“The Water Witch” (1829) — a Novel Cooper Wrote to Please Himself
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.]
Few if any of Cooper’s 32 novels are as complex — and perhaps as mystifying — as The Water Witch; or, The Skimmer of the Seas. ¹ It was written in 1829 on the terrace of a cliff-side home in Sorrento, Italy, overlooking the Bay of Naples. He was at the height of his American and international fame. And therefore, perhaps, he felt free to compose what he later called “probably the most imaginative novel” ² he had ever written. And, as I propose to show, one of the most radical.
James Fenimore Cooper and his family ³ — his wife Susan, his four daughters, his young son Paul, and a teen-age nephew named William ⁴ brought along as a secretary — had been in Europe since 1826, headquartered in Paris, but also visiting in England and most recently in Switzerland. In 1828 they had settled for some months in Florence, in Italy, where Cooper wrote his previous novel, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, explored her fabled art and architecture, and enjoyed an active social life among Florence’s local and expatriate notables. ⁵
Cooper had fallen in love with Italy the moment he entered it, a love that would last for the rest of his life. Towards the end of the family’s Florence stay, he had begun writing The Water Witch, but after a few chapters had been drafted ⁶ the Cooper family chartered a 40-ton felucca for the six day voyage down the Western coast of Italy to Naples, arriving on August 10. With the aid of Alexander Hammett ⁷, the friendly American Consul in Naples, they toured local sights, including Pompeii and Herculaneum, and looked for a permanent place to stay. Hammett, a bachelor of about Cooper’s age, had been in Naples for 20 years, and would be their principal friend and occasional touring companion during their stay in southern Italy.
By August 20 the family had rented and moved into an old apartment built into the cliffs at Sorrento, a picturesque village on the opposite side of the Bay of Naples from the city and from Mount Vesuvius. It was said to be the birthplace of the famed 16ᵗʰ century Italian poet Torquato Tasso ⁸, and would be their home for the next three and a half months. Since it would also be the birthplace of The Water Witch, let me quote from Cooper’s own description:
“Everybody is delighted with the place, and I think we have not in any other abode, in or out of Europe, enjoyed ourselves so much as in this. ... [It] rests on narrow shelves of the cliffs, which are ... about one hundred and fifty feet in perpendicular height. ... We occupy the principal floor only. ...
“Towards the water there is a little terrace, which forms the great attraction of the house. It is only some fifty feet long, and perhaps half as wide; but it hangs over the blue Mediterranean, and ... commands a view of three fourths of the glorious objects of the region. It has a solid stone balustrade to protect it, massive and carved, with bannisters as big as my body. ... There is a little room partitioned off from the terrace, that I use as a cabinet, and where I can sit at its window and see most of [the objects around the Bay ⁹ .”
Cooper spent his mornings writing on the terrace, or in the little room next to it. Later in the day he and his family would make extensive excursions along the rugged and picturesque Sorrento peninsula, or go by boat to places around the Bay of Naples. They thoroughly enjoyed themselves — perhaps more than at any time before or later. Cooper was at the height of his fame in America and in Europe, he was making good money, and all the critical and financial worries that would later afflict him were still unseen in the future.
For the time, Cooper was alone with his family. without any significant outside social life. He seems to have looked on the Italians around him — townsfolk, peasants, the family’s handful of locally hired servants — with a purely touristic eye, and indeed became rather proud of the growing crowds of beggars who gathered at his door each morning to receive handouts of tiny coins. ¹⁰
It was thus, as I have suggested in the title to this paper, that Cooper was free to write a novel just as he pleased, without concern for what others might say of it. To say what he wanted, and in the way he wanted.
The Water Witch is set in and around New York harbor in about the year 1710 ¹¹, when that town was still largely Dutch in character, and we quickly meet four of her inhabitants who will figure throughout the novel. I deliberately omit even mention of some minor characters in the story. ¹²
Myndert van Beverout, is a voluble Dutch fur trader and merchant, and an Alderman in the New York government, whose lengthy remarks are inevitably prefaced by a pair of exclamations, and who expresses everything in commercial terms of gains and losses. Much of the land-based story takes place at his country home on the New Jersey shore, which he has named Lust in Rust — in English, Pleasure in Repose. ¹³
He has a younger friend in Olaff van Staats, a taciturn but very wealthy Dutch landowner, often called the Patroon of Kinderhook, who takes his advice from memories of a long deceased aunt.
