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Posted August 31, 2009
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In April 1775, when his ship sailed into Boston harbor from England, the future was bright for 25 year old Major Lionel Lincoln. He was returning after nearly two decades to the city of his birth after growing up in England, studying at Oxford and being elected to the House of Commons from one of two seats controlled by his wealthy aristocratic family. Young Lionel comes to join his regiment days before General Gage sends out a detachment of redcoats to Lexington and Concord to seize a rebel arsenal. Although not yet given a command, Lincoln will be among them as a volunteer to hear "the shot heard round the world" that launched the American Revolution.
Fenimore Cooper's fifth novel, LIONEL LINCOLN (1825), marks a new stage in the 35 year old author's rapidly evolving career. It is his first novel with an American urban setting (Boston and environs). It is also an experiment in tacking on dark Gothic elements to the personal dimension of an historical novel of national loyalties modeled on Sir Walter Scott's 1814 genre-creating WAVERLEY. The Gothic dimension proved a dead-end but was well calculated to keep America's first novelist to live by his pen before American and European readers eager for the bizarre, the noir, the mad, the supernatural and the ghastly.
The world historical turning point of LIONEL LINCOLN is fascinating enough. Its core is the beginning of British expulsion from 13 North American colonies launched by the battles of Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and other skirmishes graphically sketched by Cooper. From April 1775 to March 1776 American forces soon led by Congress-appointed George Washington of Virginia, pen eight thousand or more crack British troops in Boston. Only the massive guns of the Royal Navy prevent the redcoats being overrun. In the end, hungry, suffering from smallpox and other ailments, General Howe evacuates most of his troops to Nova Scotia to take up arms against the rebels in New York and elsewhere. Boston remains free of British rule from that day to this.
The second component of LIONEL LINCOLN, the Gothic, appeals to me personally independently of the sheer historical truth of the novel. Young Lionel Lincoln's father has languished in an English madhouse for a decade. Only slowly do we find out why. Meanwhile Lionel fears that his hot temper and bursts of impetuosity may be signs of incipient madness in himself. His father was not the first of his line to go mad and "certain features of mind ... are transmitted through families," Lionel believes.
Meanwhile he renews acquaintance with an ancient great-aunt and falls in love with her beautiful granddaughter Cecil Dynevor. Both these women and others in Boston know something appalling about Lionel's insane father and deceased mother. So does ancient Ralph, a mysterious shipmate of Lionel on the Boston voyage. So do 27 year old Job Pray and his mother, she having been present at Lionel's birth. What is this dark personal mystery far better known to several people in Boston than to Major Lincoln? Ere long he impetuously resolves that nothing, not even his eerie marriage celebrated in an almost totally dark chapel will keep him from the truth. Not even defection to the despised Yankee rebels, should it come to that.
Experience wartime Boston when it was still held for King George III. Suffer with its ever hungrier, sicker inhabitants. Follow two couples in their unusually challenged young loves. -OOO-