James Fenimore Cooper and the Sea

Hugh C. MacDougall (James Fenimore Cooper Society)

Originally prepared for presentation to the Naval Enlisted Reserve Association, Otesaga Hotel, Cooperstown, New York, April 26, 1997.

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

On January 1, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson signed the warrant appointing James Fenimore Cooper as a Midshipman in the infant United States Navy. President Jefferson certainly did not know that in so doing, he was laying the foundations of a new kind of writing — the sea story — or of the historical study of the American navy.

James Fenimore Cooper was the son of Judge William Cooper, the self-made developer from New Jersey who had founded the frontier settlement of Cooperstown in 1786, the little village in which his son James would spend more than half his life, and half his career as America’s first internationally recognized novelist.

At the tender age of 13, young James Fenimore Cooper was sent away to be educated at Yale College in New Haven. But in his third year there, in 1806, he was expelled after a fight with a fellow-classman. His plans for the future destroyed, Cooper did what many young men in trouble have always done — he ran away to sea. He signed aboard the American merchant ship Stirling, as an ordinary seaman, for a trading voyage to England and Spain. He loved it, and when he returned to America a year later he thought he had found his vocation.

In July of 1808 Midshipman Cooper was sent to Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario, to help supervise the construction of America’s first Great Lakes warship, the 16-gun brig Oneida. But he wanted real sea duty, and after a year and a half Cooper arranged a transfer to New York, to the United States Sloop Wasp, the first American naval vessel to bear that famous name. But destiny had something else in store for him; assigned to recruiting duty in New York City, Cooper met Susan Augusta DeLancey of Westchester County, resigned from the Navy, and on January 1, 1811 was married.

Cooper’s naval career was over. After a dozen years trying to live as a country gentleman, he turned to writing and rapidly became America’s first celebrated novelist. Between 1820 and his death in 1851, Cooper wrote 32 novels, including the five Leather-Stocking Tales — with and their frontier scout hero Natty Bumppo — whom we remember today.

But we have forgotten what Cooper’s nineteenth century readers were very much aware of — that besides writing about the frontier he had created a whole new category of exciting adventure — the story of the sea. It because of Cooper that literature could later find a place for writers like Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, or in more popular vein to C.S. Forester’s Captain Hornblower series or today’s sea sagas of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin by Patrick O’Brian.

When Cooper turned, in his fourth novel, to a story of the sea, he brought to it not only his virtually photographic memory of his own experience as a sailor, but also a gift for using words to describe nature that has never been surpassed. It all started when Cooper read a novel called The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott, then the world’s leading novelist. Cooper was annoyed at Scott’s description of ships and the sea, a subject about which Scott knew little or nothing, and believed he could do better. The result was a novel called The Pilot, a fictional tale of adventure off the British coast based on the exploits and character of America’s Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones.

The Pilot appeared in 1824 and was an instant best- seller. It was also something brand new in literature. For the first time the sea was depicted as something grand and awesome, a place both of beauty and of terror, capable of calm serenity and of untamed violence. For the first time in literature, Cooper depicted seamen as real human beings. Before Cooper, when novels dealt with sailors at all, they were described as ignorant and crude louts, interested only in booze and sex, to be exploited and made fun of in port towns. Not so in Cooper’s novels; he knew only too well that sailors were men who in storm and in battle had to face and surmount some of the greatest challenges that life can provide. He knew, also, that despite the discipline of a ship’s operation, the sea is a an essentially democratic place, where sailors are valued not by where they came from, their education, or the color of their skin, but by how well they contribute to keeping the ship afloat.

Over the next twenty-five years, James Fenimore Cooper wrote some eleven novels of sea adventure, and during his lifetime they were at least as famous as his stories of the frontier. It was not until about 1850 that America abandoned its longstanding tradition as a leading maritime nation, and turned its face inward to conquer the new frontiers of the American West.

