Gender on the Rocks; Cooper’s Jack Tier, or The Florida Reef

David Lampe (Buffalo State University)

Presented at the 20ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, June, 2015.

Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

“Are you a man or a woman.”

“That is a question I hardly know how to answer.

Sometimes I think myself each; sometimes neither.” (488)

Cooper and “gender” would seem to be an unlikely match. Even those who take his fiction seriously (like this assembly) would probably not label him a feminist. Most of the women in his novels are defined by their social roles as wives, daughters, mothers, and widows rather than individuals. Yet I will suggest that Cooper’s late novel — Rose Budd in its serial publication in Graham’s magazine and Jack Tier in its final form does not accidentally twice use women’s names for a title. 1

Critics have long recognized that Jack Tier draws on earlier nautical novels. Lounsbury calls it “a feeble reflection” of Red Rover. “The tragedy with which this novel ends” he insists, “is intended to to be terrible while for a matter of fact it is merely grotesque and absurd” (255). Philbrick judges “the novel is a grab bag of characters and incidents gathered from The Red Rover and Water Witch“ (204). Grossman is more sympathetic, “Jack Tier seems to be the realistic reworking of an earlier romance” and its scenes of violence against women have “a surrealistic discordance added to the horror” (226). But he is disappointed when Jack is finally revealed as Captain Spike’s abandoned wife and suggests that moment shows Cooper “limited by the conventions of his age” (228). For Donald Ringe the novel “represents something far more serious than the mere realistic reworking of a romantic tale. It is a rather grim but essentially true criticism of a world where all sense of principle has been lost” (134). In this same line Warren Walker insists Jack Tier presents” a study in depravity in the person of Captain Spike. ... For moral decadence, for physical brutality on the part of supposedly civilized people, for moments of sheer horror, there is nothing like it anywhere else in Cooper’s novels” (66)

There are obvious similarities in the ways Cooper presents women in the early chapters of Red Rover and Jack Tier. In both novels Cooper introduces his ladies in a group. Chapter 3 of Red Rover as two males in a tower (or is it a former windmill) over hear “the silvery voice of woman ... heard at a little distance.” Chapter 4 introduces them:

The party below consisted of four individuals, all of whom were females. One was a lady in the decline of her years; another was past the middle age, the third was on the very threshold of what is called “life,” and it is applied to intercourse with the world; and the fourth was a negress, who might have seen some five-and-twenty revolutions of the seasons. (47)

In Jack Tier a cluster of ladies arrive in a cab with an escort — “the short, sturdy figure of Captain Spike, backing out, much as a bear descends a tree“ (emphasis added):

The cab, when it gave when it gave up its contents, discovered a load of no less than four persons beside the driver, all of weight, and of dimensions in proportion, with the exception of the pretty and youthful Rose Budd. Even she was plump, and of a well-rounded person; though still light and slender. But her aunt was a fair picture of a shipmaster’s widow — solid, comfortable, and buxom. Neither was she old, nor ugly. On the contrary, her years did not exceed forty; and being well preserved, in consequence of never having been a mother, she might have passed for thirty-five. ... The fourth person, in the fare, was Biddy Noon, the Irish servant and factotum of Mrs.Budd, who was a pock-marked, red- armed single woman, about her mistress’s own age and weight, though less stout to the eye. (19)

Age, social rank, and social role succinctly set forth.

In both Red Rover and Jack Tier Cooper has fun with childless aunts who are often compared to Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) which Cooper could have seen on stage in New York. Though Mrs. Malaprop only appears in five scenes in the play she is probably the most memorable character in the play which also includes a boisterous Irish Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Aunt to Lucy (the romantic heroine), she has been in charge of her education. In I.ii she tells us she has sent her to boarding school to learn “a little ingenuity and artifice” and gain “supercilious knowledge of accounts” and know something of the contagious countries.” Later she pompously quotes and mangles Hamlet famous description of his dead father:

Hesperian curls — the front of Job himself!

