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First published: 1827

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: Mid-eighteenth century

Locale: Newport, Rhode Island, and the Atlantic Ocean

Principal Characters:

Harry Wilder, formerly Henry Ark, actually Henry de Lacy

The Red Rover, the captain of the Dolphin

Dick Fid, and

Scipio Africa, seamen and Harry Wilder's friends

Gertrude Grayson, General Grayson's daughter

Mrs. Wyllys, her governess

The Story

While in the town of Newport, Rhode Island, Harry Wilder saw in the outer harbor a ship, the Dolphin, which interested him greatly. He decided to try to secure a berth on her for himself and his two friends, Dick Fid and Scipio Africa, a black sailor. His determination was strengthened after meeting a stranger who in effect dared him to try to obtain a berth there. That night, the three men rowed out to the ship lying at anchor, in order to give the vessel a closer inspection. Hailed by the watch on deck, Wilder went aboard her. There he learned that he had been expected and that if he were interested in sailing with her, he might go to see the captain. The captain was the mysterious, mocking stranger whom Wilder had met that afternoon in the town. Before Wilder signed on as a member of the ship's crew, however, the captain revealed the true nature of the ship and admitted that he himself was the Red Rover, the scourge of the sea. Wilder, who had formerly been an officer in the British Navy, was given the post of second in command. He persuaded the captain to sign on Dick and Scipio as well. He then returned to shore to settle his affairs in the town. The other two men remained aboard the Dolphin.

At the same time, the Royal Caroline, a merchantman trading along the coast and between the colonies and England, lay in the inner harbor ready to embark on the following day. Two ladies, Gertrude Grayson and her governess, Mrs. Wyllys, were to take passage on her to Charleston, South Carolina, Gertrude's home. Wilder met the ladies as if by chance and tried to dissuade them from sailing aboard the Royal Caroline. He hinted that the Royal Caroline was unsafe, but his words were discredited by an old seaman who insisted that there was nothing wrong with the ship. The ladies decided to sail in spite of Wilder's warnings. Then the master of the Royal Caroline fell from a cask and broke his leg, and a new captain had to be found immediately. The Red Rover sent a message ordering Wilder to apply for the vacant position. He did and was immediately hired.

The voyage of the Royal Caroline began with difficulties which continued as time went on. They were not long out of port when a ship was sighted on the horizon. It continued to keep its distance in approximately the same position, so that all aboard the Royal Caroline suspected that it was following them. In trying to outdistance the other ship, Wilder put on all sail possible, in spite of the threatening weather. A storm struck the ship and left her foundering in heavy seas. When Wilder commanded the crew to man the pumps, they refused and deserted the sinking ship in one of the boats. Only Wilder and the two women were left aboard the helpless Royal Caroline. Hoping to make land, they embarked in a longboat, but the wind blew them out to sea. They were sighted and picked up by the Dolphin.

Gertrude and Mrs. Wyllys were not...

(This entire section contains 1957 words.)

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long aboard the Dolphin before the true state of affairs became apparent to the women in spite of the kindly treatment afforded them. Mrs. Wyllys realized also that Roderick, the cabin boy, was in reality a woman; but this mystery was nothing when compared with that of Harry Wilder.

Dick Fid told the story of Harry Wilder's past history to the two ladies and the Red Rover, thus explaining the affection Wilder, Dick, and Scipio held for each other. Some twenty-four years earlier, Dick and Scipio had found a child and a dying woman, apparently a nurse, aboard an abandoned ship. After the woman died, the two seamen took care of the boy. They had only one clue to follow in their efforts to locate the child's relatives. This was the name Ark of Lynnhaven which had been painted on a ship's bucket and which Scipio had tattooed on Dick's arm. There was no ship of that name in any port registry, however, and so the search for the child's relatives was abandoned.

As Dick finished his story, another ship was sighted. It was the Dart, a British naval vessel on which Wilder, Dick, and Scipio had previously sailed. Wilder wanted the Red Rover to flee, but the captain had another plan for dealing with the Dart. After showing British colors, the Red Rover was invited by Captain Bignall of the Dart to come aboard his ship. There the pirate captain learned that Henry Ark, alias Harry Wilder, was absent from the Dart on a dangerous secret mission. The Red Rover realized that he had betrayed himself to his enemy. He went back to the Dolphin and then sent Wilder, Dick, Scipio, and the two women to the Dart.

