“I Loved Him Like a Brother”: Male Bonds in The Two Admirals

Steven P. Harthorn (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

Presented at the 2000 Central New York Conference on Language and Literature, Cortland, N.Y.

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

James Fenimore Cooper has been criticized frequently for his treatment of the “female” characters in his novels, and not without good reason. Cooper certainly has his difficulties in portraying women, whatever conclusions we may make about his attitudes toward them. Of course, Cooper, never known for his expertise in characterization, has trouble casting many of his male characters, too. Still, Cooper displays throughout his career an abiding and complex interest in masculinity, and we find him creating in most of his novels a cast of male characters that reflect different manifestations and “levels,” as it were, of masculinity. From his own life, and from the bulk of his novels, we can see that Cooper prized manhood, yet also questioned its values and explored its moral codes. Cooper also prized male friendships: his lifelong fellowship with William Branford Shubrick, for instance, comes immediately to mind. Cooper’s reputation today rests largely upon his five Leatherstocking Tales, a legacy Cooper himself predicted in his 1850 preface to the collected edition of the series. Yet during much of his own lifetime, Cooper’s reputation as the leading author of the sea loomed large. As Thomas Philbrick, Robert Madison, and others have shown, Cooper found in the sea a framework for evoking national destiny, the power and sublimity of nature, and the “neutral ground” of morality. In the sea, too, he discovered his most powerful “vehicle,” so to speak, for investigating manhood: the ship.

It seems obvious, in one sense, to note that Cooper’s shipboard world is almost exclusively masculine. After all, the realities of the time pointed him toward that conclusion; few mixed crews would have been found in his day, especially in military service. Yet for Cooper, this phenomenon is more that just a functional coincidence. Cooper deliberately invests his nautical world with a masculine character, to such a degree that the appearance of women aboard ships presents an array of problems. That is not to say, of course, that all “feminine” qualities, including domesticity, are entirely absent from life at sea (indeed, Cooper often seems to be arguing for their necessity), but overall, the ship becomes a male sphere of action — into which we often find characters (Wilder in The Red Rover, Gardiner in The Sea Lions, and the like) who are for a time “unmanned” by the difficult moral decisions that weigh upon them. Still, as I hope to suggest, Cooper also indicates that some of the biggest challenges to manhood come from within — from the very nature of masculinity itself.

Perhaps no other Cooper novel explores masculinity as thoroughly as his 1842 sea tale The Two Admirals. This novel is unique among Cooper’s sea fiction for being his only work to detail the actions of fleets (something America did not possess in his day, requiring to turn to the period before the Revolution — in this case, the 1745 Jacobite uprisings). In fact, (as Donald Ringe discusses in his historical introduction to the SUNY Edition), the novel grew out of Cooper’s attempts to write a story with only ships as its characters — no humans. 1 Eventually, as one might expect, Cooper gave in to common sense, setting aside his strange experiment to create a more conventional tale, much to the relief of Richard Bentley, his British publisher. The metamorphosis of his tale from “all ships and no men,” to one dealing with legitimacy, authority, and friendship, is a strange one, to be sure. But Cooper’s effort to communicate the characters of individual ships becomes clearer when he mans each of them with unique crews and captains.

