Minor Protagonists, Republican Heroism, and Conservative Aesthetics in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy

Linda Yang Liu (Stanford University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “Style and Genre in James Fenimore Cooper’s novels” at the 2017 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Fall/Winter, 2017, pp. 35-45.

Copyright © 2016, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821), has been called the first American novel. Reviewed on “a scale unprecedented for an American novel,” it was the first to be given notice by, for instance, The North American Review, which, after seven years of exclusively commenting on novels from Europe, introduces its review of The Spy with a lengthy disquisition on the hitherto unexploited resources available for a distinctly American fiction. 1 Cooper himself, in an introduction to a later edition of The Spy, declares that the project began when he “chose Patriotism for his theme” and looked to American history — rather than the English high society of his first novel — for inspiration (3). Set during the American Revolution and concluding, in its final chapter, with the War of 1812, The Spy inaugurated the dominance in the early nineteenth century America of “national narrative,” which, as Jonathan Arac writes, “[f]rom the standpoint of America’s present existence as an independent union ... told the story of the nation’s colonial beginnings and looked forward to its future as a model for the world” (2-3). In arguably the first national narrative in American fiction, then, Cooper achieves what has been called his “most radical and enduring act in the making of an American novel” (Wallace 100): the introduction of a new kind of American republican hero in the eponymous spy of the title, the humble peddler Harvey Birch.

Yet, as critics have also noted, The Spy is marked by deep structural ambivalences, which complicate the novel’s elevation to eponymous status of its otherwise democratic hero. More specifically, the place of Birch within the novel’s larger character structure undermines his claim to a fully democratic equality, on par with his social “betters.” Though Harvey Birch is identified, by Cooper and his readers, as “the principal character in this book,” his heroism is predicated on his self-abnegation, his denial of both recognition and reward for his service on behalf of the wealthier and more powerful (3). Like the real-life double-agent on which he was based, Birch works heroically and in total secrecy for the American side during the Revolution, and after the war is over he not only accepts without question Washington’s request that his service remain publicly unacknowledged, but also refuses any monetary compensation for it. In terms of the novel’s form, Harvey Birch’s self- (p. 36) marginalization is even more strongly marked. Critics have long disagreed over whether or not Harvey Birch is even, actually, the protagonist of The Spy. Though thematically central to the novel, as Cooper’s introduction points out, 2 Birch is strikingly marginal to the novel’s plot. As T. Hugh Crawford, among others, notes, Birch is “a minor character in the story proper, it being primarily about the loves and woes of the Wharton family,” who represent the region’s landed gentry and thus are the more traditional, upper-class literary protagonists. 3 The dominance in the plot of these socioeconomically privileged major characters, to whom Harvey Birch’s naturalized subordination is conspicuous, has led some critics to come down hard what they see as The Spy’s problematic “strategies of containment,” (Arac 11) or Cooper’s “deep-seated middle-class ideology, [which] sets up a hierarchy of leadership and moral authority that is definitely rooted in social elitism” (Verhoeven 82).

Central and peripheral, eulogized and marginalized, major and minor: Harvey Birch is a complex literary hero to place at the beginning of American national narrative. On the one hand, Cooper’s vocal praise of the humble peddler’s heroic service presents Birch as a possible figurehead for the democratic equality of the new American republic. On the other, his conspicuous narrative subordination to the wealthier and more powerful raises questions about how far the democratic principle of equality can — or should — be allowed to go. In the background of the plot, in the service of the upper classes, and yet spotlighted by the title and Cooper’s introduction, Birch’s position within the larger character system of The Spy designates him as last among equals.

