The Spy

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“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 in
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.


[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

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