Cooper’s sea novels cover the world, and much of its history. They deal with naval warfare, piracy and privateering, and with the quieter if often as dangerous adventures of merchant ships. Let us simply list their themes:

  • The Pilot, set off the shores of England during the American Revolution, is a tale of John Paul Jones (under a disguised name) confronting storms, battle, and a treacherous coastline.
  • The Red Rover, set in the Atlantic in the middle of the eighteenth century, is a story of an American driven to piracy by British colonial oppression. It is also the first American novel in which an African-American is presented, not as a stereotype to be laughed at, but as a man of intelligence and bravery.
  • The Water-Witch, set in the waters of New York harbor and Long Island sound, tells of a game of cat and mouse between a bold smuggler and a British warship.
  • In Homeward Bound, set in Cooper’s own time of the mid nineteenth century, a passenger packet ship bound for New York is blown ashore on the North African coast.
  • Mercedes of Castille tells the story of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the New World.
  • The Two Admirals, set in 1745, describes fleet warfare for the first time in fiction, as British and French navies confront each other in the English channel.
  • The Wing-and-Wing describes naval warfare off the Italian coast during the Napoleonic wars.
  • Afloat and Ashore, and its sequel Miles Wallingford, tell the story of a young man as he progresses from merchant sailor to captain in adventures around the world; it is, perhaps, the story Cooper had dreamed of for himself.
  • The Crater is one of the world’s great Robinson Crusoe stories; two sailors cast away on a desert island in the Pacific painfully build a new world for themselves, only to see their utopia destroyed by human failings.
  • In Jack Tier, a villainous captain (the ancestor, perhaps, of Captain Queeg) commands a traitorous gun-running ship in the Florida Keys during the Mexican American War.
  • And last, but not least, The Sea Lions tells of two ships seeking seals among the icebergs of Antarctica, and caught there during the long winter night.

If all Cooper had done was to create the novel of the sea, he would have achieved much. Melville, Conrad, all the writers about the sea who followed him acknowledge their debt to him. It was Joseph Conrad, himself a giant among writers of the sea, wrote:

“[Cooper] loved the sea and looked at it with consummate understanding. In his sea tales the sean inter-penetrates with life. ... His descriptions have the magistral ampleness of a gesture indicating the sweep of a vast horizon. They embrace the colours of sunset, the peace of starlight, the aspects of calm and storm, the great loneliness of the waters, the stillness of silent coasts, and the alert readiness which marks men who live face to face with the promise and the menace of the sea.”

But James Fenimore Cooper was also America’s first great naval historian. After his comparatively short tour as a Midshipman, he kept in constant touch with his former shipmates, and followed closely the growth of the American navy.

After many years of research, in 1839, Cooper published his monumental History of the Navy of the United States, in two thick volumes. In great detail, and with great objectivity, in chronicles the history of the American navy from its Revolutionary beginnings to the end of the War of 1812. In the years that followed, Cooper’s Naval History was reprinted frequently. He prepared a condensed version for the general public; an edition published in 1856, after Cooper’s death, brought the History up to date, using manuscript materials Cooper had left behind him. For decades it was the standard American Naval History to which everyone referred.

There was, indeed, a certain amount of controversy about the book. The descendants of Commodore Oliver Perry took offense at Cooper for not supporting their contention that Perry’s second-in-command, Commodore Jessie Elliot had proved a coward at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812. When their accusations appeared in the press, Cooper sued for libel; the matter was referred to an Arbitration Tribunal, in which Cooper defended his own cause.

A bystander, who did not know Cooper, attended the hearing, and wrote of it later:

“We could not but admire the self-possession, coolness, and vigor with which the author, on this occasion, played the lawyer. Almost alone in his opinion the tide of public sentiment [was] against his theory of the battle ... he stood collected, dignified, uncompromising; examined witnesses, quoted authorities, argued nautical and naval precedents with a force and and facility that would have done credit to an experienced barrister. ... When he described the battle, and illustrated his views by diagrams, it was like a chapter in one of his own sea-stories, so minute, graphic, and spirited was the picture he drew. ... He ... told anecdotes; he spoke of the maneuvers of the vessels, of the shifting of the wind, of the course of the fight, like one whose life had been passed on the quarter-deck.”

