Cooper’s Sea Tales

Robert W. Neeser (Secretary of the Naval Society, New York City)

Published in the Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, Vol. XVI, pp. 63-68, 1917.

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It was in the course of an after-dinner conversation that the thought of writing a romance of the sea first came to Fenimore Cooper. The table talk had turned on the authorship of the Waverly Novels, which, in 1822, was still a matter of some uncertainty, and on its most recent volume, “The Pirate,” which had been published in December of the preceding year. The incidents of this story were brought forward as a proof of the thorough familiarity with sea life of the author, whoever he was. But Cooper contended that “The Pirate” was not the work of a sailor, but that of a landsman. His listeners could not be convinced by his arguments. He therefore determined to convince them by writing “a, sea tale, to show,” he said, “what can be done in this way by a sailor.”

For Cooper, after leaving college, had sought the “renovating influence of ocean life” on board the Sterling, “one of the wettest ships that ever floated,” and had shipped regularly before the mast as a “preparatory study,” there being then no naval school, to his obtaining a midshipman’s commission in the Navy. This event occurred on January 1, 1808. During the next few years Cooper saw a fair amount of service. He served for a while on board the Vesuvius; then he was ordered to Lake Ontario to assist in the construction of a 16-ton brig-of-war; in 1809 he was attached to the Wasp, under the command of James Lawrence, who afterwards fell in the engagement between the Chesapeake and the Shannon. On board the Wasp also Cooper began his lifelong friendship with Shubrick, a midshipman like himself, to whom he afterwards dedicated the “Pilot” and the “Red Rover.” But “the blasted prospects of the service,” during Jefferson’s administration, when frigates and sea-going men-of-war were laid up at the navy yards in deference to the President’s preference for one-gun gunboats, were too discouraging to bear long, and Cooper in consequence decided, after another year of trial, to leave the Navy.

The stirring struggles of the Revolutionary War furnished Cooper with the character of that bold seaman, John Paul Jones, and the cruise of the Ranger and her daring descent upon Whitehaven and Lord Selkirk’s isle suggested to him the plot for the “Pilot.” “Imagine the author’s boldness in taking Paul Jones for a hero,” wrote an English woman. At one time Cooper was almost inclined to give up the project, fearful lest his reputation “be sunk in the treacherous elements he was purposing to describe.” The two ships, the frigate and the schooner Ariel, were already drawn up for battle. At this juncture Cooper submitted a portion of the manuscript to a critical English friend. To his great surprise, the authority, who by the way was a doubter of American talent, was delighted with it, and the wonderful description of the sea fight was consequently preserved, though I must say that Long Tom Coffing [sic] and his “Long Tom” did wonderfully good shooting for his day and generation.

The literature of the sea presents no more thrilling chapter than that which, describing the great frigate working her way off shore through the treacherous channel, gives every detail with such vividness and accuracy that one can almost see the ship, the shoals and the white-crested waves, and hear the creaking of the cordage and the roaring of the gale. It was this famous description that convinced the public that “a master of the sea tale had come into the world,” and led Mary Russell Mitford to write to a friend, “Have you read the American novels. ... I envy the Americans their Mr. Cooper.”

But previous to this, Cooper, anxious to try the effect of his tale upon the more peculiar public of seamen, read this wonderful description to his friend Captain Shubrick. “My listener betrayed interest as we proceeded, until he could no longer keep his seat. He paced tile room furiously until I got through, and just as I laid down the paper he exclaimed: ‘It’s all very well, but you have let your jib stand too long, my fine fellow!’” For once Cooper heeded criticism. “I blew it out of the bolt-rope,” said he, “in pure spite!” And blown out of the holt-rope the jib appears in the tale.

The success of the “Pilot” was instantaneous, both in this country and in Europe. “Far-sighted men,” says Professor Lounsbury, “saw at once that a new realm had been added to the domain of action. The ‘Pilot’ is indeed not only the best of Cooper’s sea stories in point of time, but if we regard exclusively the excellence of detached scenes, it may perhaps be justly styled the best of them all. At any rate its place in the highest rank of this species of fiction can not be disputed. In spite of the multitude of similar works that have followed in its wake and which have had their seasons of temporary popularity, its hold upon the public has never been lost.”

The “Pilot” was followed by the “Red Rover,” which appeared in print on the 9ᵗʰ of January, 1828. In the years that followed the publication of the “Pilot,” the first favorable impression of that novel had more than been confirmed. Tales of the sea were beginning to be the fashion; imitators were appearing everywhere. It was natural, therefore, for Cooper to turn his attention once more to the kind of fiction which he had himself created. After leaving the Navy, Cooper had become part owner in a whaling-ship, the Union of Sag Harbor, and in it had made several voyages to Newport, playing, for the pleasure of it, the part of skipper. The charm of Newport’s situation, the harbor and the old mill ruin, lingered in his mind and served him with scenes of the opening and closing chapters of the “Red Rover.” And in this second tale Cooper again shows his great knowledge of life afloat and, to quote the remark of a friend, “gives a lot of weather.” “Something too much of nautical language,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in his diary. “It is very clear though.”

