Navigating Character: Nautical Talk and Virtue Ethics in The Pilot

Robert Daly (State University of New York at Buffalo)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 5-8).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

You must have plenty of sea-room to tell the truth.

— Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses”

What is so special about landlessness, and what on earth or ocean does it have to do with ethics? Luckily for us, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Margaret Cohen, Jacques Rancière, Chad Harbach, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Jeffrey Nealon, Marina Gorbis, Nancy Easterlin, and Daniel C. Dennett have given the matter some thought, and their thoughts can enliven and enrich our own.

Before we make our way to sea, let’s begin on the river with Kenneth Grahame’s splendid Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows (1908). He says to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” (10). The Pilot helps us to understand how and why that might be so, and at least in America, Cooper starts the tradition of “landlessness,” a collocation of lots of different customs and a concomitant refusal to be bound habitually by any one of them.

In The Rise of the American Novel, Alexander Cowie argues that “Cooper was one of the first American novelists to make frequent and realistic use of actual shirt-sleeve characters ... who were to receive widespread attention in fiction only after the Civil War” (128). In Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, Philip Gura argues that, in Cooper’s time, “Americans grappled with newfound freedoms that were as frightening as they were liberating” and that to “address such topics, Cooper set his best novels in the expanding, unexplored West” (40), a trackless expanse where fixed customs were few and always open to innovation. All was in flow as on the sea, and Cooper made the connection both in his figure of the forest as an ocean and in the character, in The Pioneers (1823), of Benjamin Penguillan, also called Ben Stubbs, also called Ben Pump, a character who, like Natty Bumppo, has several names that bespeak various aspects of his character and history.

A fountain of nautical jargon, Ben believes that the “sea ... is a great advantage to a man, in the way of knowledge, for he sees the fashions of nations and the shape of a country” (199). Unlike those on land, he knows many fashions and many countries, and he knows that each country has a boundary, a “shape” on the map of a larger world. This worldview complicates parochialism, and when the locals lock him up, Ben just slips a nail into the lock and locks them out, aware as he is, in a nice reversal of agency, that custom and law are local, not universal and absolute.

Cooper develops this promising point of view in what Wayne Franklin identifies as “the first modern sea novel, The Pilot (1824)” (xxix). Cowie suggests a precise moment of origin: “It was at dinner party in New York that he conceived the idea of writing a sea story. When someone argued that The Pirate, which had just appeared anonymously, could not have been written by Scott on account of the seamanship it showed, Cooper asserted that the nautical data were the best reason for believing that Scott had written the book: a real seaman would do these things better” (129). So he did better, particularly in the character of the whaleman, Long Tom Coffin of Nantucket, who speaks up for landlessness: “For my part, I was born on board a chebacco-man, and never could see the use of more land than now and then a small island, to raise a few vegetables and to dry your fish — I’m sure the sight of it always makes me uncomfortable, unless we have the wind dead off shore” (21).

Tom Coffin’s sturdy and resilient character is interwoven with his skills, and Margaret Cohen argues, in The Novel and the Sea: “Americans’ reputation as compleat mariners was an important part of maritime nationalism, at home as well as abroad. The North American Review’s comments on The Pilot identify republican freedom and the mariner’s craft as the twin foundations of American national values and then suggest that craft is the more compelling of the two,” not just “a commonplace, hackneyed sort of enthusiasm, on the subject of liberty, republic, principles, etc.” (152) but instead a real source of value and character. Tom’s home, from which he derives his skills and character, is not even the island of Nantucket. It is a ship on the sea, and Nathaniel Philbrick, considering the “codes that Nantucketers had developed,” points out in his book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex: “All {6} Nantucketers, even the women and little children, used nautical terms as if they were able-bodied seamen” (22). This speech was not an affectation. That life was their life. That view was their worldview.

Herman Melville, a reader of Cooper and a whaleman himself, elaborates the theme in the great reflection on the whalemen of Nantucket, who live and flourish on the sea far from the customs and guidelines of land: “With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales” (63). For Melville, it is not Nantucket that enables this ability to live, to navigate and be at home on the rolling ocean. It is precisely the going to sea. For that reason, as Melville records in his notes, written on the last pages of his copy of the Owen Chase account, The Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex (1821), that the Nantucketers who stay on the island are blind to the real greatness of Captain James Pollard: “To the islanders he was a nobody — to me, the most impressive man, tho wholly unassuming, even humble — that I ever encountered” (139). Melville knows the story. He knows that to be landless is not to be lost. Through the careful sightings and abstract calculations of navigation, a good sailor can know where he is, even on the rolling ocean: “The reading of this wondrous (?) story upon the landless sea, & close to the very latitude of the shipwreck had a surprising effect on me” (138). In “The Lee Shore” in Moby-Dick, he makes clear “that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore” (97). For those who know that “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth” it is better “to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land!” (97). With Ishmael Melville shares the life.