Captain Ludlow ¹⁴ is the American-born commandant of a British sloop-of-war, HMS Coquette ¹⁵, currently stationed in New York. His views are those of a loyal British naval officer, even though his grandfather had been a rebel back in England.
And finally there is Alida de Barb&eacure;rie, Van Beverout’s orphaned niece, who has her own wing at Lust in Rust, and who has inherited her lively and adventurous disposition from her deceased father, a French Huguenot ¹⁶. Both Van Staats and Ludlow are, of course, in love with her, though Van Staats seems too timid to do much about it. All these characters speak, at length, in what Cooper seems to consider “old-fashioned” language.
In this paper, however, I want to confine most of my remarks to a second ship& — the Water Witch of the title — a mysterious smuggling ship with which Van Beverout has long traded his furs for illegally imported European luxury silks and other textiles, and which the loyal Captain Ludlow is determined to capture. This two-masted hermaphrodite ¹⁷ brigantine has square sails on her foremast, and schooner-like triangular sails on her rear mast. Cooper says of her that:
“The hull of this celebrated smuggler was low, dark, moulded with exquisite art, and so justly balanced as to ride upon its elements like a sea-fowl. ... Not a rope varied from its true direction; not a sail, but it resembled the neat folds of some prudent housewife; not a mast or a yard was there but it rose into the air, or stretched its arms, with the most fastidious attention to symmetry. All was airy, fanciful, and full of grace, seeming to lend to the fabric a character of unreal lightness and speed.” 18
This Water-Witch has an apparently miraculous ability to evade capture by British warships like the Coquette but is ruled by probably the most unusual character ever to appear in a Cooper novel — a semi-human figurehead in the form of a witch, who issues guidance to the men of the Water-Witch through a book on which are displayed brief verses:
“A female form, fashioned with the carver’s best skill, stood on the projection of the cutwater. The figure rested lightly on the ball of one foot, while the other was suspended in an easy attitude, resembling the airy posture of the famous [Flying] Mercury [by Giovanni da Bologna]. The drapery was fluttering, scanty, and of a light sea-green tint. ... The face was of that dark bronzed color which human ingenuity has ... adopted as the best medium to portray a superhuman expression. The locks were dishevelled, wild, and rich; the eye full of such a meaning as might be fancied to glitter in the organs of a sorceress; while a smile so strangely meaning and malign played about the mouth. ... ¹⁹“
Above her head this strange figurehead holds an open book, on whose many pages are written quotations from Shakespeare, adapted to the needs of the moment, and displayed to anyone who asks and turns over the pages with a long wand.” ²⁰
When visitors go below, they find no signs of any armaments, nor of extensive space for cargo. All but one room is devoted to the accommodations of officers and crew, and those of the two officers is luxuriously furnished, and paneled in mahogany and rosewood, with space for musical instruments and for books. ²¹
The Water-Witch is captained by Thomas Tiller — feared along the coast as the so-called “Skimmer of the Seas.” We first meet him on a ferry boat ²² to Staten Island. Though born on Long Island, Tiller’s tall and muscular figure wears a button-less pea jacket and bell-bottomed white trousers, all covered by a rich, East-Indian shawl, and a bright bandanna secured by a small ivory-handled knife. ²³ Tiller says of the witch-like figurehead that guides him that:
“I look at the pages of the lady’s book ... each morning; for ... when she intends to serve us foul, she will at least be honest enough to give a warning. The mottoes often change, but her words are ever true. ... I have seen the witch buried fathoms deep in brine, and the glittering water falling from her tresses like golden stars; but never have I read an untruth in her pages. ... She knows the paths of the ocean too well ever to steer a wrong course.” ²⁴
Second in command — though sometimes believed to be the Captain — is a young, very handsome, person known as Master Seadrift, who displays the luxurious contraband offered by the Water-Witch to female customers like Alida de Barbérie, Van Beverout’s orphaned niece. Cooper says of Master Seadrift’s exotic costume:
“the light frock was of a thick purple silk, of an Indian manufacture, cut with exceeding care to fit the fine outlines of a form that was rather round than square, active than athletic. The loose trousers were of a fine white jean, the cap of scarlet velvet, ornamented with gold, and the body was belted with a large cord of scarlet silk, twisted in the form of a ship’s cable. At the ends of the latter, little anchors wrought in [gold] bullion were attached as gay and fitting appendages.” ²⁵