In what follows, I want to elucidate the complexities of this ambivalent character system, and the ways in which it inscribes in its narrative logic an early conservative solution to the dangers posed by democratic equality. I will describe how Harvey Birch exemplifies a category of character that I want to call the “minor protagonist”: a character who, while pointed to in crucial ways as the novel’s central figure, also literally and structurally lives on the margins of the novel’s social spaces. I will argue that the formal paradoxes of The Spy’s eponymous minor protagonist uniquely represent the self-abnegating virtue of the ideal early republican citizen. A poignant, minor echo of the greatness of greater men, Birch’s place within the larger character system of the novel both celebrates, and domesticates, the revolutionary potential of the humble republican hero by subordinating him to more traditional literary protagonists. However, Cooper’s narrative focus on the upper classes moves beyond traditional literary decorum to take on (p. 37) a new meaning in the wake of the American and French Revolutions. As I will argue, the relative narrative centrality of different characters in The Spy represents a re-theorization of post-revolutionary social order, generated by a modern ideology beginning to develop in the first few decades of the nineteenth century: conservatism.

I want to begin by making clear that by “conservative” I do not mean reactionary, or traditional, or as a shorthand for political or intellectual closed-mindedness, as the term is used in so much of academic parlance today. 4 In our common, presentist understanding of the word, we take conservatism for granted as a universal category, assuming, as Ralph Waldo Emerson did by 1841, that “[t]he two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old, and have disputed the possession of the world ever since it was made” (173). In doing so, however, we forget that conservatism is historically a product of the Age of Revolution. “Conservative” as a political and cultural term comes into use only after the French Revolution, adapted, in part, from the French “conservateur,” which was used to mean “preserving order” in 1795 or “opposed to innovation” in 1815. It does not become an “-ism” until the 1830s, when expansions of the franchise on both sides of the Atlantic seemed proof that the democratic tide would not be reversed, but only, at best, halted. 5 These are, not coincidentally, some of the most formative years of both the American republic and democracy writ large. In the United States specifically, these first few decades of the nineteenth century not only reconfirmed America’s independence from Britain after the War of 1812 but saw the nation’s original Founding Fathers retire from public office at the same time that it watched, with excitement and trepidation, the dramatic changes ushered in by Jacksonian Democracy. In this time when certain democratic victories had to be taken for granted, the potential excesses of democracy required the formulation of a new kind of conservative bulwark — one that does not solely rely on traditional, pre-revolutionary institutions of authority, but rather seeks alternative stabilizing forces. These forces, I would argue, are counter-, rather than anti-, democratic: they aim not at reversing time and reestablishing old institutions (the monarchy, the aristocracy, or a centralized church), but of preserving and maintaining the institutions currently in place against what is feared to be a tide of radical democracy. Conservatism thus develops in the first half of the nineteenth century, and especially in the United States, not as an old attitude, but as a new conception — a new way of formulating and conceiving of political and social stability in the face of revolutionary threats.

(p. 38) As a new conception, conservatism in its emergent state is an ideology in search of adequate representation, and therefore of literary form. In Karl Mannheim’s characterization, conservatism as it emerges in the aftermath of the French Revolution relies on “a fundamental design or stylistic principle” that opposes the abstractness and volatility of revolutionary positions in favor of the solid, the stable, and the concrete (75). More than, as in Sacvan Bercovitch’s compelling theory, the more generally “American” ideological tendency to redirect all dissent into a ritual of consensus, conservatism reorients the progressive movement of revolutionary principles by reconfiguring, or restructuring, the manifestation of those principles into stable institutional forms. This is ideological work performed specifically through literary representation. Faced with the challenge of democratic upheaval, conservatism generates an aesthetics of formal stability, based on solidity, mass, bounded bodies, bordered communities, and the boundaries that prevent their penetration or dissolution. In the larger project from which this essay comes, I examine how narrative form in particular adapts to and uses this aesthetics of conservatism to posit embodied limits to the encroachment of such democratic ideals (following the French Revolution) as liberty, equality, and fraternity. Within the confines of this particular essay, I want to use Cooper’s The Spy to illuminate the formal logic of one manifestation of this distinctly conservative aesthetics: an ambivalent character structure that simultaneously eulogizes and marginalizes its central republican hero, Harvey Birch, in order to ground all revolutionary action in the people and the institutions whose preservation lies at the heart of Cooper’s “national narrative” of the American Revolution. In this way, The Spy inscribes a conservative aesthetics to curtail the destabilizing problem of equality in an increasingly democratic society.

