Cooper’s Coastscapes: The Significance of Setting in The Pilot

Dan Walden (Baylor University)

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.

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

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 56-62) .

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

The opening scene of Cooper’s first sea novel, The Pilot, takes place along the northeastern coast of Britain during the American Revolution. A group of field workers are chatting along some coastal cliffs when they spot a schooner round a point very close to the shore. This was cause for concern, the narrator explains, because the distant American Revolution had caused ships just as this to impress local men. But it was also notable because the ship was navigating a treacherous shallow-water course: as one Scottish onlooker exclaimed, “’He’s a bold chield that steers her! [...] he’s in mair danger than a prudent mon could wish. Ay! He’s by the big rock that shows his head when the tide runs low, but it’s no mortal man who can steer along in the road he’s journeying, and not speedily find land wi’ water a top o’t.’” 1

This early comment condenses through the physical environment what will become one of The Pilot’s primary concerns: the instability of identity and its reflection in the coastal world. Despite the notion of Cooper as the father of the American sea novel, much of his early sea fiction does not take place in the vast expanses of the open ocean. Rather, much of these novels take place within sight of land, and often on shore as much as off. The Pilot is perhaps the most obvious example of this “land-centric” sea fiction; as H. Daniel Peck has noted, the majority of The Pilot’s plot takes place on land while “none of the sea episodes occur beyond sight of the coastline.” 2 Interestingly, though scholars have remarked on the coastal setting of this sea novel, the significance of the physical environment in it has been underexplored. While the landscapes in Cooper’s terrestrial Leatherstocking novels and the seascapes in the later maritime novels have been examined for the symbolic contributions they provide to setting, characterization, and plot progression, Cooper’s coastscapes have not attracted the same critical attention. I want to amend that oversight, to demonstrate how the coastscape in The Pilot serves not only as the novel’s setting but also its interpretive center. As such, today I want to talk about how the physical instability of the coastal world is reflected in the ambiguous loyalties and national identities of three of the novel’s characters& — mainly Long Tom Coffin, Christopher (Kit) Dillon, and the titular pilot himself, John Paul Jones. The actions of these characters within the realm of the coastscape crystalize their nebulous identity into quantifiable categories and ultimately reaffirms The Pilot’s nationalist message. 3

Though Cooper’s stated attempt in the preface to The Pilot was to write a more realistic depiction of the sea and sailors than those written by British novelists like Tobias Smollett and Sir Walter Scott, his efforts retained a relatively standard dichotomy between the land as the realm of conflict and the sea as resolution and freedom. Critics like Peck and Charles Adams have, however, distanced Cooper from these binaries, recognizing his tendency to, in Adams’s words, “generally blur the traditional distinction between land and sea,” a claim he supports by pointing out that many of Cooper’s sea novels — not only The Pilot but also The Red Rover (1827), The Water-Witch (1830), and Wing-and-Wing (1842) — largely take place in and around harbor settings. 4 Adams focuses his discussion on The Red Rover, Cooper’s second and, according to Philbrick best sea novel, and he figures the coastal setting as an analogue to the “neutral ground” metaphor underpinning Cooper’s 1821 novel The Spy, wherein complexities of honor, patriotism, and loyalty are linked to the demilitarized space around Westchester, NY during the Revolution. 5 In this reading of The Red Rover, the neutral ground is divested of its physicality and linked to the intangible qualities of honor and patriotism. In other words, the physical neutral ground gives way to a moral one. Adams states:

The middle ground between sea and shore serves as a moral stage on which the central drama of the fiction is enacted: the hero’s effort to reconcile the claims of self with the prerogatives of the various structures of authority that condition individual freedom. The most important ‘neutral ground’ in the sea fiction is, in short, the inner area of conflict between authority and identity. 6

The physical environment is so marginalized in this analysis that the connection between the coastal setting and the concept of neutral ground that forms the basis of Adams’s reading is severed when, on the essay’s second page, the ocean itself — not just the coastline — is presented as being a neutral ground. 7

