Cooper and the Literary Discovery of the Sea

Thomas Philbrick (University of Pittsburgh, emeritus)

Presented at the 7ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 12-20).

Copyright © 1991 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

It comes as something of a shock to those who return to Cooper in maturity to find that eleven of his thirty-two works of fiction are full-fledged novels of the sea, books in which the characters are not hunters, squatters, Indians, and soldiers, but merchant seamen, sealers, man-of-war’s-men, packet masters, and pirates. Their settings are not frontier settlements like Templeton or wilderness outposts like Fort William Henry, not the forest or the prairie, but Narragansett Bay, New York Harbor, the English Channel, and the Straits of Sunda. They are informed not by the lore of the hunt and the warpath but by the technology of seamanship and the principles of naval tactics. The areas of nautical experience with which they deal are so diverse that together they comprise a virtual microcosm of the great world of maritime activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cooper’s accounts of colonial smuggling, Caribbean piracy, the China trade, the Antarctic seal fishery, and the transatlantic packet service supply a vivid informal history of American nautical enterprise. He extends his range to European maritime experience in two of the novels: The Wing-and-Wing tells the story of a French privateer in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic wars, while The Two Admirals carries its readers back to the mid-eighteenth century and the complex fleet actions of the Royal Navy.

Beyond these eleven novels, Cooper’s lifelong interest in the sea manifested itself in a number of works of non-fiction, among them the study that he considered his most substantial achievement, his detailed and authoritative History of the Navy of the United States of America, published in 1839. A few years later came a two- volume biographical work entitled Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, a fit companion to his slightly earlier book Ned Myers, the history of the long and difficult life of an undistinguished common sailor.

One question that we might set before us is this: what accounts for Cooper’s persistent exploration of the literary uses of the sea, an exploration that extended from his fourth novel, The Pilot, in 1824 to his next-to-last work of sea fiction, The Sea Lions, in 1849? In attempting to frame an answer, we might consider two areas: first, the general interests, tastes, and assumptions that governed the American imagination in the 1820s, when Cooper began to write; and secondly, the personal experiences and concerns that helped to shape the course of his art.

First, then, the state of the American imagination in the early nineteenth century: it is accurate to say, I think, that prior to the publication of Cooper’s The Pilot, no such thing as sea fiction existed in either British or American literature. There were a number of novels and tales that made incidental use of nautical characters and settings — one thinks chiefly of Smollett’s Roderick Random — but none which exploited the sea as the center of interest and meaning. Smollett’s shipboard scenes, for example, figure as only one in a series of sordid situations to which the hero is exposed in the course of his picaresque career. Smollett’s sailors, like his {13} other low characters, are grotesques, more notable for their eccentricity than for their relevance to common human experience. Beyond Smollett, one finds nautical materials used — again incidentally — in certain episodes of eighteenth-century sentimental fiction, where they provide a convenient source of sudden separations and remarkable reunions, the standard stock devices of romance. But the sea and maritime experience in themselves were not, it would seem, matters of interest. Indeed, when eighteenth-century literature does regard the sea, it is customarily to present it as a scene of chaos, of danger, or simply of monotony, something to be gotten over as swiftly and conveniently as possible. In this, as in most things, Samuel Johnson expressed the wisdom of his age: “A ship,” he told Boswell in 1776, “is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger. When men come to like a sea-life, they are not fit to live on land.”

It is no accident that the decades which immediately preceded and accompanied Cooper’s literary career are those which coincided with the rise in England and America of that great revolution in taste and value to which cultural historians have given the name the romantic movement. To the romantic sensibility, with its new valuation of the primitive and the sublime in nature and of freedom and solitude in personal experience, the sea and the life of the sailor became something not to be scorned but to be celebrated. The ocean was no longer a dreary waste but rather the emblem of divine power and infinitude. Lord Byron gave the new attitude its full expression in the famous Address to the Ocean in Canto Four of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1818, which pictured the sea as:

Dark — heaving; — boundless, endless, and sublime —

The image of Eternity —

the throne

Of the Invisible; ...

