the sea from the perspective of the shore, concerned with the social implications of the maritime world on British society. 3 Even in Jane Austen’s domestic novels, the sea has a tangible though peripheral presence. For example, though shaped by their naval experiences, Admiral Croft and Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, seek social respectability in the world of the landed gentry. I would suggest that the English novel’s realization of the maritime world emerges from an unconscious security born of Britain’s naval supremacy.

Cooper’s invention of the sea novel reflects a different orientation to maritime experience. His novels present a nation shaped by its geographic and cultural position in an Atlantic world. In the shadow of British naval power but distinguished by its aptitude for shipbuilding, transatlantic transport, and mercantile entrepreneurship, America’s maritime culture arose in a commercial, not a military, context. The American sea novel reflects a distinctive attitude borne of commercial enterprise, confronting and ultimately superseding its Atlantic rival. In this historical context, it makes sense that Cooper’s first sea novel, The Pilot (1824). would take the privateer, John Paul Jones, as its historical figure. The privateer symbolizes not only America’s challenge to British naval power but also the nation’s aggressive commercial ambitions in the Atlantic world. Highly effective during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the privateer embodied the ideals of the citizen warrior who serves his nation when called and then returns to his life as a common sailor after the war. Of course, the possibility of reaping huge profits is a strong incentive, making patriotic service all the more appealing.

Cooper’s sea novels reveal the extent to which the history of the United States evolves from its political and commercial involvement in the Atlantic. Over his long and prolific career, Cooper wrote twelve sea novels representing the breadth of nationalist subjects-both his fictions and non-fiction writings, including the first authoritative History of the United States Navy (1839), tap into the whole span of American history from Columbus’ discovery of the New World in Mercedes of Castile (1840) up to contemporaneous events such as the Mexican-American War in Jack Tier (1848). My focus, however, is on Cooper’s first sea novel, The Pilot (1824) — the first among firsts.

Mining the same nationalist themes as The Spy, Cooper returned to the Revolutionary War for The Pilot’s historical setting. The novel opens as an unnamed American warship hovers off the northeastern coast of England under orders from Congress to give passage to a mysterious pilot, Mr. Gray (John Paul Jones incognito). Bringing “the evils of war, from our own shores, home to those who have caused it,” the Americans seek to capture British officers to use as hostages for the good treatment of American prisoners of war. 4 Two American officers, Lieutenants Edward Griffith and Richard Barnstable, along with Mr. Gray, will lead the raids. The novel’s adventure plot is compromised by the appearance of Griffith’s and Barnstable’s fiancées, Cecilia Howard and Katherine Plowden. Removed against their will to England, both Cecilia and Katherine are under the protection of Colonel Howard, an American Tory. Disobeying their orders, Griffith and Barnstable decide to effect their fiancées’ escape but are instead taken along with Mr. Gray. A convoluted sequence of escapes and apprehensions follow until Mr. Gray ultimately captures the entire Howard household. A series of sea battles and narrow escapes ensue. Colonel Howard is killed during the climactic sea chase and dies, but not before he reconciles himself to his ideological mistakes and blesses the union between the various lovers. The Americans return home and the novel closes with Mr. Gray’s solitary departure, sailing off in the opposite direction toward the European continent.

The origin of The Pilot is strikingly similar to the origin of Precaution (1820), Cooper’s first novel. Both works were conceived in terms of Cooper’s improving upon a British novel currently popular among American readers. Critics have called attention to the similarity in names between Cooper’s first sea novel, The Pilot, and its British counterpart, The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott, citing yet another example of Cooper’s self-conscious one-upmanship of a British import. 5 Careful attention to Cooper’s retelling of events, however, suggests a more subtle self-presentation. According to Cooper, while discussing the possible identity of the recent novel published by “the author of Waverley,” his friend, Charles Wilkes “distrusted” claims of Scott’s authorship. 6 Wilkes cited the novel’s skillful representing of maritime setting and its accuracy in nautical expressions to argue that “the poet of past centuries,” “the legal man” Scott could not have “drawn maritime life so correctly.” 7 In response, Cooper argued it was precisely Scott’s lack of expertise and nautical experience that proves his authorship of the novel. For Cooper, only a landsman like Scott could have written a novel so technically inadequate. Boasting that he could “show what [could] be done ... by a sailor,” Cooper decided to use his own maritime experience to write a sea novel, one that would “present truer pictures of the ocean and ships than any that are to be found in the Pirate.” 8 And yet, in titling the novel The Pilot, Cooper was calling explicit attention to Scott’s commercially successful novel. While Cooper’s novel would be a corrective to Scott’s amateurish attempt at nautical fiction, it would benefit from its literary association, particularly as it would circulate among the same Anglo-American readers. Moreover, whereas critics have tended to read Cooper in a cultural determinist light as American in character, he sees himself contributing to English literature, underscoring his keen sense of the transatlantic literary marketplace in which his novels circulated.

