Fact and Fiction: Uses of Maritime History in Cooper’s Afloat and Ashore

Thomas Philbrick * (University of Pittsburgh, emeritus)

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

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 315-321).

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

{315} Cooper’s 1844 double novel, Afloat and Ashore, marks a major change in the course of his sea fiction. 1 The nautical novels of the first decade of his literary career — The Pilot of 1824, The Red Rover of 1827, and The Water-Witch of 1830 — were works that helped to propel him into the front rank of the artists of the romantic movement that was then sweeping the western world. When Cooper moved his family across the Atlantic to take up residence in Europe that extended over the next seven years, he was quickly received as the coequal of Sir Waiter Scott, with whom he almost immediately exchanged visits in Paris; of Coleridge, with whom he dined in England; and even of the supreme shaper of the new sensibility, the aged Goethe, himself an avid reader of Cooper’s early romances. 2

Those first three sea novels grew out of and gave expression to the same artistic culture as that which fostered Byron and Berlioz. In them, the ocean is significant chiefly as an embodiment of wild nature, grandly dwarfing the powers and intentions of the human actors who strut and fret upon its colossal stage. Those few superb seamen whose defiant unconventionality, enormous skill, and tempestuous energy fit them for a life at sea become exemplars of romantic heroism, darkly intense, morally ambiguous, sublimely egocentric.

In such a fictional world, history functions chiefly as a means of deepening the background, enhancing the aura of significance, and removing the action from the diminishing familiarity of the here and now. The evocation of the era of the American Revolution in The Pilot, of mid-eighteenth century piracy in The Red Rover, or of smuggling in early eighteenth century colonial New York in The Water-Witch is there chiefly to surround the fiction in the atmosphere of legend; paradoxically history, the appeal to the actuality of the past, serves to distance the work from the reader’s experience, to make the story in a sense less real, more shadowy, more in touch with the absolutes that underlie the world of mere appearances.

A much different program informs the three maritime novels that, after a ten-year hiatus, followed the three early romances. Mercedes of Castile of 1840, and The Two Admirals and The Wing-and-Wing, both of 1842, all evoke the historical past for its own sake, attempting to render it with scrupulous accuracy and presenting it as a major center of interest. These are the novels that follow in the wake of Cooper’ s great History of the Navy, the first edition of which appeared in 1839, and in them the historian competes with the romancer for control of the work, disastrously in Mercedes, interestingly in the other two. Although written after Cooper’s return to the United States, all three are as much European novels as The Bravo and the other two books that usually receive that label, for all three turn to the European past for their materials — to {316} the age of discovery, to the great fleet actions of the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century, and to warfare in the Mediterranean in the Napoleonic era — as if only Europe furnished the grand events and the colossal figures in which formal historiography, and the fiction that tries to imitate its tone and effects, should deal.

In Afloat and Ashore, Cooper once more turned to the maritime past, indeed, to the very period in which he had set The Wing-and-Wing of two years earlier, here defined as 1796 to 1804. In the new book, everything changes, shifting toward the familiar and near. Two examples may illustrate the tendency of the change. In The Wing-and-Wing, the love plot is kept rolling by the clash between the hero’s French revolutionary atheism and the heroine’s Italian Catholic piety; in Afloat and Ashore, the lovers are both middle-class American Episcopalians from the Hudson River valley, kept apart chiefly by the young man’s feelings of social inferiority. In The Wing-and-Wing, Nelson {317} unjustly hangs the Italian admiral Francesco Caracciolo in the Bay of Naples; in Afloat and Ashore, the hard-faced acting master of an American merchant vessel unjustly hangs a shriveled old Indian on the Northwest Coast.

It is impossible to reconstruct fully the circumstances that turned Cooper from the glamour and pageantry of the European past to the bustling activity of commercial America at the turn of the century for the materials of his new sea novel, but one experience would seem to have been crucial. Writing to his British publisher, Richard Bentley, in June 1843, Cooper announced his intention to “come forth with a new nautical story, immediately.” 3 In that same month of June, however, he brought to his home in Cooperstown a broken down and boozy old seaman named Ned Myers, who as a boy had been the writer’s shipmate aboard the merchantman Stirling in 1806 and 1807 and who had written a few months before to ask if the writer was indeed his old boyhood friend. As Ned spun his yarns in the course of a visit that stretched into a period of five months, Cooper soon abandoned his plans, whatever they were, for a new sea novel, and in late July wrote to Bentley that the new book would be Ned’s story. It would be, he said, “real biography, intended to represent the experience, wrecks, battles, escapes, and career of a seaman who has been in all sorts of vessels, from a man of war to a smuggler of opium in China.” Acting as Ned’s amanuensis and editor, Cooper would “put nothing down that I do not believe to be strictly fact.” 4 In early November, the book, entitled Ned Myers; or. A Life before the Mast (pace Richard Henry Dana), was published, and Ned himself, with “a handsome fee” in his pocket, was on his way back to Sailors’ Snug Harbor on Staten Island. 5 It was only after all that, in December of 1843, when Cooper began writing the novel that was to become Afloat and Ashore. 1 do not mean to suggest that the novel was to be simply a fictionalized version of Ned’s life, for almost nothing of the incidents in Ned’s story finds its way into Afloat and Ashore. Rather, the five months with Ned turned Cooper’s mind to his own early experience as a merchant sailor, encouraging him to remember the world as it was then and to imagine how it would have been if, instead of entering the Navy as a midshipman after his first voyage, he had, as his character Miles Wallingford was to do, remained in the merchant service and risen to the eventual command and ownership of a vessel.