As we have seen, though Harvey Birch is the spy of the title, in the novel itself he is functionally secondary to other, more socioeconomically privileged characters. He lives only to serve. Harvey Birch intervenes, at great personal risk, when one of the Wharton daughters is about to marry a bigamist British colonel. He warns the American troops when the Wharton family are in danger of an attack by Skinners (men hired on behalf of American troops to pillage the countryside). When British Captain Henry Wharton is captured by the Americans and wrongfully condemned to death as a British spy, Birch again intervenes — again at great risk, and on George Washington’s orders no less — to rescue him. Although this heroism does not go unacknowledged, it is pushed somewhat to the background, subordinated by the far more extensive (p. 39) narrative representation of Henry Wharton’s perilous situation and his sister Frances’s romance with an American officer, Major Dunwoodie. In fact, two of the major calamities that befall the Whartons happen first to Harvey Birch, but the novel seems to quickly forget it. No one notices at first when, earlier in the novel, Birch’s father dies and his house is burned down by Skinners, essentially obliterating all his domestic ties. When Birch is captured and condemned to death as a British spy by the Americans, he escapes without anyone’s help. Frances Wharton, incidentally, is referred to as “our heroine” by the narrator several times, but Harvey Birch is never described in the novel as “our hero.” In the background of the plot, in the service of the upper classes, and yet spotlighted by the title and Cooper’s introduction, Harvey Birch is, in fact, referred to in the novel more than any other character. 6 But unlike any major character in the novel, Birch is far more likely — almost twice as likely — to be referred to by his presumed occupation (“the peddler”), instead of by his proper name. 7 If, as Ian Watt has famously observed, the novel as a genre “indicates [its] intention of presenting a character as a particular individual by naming him in exactly the same way as particular individuals are named in ordinary life” (18), The Spy both presents and disregards Harvey Birch’s individual particularity, his status as a person rather than a function. He is the spy of the title, and he is “the peddler,” but in so being, he is represented less as a person in and of himself, than as an instrumentalized subject always in service to someone else.

In this way, his character-space — that is, the sense we get of him as a full person via the narrative space (plot, description) devoted to his representation — is clearly subordinated to those of wealthier and more powerful characters. I take the term “character-space” from Alex Woloch’s influential book, The One vs. The Many, in which Woloch describes how the unequal narrative space given to minor as opposed to major characters

registers the competing pull of inequality and democracy within the nineteenth-century bourgeois imagination. ... In the paradigmatic character-structure of the realist novel, any character can be a protagonist, but only one character is: just as increasing political equality, and a maturing logic of human rights, develop amid acute economic and social stratification. (31)

Whereas major characters take up the bulk of a novel’s narrative real estate, minor characters are sidelined by their very function as minor characters. As Woloch writes, “In terms of their essential formal position (the subordinate beings who are delimited in themselves while (p. 40) performing a function for someone else), minor characters are the proletariat of the novel” (27, emphasis in original). In this sense, Harvey Birch fits neatly in Woloch’s definition of the minor character. His socioeconomic position even literalizes his formally functional status as a character. He receives no benefit from his labor; he is exploited (albeit voluntarily) by the powers that be; and he goes unrecognized by any other part of society, even estranged as an enemy from his community.

Yet Harvey Birch still is, as the title and Cooper’s introduction insist, a central figure in the book. This is the paradox of the minor protagonist: the novel emphasizes the very character it will narratively subordinate to other, more “important” characters. 8 It is also what distinguishes the minor protagonist from the more typical minor characters described by Woloch. Minor characters may be structurally crucial; they may even be so vividly drawn as to momentarily overshadow or distract readerly attention away from the novel’s actual protagonist. But the importance of minor characters is always secondary to the novel’s primary focus, and their distracting vividness never central to what the novel represents. In The Spy, however, Harvey Birch is both primary and secondary, central and peripheral. This paradoxical formal status of being major in some ways and minor in others makes Birch a minor protagonist, rather than merely a minor character.

