“I believe I could write a better story myself!” With these words, since become famous, James Fenimore Cooper laid aside the English novel which he was reading aloud to his wife. A few days later he submitted several pages of manuscript for her approval, and then settled down to the task of making good his boast. In November, 1820, he gave the public a novel in two volumes, entitled Precaution. But it was published anonymously, and dealt with English society in so much the same way as the average British novel of the time that its author was thought by many to be an Englishman. It had no originality and no real merit of any kind. Yet it was the means of inciting Cooper to another attempt. And this second novel made him famous.
When Precaution appeared, some of Cooper’s friends protested against his weak dependence on British models. Their arguments stirred his patriotism, and he determined to write another novel, using thoroughly American material. Accordingly he turned to Westchester County, where he was then living, a county which had been the scene of much stirring action during a good part of the Revolutionary War, and composed The Spy — A Tale of the Neutral Ground. This novel was published in 1821, and was immediately popular, both in this country and in England. Soon it was translated into French, then into other foreign languages, until it was read more widely than any other tale of the century. Cooper had written the first American novel. He had also struck an original literary vein, and he had gained confidence in himself as a writer.
Following this pronounced success in authorship, Cooper set to work on a third book and continued for the remainder of his life to devote most of his time to writing. Altogether he wrote over thirty novels and as many more works of a miscellaneous character. But much of this writing has no interest for us at the present time, especially that which was occasioned by the many controversies in which the rather belligerent Cooper involved himself. His work of permanent value after The Spy falls into two groups, the tales of wilderness life and the sea tales. Both these groups grew directly out of his experiences in early life.
Cooper was born on September 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey, but while still very young he was taken to Cooperstown, on the shores of Otsego Lake, in central New York. His father owned many thousand acres of primeval forest about this village, and so through the years of a free boyhood the young Cooper came to love the wilderness and to know the characters of border life. When the village school was no longer adequate, he went to study privately in Albany and later entered Yale College. But he was not interested in the study of books. When, as a junior, he was expelled from college, he turned to a career in the navy. Accordingly in the fall of 1806 he sailed on a merchant ship, the Sterling, and for the next eleven months saw hard service before the mast. Soon after this apprenticeship he received a commission as a midshipman in the United States navy. Although it was a time of peace, and he saw no actual fighting, he gained considerable knowledge from his service on Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain that he put to good use later. Shortly before his resignation in May, 1811, he had married, and for several years thereafter he lived along in a pleasant, leisurely fashion, part of the time in Cooperstown and part of the time in Westchester County, until almost accidentally he broke into the writing of his first novel. Aside from the publication of his books, Cooper’s later life was essentially uneventful. He died at Cooperstown, on September 14, 1851.
The connection of Cooper’s best writing with the life he knew at first hand is thus perfectly plain. In his novels dealing with the wilderness, popularly known as the Leatherstocking Tales, he drew directly on his knowledge of the backwoods and backwoodsmen as he gained it about Cooperstown. In The Pioneers (1823) he dealt with the scenes of his boyhood, scenes which lay very close to his heart; and in the other volumes of this series, The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841), he continued to write of the trappers and frontiersmen and outpost garrisons and Indians who made up the forest life he knew so well. Similarly, in the sea tales, which began with ‘The Pilot’ (1823) and included ‘The Red Rover’ (1828), ‘The Two Admirals’ (1842) and ‘The Wing-and-Wing’ (1842), he made full use of his experiences before the mast and in the navy. The nautical accuracy of these tales of the sea could scarcely have been attained by a “landlubber”. It has much practical significance, then, that Cooper chose material which he knew intimately and which gripped his own interest. His success came like Thackeray’s and Stevenson’s and Mark Twain’s — without his having to reach to the other side of the world after his material.
In considering Cooper’s work as a novelist, nothing is more marked than his originality. In these days we take novels based on American history and novels of the sea for granted, but at the time when Cooper published ‘The Spy’ and ‘The Pilot’ neither an American novel nor a salt-water novel had ever been written. So far as Americans before Cooper had written fiction at all, Washington Irving had been the only one to cease from a timid imitation of British models. But Irving’s material was local, rather than national. It was Cooper who first told the story of the conquest of the American continent. He caught the poetry and the romantic thrill of both the American forest and the sea; he dared to break away from literary conventions. His reward was an immediate and widespread success, together with a secure place in the history of his country’s literature.
