This essay evaluates the significance of voice and “natural language” in James Fenimore Cooper’s first three maritime novels, The Pilot (1824), The Red Rover (1827), and The Water-Witch (1830). In each of those works Cooper imagines ships with absolute command hierarchies structured according to vocal power, a trait that provides evidence of a “natural aristocracy” and proves to be the sine qua non of maritime authority. Drawing on eighteenth-and nineteenth-century theories of voice and elocution, I show how Cooper used the ideals of “natural language” to structure the command hierarchies on board his fictional ships. I argue that his use of such hierarchies allowed Cooper to unite two competing elements of his political imagination: on the one hand, his patriotism and reverence for the common citizenry and, on the other hand, his appreciation for a strong, legally constituted authority that would guide that citizenry. Sailors and junior officers on board Cooper’s fictional ships understand and accept that vocal ability precedes and confirms a commander’s authority, and their mute obedience to strong-voiced leaders re-flects the existence of a dictatorial shipboard government that is anything but tyrannical. By positioning voice as the foundation of power on board ship, Cooper transforms, as if by magic, nondemocratic shipboard command into an authoritarian liberalism that might also obtain on land.


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pp. 132-161
Launched on MUSE
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