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  THE NOVEL AS THEATER IN JAMES FENIMORE COOPER’S THE PILOT (1823) William Thomas Sherman www.gunjones.com
  1 THE NOVEL AS THEATER IN JAMES FENIMORE COOPER’S THE PILOT   (1823) James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea  (1823), set during the American Revolution, is arguably one of the most influential novels, and with few peers, in all of American literature.  Never before had an author so infatuated himself and his readers with the sea and sea faring matters; while introducing, at least for moderns, the notion of man against the elements. And in these regards, The Pilot  vividly foreshadowed not only the nautical fiction of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, as others have already observed, but also that of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. The ocean itself, with sky, sun, clouds, and stars as companions, is carefully delineated, described, and developed as if it too were a central character in the complex of human  events. Cooper himself effectively characterized his work as so many “rude sketches” (ch. 35), and, like some of his other novels, is not without its shortcomings, not least of which improbability of plot. Exactly what the mission of the American ships is and why they find themselves off the northern coast of England, and,  just coincidentally , near St. Ruth’s Abbey, the then abode of the love interests of three naval officers serving the American cause, i.e., Griffith (with Katherine Plowden), Barnstable (Cecilia Howard), and the  pilot “John Gray” (Alice Dunscombe) is never very plausibly explained. It’s a wonder that Cooper, who is so scrupulously careful to dovetail and weave together the particulars of his story on so many points, should be guilty of such a conspicuous omission; and there are other and similar creaks in the story line. In addition, Cooper often has a convoluted, round about, and abstruse way of wording himself; that will invariably annoy readers, and who can’t help at times finding themselves puzzled as to quite what he is talking about; all the more so, when the point made is one that might otherwise have been made succinctly in a single sentence or two. Yet on the positive side, Cooper on other occasions has a knack for evoking moods very well, such as the feeling of being amid the tossing waves, and it is no little uncanny after  putting the book down between readings to afterward feel oneself still imbued with the same.The character of the book’s title has been likened to John Paul Jones, indeed some critics assume the latter is on whom the mysterious Englishman “John Gray” is based. But this seems to be an error, or at  best an over simplification, because John Gray is a persona unique and unlike almost anyone else we’ve seen. At times he seems to represent the true heart and spirit of the British naval tradition that spawned both British and American navies. At other times he is nationless wanderer seeking justice and adventure wherever there’s a fight. At yet others, he acts as Providence itself dispensing to men their fate -- including  perhaps even the outcome of the Revolutionary War itself. Moreover, we might add, Jones was not the first independent sailor to attempt fighting the British in their home waters, and had his antecedent in François Thurot, a privateer during the Seven Years War; Lambert Wickes, a Continental Navy captain from Maryland; and Irishman Gustavus Conyngham, “The Dunkirk Pirate.”And yet there is much more to The Pilot   than its historical naval yarn, and Cooper spends almost as much time punctually tending to the tastes of the drawing room ladies, literati, scholars and historians as he does to the conventional action and romance reader. In fact in some parts Cooper uses The Pilot   as a venue to display his interest in theater and his evidently closet aspiration to be a playwright as well as  2 novelist. 1  A perfect illustration of this last is chapter 28 which appears to be tailor and ready made to be adapted to the stage. There is much to love about this chapter; which viewed allegorically could be said to  portray in abstract encapsulation the military struggle of the American Revolution, including references and allusions to the respective combatants most seminal motives and arguments. It was all a family quarrel  pertaining in part to a dispute over women, Cooper says in effect. But perhaps even more interesting, indeed some will find a riot, are the theatrics, including suspense, he employs in presenting this denouement, and which give us an amusing glimpse of what many theater-goers of the early 19 th  century no doubt liked to see and hear in their stage dramas.To set the scene, the Americans sailors under Griffith and Barnstable are preparing to liberate some prisoners by surprising British Capt. Borroughcliffe and his soldiers; unaware that the latter have themselves secretly set a trap  for them .