There was probably a two-fold reason for the success which Cooper’s novels won at home and abroad. In the first place, Cooper could invent a good story and tell it well. He was a master of rapid, stirring narrative, and his tales were elemental, not deep or subtle. Secondly, he created interesting characters who had the restless energy, the passion for adventure, the rugged confidence, of our American pioneers. First among these great characters came Harvey Birch in ‘The Spy’, but Cooper’s real triumph was Natty Bumppo, who appears in all five of the Leatherstocking Tales. This skilled trapper, faithful guide, brave fighter, and homely philosopher was “the first real American in fiction,” an important contribution to the world’s literature. In addition, Cooper created the Indian of literature — perhaps a little too noble to be entirely true to life — and various simple, strong seamen. His Chingachgook and Uncas and Long Tom Coffin justly brought him added fame. In these narrative gifts, as well as in the robustness of his own character, Cooper was not unlike Sir Walter Scott. He once modestly referred to himself as “a chip from Scott’s block” and has frequently been called “the American Scott.”
But, of course, Cooper had limitations and faults. When he stepped outside the definite boundaries of the life he knew, he was unable to handle character effectively. His women are practically failures, and like his military officers essentially interchangeable. His humor is almost invariably labored and tedious. He occasionally allowed long passages of description or long speeches by some minor character to clog the progress of his action. Now and then, in inventing his plots, he strained his readers’ credulity somewhat. Finally, as a result of his rapid writing, his work is uneven and without style in the sense that a careful craftsman or a sensitive artist achieves it. He is even guilty of an occasional error in grammar or word use which the young pupil in the schools can detect. Yet his literary powers easily outweigh all these weaknesses. He is unquestionably one of America’s great novelists and one of the world’s great romancers.
There is abundant reason, therefore, why Americans of the present day should know James Fenimore Cooper. He has many a good story of the wilderness and the sea to tell to those who enjoy tales of adventure. He gives a vivid, but faithful picture of American frontier life for those who can know its stirring events and its hardy characters only at second hand. He holds a peculiarly important place in the history of American literature, and has done much to extend the reputation of American fiction among foreigners.
The author has often been asked if there were any foundation in real life for the delineation of the principal character in this book. He can give no clearer answer to the question than by laying before his readers a simple statement of the facts connected with its original publication.
Many years since, the writer of this volume was at the residence of an illustrious man, who had been employed in various situations of high trust during the darkest days of the American Revolution. The discourse turned upon the effects which great political excitement produces on character, and the purifying consequences of a love of country, when that sentiment is powerfully and generally awakened in a people. He who, from his years, his services, and his knowledge of men, was best qualified to take the lead in such a conversation, was the principal speaker. After dwelling on the marked manner in which the great struggle of the nation, during the war of 1775, had given a new and honorable direction to the thoughts and practices of multitudes whose time had formerly been engrossed by the most vulgar concerns of life, he illustrated his opinions by relating an anecdote, the truth of which he could attest as a personal witness.
The dispute between England and the United States of America, though not strictly a family quarrel, had many of the features of a civil war. The people of the latter were never properly and constitutionally subject to the people of the former, but the inhabitants of both countries owed allegiance to a common king. The Americans, as a nation, disavowed this allegiance, and the English choosing to support their sovereign in the attempt to regain his power, most of the feelings of an internal struggle were involved in the conflict. A large proportion of the emigrants from Europe, then established in the colonies, took part with the crown; and there were many districts in which their influence, united to that of the Americans who refused to lay aside their allegiance, gave a decided preponderance to the royal cause. America was then too young, and too much in need of every heart and hand, to regard these partial divisions, small as they were in actual amount, with indifference. The evil was greatly increased by the activity of the English in profiting by these internal dissensions; and it became doubly serious when it was found that attempts were made to raise various corps of provincial troops, who were to be banded with those from Europe, to reduce the young republic to subjection. Congress named an especial and a secret committee, therefore, for the express purpose of defeating this object. Of this committee Mr. —, the narrator of the anecdote, was chairman.
