A Glance Backward

THE earlier works of every national literature must always possess an interest peculiar to themselves, and naturally connected with the period to which they belong. This interest may fairly be claimed for The Spy, the first brilliantly successful romance published in America. It appeared at the very period when English reviews were asking the question, now entirely obsolete, “ Who reads an American book ? ” It was written under peculiar circumstances by a young naval officer, whose tastes and habits had, until then, been entirely connected with active pursuits, first as a sailor, and later as a farmer. No one who knew him intimately at five and twenty could have believed it possible that he would, only a few years later, become an author. He would have laughed at the idea himself. “ Much as I dislike writing,” was a sentence in a letter of his, belonging to that date. Full of talent, with far more than common power and activity of body and mind, he gave his attention at that period chiefly to practical subjects connected with politics, with farming, and with naval questions. He was a warm politician, an adherent and personal friend of Governor De Witt Clinton, who made him an aid-de-camp, and thus raised him to the dignity of a colonel. Some of his friends were much entertained with this enlistment in the land forces, and his former messmates often enjoyed a joke at his expense on this subject. An amateur farmer, possibly more enterprising than skillful, he was one of the first to introduce merino sheep into the interior of the State, and had given to a hillside on his farm in Otsego County the name of Mt. Ovis. His interest in the navy never ceased. He knew intimately many of the principal officers, and the vessels they commanded. Many years later, while traveling in Europe, he met a French émigré, who during the revolutions in his own country had come to America, and been a frequent guest at Heathcote Hill, the home of Mrs. Cooper’s family at Mamaroneck; this gentleman, on renewing their acquaintance, said to him, “ You were the only man, Mr. Cooper, whom I heard predict the result of the naval war with England in 1812. I confess your prediction then seemed to me entirely incredible. But you were right.” “ I knew the ships, and I knew the men who commanded them.” was the reply. In the year 1820 Mr. Cooper was living in a cottage he had recently built on a height in Scarsdale, only four miles from Mamaroneck. He was partial to West Chester ; the society of the county was very pleasant at that time, forming a sort of neighborhood of educated families, well known to each other, and very social in their habits. It was entirely country life at that date, the communication with New York being carried on by coach and sloop. To-day the same county has become an annex of the great city, with little remains of its entirely rural character of sixty years since. To the cottage he had built Mr. Cooper had given the name of Angevine. There was a highly respectable and interesting Huguenot element included in the population of West Chester, to which families of all classes belonged, from the village blacksmith to the wealthy landed proprietor. These worthy people had all been driven from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the work of the Jesuits, and their tool Louis XIV. A number of them settled on the Sound, and founded the village of New Rochelle. In the early years of their emigration these good people used to rise before dawn on Sunday, and all who were equal to the exertion walked to New York to take part in the religious services in their own language, at the Church of the Saint Esprit. It is said that at the same time the aged people and little children, who could not walk twenty miles to their parish church in New York, were in the habit of gathering on the shore of the Sound, where they knelt with their faces turned toward France, and devoutly offered their prayers and sang their hymns in their native speech. In the course of time they built a small stone church, a square building, with a pointed roof, in which the author of The Spy, and his family, at a later day, often attended the services. The Huguenots as a rule became connected with the Church of England. These emigrants from France were scattered about the villages and farms of West Chester; the names of Cornel, Bonnet, Flandereau, Arnauld, and others of the same origin might be seen on many signs. The family of Angevine had become tenants on the Manor of Scarsdale, of which Colonel Heathcote was the owner in 1704. Their small farm-house and their humble graves occupied a height to the southward of the highway in 1818. The view from that point was very fine. When Mr. Cooper was about to build his cottage he was offered the choice of two sites: that occupied by the Angevines, and one on the opposite side of the road, where the view, though fine, was less striking. While riding over the field south of the road, he was anxiously watched by the Angevine family, who were reluctant to give up the farm they had occupied for more than a century, — without a line of writing, in this case, it was said, between landlord and tenant. The graves of four or five generations of these Huguenot farmers lined one of the fences on the height, each marked head and foot with a common gray stone. The anxiety of the good people regarding his choice decided the question. Those humble graves were respected. The field on the northern side of the road was chosen, though the view was inferior. The cottage was soon built, and received the name of Angevine, from his Huguenot neighbors. Here the long literary career, so wholly unforeseen, and which was to last until the latest weeks of his life, opened most unexpectedly before him. Wearied with the dullness of an English novel which he was reading aloud, he declared he could write a better book himself. The idea appeared the height of absurdity to his friends. Nevertheless, an elaborate imitation in plot and character of the rejected English tale was the consequence, and Precaution was not only written, but published. Few indeed had been the previous literary efforts of the pen now engaged on Precaution. When a boy he had taken delight in certain old-fashioned heroic romances. When about eleven years old he pored over several strange novels of this class, with a playfellow of his own age ; among others was one bearing the title of Don Belianis of Greece, now utterly forgotten. These produced a great impression, and he had barely finished them when he gravely informed his comrade that he should write a book himself ! He should begin at once. It was to be a grand heroic romance, with knights, and squires, and horses, and ladies, and castles, and banners. Don Belianis was of course to be the model. There was, however, one very formidable difficulty in the way : the penmanship was a part of the task for which he had not the least inclination. After due deliberation, an idea occurred which removed this obstacle entirely. It was agreed that the new romance should be printed without the preliminary labor of writing it. There was, at that time, a newspaper published at Cooperstown by the father of his comrade, who was the editor; it was called the Otsego Herald, and for some time was the only paper published west of Albany. It was agreed that while the press was resting from its weekly labors the projected romance should be dictated, and printed in the office by the two boys. This new Beaumont and Fletcher production was accordingly commenced, and several chapters — short, no doubt — were printed, when, as might have been foreseen, the young author became weary of his task, and threw it aside. Such was the first composition of which any record has been preserved, and for years it remained an isolated production.