The Arbitration Tribunal decided unanimously in Cooper’s favor.

But Cooper did not stop with his Naval History. Over the next few years he wrote for Graham’s Magazine a series of short biographies of eight American naval heroes, which were then collected and published in 1846 as Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers. And shortly after hid death in 1851, there was published a lengthy history he had written of “Old Ironsides,” the US Frigate Constitution that still floats in Boston Harbor.

Cooper’s interest in enlisted naval personnel was as great as his interest in naval officers.

In 1843 there appeared in Cooperstown a man named Ned Myers, who after a lifetime as a sailor in both the Navy and the Merchant service, was now broke and half crippled. He had served with Cooper long before, when young Cooper first went to sea in 1806 as an ordinary sailor on the merchant ship Stirling. By 1843 Ned Myers was about fifty years old, and had been a crew member of 72 different vessels, mostly in the merchant service, but also in the Navy during the War of 1812, when his ship, the Scourge, was sunk and he was wounded. Finally admitted to the Sailors’ Snug Harbor home in Staten Island, and awarded a Navy pension, Ned Myers wanted to look up his old shipmate.

For several months Ned Myers lived with James Fenimore Cooper in Otsego Hall, which then stood in the middle of Cooperstown. They spent many hours together, in Cooper’s study and on Cooper’s sailboat on Otsego Lake — for throughout his life Cooper made sure he had access to boats. And Ned Myers told Cooper the story of his life — not one of glamour and spit and polish, but the hard, ill paid, and often brutal labor of an ordinary sailor.

In 1843, Cooper published Ned Myers’ biography, entitled Ned Myers; or, A Life Before the Mast. It is almost forgotten today, because as a biography, rather than a novel, it was rarely included in editions of Cooper’s works. But in 1843 it was one of the best-sellers of the year. Nor did Cooper forget is shipmate Ned. He got him a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, helped pay his debts, and even hired one of his step-daughters. Happily, the Naval Institute Press at Annapolis reprinted Ned Myers in 1989 in its Classics of Naval Literature series.

Throughout his life, Cooper forcefully argued, in both published articles and private letters, for a strong and well-financed American Navy, as the key to American security. As he wrote in his Naval History, everyone agreed that “the republic must assert its place in the scale of nations, defend its territory, and maintain its rights, principally by means of a powerful marine.” But, he complained, “the growth of this branch of the public service has been slow, uncertain, and marked by a policy as timid as it has been fluctuating. ... ” He went on lay down three principles, as summarized by Robert Spiller:

  1. “A large, powerful, and well trained naval force in times of peace is essential to the maintenance of national honor abroad and self-respect at home.
  2. “Appropriation by Congress of sufficient funds to maintain this force and to build adequate vessels would be a justifiable expenditure.
  3. “Increase in the number of ranks in the naval service would foster ambition and thus stimulate enlistment and promote morale.”

For most Americans today, James Fenimore Cooper is remembered as the man who wrote the book on which Michael Mann based his Last of the Mohicans movie. Or he is remembered as the creator of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, the frontier scout and his Indian friend from whom developed the American Western tradition, right down to the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

But James Fenimore Cooper was also America’s first writer of the sea, its first Naval Historian, and a life- long friend of the American Navy. So, as you enjoy our bucolic countryside, I hope you will remember that rural Cooperstown, through James Fenimore Cooper, is closely linked with the Navy and with the Sea. And, if you are prepared to wade through the sometimes difficult prose-style and romantic conventions of pre-Civil War American writing, you will find in Cooper’s sea novels some of the finest tales of the oceans, of ships, and of sailors ever written.