It will not surprise readers when they eventually learn — as do the other characters in the novel — that “Master Seadrift” is actually a beautiful young woman in disguise. And finally, there appears aboard the Water-Witch a 10-year-old ship’s boy named Zéphyr, equally fancifully dressed, who has been born on board and has never set foot on dry land. ²⁶
Most of the earlier parts of Cooper’s novel consists of lengthy conversations between the various characters, and a three-chapter visit to the wonders of the Water-Witch smuggling vessel herself which only heightens the mysteries of the tale. Then Captain Ludlow and his British warship the Coquette undertake to capture the Water-Witch, only to find her strangely elusive and capable of escape just when capture seems certain. ²⁷
These episodes are followed by what — for many nautical readers of The Water Witch — was a climax to the story, as the Coquette, with a reduced crew but carrying Van Beverout and his niece Alida, unsuccessfully chases the Water-Witch up the Manhattan coastline and through the East River. Much of this chase concerns the passage of the two ships through the dangerous area of rocks and unpredictable currents known, then as now, as the Hell Gate. ²⁸ The Coquette emerges just in time to see the Water-Witch, once again, sail off in the distance.
It was at this point in the book that Cooper wrote to a friend that he had only six chapters yet to go. ²⁹ But to my mind, he also didn’t quite know where to go. He quickly dreams up two French warships off the end of Long Island, making possible two exciting sea battles which end with the burning of the Coquette. The main characters escape on a makeshift raft, are lost at sea, and eventually rescued — of course-by the Water-Witch that they had been chasing.
Contemporary reviewers and modern critics have been bemused by The Water Witch. Is it a fourth in Cooper’s novels about the American colonies ³⁰; or just an inferior nautical sequel to The Red Rover of 1828? Many praise its extensive passages of maritime adventure, while expressing boredom at its lengthy on-land sequences. As to the Shakespeare-quoting ³¹ figurehead for whom the smuggling ship is named, they are often just bewildered. ³²
At least one modern writer has agreed with me — and with Cooper himself — in liking The Water Witch. In 1938 the critic Yvor Winters wrote that despite some minor flaws it was “probably Cooper’s ablest piece of work ... [and] one of the most brilliant ... masterpieces of American prose. ³³ “
What interests me most about The Water Witch is that it is not only one of the most imaginative of Cooper’s 32 novels, but also, I think, one of the most radical.
On the one hand is the rather prosaic life of 1710 New York and its environs, in the form of the two Dutchmen and the American-born commander of the Coquette — all of them driven by the collective constraints of capitalistic commerce, land ownership, and naval discipline. On the other is an imaginative picture of individual freedom represented by the smuggling ship Water-Witch, with her apparent ability to appear and disappear at will, and governed by a crew living in luxury but without weapons, and without the usual constraints of society.
And it is the differences in logic and morality between these two groups that Master Seadrift carefully points out in two long conversations. I want to close this short paper by quoting at some length from them, which express views so different from the Cooper we usually think of. ³⁴ The first is with Alida, as they examine the exotic and illegal wares brought by the Water-Witch. ³⁵
Master Seadrift opens by saying “My bales contain, in general, little that is vulgarly sanctioned by law. Speak me frankly, Alida, and say if you share in the prejudices against the character of us free-booters?”
“I pretend not to judge of regulations that exceed the knowledge and practices of my sex,” returned the maiden, with commendable reserve. “There are some who think the abuse of power a justification of its resistance, while others deem a breach of law to be a breach of morals.”
Seadrift responds immediately: “The latter is the doctrine of your man of invested moneys and established barriers, and he preaches their sanctity, because they favor his selfishness. ... As I was saying, we rovers deal little in musty maxims, that are made by the great and prosperous at home, and are trumpeted abroad, in order that the weak and unhappy should be the more closely riveted in their fetters.”
