Revolution and the Historical Novel: Cooper’s Transforming of European Tradition

John McWilliams (Middlebury College)

Presented at the 8ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1991.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 8), Papers from the 1991 Conference, State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 25-36).

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

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

Except to scholars of literature and culture, Cooper has long been remembered only as the author of the Leatherstocking Tales. Given the reach and quality of these five novels, it is hard to call such concentration a diminishing of his achievement, but it certainly is a restriction of it. The first four of the five early novels that made Cooper famous (The Spy, The Pilot, The Pioneers, Lionel Lincoln, The Last of the Mohicans) are primarily concerned with the controversies and consequences of the American Revolution, rather than with imagining an American myth about the clashes of red and white, greedy settlers and embittered pathfinders, along the westering time line of the frontier. Moreover, these five early fictions are all written as historical novels in the manner of Sir Waiter Scott, once the Great Unknown, now the Great Unread. My purpose is to suggest ways in which two of these books (The Spy and Lionel Lincoln) can and should be put back into the international context of historical fiction that Scott had established. My particular concern will be the perspective from which post-Enlightenment writers of historical fiction saw the promise and betrayal of the two political revolutions which, forty years earlier, had forever altered Euro-American civilization. I hope to build on insights George Dekker made many years ago in his James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. But my starting point will be Georg Lukacs’s justly famous and maddeningly inexplicit masterwork titled simply The Historical Novel (1937). Observations about The Spy and Lionel Lincoln will follow, and I shall end with a few general claims, hopefully outrageous.

Has any critical work ever opened with a more imperious and memorable generality than Lukacs’ assertion that the French Revolution altered western man’s sense of his place in time?: “It was the French Revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon, which for the first time made history a mass experience. ... Hence the concrete possibilities for men to comprehend their own existence as something historically conditioned, for them to see in history something which deeply affects their daily lives and immediately concerns them” (Lukacs, 23-24). At first we summon up exceptions to disprove so sweeping a claim. Later we gradually and grudgingly accede to the depth of Lukacs’s insight, not only as a convincing explanation for the rise of the historical novel, but as a means of understanding why, since 1815, history has so often been assumed to be linear rather than cyclical, national rather than universal, an outcome of contending forces rather than the designs of individuals.

After this opening salvo, Lukacs formulated, via Scott’s Waverley, his convincing paradigm of the historical novel, in which a fictive gentleman-hero wavers in honest confusion between the attractions of old feudal loyalties and new republican progress. As Lukacs develops this paradigm’s significance for {26} the first generation of historical novelists, however, he often writes as if the novelist shared the Girondist sensibility of 1790 and 1791, rather than the post-Terror and post-Napoleonic outlook of 1815. The awesome presence of Napoleon had in fact complicated the terms separating Old from New almost beyond measure. The near invincible general who had once embraced the Rights of Man, scorned Louis XVI and approved of disestablishing the Catholic Church, had later signed the Concordat, purged France of its remaining Jacobins, crowned himself Emperor at the Pope’s hand, placed his relatives on the thrones of Europe, and developed a centralized meritocracy under what looked perilously like dictatorship. Was Napoleon then a progressive revolutionary or a power-hungry counter-revolutionary? Was all the bloodletting and political upheaval of the Napoleonic era the result of one individual man’s invincible will or was Napoleon simply the vessel for apocalyptic forces set in motion by the Revolution of 1789? If Borodino and Waterloo were the result of political agitation for the Rights of Man, could the Revolution really have been prompted by a hunger for individual liberties among the recently emerging middle classes?

In 1815, the act of understanding history “sixty years since” thus aroused bafflement, outrage, worry about the linking of nationalism to glory or progress. Scott, whose last work was to be a life of Napoleon, completed Waverley in the immediate aftermath of the decimation of Napoleon’s army in Russia and the rise of a new nationalism among European nations that were determined to throw off the yoke of France’s kind of international republicanism. Pushkin was a twelve-year old student in a privileged Moscow academy, learning the graces of civilization through French tutors, while Napoleon’s vast army was approaching Moscow. Balzac wrote The Chouans (1829) with a plaster statuette of Napoleon on his desk. In perhaps the most unblushing claim for transfer of power on literary record, Balzac pushed down over the statuette’s uplifted sword a slip of paper upon which he (Balzac) had written “What Napoleon did not accomplish with the sword, I will accomplish with the pen” (Maurois, 130, italics mine).

