Ship of State: American Identity and Maritime Nationalism in the Sea Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper

Ronald John Clohessy (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2007 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 24, August 2007, pp. 3-8.

Copyright © 2008, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

In his introduction to Nation and Narration, Homi K. Bhabha writes, that “nations, like narrative, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realize their horizons in the mind’s eye.” 1 In other words, in order to grasp what is meant by “the nation,” one must look beyond things like geography, population, language, and race and come to grips with the notion that it is something less tangible, less recognizable, and more ephemeral. A nation is, according to Ernest Renan, “a soul” or “spiritual principle” constructed from the past memory and present-day consent of groups who choose to live together. 2 It is this concept of a nation as a social construct and ever-changing appropriation of the past that seems to me to be one of the more striking features of the literature of the United States in the early decades of the Republic.

The focus of my paper today, which is part of a much longer study, will be an examination James Fenimore Cooper’s concern with this question of national identity. The theoretical framework for this reading will be centered on the relationship between what Thomas Philbrick has identified as Cooper’s “maritime nationalism” 3 and what I see as Cooper’s attempt to address this question of identity. Specifically, I will discuss how the relationship between these two ideas became part of an evolving construction of an “American character” and show how this construction was part of Cooper’s purpose in writing fiction.

Most often when the development of American sea fiction is discussed, it is Melville who comes to mind or perhaps Richard Henry Dana. The origins of American sea fiction, however, preceded, by many years, the work of these two writers. Growing out of the naval traditions and literature of England in the seventeenth century, the birth of American sea fiction can be traced back to the work of Philip Freneau in the late eighteenth century. Although Freneau’s work, in the British tradition, was composed mainly of short verse and sea ballads, his extended verse piece, “The Prison Ship,” published in 1781, was the first American work to offer a narrative treatment of naval events. 4 In prose, Royal Tyler’s, The Algerine Captive (1797), provides rich and technically accurate descriptions of the ships and nautical life that form the background of his picaresque novel. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there began to appear, again following in the footsteps of British practice, a number of plays dealing with nautical incidents, or having a nautical setting. It was, however, in 1823, with the publication of Cooper’s The Pilot that we can identify the American sea novel as we now know it.

As a result of the popularity of the Leatherstocking novels, and to a lesser extent his Revolutionary works, Cooper has long been associated with upper New York State. His rich and detailed descriptions of the regions where the stories are set have been compared with the techniques used by the artists of the nineteenth century art movement, the Hudson River School. Like those artists, Cooper attempted to emphasize not only the region’s geographical and economic importance, but also its role in the political and cultural development of America. This last point, in particular, is seen in Cooper’s efforts to distinguish the cultural and political beliefs of the area’s inhabitants from those of their New England neighbors. For Cooper, upper New York State was a landscape upon which a new national identity could possibly be drawn.

Although Cooper loved and was fascinated with his boyhood home of Cooperstown and later, as a writer, explored the role the frontier played in development of a national identity he always believed that America could only be defined, and understood, by its relationship to the sea. He was, as Philbrick notes, one of the leading proponents of the spirit of “maritime nationalism” that was prevalent in the country during the first half of the nineteenth century. 5 Despite the popularity of the idea of an American nation that encompassed the whole of North America, particularly in the early years of the nineteenth century, the success of the American Navy during the War of 1812 and the subsequent explosive growth of the merchant service made the nation’s maritime industry synonymous with the national identity in the years leading up to the Civil War. This was the mood of the country during most of Cooper’s lifetime and he became early on, and forever remained, involved and interested in the nation’s naval affairs. 6

The Pilot, Cooper’s fourth novel, published in 1823, was written in response to another popular, but in Cooper’s opinion inferior work — Walter Scott’s The Pirate, which Cooper found lacking in “understanding” and “sympathy” for its subject. It was, however, not just a desire to write a novel that did justice to “marine subjects” that motivated Cooper. He was also concerned with the fact that “the daring and useful services of a great portion of our marine in the old war [the Revolution] should be suffered to remain in the obscurity under which it is now buried” and hoped that this book would “excite some attention to this interesting portion of our history.” 7

America’s past was a primary topic of interest for Cooper in the first decade of his career. In his desire to promote this country’s “mental independence,” Cooper mined its history and brought it together with fiction to create a national literature that would depict the manners and customs particular to this country. The result was an examination by Cooper, of the various individuals and groups that played a role in the formation and development of the United States. The importance of these characters, and in the case of his sea fiction the sea itself, was that they provided the means for Cooper’s extended analysis of America in the early nineteenth century.