Such marginalization of the coastal environment is not uncommon, but nonetheless surprising, considering that in The Pilot the coastscape’s physical liminality is on display from the novel’s very beginning. In the opening scene I mentioned earlier, though the onlookers remark about the dangerous route the ship is travelling, it soon furls her {57} sails, drops anchor, and comes to a stop (11). By all appearances the schooner had passed the dangerous coastal space and is secure in a safe harbor. However, when the mysterious pilot shortly arrives and boards the vessel he immediately advises the crew to “sweep into the offing, with as little delay as possible.” 8 In other words, the very first command the pilot gives is for it to move out of the coastal space straightaway. When the crew balks at his order, saying that they had been told to hold fast in their apparently secure position, the pilot sternly responds, “’Would you lie there to perish on such a night! [...] Two hours hence, this heavy swell will break where your vessel now rides so quietly’” (29). Here the unforeseen danger comes from the environmental realities of the coastline as the intersection of land and sea. As the tide falls and the sea recedes, submerged land emerges and transforms a site of safety into a site of destruction. And keeping in line with Cooper’s other novels, security stems from an understanding of and connection to the natural world, which the pilot here provides.

But what makes the coast a unique setting is that it takes a specialized environmental awareness that incorporates understanding of terrestrial and oceanic spheres. A deep knowledge of the one of these worlds is insufficient for survival along the coast, a truth embodied in the fate of The Pilot’s most engaging character, Long Tom Coffin. If The Pilot were truly a sea novel of the early American republic, a time when Paul Gilje claims “Americans made the sentimental seaman their own and transformed him into the symbol for the new nation,” Coffin would be that symbol. In many ways Tom Coffin appears the posterchild for democratic meritocracy society: though of humble birth Coffin’s ability as coxswain made him a “privileged individual in the Ariel, and one whose opinions, in all matters of seamanship, were regarded as oracles by the crew, and were listened to by his commander with no little demonstration of respect” (194). Despite, however, Coffin’s democratic potential, Cooper seems to strive to disconnect him from any meaningful American identity, making him not an American but rather a creature of the sea.

The link between Coffin and the sea has not, however, prevented critics from reading him as a nationalist character. Jason Berger, for example, categorizes Coffin, like Natty Bumppo, as the quintessential American romantic natural hero whose heroism stems from his deep connection to the land (sea)scape. However, unlike Bumppo who repeatedly asserts his Anglo-American status as “a man without a cross,” Coffin is not invested in defending his American identity; in fact, he seems to be actively disdainful of any categorization other than sailor. And while Berger ultimately argues that Cooper relocates the novel’s focus from Coffin to the American officer-heroes Barnstable and Griffith via Coffin’s rather unexpected death, he does validate Coffin’s nationalist credentials through the connection between sailors and the ideals of their native homeland. 9 But this is complicated by the fact that Coffin is so deeply aligned with the extranational spaces of the ocean that connecting him with values attached to “native soil” is problematic. Where Berger contends that Coffin’s nationalism is sublimated through his death and reappropriated to Barnstable, I argue that Coffin was never a nationalist character, and his death in the coastal liminal space is indicative of his inability to transition from his ocean-based allegiances to the land-based allegiances demanded by early Republican nationalism.

Although his genealogy identifies him as a Nantucketer — the Coffins were one of the oldest and most prominent Nantucket families — this heritage intrinsically problematizes assumptions about Long Tom Coffin’s American allegiances. Despite being hailed by Crevecoeur as the prefect representation of American democratic ideals, Nantucketers were largely ambivalent about the American Revolution, and many prominent islanders — including the historical Coffin family — expressed unequivocal Tory sympathies. 10 While Cooper’s Coffin conveys Nantucket’s trademark ambivalence, he extends it from a national to a more generally terrestrial sphere: despite his heritage, he does not recognize Nantucket as his birthland. He asserts early in the novel that he was “’born on board a chebacco-man’” 11 (19) while it “was crossing Nantucket shoals’” (182) and claims that he “’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’” (19). Moreover, the adamant assertions that he was sea-born problematize Berger’s notion that Coffin, as an American, retains the ideals fostered on American soil; Coffin states, “’I was born on the waters ... and it’s according to all things for a man to love his natyve soil’” (182). By his own admission, Coffin has no proper native soil; water is Coffin’s soil, a point reemphasized later when he says aboard the doomed Ariel, “’these waves, to me, are what land is to you; I was born on them, and I have always meant that they should be my grave’” (282). Such extra-terrestrial identifications must necessarily locate Coffin’s identity in an extra-national space — the claim that as a sailor he retains the values of his American homeland just, as the idiom goes, does not hold water.