The Atlantic proved no barrier to anxiety about Bonaparte as the portent of the post-Revolutionary future. The Napoleon familiar to us in Emerson’s Representative Men remains a force for progress, not because of any political merit, but because Napoleon opened the entire western world to democratic enterprise, “a market for all the powers and productions of man” (Emerson, 242). Ever on the lookout for republican cant, Cooper in 1827 had expressed a far more worried view: “Who is there so ignorant as not to know that thousands of sublimated republicans in America, were the well-wishers and admirers of Bonaparte! A tyrant finding favor in the eyes of a democrat! — The absurdity is even leaving the French. There does not seem to me to be any positive attachment to the despot in France; all the French liberals, call him, openly, what he was, a tyrant” (Letters and Journals, I, 197). Rut the immediate impact of Napoleon on progressives is best conveyed by a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1814. Jefferson’s barely controlled rage shows us how deeply the Napoleonic era had upset Jefferson’s hope that he would finally find, in the building of Monticello and the University of Virginia, his Roman rural retirement from a lifetime of political trouble:

{27} “Shall you and I last to see the course the seven fold wonders of the -times will take? The Attila of the age dethroned, the ruthless destroyer of ten millions of the human race, whose thirst for blood appeared unquenchable, the great oppressor of the rights and liberties of the world, shut up within the circuit of a little island of the Mediterranean. ... [Napoleon] should have perished on the swords of his enemies under the walls of Paris. But Bonaparte was a lion in the field only. In civil life a cold-blooded calculating, unprincipled usurper, without a virtue, no statesman, knowing nothing of common sense, political economy or civil government, and supplying ignorance by bold presumption. ... While I rejoice for the good of mankind, in the deliverance of Europe from the havoc which would have never ceased while Bonaparte should have lived in power, I see with anxiety the tyrant of the ocean remaining in vigor. ... While the world is thus turned upside down, on which side of it are we?” (Adams — Jefferson Letters, II, 431, 432)

Jefferson closes this tirade with the disillusioned surmise that, despite all the hopes of his and Adams’s generation, the world may well have regressed since Lord Cornwallis and his troops laid down their arms in 1782. At that now mythic moment, the military bands had played “The World Turned Upside Down,” acknowledging the end of a British colonial era, and the beginning of a Republican era, hopefully universal. But now, in 1815, Jefferson fears it may be his and Adams’s New World that has been turned upside dawn, by the havoc wrought from republican revolution. Napoleon’s pseudo-republican counter-revolution and the reemergence of the British naval tyranny needed to suppress it. The phrase “upside down” was soon to prove prophetic; Jefferson somehow seems to know that, after Napoleon’s final downfall, the Bourbons will be back.

If the forthright promise of libertarian revolution had been the compelling subject for the first generation of historical novelists, Scott’s Waverley (1814) should have been concerned with London in 1688 and not the Lowlands in 1745, Balzac’s The Chouans (1829) with Paris in 1789 and not Brittany in 1799, Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (1836) with the Decembrists in Moscow, not Pugachev’s rebellion in the steppes. Cooper should have recreated a farmers’ and merchants’ rebellion that led inexorably to Saratoga, Trenton or Yorktown, rather than the Neutral Ground of The Spy or the dark, vaulting ambitions of John Paul Jones on the open sea. It was to be the next generation — Vigny, Carlyle, Melville and Dickens — who, looking over and past the Napoleonic era at 1776 and 1789, would seek to render the events and personalities of the two revolutions directly. In the 1820s, when Napoleon was on St. Helena, and legitimist governments remained in uneasy control in England, France and Russia, both the political climate for celebrating revolutionary activity, and the historical justification for doing so, seemed dangerously absent.