In attempting to create this national literature, Cooper was confronted by the fact that American society, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, lacked any sense of unity. We were divided along regional, political, economic, social, religious, and philosophical lines. As late as 1834, well after the publication of his historical novels and three of his Leatherstocking books, Cooper laments, in a preface to The Red Rover, that “America is a country nearly without tradition, the few there are being commonly to familiar to be worked up in fiction.” 8 But, by this time, Cooper had decided on his formula. In choosing to utilize history as his muse, Cooper was giving the country, in fiction, that which he felt it lacked in history. In three of the novels of this first decade (The Pilot (1824), The Red Rover (1827), and The Water Witch (1830)), Cooper uses history to promote the idea that America is essentially a maritime nation and destined to be “the first maritime nation of the earth.” 9

This attempt to create a national narrative represents not merely the desire by Cooper to achieve a “mental independence” for American letters, but also an attempt to ameliorate the factional nature of American society that he noted, and in its place create a myth of national community. It is this latter purpose that Bhabha’s idea of “the mind’s eye” resonates with most clearly in a discussion of the literature of this period. From its beginning, America has been marked, as Howard Mumford Jones notes, “with a strong sense of history and historic destiny.” 10 Thus, the desire on the part of many authors of the early national period to express a “national spirit” in American letters was realized in their appropriation of the past and a creation of an imagined national community. Far too often, however, that imagined community was at odds with political reality. As a result of this tension, the literary texts of this period become interesting not as historical representations of the time in which they were written, but as documents that testify to the power that cultural forces played in the shaping of these representations.

The creation of a shared history was not the only means by which Cooper attempted to create a coherent national identity and promote his ideas of social unity. One of the national divisions Cooper addressed was between the old political order of an aristocracy of merit, represented by John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, and a new order composed of members of the common classes championed by Andrew Jackson. Despite his Federalist upbringing, Cooper was initially attracted to the notion of Jacksonian democracy. For as he writes in The American Democrat, ” [t]he principal advantage of a democracy, is a general elevation in the character of the people. ... As a consequence, the average of society is much more respectable than under any other form of government.” 11 This notion found its way into his fiction in an area for which Cooper merits the highest praise: his development of “common” characters. In his sea fiction, Cooper gave the common sailor a dimension that was lacking in the work of his predecessors. While comic common characters remain scattered throughout Cooper’s work, the development of characters such as Long Tom Coffin, Scipio Africanus, and Dick Fid, from the early sea novels represented a marked departure in the literary treatment of the common mass.

These early novels raise a number of other issues that would have had resonance with the American public. Among the causes of the War of 1812 were the seizure of cargo on American vessels, the raiding on the American coast, and the interdiction of trade with America by other countries. While these issues had been, mostly, resolved by the 1820’s they still carried a nationalist appeal. In both Notions of the Americans (1828) and his review of Thomas Clark’s Naval History of the United States (1820), Cooper champions the cause of maritime commerce as the path to national greatness and the need for a strong navy to protect those interests.

The central theme of The Water Witch is the Dutch chafing against the trade regulations of the English in early eighteenth century New York. When Cooper outlines the smuggler, Seadrift’s complaints against the English trade laws, “Would the rulers of the world once remove the shackles they impose on commerce, our calling [smuggling] would disappear,” 12 or the merchant, Van Beverout’s claims that the loosening of restrictions on commerce increases the lot of all men, 13 he is endorsing a central premise of maritime nationalism. In The Red Rover, Heidegger’s piracy is motivated, in part, by a hatred of the English. In order to navigate the potential difficulties of having the English stand for legitimate authority, however, Cooper invests Heidegger with a nascent desire for American independence. Thus, Heidegger’s claim that “had that flag [of an independent America] been abroad ... no man would have ever heard the name of the Red Rover” 14 ties the issue of “piracy” directly to the cause of independence and again highlights the relationship between maritime activities and national identity.

With the publication of Homeward Bound in 1838, there is a marked shift in Cooper’s emphasis on issues of identity. In this novel, as well as in Afloat and Ashore (1844) and Miles Wallingford (1844), Cooper’s assessment of American democracy begins to change and with it the shape and tone of his nautical fiction. As Cooper matured politically, a darker view of American democracy began to emerge in his work. Although his portrayal of Mr. Gray, in The Pilot, and Captain Heidegger, call into question the motives of some individuals involved in the revolutionary cause, it is not until Cooper’s return from Europe and a series of battles with New York newspaper editors over harsh reviews of his work in the 1830’s that he begins to fully explore the negative aspects of democratic government.

In Homeward Bound, the sea is a catalyst that accelerates social interaction. 15 Unlike Charles Adams, who finds landscape functioning as a mere backdrop against which the action is set, 16 I find Cooper using the sea to enable the action or set it in a very specific social context. The “wild and fickle[d] element” in The Red Rover also has the capacity to create social order. 17 Social interaction that would take weeks on land can occur in just “one hour of the free intercourse of a ship.” 18 This is part of Cooper’s stated intent in Homeward Bound. Just as Wilder and Heidegger find identity through their struggle with the sea, the “set of characters with different peculiarities” in this later novel find community and social balance via a struggle with the elements.

