The Pilot is a novel that combines military adventure, a certain romantic interest, and a political analysis within the confines of a particular historical era. The mixture is not always successful, but aspects of The Pilot remain interesting as both literature and political argument.
James Fenimore Cooper said that The Pilot was originally conceived as a sea novel, one that would be accurate in its details of naval life and strategy. One way that Cooper demonstrates his expertise is in the multitude and variety of the technical terms he uses. This terminology is so pervasive in The Pilot that much of the action, especially during sea battles, is nearly incomprehensible. On the other hand, this mystification (resembling the “wood lore” of the Leatherstocking series) does work to make the pilot himself, the hero of the novel, appear superhuman. The reader, to whom much of the terminology remains inaccessible, can only marvel at the skill and knowledge of Cooper’s hero, who not only defeats the enemy in several battles but stands above the other officers (such as Griffith) in seafaring skill.
In The Pilot, Cooper claims to have drawn his characters according to “palpable nature,” without reference to unknown or metaphysical qualities. This intention, though undoubtedly sincere (and a reaction against the excesses of romantic fiction), is not carried out in practice in regard to the pilot himself who, the reader is meant to understand, embodies the ideal qualities of a leader. For example, the pilot is calm even under the most severe stress. Cooper opens the novel with Mr. Gray extricating the ship from a severe storm. Everyone else is terrified, and with good reason, it appears, but the pilot is completely steady and absolutely unafraid.
Furthermore, when the pilot gives an order, the crew obeys as if he were the commander. Cooper describes this obedience in almost mystical terms. The pilot is able to impose discipline when no one else can. So Cooper’s intention to describe his characters only according to palpable nature is subordinated to the need he felt for portraying an authentic leader, hero, and warrior. This need flows from the political intent of the work. The Pilot raises a political question that was important in Cooper’s own life and, more significantly, was critical during the Revolutionary War. The issue was one of loyalty.
The Pilot is a novel centered on characters torn between conflicting loyalties. When the American War of Independence began, men and women in the colonies...
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