Celebrating 17 years

Revolution and Literature:
Cooper's The Spy Revisited

James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Spy

"We have to live without sympathy, don't we. That's impossible of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren't like that really. I mean...one can't be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold."

John Le Carré wrote this passage in his 1963 espionage classic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But, while immensely popular, Le Carré's sentiments were arguably nothing new. James Fenimore Cooper explored similar emotions some 140 years earlier with his 1821 Revolutionary War narrative The Spy: A Tale of Neutral Ground — the first recognized espionage novel.

In Le Carré's story, the spy is Alec Leamas, who is executed in Cold War Berlin; in Cooper's, it is Harvey Birch, an American spy cast against the backdrop of the revolution in New York State. Both stories, in concert with their times, parallel reality and wed tales of adventure with the dark world of espionage. The moods are gray, the settings circumscribed, and Leamas and Birch emerge as ordinary individuals who are not much different than the people they oppose. They are common men following dangerous paths through uncertain times.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) was America's first successful novelist. The son of the prominent federalist William Cooper, founder of the Cooperstown, New York settlement, he was born to privilege, attending boarding school in Albany, and then Yale College, where he was perfunctorily expelled for inappropriate behavior. In 1806 he was commissioned in the United States Navy where he sailed twice to England and served at a frontier outpost on Lake Ontario before being assigned to recruitment duties in New York City. After his father's death in an 1809 duel, the family inherited an unmanageable debt and Cooper, at age thirty, was on the verge of bankruptcy. He resigned his naval commission and married into a wealthy Westchester family that had remained loyalist during the revolution.

Cooper is principally known for his "Leather Stocking" novels of Indian life and frontier adventure — The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841), among others — and his principal contribution to espionage fiction rests with The Spy which, to Cooper, seemed a particularly promising theme. While the stories of Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold and John Andre, held sway in histories of the revolution, the premise of espionage had not yet been examined in fiction. Cooper sought to exploit this situation by, for the first time, casting a spy as the protagonist of a novel.

The Spy was a major literary gamble. Prior to Cooper, writers, philosophers, the military, and people in general, although they certainly knew otherwise, simply chose not to admit that spies existed or that they were in any way beneficial to the aims of "great nations." In their minds, the spy and his activities were dangerous, morally tarnished, and prone to scandal, illegality, or both. As a result, until publication of The Spy, espionage remained a political nether region and an unsavory arena in which to develop heroes, fictional or otherwise. Thieves, yes; murderers, certainly; but spies, be they heroes or villains, were considered well outside the political constraints of civilized society and its literature.

As the first novelist to explore the theme of espionage, Cooper had no examples and instead relied on the conventions of other genres — primarily the romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott — to convey the dishonesty, deception and covert manipulation central to espionage activities. Like Scott's stories, The Spy is situated in a time and place of historical challenge. But instead of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion of Scott's Waverley (1814), Cooper focuses on the American Revolution, which he too casts a kind of uprising and, again like Scott, interprets the historical record through the lives of his major characters. As McTiernan observes, "the interplay of this genre with the morality of spying and the political and social ideals Cooper advocates provides a seminal example of the seesaw relation between literary form and applied ideology: each exerts its own force, but neither escapes the pull of the other" (McTiernan 1997).

To further refine his plot, as well as to garner reader attention, Cooper touched on a number of then, still lingering discussions such as the legitimacy of the rebellion itself, the ineptness of the British army, the random violence of ranging patriot groups, the benevolence of George Washington, and, most importantly, the social and cultural prohibitions against espionage. The gamble succeeded and The Spy received critical and commercial acceptance both in the United States and abroad.

Cooper's novel focuses on Harry Birch: a conventional man wrongly suspected by well-born American patriots of being a spy for the British. Even George Washington, who supports Birch, marginally misreads the man, and when Washington offers him payment for information vital to colonial interests, Birch scorns the money and asserts that his actions are motivated not by financial reward, but by his dedication to the fight for independence. Birch's action is therefore fundamental to Cooper's underlying message: a nation's survival, like its revolution, depends on judging people by their actions, not their class or reputations.

As the title suggests, the novel is structured within that most ambiguous of domains defined as the "neutral ground" — Cooper's term, adapted from Scott, for the region between opposing armies, controlled by neither but marked by their fluctuating power. Critics have generally read this phrase as a metaphor for the conflict and uncertainty that flourishes in the absence of clear-cut authority. Dekker, for instance, considers the neutral ground "a lawless moral landscape" that allows Cooper to present a "pattern of moral contrasts" (Dekker 34). Similarly, Ringe describes it as a "moral wasteland where conflicting principles are at war and the only law is might," a geographical space that "reflects the ambiguities" that "pervade the entire novel" (Ringe 12).

Adams defines the conflict somewhat differently, as a struggle between "individual integrity and social coherence" and the "social, historical, or psychological authority" embedded in the law (Adams 40). Finally, Rosenberg considers the neutral ground to be a "lethal" environment where authority has broken down altogether, generating a "state of mind" in which all loyalties appear potentially treacherous (Rosenberg 136). So, while the general idea of a "neutral ground" — including its metaphorical implications — presented an encouraging venue in which to cast a spy story, Cooper still faced one major obstacle: making a spy, even one with the best of patriotic intentions, a primary hero.