It was a passage memorized by generations of American school children and adopted as a chapter motto in several of Cooper’s novels, even including one of the Leatherstocking tales, The Pathfinder.

In the romantic scheme of things, the sailor was no longer to be represented as a grotesque or pitiable eccentric, cut off from the norms and values of shore society, but rather as a Wordsworthian instinctive philosopher, purified by his insulation from the corruptions of the shore world and ennobled by his close association with wild nature, the figure soon to be given its best embodiment in the character of Long Tom Coffin of Cooper’s The Pilot; or if not that, then the rebel and wanderer of Byron’s narrative poem of 1814, The Corsair, the man as moody, tempestuous, and grandly mysterious as the element upon which he lives and moves. Again one looks to Cooper’s The Pilot for the first adaptation of such a figure to the purposes of prose fiction, specifically in the characterization of Mr. Gray, Cooper’s version of John Paul Jones. One might point to Melville’s Billy Budd and his Captain Ahab as late, ironic, and highly individualized refinements of these two basic romantic types.

To sum up, then, romanticism made the sea and the sailor legitimate literary subjects by associating them with its central values of primitive wildness and natural freedom. And it is worth recalling that the first {15} significant indications of the impact of romanticism on American culture did not appear until after 1815, when the cessation of the Napoleonic wars gave Americans unrestricted access to the new literature of Great Britain and the Continent.

That date, 1815, also marks the conclusion of American involvement in the Napoleonic wars, the episode known as the War of 1812. I stress the coincidence because it would seem that no single event in American history so stirred a widespread popular interest in the sea as did that war. The sense of national identity and unity that the War of 1812 engendered was, to a surprising degree, associated with maritime experience. If American military fortunes by land gave little cause for rejoicing, Perry’s triumph on the Great Lakes and the steady succession of victories by American frigates in single actions with the British became the occasion for a great outburst of national pride. The pages of newspapers and magazines were filled with naval odes and songs commemorating each success. The American stage was given over to patriotic naval melodramas and tableaux. Clearly the United States was to follow the path that Great Britain had traveled, the vigorous pursuit of maritime supremacy and mercantile empire. As Edwin C. Holland put it in his poem “The Pillar of Glory” of 1813, the ocean was “the region of glory,/Where fortune has destined Columbia to reign.”

The spirit of maritime nationalism that is everywhere evident in American popular culture in the early decades of the nineteenth century was a phenomenon as short-lived as it was intense. It coincided almost precisely with the most energetic era of American activity at sea, spanning the growth of the American whale fishery to a position of dominance, the creation of an American transatlantic packet service, and the dramatic expansion of American trade routes throughout the world. It reached its end in the 1850s, the period of the great clipper ships, when it was eclipsed by overshadowing inland concerns: the promises and threats of industrialization, the increasingly heated debate over slavery, and, most pervasively, the enlarging demands on the American imagination and on American energies of continental expansion. So total was that eclipse that the only frontier in the consciousness of most Americans is the continental one, as cultural historians from Frederick Jackson Turner to Henry Nash Smith have instructed us. We have forgotten that in the 1820s and ‘30s and ‘40s, the decades of Cooper’s literary career, the primary frontier to most citizens of the new republic was the ocean. It was the area of opportunity, the arena of national glory and personal success, the locale of adventure and freedom. We should remember that Wharton the Whale Killer was a dime-novel hero long before Deadwood Dick, and that the champion hack writer of the American nineteenth century, E. Z. C. Judson, was glorifying his own nautical adventures as Ned Buntline long before he turned to the invention of Buffalo Bill. For a time, at least, the lure of the sea was more engrossing than the lay of the land, Annette Kolodny to the contrary.

In American culture at the outset of Cooper’s career, then, two strong tendencies converged: the one that we have called romanticism, and the one that we have called maritime nationalism. If maritime nationalism provided the impulse or motive for the creation of a literature of the sea, romanticism indicated the modes and means by which such an end might be realized.

