Disarticulating the Nation: Reading Displacement in Cooper’s The Pilot

Cynthia Schoolar Williams (Tufts University)

Presented at the No. 1 Cooper Panel of the 2011 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 28, May, 2011.

Copyright © 2011, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Recently great progress has been made in treating the advanced case of hydrophasia that Margaret Cohen has diagnosed in literary studies. 1 For decades, she explains, our gaze has been fixed on the land, “despite the preeminence of maritime transport in making the modern world” (“Literary Studies” 657). Now, however, innovative scholarship is yielding provocative insights into how mobility across our “terraqueous globe” has shaped both modernity and national identity. 2 Hester Blum, for example, whose book The View from the Masthead was published in 2008, joins Cohen in viewing the ocean primarily as the site of labor. Immersing herself in both fictional and non-fictional sea narratives, Blum argues that high above the deck of the ship, perched aloft on the masthead, the American sailor developed a unique epistemology derived from “the material and experiential specificity of work” (15).

Both scholars suggest that sea fiction offers “a message of democratic empowerment, translatable to other fraternities” (Cohen The Novel and the Sea 144). And both scholars, not surprisingly for us, credit James Fenimore Cooper with inventing the maritime narrative. Beginning with his publication of The Pilot in 1824, Cooper, they maintain, set “the codes and terms of the sea fictions” that proved so remarkably popular in antebellum America (Blum 73). Cohen argues further that Cooper’s form became a “traveling genre” in two ways: it proved influential in other cultures, and also of course it has taken mobility as its subject matter. According to these and many other scholars, Cooper’s invention proved so successful because “the dramatic energy of [its] plot hangs on the action of sailing” (Cohen “Traveling Genres” 485). Spinning the yarn of two brave American naval officers on a mission with John Paul Jones, The Pilot is a nationalistic adventure story that transported an international audience to what Cohen calls “the supranational space of the suggesting that The Pilot is not open sea” (“Traveling Genres” 483).

Or did it? Benefiting from this recent scholarship, I must nonetheless roil the waters by in fact the paradigmatic example of the genre that followed from it. As compelling as Blum and Cohen’s accounts of sea writing more generally are, the novel that started it all does not in several key respects look like or behave like the genre it is presumed to have defined. In fact, as I hope to show, The Pilot argues against the very taxonomic practices that go into genre-making. Unmoored from these recent literary historical narratives, The Pilot offers some quite puzzling challenges to the kinds of arguments Blum and Cohen and others are making: arguments about the democratically-empowering view from the masthead and about the ocean’s role in the construction of American identity. Such dissonances have important consequences not only for how we read Cooper, but also for how we understand what Thomas Philbrick long ago called the maritime nationalism of the young republic (2).

For example, with regard to Blum’s argument, no character in The Pilot actually takes a view from the masthead. No common sailors are separated out from the mass of seamen on board the ships. During a particularly thrilling battle scene, for example, “fifty men [fly] out on the dizzy heights of the different spars” to release their canvas in one coordinated, balletic motion; they become individuals only when a barrage of artillery fire cuts their ropes. 3 Then indeed “[a] few men [are seen ...] clinging with wild frenzy to the cordage, dropping from rope to rope like wounded birds fluttering through a tree, until they [fall] heavily into the ocean, the sullen ship sweeping by them, in cold indifference” (399). In other ways, too, it is difficult to see how The Pilot delivers “a message of democratic empowerment” (Cohen The Novel and the Sea 144). The men aboard ship work well together, to be sure, but rank and hierarchy never relent. Even in moments of leisure, that structure is rigidly& — even ruthlessly& — maintained so that the chain of command will function instinctively during exigent situations. 4

