The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground
James Fennimore Cooper
Until I encountered this book containing two novels I was unaware either existed.
I suspect that, except for Cooper scholars and obsessives fixated on early 19th century American literature, such ignorance is a common state. For most people, knowledge of Cooper probably begins and ends with The Last of the Mohicans. After all, it’s been turned into a film multiple times, most recently starring Daniel Day Lewis.
That title is the second in the five-volume series that’s come to be known as The Leatherstocking Tales. Its chronological predecessor, The Deerslayer, which Cooper penned last, was quite the rage among my eighth-grade classmates. The present tale was written much earlier than Cooper’s best-known novels.
In a way, it’s a calculated commercial venture by a man who, deciding he’d try to make a living as a writer, hadn’t had much success. As the golden jubilee of American independence approached, he set pen to paper fleshing out an audacious tale he evidently heard at the home of, if not from the lips of, John Jay. (I’m indebted to Alan Taylor‘s notes for the details of Cooper’s writing life.)
I may have avoided Cooper until now, but I have not avoided the study of America’s independence and national formation. My passion has always been the intellectual side of the story, but it’s hard to live in any of the original 13 colonies and not cross its warpath. In the northeast, the scenes of consequential battles and acts are closer than anything that happened during the Civil War and, so, have always seemed much more real to me.
This novel upped the ante in the reality department. The setting, the so-called neutral ground of the subtitle, is, mostly, Westchester County, New York. Westchester is not just nearby. It sits atop The Bronx, the borough in which I spent my earliest years. It’s the county in which I went to college, the county in which I co-operated a small business while still in college and the county in which I first held a non-sales job and in which I currently work. There’s even a regional high school named after John Jay in the county’s northern reaches.
The action in The Spy occurs during the War for Independence, closer to the end than the beginning. It involves, initially, the Wharton family, a clan whose sympathies might be expected to lie on the Tory side. The Whartons, when we meet them, are ensconced in their country seat, the Locusts, having moved out from their urban townhouse in the scrum of the war.
Early on, a visitor appears at the estate, a visitor who turns out to be young Henry Wharton, a Captain in His Majesty’s army who has slipped past the official holding line north of Kings Bridge (roughly the northern boundary of today’s Fordham neighborhood in the Bronx) to visit his family: father, two sisters and an aunt. The American forces are encamped further north, closer to Peekskill and the Hudson River, leaving the area in between under undetermined control. A second mysterious guest known only as Harper also appears
If I am any judge of Westchester geography, the Locusts lies somewhere in the neighborhood of Pepsico‘s present-day headquarters location. And that presents the main problem of this tale.
Mark Twain famously went to town on the implausibilities written into Cooper’s more famous works. Here, we have characters, often on horseback but as likely to be on foot, floating around a 450-square mile area as though they had automobiles. In a critical scene, two characters transit, on foot in the dead of night, a series of hills that in light of day with a marked trail are not a stroll in the park. Somehow, they alight on the Albany Post Road closer to Tarrytown than Peekskill. Traversing the Hudson is rendered as if it was as easy as crossing the Bear Moutain Bridge.
I know, I’m nitpicking. Allowing for how our sense of pace has evolved this novel is, in its own way, a rollicking tale. Repeatedly I found myself thinking that particular scenes seemed like early talking movies when the camera didn’t move so characters spent a lot of time telling each other what was going on. The cast of characters is made for motion pictures. The two sisters support opposite sides in the war. There’s a love story and tale of unrequited love. There’s a pair–a combat surgeon, Dr. Archibald Sitgreaves, and an infantry officer, Captain John Lawton–engaged in what now would be called a bromance.
And there’s Harvey Birch who may or may not be a spy. Birch claims to be a simple peddler–a man who manages to wander easily across armed frontiers seemingly engaged in commerce. If he is a spy, it’s unclear just which side Birch is spying for. Captured more than once, Birch slips out of captivity as easily as some climb out of bed.
I won’t ruin the tale–it is, after all, a thriller–but I’ll note some things that might go unnoticed by audiences who feel the tale drags and who are disinclined to question beyond the text at hand.
The first is that despite the way we tell the story–in both fiction and history books–the War for American Independence was a civil war. The Wharton family presages the family divisions of the 1860s (or the 2020s if you’re feeling apocalyptic about the present).
Another is that the whole idea of spies intrigues people. A war that threw up both Nathan Hale and Major André (executed less than five miles from where I sit typing) was sure to get people thinking. Still more vexing was learning that Washington’s visage, which stares at us from every greenback dollar bill and quarter dollar, was not widely recognized and that his reputation developed after the war. Finally, Cooper realized that the story of America itself offered great literary material, a realization he went on to capitalize from.
A friend who is a literature professor described Cooper as a “good bad writer.” That, I think, is as apt a description as any. Even if the cost of entry is suspending reasonable notions of time and distance.