An eye like March, to threaten at command! —

A station, like Harry Mercury, new. (IV.ii.21-3)

Certainly some one as fond of Shakespeare as Cooper was would have been amused by this. 2 Malaprop reports what she has heard and misunderstood — “Something about kissing — on a hill (IV.ii) but has obviously not understood anything more than the sounds of what she heard. Her realm of pretense is education and Shakespeare and her version of Hamlet’s description of his father sounds like the “reported” text in the bad quartos.

In Red Rover we hear a “nautical dowager” exclaim “in a burst of professional enthusiasm:”

“What natural object is there, or can there be ... finer than a stately ship breasting the billows, as I have heard the admiral say a thousand times, its taffrail ploughing the main, and its cut-water gliding after, like a sinuous serpent pursuing its shining wake, as a living creature choosing its path on the land, and leaving the bone under its fore-foot, a beacon for those that follow.” (51) [emphasis added]

A marvelously strained set of similes ( — serpent, living creature, path, bone and beacon) and a spectacularly inaccurate awareness of nautical nomenclature — the “taffrail,” is the rear or stern rail [from the Dutch small table] is “cutting waves” — a reversal of fore and aft that she soon repeats:

“A charming object is a vessel cutting the waves with her taffrail, and chasing her wake on the trackless waters, like a courser that ever keeps in his path, though dashing madly on at the very top of his speed!” (53)

On stage none of the other fashionable folks of Bath laugh at Malaprop (at least to her face) In Cooper this violation of “the masonry” of the trade is picked up by Wilder and the young barrister in the tower:

“What spectacle, for instance, can be finer than a noble ship ‘stemming the waves with her taffrail,’ and chasing her wake, like a racer on the course?” “Leaving the ‘bone in her mouth’ under her stern, as a light-house for all that come after.”

Then ... they broke out simultaneously into a fit of clamorous merriment (54)

And they are not alone. “The latent smile of the governess” shows that she recognizes the mistake and even identifies its source as “the waggery” of the deceased admiral. Male condescension and conspiracy, the continued smirk of superiority echo through the opening of the novel (pp. 53, 55, 56, 67, 184). 3

In Jack Tier these mistakes multiply. Mrs. Budd “the shipmaster’s relict [widow]” is a sea-going Malaprop who consistently misunderstands nautical language and operations. While her niece the beautiful Rose Budd “had been both born and educated in Manhattan” (19), she, we are told:

was one of those inane, uncultivated beings who seem to be protected by a benevolent Providence in their pilgrimage on earth, for they do not seem to possess the power to protect themselves. Her very countenance expressed imbecility and mental dependence, credulity and love of gossip.

Lest this seem a harsh condemnation, Cooper adds a qualifier:

Notwithstanding these radical weaknesses, the good woman had some of the better instincts of her sex, and was never guilty of anything that could properly convey reproach. (27)

She is quite proud of her husband’s vessel, The Rose in Bloom, which she insists “was a full-jiggered ship and had twelve masts” unlike the Molly Swash “a half-jiggered ship” with only two masts, and comically names them all. She confuses barometer, thermometer, and chronometer (pp. 45). “Do you dress the brig, as well as undress her, o’ nights?” she asks Captain Spike (62). “Offing,” she informs her niece “is the place where the last letters are always written to the owners, and to friends ashore” (70). “A ‘landfall,’” she explains to Rose, “means a shipwreck, of course. To fall on the land, and a very unpleasant fall it is, when a vessel should keep on water” (83). Her infallible source for all this knowledge was her “poor dear husband” who “actually gave [her] lessons in the “sea dialect,’ as he called it, which probably is the true reason I am so accurate and general in my acquisitions” (89). This is the man who had told her that “the language of the ocean ... is eloquence tempered by common sense” (178). Both qualities she lacks entirely. She thus may be forgiven when she confuses “eddies and tides” (211) or quais and locks (219), or even the names of the sea watches (233-4).

