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The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper
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Jun 17, 2009

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Read in July, 2009

** spoiler alert ** Quite satisfactory, all things considered. This is Cooper's first noteworthy novel. At any rate, it is the first he didn't mind acknowledging as his, and it is the one that launched American historical fiction in 1821. The melodrama is laid on thick: "Frances sobbed a moment on his bosom, and he tore himself from her presence," etc. The AMS scholarly edition is excellent.

The Spy is set during the Revolutionary War, on the so-called neutral ground of Westchester County, New York. For my purposes, The Spy is highly useful as a way to understand Cooper's early thought. It makes evident a fascinating tension in Cooper's republicanism.

In a sense, Cooper expresses precisely what one would expect from a classical republican. He celebrates martial virtue, selfless devotion to the state, and disgust at any hint of venality or infidelity. He is highly class-conscious; the book is full of disparaging allusions to the unlettered, unpolished, or unfree. Poor women and black slaves provide most of the comic relief. The heroes are all immediately distinguishable as -- and conscious of being -- gentlemen and ladies, defined in traditional terms as having claims to property (though not necessarily money) and manners. But beneath this lies something else.

On one hand, Cooper makes loyalty to the state and to the family the paramount virtue. He judges the character of every individual according to his or her devotion. Loyalty is honorable even when mistaken, while interestedness is despicable even when it advances the right cause. Characters impelled only by self-interest, such as the piratical irregular forces known as "Skinners" and "Cow-Boys," are the most villainous figures in Cooper's book irrespective of their nominal political allegiance. Next most contemptible is Colonel Wellmere, the ambitious British army officer who attempts to win a woman's heart under false pretenses. Meanwhile, a British army captain (Henry Wharton) is generally lauded for his fine character, which he manifests primarily by risking his life to visit his father and sisters behind rebel lines, then refusing to hide his identity as a servant of His Majesty even when it might cost him his life.

On the other hand, Cooper suggests that loyalty to the state and loyalty to family may conflict. When they do, patriotism must come first. Major Dunwoodie of the rebel army proves his character by reluctantly but dutifully taking Captain Wharton prisoner -- while engaged to Wharton's sister Frances. Dunwoodie is willing to lose her in order to do his duty. And Frances herself proves her virtue by taking the Patriot side in the Revolution against the sympathies of the rest of her family. Thus, patriotism involves at least a moderate risk of cutting the individual loose from familial authority.

(In his 1831 introduction, Cooper explained it this way: "There is a purity in real patriotism which elevates its subject above all the grosser motives of selfishness, and which, in the nature of things, can never distinguish services to mere kindred and family. It has the beauty of self-elevation, without the alloy of personal interest." Emphasis mine.)

Furthermore, the hero for whom the novel is named, the double agent Harvey Birch, is a very lonely individual. To serve his country, he must doom himself to ignominy, for he must never reveal that he has been working for the colonials. He serves America by being an outcast within its borders. He gives up even the possibility of familial happiness, first seeing his father die and his fortune confiscated because of his reputation as a British spy, then wandering off into the frontier, never to marry, unwilling to give any descendants a shameful name.

To all outward appearances, as Cooper stresses, Harvey Birch is a thoroughly vicious character. He has no fixed dwelling; as a peddler of luxury goods that appeal mainly to vain women and slaves, he divides his time between British-occupied Manhattan and the neutral countryside. He is a shadowy character, slipping from place to place at will and rarely spending time in his father's house. Yet his shiftiness is what makes him valuable to the nation. Cooper takes pains to underscore his honorable nature. So we have here an interesting paradox: the virtuous loner. This is a figure who will show up again and again in American literature.

Another fascinating element of Cooper's divided sensibility is his more general fascination with disguise. Harvey Birch is not the only character who disguises himself as he moves around the neutral ground. So (repeatedly) do Captain Wharton, General Washington (a.k.a. Mr. Harper), and Caesar the slave. What is remarkable is that each of these figures is an honorable, or in Caesar's case at least lovable, man. Each of them conceals his identity in order to do something good and important. Cooper does try to maintain order by making it impossible for General Washington to conceal his greatness of spirit; even as the mysterious "Mr. Harper," everyone trusts him completely. But for the novel to work, Harvey Birch must seem to be a much more sinister figure. This suggests, I think, an unstable view of publicity. It is possible, in this book, for a man to have a laudable private character. A mask -- in a scene where Wharton and Caesar trade identities, literal masks -- need not indicate a false nature. I find that highly significant.
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