{28} Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that Waverley, The Chouans and The Captain’s Daughter all concern rural counter-revolutions against the recently established “progressive” order. In these novels, we see various kinds of old Believers (Non-juring priests, Chouans, Clan Chieftains and their retainers, Old and New Pretenders, Tory Counts and Orleanist Marquises, Cossacks and Old Believers) all of whom are driven by a powerful rebellious patriotism deriving from their supporters’ identity as ethnic minorities (Scots, Bretons, Cossacks) tied to native soil and regional cultures. Their opposition to the Hanoverians, the Republican Blues, and the Muskovites is not wholly motivated by backward-looking beliefs in Catholic dogma and the divine Right of Kings. Their liberty to preserve their regional culture is threatened by a new liberty of universal abstractions. In their prescient moments, representatives of the old order foresee a world ruled by money, law, science, parliamentary control and national or even international systems of bureaucracy. The Enlighteners who represent these new forces in the novels (Richard Waverley, Talbot, Hulot, Corentin, Shvabrin, Catherine the Great) are figures of power, reason and efficiency, with flexible moral or political principles. At their best, such figures serve as benevolent dispensers of justice to individuals (Talbot and Catherine); at their worst, they become amoral villains like Shvabrin, or feelingless spies like Corentin. In Balzac’s novel, Hulot and Corentin serve Napoleon directly; the “progressives” in the other two novels may be seen as sketches of the emerging, representative man for whom moral or political principle is simply a means to power.

How then is our understanding is our understanding of The Spy (1821) altered by this larger context? The wavering protagonists at the center of the three European novels — Scott’s Edward Waverley, Balzac’s Marie de Verneuil, Pushkin’s Piotr — are never able to make a decision of political allegiance that is based upon thinking through the immediate situation to larger political principles. They are swayed in different directions and at different times, by family tradition, codes of honor, military circumstance, political necessity and most of all by love. Piotr and Waverley, born of fathers already in the progressive establishment, ultimately resist the attractions of reactionary causes. By remaining loyal to the new order, they are rewarded with marriage and country estate — a tangible old world “social stake” allowed to survive into the political future. Balzac affirms the same qualified progressivism by a plot in which reactionaries who sacrifice politics to love meet an apocalyptic end. After falling in love with a counter-Revolutionary royalist, Marie abandons her role as a Bonapartist spy. She and her beloved Marquis pursue their suicidal love-death with a passion that makes Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde seem restrained, but leaves Brittany clearly in the capable and powerful hands of Hulot, Corentin and Napoleon’s Blues. For all three European novelists, surviving a revolution evidently depends upon: 1) the advantages of birth and 2) not embracing any political principle absolutely.

At the center of Cooper’s narrative we find no genteel protagonist, a more subversive and truly revolutionary figure, but a lowborn hero whose abuse is the measure of his integrity. Harvey Birch, peddler, speaks broken English, spits on andirons, and tests gold coins with his teeth. Although {29} Harvey is a counter spy in disguise, unable to utter an honorable word, there is in inner fact nothing of the waverer about him. His fugitive behavior, his lies and disguises, his peddling of himself, prove to be his means for advancing the American revolutionary cause. Unlike Waverley, Marie or Piotr, Harvey Birch has made an absolute decision of revolutionary allegiance before the narrative even begins. He is true to that single allegiance despite the loss of his gold, the burning of his house, and the lifelong contempt he endures from the countrymen he serves. Instead of showing us the just reasoning by which Harvey has reached his decision to endure anything for America, Cooper evokes patriotism by persuading us to admire Harvey’s fidelity through trial. Harvey’s devotion to the American side, however, clearly has nothing whatever to do with taxation without representation, or with institutionalizing the rights of man. He acts upon his emotional intuition that the people who live on a land will collectively construct a social order more just to its citizens than those who live elsewhere. If this is a political principle, it is not derived from political reasoning, but is a feeling oddly akin to Scott’s Highlanders or Balzac’s Chouans. Harvey’s truth is innate and curiously wordless; it combines a pre-Revolutionary sense of local authority with a post-Revolutionary regard for collective liberty.

