James Fenimore Cooper and "The Spy"
by Edwin Watts Chubb
James Fenimore Cooper is one of the most interesting characters in the
history of American authorship. Irving, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell,
Holmes, and Hawthorne early in life showed their literary bent, and
lived academic and peaceful careers. They were also popular. Cooper
was thirty years old before he thought of writing, and his life was
embittered by the consciousness that he was the target of the most
bitter criticism, both at home and abroad. Yet not one of the
distinguished authors I have named is more widely known to-day than
Cooper. Matthew Arnold has said somewhere that an author's place in
the future is to be determined by his contemporaneous ranking in
foreign lands. If that is true the names of Mark Twain, Cooper, Walt
Whitman, and Poe will rank high in the annals of posterity, for their
European fame is said to be the most general of any of the American
There is an appealing fascination about the boyhood days of Cooper.
When James was a babe of fourteen months his father moved to the
headwaters of the Susquehanna. The family consisted of fifteen
persons; James, the future novelist, was the eleventh of twelve
children. Their home was in the midst of the forest. Near by was the
charming lake, Otsego. The father owned several thousand acres, and
was, probably, the most prominent man in that sparsely-settled region.
What boy would want a finer opportunity to indulge all the wild
propensities that lurk in the untamed heart of every healthy
youngster? To roam in the untracked forest, to sail the lake, to hunt,
to fish, to dream of the great unknown world lying just beyond the
sun-tipped trees,—what can the schools give in exchange for this? Is
it surprising that the wholesomeness of the forest and the charm and
freshness of God's out-of-doors found their way into the man's novels,
when so many delightful boyhood experiences must have found their way
into the boy's heart?
As I said, Cooper was thirty years old before he began to write. He
had studied under an Episcopal rector, and was intending to enter the
junior class at Yale; the rector died and Cooper entered the second
term of the freshman class; for some frolic in which he was engaged he
was dismissed; he then entered the navy, where he gathered valuable
experience which he worked afterwards into literature; he married;
resigned, and lived the quiet life of a country gentleman. One day he
threw down an English novel he had been reading and said to his wife,
"I believe I could write a better story myself." Now this is a feeling
that many of us have had, but few of us are put to the test. Cooper's
wife fortunately told him to make the trial. He did so, and
Precaution was the result. This was published in 1820. As a novel
it is a failure; as a literary document it is highly interesting.
Precaution is a story of English life. Why should Cooper write of
American life when all Americans seemed to consider American life dull
and prosaic? Politically we were free; intellectually we were slaves.
The English lark sang in American poetry and English lords talked in
American novels. It was not until 1837 that Emerson gave that famous
address, The American Scholar, an event which Lowell calls "without
any former parallel in our literary annals," and which Holmes declared
to be "our intellectual Declaration of Independence."
Precaution has been called a failure, but it was not so much of a
failure that Cooper's friends discouraged him from trying again. No,
it was a first attempt and gave promise of something better. Why not
write about American scenes and events? The very neighborhood in which
he lived had been the scene of many stirring adventures during the
Revolutionary conflict. "Years before, while at the residence of John
Jay, his host had given him, one summer afternoon, the account of a
spy that had been in his service during the war. The coolness,
shrewdness, fearlessness, but above all the unselfish patriotism of
the man had profoundly impressed the Revolutionary leader who had
employed him. The story made an equally deep impression upon Cooper at
the time. He now resolved to take it as the foundation of the tale he
had been persuaded to write."
Near the close of 1821 The Spy appeared. In March of the following
year a third edition was on the market. The work soon appeared in
England, published by Miller, the same publisher that had first
ventured to bring Irving's Sketch Book before the English public. In
England the book was at once successful. This meant much to the
American estimate of the author's ability, for American critics were
afraid to praise a work that had not yet been applauded by England. In
this same year, 1822, a French translation appeared. In France the
work was enthusiastically received. This was the first of many
translations into many European languages. Its influence in teaching
patriotism cannot be estimated, nor can its value as an effective
retort to the sneer "Who reads an American book?" ever be overlooked.