Readers’ expectations for The Pilot were high and it quickly became Cooper’s most internationally successful work. The novel’s dramatic rendering of the American warship’s narrow escape from “The Devil’s-Grip” excited readers and critics on both sides of the Atlantic (57). The United States Literary Gazette heralded the novel’s “graphic pictures of the beauty or terrors of inanimate nature.” 9 The New-York Mirror reprinted a British reviewer who declared that he heard “the roar of the waves — the splash of the oars — the hoarse language of the seamen.” 10 And, though The North American Review was critical of the novel’s “hairbreadth escapes” and its “vivid display of extreme physical suffering,” the review finds the novel’s descriptions “inspire the reader with intense interest and anxiety; while, at the same time, his imagination is filled with a succession of grand and vividly drawn images.” 11

Nineteenth century reviewers praised Cooper’s commitment to the materiality of the maritime world. However, in the wake of Mark Twain’s indictment of Cooper’s literary offenses, twentieth century critics have taken a different tack. For instance, Thomas Philbrick’s study of Cooper’s sea novels focuses primarily on their romantic and mythic elements. Consequently, his analysis moves immediately to Cooper’s second nautical novel, The Red Rover, insisting that it is Cooper’s “purest” example of the nautical romance genre. 12 Philbrick’s interpretation underscores the sea novel’s portrayal of the Byronic hero and the sea adventure as a journey of self-discovery where the gallant sailor faces the elements and overcomes adversity. As John Peck notes, “the American maritime novel focuses more on isolated individuals, heroes on the edge of a new frontier.” 13 In other words, critics see Cooper’s sea novels imagining the nautical world in terms analogous to the forest/frontier world of the Leatherstocking novels.

But in fact, Cooper frequently imagined the western frontier in maritime terms. His epic description of the prairies as “not unlike the ocean, when its restless waters are heaving heavily, after the agitation and fury of the tempest have begun to lessen,” reveals not only Cooper’s conceptual framework but also his appreciation of the environment in terms of the dynamic seas. 14 Finding it “unnecessary to warn the practiced reader” of the “sameness of the surface landscape” between the western prairies and the Atlantic, Cooper used oceanic metaphors cognizant of a readership more familiar with a maritime world than a frontier experience. 15 In the last two Leatherstocking novels — The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841) — inland seas figure predominantly in the frontier landscape. Indicative of Cooper’s marketing acumen, he sought a higher than usual advance for his fourth Leatherstocking novel, The Pathfinder, “a nautico-lake-savage romance,” because its setting on and around Lake Ontario gave the reading public a sea novel and frontier novel in one. 16 I do not wish to underplay the romanticism in Cooper’s sea tales. However, I think Philbrick underestimates Cooper’s invention in these novels. I believe that Cooper’s fidelity to representing the maritime world shows a commitment to geographic and linguistic realism overlooked by critics who position Cooper at the head of American romanticism. Cooper’s accurate representation of nautical technology, customs, and language reveals a novelistic enterprise dedicated to a faithful rendering of the conditions of the seafaring world, making the genre visible at the same time that he found a new way to define the nation.

As Cooper strove to make this new genre visible, he continually sought a balance between national content representing patriotic history and the particularity of seafaring culture. The opening sequence of the novel vividly captured this new attention to maritime experience. Imperiled by a storm and caught in dangerous shoals, the pilot, Mr. Gray, skillfully navigates the warship in order to avoid running aground. Against the “hoarse cry of ‘all hands, up anchor, ahoy!’,” the “piercing shrillness” of the wind, and the “bellowing through every cranny of the ship,” Mr. Gray’s consummate seamanship impose order in the face of imminent danger. 17 Throughout the novel’s nautical scenes, Mr. Gray’s maritime expertise sanctions his command. Giving his instructions “with a precision that showed him to be master of his profession” (55), and. “proving himself a faithful pilot,” his skill in extricating the ship from looming disaster legitimates him among men who recognize competence as the marker of personal value (59).

Like Gray, Cooper also derived his authority as the author of sea fiction through his command of maritime language and the accuracy of the scenes’ details. Distinguishing his novel from other seafaring narratives, Cooper was acutely faithful to both the descriptions of nautical maneuvers and the vernacular expression of seafaring men. As a result, skill and language play a part in legitimating both Mr. Gray among the crew and Cooper among his readers.

