The Red Rover and Looking at the Nautical Machine for Naturalist Tendencies

James Davis II (Georgia State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 1 (General Topics) of the 2008 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2008, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 25, May 2008, pp. 10-13.

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

American industrial society certainly developed in a number of ways. Ships, in particular, were floating cabinets of wonders, floating factories, offices, and hotels; they were commercial machines delivering and even procuring products. The nautical machine consequently prefigures and abets American colonization — the men and women who came to America aboard sailing vessels came aboard these regimented, hyper-organized systems. Not only the operations of the nautical mechanisms themselves-the many masts, many specialized sails and riggings for these sails, specialized linkages to the rudder and anchor, compass, clock, sextant, etc.-but also the hierarchy of order itself, the nautical chain of command, can all be analyzed as machine-like. This system’s unyielding hierarchy privileges captains with absolute authority over others, who themselves have limited upward mobility and no legal means of escaping their contracts as they operate the lines and pulleys of their complex nautical machine. Like other sea-fictions, The Red Rover shows how a hierarchy that firmly separates the officers on the quarterdeck from those who sail “before the mast.” This complex nautical device — the sailing ship — and the technological systems that manage it organize even the earliest American social structures and prepare her for the mechanized order, specifically ways of organizing labor, which follows.

Though often romanticized, sailing ships are a technological medium that fascinated and inspired American novelists from their earliest fictions. As the embodiment of a technology of mobility, exploration, escape, and manufacturing, sailing provided one of several mediums in which American writers explored the literal and figurative mechanical issues of their times. The irony, of course, is that by the late nineteenth century with the advent of steam, Americans began to look at this technology as a nostalgic remnant of a supposedly simpler past. Beholden to the sea and the nautical machine, the plot of The Red Rover is a complicated one. Cooper begins this heavily plotted sea fiction in October of 1759 with rumors in Newport of an alleged slave ship anchored offshore. It is, however, the Dolphin, commanded by the infamous pirate known as the Red Rover. The novel thus opens with a series of disguises and false expectations that introduce the major characters and establish conflicts surprisingly reminiscent of Cooper’s novel, The Spy.

The Rover and Wilder, a British naval officer, Harry Ark, in disguise as the Rover’s supposed agent aboard a commercial vessel named The Royal Caroline, soon engage each other at sea in a nautical contest. In this captain’s duel, Harry Wilder, an adept seaman in his own right, is awestruck by the nautical abilities of the Rover:

He understood each inclination made by the bows of his ship, his mind kept even pace with her windings and turnings in all her trackless wanderings, and he had little need to consult any of the accessories of his art to tell him what course to steer, or in what manner to guide the movements of the nice machine he governed. Still he was unable to explain the extraordinary evolutions of the stranger. (217, italics mine)

This passage explores Wilder’s abilities as a captain and details his growing appreciation and apprehension of the Rover’s spectacular seamanship. Cooper specifically uses the word “machine” to describe the ship which Wilder “governed.” Here he indicates Wilder’s awe rather than his reason; Cooper creates a captain heralded for such mastery that he supposedly need not consult the instruments — the technologies — lesser men would be bound by in operating it. Yet even Wilder cannot explain the Rover’s “extraordinary” nautical prowess. These two men, issuing apropos orders to their men when the timing and wind mandate alterations of navigational plans, demonstrate that technical skills and absolute command are imperative to their successes and their survival. Cooper also insinuates here that although a gifted captain may be perceived as transcending obeisance to the machine, his men must truckle to it. In this fiction, Cooper clearly establishes the nautical machine and consistently shows its power over all men, including this pair of captains supposedly unbent by its power. In reality, captains, in particular, needed technical expertise and methodic systems of leadership to ensure a successful sailing voyage, while seamen were subservient to the machine (and often received low wages for the privilege).

These merchant ships, the pirate ships that preyed upon them, and the navies who wished to protect their nation’s commerce, like early whalers, sealers, and even steamboats, were nonetheless transportative technologies, hierarchal mechanized systems. In this case, like most others, the commercial aspects of the machine and its corresponding mechanized order lay at the forefront of the plot. In The Red Rover, the financial connections are quite overt, and the conflict in the novel derives from the contest between pirates, their commercial prey, and the ships commissioned to protect them from these piracies.