But chiefly, I contend that The Pilot should be considered separately from the genre that followed in its wake because it does not in fact take place on the open sea. Cooper’s subsequent maritime novels criss-cross the watery deep, but The Pilot’s itinerary is strictly limited to the coastal shoals of England. Never escaping the liminal waters off Northumberland, the novel’s action is confined to a thin band of sand and tide along the eastern coast of the island. So although Cooper’s first sea novel is transatlantic by virtue of its subject matter, it is not oriented toward that vast expanse of water that links England to America. On the contrary, it faces Holland, as characters often remark, across what they call the German ocean and what today’s cartographers refer to as a “marginal sea” (Wang 14). So although Cohen envisions the broad Atlantic between Liverpool and New York when she reads the novel’s opening paragraph, Cooper is drawing a very different map for us when he describes “the small sea that has for ages been known to the world as the scene of maritime exploits” (9). Here he might be referring to the rivalry between England and the formidable Dutch empire, or perhaps to the Great Northern War, prosecuted as it was along the trading routes of the North Sea. Cooper is not imagining “the unity of the Atlantic,” as Cohen claims, following Paul Gilroy, so much as he is confining his text from its opening sentences to a marginal kind of space. 5

The action of The Pilot, in other words, occurs on the sidelines of the exchange, traffic, and circulation of global commerce that we have come to associate with the Atlantic. Indeed, one aging sailor regrets how separate they are from all of that bustle and stir: “’I can’t see why it is that we keep dodging along shore here [...],’” he complains, “’when, by stretching into the broad Atlantic, we might fall in with a Jamaica-man every day or two’” (347). On only one occasion does an embattled vessel briefly break free to access open water; otherwise, the action takes place in this coastal zone, and we are reminded in key battle scenes that the ships never lose sight of the land. In fact, the American officers use landmarks to steer by, and they distinguish the turrets of the Abbey even in the height of battle (400). Neither does the action ever push any distance into the interior. The farthest inland we travel is the abbey of St. Ruth, which the loyalist Colonel Howard has taken as his home, and it is only two miles from the cliffs, which we are told trace “the margin of the ocean” (344). In fact, so confined is the action of the novel that the narrator allows himself a short-cut, admitting at one point, “The reader has too often accompanied us over the ground between the Abbey and the ocean, to require any description of the route” (349). So while Cooper opined in several venues that it was high time for America to declare its literary independence from England, when he made his own declaration of literary independence — when he invented this new form — he broke free from England by setting his novel on its very shore.

What are the implications when we read The Pilot as being thus embayed? What does it matter that Cooper set his first maritime romance in the coastal zone rather than laying claim to the “freedom of the seas” that has proven so important in our current construction of the ocean? I want to suggest that locating this American adventure on the threshold of England puts displacement at the heart of both nation-building and generic innovation. This afternoon I’d like to offer two brief examples of how displacement and disarticulation are at work in this new form.

In the first instance, I’d like to draw our attention to an aspect of the novel that is quite familiar to readers of Cooper, and that is the squaring off of opposed terms. The Pilot is on one level organized by clear oppositions: land vs. sea, and British vs. American, to name the most obvious contrasts. At the cliffs that form the boundary of England, insider and outsider, loyalist and rebel can be determined with precision; these designations are brought into sharp relief, for after all, the land along the shore is not neutral territory. It is clearly British, and for an American rebel to set foot on it is an incontrovertibly treasonous act. Similarly, the text urges us to agree that life at sea is vastly superior to life on land. Long Tom Coffin, for example, cannot navigate once he sets foot on the ground (17). Likewise, sailors display a dazzling ability to innovate that their rather plodding foot-soldier counterparts comically lack. So sharp contrasts do operate in the novel, much as the cliffs themselves stand at the edge of the water to inscribe in the very landscape the differentiation between land and sea or between loyalist subject and rebellious patriot.

But alongside this tendency to organize experience around oppositions, another dynamic is at work in the text. In this coastal zone, even as certain sharp contrasts abide, the text gestures beyond them to render the categories created by such crisp delineations ultimately provisional. The Colonel, for example, glad to be in the land of his ancestors, asserts his rights and privileges as patriarch of the abbey. His very name evokes not only the power of an ancient aristocratic family, but also the almost taxonomic structure of the English class system. Nonetheless, the Colonel has to acknowledge that he has rented his home (he does not own it) and that the true host of any loyal residence, is, in the end, the King himself (328). We know from history, however, that even that final claim can be undone, for although the text doesn’t mention it, the Howard family attained its social pre-eminence by notoriously conspiring against an anointed monarch. 6 In other words, the text asserts land-based claims of privilege and belonging and then renders them contingent by running just this regression. Thus, although transatlantic scholars rightly caution us to resist privileging national borders, Cooper’s text asserts them — and then exposes the contingency with which those designations are established in the first place. 7 I want to suggest, then, that here at the threshold of England, where the determinants of subject status are on one level quite clear, the text reaches beneath them or before them to a fundamental alienation, one that renders oppositions, categories, rights, and privileges entirely contingent.