A rather horrified Alida retorts: “Methinks you push the principle further than is necessary for one whose greatest offense against established usage is a little hazardous commerce. These are opinions that might unsettle the world.” But Master Seadrift sticks to his (or as we eventually learn, her) views, concluding that:
“Rather settle it, by referring all to the rule of right. When governments shall lay their foundations in natural justice, when their object shall be to remove the temptations to err, instead of creating them, and when bodies of men shall feel and acknowledge the responsibilities of individuals — why, then the Water-Witch herself might become a revenue cutter, and her owner an officer of the customs!”
A similar conversation, rather longer and somewhat harsher in tone, comes later, between Master Seadrift (now temporarily a British captive) and Captain Ludlow of the Coquette.
“We follow the pursuit, Captain Ludlow, in which accident has cast our fortunes. You serve a Queen you never saw, and a nation that will use you in her need and despise you in her prosperity; and I serve myself. Let reason decide between us. ... We have our mistress too ... but she enacts no tribute. All that is gained goes to enrich her subjects, while all that she knows is cheerfully imparted for their use. If we are obedient, it is because we have experienced her justice and wisdom. I hope Queen Anne deals as kindly by those who risk life and limb in her cause?” ³⁶
When Ludlow responds with the classic comment that: “I believe there is a mandate of sufficient antiquity, which bids us render unto Caesar the things with are Caesar’s.” Seadrift replies with a lengthy diatribe against the corporate behavior of European nations:
“A mandate which our modern Caesars have most liberally construed! I am a poor casuist, sir; nor do I think the loyal commander of the Coquette would wish to uphold all that sophistry can invent on such a subject. If we begin with potentates, for instance, we shall find the Most Christian King [of France] bent on appropriating as many of his neighbors’ goods to his own use, as ambition, under the name of glory, can cover; the Most Catholic [of Spain], covering with the mantle of his Catholicity a greater number of enormities on this very continent, than even charity itself could conceal; and our own gracious Sovereign [Queen Anne], whose virtues and whose mildness are celebrated in verse and prose, causing rivers of blood to run, in order that the little island over which she rules may swell out, like the frog in the fable, to dimensions that nature has denied, and which will one day inflict the unfortunate death that befell the ambitious inhabitant of the pool. ... ” ³⁷
In Aesop’s fable of the frog and the ox, I should perhaps explain, a frog seeks to emulate his master’s ox, by blowing himself up to be just as big, and explodes in the attempt; the moral being “Self-conceit may lead to self-destruction.” In this case, Seadrift continues:
“The gallows awaits the pickpocket; but your robber under a pennant is dubbed a knight! The man who amasses wealth by gainful industry is ashamed of his origin; while he who has stolen from churches, laid villages under contribution, and cut throats by thousands, to divide the spoils of a galleon or a military chest, has gained gold on the highway to glory! Europe has reached an exceeding pass of civilization, it may not be denied; but before society inflicts so severe censure on the acts of individuals ... I must say it is bound to look more closely to the example it sets, in its collective character.”
Captain Ludlow is not impressed by these remarks, and warns Master Seadrift that: “the line which divides smuggling from piracy is easily passed, while the return becomes impossible.” Seadrift then closes the conversation:
“For this generous counsel, in my mistress’s name, I thank thee,” the gay mariner replied, bowing with a gravity that rather heightened than concealed his irony. — ; “Your Coquette is broad in the reach of her booms, and swift on the water, Captain Ludlow: but let her be capricious, wilful, deceitful, nay, powerful, as she may, she shall find a woman in the brigantine equal to all her arts, and far superior to all her threats!” ³⁸
Thus does The Water Witch, in the words of Master Seadrift, challenge the basic premises of ordinary government and, indeed, of corporate activity in all its forms. They represent views that we do not expect in Cooper — usually considered something of a conservative — and certainly not in such definite terms.