If we turn from that cultural background to the foreground of Cooper’s {15} own experience and inclinations, his invention and development of the sea novel seem virtually inevitable. Far inland though his childhood in Cooperstown was, it was nonetheless aqueous, supplying him with those persistent (or, rather, obsessive) images of lakes that crop up in his writings, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. And in that time before railroads, every trip back from Cooperstown to the older portions of New York and New Jersey from which his family came required a passage by Hudson River sloop over the more than 150 miles between Albany and New York City. Like Lake Otsego, the sloops and the scenery of the Hudson surface in Cooper’s writings with a frequency that testifies to their hold upon his memory.

Cooper’s aborted college experience in New Haven, Connecticut, gave him his first sustained contact with the life of a saltwater port. It was a prophetic encounter, for a year after his dismissal from Yale in the summer of 1805, he went to sea before the mast of the merchantman Stirling on a voyage to England and Spain and back again. According to family tradition, that voyage was at the behest of his father, imposed as a disciplinary measure that would serve to prepare the boy for entrance into the Navy as a midshipman. But it is possible that his father was only approving a step that had already been taken, for Cooper, like his autobiographical hero Miles Wallingford in Afloat and Ashore, may have run away from the tedium of home to the Hudson and its shipping.

In any event, that year-long voyage in the Stirling, half adventure and half ordeal, was a true initiation for the seventeen-year-old boy. Like the later youthful voyages of Dana and Melville, it carried him out of childhood into the complexities of mature experience, not only the new worlds of far places, but the dark realities of the life of the abused and exploited common sailor. And as it did for Dana and Melville, the voyage engendered in Cooper a lifelong identification of the self with the sea and made him forever after a voyager of the imagination.

But the first consequence of the year aboard the Stirling was the one that had been anticipated: Cooper was issued a midshipman’s warrant in the United States Navy on January 1, 1808. It was his bad luck to begin his service in the time of Jefferson’s Embargo, a time when the Navy suffered from inactivity and neglect. After putting in a few months attached to a bomb ketch awaiting repairs in New York harbor, he was assigned to Oswego, a wilderness outpost on Lake Ontario which, if it furnished him with the setting of The Pathfinder some thirty years later, was nonetheless a long way from salt water, as the old sailor Charles Cap in that novel is inclined to point out. When at last Cooper managed to join the sea-going sloop-of- war Wasp under the command of the gallant James Lawrence, he was disappointed to find himself spending most of his time ashore in New York City on recruiting duty. Meanwhile, his father had died, leaving him what looked like a substantial inheritance, and he had met and determined to marry Susan Augusta De Lancey, who apparently had strong objections to his continuing in the Navy. In May, 1810, Cooper requested and received a year’s furlough, and on its expiration submitted his resignation.

One wonders — as surely Cooper did — what his subsequent career might have been if he had remained on active duty until the outbreak of the war in 1812. As it was, he sat out the war as a country gentleman, fulfilling his obligations as husband, father, and responsible member of the community. But {16} there was a part of him that remained a sailor. Throughout his life he maintained his interest in the Navy and his acquaintance with the young officers with whom he had served; indeed, the longest and warmest friendship of his lifetime was with William Branford Shubrick, a career naval officer to whom several of the novels are dedicated. In 1818, restless and in narrowing financial straits, Cooper bought a three-quarters interest in the whaling ship Union, actually commanding the vessel on brief runs along the coast. Ten years later, by then an international literary celebrity and a resident of Paris, he was reported to walk the boulevards in a dark blue coat cut in naval fashion. In moments of crisis in his life, he turned to the sea as an attractive if impossible alternative to the pressures and restrictions of actuality. In 1833, for example, in revulsion against his profession as novelist, he wrote to a friend: “The tales are done. There are a few half finished manuscripts on other subjects to finish, and I turn sailor again — or something else. ... ” On the conscious level, at least, his escapist yearnings turned not to the forest path and Chingachgook, as D. H. Lawrence would have it, but to the quarterdeck and Shubrick.