But she becomes dangerous when she acts on her faulty training for, we are told “she wished to be doing everything, but did not know how to do anything” (235) and since “It was far easier for the good woman to talk than to act” (236) she is responsible for losing the boat that Mulford and Jack Tier had appropriated. For as it is later explained “Madame Budd talked so much dictionary to the painter [of their boat] that it got adrift” (317). Misuse of nautical knowledge is no longer merely comic but is instead consequential.

The other women (with the exception of Rose) are also given their own particular language patterns and concerns. Irish Biddy Noon is, it would seem, obsessed by “wather” (pp. 261, 266, 330, 335, 346) most notably at her tragically noble death:

God, and His Divine Son, and the Blessed Mother of Jesus have mercy on me if it be wrong; but I would radder jump into the saa widout having the rude hands of man on me. ... It’s a fearful thing is wather, and sometimes we have too little of it, and sometimes more than we want (475)

When the heartless boatswain urges she hurry and “clear the boat” in her death scene:

She gave one moment to the thought of arranging her clothes with womanly decency. ... “God forgive ye all this deed, as I do!” said Biddy, earnestly; and bending her person forward, she fell, as it might be “without hands,” into the gulf of eternity (475).

Even Captain Spike’s hard-bitten crew of misfits are moved by her death: “There was not one in that boat who did not, for a brief space, wish that poor Biddy had been spared” (476).

Rose Budd has “deep-blue eye, which was equally spirited and gentle”, “born and educated in Manhattan” (19) she is suffering from a pulmonary complaint and taken by her aunt on board the Molly Swash for treatment in the form of hydropathy, sea air and water. When her aunt is shocked by the term “Hell gate” on the Hudson, she responds that it is “vulgar to be straining at gnats” (34) — that is to be offended by simple names. Unlike her aunt and Biddy she remains silent when the the ship without a pilot strikes the Pot Rock (37).

Jack Tier is a strange character from first appearance — “a short, stout, sailor-like looking little person” who “waddled down the nearest street (21). This entrance calls forth a double anti-thesis as an astonished Captain Spike tries to recall who she/he is:

Time [15 years] and hard service had greatly altered him, but the general resemblance in figure, stature, and waddle, certainly remained. Nothwithstanding, the Jack Tier that Spike remembered was quite a different person from this Jack Tier. That Jack had worn his intensely black hair clubbed and curled, whereas this Jack had cut his locks into short bristles, which time had turned an intense gray. That Jack was short and thick, but he was flat and square; whereas this Jack was just as short, a good deal thicker, and as round as a dumpling. In one thing, however, the likeness still remained perfect. Both Jacks chewed tobacco, to a degree that became a distinct feature in their appearance ()24).

This Jack is “rather too Dutch built, in your old age, to do much aloft” (52) and his/her voice is “a cracked octave sort of a voice ... tones between those of a man and boy” (49). What she/he most often says is that Captain Spike is a “willian” (204, 205, 206, 218, 355, 482). And that of course that proves to be only too true.

Captain Steven Spike is 56 years old (though he says 48). Since he was trained by Captain Budd for 10 years he is trusted by Mrs. Budd for a sea voyage and hydropathy, or as he puts it “Hyder-Ally ... one sort of cure for consumption” (9). But his real purpose is to marry the beautiful and innocent Rose Budd. He seems at first to be a most moral man “Drunkenness I abominate,” he tells Harry Mulford his mate, “a drunkard’s a thing I despise.” Yet we soon learn that this insistence is a mask for the real man. He doesn’t want a pilot for the hazardous Hell-Gate, not because he is cheap or a bold navigator himself, but because he is a smuggler — there is gunpowder in his cargo of flour barrels which he intends to sell to the enemy Mexico, and that is an act of treason during the 1845-48 war. This then is no Byronic hero, no Red Rover or Skimmer of the Sea but a man who puts commerce above country. Though he takes ladies on board his half-rigged brigantine Molly Swash he maroons them on the Florida Reef and later throws therm overboard to lighten the load for his crew. Indeed when Mrs. Budd clings to the the boat he gives special instructions:

“Cast off her hand,” said Spike reproachfully, “she’ll swamp the boat by her struggles — get rid of her at once! Cut her fingers off, if she won’t let go!” (473)