On another occasion, however, after reaching manhood, Mr. Cooper actually committed himself publicly in print, and that, too, in verse. In his youth he at times wrote verses, such as most young men are in the habit of producing, — sometimes sentimental, sometimes of a comic character. These are said to have been generally cleverly imagined, and not without merit, though he himself attached no value whatever to them. On one occasion, when he was in the printing-office of the Herald, at Cooperstown, a poor fellow subject to epileptic fits came in, to ask charity from a group of gentlemen who had gathered there. The man’s certificates were particularly good, and his story excited much interest. He proved to be a strolling ballad-singer, a vocation now quite obsolete in the country. A purse was made up for him, when, looking about the circle, he remarked that if some gentleman would write him a few verses, something new, it would be worth far more to him than the silver he had just received. Mr. Cooper offered to try his hand at versemaking, and inquired what subject would be preferred. “ There’s nothing sells like ballads ! ” was the answer. A ballad was promised. The last war with England was then drawing to a close, and Buffalo, at that time a small frontier village, had been recently burnt by the troops under Colonel Murray. Some thirty stanzas of doggerel were immediately written, bearing the imposing title of Buffalo Burnt, or the Dreadful Conflagration. The catastrophe was, of course, described in the most pathetic manner. A number of copies were printed, and the poor stroller went off with his wallet full. Some months later he appeared again in the village; he came to beg another ballad. Buffalo Burnt, or the Dreadful Conflagration, had been wonderfully successful in the farm-houses of the adjoining counties. A second ballad was written, whose title has been forgotten; but as the poor stroller never applied again to his poet, it was probably less successful than the first effort. Several years later, the writer of the ballad, being in a neighboring village, was invited to a tea-party. Music was proposed. A young lady was handed to the piano, and, to the amazement and horror of Mr. Cooper, very gravely began singing Buffalo Burnt, or the Dreadful Conflagration!