Nor is it coincidental that the building the Colonel hires as his home, “part house, part abbey, part castle, and all prison” (66), is named for St. Ruth. This is Ruth of the Old Testament, an icon of the never fully assimilable. She is one whose foreignness persists, even after her pledge of faithfulness to Naomi. Hence, in displacing a heroic episode in the making of America to the edge of England and through staging the novel at an abbey that has been named for someone whose difference is never fully recuperated, the text offers displacement as the only available subject position. Even Alice Dunscombe, a native who has never left the region, is as an unmarried woman, destined forever to be somebody’s guest (119), and John Paul Jones, originally a Scot, is always already foreign.

We can see then, that if The Pilot is an adventure tale that helps to construct American identity (and it has long and rightly been regarded as such), that process is also a kind of unmaking. Alienation subtends the nation; the categories in which belonging and power inhere are shown to be provisional. Dismantling the colonial paradigm provokes disarticulation in both senses of the word: the rupture of a sustained transatlantic relationship and also a crisis on the level of language. Here I’d like to offer a second example of displacement at work in the coastal zone.

We know that diction was a particular preoccupation of Cooper, invested as he was in the standardization of American English. 8 In The Pilot we hear Barnstable jest, for example, that they shouldn’t expect the English to know how to “read Yankee” (59). Yet the text’s attention to the niceties of diction sits in a broader semiotic context, for in The Pilot non-linguistic sign systems proliferate. Onboard the American ships, musical instruments convey commands that voices can’t project; Long Tom Coffin can read “God’s language in the clouds” (23); fate is read in the water (38); ships signal their strategy via their rigging — which is referred to as a conversation (394). In all these instances and more, alternative means of reading work beautifully and efficiently, establishing a kind of semiotic equilibrium, an economy of translation that bespeaks an ordered, transactional relation between two counterparts — not that dissimilar to the oppositions I’ve described as organizing the text in other ways.

But, again, alongside this efficiency of translation operates another dynamic in which this equilibrium is overcome. Cutting up silk squares of various solid colors, Katherine Plowden improvises on the practice of nautical signal flags to create a dictionary for clandestine communication. The idea is that she and Barnstable will each have a set of flags and a signal book so they might secretly plan an escape. When they first put Katherine’s silk squares to use, they exchange rather straightforward messages. White over black, for instance, asks, “’[H]as my messenger been seen?’” (310) Yellow, green, and red identifies “’my cousin Merry’” (310). But then Katherine strings together some flags to convey a much more complex message, and here, discourse reaches a point of overflowing — reaches a kind of threshold point, I might say — for her communication with her lover becomes almost joyfully implausible. “’When the Abbey clock strikes nine,’” she signals in her final message, “’come with care to the wicket, which opens, at the east side of the Paddock, on the road: until then, keep secret’” (311). Here something is suddenly out of scale. If it is true, as Katherine claims, that she has actually anticipated the need for this complicated instruction, her dictionary is improbably prescient. And in practice, one can’t quite imagine what combination of solid squares could nimbly convey such subtlety.

So the implausibility of the episode alerts us to something new happening on the level of language. Whether it is Barnstable and Griffith disputing over the meaning of the word “beach” (14) or a drum tattooing a strategic command, other sign systems in the novel seem to translate between equivalences. But in Katherine’s system, her units of meaning (the solid squares of color) come to bear more than they would appear capable of. This new mode of translation, in which the gross renders the fine, resists the logic of how we understand these systems to work. There must then be a bit that escapes the smooth rendering, an excess or displacement of meaning that’s built into the process of translation as Katherine has designed it. In this fashioning (and it is literally a fashioning, for at one point Katherine wears her sign system as a turban), she draws our attention to a new kind of articulation, one that goes beyond the economy and closure of English vs. Yankee. In its extravagance, Katherine’s sign system makes room for displacement, a tilting of the scales that allows limits to be overcome.