James Fenimore Cooper offers an interesting case-study to investigate the nautical machine. In addition to his novels about frontiers and backwoods, he wrote several sea fictions that defined this Romantic subgenre. Cooper’s seminal fictions, from his Leatherstocking frontier fictions to his spy fiction, notably highlight nineteenth-century America’s fascinations with open spaces, including the sea. While the popular America imagination best remembers Cooper for the Leatherstocking romances, it remains that few are aware that with his precise nautical knowledge and understating of the sea, he firmly established the genre of nautical fiction and challenged future American sea novelists in particular to match his verisimilitude.

Decades rich with nautical fictions and maritime nationalism have been virtually lost to discussions of America, in part because of her land-lust, defined in the mid 1840s as Manifest Destiny. Most commentators perceive this era chiefly in terms of themes of civil unrest and conquest that concern the land, not the sea. Readers most often look to the sea and sea fiction for its iconic visions of freedom rather than for portrayals of the restraints and humanization of mechanization. Interestingly, a close reading of this text shows the impositions of the nautical machines on such romantic dreams.

During a prolific period of almost thirty years, Cooper wrote at least eleven sea fictions and three naval nonfictions. In these efforts he cautiously depicts the intricacies of sea life and the interchangeable parts of the nautical machine with great care. As a man who spent some of his early and delinquent years, 1806-1811, in the merchant marines and as a midshipman with the Navy, Cooper possessed real experiences and expertise to painstakingly enrich his fiction. Technical details that he learned during his five years as a sailor and employed in his fictions distinguish his writings from a long list of American nautical authors. In addition to its specificity, The Red Rover showcases Cooper’s portrayal of American energies and anxieties during the periods when commercial and military seafaring were seen as profitable, heroic, and imaginative enterprises. With The Red Rover in particular Cooper shifts the classic adventure narrative from its focus on a series of fragmented events needing a ship to move from port to port, fictive or real, to a piratical novel centered on and unified by seafaring itself and the technicalities of life at sea.

It is fairly well known among early American literature scholars that Cooper wrote The Pilot in response to Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate. John Peck argues, for example, in his book Maritime Fiction that Cooper was “irritated that Scott seemed to know nothing about the sea” (Peck 90). Cooper’s second sea fiction, The Red Rover, attempts to further remedy Scott’s omissions and errors with intricate technical details.

The novel was indeed Cooper’s continued effort to further prove that he was no armchair sailor. The Red Rover consequently contains an impressive integration of nautical and technological terms. Cooper certainly did not have to be a pirate to understand these technical specifics. First off, the novel incorporates the following nautical terms, appropriate equally to the merchant marines, the Royal Navy, and piracy, that pertain to nineteenth-century navigation: “position,” “navigation,” “pilot[ing],” “[dead] reckoning,” “sun,” “moon,” “stars,” “current,’ and the earth as a “satellite” of the sun. All of these ideas are divorced from what one may call nature poetry because they effect navigation and are used through the agency of a technological machine - the compass, the sextant, the clock, the printed chart, and other measuring devices. The “log” (book) becomes a source of discussion as well as the “compass,” the principal source of knowledge of direction for sailors, and the “chart,” the nautical maps of the water. Cooper also mentions “glasses,” telescopes used to observe other ships and various “machines” that represent aggressive or defensive weapons. Cooper himself acknowledges his work of technical innovations in his “Preface” to the 1827 edition:

The Writer felt it necessary, on a former occasion, to state, that, in sketching his marine life, he did not deem himself obliged to adhere, closely, to the chronological order of nautical improvements. It is believed that no very great violation of dates will be found in the following pages. If any keen-eyed critic of the ocean, however, should happen to detect a rope rove through the wrong leading-block, or a term spelt in such a manner as to destroy its true sound, he is admonished of the duty of ascribing the circumstances, in charity, to any thing but ignorance on the part of a brother. It must be remembered that there is an undue proportion of landsmen employed in the mechanical as well as the more spiritual part of book-making; a fact which, in itself, accounts for the numberless imperfections that still embarrass the respective departments of the occupation.[ ... ] The true Augustan age of literature can never exist until works shall be as accurate, in their typography, as a “log-book.” (5)

Note how he blames the “mechanical” aspect of publishing for the human errors that may have obscured his own cautious technological specificity.

