Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper

Surprisingly devoid of espionage
The Spy is James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel. When published in 1821, it was an instant hit and became the first truly successful novel in American literature. In style, it greatly resembles the works of the eminent historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, whom Cooper idolized and strove to emulate.

The story takes place in 1778 in the midst of the American Revolution. While much of the nation at that time had been divided into pro-royal and pro-rebel districts, the county of Westchester, New York, was considered “neutral ground,” a territory contested by both sides, where tories and patriots often lived next door to each other. Mr. Wharton, a prominent estate holder in the county, attempts to maintain a prudent neutrality throughout the conflict. A widower, he resides on his estate, “The Locusts,” with his two daughters and his late wife’s sister. Sarah, the eldest daughter, favors the side of the Crown, while the younger daughter Frances is disposed toward the rebel cause. Frances’s patriotic inclination may be due in no small part to her love for Major Peyton Dunwoodie, a soldier in the Virginia Dragoons. Mr. Wharton also has a son, Henry, who serves as a Captain in the British Army. Despite fighting on opposite sides of the war, Henry Wharton and Dunwoodie are old school chums and maintain a close friendship. On a week of leave from His Majesty’s service, Henry dons a disguise in order to cross enemy lines to see his family. Though his intentions are honorable, this subterfuge may be interpreted as an act of espionage, and his seemingly harmless visit leads to a series of life-threatening events.

Though the Revolution makes for fascinating subject matter and offers the potential for some exciting drama, Cooper never takes full advantage of its possibilities. The action in the book takes a back seat to the characters’ love lives, and the plot is constantly diverted by tangential conversations which contribute little to the momentum of the story. The pace is frustratingly slow and meandering. Cooper’s greatest offense is that despite being entitled The Spy, his book contains little or no espionage. We are told that Harvey Birch, a traveling peddler and friend to the Whartons, is selling secrets to one side or the other, but no example of such a transaction is ever actually depicted. Periodically Birch shows up in disguise, offers a warning to one of the characters, then vanishes. This may make him a master of disguise and an escape artist, but it doesn’t make him a spy. The stealing or selling of state secrets plays no part in the plot. Unfortunately, instead of an espionage thriller or a war story, The Spy is primarily a romantic melodrama.

Nevertheless, despite the book’s disappointing elements, it does kind of grow on you. The last two chapters are quite satisfying and do much to redeem the book as a whole. Though the slow pacing makes for irksome reading, upon completion of the novel one looks back on the large ensemble cast of characters and the major plot events with some fondness. If a screenwriter were willing to expend some effort separating the wheat from the chaff, this book could be cut down into an enjoyable two hour movie. Though this novel is not on par with a great work like The Last of the Mohicans, readers who enjoy Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels or the works of Scott, and can tolerate the occasional periods of poetic digression and narrative lethargy one often finds in early 19th century literature, will find some merit in The Spy.

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