He had earlier abandoned Jack Tier and even his wife Molly Swash who assumes the dead Jack’s identity. Yet when she reveals herself to him, and forgives him on his deathbed, he is still not able to accept it or reform; “curses, blasphemy, tremulous cries for mercy, agonized entreaties to be advised, and sullen defiance were all strangely and fearfully blended” as Spike breathes his last (505). He is buried, we are told, “in the sands of the shore.”:

It may be well to say in this place, that the hurricane of 1846, which is known to have occurred only a few months later, swept off the frail covering, and that the body was washed away to leave its bones among the wrecks and relics of the Florida Reef. (506)

An appropriate end for a monster, certainly the worst husband in all of Cooper’s works. A colleague suggested he would be a fine CEO or Dean today,

I’ve earlier referred to condescending men and their smug superiority in response to the nautical nonsense of Mrs. Delacy’s (in Red Rover) and Mrs. Budd (in Jack Tier). Behind each of these comic figures stands an instance of the brutal gender games men often play. Mrs. Budd, after all, is eager to please and perform. As Cooper puts it “She wished to be doing everything, but did not know how to do anything” (235). For like Admiral Delacy, Captain Budd is also responsible for his wife’s miseducation.

I’ve not said much about the young romantic couple Rose Budd and Harry Mulford (18 and 23). Cooper tells us that even the Manhattan educated Rose “had received the vicious education which civilized society inflicts on her sex, and as a matter of course, was totally helpless” since she could not swim (239). Fortunately Mulford can swim and rescues her when the Mexican schooner capsizes. He also rescues Bridget and Mrs. Budd. Unlike the snide young men who make light of the language of the Admiral’s relict in Red Rover, Harry Mulford instead proves himself a worthy gentleman when he responds to Rose’s question about her aunt’s “nautical phrases”:

“Now tell me, Harry — that is answer me frankly — I mean — she is not always right, is she?”

“Why,no; not absolutely so — that is, not absolutely always so — few persons are always right, you know.” (370)

Rose admits that “aunty does not know as much of the sea and of ships as she thinks she does,” and explains “it is not easy for a woman to get a correct knowledge of the uses of all the strange, and sometimes uncouth, terms that you sailors use.” Mulford responds that he “would rather [she] should never attempt it” or at least not swagger “about like an old salt,” and then he sounds almost sexist:

“You understand them [nautical terms] far better than Mrs. Budd, Rose. Women are so little accustomed to think on such subjects at all, that it is not surprising they sometimes get confused.

And then as almost an afterthought adds:

“I do wish, however, that your aunt could be persuaded to be more cautious in the presence of strangers, on the subject of terms she does not understand.”

While that may not go down well with modern feminists, Rose accepts it: “my aunt’s heart is most excellent, though she makes mistakes occasionally.” When Mulford asks her why Jack Tier seems so attached to Captain Spike, she pauses, almost reveals what she knows of Jack and then adds “It may be hatred, not attachment” (372). Only at the novel’s end do we learn that Jack/Molly who “has left off chewing and smoking, having found a refuge in snuff” has transferred her “strange, tiger- like affection” from Spike to Rose and her little boy. 4

Cooper uses cross-dressing throughout his novels. In The Spy (1821) Harvey Birch cross dresses as an Irish washerwoman to escape the skinners. In Water Witch (1830) corrupt Cornbury “the degenerate descendant of Clarendon” (315) is clearly a “lussus naturae” while young Eudora uses the Shakespearean comedy convention of cross dressing for intrigue. 5 Jack Tier/ Molly Swatch is a more complex character and plot device. She confides in Rose Budd, protects her from Captain Spike and generalizes about the inconstancy of men:

“Yes, woman will be woman, put her on a naked rock, or put her in silks and satins in her parlor at home. How different is it with men! They dote for a little while, and turn to a new face. It must be said, men’s willians!” (323)

A neat reversal of the commonplace accusation of fickleness from one who knows from experience.

