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155 COOPERS SEA FICTION AND THE RED ROVER Charles H. Adams"' Cooper's sea novels generally blur the traditional distinction in maritime literature between sea and shore. The dichotomy persists in Cooper's works between the shore as a realm of conflict and the sea as one of resolution between, as W. H. Auden puts it in The Enchaféd Flood, a state of "disorder" and a world of harmony, where change and turmoil are "not merely at the service of order, but inextricably intertwined, indeed identical with it."1 But most of the action in a typical Cooper narrative takes place somewhere between these two worlds. In The Pilot (1824) the central conflicts and resolutions occur in shallow water. The political struggle is settled among the treacherous rocks and shoals of the "Ripples ," while the parallel domestic discord finds a happy ending in Colonel Howard's death scene aboard a ship at anchor in a safe harbor. In The Red Rover (1827), similarly, almost half the narrative is devoted to the hero's efforts to get out of Newport harbor, while the events of The Water-Witch (1830) and The Wing-and-Wing (1842) take place almost exclusively in the harbors of New York and Naples respectively. Cooper's sea novels are, that is, most often set in a "neutral ground," to adopt the controlling image of The Spy (1821). That novel concerns the "neutral ground" between the British and American forces in revolutionary Westchester but evokes more broadly a moral "neutral ground" in which struggle the forces of law and lawlessness, justice and anarchy, principle and brute strength.2 The metaphor is useful for reading the sea fiction as well, for if Cooper's nautical works are loosely structured by the "classic" dualism of maritime literature, they more pointedly describe the hero's struggle to resolve a conflict existing in the "neutral ground" of his own uncommitted spirit. The middle ground between sea and shore serves as a moral stage on which the central drama of the fiction is enacted: the hero's effort to reconcile the claims of self with the prerogatives of the various structures of authority that condition individual freedom. The most important "neutral ground" in the sea fiction is, in short, the inner arena of conflict between authority and identity.3 It is important to note that the resolution of this conflict has most often a neoclassical cast; the novels generally stress a conception of identity in which the private self is meaningful only within the context provided by legitimate authority. The Byronic strain in many of Cooper's captains is strong, and his wavering heroes are often powerfully drawn by—to quote :fCharles H. Adams is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arkansas. He has published articles on James Fenimore Cooper and William Melvin Kelley and is at work on a book on Cooper's fiction. 156Charles H. Adams Thomas Philbrick's description of the ocean in the early novels—a "way of life unfettered by artificial restrictions and stripped of the security of an ordered society."4 But the resolutions of the majority of the sea novels, like the resolutions of the heroes' inner conflicts, most often imply a rejection of the rhetoric of liberation that characterizes The Corsair. The emotional energy generated in sea stories by the idea of rebellion accounts for the power of their most effective scenes and characters, but to stress the novels' romantic strain without acknowledging their persistent conservatism is to misrepresent them. Cooper's sea amply illustrates this point of view. It is often a "free state of nature," a "lawless jungle in which strength and craft are the only sanctions."5 It inevitably draws rebels who exalt the prerogatives oí the liberated self over the claims of legitimate authority. The Red Rover is perhaps the most remarkable of these heroes. But the ocean in Cooper's fiction is indeed a "neutral ground," since immanent in this "lawless" realm, and often obscured by its tempestuous splendor, is a moral order—a world of law—that represents the spiritual conditions imposed on those who sail his ocean. The imperative for a Cooper hero is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 155-168
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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