If Katherine is fashioning a new mode of expression particularly suited to the coastal zone, so, too, of course, is Cooper himself. In The Pilot, the tale of swashbuckling American patriots has required a new sign system, and for Cooper it has engendered a new form of the novel. It is a form in which displacement is offered up as both a subject position and a principle of representation. We see this most clearly, I contend, when we take into consideration Cooper’s construction of the setting, his choosing the margin of a marginal ocean. Contrary to the enormously popular sea narratives that followed in its wake, The Pilot does not take place in a supranational space where the horizon is always receding. Here the horizon is fixed; the cliffs are sharply outlined against the sky; national borders are clearly defined. At the threshold of England, designations of insider and outsider, loyalist and rebel, land and sea are reified. That is what thresholds do, after all: they mark the line where alienation and difference are made real. And at the same time, here at this particular threshold, even as experience is organized around such oppositions, the text resists the correlative logic, that impulse that classifies, smoothly translates, neatly orders.

So alongside recent influential scholarship that reads The Pilot as a celebration of fraternity on a borderless ocean, I am suggesting an alternative reading that focuses instead on the many processes of rupture, displacement, and excess that nonetheless prove generative. While in these other arguments it is the attention to work that marks The Pilot as American, it might equally be the case that what is most revolutionary about it is its recognition of the contingency that generates and characterizes our creation of forms — whether those forms be political or generic. It is the text’s important disarticulations that we risk losing sight of when we mistakenly transport it to the broad Atlantic from the peculiar threshold space in which it is set.

Thus, recognizing its differences from the trend it launched restores to The Pilot a measure of innovation that is lost when it is too quickly grouped with the tales it inspired, and piloting the text out of those shoals frees it from literary-historical encumbrances of our own making.

Works Cited

  • Berger, Jason. “Killing Tom Coffin: Rethinking the Nationalist Narrative in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot.” Early American Literature 43.3. (2008): 643-70.
  • Blum, Hester. The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • Claybaugh, Amanda. “New Fields, Conventional Habits, and the Legacy of the Atlantic Double-Cross.” American Literary History 20.3 (Summer 2008): 439-48.
  • Cohen, Margaret. “Literary Studies on the Terraqueous Globe.” PMLA 125.3 (May 2010): 657-62.
  • ------. The Novel and the Sea. Translation/Transnation Series. Ed. Emily Apter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • ------. “Traveling Genres.” New Literary History. 34.3 (Summer 2003): 481-99.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.
  • Simpson, David. The Politics of American English, 1776-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Wang, James C. F. Handbook on Ocean Politics and Law. New York: Greenwood, 1992. 14.
  • Wood, Sarah Florence. “’Narrow Passages’: Captive Sailors and National Narrative in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot.” Atlantic Studies. 3.2 (October 2006): 245-55.


1 In her introduction to The Novel and the Sea, Cohen observes that following Lukács, “critics across the twentieth century treated even those novels with oceangoing themes as allegories of processes back on land. [...] This disregard for global ocean travel, even when a novel portrays nautical subject matter, is so spectacular, it might be called hydrophasia” (14).

2 Cohen is reanimating a term that has long been out of use: “But literary scholars are pioneering new paradigms and concepts of critical and cultural analysis scaled to what the early modern period called the terraqueous globe” (“Literary Studies” 658).

3 James Fenimore Cooper, Sea Tales: The Pilot, the Red Rover. Eds. Kay Seymour House and Thomas Philbrick. New York: Library of America, 1990. 399. Further references to the novel are to this edition, with pages numbers indicated parenthetically.

4 Both Sarah F. Wood and Jason Berger have argued persuasively that Cooper’s text contains and disavows the democratic energies it might appear to champion.

5 In “Traveling Genres,” Cohen argues, “When Cooper imagines the unity of the Atlantic as the interactions of competing imperial projects, he suggests it as precisely the kind of heterogeneous space that has recently led to its renewed prominence in cross-cultural studies, where the Atlantic is seen to constitute, in Paul Gilroy’s formulation, ‘one single, complex unit of analysis’ defining ‘the modern world’” (483). She is quoting The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. Cambridge, Harvard University Press. 1993. 15.

6 John Howard was made Duke of Norfolk in 1483 as a reward for supporting Richard III in deposing Edward V.

7 Amanda Claybaugh, for example, urges this caution in multiple recent publications.

8 See Simpson.