George Dekker warns readers “It is impossible to like the misanthropic novels” of Cooper’s last five years since they are “obsessed with the beastly and disreputable side of mankind” (212). I for one would challenge Dekker. I enjoyed Jack Tier as an adventure story with navigation issues (Hell Gate and the Pot Rock), with sea chases, with a tornado, shipwrecks, and sharks. I hope I have shown that Cooper provides a more sophisticated analysis of gender issues than one might have expected and an unlikely heroine, fiercely faithful Jack Tier/Molly Swash, who recognizes her husband is a “willian” and yet clings to him with a “strange, tiger-like affection ... during twenty years of abandonment.”

Cooper may not declare that gender is socially constructed as Foucault does, though he does show that women like Admiral Delacey’s widow or Mrs. Budd are shaped by men they married who taught them inaccurate nautical nonsense to amuse themselves, to keep their spouses ridiculous and subordinate. Cooper may not cite Julia Kristava or lament the “male gaze” as any self-respecting feminist must do today. Instead he exposes the social and educational constraints that created gender problems in mid-19ᵗʰ century America. And that, after all is what we should expect in a realistic American adventure novel of 1848. 6

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Red Rover (1827) I use the Mohawk Edition. NY: Putnam’s
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Water Witch (1830.)
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Jack Tier (1848) I use the NY Co-operative Publication Society edition, Vol 23.
  • Dekker, George. Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. NY: Twayne, 1962.
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper. London: Methuen, 1949.
  • Harthorn, Steven, Chapter 4 “Periodical Publishing Cooper and Graham’s Magazine“ Ph. D dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 2005.
  • Lounsbury, Thomas R. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin, 1883.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1961.
  • Ringe, Donald A. James Fenimore Cooper. NY: Twayne. 1962.
  • Seymour, Kay. Cooper’s Americans. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State, 1965.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. ed. Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1982.
  • Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. Poems and Plays ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
  • Walker, Jeffrey, “Reading Rose Budd; Or, Tough Sledding in Jack Tier,” James Fenimore Cooper Society, Miscellaneous Papers, 27 (2010), 11-14.
  • Walker, Warren S. James Fenimore Cooper : An Introduction and Interpretation NY: Barnes & Noble, 1962.


1 See Jeffery Walker, “Reading Rose Budd, Or, Tough Sledding in Jack Tier,” and Steve Harthorn’s 2005 Ph. D Dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

2 “See what a grace was seated on his brow Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself, An eye like Mars to threaten and command, A station like the herald Mercury New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill” (Hamlet III.iv.55-59). Sheridan’s The Rivals was readily available in early 19ᵗʰ century America. It played frequently at the Park Theatre in New York City in 1813, 1827, 1828 (see T. Allston History of New York Stage rpt. NY: Blom, 1964. I.16, 33, 36. And of course Cooper could have read this as well as seen it onstage. Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. ed. Cecil Price. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.

3 James Davis II suggests that Cooper ” parodies the landlubber’s ignorance” with his “typical pedantry” in his repeated use of the Admiral’s widow’s language. “Red Rover and Looking at Nautical Machine for Naturalist Tendencies,” The James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers, 25 (2008), 12. I think there may be something more than pedantry involved.

4 This seems to be a very different attitude toward women than Keni Sabath finds in “Whimsical Women and Manly-Man Mohicans: Feminist Perspective on Women, Native People, and Nature in The Last of the Mohicans,” 101 in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art : Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar , 18. Kay Seymour speculates that Jack Tier may have “some connection with a much-publicized convention of women who met in Seneca Falls, New York, to open a concerted drive against the tyranny of man” (32) and characterizes Cooper’s women as either douce heroines or viragos: Cooper’s Americans. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State, 1965.

5 See my “Double Dutch Delights: Irving’s Knickerbocker History and Cooper’s Water Witch“ 2013.

6 It might be interesting to compare Cooper’s “gender study” with Elizabeth Cady Stanton “Married Woman’s Property Act” passed in 1848 by the New York State Legislature or some of the writings of Susan B. Antony and other Seneca Falls activists.

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