Out of some such mixture of remembrance and fantasy the new book took shape. Cooper drew upon the scenes time and again, the happenings, and the feelings of his own youth for the materials of his fiction, especially in the account of Miles Wallingford’s first voyage. Like Miles, Cooper himself, as Alan Taylor has recently demonstrated, ran away from his inland home to go to sea. 6 Like Miles, he had crossed the Atlantic to England, running the gauntlet of French privateers and British boarding parties. Like Miles, he had toured the seamy side of London under the guidance of a corrupt English customs officer. 7 And so it goes. No novel of Cooper’s, not even The Pioneers, is as autobiographical as Afloat and Ashore.

Relatively extensive though they are, however, those autobiographical materials in fact make up only a small proportion of the total fabric of . Nevertheless, they set the pattern for the color and texture of the entire work, for the fictional extensions and elaborations from which the novel is woven are held to a standard of plausibility consistent with the actuality of remembered experience.

The primary means by which Cooper enforced his own adherence to that standard in Afloat and Ashore was his use of first-person narration, a technique he had not employed before in a full-scale novel. In the course of Miles Wallingford’s narration, the succession of fictive incidents blends indistinguishably with the autobiographical basis of the character in a seamless fusion of memory and imagination. Everything is in keeping with the likely scope of experience available to a middle-class child of the new republic. There are no Byronic gestures or superhuman exploits, no participation in great historical events, no glamour and no heroics, nothing of the heightened color and excited pitch {318 [illustration]} {319} of the earlier sea novels. There is in Afloat and Ashore, in other words, a sharp turn toward realism, toward materials that are consistent with the reader’s own sense of the way things are.

The novel is set in the past, the action taking place some forty-five years before the time when the book was first published. Indeed, Miles’ first voyage occurs just about ten years earlier than Cooper’s own first voyage, at a time when the author himself was a child of seven. Moreover, Miles’ eight-year career as a merchant sailor carries him to parts of the world unknown to his creator, to the coast of Madagascar, the West and East Indies, the Pacific coast of South and North America, Hawaii, Canton, the Baltic, the Dardanelles, and the Irish Sea. It thrusts him into situations and actions that Cooper had never experienced — the ordeal of shipwreck, the anxieties of command, and the risks and uncertainties of international commerce.

If these materials were to meet the requirements of plausibility that the tonality of Afloat and Ashore demanded, then they had to have the same aura of authenticity as those derived from Cooper’s memories — fitting out at the wharves of Manhattan, say, or eating from the common kid in the dark forecastle of a merchantman, or tiding up the crowded Thames in the time before steam tugs. To imbue the purely fictive elements of the book with the necessary verisimilitude, Cooper surely relied chiefly on his unMelville-like powers of invention, his extraordinary capacity to daydream with something of the clarity and specificity of experience, but that had always been his own best trick, as every reader of his Indian novels soon discovers.

For the new realism of Afloat and Ashore, he evidently turned to sources that would supplement memory and imagination, sources that were different, moreover, from the formal histories upon which his three European maritime novels of the early 1840s had drawn. Although it is impossible to identify the particular routes by which information came to him in most instances, it is apparent that many of the details of incident and scene out of which the story of Miles Wallingford’s voyaging is constructed derive from Cooper’s broad acquaintance with those whose maritime experience went far beyond his own. Among such sources were naval officers, like his closest friend William Branford Shubrick and like Charles Wilkes, who was seeing his Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition through the press in Philadelphia at the very moment when Cooper was there to proofread Afloat and Ashore; acquaintanceships, too, with merchant seamen like his nephews Morris and William Cooper.