While Precaution was being written, the author was engaged in work decidedly more to his taste, the improvement of the grounds about the cottage at Angevine. Landscape gardening was a new art in America at that date; a smooth lawn and straight avenues lining the roads and fences were the chief aim of the owners of country houses; choice shrubbery and groups of trees were little thought of. Cherry - trees and peachtrees near the house, with weeping-willows, elms, locusts, and tulip-trees at no great distance, and rose-bushes, lilacs, and syringas for shrubbery, made up the general plan. But the cottage at Angevine was built at the precise moment when new ideas on these subjects were opening before the minds of the country gentry. Mr. Cooper became deeply interested in the subject of planning a lawn, building a ha-ha fence, and setting out trees. He was very daring in transplanting; the size of some of the elms he moved from the adjoining meadows to the new lawn caused his neighbors to shake their heads. Always active in his habits, he was generally in the field while this ditching, and fencing, and transplanting was going on, often taking part in the work himself. And he almost invariably fell into talk with the workmen, agricultural, political, or historical, as the case might be. Full of conversation, he was always listened to with interest, and in his turn he now heard many anecdotes connected with that part of the country which had become to him a temporary home. It was not yet forty years since the flag of England had waved over the city of New York. Several of the older workmen employed on the improvements at Angevine had in their youth shouldered muskets in the war of the Revolution, and of course each had his story to tell. Many lesser incidents of the Revolution, now wholly forgotten, were at that day still living facts in the minds of the people, scarcely yet remote enough for the shadowy perspective of history. Many of those who had taken an active part throughout the great struggle were still coming in and going out of their children’s doors, — aged men, telling tales of the different events of the conflict with all the glow of personal interest. Many a gray-haired housewife, as she sat at her wheel, spinning her thread of flax or wool, could talk of the troops she had seen, in her girlhood, passing her father’s door, marching to and fro, on their way to this or that victory, or retreating, perchance, from this or that defeat. West Chester was full of such recollections. There was no portion of the country whose soil, during the eight eventful years of the war, was so often trodden by friend and foe, alike in arms. The city of New York was held, from the very first to the latest weeks of the war, by garrisons of one party or the other. Abandoned by General Washington after the retreat from Long Island, it became from that date the permanent headquarters of the British commander-in-chief; while American troops, now standing aloof in conscious weakness of numbers, now advancing nearer with returning strength of reinforcement, kept constant watch, their eyes fixed on that important point. Small bodies of troops of both parties were in unceasing movement over the adjacent country, foraging, reconnoitring, skirmishing, as the occasion required. Scarce a narrow lane of the many winding roads of the country, fenced with rude stone-walls, hedged with brier and vine, shaded with cedar, tulip-tree, and locust, along which trim British troops and ragged American soldiers had not marched and countermarched by the light of sun or star. Scarce a farm-house door which had not been darkened by cow-boy, Hessian, or skinner on errand of pillage or violence. Here and there still darker work had been done: homes had been destroyed by fire; good yeoman blood had been shed; husband, father, or son had fallen in some unrecorded skirmish, the hero of a rustic neighborhood. The entire country between the American outposts on the skirts of the Highlands and the British works on the Island of Manhattan— the Neutral Ground, as it was called by both parties — probably suffered more in this way than the same extent of country in any part of the Union. Scarsdale and Mamaroneck lay within this belt. The battle-field of White Plains was close at hand; Dobbs Ferry, so long a point of interest for the American forces, lay only a few miles beyond. On the daily drive from Angevine to the nearest post-office at Mamaroneck, a spot was passed connected with one of the many local traditions of the neighborhood : in a pretty thicket, covering a piece of swampy land, a cave was shown in which one of the partisans of the day had lain concealed for some time, fed secretly by friendly hands with food brought stealthily at night, until escape was effected. And again, on the way to the little Huguenot church at New Rochelle, the road wound at the foot of a hill, shaded by a pretty grove, which, in spite of its quiet, smiling aspect at the present hour, enjoyed the gloomy honors of a haunted wood. A sharp skirmish had taken place there in the years of the Revolution, and ever and anon, at solemn midnight hours, ghosts were dimly seen gliding to and fro ; ay, it was even whispered that the clashing of swords had been faintly heard, more than once, on some stormy night. In vain might proud incredulity shake its head: the inmates of certain old gray cottages, with moss-grown shingled walls and projecting ovens, knew better; they believed the assertion most firmly.

Several of the yeoman farmers near Angevine became very good neighbors to Mr. Cooper, and, on his invitation, came frequently in the winter evenings to tell their tales of “ Godfrey’s Cave ” and the “haunted wood;” fighting the county battles over with fresh interest, aroused by the spirited questions, the intelligent sympathy, of their host. All, as they drank their glass of cider, picked over their hickory-nuts, or pared their Newtown pippins, had many deeds of violence, more or less flagrant, to relate of cow-boys or skinners. There was one very remarkable tale-teller of the region, — long since deceased, and his family have also passed away, — far surpassing most narrators since the days of the celebrated Munchausen ; his reputation in this way was well established in the county. His anecdotes, however, were chiefly confined to the prowess of a near relative, Major Brom D——, a hero of the great war. This champion commanded, according to the narrator, a family troop, small in number, but most redoubtable in their feats ; all related by blood to Major Brom, all in uniform of silver-gray, and numbering twenty-seven martial spirits in one company. The Major was, moreover, the happy master of a negro, “ Bonny,” almost as famous as himself, while his gun, “the Buccaneer,” had not its fellow on the continent. The various adventures of Major Brom D——, the twenty-seven silver-grays, Bonny the negro, and Buccaneer the gun were an unfailing source of entertainment at many firesides in West Chester at that day.

