Cooper and the Sea: A Bibliographic Note

Robert D. Madison * (United States Naval Academy)

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 371-372).

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.]

{371} James Fenimore Cooper’s career as a writer began and ended at sea, and like the sea itself, extended from pole to pole. Among his earliest essays (for the Literary and Scientific Repository in 1821-1822) are reviews of Arctic exploration by Scoresby and Parry, while his penultimate novel, The Sea Lions (1849), is set partially in the dreary wastes of the Antarctic continent. It was The Pilot (1824), however, that not only initiated Cooper’s career as a maritime writer, but also defined the genre of sea fiction itself. In part a response to the befuddled whalemanship of Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1821), The Pilot epitomized the maritime conflicts of man against man, man against the sea, and man against the beasts of the sea, through its chapters on naval combat, storm and shipwreck, and the whale hunt — all united with a Paul Jones theme. Cooper not only set the pattern for his own subsequent novels, but also defined the mainstream of American literature of the sea to the end of the millennium.

Cooper built on the success of The Pilot with the publication of The Red Rover (1827) and The Water-Witch (1830), a pair of romances in the Byronic strain written while Cooper was abroad in England and Europe. Cooper then turned to themes nearer at hand to produce his European trilogy, the first of which, The Bravo (1831), is highly maritime in its Venetian setting and characterization, though not usually classified with Cooper’s sea novels.

In A Letter to His Countrymen (1834), Cooper claimed to have given up fiction, but nevertheless the following year he produced a Swiftlan political satire, The Monikins, whose portrait of sealing skipper Noah Poke, based extremely loosely on Antarctic explorer Nathaniel B. Palmer, is a gem of maritime characterization. When Cooper returned to straightforward fiction writing with the packet-ship tale Homeward Bound (1838), he developed the Poke figure as Captain Truck, the central character of a pivotal sea novel which moves away from the romanticism of the earlier works and foreshadows increasing realism in the sea novels.

In 1839 Cooper published the first of several editions of The History of the Navy of the United States of America, a life-long work which had been in Cooper’s mind since his review of Thomas Clark’s Naval History in the Literary and Scientific Repository in 1821. Cooper’s own naval history opened a decade of intense naval writing that was to include “The Edinburgh Review on James’s Naval Occurrences and Cooper’s Naval History“ (1842), The Battle of Lake Erie (1843), Ned Myers (1843), “An Elaborate Review” in Proceedings of the Naval Court Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (1844), and Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (published 1846, from sketches written 1842-1846). Two other pieces apparently begun during this period were published posthumously: “Old Ironsides” (1853) and “The Battle of Plattsburg Bay” (1869).

Cooper’s imagination influenced his next two Leatherstocking Tales, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841), in a more {372} positive way than in Mercedes of Castile (1840), a novel of Columbian voyaging usually considered among Cooper’s weakest. In The Two Admirals (1842) Cooper experimented with fleet action and the Nelson legend, and Nelson appears as a minor character in The Wing-and-Wing (1842), a Mediterranean novel that combines his earlier Romanticism with the harshly realistic characterization of Yankee Ithuel Bolt. In this work, perhaps the last that could properly be called a romance, Cooper’s idealistic portraiture of both ships and the men in them reached its clearest expression.

After bringing his sailor-biography Ned Myers to a hasty conclusion, Cooper experimented with the autobiographical voice in his double novel Afloat and Ashore (1844), a voice of which he was to make extensive use in the landlocked Littlepage Trilogy. In 1846 he began his only serialized novel, “The Islets of the Gulf; or, Rose Budd,” later Jack Tier (1848). This work, a deliberate revisitation of Red Rover materials, is strikingly contemporary with its Mexican War setting and its use of steam as well as sail in a chiaroscuro of literary theory as well as maritime technology.

The Crater (1847) may be Cooper’s most representative work, combining frontier, seascape, and social criticism, while foreshadowing the symbolic and religious overtones of his powerful final sea novel, The Sea Lions, published scarcely two years before his death in 1851.

Cooper has never been seriously questioned as the inventor and master of the sea novel. Those two giants of the genre, Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, both acknowledged an enormous debt to their predecessor. In fact, notice of Cooper’s maritime works for the half-century following his death tended toward the adulatory, but in our century they have been subjected to the same kinds of scrutiny as the better-known Leatherstocking tales.

There is not room here to present a detailed critique of the maritime writings, but some benchmarks can be identified. In the first half of this century, perhaps the most useful inquiries which charted Cooper’s course as a maritime writer centered on source study. The work of Harold E. Scudder is representative: In “Cooper’s The Crater“ (1947) and “Cooper and the Barbary Coast” (1947), published respectively in American Literature and PMLA, Scudder placed Cooper firmly in the context of intellectual history and studied the transformation of source material into the narrative art of the sea novels. A decade later, Donald A. Ringe explored art in its literal sense in “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique” (1958), a study of The Crater expanded in The Pictorial Mode: Space and Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving, and Cooper (1971). Meanwhile, in 1961 Thomas Philbrick published James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction, a thorough study of Cooper’s responses and contributions to the shifts of taste in maritime literature; it also provides a thorough survey of the context of sea writing in the first half of the nineteenth century. Philbrick also introduced an edition of The Crater in 1962. The Crater is also at the center of “The Crater and the Constitution“(1971) by John P. McWilliams, Jr., later incorporated into Political Justice in a Republic (1972), a central study of Cooper’s political theory. More recently, the rivalry between Cooper and his literary nemesis, central to the understanding of the energy and focus of the former’s naval writings, has been examined by Hugh Egan in his introduction to Proceedings of the Naval Court Martial in the Case of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (1992).

* obert 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.