Cooper vaunts his own nautical prowess and the accuracy of his portrayal of sea-faring. Many of the terms he includes relate to outfitting the ships, the science of navigation, and the nature of commands that captains utter. He weaves in sailing specifics that could prove difficult for many of his contemporary readers who had never set foot aboard a boat. While some terms such as “bow,” “fore,” “keel,” “stern,” “aft,” “abaft,” “port,” “starboard,” “leeward,’ and “taffrail” were not difficult nautical jargon, they needed some explanation to landlubbers. With such typical pedantry, Cooper in fact parodies the landlubber’s ignorance, when an Admiral’s widow claims with utmost certainty that a ship underway has “its taffrail ploughing the main” (61). The taffrail is, however, the ship’s stern railing. The Rover finds this particularly comic and makes references throughout, laughing at her “backward knowledge.”

Specific references to types of ships perhaps would have been even more complex for Cooper’s reading audience who were unfamiliar with the sea; he mentions the following ship types: “sloop,” “frigate,” “schooner,” “yawl,” “skiff,” and “ketch.” During the Rover’s interview with Mrs. Wyllys, for example, he calls his merchant target, the Royal Caroline, a “brig” and his own vessel, the Dolphin, a “schooner,” terms of difference with great importance in setting up a contest at sea (130). Later in the novel, the naval vessel, the Dart, is referenced throughout as a British “cruiser” and a passing merchant vessel is identified as a “coaster” (432). Such identifications prove crucial for the captains, who need to quickly assess the size, speed, purpose, firepower, and, if possible, the allegiance of the ships with which they come into contact.

The nautical complexity is furthered revealed in the orders or comments of the adversary captains about specific sails, including the “topsails,” “jib,” “mainsail,” “after-sail,” “square-sails,” “stay-sails,” “studding sails,” “head-sails,” and the masts themselves, such as the “top-gallant mast.” The sails themselves are the “canvas” or “sheets” that need to be “furled” for security. The sailors, furthermore, use language rich with nautical metaphors. With such jargon, Cooper may risk bewildering the common reader, but he proves that he has bettered the verisimilitude of Sir Walter Scott’s popular piratical romance once again with his second sea fiction.

Cooper cautiously depicts the intricacies of sea life in this nautical romance and coincidently creates a novel that shows the prevalence of order via the nautical machine. In particular, this view of Cooper’s novel shows how the men — what many would expect as lawless and insubordinate pirates — aboard the Red Rover’s ships are governed by overlapping means; from piracy to nautical technologies to the nautical machine, the men face constraints, rules, regimentation, and order.

For many readers, life at sea symbolized a spiritual or heroic quest to subdue nature and perhaps a place for young men to find themselves. The standard view, however, is that Cooper’s frontier and sea novels show how Americans were captivated by continental expansionism. But as an example of the desire to see new places, build new technologies, and gain new understandings, The Red Rover shows readers how experiences outside of their provincial lives could force them to reconsider the world in which they were beginning to feel a larger part. While many adventurous Americans were beginning to head for the allegedly free and open West rather than take to sea, Cooper’s The Red Rover implies that in order to master the rapidly changing world, one needs technical experience and an understanding of mechanized systems-hallmarks of the new industrial age.

With the nautical machine and its intricacies introduced, I wish to further explore the following question: Does Cooper’s nautical machine challenge individualism and freedom? In this text, the piratical code rules unquestionably. Pirates’ main goals, after all, were to board and take control of another ship. In some cases, they commandeered the craft itself and in others secured the contents aboard as their own.

In The Red Rover, Cooper uses the pressures of this nautical machine to also explore piracy. He embraces some of the valid nuances of the profession: pirates were often poor ex-merchant men or ex-Royal Naval sailors or ex-privateers, “professional seafarers” who were well versed in the “technical expressions [ ... ] nearly incomprehensible to a landsman” (Cordingly 10). Wisely utilizing historical and contemporary fear and paradoxical excitement for the unknown life at sea, especially piracy, and integrating the technical intricacies and hierarchical structures that readers would expect to define this treacherous world, Cooper exploits his readers’ anxieties about how individual choice can suffer under overarching and systematic pressures. Cooper manipulates the plot to show how pirates “directly challenged the ways of the society from which they excepted themselves” (Rediker 255) yet worked together systematically and somewhat democratically for a common goal under a chosen leader.

