Nelson Resartus: Legitimate Order in Cooper’s Fleet Novel

Robert D. Madison * (United States Naval Academy)

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 331-334).

Copyright © 1997, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts and reproduced with its kind permission.

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

{331} The beginning of the year 1842 was a busy one for James Fenimore Cooper. He had published The Deerslayer in the autumn of the preceding year, the last of the Leatherstocking Tales and a work that would be acknowledged by future readers as a giant in American Literature. At the same time that he had been at work on The Deerslayer, he had also been revising and abridging his two-volume History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839, revised in 1840) for use as a text by midshipmen and apprentices. Cooper was, in his own eyes, as much a naval historian as he was a novelist — perhaps even more, as the evidence of the 1840s suggests.

Cooper had given up novel writing in the thirties, turning instead to strict social criticism of Europe and America and, increasingly, to naval affairs. 1 He had, in fact, prepared to write naval history for all his literary life. When he turned to naval materials for The Two Admirals: A Tale late in 1841, he was not simply experimenting with form. 2 He was using material in which he had immersed himself for over a decade, and which in 1842 would produce (in terms of naval non-fiction) the biographies of three American naval officers (Somers, Bainbridge, and Dale) and a treatise on the British naval historian William James. This last provided him with the themes of fleets and admirals; the young United States had little experience with the former, and the latter would not appear in America for over twenty years.

The Two Admirals began at first as a book about fleets; indeed, ships were to be its only characters. That intention was almost entirely abandoned. 3 Instead, Cooper turned to naval character and his central portrait of the relationship between two differently-tempered admirals. 4 Oddly enough, Cooper, who had long been a proponent of the formation of the rank of admiral in the United States, did not develop this polemical theme in the novel. Instead, he probed deeply into what has been referred to in Navy education circles today as “the loyalty thing.”

The Two Admirals chronicles the apoplexy and death of an English baronet in 1745, and explores the legitimacy of his heirs’ claims to wealth and title, alongside an exploration of the legitimacy of the Stuart claim to the throne of England. The first chapter’s long discussion of the law of the half blood — patently based on the discussion of Salic Law that opens Henry V — prepares us for the issue. The outcome of the first half of the book — a justification of the workings of the peerage and legitimate claims through law — moves us far beyond the question of legitimacy. We move into the second half of the book — the “sea novel” half — and are presented with Admiral Richard Bluewater’s dilemma: a choice between a legitimacy he believes (and to which Cooper forces us to accede, however reluctantly) is true, and loyalty to Sir Gervaise Oakes, his commander and deepest friend.

The basis of this relationship, and many of the minor aspects of plot, is drawn (as Richard H. Ballinger pointed out long ago) from Robert {332} Southey’s Life of Nelson and the correspondence of Nelson’s close friend Collingwood. 5 Cooper’s debt to his own History of the Navy, also suggested by Ballinger, is certainly insignificant, however, compared to what Cooper immersed himself in while responding to the Edinburgh Review’s acclamation for Captain Chamier’s edition of William James’ The Naval History of Great Britain (1837). 6

This impressive sideshow of 1842 is the key to understanding Cooper’s sources in this book. Cooper’s Democratic Review essay about William James focuses (as did his knowledge) on the conflict between England and the United States, but The Two Admirals draws on the full range of British naval history, is set well before open hostilities between England and the colonies, and bears no biographical relationship to either Collingwood or Nelson, despite the plundering of works specifically by and about them.