And yet, within the novel, Mr. Gray’s identity remains a mystery. Only Captain Munson, the commanding officer of the expedition, knows that the pilot is John Paul Jones, whose complicated participation in the Revolutionary War becomes the backdrop for the novel’s presentation of patriotic material.

The Pilot’s characterization of Mr. Gray exposes Cooper’s ambivalence over Jones’ checkered history. In the novel, Cooper worked hard to recast the mercenary reality of Jones’ adventures into credible national narrative. Earlier, Cooper addressed the nation’s less than reputable naval origins in his review of Clark’s Naval History (1820) for The Literary and Scientific Repository and Critical Review. Correcting Clark’s portrayal of American nautical history, Cooper began by reminding the reader that the fledging United States, without a navy, recruited privateers to disrupt British naval activity in the Atlantic. Essentially pirates with an official government endorsement, a Letter of Marque, privateers were not only effective in disrupting the British supply lines, but also in capturing ships that were later added to the growing American fleet. 18 Recognizing their use as a “necessary evil,” Cooper was nevertheless ambivalent, exonerating the American privateer as “more creditable than those engaged in it, and, in proportion to their numbers, marked with fewer scenes of corruption, than that of any other nation” (emphasis mine). 19

In the novel, the piratical nature of Mr. Gray’s maritime exploits overshadows the novel’s nationalist plot. Though commissioned by the Continental Congress, Mr. Gray carries a “parchment, decorated with ribbands and bearing a massive seal” and the signature of the French king (82). A sign that “Royalty itself does not hesitate to bear witness in [Mr. Gray’s] favor,” in fact, what he presents is the French Letter of Marque authorizing his attack on British ships and the seizure of their cargo (82). He is a British national who fights for the American cause under the Letter of Marque of France. What emerges is an individual who is loyal chiefly to his personal ideals and ambitions. He claims a global, not a national identity — “I was born on this orb, and I claim to be a citizen of it” (151). Mr. Gray is an extra-national character, whose relation to the nation can only be tactical.

In the end, Cooper cannot endorse Mr. Gray’s position and must set him adrift in the channels between England and Europe. In the new nation, there seems to be no room for a figure that embodies the nation’s revolutionary and nautical ideals. For Cooper, the maritime history The Pilot faithfully invests in proves inherently problematic, exposing the predatory origins of the nation’s privateer navy. Mr. Gray’s story illustrates the tension between patriotic idealism and a faithful accounting of seafaring in a world defined by self-interest, making visible the conflicted history of American maritime nationalism. Lacking the assurance of The Spy, The Pilot brings to light the forces that drove the nation’s first naval heroes and the contradictions that surface are never adequately resolved. In casting John Paul Jones as the novel’s historical figure, Cooper unsettles the larger narrative of the American Revolution. Unlike Washington, whose gentlemanly stature shields him from critique in The Spy, Jones is an ambiguous patriot. And, though Washington will father a nation, neither Jones nor his literary incarnation, Mr. Gray, can return to the nation he has helped to bring into being.

The version of American history The Pilot projects, particularly through its recovery of John Paul Jones, becomes a more complicated history than the one that emerges from the invocation of George Washington in The Spy or the mythic determinism of the Leatherstocking novels. In his desire to produce a novel that a seaman would read with “satisfaction” and experience “the whole matter as fact,” Cooper reconstructed a distinct world that was both national and that extends beyond the boundaries of the nation. As Mr. Gray reminds his fellow crewmember, “It is but little moment where a man is born, or how he speaks ... so that he does his duty bravely, and in good faith” (32). One’s duty and faith is to the ship and crew. But, that ship is also one’s nation-a nation untethered to geography and in constant movement. The sea novels make an appeal beyond the boundaries of the nation, revealing the dual process of consolidating the nation.

Appreciated mainly for their doctrine of maritime nationalism, Cooper’s sea novels’ attention to American seafaring culture, critics argue, confirmed Cooper’s commitment to American exceptionalism. I believe that Cooper’s sea novels provide a broader conception of American literary nationalism and authorship conceived in terms of the transatlantic world, grasping the cultural tensions between America and Britain still driven by the unresolved conflicts after 1812. At the same time, in the wake of the Algerian War of 1815, these novels reflect the nation’s growing commercial presence in the Atlantic fueled by British investment and international trade agreements. As a result, Cooper’s sea novels are a transitional development not only in his career as he secures his position as an international writer but also in the development of the American novel as they inspired the next generation of authors.