In a telling scene that immediately precedes his death Coffin is presented with a choice that, on its surface, hinges on national preference. Just prior to the Ariel’s failed escape, Coffin is duped by the Loyalist Christopher Dillon and taken prisoner in St. Ruth’s Abbey by the British Captain Borroughcliffe. Impressed by his stature and martial {58} abilities, Borroughcliffe offers Coffin the opportunity to free himself and join his company to which Coffin, as might be expected, refuses. A struggle ensues, during the course of which Coffin subdues and restrains the British captain, a scene rife with potential nationalist symbolism. 12 But more important than the symbolism of an American whaleman besting a British officer is the motivation behind it. In offering Coffin a position in his company, Borroughcliffe ostensibly requires two things: leave the American side for the British, and leave the life of a sailor for one of a soldier. Were Coffin a national hero, the thought of betraying his country would be anathema, and readers might expect his refusal to be couched in patriotic terms. But national loyalty plays no role in Coffin’s reaction; what disgusts him is the thought of betraying the sea for land. In responding to Borroughcliffe’s offer, Coffin amends a popular maritime oath that makes his loyalty clear: “’A messmate, before a shipmate; a shipmate before a stranger; a stranger, before a dog; but a dog before a soldier!’” (250). Put plainly, Coffin’s rejection of the offer to join the British army rests upon his preference for the sea over land, not for any sense of patriotic duty.

After escaping Burroughcliffe Coffin recaptures Dillon and returns to the Ariel to begin the ill-fated escape that ends with Coffin’s death. As the dismasted Ariel is driven by the wind and tide towards shore, Coffin recognizes the futility of the situation; his knowledge of seamanship tells him, correctly, that the Ariel is doomed to crash upon the coastal rocks. Faced with this fate, Coffin effectively shuts down and refuses to even try to save her. His assertion that any attempt to do so would be pointless, though correct, puts him at odds with Barnstable’s sense of national duty which commands that “despite the fact that resistance may be futile, such resistance must be offered.” 13 By refusing to offer this nationally-inspired resistance, Coffin unequivocally reveals his loyalty to be for his ship rather than his country: he states, “’I saw the first timber of the Ariel laid, and shall live just long enough to see it torn out of her bottom; after which I wish to live no longer’” (281).

Interestingly, Coffin’s death scene is combined with that of another extra-national character: Christopher Dillon. Dillon was born in America but was, in Colonel Howard’s estimation, “’a good and loyal subject, and no rebel’” — at the beginning of the conflict he fled the Carolinas with designs on marrying Howard’s daughter, Cecilia (67). And though Dillon’s loyalist sympathies would imply a British national idealism, he in fact displays very little patriotism. Dillon is the only male in the novel without military experience, and when Katharine Plowden presses the point, derisively asking “’why he was not in arms in these stirring times, contending for the prince he loves so much,’” she is told that war “’is not his profession,’” and that he is instead waiting to be appointed to “’one of the highest judicial stations in the colonies’” (67). Dillon’s lack of masculine national patriotism is reflected in his lack of personal honor — in a scene I mentioned just a moment ago, after pledging an oath to return the captured Griffith from St. Ruth’s Abbey in exchange for his own freedom, Dillon is accompanied by Tom Coffin to complete the trade and promptly betrays him, handing Coffin over as a prisoner to Borroughcliffe. In a way, Dillon is a mirror of Tom Coffin, for if Coffin is The Pilot’s extranational hero who exits the narrative halfway through, Dillon is the extranational villain who makes a similar departure. And though these characters meet their end in the same location, the manner of their demise could not be more different.