Unlike the earlier sea novels, in this story, as well as in Afloat and Ashore and Miles Wallingford, identity is no longer an individual concern, but a communal idea; how is America defined? Life at sea does not permit complete autonomy as the working of a ship, or a nation, requires the mutual dependence of its crew on one another for its safety and security. If life aboard ship is a microcosm of society, 19 then the structure of Homeward Bound may reveal Cooper’s mature political preferences: a shift from a Jacksonian sense of democracy found in the early novels to a more Jeffersonian notion of an aristocracy of merit. The gentry, Edward and John Effingham represent a cultural and political ideal in both their education and social position. Even the Montauk’s master, Captain Truck, a model of Cooper’s gentleman sailors, acknowledges as much when he turns to Edward Effingham for advice in naval matters. This is in marked contrast to the way he treats Steadfast Dodge — the novel’s American Everyman. Dodge’s constant demands for majority rule in the running of the ship, and his underlying cowardice, are seen as threats to the safety of the ship and highlight ever more clearly the abilities of the gentry — as seen in the nautical skills of the two “gentleman sailors, Blunt and Sharp — to provide for a community’s safety and happiness.

Cooper continues this social criticism in the double novel Afloat and Ashore and Miles Wallingford. Miles Wallingford is a member of the landed gentry of up-state New York who finds meaning and value in his life only after a long and tumultuous career at sea. For Miles, America of the 1840’s was at a turning point where institutions of the past, while not perfect, where being cast aside in favor of a notion of equality that failed to recognize any idea of community.

It was back then to the sea that America should turn to seek her fortune and, with his return from Europe, Cooper began to reveal a distrust of republicanism, in practice, that was most often expressed in his sea fiction. In these later novels, he expanded his analysis of the darker side of the revolutionary character and suggested that this country’s promise is in the hands of the gentry. Cooper’s sea fiction — most of it written in this later period — frequently reflects this change. In the earlier sea novels we find personal, as well as national, identity often reflected in the common sailors. When we turn to the later novels, however, nautical expertise has passed into the hands of the gentry. Republican characters, none of whom are sailors, are now viewed as disruptive to the natural order and pose a threat to American democracy.

While social criticism remains an important element of all the post-1838 sea fiction, I find that Cooper’s last four sea novels (The Two Admirals (1842), The Wing and Wing (1842), Jack Tier (1846), and The Sea Lions (1849), but particularly The Wing and Wing and The Sea Lions differ significantly enough in structure and tone from Homeward Bound or the Wallingford books to constitute yet another category: novels of meta-criticism, or reflection. In these novels, Cooper’s quarrelsome tendency is somewhat muted. It is not that he gives up social commentary, but that its focus has shifted from society as a reflection of human activity, and the mediocrity he identified in American life and political institutions, to what Philbrick has identified as a concern with the way the universe is a “material expression of God’s purpose” 21 and that man’s failure to understand this poses the greatest danger to any nation.

In The Wing and Wing and The Sea Lions, examining the role of Providence and man’s self-absorbed disregard of the role it plays in national greatness are Cooper’s stated intent in both introductions. In The Wing and Wing, France’s greatest error was “the letting loose ... from all the venerations and healthful restraints of the church” which set the nation “afloat on the sea of speculation and conceit.” 21 The implication here is that the “excesses” of the French Revolution laid the groundwork for that country’s military defeat during the Napoleonic Wars and the political turmoil that it suffered in the first half of the nineteenth century. In The Sea Lions, the message is more directly tied to the American cultural scene. This novel sets conflicting national traits, Yankee avarice and their boldness at sea, at loggerheads. A discussion of man’s failure to appreciate the “physical marvels of the universe” 22 and thus be lured into underestimating “our own insignificance, as compared with the majesty of God” 23 is set in contrast to the polar explorers of the time who recognized that their destinies were dependent on a Providence that “does not suffer the sparrow to fall unheeded.” 24 Roswell Gardiner, a New England ship captain, learns this lesson while “wintering over” in the Antarctic sea. During a voyage motivated initially by the promise of profit, the difficulties he encounters force Gardiner to rethink his relationship with God as well as his place in the universe.