In an exact reversal of Scott’s paradigm, it is Harvey Birch’s unwavering and absolute allegiance that enables him ultimately to triumph. (Harvey’s counterpart in Waverley is Fergus MacIvor’s devoted retainer Evan Dhu, whose head ends up on a pike facing Scotland.) Harvey is rewarded, not by marriage and a property stake, but by the personal tribute of the leader of his cause, and by the opportunity to die publicly as an American soldier fighting another invading British army. Cooper’s Washington, in turn, is not the godly patriarch we meet in the pages of Parson Weems. Cooper shows us a George Washington who, while hanging André in public, privately maintains an extensive spy network in the Neutral Ground, and then tries to pay his spies off in gold, in part lest his own reputation be smirched. Cooper’s ending leaves us wondering which of these two childless heroes, the fictive one or the historical one, more truly deserves to be “father of his country.”

To Scott, Edward Waverley’s political indecision was partly the result of an undirected education, but partly a sign of his thoughtful openness to conflicting worthy interests. In Scott’s view, the politics of revolution are so complex that the fictive protagonist should be young, smart, honorable and indecisive. When Cooper wrote The Spy, however, he was less disillusioned and a decade younger than Scott had been in 1814. Accordingly, Cooper transforms the Waverley prototype by replacing Edward Wharton with Harvey Birch and by displacing the wavering hero to the novel’s margins, Waverley’s counterpart in The Spy is Mr. Wharton, gentlemanly owner of a considerable estate, a man fond of British culture but not of British imperial politics, drawn in opposite directions by conflicting allegiances within his family. Unlike Waverley, Mr. Wharton proves to be so mentally and physically traumatized by conflicting allegiances that he locks himself into an ever more vulnerable neutrality. Introducing Wharton as an influential and creditable gentleman, Cooper promptly reduces Wharton to impotence by picturing him sitting in his patriarchal chair “gazing ... with a listless vacancy in his countenance that denoted his imbecility of character” (The Spy, 102). We are clearly left to {30} infer that, in the American Revolution, the waverer is only a figure of the past, not Scott’s marriageable and active son, but only an aging father trying futilely to protect his property and children.

To Lukacs, the cultural clash of the Old Order and the New required that the historical novel immerse us in a place where values are genuinely open and authority is forcibly contested. In Lukacs’s words, “Through the plot, at whose centre stands this [wavering] hero, a neutral ground is sought and found upon which the extreme opposing social forces can be brought into a human relationship with each other.” Although Lukacs never directly says so, it was Scott’s insight to perceive that this “neutral ground” must be embodied in the novel’s setting as well as in the protagonist’s mind. In Waverley, the neutral ground is the Lowlands, an area caught culturally and militarily between Jacobite Scotland to the North and Hanoverian England to the South. The very subtitle of The Spy, “a tale of the neutral ground,” suggests both Cooper’s debt to Scott and the pertinence of Lukacs’s remark. Here too, however, Cooper links his novel to Scott’s only to challenge the prototype. Scott’s Lowlands is a no man’s land of longstanding conflict among classes, religions and powers: lowland Scots and lowland English, Caterans and Cameronians, Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian Churches, Doune Castle and Stirling Castle, Scottish magistrates winking at English statues, English J.P.’s flouting Scottish customs and, of course, the Hanoverian and Jacobite armies. Cooper’s neutral ground is a vacancy, a state of nature between the British army in New York City and the American Army in the Hudson Highlands, both of them rarely seen. In the absence of all civic institutions, the greed and violence of Natural Man, in the form of the Cowboys and Skinners, fill the power vacancy in ways both Hobbes and Locke would have predicted. But the state of nature also enables Harvey Birch, during his masked passings over the Westchester Hills, to intuit an absolute loyalty that raises him safely above Edward Waverley’s near fatal indecision.

Cooper’s portrayal of revolutionary change thus defies Scott by transforming the Waverley prototype through imitation. While displacing the wavering gentleman to the margin, Cooper affirms that the unwavering patriotism of the lowborn hero can and has outlived the bloody civil war which the anarchic Neutral Ground of revolution provokes. The crucial question these contrasts raise for us, however, is why — why should Cooper in 1821 have believed in a transcendent patriotism so much more strongly than the historical novelist whom almost the whole western world was then idolizing?