The views expressed in The Water Witch appear in more specific form in Cooper’s next novel, The Bravo, as it seeks to show how corporate bodies of any kind, governmental or commercial, swallow up and destroy individual human morality. Americans long persisted in believing that his next three so-called European novels — The Bravo, The Heidenmauer, and The Headsman — were intended to compare European depravity with American virtue, I am convinced, as I have written in previous Cooper Conference papers, that that they were in fact intended to warn Americans of their own moral and social shortcomings, from the corporation to slavery.
And how does this novel end? As usual with Cooper, the novel’s characters gather for a final chapter, in this case back at Van Beverout’s summer home at Lust in Rust, in which all the remaining mysteries are explained.
Master Seadrift — now called Eudora — turns out to be the daughter of Myndert van Beverout, born to a woman with whom he had long ago had an affair. She is not Tom Tiller’s sister, though he has brought her up like one. Eudora and Van Beverout are united with tears and embraces. She and Zéphyr, the 10-year-old ship’s boy, are offered a home on land.
But at the last moment, as Tom Tiller leaves to join the departing Water-Witch, Eudora jumps into his arms, proclaiming her everlasting love for him, and she and Zéphyr sail away with him. Captain Ludlow and Alida are married-in two sentences.
The final paragraph reads: “Years passed away, and months were spent at the villa, in which a thousand anxious looks were cast upon the ocean. Each morning, during the early months of summer, did Alida hasten to the windows of her pavilion, in the hope of seeing the vessel of the contraband anchored in the Cove: — but always without success. It never returned. And though the rebuked and disappointed [Van Beverout] caused many secret inquiries to be made along the whole extent of the American coast, he never again heard of the renowned “SKIMMER OF THE SEAS,” or of his matchless WATER-WITCH.” ³⁹
It is my belief that Cooper was able to write The Water Witch precisely because of the freedom he felt during his months at Sorrento, living alone among the family he loved, and rejoicing in the beautiful views that surrounded him on the terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples. It was a book he wrote because he wanted to.
Read it and see what you think.
1The Water-Witch, or the Skimmer of the Seas, A Tale, Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 2 vols. (separately paginated) 256, 241 pp., 1831 [ sic], hereafter cited just as The Water Witch. The best current edition is that of the Cooper Edition, New York: AMS Press, 2010, co-edited by Thomas and Marianne Philbrick. However, because of its expense (list price $197.50), the best current edition is probably that published by Quid Pro Books of New Orleans in 2012, a facsimile of a century-old reprint edition published in New York by A.L. Burt, ca. 1883-1902. The Quid Pro Books edition has the double advantage of being comparatively inexpensive (list price $20.00) and of being printed in large, readable type. In this paper I shall cite quotations to the Quid Pro Books edition, but include Chapter numbers for those with other editions.
2The Water-Witch, Preface to the 1851 edition. Quid Pro Edition p. 5.
3 Susan Augusta DeLancey Fenimore Cooper 1792-1852), his wife; Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894), his oldest daughter, and a distinguished writer herself; Caroline Martha Fenimore Cooper (1815-1892); Anne Charlotte Fenimore Cooper (1817-1885); Maria Frances Fenimore Cooper (1819-1898); Paul Fenimore Cooper (1824-1895).
4 William Yeardley Cooper (1809-1831), brought along as Secretary and Copyist. In Naples he accompanied James Fenimore Cooper on visits to sights presumably deemed improper for the rest of the family, including the ghastly “Campo Santo” where corpses of the poor were tossed into deep pits. See James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: Italy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981 — orig. pub. 1838), Letter 13, pp. 113-114. William died in Paris in 1831.
5 See, e.g., Susan Fenimore Cooper, “A Second Glance Backward,” in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 60, Issue 160, October 1887, pp. 474-486.
6 James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, six volumes, 1960-1968. Letter No. 150, JFC to Horace Greenough, Sorrento, September 15, 1829, Vol. I, p. 389. Cooper writes: “I work every day and am on the middle chapter of the “Water-Witch.” This is doing well for a month you will say. I had however five chapters written at [Florence].” Hereafter cited as Letters and Journals.