If Cooper’s early maritime experience equipped him with a love of the sea and a knowledge of its ways, the intellectual convictions that he arrived at in maturity furnished further motives for his effort to turn nautical materials to the purposes of fiction. For all of his distrust of Whig mercantilism, Cooper was a strong and articulate advocate of maritime nationalism. In the early 1820s, as he was edging into his career as a writer, he contributed a series of articles on maritime affairs to a new magazine imposingly entitled The Literary and Scientific Repository, and Critical Review, calling in them for the creation of a navy in keeping with the size and ramifying interests of the growing United States and for the encouragement of the merchant marine as the keystone of the American economy. In 1828, he published his first extended work of socio-political commentary, Notions of the Americans, a book designed to correct European misconceptions of American society and its culture. Cooper’s imaginary traveler, his spokesman in Notions, discovers that “the propensity of the nation is ... decidedly maritime,” points to the superiority of American shipbuilders and sailors over all competitors, and identifies the manifest destiny of the nation with the sea. In his eyes, the westward movement is a regrettable distraction, an aberration from the true, seaward course of empire. Even the political institutions of the United States support the cause of maritime expansionism, since a nation will “become more commercial, and consequently more maritime, precisely as her institutions become more free. The secret of all enterprise and energy exists in the principle of individuality.” In sum, Cooper’s traveling observer is “deeply impressed with the opinion that America is to be the first maritime nation of the earth.”

Holding these opinions and believing that the novelist could and should give direction to the attitudes and values of his audience, Cooper deliberately set out in his first three nautical romances to explore the significance of the sea in the American national past and to construct a celebration of the freedom, nobility, and excitement of the sailor’s life. But those first three sea novels — The Pilot in 1824, The Red Rover in 1827, and The Water-Witch in 1830 — are something considerably more than propaganda on behalf of maritime nationalism. In them, and for the first time in the history of prose fiction, nautical materials are fully assimilated into the structure of forms and meanings that constitutes a work of art.

{17} To put it less pretentiously, in these three books Cooper established the sea novel as a recognizable literary type. That term sea novel is not something that can be defined quantitatively; it is not simply a preponderance of shipboard action over land action or of nautical characters over shore figures. It is not to be measured in terms of technical accuracy or the use of salty language. Rather, I should think, it is the kind of fiction in which maritime action, settings, and characters are intrinsically and centrally meaningful in the development of a serious theme — the later achievements of Melville and Conrad, both of whom acknowledged their indebtedness to Cooper, provide the standard. The voyage must function as something more than the mere occasion for adventure, as it does in the novels of Captain Marryat or as it does in the work of most of Cooper’s American imitators in the 1830s and ‘40s. Nautical characters and marine scenes must become more than a source of picturesque local color, the limit of their function in most of the naval sketches that filled the pages of American magazines and giftbooks in Cooper’s day. To reiterate, Cooper’s achievement was his ability to invest nautical materials with the seriousness and centrality that fitted them to function as the substance of literary art.

