Academic journal article Early American Studies

"Those Sounds That Had Obtained a Command": Voice, Power, and Submission in Cooper's Sea Fiction

Academic journal article Early American Studies

"Those Sounds That Had Obtained a Command": Voice, Power, and Submission in Cooper's Sea Fiction

Article excerpt

In his quasi-nonfiction book The Traveling Bachelor; or, Notions of the Americans (1828), James Fenimore Cooper takes on the identity of a European bachelor and writes letters to friends on the Continent in which he describes the habits of the American people and the institutions of the United States. In one such letter, to the imaginary Baron Von Kemperfelt, Cooper's bachelor recalls the early days of Unites States and trumpets the burgeoning naval force of the young country. He leagues himself with those prescient men who "admitted that nature and reason both pointed to the ocean as the place where the rights of the nation were to be maintained."1 The bachelor goes on to insist that the U.S. government assigned military ranks according to the merits of those who sought them rather than basing such assignments on status or class: "Personal interest, apart from personal merit, could have no great influence on the movements of the government, especially in a case of so great notoriety as that of a choice of officers of any rank."2 For Cooper's bachelor, the American navy serves as a microcosm of the national government: naval officers rise to positions of power on the basis of merit rather than interest, and they use those positions to protect the rights of the men on the ship and the nation as a whole.

Though the U.S. Navy defended the young republic, the vessels that constituted that navy necessarily vested all governing authority in a single commander. The hierarchical structure common to sailing ships requires that seamen surrender their individual rights while on board, that they, in effect, submit to the will of the monarch who controls the vessel. In the early years of the United States, many sailors questioned whether absolute military command of this sort could coexist with the political ideals of the nation.3 Some would have agreed with James Durand's indignant claim that "no monarch in the world is more absolute than the Captain of a Man-of-War," and wondered whether American sailors would be willing to give up the individual rights that the Revolution had been fought to secure.4 For such critics, if the navy were to be the place where "the rights of the nation were to be maintained," then American ships would have to do more than win victories at sea that protected the rights of American citizens on land. Indeed, an American ship could be truly victorious only if it also protected the rights of the men who served beneath its sails and maintained the "natural aristocracy" that structured republican government.5 In his early sea fiction James Fenimore Cooper negotiated this tension between authority, hierarchy, and individual rights by constructing maritime meritocracies rooted in vocal power. These meritocracies enabled him to unite military authority and republican principles on board vessels that displayed a uniquely "American character for the sea."6

In his 1961 study of Cooper's maritime fiction, Thomas Philbrick inaugurates the critical discussion of this "character for the sea" by suggesting that Cooper developed a "maritime nationalism" that emphasized both the break between England and the United States and "the free and daring life of the sea ... as if the values of the seaman's calling necessitated the selfrealization of . . . Americans."7 More recendy, Margaret Cohen draws on this celebration of sea freedom and maintains that Cooper's sea fictions showcase the shipboard labor that reveals sailors' "know-how." She argues that know-how, which encompasses skill and experiential knowledge, has "democratizing political implications" because it transforms manual labor into something besides a sign of social status.8 Other critics, many of whom note Cooper's uneasiness with the rowdy and uncouth sailing men who populate his novels, have questioned whether Cooper's maritime settings are truly democratic sites of freedom or romantic spaces for self-determination.9 For these scholars, the sailors who appear in Cooper's novels represent a troubling or even irreconcilable part of the "national narrative Cooper envision[ed]. …

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