“She Never Can Become What She Once Was”: Cooper, Sedgwick, and the American Pirate Story

Beth Avila (Independent Scholar)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and American Women Writers” at the 2017 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Spring 2018, pp. 5-10.

Copyright © 2018, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

{5} Scholars of American literature often construct a gendered binary when reading James Fenimore Cooper alongside American women writers. In particular, Catharine Maria Sedgwick is frequency placed in opposition to Cooper with regard to their nationalistic wilderness narratives. Although less often explored, a similar binary can be formulated through Cooper’s and Sedgwick’s solutions to violent masculinity on the sea, as represented by the figure of the pirate. Both Cooper and Sedgwick wrote historical novels containing pirates that were published in 1827: Cooper’s The Red Rover and Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. For both authors, the conventionally masculine space of the sea offered a way to redirect or critique the dangers of masculine violence as represented by the figure of the pirate. Cooper suggests that men can learn to control themselves and other men, or failing that, they can be redirected away from causing chaos for ordinary citizens toward a more appropriate endeavor, such as warfare. Sedgwick, in contrast, offers women as problem-solvers, and while she does include one instance of violent womanhood, she does not necessarily endorse the action. Ultimately, her destruction of the buccaneers, along with the violent woman, denies the possibility of a heroic pirate and suggests that the behaviors he represents need to be eradicated, rather than reformed. Through the pirate characters in these novels, Cooper endorses a nation founded on self-restraint and masculine violence, leaving little need for an active female presence, while Sedgwick foregrounds women taking an active role in shaping the nation through individual behavior. Together, they establish contrasting solutions to the problem of masculine violence embodied by the figure of the pirate, and their solutions would be reworked by the authors who followed, resulting in multifaceted depictions of gender roles within nineteenth-century fiction.

With The Red Rover, Cooper centered the plot on another man’s efforts to determine the intentions and morality of the title character while the female characters are sought by both men. Set shortly before the start of the American Revolution, The Red Rover follows Harry Wilder’s attempt to capture the infamous pirate, the Red Rover, by going undercover as part of his crew. However, the protagonist’s primary goal quickly gets sidetracked and complicated when he learns {6} that two women, Gertrude Grayson and Mrs. Wyllys, are passengers on the ship that the Red Rover has targeted.

Although they do not take significant action in the plot, these women, as objects to be captured or protected, become pieces in a contest of strength and cunning between the men. A conversation between the two women illustrates their position when one claims, “There may be wicked and evil-intentioned men in his majesty’s fleet; but we are surely safe from them, since fear of punishment, if not fear of disgrace, will be our protection” and the other responds, “I dread lest we find that the lawless spirits who harbor here submit to no laws except those of their own enacting, nor acknowledge any authority but that which exists among themselves” (320). This exchange suggests that only the threat of punishment as outlined by the law can protect women from violent men, and if they should find themselves in the hands of the pirates as the second woman fears, there can be no hope of protection. As a result, the initial conflict of the novel highlights the limitations of relying on others, in the form of legal mechanisms or heroic men, to protect women from violence. However, the events of the novel are constructed in such a way that the law is shown to be insufficient while the protection from men is demonstrated to be more reliable but not infallible. This revision illustrates the narrative’s struggle to devise a solution that will protect women from violent men who remain uncontained by the law.

Even though the novel does initially establish that the Red Rover has a fearsome reputation as a pirate, it quickly links his piracy to his devotion to the colonies. In one of their many discussions, the Rover reveals to Wilder that he became a pirate after he attacked a British officer for insulting the colonies. The Rover explains: “Would you think it, sir; one of [the king’s] commanders dared to couple the name of my country with an epithet I will not wound your ear by repeating” (355). After the commander insulted the colonies, “He never repeated the offence. ‘Twas his blood or mine; dearly did he pay the forfeit of his brutality” (355). This backstory grounds the Rover’s piratical origins in violence, but in a particular type of violence founded on codes of honor and love of his country. In fact, the Red Rover never actually commits any acts of piracy in the novel. By the time it begins, he has gained a reputation for “wild and audacious” enterprises and has a price on his head: “The king would pay him well who put the rogue into the hands of the law” (199, 174). However, within the narrative, the Rover plans to capture a ship and goes to great lengths to ensure that its female passengers remain on it, thus presenting a vague threat to them, but his {7} plan is thwarted when the weather destroys the ship before he can capture it, and therefore, he never actually succeeds in his piratical plan.

Far from being characterized as an irredeemable villain, by the end of the novel, the enemy commander declares of the Red Rover, “Had he but the commission of the king in his pocket, one might call him a hero!” (485). With little evidence of criminal activities, most of the Red Rover’s actions categorize him as a hero being viewed from the wrong perspective. As a result, the Rover’s decision to become a pirate would be admirable in the eyes of a patriotic American audience, which suggests that his violent origins are to be admired, rather than feared. This idea is reinforced at the end of the story when the narrative reveals that the Rover has left the life of a pirate to fight with the Americans during the Revolutionary War. The novel bypasses the war itself and ends twenty years after its main plot. In addition to revealing that he is Wilder’s uncle, the Rover tells him that after they parted ways, “I long hid my repentance, and my shame, together — but this war drew me from my concealment. Our country needed us both, and both she has had! You have served as one who never offended might serve; but a cause so holy was not to be tarnished by a name like mine. May the little I have done for goodbe remembered, when the world speaks of the evil of my hands!” (521). Not only did the Rover repent of his crimes, but he fought on the side of the colonies during the war. It was the same patriotic impulse that took him from the British Navy to a life of piracy that led him to fight for his country in the Revolution; the former resulted in a desperate life of crime while the latter earned him forgiveness from his kinsmen at his death. The Rover’s redemption does not occur as a result of him changing his criminal ways; instead, the reader slowly discovers over the course of the novel that he was a gentleman and a patriot all along, restraining himself and his violent crew.

