Judged by contemporary standards, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground is still a satisfactory historical novel. As James Fenimore Cooper remarked in the introduction to his novel, however, his purpose in The Spy is frankly patriotic. If one bears this fact in mind, one can see that Peyton Dunwoodie represents the ideal American soldier and officer; Frances Wharton, the ideal of American womanhood; and George Washington, the ideal father of his country, combining Roman strength and vigor with American humanity and humility. This understanding will help the reader to appreciate Cooper’s point of view. The great historical novelist of the early nineteenth century was an intensely nationalistic individual who, conscious of the past achievements and potentialities of his country, eagerly looked forward to the development of a great nation.
The Spy is an important novel both in Cooper’s career and in the history of American literature. For Cooper, The Spy represented a first success in a literary career that was to include thirty-three fictional works as well as a number of other writings over a period of thirty-one years. The Spy, however, also signifies the establishment of an independent American literature, one based on American life and American characters, and set in an American landscape. It is significant, then, that the novel that declared “independence” from European, and especially English, literature should take for its subject the American War of Independence.
In his preface to The Spy, Cooper showed that he was acutely conscious of being an American writer and of writing about American subjects. Still, there is no doubt that he was influenced by the major currents in literature written abroad, and, though in his preface Cooper offers a tongue-in-cheek apology for not including castles and nobles as Sir Walter Scott had done in his works, it is certain that Scott influenced Cooper in The Spy and in his later career as well. Scott was a great pioneer in the art of the historical novel, and The Spy shows that Cooper learned much from Scott.
An important aspect of the historical novel is authenticity of historical types, characters who live in a specific historical period and in a particular place. One of the key differences between an authentic historical novel and a contemporary novel in a historical setting is characterization. Though one may argue that people are, in a sense, the same everywhere and at all times, it is apparent that the differences cannot be overlooked if one is mainly interested in accurately portraying a specific era. Thus, to capture a particular place at a particular time, the novelist must do more than merely dress his or her contemporaries in the clothing of days past: He or she must have a grasp of those human features and aspects that a historical period typically requires of men and women.
The Spy is full of historically typical men. The spy himself is a courageous and ingenious man able to affect the times in which he lives and also permitted (and encouraged) by those times to display such qualities. Thus, another difference between an ordinary novel in a historical setting and a historical novel as such is that the characters help fashion history as they are fashioned by it. The novel, set during the American Revolutionary War, is fought on political as well as...
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