Wilder had informed the Red Rover that once aboard his own ship, the Dart, he would be duty bound to reveal the true nature of the Dolphin. In telling Captain Bignall his story, Wilder begged for mercy for both the master and the crew of the pirate ship. Bignall agreed and sent Wilder back to the Dolphin with lenient terms of surrender. The Red Rover refused them and told Wilder that if there were to be a fight, Captain Bignall would have to start it. As the Dart attacked the pirate ship, a sudden storm gave the Dolphin an unexpected advantage. Its crew boarded the Dart, killed Captain Bignall, and captured the ship. The crew of the Dolphin demanded the lives of Wilder, Dick, and Scipio as traitors, and the Red Rover handed them over to the crew. When the chaplain who was aboard the Dart came forward to plead for their lives, he saw the tattoo on Dick's arm. He told the story of the ARK OF LYNNHAVEN and revealed that Harry Wilder must be the son of Paul de Lacy and Mrs. Wyllys, who had kept the marriage a secret because of parental disapproval and later because of Paul's death. Mrs. Wyllys then begged for the life of her son, whom she had thought dead all these years. The Red Rover dismissed his crew until the next morning, when he would announce his decision concerning the fate of the prisoners.

The next morning, the Red Rover put his crew and all the gold aboard the Dolphin into a coaster and sent them ashore. The crew of the Dart, Wilder, Dick, Scipio, and the women were put aboard the Dart and told to sail off. When they were some distance away, they saw the Dolphin catch fire and burn. None had been left aboard her but the Red Rover and Roderick. Some aboard the Dart thought they saw a small boat putting off from the burning ship, but none could be sure because of the billowing smoke.

Twenty years later, after the colonies had won their independence from England, the Red Rover, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, reappeared in Newport and made his way to the home of Captain Henry de Lacy, who had previously called himself Harry Wilder. Admitted, he identified himself as the long-lost brother of Mrs. Wyllys. Shortly thereafter the Red Rover, pirate and patriot, died.

Critical Evaluation:

Though THE RED ROVER has never been as popular as James Fenimore Cooper's two greatest sea romances, THE PILOT (1824) and THE TWO ADMIRALS (1842), it has its own sturdy merits as a suspenseful tale of intrigue and adventure. Superficially, the early scenes of the novel bring to mind the classic American sea novel, Melville's MOBY DICK (1851). Harry Wilder, like Ishmael, is drawn mysteriously to a ship anchored in the harbor. Aboard the ship, Wilder encounters the notorious Red Rover, just as Ishmael meets the enigmatic Captain Ahab; and just as Ahab violates metaphysical laws in his pursuit of the White Whale, so the Red Rover is a law unto himself as he plunders merchant vessels in the period before the Revolutionary War. Beyond this point, the similarities between the novels are less clearly marked than the contrasts. Melville's novel is composed on an epic scale, with a profound sense of tragic drama. THE RED ROVER, quite the opposite, is an entertaining melodramatic romance, written without any pretensions to examine deeply the mysteries of man's place in the universe.

Nevertheless, the novel is interesting from points of view other than simply those of a sea adventure story. Considered from a psychological perspective, THE RED ROVER reveals Cooper's contradictory ideas about the structure and philosophical ideas of the work. In STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE (1923), D. H. Lawrence suggests that Cooper's "white novels," among which the sea stories may be included, betray the novelist's confusion about the superiority of democracy. Cooper, according to Lawrence, believes that the American is bound to assert his superior claims over other peoples, even if these claims are undeserved. This forceful assertion is a form of aggression, however, and Cooper, at least philosophically, is disturbed by aggressiveness. One side of him prefers gentle action; another, violent force. Without pressing Lawrence's suggestion too far, it is certainly true that in THE RED ROVER COOPER is both repelled by and attracted to the brutality of the captain of the Dolphin, just as he is ambivalent about his feelings concerning Wilder. For Wilder is at the same time the gentle, chivalrous comrade of the women, Gertrude Grayson and Mrs. Wyllys, and the tough-minded, rugged sailor-adventurer.

Cooper partially resolves the conflict between aggressive and gentle conduct through the mechanism of the Revolutionary War. The romantic rebel in the personage of the Red Rover emerges as the patriotic rebel, when the pirate reappears late in the book as a veteran and hero of the American Revolution. Now his violence has the sanction of patriotic duty; and Harry Wilder, formerly seaman, also changes roles. By the end of the novel, he is Captain Henry De Lacy, gentleman. Thus, on a psychological level, Cooper justifies the intrepid, violent action of the story from the viewpoint of its satisfactory conclusion: both the Red Rover and Wilder are seen as American heroes who have advanced the cause of freedom.


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