Cooper also shared the life, and Margaret Cohen argues that early readers of The Pilot took time to “[n]ote how Cooper updated the vision of the globe from the eighteenth-century picaresque, as well as its supranational portrait of craft.” Cooper “claimed this moral high ground for his crafty mariners pursuing American independence,” and that “pursuit was approved by republican Europeans,” among them George Sand and Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve, who expressed a clear preference for Cooper’s “shirt-sleeve” Americans over Scott’s aristocrats. Margaret Cohen makes the distinction quite clear: “With the nation modeled on a shipboard fraternity soldered by craft, sea fiction idealizes a vision of the modern nation forged and maintained by the bonds of skilled work.” She adds that the “American collectivity bonded by skilled work differs from the imagined community produced in the novels of Austen or Scott,” where “work plays no role in the use of a courtship plot” based on “[l]ove, taste, insight, and the vindication of virtue,” as these “help integrate feudal notions of value, emphasizing status, blood, and privilege, with middle-class ethics” (153).

Cooper’s sailors may begin in the transcendence of sailing out to sea, but they develop their character through work, as did Melville, who argued: “And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute ... do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone ... then I here prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard” (101). So what did they learn?

In praising the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner affords us a good start by comparing its freedom from custom to that found on the sea: “What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely,” so that “in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of past” (57-58). Since we know that Cooper wrote to preserve the customs of the past, it may seem paradoxical that he would turn to the sea and the frontier, where those customs have less force, but that is just the point. Only by knowing several sets of customs, as one does on the sea and frontier, can one free oneself from an unreflective devotion to any one set.

In his latest book, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, Jacques Rancière builds on his earlier thesis that our word “aesthetic” comes from the Greek ” aestheton,” meaning perception, and that the aesthetic alters and, one hopes, improves the conditions of our perception. It changes what and how we notice. As anyone who learns anything quickly learns also, the more we know, the more we notice. And Rancière argues that this education for noticing tends to render porous and permeable not only the usual boundaries separating one art from another, but also the boundaries separating art from life. This “modernist ideal, in the strong sense” (56), was formulated in the eighteenth century and defined a “change in the poetic paradigm” (57), particularly in America: “The task of the American poet is to restore the vulgar materialities of the world of work and everyday life to the life of the mind and the whole. It is to contrast the English sensualist aristocratism with the spiritual revolution carried out during the time of the French {7} Revolution, by German philosophers” (57). As in Margaret Cohen’s The Novel and Sea, work and the strengths and skills concomitant with it are center stage.

That is especially evident in The Pilot, where patterns of attention and deference are not determined only by rank and class but keep shifting with circumstance, with a pragmatic recognition of who best knows what to do in this or that particular situation. It is less a question of who is good than of who is good at what. Each character has his or her own particular strengths and failings, virtues and vices. So, for example, junior Lieutenant Richard Barnstable is far from perfect and left school early, but he then had the wit and ambition to work his way up through the ranks and the humility and good judgment to learn from Long Tom Coffin. Barnstable’s fiancée, Katharine Plowden, has been held in virtual captivity, with her cousin, Cecilia Howard, by Cecelia’s uncle, Colonel Howard — all pretty standard Victorian plot machinery — but she does not just whimper away and wait to be saved. She shows up dressed as a man with a signaling code book and written instructions on how the escape is to be executed. Even the pilot, also called Mr. Gray, impresses first by his skilled work, long before we find out who he really is.

Caught in a lee shore squall, he makes more sail (do not try this yourself) and through some miraculous tacking against the wind, manages to extricate the frigate, not the schooner Ariel but the frigate, from the shoals. No wonder that after this little display of seamanship, he is called the Pilot, with a capital P, a nice literary correlative to their increased estimation of him. This achievement borders on the miraculous, and I remain in agreement with Long Tom Coffin’s preferences: “’Give me plenty of sea-room, and good canvass, where there is no ‘casion for pilots at all, sir’” (21).

Cooper takes the sea-room necessary to tell the truth, that we Americans were and are a maritime society, less interested in merely being generically good than in being specifically good at something, and bound together not by blood but by shared skills and shared notions of worthwhile character. The strength of that bond is evident in the sinking of the schooner Ariel. Barnstable, Merry, and Tom are determined to remain with the ship, but the men in the whaleboat will not leave without them. So, long story short, Barnstable picks up Merry and throws him into the whaleboat. Then Long Tom Coffin picks up Barnstable “and threw him over the bulwarks, with an irresistible force. At the same moment, he cast the fast of the boat from the pin that held it” (285), releasing the lighter and smaller boat to get closer to shore before being smashed on the rocks. Many on the whaleboat die, as do Dillon and Coffin on the schooner. Dillon’s body is found, but Tom’s is not.

He remains landless, as he tells Dillon he intended to: “’To die in my coffin, if it should be the will of God,’ returned Tom; ‘these waves, to me, are what the land is to you; I was born on them, and I have always meant that they should be my grave’” (287). What will be remembered is not a burial place but the acts of his life.