~~~***~~~CHAPTER XXVIII. “He looks abroad, and soon appears, O’er Horncliffe-hill, a plump of spears, Beneath a pennon gay.”   Marmion . 2 The sharp sounds of the supper-bell were ringing along the gallery, a Miss Plowden gained the gloomy passage; and she quickened her steps to join the ladies, in order that no further suspicions might be excited by her absence. -- Alice Dunscombe was already proceeding to the dining parlor, as Katherine  passed through the door of the drawing-room; but Miss Howard had loitered behind, and was met by her cousin alone.“You have then been so daring as to venture, Katherine!” exclaimed Cecilia.“I have,” returned the other, throwing herself into a chair, to recover her agitation -- “I have, Cecilia; and I have met Barnstable, who will soon be in the abbey, and its master.”The blood which had rushed to the face of Cecilia on first seeing her cousin now retreated to her heart, leaving every part of her fine countenance of the whiteness of her polished temples, as she said:“And we are to have a night of blood!”“We are to have a night of freedom, Miss Howard; freedom to you, and to me: to Andrew Merry [an American midshipman and also cousin to the Cecilia Howard and Katherine Plowden], to Griffith and to his companion!”“What freedom more than we now enjoy Katherine, is needed by two young women? Think you I can remain silent, and see my uncle betrayed before my eyes? his life perhaps endangered!”“Your own life and person will not be held more sacred, Cecilia Howard, than that of your uncle. If you will condemn Griffith to a prison, and perhaps to a gibbet, betray Barnstable, as you have threatened -- an opportunity will not be wanting at the supper-table, whither I shall lead the way, since the mistress of the house appears to forget her duty.”   1  Cooper’s The Spy  had been successfully produced for the stage in 1822 at the Park Theater in New York City; a performance of which has been memorialized in a painting by dramatist, painter, and stage historian William Dunlap. 1823 then saw a staging of The  Pioneers , and sure enough in the following year it was The Pilot  . 2  Edit  . By Sir Walter Scott.  3 Katharine arose, and with a firm step and proud eye she moved along the gallery to the room where their presence was expected by the rest of the family. Cecilia followed in silence, and the whole  party immediately took their several places at the board.The first few minutes were passed in the usual attentions of the gentlemen to the ladies, and the ordinary civilities of the table; during which Katherine had so far regained the equanimity of her feelings, as to commence a watchful scrutiny of the manners and looks of her guardian and Borroughcliffe, in which she determined to persevere until the eventful hour when she was to expect Barnstable should arrive. Colonel Howard [retired British officer and caretaker of wards Cecilia and Katherine] had, however, so far got the command of himself, as no longer to betray his former abstraction. In its place Katherine fancied, at moments, that she could discover a settled look of conscious security, mingled a little with an expression of severe determination; such as, in her earlier days, she had learned to dread as sure indications of the indignant, but upright, justice of an honorable mind. Borroughcliffe, on the other hand, was cool, polite, and as attentive to the viands as usual, with the alarming exception of discovering much less devotion to the Pride of the Vineyards than he commonly manifested on such occasions. In this manner the meal passed by, and the cloth was removed, though the ladies appeared willing to retain their places longer than was customary. Colonel Howard, filling up the glasses of Alice Dunscombe and himself, passed the bottle to the recruiting officer, and, with a sort of effort that was intended to rouse the dormant cheerfulness of his guests, cried:“Come Borroughcliffe, the ruby lips of your neighbors would be still more beautiful, were they moistened with this rich cordial, and that, too, accompanied by some loyal sentiment. Miss Alice is ever ready to express her fealty to her sovereign; in her name, I can give the health of his most sacred majesty, with defeat and death to all traitors!”“If the prayers of an humble subject, and one of a sex that has but little need to mingle in the turmoil of the world, and that has less right to pretend to understand the subtleties of statesmen, can much avail a high and mighty prince like him who sits on the throne, then will he never know temporal evil,” returned Alice, meekly; “but I cannot wish death to any one, not even to my enemies, if any I have, and much less to a people who are the children of the same family with myself.”“Children of the same family!” the colonel repeated, slowly, and with a bitterness of manner that did not fail to attract the painful interest of Katherine: “children of the same family! Ay! even as Absalom was the child of David, or as Judas was of the family of the holy Apostles! But let it pass unpledged -- let it  pass. The accursed spirit of rebellion has invaded my dwelling, and I no longer know where to find one of my household that has not been assailed by its malign influence!”