At this point, the temptation to resort to the easy cliches of cultural mythology for explanation is almost irresistible. We may argue, for example, (as some have) that in writing The Spy, Cooper was a self-consciously American author trying to create a distinctively republican literature by upending Old World aristocratic conventions. Such an argument, however handy, is an anachronism because it projects the strident literary nationalism of Emerson’s or Melville’s generation back upon the 1820s, a time when American cultural and literary dependence upon England was still clearly a fact. Or we may argue (as some have) that Cooper, being a Jacksonian democrat of sorts, believed so strongly in the Westward Course of Empire, in the triumph of the common man’s will, and in the inevitability of progress, that a Harvey Birch {31} would arise inevitably whenever Cooper began to contemplate the nation’s true origin. But the very mention of Andrew Jackson in this context contains yet another anachronism. Even a cursory familiarity with the changing course of Cooper’s social and political opinions shows that he accepts no cultural commonplace without challenging it.

A more plausible explanation may be found, I believe, in attending to the circumstances of Cooper’s ancestry and writing career. When Cooper wrote The Spy he was, by comparison to Scott, quite innocent of the paradox of Napoleon. Not until Cooper’s trip to Europe in the late 1820s would he be forcibly struck by the ironic possibility that a revolutionary power-monger could overturn all the progressive gains of revolution. And yet, in 1821 Cooper had been in no way innocent of the fact, so unwelcome to his countrymen, that the very use of the word “revolution” was fast becoming an easy way of justifying history as progress. “Revolution,” Cooper knew, is the word posterity uses to describe a successful rebellion; it is the term that covers up the inner divisions of civil war by promoting the assumption that an entire people once revolted against an oppressive, external force.

By setting his tale of the Revolution in the Neutral Ground, and then setting indigenous Tory regulars against indigenous Patriot regulars, irregular local Cowboys against irregular local Skinners, and all of them against both Harvey Birch and any public neutral, Cooper forces his reader to recognize that the American Revolution had been, as John Adams had privately acknowledged in his diary, a civil war. For this perception — at once honest, true and complicating — Cooper was surely indebted to family experience. Marrying Susan Augusta De Lancey had linked Cooper to perhaps the most prominent loyalist family in the Province of New York, a family that included a bewildering variety of models for the gentry of the Old Order: 1) Chief Justice and Lieutenant Governor James De Lancey, who died full of honor and power before the Stamp Act; 2) his son, also named James De Lancey, who supported the proceedings of the First Continental Congress but refrained from Revolutionary, commitments, only to have his lands confiscated in 1779 and to die as a childless expatriate in Bath; 3) his cousin once removed, also named James De Lancey, colonel of the Westchester militia in 1775 whose fifty men, selected for their loyalty to the Crown by him and by Governor Tryon, became known as the Cowboys for the ferocious efficiency of their cattle raids; 4) John Peter De Lancey, Susan’s father, educated in England, who never held political or military office in the Province but who, despite serving as an officer in the Pennsylvania loyalists and the Royal Irish Regiment during the war, managed to settle permanently and respectably on once confiscated De Lancey lands in 1789. When twenty-one year old James Cooper delightedly described his father-in-law in a letter to his brother, he referred to John Peter De Lancey, not as a self-seeking Tory nor as a wronged loyalist, but as “a man of very respectable connections” who had responded to him “in the most gentlemanly manner” (Letters and Journals, I, 17). Already apparent in the choice of these phrases is Cooper’s lifelong assumption that, among people of all classes, honorable behavior and honesty of principle should be more important measures of character than any article of political belief.