Cooper creates a counterpart to the feminine domestic sphere of the home by setting up his own form of housekeeping aboard ship. Masculine domesticity has a richness and variety of its own. Each captain has his own way of keeping his vessel. Lord Morganic, a gallant young nobleman of high rank, varies the rigging of his ship to reflect changes in his whims of style — changes that draw the ire of the ever-watchful Admiral Oakes, who demands symmetry and uniformity. Captain Parker, an old sailor who has worked his way to his position through years of good service, keeps a “snug domestic-looking cabin” with a “housewife-look” about it. When Oakes extols its comforts, Parker reminds the admiral that his wife had a hand in it — a good wife being a “great blessing,” he says (375). By contrast, Captain Stowel, who commands Bluewater’s flagship Caesar, maintains that his wife has “no right to shake a broom” in his cabin (276); whatever she may say at home, the ship is his realm. Admiral Oakes has taken some of his domestic household to sea, his “Bowlderos,” as he calls them, to make his shipboard life more comfortable. Through the various manifestations of “home” one finds aboard the ships of the fleet, Cooper shows us that men, though varying in their housekeeping as much as women, and perhaps inferior in duplicating their successes aboard the cramped quarters of ships, are no less concerned about the benefits of domesticity. Masculine domesticity, though, has a different “look” to it, a “rude magnificence,” as Cooper says of Sir Gervaise’s cabin. Cannon and war implements co-exist with luxuries in the state-rooms. Masculine hospitality has a code of its own, too. Alcohol flows more liberally — a custom that demands prudence. Too much, Cooper shows, can undermine a man’s ability to carry out his manly duties — or can kill him. Above all, pride of profession and love of the ship bind men to their nautical homes.

But The Two Admirals examines masculinity in much more than its domestic capacity. Cooper examines the moral fabric of its ideals, and tests the capacity of those ideals to withstand the rigors and sacrifices of friendship. Cooper does so through the relationship of his title characters, Vice Admiral Sir Gervaise Oakes, and his lifelong friend, his subordinate, Rear Admiral Richard Bluewater. These two men, friends since boyhood, serve parallel careers in the Royal Navy, with Oakes always holding a rank slightly superior to that of his friend. Bluewater, though Protestant, is a Jacobite, supportive of the exiled Stuart Prince Charles Edward, otherwise known as “The Young Pretender.” News of the Young Pretender’s landing in Scotland causes a crisis for Bluewater, who must decide between his principles and his friend. When the fleet sails to intercept a French fleet suspected of backing the Pretender, the question of Bluewater’s loyalty becomes put to a suspenseful test, one that will probe the boundaries of his most precious relationship.

The prefaces to Cooper’s novels are often coy and playful, toying with readers about the “facts” of his stories, or mystifying the connections between author and narrator. The original 1842 preface to The Two Admirals does both. Cooper pretends to have documents attesting to the facts of his tale on file with his American and British publishers, in case his readers care to check up on him. He even admonishes his publishers not to be “backward” or “reluctant” in providing this evidence (5). What is more interesting, though, is the claim Cooper makes next about how to read his tale:

We hope the reader will do us the justice to regard THE TWO ADMIRALS as a sea-story, and not as a love story. Our admirals are our heroes, and, as there are two of them, those who are particularly fastidious on such subjects, are quite welcome to term one the heroine, if they see fit. We entertain no niggardly love of exclusion, on this head, and leave the selection entirely to themselves. (5)

On the surface, Cooper seems to be steering readers away from looking for a love story in the novel (apparently he views the love interests of Wycherly Wychecombe and Mildred Dutton as a subordinate concern). Yet the playfulness of his tone, and the very fact that he brings the matter so deliberately to our attention, suggests that perhaps he does view the novel as a sort of love story. To be sure, there is much to be gained from reading it in this way. In The Two Admirals Cooper has created one of the closest male bonds in his novels, a relationship that is explored in more depth, perhaps, than even the famous pairing of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. In the typical male-female romance, attention is often directed toward the difference between the two sexes. Here, though, Cooper manipulates some of the traditional “love story” conventions and typical masculine/feminine expectations of his day to put the focus on tensions within manhood itself, giving us an intriguing critique of the difficulty of “manliness.”