More important, perhaps, was his familiarity with documentary sources pertaining to maritime experience, not only with those that had contributed to History of the Navy and to his ongoing series of naval biographies appearing in Graham’s Magazine during the very months in which Afloat and Ashore was written, but with the huge literature of eighteenth and nineteenth century voyage narratives, made all the more plentiful by the success of Dana’s Two Years before the Mast in 1840. The one explicit reference to such literary sources in Afloat and Ashore is to Frederick Beechey’s Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific and Bering’s Straits of 1831, but the source-hunting reader can detect traces of Cook’s Voyages, Richard Alsop’s Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, Richard Cleveland’s Narrative of Voyages and Commercial Enterprises, and so on, evidence, finally, not of any scene-shaping prototype à la Melville, but of Cooper’s saturation in the literature of the sea. 8

Thus the historical element in Afloat and Ashore is powerful and pervasive, but it is of a sort that offers a special appeal to those who adopt a view of history that attends less to the march of great public events than to the texture of private lives, less to the doings of the great than to the enterprises of the ordinary. We view the undeclared naval war with France not through the eyes of a commander like Truxtun but through those of a merchant sailor, desperately trying to preserve his hide and his cargo from the grasp of a French privateer. In this book, the naval engagements of the Napoleonic wars are not the battles of the Nile and Copenhagen but infuriating encounters with the well-born {320} younger sons who command British frigates, ever eager to press fresh seamen and to enrich themselves by confiscating American vessels. All in all, the book offers an extraordinarily wide and detailed panorama of American maritime activity in the era before Jefferson’s embargo, everything from beating off proas in the Straits of Sunda to driving before a gale through the Straits of Magellan under bare poles; from bartering for sea otter skins with the natives of the Northwest Coast to making up a cargo for Hamburg in the markets of New York.

Afloat and Ashore is something more than a fictionalized evocation of a crucial period of American maritime activity, something other than simply a sea novel. In the last analysis, it is a book about property, a book in which nearly every motive, every action, every concern, has some vital relation to economic value. Just beneath the narrative surface of Miles Wallingford’s vicissitudes by land and sea lies a deep stratum of thematic concern, a virtually obsessive interest in buying and selling, borrowing and lending, profit and loss, owning and being owned, prosperity and bankruptcy. In no other novel of Cooper’s do incidents, situations, and dialogue so incessantly turn on issues that are in same way or other financial in nature. Everything — from Neb, who is Miles’ beloved companion and also his slave, to a young girl’s parting gift of gold coins — has an economic value and can be regarded as property; action becomes transaction, whether it is bartering with the natives on the Northwest Coast or mortgaging the family home in Ulster County; conversations, whether between businessmen or lovers, again and again refer to incomes, bequests, exchange rates, prices, stocks, or interest. Insofar as Afloat and Ashore is a sea novel, it is the first one of Cooper’s in which ships are put up for sale, used as collateral, salvaged, insured, condemned — treated, in short, as economic instruments rather than as expressions of their commander’s will, vehicles of personal freedom, or objects of aesthetic admiration.

This is to argue that Afloat and Ashore is far more than a tale of adventure in which maritime history is introduced chiefly in order to lend the action an air of plausibility. Maritime history is introduced into the what-if world of this fiction because it provides the broadest and most vivid tapestry of financial activity that Cooper could conceive of, generating the actions and images that sustain his prolonged meditation upon man as an economic animal.


1 In keeping with Cooper’s own practice, I apply the title Afloat and Ashore to both the first and second parts of the novel. After his death, his publishers in the United States generally retained that title only for the first part, calling the second part Miles Wallingford. In Great Britain, the second part has gone by the name of Lucy Hardinge.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: France, ed. Thomas Philbrick and Constance Ayer Denne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 148-157; James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: England, ed. James P. Elliott et al. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), 122-128 and 260-262; Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Tagebücher, ed. Gerhart Baumann, 3 vols. (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta’sche, n.d.), 3:485-488.

3 James Franklin Beard, ed, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1960-68), 4:388.

4 Letters and Journals, 4: 391-392.

5 James Fenimore Cooper to Susan Augusta Cooper, 22 September 1843; Cooper to Paul Fenimore Cooper, 9 November 1843, Letters and Journals, 4:412 and 425.

6 Alan Taylor, “James Fenimore Cooper Goes to Sea: Two Unpublished Letters by a Family Friend,” SAR (1993), 43-54.

7 James Fenimore Cooper, Ned Myers; or, A Life before the Mast, ed. William S. Dudley (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 22-40; Cooper writing an anonymous review of Basil Hall, Travels in New Monthly Magazine, 32 (October 1831), 309-310; Gleanings in Europe: England, 30, 192-195.

8 Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 132-140.

* homas Philbrick is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his undergraduate education at Brown University and has an M.A. and Ph. D from Harvard University. Although he has taught and published in several areas of eighteenth and nineteenth-century American literature, his most persistent interests have been in maritime literature and the writings of James Fenimore Cooper. In recent years, he and Marianne Philbrick have prepared critical editions of several of Cooper’s novels and travel books. They are currently at work on The Water-Witch.