About the early life of Cooper there are unfortunately but few
anecdotes. One reason for this lack of personalia about a man who
had a most vigorous personality is due to his dying request. He
enjoined upon his family that they permit no authorized biography to
appear. Because of this we have lost much that would be valuable in
estimating the character of Cooper. There is a story that when he was
a young man he engaged in a foot-race for a prize of a basket of
fruit. "While Cooper and his competitor were preparing to start, a
little girl stood by full of eagerness for the exciting event. Cooper
quickly turned and picked her up in his arms. 'I'll carry her and beat
you!' he exclaimed, and away they went, Cooper with his laughing
burden, the other runner untrammeled. It is almost needless to add
that Cooper won the race, else why should the story have been
preserved?" One cannot help speculating about the size of the girl and
the speed of the rival runner, if this story is true.
A more satisfying story is that told of Cooper's meeting with Scott.
In 1826 Cooper went to Europe. With a family of ten persons he moved
about for seven years. Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and
England were visited. When in Paris the two romancers met.
"Est ce Monsieur Cooper que j'ai l'honneur de voir?"
"Monsieur je m'appelle Cooper."
"Eh bien, donc, je suis Walter Scott."
After a minute or two of French Sir Walter suddenly recollected
himself and said: "Well, here have I been parley vooing to you in a
way to surprise you, no doubt, but these Frenchmen have got my tongue
so set to their lingo that I have half forgotten my own language."
I have said that Cooper was not popular. This is not putting it strong
enough. He was more than unpopular; he was hated by his neighbors, and
slandered by the press at home and abroad. This lamentable condition
of affairs was not due to any despicable qualities in the man, for
Cooper was a kind father, an affectionate husband, a good citizen, and
an honest, truth-loving man. These seem admirable qualities. Of few of
us can much higher praise be spoken. Why then did the citizens of
Cooper's home village hold a mass meeting and pass resolutions to the
effect that Cooper had rendered "himself odious to a greater portion
of the citizens of this community," and why should Fraser's
Magazine, three thousand miles away, call Cooper "a liar, a bilious
braggart, a full jackass, an insect, a grub, and a reptile"?
The cause is not far to seek. Cooper was the most disputatious man in
the history of American literature. Cooper used to tell the story of
the man who in an argument was met with: "Why it is as plain as that
two and two make four." "But I deny that too," was the retort, "for
two and two make twenty two." Cooper was himself that sort of a man.
He always had a quarrel on his hands. The more pugnacious a man is,
the more militant he will find society. He instituted libel suits
against the most prominent editors in the country, among them Horace
Greeley and Thurlow Weed. And what is more to the point,—he won his
cases. But this did not make him any more popular with the press. When
we remember that Billingsgate was an important part of the literary
equipment of the critic of Cooper's time, we need not be surprised
that Cooper's pugnacity evoked such sweet disinterestedness as Park
Benjamin indulged in when he called Cooper "a superlative dolt, and a
common mark of scorn and contempt of every well-informed American."
In addition to this denunciation of Cooper as a man, there have in
recent years arisen severe criticisms on Cooper as a writer. "There
are nineteen rules," writes Mark Twain, "governing literary art in the
domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer
Cooper violated eighteen of them." And then Mark Twain gives us the
detailed specifications. It is very cleverly put, this criticism of
Mark Twain's. But the astounding fact remains that the one rule Cooper
did not violate seems to secure him a place in the Pantheon of
authors. Along with Poe, and Whitman, and Mark himself, Cooper is
found in various editions on the shelves of the bookdealers and in the
libraries of the book-lovers from the Thames to the Volga. If Cooper
had observed only one or two more of the rules of literary art, where
would he stand? One is reminded of the Dutchman who was told that this
clock would run eight days without winding. "Ach, Himmel, what would
she do if she was woundt?"
The one literary sin that Cooper does not commit is dulness. He is
interesting. Of course there are some of Cooper's works that no one
cares to read now. But he is to be judged by his best, not by his
worst. Balzac is something of a novelist himself, and has a right to
be heard. "If Cooper," says Balzac in a passage quoted by every writer
who touches upon Cooper, "had succeeded in the painting of character
to the same extent that he did in the painting of the phenomena of
nature, he would have uttered the last word of our art." This is no
mean praise. Cooper is read because he is interesting. He shall
continue to be read for another reason. He is wholesome and vigorous.
The air we breathe is the air of the pine forest and the salt sea.
Youth is forever attracted by the mystery and adventure of primitive
life. As America becomes more and more densely settled the
imagination will turn back to the early times when the bear and the
deer, the settler and Indian were tracking the trail through the
forest and along the shore. For this reason Cooper is likely to
remain an abiding force in American literature.