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 writers.

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.