Nothing that I have said so far indicates the basis of that achievement. To do that, one must turn to a fundamental element of much of Cooper’s art, both in the sea novels and in his other fiction, during the first decade of his literary career. For lack of a better term, that element might be called the significant environment. It derives from the assumption that the primary meanings of a fiction can be located in and manifested through the rendering of a specific natural setting or a particular geographic region. In such a fiction, characters establish or reveal their moral identity by their relation to that significant setting, either positively, by demonstrating their harmony with the setting and their competence to act in it, or negatively, by demonstrating their discordance with the setting, their alienation from it, their inability to endure and flourish in it. Primary action thus becomes controlled or dictated by the circumstances of environment. The book may employ a standard romance plot involving the separation and reunion of lovers, abductions, and missing heirs, but all of that is subordinate to the primary action, which is an interaction between the characters and their environment. This kind of fiction becomes fairly common after the rise of literary naturalism in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but in the 1820s, the construction of a novel upon the basis of environment was a distinct innovation, and one which Cooper arrived at very early in his career. One can see the principle at work in his second novel, The Spy of 1821, a book quite appropriately subtitled “A Tale of the Neutral Ground,” for all its meanings stem from its central setting, from the terrain, climate, and anarchic social condition of the area of Westchester County between the American and British lines in the Revolutionary War. Indeed, the central character, the ambiguous Harvey Birch, seems the very distillation of the autumnal landscape, usually obscured by mist or darkness. The new conception of environment absolutely controls The Prairie, published in the same year as The Red Rover, 1827. As its title announces, The Prairie, still more intensively than most of Cooper’s novels, centers on a concentrated and sustained study of the implications of a landscape, a landscape which, under the pressure of scrutiny, gathers a wider and wider significance. The wasteland of the Western prairie becomes a revelation of the ordered processes of nature, time, and God, untouched by human intervention and starkly uncongenial to merely human needs and desires. {18} The characters of the book are arranged in an elaborately developed scale of relation to the vast setting, descending in the degree of harmony and competence from Natty Bumppo, who in his extreme old age, has become a virtual demigod, the spirit of the place, the one who knows its ways and cherishes its values. Action in The Prairie is ordeal, a series of tests by which the characters reveal their moral identities as they encounter the dangers of their environment and submit to its truths. The prairie setting thus functions as an area of essential reality, a place where all masks and pretenses, all false theories and comforting illusions crumble and collapse. Remote and strange though it is, it is finally no exotic exception to the truths of experience, but an arena in which those truths are discovered and enforced.

The pattern that one sees in The Prairie is precisely that which is present in the best of Cooper’s sea novels, and it is that, it seems to me, which, more than anything else, makes them sea novels, as we have defined the term. Books like The Red Rover, Afloat and Ashoree, and The Sea Lions, different though they are in tone and mode, are all in a primary and essential way novels of environment, that is, novels in which the maritime setting, like the prairie setting, operates as the determinant of action and the revealer of character.

Since there are some people who, strange to say, have never read a Cooper sea novel, let me try to define the genre a little more closely than I have so far by appealing once more to your acquaintance with The Prairie. Let me make the outrageous claim that The Prairie is a sea novel in disguise. Lacking first-hand knowledge of the plains of the American West, Cooper conceived of the region as an earthy ocean, a vast and undifferentiated locale where travelers meet like ships at sea, where the rolling terrain resembles the groundswell of the Atlantic, and where the sense of illimitable space is reinforced, as it is at sea, by sweeping winds and big skies. As a consequence of that imaginative translation of prairie into ocean, Cooper invested the setting of the novel with a dynamic quality which the settings of his forest novels rarely take on, but which the settings of all of the sea novels possess in abundance. In the scenes of the prairie fire or the buffalo stampede, the setting itself becomes a primary actor in the drama, a force that interrupts and overshadows the conflicts of human beings and requires them to attend to the power of nature and of nature’s God. That kind of elemental intrusion into the action of the novel is typical of Cooper’s sea fiction where, for example, the deadly combat of two ships is disrupted by the still deadlier power of a white squall. But consider, by contrast, how it is in a novel like The Deerslayer, where the natural setting yields an Eden-like serenity, beauty, and innocence, where it never even rains, and where violence is strictly a human capacity. If The Prairie seems different to you from its companion novels in the Leatherstocking series, perhaps it is because the book shares with the sea novels the concept of environment as active force and consequently projects a world that is more vast and more essential than that of the other Leatherstocking Tales.