As the damaged Ariel is driven back on the rocks, the crew loads into the doomed ship’s lifeboats, but their disdain for Dillon prevents him from joining them, and he is left on board the quickly deteriorating ship with Tom Coffin where the two men have significantly different reactions to their situation. While Coffin accepts his death with the calm resignation that, according to Berger, transforms an act of romantic heroism into a pejorative “lesson about facile and misplaced affection,” 14 Dillon rages against his impending death. As the now-fatalist Coffin sagely attests that “’when the death-march is called, none can skulk from the muster,’” Dillon frantically shrieks, “’I am not ready to die! — I cannot die! — I will not die!’” and, being a “light and powerful swimmer,” dives into the surf to swim for shore. In so doing he unknowingly plunges into the midst of an undertow, a strong current that forms in heavy surf when the mass of water thrown on shore rushes back towards the ocean through narrow gaps in shallow shoals or sandbars. Like the doomed Ariel, Dillon is trapped literally in middle of land and sea. The narrator explains: “With the shore immediately before his eyes, and at no great distance, he was led, as by a false phantom, to continue his efforts, although they did not advance him a foot.” Panicked, Dillon looked to Coffin for help but Coffin, who again knew the struggle was futile, averted his gaze from Dillon’s “look of despair” only looking back in time to see “the sinking form of the victim, as it gradually settled in the ocean, still struggling, with regular but impotent strokes of the hands and feet” (284). Immediately after Dillon sinks the Ariel breaks up, sending Coffin to the same watery death.

While both men die in the same place, where the two bodies ultimately come to rest highlights their respective characterizations. Coffin’s body was never found washed up on shore; as the narrator says, “the sea was never known to give up the body of a man who might be, emphatically, called one of its own dead” (287). Dillon’s {59} body does wash ashore — when Barnstable come across it he even momentarily mistakes it for Coffin’s. As the details of Coffin’s death and final resting place at sea highlight his unlanded oceanic identity, Dillon’s likewise underscore his ambiguous national alliegance. Dillon’s life in the interstitial space between two nations for which he was unwilling to sacrifice himself was reflected in his death between the two physical worlds of land and sea. Even his physical body, once dead, appeared to straddle the border between life and death: when Barnstable approaches Dillon’s corpse he exclaims, “’his form is unmutilated, and yet observe the eyes! ... they gaze as wildly as if their owner yet had life — the hands are open and spread, as through they would still buffet the waves!’” (286). The American sailors who prevented Dillon from joining their lifeboat wanted to unceremoniously cast him back into the sea, saying “’away with his carrion into the sea again! give him to the sharks! let him tell his lies in the claws of the lobsters!,’” but Barnstable rebukes them and demands that they give him a proper burial. As Barnstable walks away the sailors follow his orders, but with one significant caveat: they bury Dillon in the sands below the high-tide line so that the incoming waters submerge his grave (287). Geographically, then, both characters’ death and final resting place is in line with the physical and symbolic space in which they lived. Coffin is buried in his water-soil, Dillon is buried in earth that is equally exposed and submerged, neither fully land nor fully sea. Because both Dillon and Coffin carry loyalties outside the bounds of terrestrial national ideals, they are themselves ambiguous, interstitial characters.