7 Alexander Hammett, who came from Maryland, served as American Consul in Naples for 52 years, from 1809 to 1861. At various periods he was also Chargé d’Affaires of the United States to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. I have found remarkably little about him, except for a few diplomatic events in which he reported on. He appears to have been a bachelor, about Cooper’s age, and was virtually the only person with whom Cooper and his family maintained regular relations throughout their stay in Sorrento and Naples. I have found one letter from Cooper to Hammett, dated Sorrento, October 28, 1829, concerning a settlement that Hammett had apparently made on behalf of Cooper after a carriage accident in which Mrs. Cooper had been slightly injured. Cooper concludes on a more personal note: “Whenever you are at leisure come over and we will conspire together for the future. ... I have only to add that your character for activity is one of the best at Sorrento and you had better come in person and defend it. ... ” (Arden Family Holdings of Beverly Hills).
8 Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) is Italy’s greatest Renaissance poet, best known for his 1158 poem Jerusalem Delivered. He was born in Sorrento, supposedly living in the apartment Cooper leased during his stay there, though most people (including Cooper) seem to believe that the chamber in which Tasso was born subsequently fell off the cliffs into the sea. Tasso did not spend much of his life in Sorrento, but is nevertheless still celebrated there.
9Gleanings in Europe: Italy, Letter 14, pp. 118-120. See also a letter by Susan Fenimore Cooper, dated Cooperstown, October 4,1886, to an autograph collector, saying of her father that: “Most happy he was in that charming summer home, where we remained until the snows of December. ... My father generally wrote in the terrace study an hour or two in the morning, and rowed my Mother, and us children, on the bay in the afternoon or else walked with us, the whole family party included, among the lovely land about Sorrento. He was very domestic in all his habits.” Max I. Baym, “The Odyssey of The Water-Witch and a Susan Fenimore Letter, New York History, Vol. 51, No. 1 (January 1970), pp. 33-41.
10Gleanings in Europe: Italy, Letter 14, pp. 124-125.
11 The precise date in which The Water Witch is supposed to be set is rather vague — the novel itself dates its opening scene as “3d of June, 171 — ” (Chapter 1, p. 10). However, in a letter to Horace Greenough, dated Rome, December 30, 1829, Cooper refers to The Water Witch as ” ... a nautical tale. Scene New-York — time 1711.” This matches references in the novel to Governor Robert Hunter, who took office in 1710.
12 These are the most important of these “minor” characters. (1) Lord Cornbury (1661-1723), the notoriously corrupt colonial Governor of New York and New Jersey (1702-1708), who spent some time after 1708 under arrest for debt and was only allowed out at certain hours. He appears in the novel only twice — once (Chapter 1) to ask for money, and once to accept a bribe (Chapter 27). Cooper does not mention that Cornbury was popularly believed to wear female clothing on occasion. His reason for inclusion (and to have his character abused) may have been that Lord Cornbury’s chief opposition as colonial governor was New Jersey politician Lewis Morris (1671-1746), whose descendants in Otsego County were among the Cooper family’s closest friends. A recent biography of Cornbury has questioned most of the charges against him; see Patricia U. Bonomi, The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America (University of North Carolina Press, 1998). (2) François, an elderly French Huguenot valet to Alida de Barbérie. He is preoccupied with his love for the French dramatist Corneille, and generally speaks in rather broken French. In Chapter 5, p. 60, he exclaims “Je voudrais bien savoir lire ce f-e Shak-a-spear, pour voir combien l’immortel Corneille lui est supérieur.” I would translate this as “I wish I knew how to read this f-king Shakespeare, to see how much the immortal Corneille is superior to him.” “F-e” is a standard French way of spelling “foutre,” the French equivalent to the Anglo-English “fuck,” and is, so far as I know, the only occasion on which Cooper has used that word (which appears as “f-e” even in his original manuscript). At least one English reviewer of The Water-Witch was furious: Fraser’s Magazine, for Town and Country (London: Vol. 16, November 1837, p. 584): ” ... the epithet he makes the old valet apply to Shakespeare is an outrage against decency which he cannot defend the printing of by the example of the lowest ribald writers of France.” (3) Ben Trysail, Quartermaster on HMS Coquette, and a close friend of Captain Ludlow, who engages in several long philosophical conversations with him. On one occasion (Chapter 31, pp. 421-422) he expresses views that seem almost Buddhist in nature: “There are people who believe that, when we take our departure from this planet, we are only bound to another, in which we are to be rated according to our own deeds here; which is much the same as being drafted for a new ship with a certificate of service in one’s pocket.” Trysail dies in battle at the end of the novel. (4) Euclid, Cupid, Bonnie, Phyllis, etc. African-American slaves of Van Beverout and Van Staats. All treated in stereotyped fashion, though at least one of them (Bonnie) is obviously of considerable intelligence. Their speech (expressed in English though all are presumably speaking Dutch) is transcribed in heavily broken syllables.
