Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Novel as "Neutral Ground": Genre and Ideology in Cooper's 'The Spy.' (James Fenimore Cooper)

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

The Novel as "Neutral Ground": Genre and Ideology in Cooper's 'The Spy.' (James Fenimore Cooper)

Article excerpt

The spy story is a particularly obvious juncture where the codes of ideology and fiction run together. It provides a forum for a politics that dare not, in every case, speak its name--a public voice for furtive histories, an apologetic or damning script for nationalism and imperialism and clandestine meddling in international affairs. All of this, within the confines of storytelling conventions so rigid that structuralist critics find a close similarity between them and the much-parsed formulas of the folk tale.(1) James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, however, is interesting precisely because no genre had yet hardened around spying when he wrote it. Cooper relies instead on the conventions of other genres--primarily, the domestic romance and the historical adventure, which, unlike spy fiction, did not evolve in part to justify the dishonesty and covert manipulation central to espionage. The interplay of these genres with the morality of spying and the political and social ideals Cooper advocates provides an interesting example of the seesaw relation between literary form and applied ideology: each exerts its own force, but neither escapes the pull of the other.

As the site of this contest, the novel itself is a kind of "Neutral Ground"--Cooper's term, adapted from Scott, for the region between opposing armies, controlled by neither but marked by their fluctuating power. Critics have generally read this phrase as a metaphor for thematic conflicts and ambiguities that flourish in the absence of clear-cut authority. George Dekker, for instance, considers the "Neutral Ground" a lawless moral landscape" that allows Cooper to present a "pattern of moral contrasts." Similarly, Donald Ringe describes it as a "moral wasteland where conflicting principles are at war and the only law is might," a geographical space that "reflects the ambiguities" that "pervade the entire novel." Charles Hansford Adams defines the conflict somewhat differently, as a struggle between "individual integrity and social coherence" and the "social, historical, or psychological authority" embedded in the law. Bruce Rosenberg sees the "Neutral Ground" as a "lethal" environment where authority has broken down altogether, generating a "state of mind" in which all loyalties appear potentially treacherous.(2)

The "Neutral Ground" can also stand, however, as a metaphor for the terrain of the nascent American novel, where British literary conventions confronted post-colonial politics as Cooper understood them, and no clear lines of authority existed to resolve their differences. "Its very name implies a right to either party to move at pleasure over its territory," as one character in the novel remarks.(3) The roles of Harvey Birch. the title character, and Frances ("Fanny") Wharton, the female lead, best illustrate the conflicts and congruities between Cooper's American ideology and the British genres from which he constructed The Spy. The plot conventions Cooper borrowed from British domestic romances and historical adventures undercut his attempt to ennoble Birch, the lower-class spy, even as they confirm the class hierarchy Cooper endorsed. The privileged position he creates for Fanny Wharton fits more snugly into these inherited genres, but at the same time they emphasize the fundamental subservience of her gender role. Cooper thus replicates in this way as well the social structure he favored, in the process leaving Fanny less of an American counterweight to British traditions--as they have been encoded in narrative conventions--than Birch, whose role, in fact, becomes a germinal point for the development of a new. transAtlantic genre, spy fiction.

Cooper began The Spy while putting the finishing touches on his first novel, Precaution, set in England and patterned after the fiction of Jane Austen and Amelia Opie. His explicit aims for the second book, however, differed considerably from the imitative Anglicisms of the first. …

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