In the “Sea Lions” Cooper has created a “powerful story,” that is, as Professor Lounsbury justly remarked, when he “abandons his metaphysics and turns to his real business.” The picture of life in the Antarctic [sic] which Cooper here gives us is almost too realistic with its ice bergs, rifts and snowdrifts. It has been suggested that the sailing of Sir John Franklin in 1845 for the frozen country of the North Star led Cooper to dispatch his two whalers across the equator. But I am more inclined to ascribe the inspiration to the daring voyage of Captain Wilkes’s South Sea exploring expedition which had returned to the United States only a few years before.

While generally correct in his descriptions, Cooper in the “Sea Lions” at times ventures to press the advantage of the law of poetic license a bit too far — notably in his narration of the whale hunt. For instance, he tells us that Gardner and Daggett both left their vessels and steered each one of the boats launched to “whale in partnership,” the description that follows centering mainly on the competition between the two individual skippers. But, as a matter of fact, it was never customary for the captain of a whaling ship to go in the boats and leave his ship in charge of irresponsible hands. In a like manner, Cooper’s thrilling incident of the bull whale getting the second line foul of his mouth by the other whale swimming round and round him, seems highly unlikely, though strange things sometimes happen at sea, and this particular case may have been founded on actual occurrence.

Personally, I have always Liked the “Water Witch” or the “Skimmer of the Seas” the best for the opening scenes are laid on a part of the coast of New Jersey with which I am familiar, and Cooper appears to have been unusually well informed of the continual changes wrought in this tongue of sand “by the unremitting and opposing actions of the waves on one side, and of the currents of the different rivers, that empty their waters into the bay, on the other,” this referring, of course, to Sandy Hook.

All the incidents presented by Cooper are good and show a thorough technical knowledge, with a perhaps allowable element of exaggeration. The Coquette’s maneuveres [sic], the Squall, and the Passage through Hell Gate, go like a motion picture film, reeled off on the screen at a pace of about seventy times the speed at which the exposures were made. This is perhaps admissible to stimulate interest.

In his description of the passage through Hell Gate, however, Cooper is at his best, and there shows his thorough knowledge not only of seamanship, but also of hydrography and pilotage. Hell Gate, in the twenties, and to a sailing vessel, was a highly perilous strait. Even to this day, after two centuries of blasting and dredging, the sailing directions caution sailing vessels not to attempt the passage except at slack water and with a leading wind; Cooper, you will notice, laid the scene at “half flood of a spring tide,” the most dangerous time to choose. The description of the sudden determination of the Skimmer of the Seas to take the inside channel at the west end of Blackwells island, and again his intuition to give the split at Throg’s Neck a berth, by watching the two coasters, is a brilliant piece of nautical writing. In chapter 20 we have again “a lot of weather, ” and these comments, I take it, were written before the discovery of the laws of cyclonic storms; Cooper’s remarks are therefore the result of personal observation. But Cooper’s remarks on the violence of the shift from south or southwest to northwest are exaggerated. This change seldom comes without plenty of warning — heavy clouds, and a shift of wind in a thunder squall in summer, or a snow squall in winter. As the squall comes off shore it does not raise much sea if the ship is near the land, and if due precaution is taken it is not a source of great danger. Of course the present scientific knowledge on the subject and the use of wireless in storm predictions have disarmed the tempest. Cooper’s knowledge, as revealed in his comments on the weather in the “Sea Tales,” may be safely assumed as complete as it could be at the time he wrote.

In conclusion, some criticism of Cooper’s style may be permissible, for in his various romances dealing with shipboard life, Cooper has often departed from the concise, direct and convincing language of the sea. Of course the general tendency of the writers of this period to indulge in verbosity and pomposity of style, must be constantly borne in mind. The first hundred pages of any of Sir Walter Scott’s novels are as difficult an obstacle as any of the American author’s introductory chapters, but Cooper’s descriptions of life afloat, instead of being given in the terse and expressive language of the technical profession, were written with the evident idea of making them more intelligible to the lay reader — a mistake in itself, for the lay reader more often is content to accept the technical description, even if he does not understand it, and rather to resent labored attempts to enlighten his supposed ignorance. For instance, it is as clear to the average reasoning reader to say that a ship was “hove to,” as to say that “she lay under her three topsails alone, the main being thrown against the mast, a disposition of sail which prevented her making headway,” and so forth for half a page. And there is a passage in the introductory chapter of Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast,” which is so apt in this connection, that I am tempted to quote it. He says, “There may be a good deal, in some parts, that is unintelligible to the general reader; but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life new to us, and descriptions of life under new aspects, act on the inexperienced through the imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge,” and as an example he cites two episodes from Cooper himself and says of them that thousands read them “and follow the minute nautical maneuvers with breathless interest, who do not know the name of a rope in a ship, and perhaps with none the less admiration and enthusiasm from their want of acquaintance with the professional detail.” If this be true, and I believe it to be, how useless to lumber the page with labored explanation, and how much more direct and convincing to use, like Marryatt, and Dana himself, the concise, direct and convincing guage [sic] of the sea, and thereby pay a higher compliment to the reader.