It is important to note, however, that ambiguity in The Pilot is not inherently destructive; the novel is rather, according to Peck, along with The Spy, The Pioneers, Lionel Lincoln and The Last of the Mohicans, a meditation on the uncertain outcome of the conflict between authority and freedom. He goes on to state that “the ambiguity that defines the physical environment [in The Pilot] also characterizes the human realm,” referencing Cooper’s depiction of Jones, the rendering of whom “suggests an inability to ‘decide’” which side of the authority / freedom conflict triumphs. 15 Sarah Florence Wood offers a similar reading of Jones’s character, saying that the man who is first introduced in the novel as “Mr. Grey” truly does “inhabit a ‘grey’ area, in terms of identity, ideology, and nationality ... he slides from sea to shore and back again, a liminal figure who belongs to the no-man’s land so frequently inhabited by geographically-mobile sailors and ideologically-minded renegades.” 16 Indeed, Jones’s character in The Pilot is never solidified; though, and actually because, he would be recognized as a hero by the Americans he chooses to remain anonymous to them for much of the narrative, while at the same time he is reviled as a pirate by the British. He bases his own identity not on a personal conception of self but on the “articles” that he displays to Alice Dunscomb “while a glowing pride lighted his countenance” — these documents are letters of marque and royal commissions that are, in his words, “’not apt to be given to the children of infamy’” but rather justify the identity of “’a man who has not been thought unworthy to consort with princes and nobles’” (148-9). Throughout the novel Jones exists in a realm of ambiguity, and even in its final pages, after he reveals his identity to the American crews to rally them behind him for their final escape, Griffith refuses to tell Cecilia who the mysterious pilot really was, saying only that he was “’A man who held a promise of secrecy while living, which is not at all released by his death’” (422).

Though Peck links him to Natty Bumppo through their similar relegation to relatively minor roles of “common pilot” and “scout” that betrays their ultimately heroic stature, Jones’s closest corollary character is The Spy’s Harvey Birch. Though Birch’s personal identity is not anonymous, his national identity is — as an American spy he is forced to perform the role of a British informant and so, in the eyes of the American protagonists, is a traitorous villain. In reality, however, Birch’s apparent treachery serves to protect his nationalist motivations, and while he has a letter from George Washington himself that can assert his American bona fides and absolve him of any suspicion, his internal devotion to the American cause precludes any attempt to salvage his own reputation. Birch’s true loyalties are not confirmed until after his death when, as a very old man, he dies fighting alongside American forces in Canada during the War of 1812 and Washington’s pardon is found on his person. The Spy is ultimately a paean to nationalist self-sacrifice that, in its final lines, identifies Birch as “the spy of the neutral ground, who died as he had lived, devoted to his country, and a martyr to her liberties.” 17

As Donald Darnell has pointed out, Birch’s willingness for self-sacrifice contrasts him with Jones, who hides behind the Mr. Grey appellation largely to protect his reputation should their mission fail. 18 And while Darnell, Peck, and Wood all contend that this self concern tarnishes his character, Jones’s true motivation is a mixture of selfish pride and a laudable commitment to ostensibly American ideals. In response to Griffith, who asks is the hazard of their mission is worth the reward, Jones proclaims,

“There is glory in it, young man; if it be purchased with danger, it shall be rewarded by fame! It is true, I wear your republican livery, and call the Americans my brothers, but it is because you combat in behalf of human nature. Were your cause less holy, I would not shed the meanest drop that flows {60} in English veins to serve it; but now, it hallows every exploit that is undertaken in its favor, and the names of all who contend for it shall belong to posterity.” (211)

His motivations are, then, ambiguous, caught somewhere between what Cooper sees as a base quest for fame and a righteous duty to uphold idealized revolutionary values. For Peck, Jones’s selfish ambition highlights Cooper’s primary problem with his own post-revolutionary America: that “however noble the cause, [revolution] cannot be held in a state of pure abstraction” and that, ultimately, “the principles of the American revolution had been betrayed by the kinds of forces that surface in Jones’s character.” 19