We gather here in central New York State because of Cooper’s paternal {32} heritage — a heritage associated with fundamental questions about the stages of frontier settlement, about man’s use of nature’s bounty and man’s misuse of nature’s beauty. But the impact of Glimmerglass and Cooperstown should not allow us to forget that William Cooper also had a great impact upon his son’s responses to the American Revolution. William Cooper — a model of the Federalist patriot squire if America has ever had one — had risen to prominence at the end of the Revolution by buying up a sizeable portion of George Croghan’s first mortgaged and later confiscated lands. In The Pioneers, the eventual clearing up of Judge Temple’s right to title shows us that, in James Cooper’s view, there should be no final charge of dishonesty of means alleged against the path of the patriarch’s self-enrichment, But there surely does remain more than a lingering whiff of opportunism. In the characterization of Judge Temple, just as in the life of William Cooper, we see that many a founding father shrewdly sat out revolutionary conflict for the sake of revolutionary gain. As Susan Augusta De Lancey became Mrs. James Cooper, whether domiciled at Angevine Farm, “The Mansion,” or Otsego Hall, the very establishing of Cooper’s household combined loyalist loss with patriot profit, confiscation with being confiscated. A complicating heritage, indeed! — especially when the patriot’s fortune suddenly disappeared while the formerly Tory family continued quietly to recover. Here is no trace of the reassuring patriotic mythology which was to picture the Revolution as repeated instances of embattled farmers taking down their flintlocks above the family fireplace in order to defend Lockean liberties against wine-sodden, invading redcoats. No sensitive and honest writer in James Cooper’s position could have felt confident that a William Cooper had been a person of more moral integrity than any of the four men named James or John Peter De Lancey.

It is this double background — Scott’s model for historical fiction and Cooper’s divided Revolutionary family heritage — that together enable us to see more clearly the significance of Harvey Birch. Whether Harvey is modeled upon an historical spy or not, his characterization is a masterful fictive reply to Scott that is carried out within the bounds of an historically credible set of circumstances. We remember The Spy as two books that have been effectively but uneasily interwoven. There is the vicious and purposeless warfare of the Neutral Ground, in which we see Cooper’s healthy skepticism toward his contemporaries’ claim that their revolutionary American fathers had been wholly devoted to Liberty. But then there is the countervailing figure of Harvey Birch, the lowborn unwaverer, whose real greed never leads him to violate his loyalty to Washington’s cause. While Cooper’s plot thus allows him to immerse his reader in the historical probability that the American Revolution was a terrifying civil war, he can also hold out Harvey Birch as deservedly its sole survivor. It is Harvey’s inner virtue, after all, which we see finally prevailing in the War of 1812. But Harvey’s power (his “virtue” in the Latin sense of that word) does not depend on abstractions about the Rights of Man or the Rising Glory of America. Like Leatherstocking, from whom he would in great measure be fashioned, Harvey is associated with values derived from the American land, but not with Revolutionary politics per se. Cooper lures us into hoping that both men embody the promise of the New World, then describes them forever fleeing from the realities of a corrupting civilization. The best of Young America, the New Man, somehow surfaces in a figure of aging wisdom. Harvey Birch’s “virtue” derives from no Jeffersonian {33} Declaration; it resides in his steadfastness, his loyalty to inner principle, and his willingness to sacrifice himself without anticipating the solace of martyrdom.


Cooper’s project of writing thirteen “Legends of the Republics” would have involved him, as The Spy had not, in direct competition with Scott. In 1824-1825, Cooper was planning thirteen fully elaborated and historically researched novels, dealing with formative events and personalities of the American Revolution, balancing the claims of the old and new orders, and comprising a collective achievement very like the then-emerging sequence to be titled “The Waverley Novels.” Cooper was surely right to concede that “his only historical tale” ever to be completed for this vast project, Lionel Lincoln, was not a promising beginning (Lionel Lincoln, 6), Cooper’s account of his novel’s shortcomings in his 1832 Preface, however, seems a bit disingenuous. It is not really true that the events of the American Revolution were “so well and generally known, that nothing is left for the imagination to embellish” (6). In fact, the great scenes of the novel (and I use the word “great” deliberately) are Cooper’s renderings of the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. Having researched the battles thoroughly, Cooper renders the experience of intense but sporadic rifle attacks on massed troops from the confused perspective of an armed but non-committal observer who cannot yet understand their full significance. These chapters of fictionalized fact are so compelling that they earned the unqualified praise of two prominent antebellum historians, George Bancroft and William Hickling Prescott. One wonders if, in a later generation, Stephen Crane could possibly have read them.