By design, the central character of Harvey Birch typifies the conflicts and congruities between Cooper's new American ideology and the times in which he wrote The Spy. To offset the early nineteenth century perception of spies as ignoble, inglorious creatures, Cooper attempts to portray Birch as an icon of American patriotism appropriate to historical adventure. To accomplish this, one of Cooper's ploys is to have morally unassailable characters compare Birch favorably to soldiers. Thus the righteous rebel trooper from Virginia, Captain Lawton, praises Birch: "He may be a spy — he must be one...but he has a heart above enmity, and a soul that would honor a gallant soldier" (Cooper 233). This passage likens spies to soldiers, a significant new concept proposed by Cooper. When a soldier breaks moral laws by killing he is absolved by his country, and Cooper seeks to place Harvey Birch in this same category.

On another occasion, Sergeant Hollister, a diligent Christian, as well as one of Lawton's trusted subordinates, further pursues the soldier's — and, as suggested by Cooper, the spy's — general amnesty: "As to killing a man in lawful battle, why that is no more than doing one's duty. If the cause is wrong, the sin of such a deed, you know, falls on the nation..." (Cooper 202). Again, Cooper's message is unabashedly straightforward: Insofar as a spy resembles a soldier, responsibility for his transgressions can be shifted onto the country and excused by the country's nationalistic ends.

Cooper also burnishes Birch's character by portraying him as an honest, hard-working laborer, then an emblem of American fortitude. In a discussion with another soldier about the morality of war, Birch defends his own integrity: "These hands," said [Birch], stretching forth his meagre, bony fingers, "have spent years in toil, but not a moment in pilfering." (Cooper 202).

Cooper seeks to idealize Birch's work as a spy by having Birch turn down payment from George Washington near the novel's conclusion and stating, in an addendum, that the real-life counterpart of Birch also refused money. Even though Enoch Crosby, the probable historical model for Cooper's Birch was, in fact, paid; and though the fictional Birch himself takes money for masterminding the escape of a British officer threatened with hanging for visiting his family while in disguise, Cooper deflects the moral reproaches attached to spying for pay by instead stressing Birch's more admirable character traits such as masculinity, honesty and Christian decency.

But the stigma attached to the spy as hero of a historical adventure was real and Cooper was well aware of the literary tradition into which he stepped. Accordingly — and doubtless in an effort to make Birch's character (and Cooper's own message) more effective — characters in the novel regularly speak against Cooper's ideological purification of espionage by reiterating the traditional period censures. One example finds an American military judge expressing the conventional view in his rejection of Cooper's soldiers and spies analogy: "A soldier should never meet his enemy but openly. For fifty years have I served two kings of England, and now my native land; but never did I approach a foe, unless under the light of the sun, and with honest notice that an enemy was nigh." (Cooper 302).

Cooper repeatedly enhances the text with similar accusations from other characters that consider Birch's spying offensive. But it is enhancement with a simple purpose: Cooper wants the reader to remember that ordinary moral standards of the times required condemnation of Birch's behavior, no matter how often the novel's narrative explicitly or implicitly absolves it.

The period's aversion to spies is further articulated when Cooper allows the character of Birch himself to lament the reality of being a spy: "Yes, such are their laws; the man who fights, and kills, and plunders, is honoured; but he who serves his country as a spy, no matter how faithfully, no matter how honestly, lives to be reviled, or dies like the vilest criminal" (Cooper 331). As McTiernan suggests, Cooper's The Spy "reflects the shame attached to spying not only by soldiers, but by Anglo-American culture at large" (McTiernan 1997). Edgeworth, for instance, criticized The Spy in an 1823 letter: "No sympathy can be excited with meanness, and there must be a degree of meanness ever associated with the idea of the spy. Neither poetry nor prose can ever make a spy a heroic character" (Edgeworth 67).

To salvage the notion of the spy's nobility, near the end of the novel Cooper employs none other than George Washington — the symbolic "Father of the American Revolution" — to sum up the fate of the spy when he personally tells Birch: "There are many motives which might govern me, that to you are unknown. Our situations are different; I am known as the leader of armies — but you must descend into the grave with the reputation of a foe to your native land. Remember that the veil which conceals your true character cannot be raised in years — perhaps never" (Cooper 398).

Herein lies perhaps the most singular of Cooper's accomplishments in The Spy. With Washington's words, Cooper defined the fundamental premise that even today continues to run though espionage novels: the ambiguity of a neutral ground wherein secret men do secret things. Secondly, and notwithstanding the well entrenched social diagram of his time — one that considered spies to be liars, traitors, thieves or even worse — Cooper's fictional context shifted public opinion toward viewing espionage as a patriotic duty, and seeing the spy in an entirely new light: the unsung hero.

In the years since The Spy's publication, Cooper's notions of patriotism and neutral ground have, of course, been marginalized or emphasized as dictated by new authors and their own individual visions of espionage. Still, as originated by Cooper, the progression of the spy story can be viewed as the reflection of a culture; for, as Western society matured, becoming more cynical, colder, so too did espionage fiction. And, when considered in this context, the execution of Alec Leamas at the Berlin Wall emerges as merely another snapshot in the evolution of a genre that has become one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the literate world — an evolution that began with James Fenimore Cooper in upstate New York, and with the meagre, bony fingers of Harvey Birch.

 

Source Notes

Adams, James. In Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher, Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide. New York: Facts On File, 1990.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1997.

Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper: The Novelist. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

Edgeworth, Maria. In James Fenimore Cooper: The Novelist, by George Dekker. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.

McTiernan, Dave. "The Novel as Neutral Ground: Genre and Ideology in Cooper's The Spy." Studies in American Fiction. Spring 1997. [online]. http://library.northernlight.com

Ringe, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Rosenberg, Bruce. The Neutral Ground: The Andre Affair and the Background of Cooper's "The Spy." Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Waples, Dorothy. The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1938.