It seems, however, that turning Jones into a pariah simplifies the novel’s message and returns it a fundamental dichotomy that nearly all critics argue The Pilot challenges. Rather than depicting Jones’ split motivation as a betrayal of American nationalism, The Pilot demonstrates an awareness that success depended at times on men like Jones and that this need did not necessarily corrupt the ideals on which the Revolution was founded. That Jones is seemingly ‘cast off’ by the Americans at the end of the novel — Griffith tells Cecilia that he spent his years after the Revolution “’in the service of a despot’” (422) — is in line with his literal role as a pilot. The maritime pilot’s function is to board a vessel and take control of her for the specific purpose of navigating treacherous and often unstable coastal waters. When the craft reaches the safety of port or open ocean the pilot disembarks, his once necessary service complete. In the novel, Jones’s job as the pilot is to literally lead the Americans through the treacherous shoals of the Devil’s Grip and symbolically guide them through the uncertain middle ground of revolution. That Jones embodies both the positive and negative aspects of revolutionary motivation focuses the weight of the revolution on his shoulders. The fate of the American mission rests on his ability to know and traverse the dangers of the literal and symbolic liminal space that makes up the novel’s setting. As the American frigate passes through the Devil’s Grip in the novel’s climactic scene, the British, who have no pilot of their own, are forced to turn back. Jones’s exclamation as they sail off encapsulates the beneficial ambiguity of The Pilot’s primary theme: “’What threatened to be our destruction has proved our salvation!’” (400). What this summation points to is the idea that the martial and ideological dangers of America’s revolutionary task are necessary risks that must be overcome, and at times men like Jones, whose own motivations threaten the “purity” of abstract notions of revolution, are needed to successfully navigate the unstable realities of revolutionary conflict.

As the common pilot disembarks the ship once the danger is passed, if we read Jones not only as a literal coastal pilot but also as an ideological one, his removal from the novel’s narrative is less problematic for he has fulfilled his role as a pilot. Pilots are not heroes — they provide an acceptable and necessary challenge to the ordered world of maritime hierarchy, usurping for a time the absolute authority of the captain, only to return that control once through the dangerous coastscape. Ultimately, Jones’s ambiguous motivation is precisely what allows him to lead the Americans through the liminal ideological space of revolution. No one else is capable: the American officers, standard-bearers of pure American nationalism, are naively powerless in the liminality of coastal waters; Long Tom Coffin, the natural hero with absolute but single-minded knowledge of the ocean environment, is rendered impotent in the raging middle ground; Christopher Dillon, the epitome of anational pride and self-interest, perishes in the unstable space between worlds. Only Jones, whose personality is comprised in part of each of these motivations but is not beholden to any single ideological impulse, is able to successfully traverse the revolutionary coastscape. Cooper may have been uncomfortable with this reality and preferred an America populated by those motivated by unsullied nationalism — as evidenced by the fact that the officers Griffith and Barnstable are the only main characters who survive to the novel’s end — but he was aware that American independence was dependent on men like Jones. As Griffith tells Cecilia in the novel’s closing lines — and though he is ostensibly referring to their personal romantic union, the implications for America in general is clear — the mysterious pilot “’was greatly instrumental in procuring our sudden union, and ... our happiness might have been wrecked in the voyage of life had we not met the unknown pilot of the German Ocean’” (422). The coastal setting of The Pilot is then far more than a static “moral stage” that transfers its symbolic significance to the “inner area of conflict between authority and identity,” 21 but is rather an important physical setting which Cooper deploys to influence, heighten, and demonstrate the ambiguous realities of the American Revolution and early Republic.