In the discharge of the novel duties which now devolved on him, Mr. — had occasion to employ an agent whose services differed but little from those of a common spy. This man, as will easily be understood, belonged to a condition in life which rendered him the least reluctant to appear in so equivocal a character. He was poor, ignorant, so far as the usual instruction was concerned; but cool, shrewd, and fearless by nature. It was his office to learn in what part of the country the agents of the crown were making their efforts to embody men, to repair to the place, enlist, appear zealous in the cause he affected to serve, and otherwise to get possession of as many of the secrets of the enemy as possible. The last he of course communicated to his employers, who took all the means in their power to counteract the plans of the English, and frequently with success.
It will readily be conceived that a service like this was attended with great personal hazard. In addition to the danger of discovery, there was the daily risk of falling into the hands of the Americans themselves, who invariably visited sins of this nature more severely on the natives of the country than on the Europeans who fell into their hands. In fact, the agent of Mr. — was several times arrested by the local authorities; and, in one instance, he was actually condemned by his exasperated countrymen to the gallows. Speedy and private orders to the jailer alone saved him from an ignominious death. He was permitted to escape; and this seeming and indeed actual peril was of great aid in supporting his assumed character among the English. By the Americans, in his little sphere, he was denounced as a bold and inveterate Tory. In this manner he continued to serve his country in secret during the early years of the struggle, hourly environed by danger, and the constant subject of unmerited opprobrium.
In the year — , Mr. — was named to a high and honorable employment at a European court. Before vacating his seat in Congress, he reported to that body an outline of the circumstances related, necessarily suppressing the name of his agent, and demanding an appropriation on behalf of a man who had been of so much use, at so great risk. A suitable sum was voted; and its delivery was confided to the chairman of the secret committee.
Mr. — took the necessary means to summon his agent to a personal interview. They met in a wood at midnight. Here Mr. — complimented his companion on his fidelity and adroitness; explained the necessity of their communications being closed; and finally tendered the money. The other drew back, and declined receiving it. “The country has need of all its means,” he said; “as for myself, I can work, or gain a livelihood in various ways.” Persuasion was useless, for patriotism was uppermost in the heart of this remarkable individual; and Mr. — departed, bearing with him the gold he had brought, and a deep respect for the man who had so long hazarded his life, unrequited, for the cause they served in common.
The writer is under an impression that, at a later day, the agent of Mr. — consented to receive a remuneration for what he had done; but it was not until his country was entirely in a condition to bestow it.
It is scarcely necessary to add, that an anecdote like this, simply but forcibly told by one of its principal actors, made a deep impression on all who heard it. Many years later, circumstances, which it is unnecessary to relate, and of an entirely adventitious nature, induced the writer to publish a novel, which proved to be, what he little foresaw at the time, the first of a tolerably long series. The same adventitious causes which gave birth to the book determined its scene and its general character. The former was laid in a foreign country; and the latter embraced a crude effort to describe foreign manners. When this tale was published, it became matter of reproach among the author’s friends, that he, an American in heart as in birth, should give to the world a work which aided perhaps, in some slight degree, to feed the imaginations of the young and unpracticed among his own countrymen, by pictures drawn from a state of society so different from that to which he belonged. The writer, while he knew how much of what he had done was purely accidental, felt the reproach to be one that, in a measure, was just. As the only atonement in his power, he determined to inflict a second book, whose subject should admit of no cavil, not only on the world, but on himself. He chose patriotism for his theme; and to those who read this introduction and the book itself, it is scarcely necessary to add, that he took the hero of the anecdote just related as the best illustration of his subject.
Since the original publication of The Spy, there have appeared several accounts of different persons who are supposed to have been in the author’s mind while writing the book. As Mr. — did not mention the name of his agent, the writer never knew any more of his identity with this or that individual, than has been here explained. Both Washington and Sir Henry Clinton had an unusual number of secret emissaries; in a war that partook so much of a domestic character, and in which the contending parties were people of the same blood and language, it could scarcely be otherwise.