Directly influenced by Cooper, Henry Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) privileges the common, the routine, and the local through the voice of the sailor, giving expression to American nautical experience within a global context. Profiting from Cooper’s international acclaim, Dana’s realistic account inspired both American and European writers alike. Melville acknowledged his debt to Cooper on numerous occasions, as did Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad later in the century. 21 In fact, by the mid-century, British critics lamented that though Britain had dominated the seas, American writers dominated its literature. As the inventor of the genre, Cooper’s conception of the sea novel defined maritime fiction for an international readership.

But, at the same time, in their attention to American seafaring culture, these novels begin the work of defining the nation through the particular. I would suggest that another line emerges from the sea novels, not from their content but from their method. Cooper’s fidelity to the distinctiveness of the maritime world is culturally specific in a way that foreshadows later, regionalist writers. Catherine Maria Sedgwick, whose novel Hope Leslie has great affinity to Cooper’s frontier tales, wrote novels that captured the regional and distinct history of New England. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Pearl of Orr Island captures the daily lives, customs, and beliefs of the maritime community of Brunswick, Maine. The regional analysis these novels present owes much to the model of historical and cultural detail Cooper’s sea novels embrace. Attentive to the lives and practices of a particular segment of American society, Cooper’s sea novels appreciate a maritime world that constitutes a national life at the same time that their specificity provide a glimpse into the diversity of American cultural identity. Seeking to address the problem of national narrative, the sea novels provided Cooper with the conceptual frame to imagine the American novel in terms of the fluid space of the Atlantic world. At the same time, they provide a transitional conception of national narrative, one aware of the multinational interconnections that forged a mercantile nation.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea [1824] (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986) 3. All subsequent quotes are from this edition of the novel.

2 See Robert Foulke, The Sea Voyage Narrative (New York: Routledge, 2002) for a detailed survey of the genre from classical antiquity to the twentieth century.

3 John Peck, Maritime Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917 (Houndsmills, England: Palgrave 2001) 89.

4 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986) 73.

5 See Robert W. Neeser, “Cooper’s Sea Tales,” Proceedings of the New York Historical Association vol. XVI (Cooperstown, NY: NY State Historical Society, 1917) 63-8.

6 . Ibid 5.

7 See Susan Fenimore Cooper, “Introduction, The Pilot,” James Fenimore Cooper: Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper [1861] (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1980) 82.

8 . Ibid 6. Also see Susan Fenimore Cooper’s introduction to The Pilot in Pages and Pictures 82-89.

9 Anonymous, “Review: The Pilot,” The United States Literary Review 1.1 (April 1, 1824) 6.

10 From the Edinburgh Scotsman, “Cooper, the Novelist,” The New-York Mirror; a Weekly Gazette of Literature and the Fine Arts 2.19 (December 4, 1824) 151.

11 Anonymous, “Review: The Pilot, a Tale of the Sea,” The North American Review XI.III (April 1824) 314.

12 . Ibid 54.

13 John Peck, Maritime Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917 (Houndmills, England: Palgrave, 2001) 89.

14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie: A Tale [1827] (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1985) 13. Citing Cooper’s vivid descriptions of the prairies’ “vast and undifferentiated locale,” Thomas Philbrick suggest that The Prairie is “a sea novel in disguise” (18). Thomas Philbrick, “Cooper and the Literary Discovery of the Sea,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (Cooperstown, NY: State University College of New York, 1989) 12-20.

15 Ibid 14.

16 Letter to Richard Bentley, 18 June 1839, Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, James F. Beard, ed., (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961-68) vol. III, 393.

17 According to Harold D. Langley, Cooper’s sailors “are people who know their business” (359). In fact, contrary to historical records, Cooper peopled his ships with senior sailors whose experience distinguishes them among the crew and whose skills take precedence over senior officers. However, Seaman’s Protection Certificates issued throughout the period suggest that most sailors were in their mid-twenties. While Langley is unsure why Cooper employed older sailors out of keeping with his novels otherwise historical accuracy, I would like to suggest that Cooper’s recurring use of aged sailors underscored not only his respect for nautical experience but also his concern over a passing generation of sailors and officers whose stories were being lost. See Harold D. Langley, “Images of the Sailor in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper,” The American Neptune 57.4 (Fall 1997) 359-370.

18 See James C. Bradford, “The Navies of the American Revolution” Readings in American Naval Heritage, ed. by Department of History, United States Naval Academy (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Custom Publishers, 1999) 15-28.

19 Ibid 3.

20 In the wake of The Pilot’s commercial success and international reception, British and French writers embraced maritime fiction. According to Margaret Cohen, throughout the 1830’s writers on both sides of the Atlantic followed Cooper’s lead and the form remained popular throughout the nineteenth century among writers of popular fictions as well as those of higher ambitions. See Margaret Cohen, “Traveling Genres,” New Literary History 34.3 (2003) 481-499.