I have been treating Cooper’s sea novels as if they were all of a piece, slighting their variety and ignoring the changes that occurred over the years in his literary use of maritime materials. While this is not the occasion to attempt a systematic analysis of the evolution of the sea novel in Cooper’s hands, I shall try to indicate the general direction of that process of change {19} and thereby suggest something of the range of his sea fiction. As we have seen, the three works that he wrote in the first decade of his literary career — The Pilot, The Red Rover, and The Water-Witch — focus on an idealized, highly romanticized version of maritime experience, for Cooper was trying to reclaim nautical materials from the satirical uses to which his major predecessor, Smollett, had put them and to equip them for the conveyance of serious themes. In these books, the shovel-mouthed, damn-me-eyes tar of eighteenth-century British fiction is displaced by far nobler figures, some of them strongly influenced by the Byronic concept of the ambiguous outlaw. The sea becomes an avenue to freedom and adventure, a release from the restraint and artificiality of shore society. The ship becomes a light and graceful creature, animated and glorified by a steady metaphoric pressure that associates it with the responsive steed or the agile bird. At the furthest extreme, in the most fascinating and neglected of the three books, The Water-Witch, the ship is the emblem of all that is free and fanciful and the locale of an idealized existence like that of pastoral.

The stamp of Cooper’s three sea romances was heavily imprinted on the work of his contemporaries, so much so that most of the sea fiction that was published in America in the 1830s and ‘40s imitates the patterns that Cooper had developed, repeating and hardening them into fixed conventions something like those that govern Western fiction in our own time. But Cooper himself abandoned his early mold. When he returned to sea fiction in the novel Homeward Bound in 1838, eight years after The Water-Witch, he was off in a new direction. The time is the present, not the eighteenth-century past; the subject is the prosaic packet service, not the adventurous outlaw existence of pirates or smugglers. The ship is a crowded community of passengers and crew, no airy symbol of personal freedom. The shifts are all in the direction of realism, of actuality rather than ideality.

That great change was ramified and intensified in Cooper’s sea fiction of the early and middle 1840s, as he adopted an increasingly somber and complex vision of maritime life in consonance with the world that was revealed in Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years before the Mast, published in 1840. In Dana, I think it is fair to say, Cooper found confirmation of his shift toward the realistic treatment of maritime materials rather than the impetus for it. The major tendency of his art in the 1840s was in the direction that Homeward Bound had signaled. Consider, for example, his handling of character. In his earlier novels, his characters were largely static figures, characters who were revealed by the action of the book rather than subjected to processes of change and growth. That early conception of character tended to emphasize melodramatic moments of revelation, tended to stress the extraordinary and the heroic. The characters of Cooper’s fiction of the 1840s, by contrast, are usually representative figures, not extraordinary but typical of common humanity. In the course of the novel, they are allowed to make mistakes, to learn by trial and error, to come to a slow and sometimes painful comprehension of themselves and the world they inhabit. Thus, in Afloat and Ashore of 1844, the central character and narrator Miles Wallingford is followed from boyhood to maturity through an extended and interrelated series of maritime experiences that school him in reality and leave him a balanced and aware man, a competent husband, father, and citizen; we are a long way from the gorgeous, flag-draped death of the Red Rover, seventeen years before.

In his last sea novel, The Sea Lions of 1849, Cooper extended the {20} concept of the sea novel as the novel of maturation in the direction of symbolism and allegory, successfully infusing a realistic account of an Antarctic sealing expedition with the significance of a metaphorical journey into awareness. It is a severe novel, off-putting in its doctrinal narrowness and stridency, and yet I know of no American work that so directly anticipates the basic strategies of Melville’s Moby-Dick. Perhaps it is worth noting that Melville reviewed The Sea Lions less than a year before he began the composition of his masterpiece.

Cooper’s eleven sea novels, then, represent an experiment of remarkable scope and duration, one that probed not only the variety of maritime subjects but the variety of uses to which those subjects might be put. If his sea fiction rarely attains the resonance of the best work of Melville and Conrad, it prepared the way for their achievements, as both later writers acknowledged. Joseph Conrad, to whom Cooper was “one of my masters,” and “my constant companion,” most accurately defined his predecessor’s contribution to maritime literature: “In Cooper’s sea tales,” he observed in Notes on Life and Letters, “the sea inter-penetrates with life; it is, in a subtle way, a factor in the problem of existence.” Surely Cooper’s rendering of that interpenetration of nature with human experience, of environment with existence, is the essence of his accomplishment in his sea novels and was his chief gift to his successors.

Centerville, MA