Cooper’s modesty seems equally misleading when he asserts that, in writing Lionel Lincoln, he had yielded to the temptation “to instruct his readers when they wish only to be amused” (6). On the few occasions when Cooper writes essay-istically, he writes superbly well, as for example in chapter five’s clear-sighted summary of the causes of the American Revolution, a summary with which Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood would now, it seems to me, entirely agree.

The failing which Cooper chooses not to discuss lies in his fiction not his history, or rather in his radical separation of his fiction from history. Two examples have often been discussed. Even if Cooper were more adept at the melodramatic stylistics of arousing Gothic horror, the vague crimes of Mrs. Lechmere and of the house of Lincoln should be firmly and historically grounded if the reader is to experience them as symbols of provincial deference to an evil British aristocracy. Secondly, Cooper unwittingly compromises republican sympathy by clumsy character association. In order to arouse sympathy for the victims of the Old Order, Cooper allows his two lowborn American revolutionaries, Ralph and Job Pray, to speak with the selfless intuition of Harvey Birch. But, because Ralph and Job are characterized as a maniac and an idiot respectively, Freedom’s cause seems by novel’s end to be the last resort of madness, rather than the first concern of Reason.

{34} Such chaotic plotting — so foreign to Cooper’s usual practice — seems to me to be the symptom, not the cause, of his difficulty. Cooper is drawn more and more into elaborating vague, peripheral gothic detail because the center of his novel, his protagonist’s response to the Revolution, never emerges. Lionel Lincoln is a sensitive young gentleman of provincial origin and English education, commissioned in the British army but fond of his American relatives, an inheritor of British noble privilege who seems aware that the colonists will use force to counter aggressive measures of both the British ministry and the British military. Cooper’s title figure, in short, seems to have been conceived as America’s Edward Waverley. Lionel Lincoln’s change of allegiance from Hanoverian King to libertarian republic was perhaps meant to update Scott’s view of progress by demonstrating that the Hanoverians were now the Old Order, not the New.

Although Lionel Lincoln is given every conceivable reason and opportunity to discard his uniform and change his allegiance, he does neither. Toward the end of the narrative, enraged by the cruelty of Mrs. Lechmere’s greed and pride, he impulsively exclaims “I will league with this rebellion” (340), but he never does so, Comparing Cooper’s and Scott’s ways of rendering the young gentleman’s crises of military allegiance reveals a telling difference. No reader of Scott would now be likely to regard him as a novelist of inner psychology, but at every juncture Scott allows us to enter into the often muddled reasonings by which Waverley first accepts an officer’s commission in the Hanoverian regiment, requests and then overstays his furlough, joins Fergus MacIvor’s Highlanders, declares his allegiance to Bonnie Prince Charlie and then, after Culloden, rather circumspectly resumes his Hanoverian loyalties.

Cooper never enters into Lionel Lincoln’s inner mind at all. Although the external circumstances of divided allegiances are fully present in Lionel’s heritage and circumstances, Cooper consistently turns away from exploring them. He exposes Lionel Lincoln to a full measure of British over-confidence and American determination during the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, but the only outcome of these experiences is that Lionel promptly and unhesitatingly applies for a command in the King’s army. The sins of aristocracy shake neither Lionel’s decision to marry Cecil Dynevor, Mrs. Lechmere’s granddaughter, nor Lionel’s willingness quietly to inherit ill-gotten gains. When Ralph and Job Pray are revealed to be Lionel’s father and illegitimate half-brother, Lionel feels their victimization more keenly, but he never wonders whether blood ties should now prompt him to change his loyalty. The ending of the novel literally and abruptly closes the vault on the sins of American provincial aristocracy, sending Lionel and Cecil back to a lifetime of propertied, titled happiness in England. Seemingly impervious to the political implications of changing personal circumstances, Lionel persists in acting upon the assumption that he always was — and therefore always will be — a British military officer and scion of the House of Lincoln. It is even more astonishing that Cooper never criticizes Lionel for remaining the most unwavering of young men.