A book, whose scene should be laid in the Neutral Ground, was planned, and was gradually taking shape as the future writer was listening to these details of the local incidents of the Revolution. The leading idea, however, was suggested by a conversation with Governor Jay, which had taken place at an earlier day, on the broad piazza of the old homestead at Bedford. Frequent visits were paid to Bedford in those years, Mr. Cooper having been intimate from boyhood with Judge William Jay. In the course of the conversation alluded to, Governor Jay observed that the spirit of true patriotism shown by all classes of people during the great struggle of the Revolution was very striking. There were, for instance. he remarked, men whose services at critical moments, in obtaining information for the use of the commanderin-chief had been of the greatest importance, and that repeatedly such services had been undertaken at great personal risk, from the most disinterested love of country. He then related a remarkable incident of this nature, with which he had been himself connected. He was at that time chairman of a secret committee, appointed by Congress to counteract the efforts of the English leaders to raise various corps of provincial troops among the people of the country. Among other agents employed by Mr. Jay in connection with these duties was a man, poor, ignorant so far as instruction went, but cool, shrewd, and fearless. It was his office to learn in what part of the country the agents of the crown were making their secret efforts to embody men, to repair to the place, to enlist, to appear zealous in the royal cause, and to obtain as much information of the enemy’s plans as possible. In short, he was a spy. This man was repeatedly arrested by his countrymen. On one occasion he was condemned to the gallows, and only saved by speedy and secret orders to his jailer. He was permitted to escape. This apparent peril was, in fact, of great assistance in keeping up his assumed character among the English. When Mr. Jay received the appointment of Minister to Spain, before leaving his seat in Congress he reported to the government the outline of the work and character of his agent, whose name remained a secret, and asked for an appropriation in behalf of a man who had been of so much use, and at so great a risk. A suitable sum was voted. Mr. Jay summoned his agent to a secret interview. They met at night in a wood. Mr. Jay praised his companion for his adroitness and fidelity, explained the necessity of all intercourse between them being now closed, and finally offered the money. The man drew back, and declined receiving it. “ The country has need of it; I can work and gain my livelihood.” Persuasion was useless. Mr. Jay left the wood bearing the gold with him, and with a deep respect for the man who had so often hazarded his life, unrequited, for their common country. It was this narrative of Governor Jay which, several years later, suggested the character of Harvey Birch. The name of the agent of Mr. Jay was never revealed; and the facts stated above were the sole foundation for the character of the Spy. Mr. Cooper never held any conversation with a single individual claiming to have been a spy for the American government. Every incident in the book, beyond what is stated above, was invented by himself. A number of persons have, since the publication of the novel, claimed identity with the character of Harvey Birch. These may have been patriotic men, serving their country as unrequited spies. But no one of them was the original of Harvey Birch. Mr. Cooper often smiled at these different claims as recorded in the papers, and he frequently declared in the family circle that, so far as he was himself concerned, the conversation with Governor Jay was the sole foundation for the character of Harvey Birch. He also mentioned that he had written the first volume rapidly, and that it had been printed before the manuscript was fairly dry; but a misgiving had then seized him, and, as he fancied it might not be more successful than Precaution, he threw it aside for some months. When he resumed his task, he again wrote rapidly, and Mr. Wiley, his publisher, became alarmed lest the book should be too long. To set his mind at rest, the last chapter was written, printed, and paged several weeks before the intervening chapters were even planned.

On the 7th of September, 1821, The Spy, a Tale of the Neutral Ground, was published in New York by Wiley and Halsted. The book immediately attracted the reading public. The strikingly original character of Harvey Birch, so clearly conceived, so thoroughly carried out, riveted attention, while the glow pervading the whole narrative gave interest to every chapter. Erelong in society the book met with brilliant success, though the critics awaited English opinion before committing themselves. An amusing incident occurred soon after its publication. Mr. Cooper was walking in Broadway one morning, when he saw a gentleman, well known to him, cross the street, and advance to meet him ; it was a prominent merchant, well known in Wall Street. He came on a friendly errand, to congratulate his acquaintance on the new book and its success. He was loud in its praises.