Some people may wonder what kind of “love story” I am implying here. George Dekker has suggested that “homoerotic” overtones permeate the novel — an argument that I think carries the matter too far. 2 Dekker’s argument may have a degree of plausibility to it, since Bluewater’s dying request of “Kiss me, Oakes” strikes the reader today as a bit unusual (442). But Cooper did not invent this incident; he borrowed it from Southey’s Life of Nelson, a book he used in writing The Two Admirals despite his claims that he despised it. Then, too, there is no eroticism suggested by this farewell salute to a friend. Nor do I think Cooper intends any by referring to Oakes and Bluewater as resembling Orestes and Pylades, two heroes from Greek legend that exemplify close friendship. Though this legend is used today by some to suggest a homosexual bond, there is no evidence that Cooper intended anything of the sort in The Two Admirals. In short, The Two Admirals carries little, if any, of the homosexual suggestiveness and imagery one finds in Melville’s Moby-Dick; Cooper is seldom an author one would call “erotic.” Perhaps, if terms are to be tied on, we might consider the relationship of the admirals “homosocial.” Studies such as Katherine Snyder’s recent Bachelors, Manhood, and the Novel reveal that homosocial bonds were very much a normal part of nineteenth-century life. 3 If anything, there was concern about the heterosexual promiscuity of bachelors-a concern expressed at first by Mrs. Dutton in The Two Admirals when Admiral Bluewater pays particular attention to her daughter Mildred. At any rate, whatever useful discussions about terminology may result, I prefer here to steer toward considerations of the quality of friendship between these two men — namely, the fraternal love that leads the aged Oakes to recall his long-dead friend with the words “I loved him like a brother” (457).

Cooper does use familial language extensively throughout the book to draw attention to the afffection and respect that come with long association. Discussions of marriage abound in the book, often in light of questions of military command. Captain Stowel says that he wants “no co-equal“ aboard his ship — he occupies his sphere, his wife is to occupy hers. Captain Parker, on the other hand, works in partnership with his wife, the result being pleasing to both. In Stowel’s case, power and command are emphasized. In Parker’s, they are downplayed. Such are the paradigms that Cooper sees operating in friendship — cooperation when trust is there, but more blatant exercises of power when doubt creeps in.

Clearly Oakes and Bluewater are meant to complement each other, or at least to check each other’s negative tendancies. Cooper’s fascination with doubling is everywhere here. Oakes is a micromanager and the better seaman; Bluewater is a delegator and the better tactitian. Oakes is egotistical, with a “mercurial” temper (177); Bluewater is altruistic and has an “indomitable good nature.” Oakes is simple-minded in his religious impressions; Bluewater possesses deep belief and “strong and active intellectual properties” (441). And Oakes projects a manly physical presence; Bluewater’s lounging postures and long, thin fingers suggest a less forceful appearance. The list goes on. As Cooper playfully notes in his preface, neither admiral has an exclusive hold on masculine qualities, but I think it is safe to say that Bluewater is our more likely choice as “heroine,” manly as both characters are. In a conventional romance plot, we might expect the faithfulness of the hero to be tested while the heroine awaits patiently. Such is the case, for instance, in Cooper’s own Mercedes of Castile. In The Two Admirals, though, the “heroine” Bluewater has a crisis of loyalty, and the “hero” is left to wait, fighting his impatience by exercising some of his advantages in power.

For his part, Bluewater is much less concerned with power than Oakes. He cares little for the formalities of military discipline, nor does he have excessive admiration for title or command. He is content to say, “The superior orders, and the inferior obeys” (261). His introspection allows him great insight into his friend’s motives and character: he is able to predict, before ships are even launched, that Oakes will try to force his loyalty by engaging the superior French fleet without him (234). His grasp of concepts also allows him to see the connection between young Wycherly Wychecombe’s right to his uncle’s estate and the Stuart pretender’s right to the throne.

Still, Cooper suggests that Bluewater is guided too much by “feeling” and “imagination.” Though he is astute in many matters, the strength of his belief in the Jacobite cause leaves him with a certain naivety, rendering him prey to the manipulations of Sir Reginald Wychecombe, a fervent Catholic and Jacobite. In addition to trying to sway Bluewater with false information and hopes, Sir Reginald repeatedly flatters Bluewater for his “manliness” Cooper evokes Eden by calling Sir Reginald a “devil” and “reptile,” and placing Bluewater in a most Eve-like role. The temptation has a powerful effect, Cooper tells us: “For a time, his better feelings were smothered in this new and treacherous sensation” (267). Bluewater’s struggle with these sensations produces the suspenseful delay that threatens to unman him.

