Book Review: The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground by James Fenimore Cooper

(Three Stars)

“The law was momentarily extinct … and justice was administered subject to the bias of personal interests.”

Wonderful Romantic adventure “inspired by a true story” during the American Revolutionary War. Well-developed plot. Cooper’s first “hit.”

“The heart which has not become callous, soon sickens with the glory that has been purchased with a waste of human life.”

So, why hasn’t it more famous, and why wasn’t it made into a movie? Why only three stars? Because, being a very early work, it lacks the stirring storytelling for his later works. In fact, it’s awful. Twenty-five years later he was “compelled to admit there are faults so interwoven with the structure of the tale … it would cost less to reconstruct than to repair.” The intervening years also witnessed the publication of Memoir of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, which revealed much about Washington’s spy network that even Cooper didn’t know.

“A large portion of the inhabitants … affected a neutrality they did not feel.”

The titular neutral ground is that part of Westchester County between the British lines on Manhattan and the Continental lines north of White Plains. Those who lived there were preyed on by both sides and lawless elements taking advantage of the situation.

“The law was momentarily extinct … and justice was administered subject to the bias of personal interests.”

Pretentious vocabulary and convoluted grammar add to the reader’s burden. Why couldn’t he call the “wooden tenement of the deceased” a coffin? The text is also marred by period-appropriate stereotypes of the two warring sides, evangelical Christians, women, and blacks, even though Cooper may have been enlightened for his day.

“There are few who have not felt the seductive pleasure of making our injuries recoil on the author; and the are some who know how much sweeter it is to return good for evil.”

Quibbles: The above mentioned writing style caused modern readers to stop and re-read often. Also, though Cooper wrote of territory he lived in, some descriptions seem improbable, such as being able to see Long Island Sound and the Hudson River from a single vantage point, not to mention “a chain of sentinels from the waters of the Sound to those of the Hudson.”

“I have heard the good Mister Whitefield say that there was no distinction of color in heaven.”

Still, for the student of the American Revolution and nineteenth-century literature, the effort is rewarded. In the hands of a good script doctor, it’d make a good movie.

“Does [redacted] think I have exposed my life, and blasted my character, for money? Tell them I would not take the gold.”