The novel’s simultaneous spotlighting and sidelining of the minor protagonist formally mirrors its thematic solution to the problem of representing a certain kind of self-subjugating republican hero. Just as Birch consents to the historical erasure of his patriotic service after the war, so does the novel lack representation of this very service: The Spy curiously avoids representing any actual wartime espionage, apart from the wearing of disguises, which even non-spies like Henry Wharton occasionally use. Like the consummate spy, the ideal republican hero seeks neither fame nor fortune in exchange for the virtuous, patriotic service that is its own reward.

In this, Harvey Birch’s role as a minor protagonist curiously mirrors, as it amplifies, the simultaneously subordinated and sublimated position that George Washington also plays in the novel. Like Birch, Washington similarly occupies a relatively minor character space, appearing for the most part on the margins of the novel’s social spaces and in disguise, his true identity unrecognized by any of the other characters. Washington is likewise voluntarily sidelined to the plots of other, more traditional protagonists — the rich, young, noble, and beautiful — who take up most of the novel’s narrative attention. As mentioned before, Washington intervenes on behalf of Henry Wharton, as a favor to (p. 41) Henry’s sister Frances, to prevent Henry’s execution by his sister’s fiancé Dunwoodie — which would, of course, likely prevent Frances and Dunwoodie’s marriage. Washington’s plan for Henry’s escape even involves coercing Frances and Dunwoodie into marrying sooner than they otherwise would have. Subordinated to the more central marriage plot between Frances Wharton and Major Dunwoodie, Washington’s actual leadership role in the Revolution is — like Birch’s espionage — largely unrepresented, even if vocally celebrated.

However, Birch is in an important sense an inverse of Washington, 9 and not his equal. In its extreme form, Harvey Birch’s voluntary selfmarginalization allows him to become, so to speak, a republican “someone” only by turning him into an unrepresented, even unrepresentable, “no one.” But Washington’s status as “the acknowledged hero of an age of reason and truth” makes his self-marginalization into a “no one” not an act of diminishment, but of sublimation (401). The nation’s most virtuous and patriotic “someone” in fact becomes conflated with that most omnipotent and omnipresent of “no ones”: God (401). In the following two scenes, representative of many others in the novel, Harvey Birch inadvertently hints at this conflation out loud:

“ ...‘Twas a dreadful hour, Captain Wharton, and such as you have never known. ... Every thing seemed to have deserted me. I even thought that HE had forgotten that I have lived.” “What! did you feel that God himself had forsaken you, Harvey?” “God never forsakes his servants,” returned Birch, with reverence, and exhibiting naturally a devotion that hitherto he had only assumed. “And who did you mean by HE?” (344) “And wherein can I be more forlorn and persecuted than I now am?” asked the peddler, with that wild incoherence which often crossed his manner. “But I have promised one to save you, and to him I never have yet broken my word.” “And who is he?” said Henry, with awakened interest. “No one.” (335)

If Washington is a deified “no one,” Birch is his inverse, at one point even being mistaken for the devil. In the representational space of the novel, as in power and socioeconomic status in the fictional world of the novel, Harvey Birch is distinctly marginalized in the very novel that celebrates his heroic service. Paradoxically, this emphasis — this recognition — is predicated on the fact that he is in so much of the novel unrecognized as a hero. Birch’s heroism can be acknowledged because it is, (p. 42) in most other ways, unacknowledged. He is celebrated for not being celebrated; eulogized for not being mourned.

Harvey and Washington are thus formal, if not substantive, analogues to one another. Just as George Washington famously took no salary as a general during the Revolutionary War, so Harvey Birch refuses pay for his work as an American spy. Both are turned into impersonal tributes to republican self-abnegation. Both are emptied in the novel of social ties and personal desire. Both are subordinated to, and function in service of, other people.