The metaphysical examinations of institutions, government, and American society that characterize Cooper’s later sea fiction are more than a mere reflection of his renewed religious faith. As Robert Spiller has noted, “it would be a mistake to find in this action any material change of heart” concerning his political beliefs. 25 Cooper remained an ardent social critic even in these last novels. The difference, however, is that, unlike his earlier novels of social criticism, these later works do not just criticize, but offer solutions. And again it is the sea to which Cooper turns to find a redemptive model. In these last novels, seaman such as Raoul Yvard and Roswell Gardiner demonstrated that to be a utilitarian did not mean that one had to forsake a belief in “the grace and elegance of life” 26 or that of the divine order of things in which men play a small part. As seamen, both these characters understood the need for the practical action the management of a ship requires. But both also recognize that, at sea, they are vulnerable to the wash of something greater than themselves. In confronting the dangers of a life at sea, the major characters in these later novels come to understand what Trysail, in The Water Witch, means when he says, “I have often thought, sir, that the ocean was like a human life, — a blind track for all that is ahead, and none of the clearest as respects that which has been passed over.” 27

If any one theme dominates my examination of Cooper’s maritime fiction it is the belief that it is more closely tied to the social and political issues of his day than many contemporary critics have acknowledged. In some ways, this study, like much of Cooper’s fiction, is a return to the past. My analysis is indebted, as I have indicated, to the work of Thomas Philbrick and Kay House. Philbrick’s study was the first to fully examine Cooper’s development of the sea novel as a literary form and raise the issue of maritime nationalism in his work and House’s book remains the most detailed analysis of the widest range of Cooper’s characters. 28 Both scholars, however, limit their discussion of his fiction to its place in the development of the American novel. What I have begun to do in this study is examine the intersection between Cooper’s fiction and the political and social issues at the time it was written. Specifically, I have engaged in the examination of the social criticism in his maritime fiction and how Cooper used that particular genre to articulate a vision for a national identity. What I have found is a richness in his work that unfortunately has been overlooked for far too long. From the early maritime histories, through the novels of social criticism in his middle period, to the meta-critical and religiously focused novels of his final years, Cooper’s sea fiction demonstrates not only his growth as a novelist, but also as an observer of the national scene. His move from the romanticism of his early works to the realistic approach to the material and moralistic tone of his later fiction indicate a continuous self-examination and search for a means of literary expression most suitable to the rapidly developing and changing society to which he was a witness.

Warren S. Walker, in his introduction to Cooper’s The Sea Lions, writes, “If James Fenimore Cooper had written nothing but his eleven tales of the sea, he still would have been a major figure in American literature, for with these works he shaped a special genre.” 29 Both Melville and Conrad credit Cooper with being the father of the genre and acknowledge their indebtedness to him. Cooper viewed the sea as a distinct region with a culture of its own and in the people who made their livelihood from it he placed his hopes for this country’s future. In Notions of the Americans, Cooper defines America as a sea-faring nation. Even more strongly than in his land novels, Cooper’s sea novels establish a distinctly American identity. In them he creates a range of characters, both real and fictional, that include representatives from all social classes and who are portrayed with a veracity that is unequaled in his other work. Using these characters, Cooper attempted to answer the questions, “What is an American and what makes him different from other men?” The relationship I see between Cooper’s maritime characters and his concept of America is Cooper’s attempt to answer Crevecoeur’s still relevant question.


1 Homi K. Bhabha, Ed. Nation and Narration (New York: Routledge, 1990) 1.

2 Ibid, 19.

3 Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961) 45.

4 Ibid, 30.

5 Ibid, 42 and 46.

6 James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969) 20.

7 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pilot (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986) 4.

8 James Fenimore Cooper, “1834 Preface,” The Red Rover (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991) 7.

9 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Traveling Bachelor (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991) 24.

10 Howard Mumford Jones, The Theory of American Literature (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966) 23.

11 James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969) 70.

12 James Fenimore Cooper, The Water Witch (New York: The Co-Operative Publication Society, 1936) 303.

13 Ibid, 307.

14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Red Rover (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991) 302.

15 James Fenimore Cooper, Homeward Bound (New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1937) 42.

16 Charles Adams, “Cooper’s Sea Fiction and The Red Rover.” Studies in American Fiction 6.2 (Autumn 1988): 155.

17 James Fenimore Cooper, The Red Rover (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991) 157. Wilder remarks to Gertrude and Mrs. Wilder that at sea, he finds “law where others see chaos.”

18 James Fenimore Cooper, The Red Rover (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991) 613.

19 Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961) 148.

20 Ibid, 209.

21 James Fenimore Cooper, The Wing and Wing (New York: The Co-Operative Publication Society, 1936) 5.

22 Ibid, 5.

23 Ibid, 6.

24 Ibid, 6.

25 Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper, A Critic of His Times (New York: Minton, Balch, & Company, 1931) lvii.

26 Ibid, lvii.

27 James Fenimore Cooper, The Water Witch (New York: The Co-Operative Publication Society, 1936) 262.

28 Kay Seymour House, Cooper’s Americans (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1965.)

29 Warren S. Walker, “Introduction,” The Sea Lions by James Fenimore Cooper (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965) 10.