Critical Evaluation

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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 military grounds, involves civilians to a great extent, and always poses the problem of divided loyalties. Cooper’s choice of a spy is especially effective too. The spy is more than a soldier in a war; he must have a grasp of politics (and of...

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theater) as well.

Cooper discovered another advantage in the use of a spy as a central character. This advantage is connected to the subtitle of the novel, A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Effective historical novels tend to focus on periods in which significant conflicts occur. Such conflicts as the American Revolution not only provide good dramatic material for the novelist but also offer later readers an insight into their own condition, since significant conflicts in the past have shaped their lives.

There is, however, an artistic problem in portraying such conflicts. To give a full picture of the clash of forces, an author must describe both sides in the fight (in Cooper’s case, both the British and the Americans). Describing only one side tends to rob the novel of drama—but how is the novelist to show both and, at the same time, focus these forces on a single, central character?

Scott solves this problem by using figures of secondary historical interest as his primary focus of dramatic action. These secondary figures are able to move from one side to another as negotiators, go-betweens, and messengers. This movement back and forth allows scope for the novelist to show both sides of the conflict in a specific, concrete fashion.

Cooper does this in The Spy. Instead of choosing Washington as a central character, Cooper chooses a spy, a man able (and required) to move from one side to the other and yet a man who remains in the thick of the dramatic action. The “Neutral Ground,” the space between opposing forces that Birch must cross and recross in his missions, the seam between the opponents, also reflects the need for an effective historical novel to move from one side to the other.

Other aspects of the historical novel are also significant. Besides the presence of other, minor “type” characters (the doctor, the housekeeper, the servant), there are the details of the warfare—the names, dates, places, and historical facts—that Cooper makes a conscious effort to use; The Spy reflects a degree of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts that, despite moments of highly imaginative drama and humor, lend an air of reality to the action of the book as a whole.

Additionally, Cooper expends much prose and dialogue on the arguments for and against the American Revolution. The revolutionaries argue with the counterrevolutionaries. Because he is able to show both sides dramatically, in real life, Cooper is able to describe the intellectual and political conflict of the era. In this way, Cooper avoids the trap of turning a historical novel into a mere adventure story; for in the course of history, and certainly in the course of the Revolutionary War, the battle of ideas deeply influences the physical battles. If Cooper is less successful in showing how arguments change individuals, he is still able to give a richer sense of the times and of the war than if he had concentrated entirely on physical action and adventure.

There are obvious weaknesses in Cooper’s work. Cooper was, apart from being an opinionated man, one who shared many of the prejudices and preconceptions of his day. These views naturally affect the quality of his work. One problem, for example, is that he seems unable to characterize certain types of people in much depth. His attitude toward women and African Americans specifically is condescending. As a result, his portrayal of these figures is frequently superficial. Cooper also has a tendency to use a rather heavy-handed ironic tone. In The Spy, Cooper follows a long tradition in English literature by making his comic characters members of the lower class. One senses that the class characteristics of those below him were humorous to Cooper. Corresponding to this general characterization of the lower orders (not true in every case, to be sure) is a general deference to those of higher rank.

Thus, in fully evaluating The Spy as literature, the reader is drawn to a central contradiction. On one hand, Cooper clearly supports the American side of the Revolutionary War and agrees with the arguments for independence, especially those arguments based on equality. In Cooper’s mind, people are equal before God. At the same time, Cooper himself is a creature of his own time and upbringing. For him, though people may be equal under God, they are by no means equal to one another.

The conflict between ideals and reality is an old one in the United States, and it is no surprise that Cooper, declaring himself an authentic American novelist, should exhibit that conflict. Thus, The Spy is an informative historical novel both because it reflects a basic conflict in the history of a nation and because, as a work of art, it contains a basic conflict in human nature.