The Spy: First American War Novel

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THE SPY: FIRST AMERICAN WAR NOVEL

When James Fenimore Cooper decided to write The Spy (1821), a narrative of manners set in the America of the Revolutionary War, he was certainly conscious of the fact that nothing of the kind already existed.

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Cooper justified his undertaking explicitly in his preface. He points out first off that the best reason in favor of an American trying to write a novel set in this country is that the ground is "untrodden." Significantly, he adds that this may in fact help the book to gain notice abroad; at least critics there would find it new. Perhaps he felt that the British market would account for an important share of sales; such thoughts can't have been beneath him. After all, Cooper also points out immediately that such a book can't fail to appeal at home, where "patriotic ardor will ensure a sale."

In the immediate aftermath of another war, that of 1812, in which the young nation had bested Great Britain in what could be termed as the "rematch" of the Revolution, national sentiment was riding high in the United States. Cooper had written one novel, Precaution (1820), purportedly at his young wife's instigation. It was competently written, but it was not seen as likely to inspire much public enthusiasm at home for a number of reasons. Precaution was a weak attempt to create a novel in the style of Jane Austen, and it had none of the qualities which we have come to expect in his own work. It was set in England, featured characters and concerns which were fashionable in British literature of the time, and was in fact even presented as being the work of an Englishman. But Cooper seems to have learned quickly from the experience.

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His second book, The Spy, appeared scarcely a year later, and was pretty close to right on target; a rewrite in 1831 cleared up some problems attributed to hasty writing. The Spy presents a cast of real Americans, the Wharton family, living in Westchester County, just north of New York City in 1780, when the Revolution had turned their neighborhood into a hostile, if neutral, ground. One of the engagements described in the book took place in what is today the Bronx; the events in the novel otherwise occur in Westchester, Dutchess and Putnam counties. Much curious local history, which apparently fascinated Cooper, is also related about local brigands called "Skinners" and "Cow Boys." The story of a legendary local peddler and alleged spy is skillfully woven into the novel, as is the story of the very true betrayal of the American cause by a one-time war hero, General Benedict Arnold. With all of this material, Cooper creates mystery characters, including George Washington (who appears incognito), and the eponymous spy Harvey Birch himself; narrates plenty of military goings on; and pens colorful portraits of delightful American characters such as the African-American house servant Caesar, and the barmaid and camp-follower Betsy Flanagan, to name but a few.

There is a fine courtroom scene at the climax of the story, when young Henry Wharton, who is serving as an officer on the side of the British, is convicted of spying (which he did not). Henry's sister, Frances, pleads movingly for her brother's life: yes, he was out of uniform behind American lines but only to return home to visit his aging father. But she lets slip the fact that he indeed saw Birch, thus certainly condemning him by association. Frances's fiancé, (and Henry's dear friend), Major Dunwoodie, is in the American army, and he must ride to obtain a pardon for Henry in extremis.

The trope of the American family riven by domestic warfare would have to wait until the Civil War to become a cliché. The drama is superbly offset by detailed descriptions of the beauty of the American countryside, all of it most entertaining, while at the same time, stirring fine patriotic sentiment; all of it was just right for the times.

The book was an immediate success in the United States. A British edition took two years to reach that market, but thereafter the book did extremely well abroad and was translated widely in Europe before ten years had passed. This seems to confirm Cooper's every hope for his book, in retrospect.

What he could not have predicted was that he was also inventing a new genre entirely, that of the American war novel. Cooper wrote over two dozen more novels over the next thirty years, many of them involving military action on land and sea, and many which involved combat with and alongside native populations in New York and New England. Echoes of his work in the new genre can be found in American writing from Melville (Israel Potter) to the work of such contemporary writers as W.E.B. Griffin.

Charles B. Potter

See also:Bunker Hill Monument; Cooper, James Fenimore; Flags; Fourth of July; Revolutionary War Veterans; Valley Forge.