Introductory Notes

Special Cooper Issue of The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997)

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 296-297).

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.]


Editor-in-Chief’s Note

No one is better fixed to be guest editor of this special issue than Professor Robert Foulke of Skidmore College. A graduate of Princeton and Minnesota universities, he has held numerous visiting fellowships, including Fulbright Fellow at the University of London. An avid sailor, he has raced and cruised Midwest lakes and New England and Nova Scotia seas. He is sometime Sailing Officer at the US Naval Academy, and skipper in the Bermuda race, and he brings a vast knowledge of the sea and sailing to his scholarship. His publications include the book An Anatomy of Literature, numerous learned contributions to scholarly and other journals, and a new book published this year, The Sea Voyage Narrative.

The American Neptune is pleased to bring this group of essays together, for they contribute vastly to the literary heritage on and about James Fenimore Cooper.

Barry Gough

Guest Editor’s Note

It is hard to imagine what the literature of voyaging might have come to without the sea novels of James Fenimore Cooper — a round dozen that are too often forgotten in the attention given to his Leatherstocking Tales set in the woods and on the prairie. From the first in 1824 to the last in 1849, those sea novels represent and propel stages in the evolution of a central genre in the literature of the sea, both in America and abroad. Joseph Conrad, for one, readily admitted the shaping influence of Cooper’s voyage tales on his life and work. In an essay published in 1898 (“Tales of the Sea”), he praised Cooper’s “consummate understanding” of the sea: “In his sea tales the sea inter-penetrates with life; it is in a subtle way a factor in the problem of existence, and, for all its greatness, it is always in touch with the men, who, bound on errands of war or gain, traverse its immense solitudes.”

Like Conrad, Cooper was extremely reticent about revealing details of his outer or inner life in the fiction he wrote. This innate need for privacy is somewhat anomalous in voyage narratives, which depend upon the direct experience of the writer for their authenticity. In his introductory biographical essay, Wayne Franklin describes the causes of this elusiveness and develops a method of indirection to get behind Cooper’s public mask. A detailed analysis of Cooper’s name change in 1826 brings together a congeries of personal and financial details that, taken together, cast light on Cooper’s preoccupation with the theme of regaining and recasting identity in the fiction, especially in early sea romances like The Pilot (1824) and The Red Rover (1827).

The next two essays tackle works in which autobiography is much closer to the surface. Thomas Philbrick, whose earlier book (James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction, 1961) established the context {297} for all further work on Cooper’s sea fiction, focuses on Afloat and Ashore (1844). This two-volume novel deals with the adventures of Miles Wallingford, a young seaman who rises to captaincy and ownership of his own ship during years (1796-1804) of burgeoning American maritime commerce throughout the world. Philbrick notes many parallels between young Miles’s adventures and Cooper’s own experience on the Stirling in 1806 and 1807. He also assesses a new realism that fuses memory and imagination to achieve authenticity and describes the pervasive economic theme of the novel. William Dudley deals with the book that postponed Cooper’s start on the Miles Wallingford volumes, Ned Myers (1843), overtly neither a novel nor an autobiography but a biography of an old shipmate from the Stirling. While Afloat and Ashore imaginatively projects what Cooper’s career might have looked like if he had stayed at sea, Ned Myers details the almost incredible variety, danger, and entrapment of a common seaman’s lot during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. At the outset, it reflects Cooper’s own early experience at sea, but, as Dudley notes, soon moves beyond that and becomes an invaluable source for the social history of seafaring.

The next two articles shift attention to Cooper as a naval historian, both directly and indirectly in fiction. For the decades before and after publication of his two-volume History of the Navy of the United States of America (1839), Cooper was engaged in (and sometimes obsessed by) questions of naval history. Robert Madison looks at one of the novels that grew out of that interest, The Two Admirals (1842), as a derivative of Cooper’s historical research that focuses on questions of legitimacy within the English peerage and loyalty within the British fleet. These questions reflect the historical context of the Royal Navy but resonate with the passions of Cooper’ s tangled naval controversies, both in the past and brewing for the years to come. The most vitriolic of those controversies grew out of his treatment of the Battle of Lake Erie in the History of the Navy, and he soon became embroiled with the infamous Somers affair by association. Hugh Egan examines the behavior and reports of the principals, Captains Oliver Hazard Perry and Jesse Duncan Elliott, and the acrimonious exchanges of subsequent commentators, notably Alexander Slidell Mackenzie (the captain of the Somers) and Cooper. Mackenzie and Cooper exchanged verbal broadsides on the Battle of Lake Erie for five years, from 1839 to 1844, and simultaneously on the Somers affair from 1843 on.

Wayne Franklin addresses a biographical puzzle in “Cooper as Passenger,” an article demystifying the series of events that led Cooper into the forecastle of the Stirling. Like Dana and Melville after him, Cooper went to sea as what Hugh Egan has labeled a “gentleman-sailor” that is, one with enough important shore connections to insure that he would not share the fate of common sailors, those whose lives were consumed by shipping out without any commensurate rewards. In “Images of the Sailor in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper,” Harold Langley surveys Cooper’s many extended portraits of common seamen and assesses their value as sources of information. Finally, Robert Madison provides a bibliographical note on Cooper’s extensive nautical writing, much of which is not familiar to contemporary readers.

The impetus for this special issue came from the 1996 annual meeting of the North American Society for Oceanic History, held at Charlestown Navy Yard from 28 to 31 March. One panel was devoted to “James Fenimore Cooper and the Birth of American Maritime Experience.” Four of the articles included here were first given as papers: Thomas Philbrick on Afloat and Ashore, Robert Madison on The Two Admirals, Hugh Egan on Cooper’s involvement in the Perry/Elliott controversy, and Wayne Franklin on the circumstances leading to Cooper’s first voyage.

Renewed interest in Cooper has generated a fuller portrait of a major sea writer — one talented in melding imaginative and realistic materials, dedicated to portraying seafaring accurately, contentious as a historian of the navy, and perceptive of the fragile relationship between men and the immense power of the ocean. In Conrad’s judgment, “He knows the men and he knows the sea. His method may be often faulty, but his art is genuine.”

Robert Foulke