The style of the book has been revised by the author in this edition. In this respect, he has endeavored to make it more worthy of the favor with which it has been received; though he is compelled to admit there are faults so interwoven with the structure of the tale that, as in the case of a decayed edifice, it would cost perhaps less to reconstruct than to repair. Five-and-twenty years have been as ages with most things connected with America. Among other advantages, that of her literature has not been the least. So little was expected from the publication of an original work of this description, at the time it was written, that the first volume of The Spy was actually printed several months, before the author felt a sufficient inducement to write a line of the second. The efforts expended on a hopeless task are rarely worthy of him who makes them, however low it may be necessary to rate the standard of his general merit.
One other anecdote connected with the history of this book may give the reader some idea of the hopes of an American author, in the first quarter of the present century. As the second volume was slowly printing, from manuscript that was barely dry when it went into the compositor’s hands, the publisher intimated that the work might grow to a length that would consume the profits. To set his mind at rest, the last chapter was actually written, printed, and paged, several weeks before the chapters which precede it were even thought of. This circumstance, while it cannot excuse, may serve to explain the manner in which the actors are hurried off the scene.
A great change has come over the country since this book was originally written. The nation is passing from the gristle into the bone, and the common mind is beginning to keep even pace with the growth of the body politic. The march from Vera Cruz to Mexico was made under the orders of that gallant soldier who, a quarter of a century before, was mentioned with honor, in the last chapter of this very book. Glorious as was that march, and brilliant as were its results in a military point of view, a stride was then made by the nation, in a moral sense, that has hastened it by an age, in its progress toward real independence and high political influence. The guns that filled the valley of the Aztecs with their thunder, have been heard in echoes on the other side of the Atlantic, producing equally hope or apprehension.
There is now no enemy to fear, but the one that resides within. By accustoming ourselves to regard even the people as erring beings, and by using the restraints that wisdom has adduced from experience, there is much reason to hope that the same Providence which has so well aided us in our infancy, may continue to smile on our manhood.
COOPERSTOWN, March 29, 1849.
[Illustration: MAP TO ILLUSTRATE THE STORY OF THE SPY]
[The footnotes throughout are Cooper’s own.]
And though amidst the calm of thought entire,
Some high and haughty features might betray
A soul impetuous once — ’twas earthly fire
That fled composure’s intellectual ray,
As Etna’s fires grow dim before the rising day.
— Gertrude of Wyoming.
It was near the close of the year 1780 that a solitary traveler was seen pursuing his way through one of the numerous little valleys of Westchester. The easterly wind, with its chilling dampness and increasing violence, gave unerring notice of the approach of a storm, which, as usual, might be expected to continue for several days; and the experienced eye of the traveler was turned in vain, through the darkness of the evening, in quest of some convenient shelter, in which, for the term of his confinement by the rain that already began to mix with the atmosphere in a thick mist, he might obtain such accommodations as his purposes required. Nothing whatever offered but the small and inconvenient tenements of the lower order of the inhabitants, with whom, in that immediate neighborhood, he did not think it either safe or politic to trust himself.
The county of Westchester, after the British had obtained possession of the island of New York, became common ground, in which both parties continued to act for the remainder of the war of the Revolution. A large proportion of its inhabitants, either restrained by their attachments, or influenced by their fears, affected a neutrality they did not feel. The lower towns were, of course, more particularly under the dominion of the crown, while the upper, finding a security from the vicinity of the continental troops, were bold in asserting their revolutionary opinions, and their right to govern themselves. Great numbers, however, wore masks, which even to this day have not been thrown aside; and many an individual has gone down to the tomb, stigmatized as a foe to the rights of his countrymen, while, in secret, he has been the useful agent of the leaders of the Revolution; and, on the other hand, could the hidden repositories of divers flaming patriots have been opened to the light of day, royal protections would have been discovered concealed under piles of British gold.