In contrast, Hope Leslie presents a very different image of unruly behavior and the roles of women and of pirates. The main plot takes place in the 1640s, in and around the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, where the title character must attempt to aid her friends while avoiding romantic entanglements with the villainous Sir Philip Gardiner. It is Gardiner who brings the piratical characters into the story. Introduced into the narrative as “the same bold desperado” that Gardiner knew previously, Chaddock and his crew play a small and often overlooked part in the plot Hope Leslie, in which they exhibit unrestrained behavior and violence, including swearing, drinking, kidnaping women, and being kicked out of Boston. At their first {8} appearance, the narrator explains, “The disorders of both master, and men, had given such offence to the sober citizens of Boston, that they had been prohibited from entering the town; and the men having been on this occasion allowed by their captain to indulge in a revel on land, they had betaken themselves to an uninhabited island, where they might give the reins to their excesses, without dread of restraint or penalty” (250). It is this behavior that one would expect, but does not find, in Cooper’s Rover.

Moving further away from Cooper’s model, Sedgwick makes no effort to align the buccaneers with this nationalistic patriotism. In fact, by labeling them buccaneers, rather than pirates, she locates them geographically in the Caribbean, rather than the colonies that would become the United States. The narrative explicitly links the buccaneers with the Caribbean island of Tortuga when it notes that Gardiner “knew [Chaddock] to be a desperate fellow — that he had once been in confederacy with the bucaniers of Tortuga — the self-styled “brothers of the coast,” and he believed that he might be persuaded to enter upon any new and lawless enterprise” (334). Both of these terms — “bucanier” and “brothers of the coast” — are not used to describe pirates in general but a particular group of pirates with a particular historical setting.

Furthermore, Hope is very different from the passive female characters of The Red Rover, behaving in ways that many of the other characters consider undesirable for young women. Initially, Hope lives on a frontier settlement with the Fletchers, removed from the extension of English authority that can be found in Boston. When her aunt tells Hope that exploring the wilderness is “unladylike” and “unheard of in England,” Hope responds “that our new country developes faculties that young ladies, in England, were unconscious of possessing” (98). In a similar manner to the Red Rover’s decisions to defy authority due to his connection to the colonies, Hope specifically links environment to the development of the ability to exert herself more than proper English women. In this manner, Sedgwick borrows the independence, with an underlying patriotism, often associated with the wilderness in stories centered on male characters in order to develop a more assertive version of American femininity. However, unlike Cooper’s Red Rover, Hope is not linked to a violent version of patriotism.

In decades that followed, authors of popular fiction mixed and blended these opposing characterizations of women and pirates, formulating narratives centered on female pirates and piratical women. One such popular story, Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, written by Maturin Murray Ballou using the pen name “Lieutenant Murray,” {9} builds on the models established by Cooper and Sedgwick. After its first appearance in 1844, Fanny Campbell sold 80,000 copies in the first few months and stayed in print for several decades. Ballou collapses the conventional division between active female characters, a key component of Sedgwick’s novels, and redeemable — and often heroic — male pirates that are utilized by Cooper in his sea novels. Instead of choosing one model or the other to follow, Ballou makes the active woman the one who accomplishes the heroic rescue plot and does not hesitate to meet violence with violence. By designing a female hero who embodies attributes usually associated with the male hero, including violent patriotism, but without abandoning many of her conventionally feminine roles, Ballou is able to create a protagonist that can be interpreted as either enforcing or opposing the status quo, which likely aided its appeal toa broad audience.

While it is difficult to speculate on the popularity of any one story, the stories that followed Fanny Campbell indicate that the female pirate protagonist, which drew on the opposing models established by Cooper and Sedgwick, maintained a prominent position in the American imagination throughout the 1840s. Other authors, including Ned Buntline with The Queen of the Sea; or, Our Lady of the Ocean (1848) and Lorry Luff with Antonita; or The Female Contrabandista (1848), followed Ballou’s lead by combining elements of Cooper’s and Sedgwick’s models to create their own female pirate protagonists. Cooper himself adopted aspects of this character construction for one of his later novels, Jack Tier; or The Florida Reef,in 1848. The title character, Jack Tier, is the wife of the pirate, Captain Spike, and after he leaves her, she disguises herself as a male sailor and joins his crew, eventually revealing herself to be Mary Swash. Much like other popular authors who adopted this blending of genders, Cooper was likely attempting to balance the appeal of active female characters without losing the adventure plot. Not only is Jack Tier unusual for her disguise, but she also does not want to give up her male identity and nameat the end of the story. With regard to the character, the narrator declares, “She never can become what she once was” (511). In a similar manner, Cooper’s novels never can be what they once were after they are put into conversation with contemporary American women writers as well as the stories that followed, which were influenced by both versions of the pirate story: the masculine version as established by Cooper with heroic men and redeemable villains, and feminine version utilized by Sedgwick, which included heroic women and villainous men.


illustration from Hope Leslie

Hope Leslie: Attack on the Fletcher family as Magawisca supplicates her father.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Jack Tier. 1848. New York: R. F. Fenno & Company, 1900. Print.
  • ------. The Red Rover. 1827. New York: George P. Putnam, 1850. Print.
  • Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. 1827. Ed. Carolyn L. Karcher. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.