The Spy, James Fenimore Cooper
The Spy
James Fenimore Cooper
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The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground is a novel by American writer James Fenimore Cooper. His second novel, it was published in 1821 by Wiley & Halsted. The plot is set during the American Revolution and was inspired in part by the family friend John Jay. The Spy was successful and began Cooper's reputation as a popular and important American writer. The action takes place during the American Revolution, at "The Locusts", which is believed to have been the real family home of John Jay in Rye, Westchester County, New York, and is now known as the Jay Estate. The plot ranges back and forth over the neutral ground between the British and the Continental armies as the home stands between those lines.

The Spy

A Tale of the Neutral Ground

James Fenimore Cooper

The Spy

James Fenimore Cooper

“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.

Author’s Introduction

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.

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