At the sound of the tread of the noble horse ridden by the traveler, the mistress of the farmhouse he was passing at the time might be seen cautiously opening the door of the building to examine the stranger; and perhaps, with an averted face communicating the result of her observations to her husband, who, in the rear of the building, was prepared to seek, if necessary, his ordinary place of concealment in the adjacent woods. The valley was situated about midway in the length of the county, and was sufficiently near to both armies to make the restitution of stolen goods no uncommon occurrence in that vicinity. It is true, the same articles were not always regained; but a summary substitute was generally resorted to, in the absence of legal justice, which restored to the loser the amount of his loss, and frequently with no inconsiderable addition for the temporary use of his property. In short, the law was momentarily extinct in that particular district, and justice was administered subject to the bias of personal interests and the passions of the strongest.
The passage of a stranger, with an appearance of somewhat doubtful character, and mounted on an animal which, although unfurnished with any of the ordinary trappings of war, partook largely of the bold and upright carriage that distinguished his rider, gave rise to many surmises among the gazing inmates of the different habitations; and in some instances, where conscience was more than ordinarily awake, to no little alarm.
Tired with the exercise of a day of unusual fatigue, and anxious to obtain a speedy shelter from the increasing violence of the storm, that now began to change its character to large drops of driving rain, the traveler determined, as a matter of necessity, to make an application for admission to the next dwelling that offered. An opportunity was not long wanting; and, riding through a pair of neglected bars, he knocked loudly at the outer door of a building of a very humble exterior, without quitting his saddle. A female of middle age, with an outward bearing but little more prepossessing than that of her dwelling, appeared to answer the summons. The startled woman half closed her door again in affright, as she saw, by the glare of a large wood fire, a mounted man so unexpectedly near its threshold; and an expression of terror mingled with her natural curiosity, as she required his pleasure.
Although the door was too nearly closed to admit of a minute scrutiny of the accommodations within, enough had been seen to cause the horseman to endeavor, once more, to penetrate the gloom, with longing eyes, in search of a more promising roof, before, with an ill-concealed reluctance, he stated his necessities and wishes. His request was listened to with evident unwillingness, and, while yet unfinished, it was eagerly interrupted by the reply:
“I can’t say I like to give lodgings to a stranger in these ticklish times,” said the female, in a pert, sharp key. “I’m nothing but a forlorn lone body; or, what’s the same thing, there’s nobody but the old gentleman at home; but a half mile farther up the road is a house where you can get entertainment, and that for nothing. I am sure ’twill be much convenienter to them, and more agreeable to me — because, as I said before, Harvey is away; I wish he’d take advice, and leave off wandering; he’s well to do in the world by this time; and he ought to leave off his uncertain courses, and settle himself, handsomely, in life, like other men of his years and property. But Harvey Birch will have his own way, and die vagabond after all!”
The horseman did not wait to hear more than the advice to pursue his course up the road; but he had slowly turned his horse towards the bars, and was gathering the folds of an ample cloak around his manly form, preparatory to facing the storm again, when something in the speech of the female suddenly arrested the movement.
“Is this, then, the dwelling of Harvey Birch?” he inquired, in an involuntary manner, apparently checking himself, as he was about to utter more.
“Why, one can hardly say it is his dwelling,” replied the other, drawing a hurried breath, like one eager to answer; “he is never in it, or so seldom, that I hardly remember his face, when he does think it worth his while to show it to his poor old father and me. But it matters little to me, I’m sure, if he ever comes back again, or not; — turn in the first gate on your left; — no, I care but little, for my part, whether Harvey ever shows his face again or not — not I” — and she closed the door abruptly on the horseman, who gladly extended his ride a half mile farther, to obtain lodgings which promised both more comfort and greater security.
Sufficient light yet remained to enable the traveler to distinguish the improvements which had been made in the cultivation, and in the general appearance of the grounds around the building to which he was now approaching. The house was of stone, long, low, and with a small wing at each extremity. A piazza, extending along the front, with neatly turned pillars of wood, together with the good order and preservation of the fences and outbuildings, gave the place an air altogether superior to the common farmhouses of the country. After leading his horse behind an angle of the wall, where it was in some degree protected from the wind and rain, the traveler threw his valise over his arm, and knocked loudly at the entrance of the building for admission. An aged black soon appeared; and without seeming to think it necessary, under the circumstances, to consult his superiors, — first taking one prying look at the applicant, by the light of the candle in his hand, — he acceded to the request for accommodations. The traveler was shown into an extremely neat parlor, where a fire had been lighted to cheer the dullness of an easterly storm and an October evening. After giving the valise into the keeping of his civil attendant, and politely repeating his request to the old gentleman, who arose to receive him, and paying his compliments to the three ladies who were seated at work with their needles, the stranger commenced laying aside some of the outer garments which he had worn in his ride.