13 See Wayne Franklin, “Cooper in the Netherlands,” 2009 Conference of the American Literature Association Conference. online at James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. Several sources attest to the use of “Lust in Rust” in the Netherlands. William Elliot Griffis, in The American in Holland (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1899), p. 241, writes: “Many a Dutchman’s summer home has for its motto “Lust in rust” (Pleasure in repose), or vice versa.” Charles E. Roche, in Things Seen in Holland (New York: E.P.Dutton, 1910), p. 99, lists “Lust in rust (pleasure in repose)” among typical names given the retirement homes of Amsterdamers.
14 His full name is Cornelius van Cuyler Ludlow, suggesting Dutch ancestors, but he is stated to be the grandson of Edward Ludlow (1617-1692), one of the 59 Commissioners who had signed the death warrant of King Charles I of England in 1649 (Chapter 5, p. 63). Unlike some of the other so-called regicides who fled England after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, Edward Ludlow did not come to America, but lived out most of his life in Vevey, Switzerland, where he is buried. Cooper and his family would spend a summer in Vevey in 1832. On the regicides in Cooper’s earlier novel, see Robert D. Madison, “Submission and Restoration in The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish,” in the Cooper Panel of the 1999 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore, online at the Cooper Society website.
15 HMS Coquette is a sloop-of-war, a smaller three-masted warship of the period, and not to be confused with the one-masted sloop with which modern readers are familiar.
16 Cooper’s wife, a De Lancey, was of Huguenot origin, as were his friends in the Jay family.
17 Hermaphrodite, from the Greek God Hermaphroditus, who combined both masculine and feminine characteristics, is here used — as in “hermaphrodite barkentine” — to signify a two-masted ship combining the virtues of the square-sailed ship with those of the triangular-sailed schooner.
18The Water Witch, Chapter 14, pp. 168-169.
19The Water Witch, Chapter 14, p. 169.
20The Water Witch, Chapter 14, pp. 169-171.
21The Water Witch, Chapter 15, pp. 180-181.
22 The ferry boats in New York harbor were then of a peculiar construction known as a “periagua,” with two masts — one leaning forward, the other backward.
23The Water Witch, Chapter 3, p. 38.
24The Water Witch, Chapter 14, pp. 173-174.
25The Water Witch, Chapter 9, p. 101.
26The Water Witch, Chapter 15, pp. 175-178.
27 Cooper writes in an 1834 preface to an English edition, that: “It has been objected to this book that the events are too improbable. This opinion has most likely been formed from ignorance of marine usages; for it is believed that no seaman can read it, without finding simple and very intelligible clues to all those mysteries which may possibly perplex a landsman. There is no intention of leaving a single trick of necromancy unexplained. ... ” (Cooper edition, p. 6). He does not go into details about the figurehead, where “necromancy” would seem most probable.
28 Squeamish writers of the period, to Cooper’s dismay, insisted on calling it “Hurl Gate.” Following private attempts in the 1850s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent many years blowing up the rocks and reefs barring passage, concluding in 1885. For a detailed summary see: http://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Portals/37/docs/history/hellgate.pdf
29Letters and Journals, Vol. 1, Letter No. 152 to Horace Greenough, dated Sorrento, November 5, 1829, p. 396: “My book is nearly done, and, although I have not yet read it in course, I am much inclined to think it the most comely of the family. There remain six chapters to write, and if they come out well, I think we shall do.”
