Saturday, January 25, 2014

James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy


Opening Passage:

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.

Summary: It is the American Revolution and a significant portion of New York is a 'neutral ground', not clearly controlled by either the British or the Americans. Much of The Spy is taken up with examining the lives of people who are trying to get along with their lives despite the divisions caused by the Revolution in families and between lifelong friends, and trying to negotiate this neutral ground where one day you may be dealing with Americans and the next you may be dealing with the British or,even more likely, with a gang, the Skinners or the Cowboys, looting and bullying in the name of one side or the other.

As the title suggests, it is a novel of espionage. I was interested to see Cooper's technique in handling it, which is quite skillful. Harvey Birch, the spy in question, is known by almost everyone to be a spy, probably although not certainly for the British; he makes use of clever disguises and cunning means of escape. The novel does not follow Birch, though; he is woven throughout the story, but there's a fairly straightforward sense in which the main action of the novel is simply a love story, if you can believe it, between Frances Wharton and Major Dunwoodie, complicated by the fact that Frances's brother is in the British army. This way of handling the 'spy stuff' shows something of the author's skill, since I think history shows that it is usually the best way to handle it -- as in Marquand's Mr. Moto books, in which Mr. Moto is always a secondary character because a good spy would be. Birch is a bit more in the foreground than Mr. Moto, but he is also a more ambiguous figure, since no one knows entirely what to make of him.

This book is, I think, a bit more readable than his more famous Leatherstocking Tales. In part this is because the humor is, not better, but more obvious. James Fenimore Cooper's humor is never entirely given the credit it deserves, but it is true that you have to be in the right frame of mind to catch it when reading some of his other works. We get it a bit more thickly here, and the story allows him to play to his strengths. One thing he is very good at it is depicting plausibly obsessive characters; David Gamut in The Last of the Mohicans is a quite hilarious character, with his completely incongruous faith in the absolute importance of singing while he goes around in the middle of the wilderness baffling Mohawks, Mohicans, and white men alike. We have another finely drawn obsessive here, in Dr.Sitgreaves, the surgeon, who often seems unable to think of anything except insofar as it is somehow related to scientific advances in surgery. Cooper also does some excellent comic work with juxtaposition, both of characters and scenes. It's not uproarious, but there is undeniably humor throughout.

The love story is not, I think, just a frame for the Harvey Birch tale; it does, rather, real work. In his old age Harvey Birch learns of Frances and Dunwoodie and what happened to them, and his response is, "'Tis like our native land! improving with time; God has blessed both." Birch's actions don't make sense as taking place for a certain territory; America is a people as much as, or even more than, a land. Its bounty is not a mere bounty of resources; it lies as much, or more, in the bounty of its people, young Frances and young Dunwoodie getting together despite the odds, getting married despite the uncertainties of the future, and having children that carry on the traditions in such a way that they and the world around them are improving with time. One of the sacrifices Birch has to make to serve his country is to forego family; that he helped make other families possible is a fitting compensation. It has always been a peculiarity of American patriotism that its primary expression is never in terms of ideology or territory, like most other patriotisms; American patriots are patriots for American sons and daughters. A spy story depicting American patriotism would be incomplete without marriage and children; marriage and children are part of what American patriotism has always been.

Favorite Passage:

"Pray, Colonel Wellmere," said Frances, recovering her good humor, and raising her joyous eyes once more to the face of the gentleman, "was the Lord Percy of Lexington a kinsman of him who fought at Chevy Chase?"

"Why, Miss Fanny, you are becoming a rebel," said the colonel, endeavoring to laugh away the anger he felt; "what you are pleased to insinuate was a chase at Lexington, was nothing more than a judicious retreat—a—kind of—"

"Running fight," interrupted the good-humored girl, laying a great emphasis on the first word.

"Positively, young lady"—Colonel Wellmere was interrupted by a laugh from a person who had hitherto been unnoticed.

Recommendation: Highly recommended; but for Americans it is really a must-read, part of the American heritage, capturing a strand of the American spirit.


  1. A very good post, about a lovely
    book. I liked very much this post, and your careful and unbiased reading. Cooper
    belonged to Marryat’s generation, between the generation of Scott and that of Ainsworth
    and Bulwer (the latter, a hesitant generation in the English letters).

    I don’t believe the authors of
    westerns were his successors (except insofar as they have been preceded by West
    tales, etc.). He did something else, unrelated to their trade.

    If he wasn’t the American Scott,
    he certainly was the American Marryat, or the American Henty. He was, as I gather, less liked as a person than Scott, as he had an
    unenviable personality.

    In Romanian,
    five of his novels have been translated—four of the Leatherstocking
    Tales (the last four of them, in publication order), and The Red Rover, I

  2. branemrys9:28 PM

    I'm actually surprised that The Spy isn't one of the Romanian translations; there was a time when it was the most widely translated of his novels.


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