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2 James Fenimore Cooper’s Mercedes of Castile and Jack Tier Realism and Hispanicism Scholars are generally familiar with James Fenimore Cooper’s 1840 Mercedes of Castile; or, the Voyage to Cathay, a his­tori­cal novel concerning Columbus’s first voyage to the New World, via Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 Graham’s Maga­ zine review. In this merciless critique, Poe writes, “As a history, this work is invaluable; as a novel, it is well nigh worthless. The author deserves credit for presenting to the public, in a readable form, so much his­tori­cal information , with which, otherwise, the great mass of the community would have never become acquainted; and he ought, also, to receive proper condemnation for having woven that information in any way whatever, into the narrative of a novel. . . . It is, if possible, the worst novel ever penned by Mr. Cooper” (Poe 1841, 47). Poe’s criticism has been decisive. Mercedes is one of the most infrequently discussed of Cooper’s works, with the few responses it has provoked echoing Poe by referring to Mercedes to illustrate Cooper’s nadir (Anonymous 1840, 1005; Anonymous 1841, 137; Goodfellow 1940, 319; Harthorn 2004, 5, 7; Lounsbury 1882, 242; Madison 1985; Philbrick 1961, 125– 26; Ringe 1962, 80; Schultz 1991, 33, 40). Yet Poe’s bluster obscures an important insight. In his estimation, ­ Mercedes of Castile is not a terrible book; it is a terrible novel. Poe praises the work as a history, noting its utility in exposing a wide range of readers to foundational events in the history of New World exploration. “To describe this voyage,” Poe observes, “was manifestly the sole object of the author in writing this work. Availing himself of the journal of the admiral, and mingling just enough of fiction with the incidents recorded there, to make it generally readable, Mr. Cooper has succeeded in producing the most popu­ lar, detailed, readable history of that voyage which has yet seen the light” (Poe 1841, 47). Poe’s problem is that the work is not principally a history. It is a novel, and as such, it has many flaws. In particular, to create a his­ tori­ cal romance out of the Columbus story, Cooper grafts the fictional love story of Luis de Bobadilla and Mercedes onto the story of the admiral’s exploits, with Cooper’s Mercedes of Castile and Jack Tier / 65 the ne’er-­ do-­ well Luis joining Columbus’s expedition to win the approbation of his mistress’s guardians by doing great deeds in service of cross and crown. This is not a compelling plot line, Poe writes, because as a protagonist Luis pales in comparison to the admiral (47). Moreover, the narrative suspense Luis’s seemingly doubtful attempt to impress his mistress’s guardians should create is lost because the reader knows Columbus will succeed (48). Poe concedes Cooper’s inventiveness in in­clud­ing Luis’s dalliance with the Indian princess Ozema as a way to manufacture suspense. Yet Poe finds that this element of the story, too, fails because Cooper does not introduce it until the novel’s end, the work’s preponderance being devoted to minute examinations of the intellectual and po­ liti­ cal debates regarding Columbus’s theories. “The interest of a novel should continue . . . through­ out the whole story,” but, Poe writes, “in Mercedes of Castile it does not begin until we are about to close the book” (48). In short, Cooper fails to navigate intrinsic challenges to achieving his­ tori­ cal fidelity within the novel form. Poe’s analy­ sis of Mercedes of Castile as a failed work of his­ tori­ cal realism calls attention to Cooper’s 1840s turn to realism. The novel, in this respect, can be read alongside another of Cooper’s late nautical works, Jack Tier; or, the Florida Reef (1848). Concerning treasonous trade off the Florida Keys during the US-­ Mexican War, Jack Tier was the only novel Cooper released serially, which he did during the war years before publishing the work in book form at the conflict’s close. Although both books include many sensational , even ludicrous aspects at odds with realism, and neither reaches a high-­ realist standard of psychological complexity, they also varyingly exhibit some of the major elements of the realist tradition such as unidealized, of­tentimes middle-­and lower-­ class characters (this is less true of Mercedes than Jack Tier); plots that treat the everyday and mundane rather than the transcendent (again less true...


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