Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Lionel Lincoln by James Fenimore Cooper

Stodgy Gothic drama set in the American Revolution
Early in his career, James Fenimore Cooper got the idea of writing a series of 13 historical novels about the American Revolution, with one book set in each of the original 13 American colonies. Cooper abandoned the series idea, however, after the first novel, set in Massachusetts, did not live up to the expectations of the author or the public. That book, published in 1825, is Lionel Lincoln. The title character is descended from a British aristocratic family. Though born in Boston, he was raised in England on the family’s historic estate and even serves as a member of parliament. At about the age of 25, he returns to the town of his birth as a major in the British Army. When the story begins, Boston is in a state of unrest. The Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party have already taken place, and the American colonists continue to protest against taxation without representation and other British abuses of power. Over the course of the book, Lionel either witnesses or participates in the battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill.

Writing a half century after the historical events depicted, Cooper is American literature’s foremost fictional chronicler of the Revolution. In his writings on the conflict, including his novels The Spy and Wyandotté, Cooper doesn’t depict the British as evil monsters like so many of today’s movies. Instead, he reminds us that the Revolution was almost a civil war, in that Tories and rebels lived side by side as neighbors and even family. Cooper is very sympathetic to the British side of the war—in fact, most of the characters in Lionel Lincoln are British—but he also expresses great reverence for the colonists’ fight for independence.

Upon his return to America, Lionel is taken in by relatives whom he soon suspects may be involved in supporting the colonists’ underground resistance movement. From this, the reader expects an espionage novel similar to The Spy. Such hopes are dashed, however, when it later becomes apparent that the novel is not so much about the American Revolution as it just happens to be set in it. The book eventually develops into a Gothic novel of family secrets more in the vein of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but nowhere near as good as either.

As expected from a book this old, there is a lot of cumbersome language to overcome, but that’s also part of the charm for lovers of classic books. The attention span of early 19th-century readers was far more forgiving than their 21st-century counterparts, so one also has to put up with Cooper’s lethargic pacing. In a failed attempt to heighten suspense, Cooper has an annoying habit of not revealing the names of characters, merely referring to them as “the stranger” or “the gentleman” far too long before disclosing their identities. The reader’s hopes that these might turn out to be real historic Bostonians is never gratified. The cast includes British generals like Howe and Burgoyne, but real-life American heroes are absent. George Washington is mentioned frequently in conversation but doesn’t appear in person. As is often the case in Cooper’s novels, Lionel and his love interest—the idealized hero and heroine—are surrounded by a quirky cast of characters who cram the text full of colorful conversation, humorous accents, and irrelevant asides. Lionel’s best friend, Captain Polwarth, is a rotund glutton who constantly waxes rhapsodic about gastronomic pleasures at the most inappropriate moments.

Lionel Lincoln is a poor novel, perhaps the worst Cooper novel I’ve read thus far, but amid all the tedious histrionics I still enjoyed reading the author’s perspective on the Revolution.

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