Bluewater’s struggle, though, threatens to unman not only him, but also Oakes. Oakes becomes so anxious about his friend’s loyalty that when he receives a letter from Bluewater, he pauses “fully a minute” before condemning his “unmanly” hesitation (345). After reading the letter, he crushes it, tears it up, and throws it overboard, fancying that “every sign of his friend’s weakness had thus been destroyed” (346). Even before this moment, Oakes has resorted to power to force his friend’s hand, using his position as Commander-in-Chief to bend his subordinate to his will. Even after Bluewater predicts Oakes’s strategy to force Bluewater to his aid, Oakes continues to proceed with his plan to engage the French even with half of his fleet absent. He respects half of Bluewater’s request, that he not signal Bluewater to join the battle, yet still charges into battle without awaiting his friend’s decision. His “excessive daring,” which Cooper frequently comments upon, works as planned. Bluewater comes to choose “a plausible present evil, as opposed to a possible remote good,” as the ship’s surgeon Magrath would say (184), valuing friendship over what he had earlier perceived as principle. Oakes, who egotistically had claimed to know Bluewater’s character better than he knew it himself, was right, in a sense. His gamble paid off, but the ultimate price is his friend’s mortal wounding.

Bluewater’s death is enigmatic. Is Bluewater to blame for his own demise? Did he overcompensate for his “weakness” by adopting Sir Gervaise’s “excessive daring” and charging the French ship? Or is Oakes to blame for forcing Bluewater’s action? Cooper provides no clear answer. Brotherly love is restored again, as if nothing had happened, and Oakes uses his power as Commander-in-Chief in a more loving way this time, to order Bluewater not to consider himself in need of forgiveness. As Bluewater nears his end, though, Oakes’s manly compusure breaks down as he weeps at the bedside of his friend. Bluewater’s murmured last words, “Kiss me, Oakes,” bring Oakes’s final blessing and salute to his friend.

Such a sentimental tribute to friendship highlights the irony of the last chapter of the book. Oakes had once said that “Bluewater is addicted to fits of absence of mind” (346). However, it is this disability which comes to afflict Oakes in his old age. Visiting the tomb of Bluewater, some thirty years after his death, Oakes has no recollection of his friend. Upon further prompting, Oakes finally remembers the man he loved like a brother, and recites with rapture the glorious day when Bluewater proved true. After he kneels to pray in commemoration, though, Oakes dies, “with a calm smile on his aged features, his open eyes riveted seemingly on the name of his friend” (459). Cooper provides this closure on Oakes’s life, but it is really the true death of Bluewater, too. Though the world may remember Bluewater’s bravery in battle, only his best friend knows the inner conflict that Bluewater had to overcome. Whereas Oakes was “the pride of England,” Bluewater has already become little more than an obscure monument of the past.

It is a credit to Cooper’s insight into character that the male bonds that form in the novel, particularly in the relationship between Oakes and Bluewater, are complex, difficult to reduce to simple analyses. It seems a bit surprising, in fact, that Cooper, so outspoken in his advocacy of principles, seems to come down here so strongly on the side of friendship. Ultimately, Cooper can be valued for his frank assessment of the difficulty of “manliness.” In one sense, manliness stands for action and self-reliance, yet the necessities of reflection and human co-dependency challenge these ideals. Cooper seems to suggest a balance — the combined strengths of Oakes and Bluewater-yet offers no resolution for the contradictions that would inevitably result. Like Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s Victory, or Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (to name two examples from my recent reading), Cooper’s characters find their independence and manliness compromised by companionship, yet it is this same companionship that imparts so much richness upon life. Here, in The Two Admirals, Cooper has given us his glimpse of this age-old paradox.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, The Two Admirals: A Tale (Historical Introduction by Donald A. Ringe; Text Established by James A. Sappenfield and E.N. Feltskog. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), xv-xvi.

2 George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The Novelist (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), 199.

3 Katherine V. Snyder, Bachelors, Manhood and the Novel: 1850-1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 26.