The same is true of the Pilot, whose identity Edward Griffith continues to protect, even from his wife, Cecilia: “He was a man, and not therefore without foibles — among which may have been reckoned the estimation of his own acts; but they were the most daring, and deserving of praise” (426). His courage and skill deserve praise, even if other aspects of his character do not.

That is the heart of virtue ethics. Where Immanuel Kant and other deontologists focus on the act itself, and Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and other utilitarians and consequentialists focus on the effects of the act, Aristotle, the Stoics, Elizabeth Anscombe, Rosalind Hursthouse, Alasdair MacIntyre, Phillippa Foot, and others focus on the agent who performs the act. According to MacIntyre, virtues are habits or characteristics of perception and action that lead to success or flourishing in common human activities — agriculture, commerce, politics, science, art; that enable the virtuous to lead more organized and less chaotic lives; and that enable, at the best, some contribution to the common good, as do the virtuous acts of many imperfect characters in The Pilot.

In exploring this excellence, what Aristotle called arete, Cooper is in a cultural conversation with Melville and other Americans, including Chad Harbach, whose novel, The Art of Fielding, again explores the notion of landlessness. Guert Affenlight, president of Westish College on the shore of Lake Michigan, wrote his book on landlessness and tried to live his life according to its ideals of character over convention. His daughter and friends decide to move his body from the cemetery to Lake Michigan, to leave him landless, as Long Tom leaves himself: they bow their heads, and Owen makes the connection with virtue ethics: “At the risk of becoming sentimental, let me say that you’ve been integral to my life for a long time. I read your book when I was fourteen, and it bolstered my courage at a moment when my courage was required” (503).

Navigation is abstract, but it can save your life. Books are abstract, but they can guide your life. In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Kwame Anthony Appiah examines how moral progress frequently begins with an {8} abstract notion of honor encoded in a story: “So, honor is no decaying vestige of a premodern order; it is, for us, what it has always been, an engine, fueled by the dialogue between our self-conceptions and the regard of others, that can drive us to take seriously our responsibilities in a world we share” (179).

In light of those responsibilities, Jeffrey Nealon argues, in Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism, that we have lingered too long in the self-congratulating ironic knowingness of paralyzed postmodernism and need to get beyond “linguistic nostalgia, clinging to the life raft of the hermeneutics of suspicion” (150), to turn now “from the postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion to a post-postmodern hermeneutics of situation” (150), learn to read the homologies between our current situation and the situations of earlier writers, and read literature for our own time as Kenneth Burke read it in his as “equipment for living” (146). As the nautical metaphor suggests, the stakes are high.

Nealon quotes Marina Gorbis, “president of the RAND Corporation offshoot the Institute for the Future,” that the most highly sought and best-paid jobs in that future will depend on “everything that cannot be defined, that’s novel, improvisational, where you need to quickly adapt on the spot. Anything related to kind of abstract, high-level thinking” (193). But be not afraid. That is the kind of thinking that has kept us alive so far, that we evolved to do. In A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation, Nancy Easterlin argues that “literature is a thing made for human use” (ix), that it has, “in William James’s phrase, ‘cash-value’ for experience” (xi), that “literary representation rests on biogenetic foundations” (218), that it is biologically adaptive and enables us to survive and thrive among humans and other parts of nature.

Finally, to sail back home again, Daniel C. Dennett, in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, argues that the clarification of abstract, high-level thinking has high stakes for the navigation of life and that one area of life for which this link is clear and accepted is sailing. Be foolish on land, and you may well live to be foolish again, but the sea, while not malicious, is, as many can testify, quite cold and unforgiving of error. Landlessness may well be the deepest recognition of that fact, and perhaps for that reason, “sailors enjoy the nautical terms that baffle landlubbers” (14). Cooper did, and he’s an early and major participant in a cultural conversation likely to be increasingly important as we all stand off familiar ports and sail into the future.

Works Cited

  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. New York: Norton, 2010.
  • Chase, Owen. Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex. Intro. B. R. McElderry, Jr. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972.
  • Cohen, Margaret. The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pilot; A Tale of the Sea (1824). Ed. Kay Seymour House. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.
  • ------. The Pioneers. Ed. Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Andersen, Jr. Intro. Robert Daly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Cowie, Alexander. The Rise of the American Novel. New York: American Book Company, 1951.
  • Dennett, Daniel C. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: Norton, 2013.
  • Franklin, Wayne. “Chronology of James Fenimore Cooper’s Life.” In The Pioneers (1823). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011: xxvii-xxxii.
  • Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows (1908). Illus. Charles van Sandwyk. London: The Folio Society, 2005.
  • Gura, Philip F. Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
  • Harbach, Chad. The Art of Fielding: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2011.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair C. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2ⁿᵈ ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
  • Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 1967.
  • Nealon, Jeffrey T. Post-Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Viking, 2000.
  • Rancière, Jacques. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. Trans. Zakir Paul. London: Verso, 2013.
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893). Ed. Harold P. Simonson. New York: Unger, 1963.