By other people, I mean, specifically, the Wharton family. The character structure that places the Whartons at the center of this revolutionary novel presents them as what the revolution is being fought “for” and “over.” They are the ones whose suffering during the war counts most; they are the ones whose family line gets carried on at the end of the novel, and whose progeny live to fight in the next War of 1812. It is not simply that they are of a higher socioeconomic status than Harvey Birch or other, similarly marginalized characters. It is that they have mass: property, land, progeny — in the poetics of conservatism, all of these are of a piece. This is what gives stability and continuity to what might otherwise be an endless revolution. This is what makes them representative of those who an early conservative like Edmund Burke or a Federalist like Adams or Hamilton would suggest should form the country’s political foundation: men of substance, property, investment in the community. Substance and mass, in this conservative representation, give shape to a community, and ground it in something heavy, solid, and real. It’s an obvious point, but one worth repeating: mass gives weight to a thing, makes it hard to move, change, or destroy. Mass gives something a bedrock on which to build.

If Harvey Birch is shapeless and (after his father’s death) unattached to anyone, he is the opposite of a man of substance. Birch is, instead, a dangerous outlier in more ways than the doubleness required of a spy. An unattached, anonymous, completely impoverished man with nothing to lose, he is the archetype of an ideal revolutionary who is freed by his lack of any personal bonds to risk everything, because he has nothing. To celebrate Harvey Birch’s total, fanatical devotion to a literally Revolutionary cause is a dangerous act. To tie him to the more solid, more substantial, more invested Wharton family is necessary in order to domesticate him, and to make him serve not just a cause, but these specific people in it. A similar subordinated place in the character structure is given to George Washington. Both deified authority and alienated revolutionary serve “the community,” which is embodied, (p. 43) specifically, in the protagonists who can give the community the most solid of stable foundations: property, progeny — mass.

Perhaps this is just another way of stating certain progressive truisms: that money is power, or that the upper will always exploit the lower classes. However, I want to suggest that we consider The Spy’s character structure not just as an expression of false consciousness, but, rather, that we first consider its formal logic on its own terms, as an expression of the conservative desire for stasis and stability. Under this rubric, property is not merely capital, but a thingin the world, a resource of course but one that gives a sense of security, of substance. In the early decades of a new nation, one without a monarch, an aristocracy, or a centralized church, property, in all its forms, is more than money — it is an alternative stabilizing force: one that sets the inertia of its conservative mass against the dangers of further democratic change.

Reading The Spy through a more historically specific concept of conservatism allows us to see how Cooper’s novel illuminates the ways in which early conservatism works within, rather than against, democracy. Previous critics have argued persuasively that the ambivalence in the character structure of The Spy reflects tensions between new versus old ideologies in early nineteenth-century America (for instance, between democratic and elitist ideals, pragmatism and honor, or new versions of upper-class authority and old). 10 However, as I have argued, a more historicized understanding of what we mean by “conservative” ideologies can nuance our interpretation of ideological developments and their expression in the literature of this period. The conservative aesthetics of The Spy’s character structure, which commemorates its hero’s very lack of narrative or sociopolitical representation, represents a compelling, if ambiguous, reconstruction of republican heroism. It presents us with the possibility of equality without equality, democracy without democracy. More specifically, this is formal equality without social, economic, or political equality: the novel inscribes in its character structure the ways that the “common man” can be celebrated for, without alleviating, his essential sociopolitical alienation. 11 More broadly, this is affective democracy without functional democracy, or populism without class consciousness: it gives voice to, without allowing to speak, the minor characters on whose subordination the larger system depends. In these ways, The Spy illustrates one representational form through which a conservative check on democratic equality might be posited. Only by taking seriously the representational values that conservative aesthetics might embody, and what rhetorical force such values may have, can we meaningfully (p. 44) question their place within American culture, in the nineteenth century as in our present day.