Works Cited

  • Adams, Charles H. “Cooper’s Sea Fiction and the Red Rover.” Studies in American Fiction 16.2 (1988): 155-68.
  • Berger, Jason. Antebellum at Sea: Maritime Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
  • ------. “Killing Tom Coffin: Rethinking the Nationalist Narrative in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot.” Early American Literature 43.3 (2008): 643-670.
  • {62} Blum, Hester. The View From the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • Bruckner, Martin. The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Byers, Edward. The “Nation of Nantucket”: Society and Politics in an Early American Commercial Center. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans (1826). New York: Penguin, 1986.
  • ------. “The Pilot.” (1824) In Sea Tales, edited by Kay Seymour House and Thomas L Philbrick, 1-422. New York: Library of America, 1991.
  • ------. “The Red Rover.” (1828) In Sea Tales, edited by Kay Seymour House and Thomas L Philbrick, 423-868. New York: Library of America, 1991.
  • ------. The Spy (1821). New York: Penguin, 1997.
  • Darnell, Donald. “Cooper’s Problematic Pilot: ‘Unrighteous Ambition’ in a Patriotic Cause.” Canadian Review of American Studies 20.3 (1989): 47-55.
  • Egan, Hugh. “Cooper and His Contemporaries.” In America and the Sea: A Literary History, edited by Haskell Springer, 64-82. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
  • Navakas, Michele Currie. “Liquid Landscape: Possession and Floridian Geography.” Early American Literature 47.1 (2012): 89-114.
  • Peck, H. Daniel. “A Repossession of America: The Revolution in Cooper’s Trilogy of Nautical Romances.” Studies in Romanticism 15.4 (1976): 589-605.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.
  • Sweet, Timothy. American Georgics: Economy and Environment in Early American Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
  • Wood, Sarah Florence. “’Narrow Passages’: Captive Sailors and National Narrative in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot.” Atlantic Studies 3.2 (2006): 245-55.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, “The Pilot,” in Sea Tales, ed. Kay Seymour House and Thomas L Philbrick (New York: Library of America, 1991) 11.

2 H. Daniel Peck, “A Repossession of America: The Revolution in Cooper’s Trilogy of Nautical Romances,” Studies in Romanticism 15.4 (1976): 592.

3 The scope of the nationalist narrative in Cooper’s sea novels has been a popular subject of analysis and debate. Jason Berger offers an excellent summary of Cooper’s anxiety about the unsustainability of Americas revolutionary ethos in the young republic in his article, “Killing Tom Coffin” and later book, Antebellum at Sea. Both Donald Darnell and H. Daniel Peck argue that Cooper’s early sea novels contribute to Cooper’s developing sense of literary nationalism, while Sarah Florence Wood argues that though The Pilot strives to be a nationalist novel, it ultimately fails.

4 Charles H Adams, “Cooper’s Sea Fiction and the Red Rover,” Studies in American Fiction 16.2 (1988): 155.

5 Hugh Egan and Donald Darnell have also noted the connection between Cooper’s early sea novels’ coastal setting and the “neutral ground” metaphor of The Spy. As Egan states: “These books are not set at sea so much as in the margin between land and sea, and thus they are, as the subtitle of The Spy (1821) first suggests, more tales of ‘neutral ground.’” Hugh Egan, “Cooper and His Contemporaries,” in America and the Sea: A Literary History, ed. Haskell Springer (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995) 70.

6 Adams, “Cooper’s Sea Fiction and the Red Rover,” 155.

7 Ibid., 156.

8 It is important to note that one of Cooper’s stated aims in writing The Pilot was to accurately illustrate the maritime world in ways that had not yet been attempted in literature, and employing specific maritime terminology was one of the ways he attempted to do so. Here the use of the term “offing” is significant, not only for heightening the nautical realism but also for emphasizing the dangers of the coastal environment; it means deep water from which land can be seen but is expressly not close to shore.

9 Berger, Antebellum at Sea, 85.

10 Edward Byers, The “Nation of Nantucket”: Society and Politics in an Early American Commercial Center (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987): 201, 213.

11 A medium-sized fishing vessel favored by family fishermen and named for the region of Massachusetts where they were made.

12 Antebellum at Sea, 79.

13 Jason Berger, “Killing Tom Coffin: Rethinking the Nationalist Narrative in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot,” Early American Literature 43.3 (2008): 80.

14 Berger, Antebellum at Sea, 80.

15 Peck, “A Repossession of America,” 593.

16 Sarah Florence Wood, “’Narrow Passages’: Captive Sailors and National Narrative in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot,” Atlantic Studies 3.2 (2006): 249.

17 James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy (New York: Penguin, 1997) 407.

18 Donald Darnell, “Cooper’s Problematic Pilot: ‘Unrighteous Ambition’ in a Patriotic Cause,” Canadian Review of American Studies 20.3 (1989): 53.

19 Peck, “A Repossession of America,” 594, 595.

20 Adams, “Cooper’s Sea Fiction and the Red Rover,” 155.