“Assailed I may have been among others,” returned Alice; “but not corrupted, if purity, in this instance, consists in loyalty--”“What sound is that?” interrupted the colonel, with startling suddenness. “Was it not the crash of some violence, Captain Borroughcliffe?”“It may have been one of my rascals who has met with a downfall in passing from the festive  board -- where you know I regale them to-night, in honor of our success--to his blanket,” returned the captain, with admirable indifference; “or it may be the very spirit of whom you have spoken so freely, my host, that has taken umbrage at your remarks, and is passing from the hospitable walls of St. Ruth into the open air, without submitting to the small trouble of ascertaining the position of doors. In the latter case there may be some dozen perches or so of wall to replace in the morning.”The colonel, who had risen, glanced his eyes uneasily from the speaker to the door, and was evidently but little disposed to enter into the pleasantry of his guest.“There are unusual noises, Captain Borroughcliffe, in the grounds of the abbey, if not in the  building itself,” he said advancing with a fine military air from the table to the centre of the room, “and as  4 master of the mansion I will inquire who it is that thus unseasonably disturbs these domains. If as friends, they shall have welcome, though their visit be unexpected; and if enemies, they shall also meet with such areception as will become an old soldier!”“No, no,” cried Cecilia, entirely thrown off her guard by the manner and language of the veteran and rushing into his arms. “Go not out, my uncle; go not into the terrible fray, my kind, my good uncle! you are old, you have already done more than your duty; why should you be exposed to danger?”“The girl is mad with terror, Borroughcliffe,” cried the colonel, bending his glistening eyes fondly on his niece, “and you will have to furnish my good-for-nothing, gouty old person with a corporal’s guard, to watch my nightcap, or the silly child will have an uneasy pillow, till the sun rises once more. But you do not stir, sir?”“Why should I?” cried the captain; “Miss Plowden yet deigns to keep me company, and it is not in the nature of one of the --th to desert his bottle and his standard at the same moment. For, to a true soldier, the smiles of a lady are as imposing in the parlor as the presence of his colors in the field.”“I continue undisturbed, Captain Borroughcliffe,” said Katherine, “because I have not been an inhabitant, for so many months, of St. Ruth, and not learned to know the tunes which the wind can play among its chimneys and pointed roofs. The noise which has taken Colonel Howard from his seat, and which has so unnecessarily alarmed my cousin Cicely, is nothing but the Æolian harp of the abbey sounding a double bass.”The captain fastened on her composed countenance, while she was speaking, a look of open admiration, that brought, though tardily, the color more deeply to her cheeks: and he answered with something extremely equivocal, both in his emphasis and his air:“I have avowed my allegiance, and I will abide by it. So long as Miss Plowden will deign to  bestow her company, so long will she find me among her most faithful and persevering attendants, come who may, or what will.”“You compel me to retire,” returned Katherine, rising, “whatever may have been my gracious intentions in the matter; for even female vanity must crimson, at an adoration so profound as that which can chain Captain Borroughcliffe to a supper-table! As your alarm has now dissipated, my cousin, will you lead the way? Miss Alice and myself attend you.”“But not into the paddock, surely, Miss Plowden,” said the captain; “the door, the key of which you have just turned, communicates with the vestibule. This is the passage to the drawing-room.”The lady faintly laughed, as if in derision of her own forgetfulness, while she bowed her acknowledgment, and moved towards the proper passage: she observed:“The madness of fear has assailed some, I believe, who have been able to affect a better disguise than Miss Howard.”“Is it the fear of present danger, or of that which is in reserve?” asked the captain; “but, as you have stipulated so generously in behalf of my worthy host here, and of one, also, who shall be nameless,  because he has not deserved such a favor at your hands, your safety shall be one of my especial duties in these times of peril.”“There is peril, then!” exclaimed Cecilia; “your looks announce it. Captain Borroughcliffe! The changing countenance of my cousin tells me that my fears are too true!”The soldier had now risen also, and, casting aside the air of badinage, which he so much delighted in, he came forward into the centre of the apartment, with the manner of one who felt it was time to be serious.
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