In fact, Sir Gervaise Oakes, the commanding admiral, is patently based not on the close relationship between Nelson and Hardy or Collingwood, but on John Jervis, Earl St. Vincent. Jervis had been Nelson’s mentor and sponsor; nevertheless, Nelson broke with him, as described by Robert Southey in The Life of Nelson:

Then came the victory at Copenhagen: which Nelson truly called, the most difficult achievement, the hardest fought battle, the most glorious result, that ever graced the annals of our country. He, of course, expected the medal: and, in writing to Earl St. Vincent, said: “He longed to have it, and would not give it up to be made an English duke.” The medal, however, was not given: — “For what reason,” said Nelson, “Lord St. Vincent best knows.” — Words plainly implying a suspicion, that it was withheld by some feeling of jealousy; and that suspicion estranged him, during the remaining part of his life, from one who had at one time been, essentially, as well as sincerely, his friend ... 7

In a book that dwells on the possibility of disloyalty, one also suspects the ever-present influence of the Perry-Elliott controversy as well. The key action of the book — Bluewater’s hesitation and then succor of his friend — matches the Lake Erie relationship much more closely. Nelson, on the other hand, never hesitated. One could thus recognize three strands in the naval portion of the book: the Nelson strand, bringing with it obvious names of subordinates and the major fleet maneuvers; the Jervis strand, focussing on the Admiral of Cooper’s choice who best represented the impeccable tradition of British command at sea; and the Elliott strand, of fraternity gone wrong. 8

The theme does, in fact, come from the intersection of the Nelson and Jervis strands, but they are twisted. The chief end of service in the naval world of The Two Admirals is gaining a peerage: becoming part of the established, the legitimate, unassailable order of things. “When your work is done,” exclaims Sir Gervaise to subordinate Captain Parker, “make the best of your way to the nearest English port, and clap a Scotchman on your shoulder to keep the king’s sword from chafing it. They thought me fit for a knighthood at three and twenty, and the deuce is in it, Parker, if you are not worthy of it, at three and sixty.” “You will be made Viscount Bowldero, for these last affairs,” a wounded Bluewater advises his friend Sir Gervaise; “Nor do I see, why you should again refuse a peerage.” Not only is naval promotion secondary glory to these fictional characters, there is also a long subtext centered on a young officer whose social rank — he is Lord Geoffrey — gives him privilege among his seniors afloat. And it is Lord Geoffrey who, at the very close of the novel, provides continuity at a time when an old Sir Gervaise is unable to remember the friendship, loyalty, or even name of his subordinate, Richard Bluewater: “The gentleman is now at the tomb of his dearest friend,” Lord Geoffrey observes, “and yet, as you see, he appears to have lost all recollection that such a person ever existed.”

The Two Admirals is not history. It is neither the historic relationship between Nelson and his associates nor, except as sheer fantasy, is it the {333} relationship between Cooper and his best friend, William Branford Shubrick, prophetic as that name may be for American admirals. Cooper’s book is more nearly a Shakespearean comedy, consciously clinging to the unities of time and place. It is dark comedy, concluded by a marriage that does nothing to resolve the themes of loyalty and legitimacy that have been tested afloat and ashore. The generosity of Sir Gervaise extends to recognize the justice of a young applicant’s claim to a baronetcy, but not the Stuart Pretender’s claim to the throne. Ashore, law is paramount. Afloat, issues of legitimate command and obedience, while unclouded, are resolved only through the mechanism of personal loyalty. Bluewater’s crisis is not so much one of loyalty as recognizing the conflict of these principles — and opting for the immediate “right” of friendship.

Had this book been written a year later, no doubt we would speculate about the Gansevoort/Mackenzie relationship as a source for Bluewater’s dilemma. But The Two Admirals was published in early spring, 1842, and Cooper went right to work on The Wing-and-Wing, perhaps his most mature romance of the sea. 9 In it, Nelson appears as a major character in a major episode that plays out the historical drama of the Carraccioli hanging, the darkest blot on Nelson’s career. Cooper, after all, saw Nelson as a highly questionable — if de facto — role model for the rising American navy. The Wing-and-Wing came out in November of 1842, just as the next chapter in Cooper’s life as a naval historian was beginning, not far to the east of the Lesser Antilles, in a brig named the Somers. 10


1 See my introduction to the abridged History of the Navy (Delmar:1988) for a fuller analysis of the earlier naval writings.