Works Cited

  • Arac, Jonathan. The Emergence of American Literary Narrative, 1820-1860. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Spy. 1821. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.
  • Crawford, T. Hugh. “Cooper’s Spy and the Theater of Honor.” American Literature 63:3 (Sep. 1991): 405-419.
  • During, Simon. Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipation. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Conservative.” Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983. 172-189.
  • Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Figlerowicz, Marta. Flat Protagonists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • House, Kay Seymour. Cooper’s Americans. Ohio State University Press, 1965.
  • Mannheim, Karl. Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 1986.
  • McWilliams, Jr., John P. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Rosenberg, Bruce. “James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy and the Neutral Ground.” American Transcendental Quarterly 6:1 (Mar. 1992): 5-16.
  • Verhoeven, W.M. “Neutralizing the Land: The Myth of Authority, and the Authority of Myth in Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy.” James Fenimore Cooper: New Historical and Literary Contexts. Ed. W.M. Verhoeven. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1993. 71-87
  • Wallace, James D. Early Cooper and His Audience. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
  • Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962.
  • Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. New York: Princeton University Press.


1 See Wallace 109 for a detailed account of the public response to The Spy.

2 As Kay Seymour House writes, “Harvey Birch is the largest character in the book and connects most importantly with its theme” (24); James D. Wallace writes that Cooper demonstrates in the character of Harvey Birch a “profound insight into the social marginality of the essential American hero” — the American hero being, far from noble in the traditional sense, actually on social periphery (100, 116).

3 Crawford 410. Bruce Rosenberg calls The Spy “a tale without a hero” (8). John P. McWilliams, Jr. observes that the plot doesn’t exactly center on Birch, or even on Revolutionary principles, at all: “Harvey Birch devotes nearly all of his energies to the freeing of a British infantry captain [this would be Henry Wharton] from seizure and captivity by the Americans. George Washington [also a character in The Spy] travels miles into the mountains in order to liberate the same British captain from Washington’s own troops. The great leaders of the cause of American liberty, the one high-born and the other low, are thus portrayed serving British interests” (51).

4 For instance, in several offhand comments, Rita Felski complains that any questioning of critique as an academic methodology can only be “to sink into the mire of complacency, credulity, and conservatism,” or to be participate in “a reactionary gesture or conservative conspiracy” (8) — the implication being that conservatism is as serious an intellectual faux pas as smugness or unsophistication.

5 As Simon During observes, referring to the reform movements in England and the 1830s European revolutions, “It was in the 1830s that it first became clear that, come what may, democracy would ultimately triumph over its enemies” (77).

6 A rough count finds over 550 total references to “Harvey Birch,” just “Harvey or “Birch,” or “the peddler.” Rough counts show comparable, though lower numbers for Dunwoodie and Henry Wharton.

7 Compare this to Katy, who works first as a housekeeper for the Birches and then for the Whartons: she is much more likely (more than twice as likely) to be called by her name than referred to as “the housekeeper.”

8 My definition of the minor protagonist thus has some kinship with Marta Figlerowicz’s theory of what she terms “flat protagonists,” who “draw attention to themselves by being somehow simpler, less influential, and more restricted in their self-expression than they themselves, or the novels’ implied readers, would have assumed or expected” (11). However, as Figlerowicz writes, “flat protagonists are also characters to whose representation these novels devote the majority of their narrative space. Despite their increasing flatness, these characters hardly need to fight for this narrative exposure” (12). The minor protagonist, I want to argue, is characterized by its narrative subordination to other characters. Still, in its representation of restricted spaces of personal expression, the flat protagonist has, far more than I can say here, much to offer my developing theory of the minor protagonist.

9 He follows Washington’s orders, of course, and, while Washington is frequently deified, Harvey Birch at one point is mistaken for the devil.

10 See VW.H. Verhoeven, T. Hugh Crawford, and Dave McTiernan’s article “The Novel as ‘Neutral Ground’: Genre and Ideology in Cooper’s The Spy“ in Studies in American Fiction 25:1 (Spring 1997): 3-20.

11 Washington’s private acknowledgement of Birch’s service, since it is purely private, is about as good as Harvey’s own knowledge of what’s he’s done — which is important, of course, but in fact contributes to his alienation, since it reinforces the gaping divide between how others see him (as a traitor) and how he ought to be seen (as a patriot).