On taking an extra handkerchief from his neck, and removing a cloak of blue cloth, with a surtout of the same material, he exhibited to the scrutiny of the observant family party, a tall and extremely graceful person, of apparently fifty years of age. His countenance evinced a settled composure and dignity; his nose was straight, and approaching to Grecian; his eye, of a gray color, was quiet, thoughtful, and rather melancholy; the mouth and lower part of his face being expressive of decision and much character. His dress, being suited to the road, was simple and plain, but such as was worn by the higher class of his countrymen; he wore his own hair, dressed in a manner that gave a military air to his appearance, and which was rather heightened by his erect and conspicuously graceful carriage. His whole appearance was so impressive and so decidedly that of a gentleman, that as he finished laying aside the garments, the ladies arose from their seats, and, together with the master of the house, they received anew, and returned the complimentary greetings which were again offered.
The host was by several years the senior of the traveler, and by his manner, dress, and everything around him, showed he had seen much of life and the best society. The ladies were, a maiden of forty, and two much younger, who did not seem, indeed, to have reached half those years. The bloom of the elder of these ladies had vanished, but her eyes and fine hair gave an extremely agreeable expression to her countenance; and there was a softness and an affability in her deportment, that added a charm many more juvenile faces do not possess. The sisters, for such the resemblance between the younger females denoted them to be, were in all the pride of youth, and the roses, so eminently the property of the Westchester fair, glowed on their cheeks, and lighted their deep blue eyes with that luster which gives so much pleasure to the beholder, and which indicates so much internal innocence and peace. There was much of that feminine delicacy in the appearance of the three, which distinguishes the sex in this country; and, like the gentleman, their demeanor proved them to be women of the higher order of life.
After handing a glass of excellent Madeira to his guest, Mr. Wharton, for so was the owner of this retired estate called, resumed his seat by the fire, with another in his own hand. For a moment he paused, as if debating with his politeness, but at length threw an inquiring glance on the stranger, as he inquired, —
“To whose health am I to have the honor of drinking?”
The traveler had also seated himself, and he sat unconsciously gazing on the fire, while Mr. Wharton spoke; turning his eyes slowly on his host with a look of close observation, he replied, while a faint tinge gathered on his features, —
“Mr. Harper,” resumed the other, with the formal precision of that day, “I have the honor to drink your health, and to hope you will sustain no injury from the rain to which you have been exposed.”
Mr. Harper bowed in silence to the compliment, and he soon resumed the meditations from which he had been interrupted, and for which the long ride he had that day made, in the wind, might seem a very natural apology.
The young ladies had again taken their seats beside the workstand, while their aunt, Miss Jeanette Peyton, withdrew to superintend the preparations necessary to appease the hunger of their unexpected visitor. A short silence prevailed, during which Mr. Harper was apparently enjoying the change in his situation, when Mr. Wharton again broke it, by inquiring whether smoke was disagreeable to his companion; to which, receiving an answer in the negative, he immediately resumed the pipe which had been laid aside at the entrance of the traveler.
There was an evident desire on the part of the host to enter into conversation, but either from an apprehension of treading on dangerous ground, or an unwillingness to intrude upon the rather studied taciturnity of his guest, he several times hesitated, before he could venture to make any further remark. At length, a movement from Mr. Harper, as he raised his eyes to the party in the room, encouraged him to proceed.
“I find it very difficult,” said Mr. Wharton, cautiously avoiding at first, such subjects as he wished to introduce, “to procure that quality of tobacco for my evenings’ amusement to which I have been accustomed.”
“I should think the shops in New York might furnish the best in the country,” calmly rejoined the other.
“Why — yes,” returned the host in rather a hesitating manner, lifting his eyes to the face of Harper, and lowering them quickly under his steady look, “there must be plenty in town; but the war has made communication with the city, however innocent, too dangerous to be risked for so trifling an article as tobacco.”