2 For a complete discussion of Cooper’s proposal for a novel with no human characters, only ships, see Don Ringe’s introduction to the State University of New York edition of The Two Admirals (Albany: 1990). Cooper’s intention may also have been sublimated in his unfinished “biography” of the USS Constitution, a long essay which he had intended to publish alongside his human biographies in Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1846).

3 Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October is largely written in this form, with tremendous success. Cooper’s publisher, a hundred and forty years earlier, balked.

4 One might cynically say these admirals are the Effinghams redivivi. One is a tactician, the other a seaman; one is laissez-faire, the other a micromanager; one loyal to the house of Stuart, the other loyal to the house of Hanover. Cooper enjoyed working with doubles.

5 “Origins of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Two Admirals,” American Literature 20 (1948), 20-30.

6 Cooper’s essay “The Edinburgh Review on James’s Naval Occurrences and Cooper’s Naval History” appeared in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 10 (1842), 411-435, 515-541. James was essentially “doubled” by Cooper’s piece and the unsigned New York Review article of early 1842, an essay that depended extensively on Cooper’s own History of the Navy (1840):

The recent appearance of a new edition of James’s Naval History of Great Britain, repeating all the former misrepresentations in his narrative of events connected with our country. seems to us to offer a fit occasion for examining its claims to the authenticity of history: and in doing this, we shall find no difficulty, we think, in convincing the writer not only of a uniform violation of truth in his record of everything that concerns ourselves, but also of such malignity of spirit as must disqualify him for his office, and destroy his credibility as a historian. (“James’s Naval History of Great Britain,” New York Review, 10 [January 1842], 184) The new edition was edited by Captain Chamier, RN.

Neither Cooper’s piece nor the New York Review essay handles James particularly delicately.

7 The Life of Nelson (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 240-241.

8 Such contributions include the lessons of the Nile (388), “Kiss me, Oakes” (442), anticipations of Nelson’s flagship, the Victory (357), the duty of an Englishman to hate a Frenchman (181), Nelson’s idea of the proper place being alongside the enemy (254), and the names of Parker and Foley (and probably others, including the similarity of Vervillin and Villeneuve). One ought probably to look at Southey’s Lives of the British Admirals, not only for their contribution to Cooper’s naval lore but also as models for Cooper’s own Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (published with this title in 1846). The idea of ducking a shot (336) comes directly from the Perry/Elliott controversy. The horrid and ironic anticipation of the Somers hangings (341, 354) may indicate, along with A. S. Mackenzie’s description of a hanging in A Year in Spain and Cooper’s own description of the hanging in The Wing-and-Wing, a morbid fascination for hanging prevalent among antebellum naval officers.

9 The Two Admirals turned out to be a surprisingly popular work: it was reprinted two-volumes-in-one by Lea and Blanchard in 1843, by Burgess and Stringer in 1845, and possibly by Stringer and Townsend in 1848 (in addition to the printings mentioned in Ringe’s introduction). Near the turn of the century, The Two Admirals was published as part of a British six-volume set of sea tales which included Cupples’ The Green Hand, Marryat’s Midshipman Easy, M. Scott’s Tom Cringle’s Log, Russell’s The Wreck of the Grosvenor, and, remarkably, Melville’s Moby-Dick. The inclusion of this work out of all of Cooper’s maritime romances indicates the higher esteem in which the work was held in the land of its setting and main characters.

10 Cooper’s vitriolic response to the Somers affair found expression in The Battle of Lake Erie (1843), Ned Myers; or, A Life Before the Mast (1843), and, exhaustively, in “Review of the Proceedings of the Naval Court Martial“(1844) (Delmar: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, State University of New York Press). His general antipathy to Alexander Slidcll Mackenzie, whom Cooper must have regarded as a literary rival second only to the late Sir Walter Scott, found utterance in virtually all of his naval writings after 1839. But that’s another — and another’s — story.

* Robert Durwood Madison attended the University of Rhode Island, Clark University, and Northwestern University (Ph. D 1981), and specializes in nineteenth century American literature. He has edited works of Southey, Cooper, and Melville, as well as the forthcoming Penguin edition of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in the Black Regiment . He is Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.