30 On the title page of Lionel Lincoln (1825) Cooper had written “Legends of the Thirteen Republics,” suggesting that it was to be the first of a series. and indeed that tale of the American Revolution in Massachusetts was followed by novels set in the colonial periods of Rhode Island (The Red Rover, 1828), Connecticut (The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, 1829) and, of course, New York (The Water Witch, 1830).
31 Not only does the figurehead quote Shakespeare at length, but all but one of the chapter epigraphs in The Water Witch are from that author. See, generally, Edward P. Vandiver, Jr., “James Fenimore Cooper and Shakspere [ sic]” in The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, Vol. 15, No. 2, April 1940, pp. 110-117. No one seems to have asked whether Cooper’s reliance on Shakespeare in this novel may not have been partially due to the fact that the books at his disposal in Sorrento were limited, but certainly included the set of Shakespeare that he carried around with him all his life (and is currently in the Cooper Room at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.)
32 The influential North American Review wrote (Volume 32, No. 71, April 1832, pp. 508-523, that “the inexpressive face of beauty, and the stiff jargon of the Alderman and sailing-master are forgotten, when we gaze upon the magnificent harbor of our first commercial city-when we follow the movements of the gallant ships in the chse, — through the perilous channel of Hurl-gate [ sic], or the hurry of the evening battle, — or witness, with breathless interest, the spectacle of the burning vessel. These are the scenes, which give Mr. Cooper his superiority of all the novelists of the day. ... ” On the other hand, Charles King (who wrote under the pen name of “Cassio” and whose review of Cooper’s next novel, The Bravo, was to cause Cooper such grief) in the course of a long critical review in the New York American (Nov. 10, 29, 1830) inquired of the witch-like figurehead: “We beg to know if a more impotent affront to human understanding can be offered.” For a survey of British reviews, see William B. Cairns, British Criticisms of American Writings, 1815-1833 (University of Wisconsin Studies in Language and Literature, No. 14, Madison, 1922) and especially pp. 131-134. Many were unfavorable; one, the London Literary Gazette, stating that. “The whole mummery of the Water-Witch, a figure at the head of the ship, hence so called, and who gives oracular answers in quotations from Shakespeare — carries absurdity to its extent.” quoted in the American Masonick Record and Albany Literary Journal. Vol. 4, No. 51, Albany, NY, January 15,1831).
33 Yvor Winters, Maules Curse (1938) as reprinted in his In Defense of Reason, New York: The Swallow Press and William Morrow and Co., 1947, p. 197. See also Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel, Columbia University Press, 1959, pp. 47, 74-77.
34 I must express my gratitude to Professor Joy S. Kasson of the University of North Carolina for calling my attention to this sharp split between the “land-bound values” of Van Beverout, Van Staats, and Captain Ludlow, and the “imaginative freedom outside the ordinary bounds of society” of the smugglers,” and to the conversations in which they are expressed. See Joy S. Kasson’s chapter on James Fenimore Cooper in her Artistic Voyagers: Europe and the American Imagination in the Works of Irving, Allston, Cole, Cooper, and Hawthorne . (Contributions in American Studies, Number 60). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982, pp. 137-164, and especially pp. 148-151. Another interesting approach to The Water Witch as an essentially revolutionary novel is that of a 2010 MRes (Master of Research) Thesis by Charles A. J. Phair of the University of Nottingham, entitled Navigating the Transatlantic threshold: James Fenimore Cooper and the revolutionary Atlantic,http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/11190/. Phair concludes his section on The Water Witch with the following (p. 88): “Ultimately, the novel though fashioned as a historical romance is more radical than previous criticism has acknowledged. ... The Water Witch is an investment in a supernatural setting, where humanity is revealed to be ultimately infused with a certain goodness. ... I feel it marks a more profound change and development in Cooper’s sea fiction, with the novel’s ending acting as a fulfilment of a kind of domestic harmony as well as a rejection of conventional civilization in favour for a universe of near limitless possibilities.”
35The Water Witch, Chapter 10, pp. 119-121.
36The Water Witch, Chapter 24, p. 313.
37The Water Witch, Chapter 24, pp. 314-315.
38The Water Witch, Chapter 24, pp. 315-316.
39The Water Witch, Chapter 34, pp. 456-471.