The Rover, for example, details the men from various countries now unified aboard his ship at length, even those who “logic to mistake [ ... ] the Dolphin for a church” (Cooper 355). Such passages show how Cooper successfully and simultaneously illustrates the irony of fidelity to a life as a pirate, exposing how he establishes a nautical machine in which this motley assortment of crew members can be unified by one common goal and one common leader. In this novel, Cooper certainly establishes the assortment of pirates and sailors, who ashore would be marginalized by both American and British societies; yet as cogs in the nautical machine he offers them a collective purpose much more than he offers hopes for individualized freedom.

With such abilities to unify his crew, the Rover faces little threat of mutiny. The men respect him, and he abides by the piratical code. The Rover methodically controls his crew, even during trying times of impending violence. According to pirate traditions, they have chosen him as their leader and now submit to his commands, at least until they see that he is not longer fit to satisfy their needs. As a result, the Rover must show unyielding leadership and find economic successes while politically keeping his crew, his workers, under his methodic and absolute control. The readers, however, are consistently reminded that this hierarchy aboard the Dolphin, one that rests on respect and order rather than race or class, is placed under greater stress without successful piracies.

Cooper proves that the Rover’s rule is absolute. Piracy, overtaking and commandeering another craft is a technical contest, yet the Rover boards only one ship in this novel, the British Dart. In this conflict, Cooper shows how a community of misfits aboard a sailing ship can follow an agreed-upon system of labor. The violent world to which they have ascribed, has its own regulating force. Unlike other sea fictions, in which the captains often rule via brutish and physical control, the Rover’s commands mostly derive from his intelligence and psychological control of others.

Harry Wilder, on the other hand, as spy has very little external autonomy despite his internal struggles. He faces mutiny aboard the Royal Caroline and likewise suffers abandonment by this crew. Wilder remains loyal to the British Navy, country, its people, and their economy in his efforts to upend the renowned Red Rover. Moreover, as the Rover’s agent, he is loyal to the Rover’s commands. And as good citizen, he upholds his aforementioned commitments to Gertrude and the Governess Mrs. Wyllys, who shipped aboard the ill-fated Caroline. Very little of Wilder’s actions seem to be his own; instead, his thoughts reveal an internal struggle to decipher what duty he should prioritize. His dilemma consequently is more ongoing, and as an intelligent and capable individual, his abuse — like the Rover’s power — is psychological.

Exposed to the powers of the nautical machine, Wilder’s romanticized ideals of sea-life falter in this novel, in particular his romantic idealism. As his individualism wanes like the other sailors, Wilder’s romantic visions of good and evil become blurred by his experiences with the Rover and his recognition that in order for a nautical machine to function properly there must be order, even if that order means the threat of violence.

The most overt challenge to Wilder’s initial idealism is his growing admiration for the villain whom he has sworn to upend. In The Red Rover, Cooper firmly establishes the villainous hero, the seafarer that readers wish not to like but cannot resist, the oxymoronic patriotic pirate, the paradoxical villain/hero. This new character type, a persona that continues to complicate American sea fiction and later emerges infamously in cinema, differs from the typical romantic hero for whom Cooper is best known. Here Cooper creates a new type of leader, one who embraces a new form of moral ambiguity. In the process, he not only argues that piracy has its own codes and unique social hierarchy, but he also creates a rather critical allegorical mechanized world with industrial workers.

Cooper creates a novel in which these layered conflicts relate directly to the setting itself. The nautical world and, in particular, the focus on piracy allow for exaggerated hazards. The men with the most mechanical proficiency-those capable of running the nautical machine-have the most respect and receive the most attention. This novel clearly shows their abilities to create order amidst an expected world of natural and manmade disorder-a sea fiction rich with not only piracy but also espionage. I argue that this order further proves the powers of the nautical machine to persevere in the most extreme circumstances when men suffer great duress.

To conclude, Cooper’s The Red Rover offers a novel rich with precise technical language and well-defined power struggles aboard sailing vessels. His nautical fiction introduces American authors’ attempts to detail the nautical machine and its deleterious effects on man. In simple terms, if the Red Rover is a bad guy throughout the majority of the novel, then the nautical machine, in his most adept hands, gives him a powerful hold over others, especially if Wilder is a good guy. This novel uses such fictional discourse to show how America’s earliest transportative technology and its mechanized systems foreshadow the potential ills of industrial America that became a reality.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Red Rover, A Tale. 1827. Ed. Thomas and Marianne Philbrick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
  • Cordingly, David, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among Pirates. New York: Random House, 1995.
  • Peck, John, Maritime Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719-1917. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
  • Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.