“ An admirable book ! Never read anything more full of spirit and interest in my life ! ”

“ I am glad you like it.”

“ Like it ? To be sure I do. From the moment I opened the first volume I could not leave my chair until I had gone through the last chapter. I sat up all night to read it through.”

“ My friend Harvey is much obliged to you.”

“ I have one criticism to make, however. I like the book as a whole exceedingly ; it is full of interest, every page of it. The character of Harvey is excellent, too, in most particulars ; but there lies the difficulty. You have made one capital mistake in drawing Harvey’s character! ”

“ Indeed, and what may that be ? ”

“ Why, my dear sir, you have given the man no motive ! The character is well drawn in other particulars ; but so much the greater pity that you failed on that point. Just look at the facts : here is a man getting into all kinds of scrapes, running his neck into the noose of his own accord; and where, pray, was his motive ? Of course I thought, until the last page, that he would be well paid for his services ; but just as I expected to see it all settled he refuses the gold. There was your great mistake; you should have given Harvey some motive.”

The book became very popular throughout the country. Before long the good people of the Neutral Ground began to talk of it as so much history. The writer of these notes, when visiting relatives at Fishkill, was, on one occasion, taken to see a pleasant farm-house, which people in the neighborhood declared to be the identical house from which Henry Wharton and Birch escaped. The farmer’s wife very kindly showed the room in which Frances Wharton and Dunwodie were married, ending by pointing out an old-fashioned clock in the corner, adding emphatically, “ And that is the clock that Frances Wharton watched for the stroke of nine.”

In Europe The Spy was read with something of surprise, the interest inherent in the book being naturally increased by its coming from a country whence so little was then expected in the way of original literature. In England it was well received, and the author was much gratified by a compliment from Miss Edgeworth, who declared that Betty Flanagan could not have been better sketched by an Irish pen. Translation into the principal languages of Europe soon followed. Some very ludicrous mistakes were made by the first French translator ; he evidently belonged to the class of “ traduttori, traditori.” In a note to the passage where Colonel Wellmere is represented as drawing figures on the dining-table with the wine spilled from his glass, after the cloth had been removed, as usual at that day, the sage translator calls the reader’s attention to a fact showing so clearly the rude style of living in America, where table linen was unknown even in the house of a man in Mr. Wharton’s position. But still more absurd was his translation of the word Locusts, the name of Mr. Wharton’s country house, into the Grasshoppers, Les Sauterelles. As a finishing touch, he even implied in one passage that the horses of the two dragoons watching Henry Wharton had been secured to these sauterelles ! Some years later. Mr. Cooper received from Prince Dolgorouki, the Russian Minister at Teheran, a Persian translation of The Spy. Of the accuracy of that particular translation few can judge. He kept the book as a curiosity for several years, and then gave it to a friend. He was, through life, very careless with his own books, seldom keeping copies of them, and rarely opening one after publication. His family never owned a complete series of his works until after his death.

There are, according to the fashion of the day, several songs in The Spy. It has already been said that Mr. Cooper occasionally wrote verses in his youth. A few years after the publication of The Spy, in 1828, while traveling in Europe, he visited the foreign cemetery at Leghorn, for the purpose of seeing the grave of a naval comrade and messmate, to whom he had been much attached, as he was to many of his sailor friends. The grave was that of Captain Gamble, who had been on duty with him at Oswego. While standing by the tomb he wrote impromptu, with a pencil, on the monument of Captain Gamble, the following lines : —

“ Sleep on in peace, within thy foreign grave,
Companion of my young and laughing hour !
Thought hears me hence to wild Ontario’s wave,
To other scenes, to days when hope had power.
“ Life then, to us, was like yon glittering main,
Viewed in its calm, bright in its sunny skies;
Then impulse bound the mind with pleasure’s chain,
And colors rose in gold before the eyes.
“ We based our rock of fame on moving seas,
To us their trackless paths were beaten ways ;
The spirit-stirring storm, the gentler breeze,
The strife of battle, teemed with grateful praise.
“ But twice ten wiser years have drawn a ray
Of austere truth across this treach’rous sphere ;
To me life stands exposed, yet I obey
Its luring calls, and lo! thou sleepest here! ”
Susan Fenimore Cooper.