Again, the irresolvable but important question is why. An underlying {35} respect for America’s heritage of aristocratic British culture, traceable back to the writing of Precaution? A need to end his novel with the comforting but unhistorical picture of the loyalists departing from America forever? A belief that, in actual practice, an army officer almost never switches sides no matter how compelling the circumstances may seem? A belief that military and gentlemanly codes of honor should restrain an army officer from even contemplating a change of allegiance?

All of these responses probably contributed to Cooper’s reluctance to unfold the rich inner possibilities of his subject. But perhaps there is an additional and still deeper cause. In the totality of Cooper’s voluminous writings, there are remarkably few instances of shifting allegiances, political awakenings, spiritual conversions, or alterations of the inner self. The most memorable examples (The Oak Openings and The Sea Lions) occur late in his writing career, and may be the exceptions that prove the rule. I am advancing the admittedly sweeping proposition that Cooper did not believe that people change very much, even in early adulthood. He seems to have accepted the eighteenth century assumption that the Deity has given each of us an innate character which is shaped during youth by the particulars of our birth and education. When we think of a Cooper novel, we recall clearly differentiated but rather static characters set in conflict against one another within a dominant natural and/or political environment. In a Cooper novel, the resolution of power struggles among representative characters seems to signify the changing direction of a culture rather than changes in the inner selves of the particular people who struggle with circumstance, win and lose, marry back into authority within society, or defiantly retreat to keep their values pure. The individuating qualities of Cooper’s characters may often harden during their lifetimes, sometimes to the point of their becoming caricatures of themselves, but their defining traits and attitudes are rarely transformed, or even appreciably altered.

However suspect this claim may be as a general proposition, it at least fits the two novels under discussion. Harvey Birch’s responses and allegiances are fixed before the novel opens; he never swerves from them. Lionel Lincoln, by contrast, has every reason to become as malleable as Edward Waverley, but Cooper refuses to explore the ways in which Lionel’s character might have been changed by his experience. Through Harvey Birch, patriotic devotion to the new republican order is affirmed by Harvey’s ability to remain utterly steadfast beneath the shifting face of the counter spy. If Lionel Lincoln were to declare his allegiance to the American cause, denounce Mrs. Lechmere, resign his commission, and renounce his British inheritance, would there not be, in Cooper’s view, something suspect in so public a transformation? If such acts were only the exterior signs of an inner change in which Cooper could not fully believe, then the individual’s declaration of revolutionary independence would seem phony, indeed.

Permit me a concluding sacrilege. We have been repeatedly telling ourselves, for many decades now, that, due to the impact of Darwinian discoveries, environmental and hereditary determinism belong to late nineteenth century fiction, not to early nineteenth century “romantic” fiction. The examples of Cooper and Scott make one wonder. Why are these two {36} novelists so very skilled at making us feel that a particular character represents a race, a nation, a class, an occupation, a certain cultural upbringing? Is it not because they assume that the inner and outer qualities of nearly all people have been set in mold during early life? If so, then Cooper’s and Scott’s immense popularity throughout a century in which man’s right to free individual self-determination was still a widely cherished value seems an anomaly well worth considering. After all, the act of joining in a revolution, or supporting it with one’s pen, presupposes that political change can alter the molds of heredity, environment, and upbringing. Cooper and Scott are alike, it seems to me, in at least this one important way. Both writers are absorbed with the act and consequences of revolution because, while they hope that the true progress of inner change can come about through political upheaval, they are by temperament skeptical of it. Isn’t that a wonderfully sane and open-minded perspective upon the era in which, as Lukacs said, western man first become fully conscious of time?

Works Cited

  • Balzac, Honore de. The Chouans, translated by Marion Crawford. New York: Viking Penguin, 1978.
  • Beard, James F. ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Lionel Lincoln: or, The Leaguer of Boston, eds. Donald A. and Lucy B. Ringe. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, ed., James Pickering. Schenectady, NY: College and University Press, 1971.
  • Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Representative Men, Vol. 4 of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. E. E. Emerson. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906.
  • Jefferson, Thomas. The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. L. J. Cappon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
  • Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel, translated by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, Introduction by Fredric Jameson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  • Maurois, André. Prometheus: The Life of Balzac. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.
  • Pushkin, Alexander. The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1936.
  • Scott, Sir Walter. Waverley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.