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Posted April 18, 2010
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James Fenimore Cooper's 1830 novel, THE WATER-WITCH; or THE SKIMMER OF THE SEAS is a great sea adventure novel by the man who invented the genre. It was in 1823 that Cooper ( 1789-1851) did the inventing. He also underlined his novelty through subtitling THE PILOT as A TALE OF THE SEA. Cooper was reacting, as a former U.S. naval officer, to a vaguely similar 1821 novel by Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832), THE PIRATE, set in the Orkney and Shetland Islands of Scotland.
Scott, a volunteer home guard cavalry officer back when Britain feared an invasion by Napoleon, was not a naval expert. And some of what Sir Walter wrote about a ship's rigging, maneuvers and the like annoyed Cooper the professional seaman. So he wrote the PILOT, about a fictional raid made on the northeastern coast of England by John Paul Jones in the American Revolutionary War. Cooper then wrote sea adventure tale upon sea adventure tale.
Curiously, Cooper wrote THE WATER-WITCH toward the end of an eight-year residence, largely on land, in Europe. He minutely described from memory and other sources the coastal waters of New Jersey, Manhattan and Long Island and imagined various chases by a royal warship, the Coquette, of a smart, unarmed, graceful, fast smuggling vessel called THE WATER-WITCH, which had acquired a reputation for being protected by supernatural powers. Its mysterious, never brought to bay captain, was styled THE SKIMMER OF THE SEAS.
I do not recall personally ever having been in any form of sailing vessel, small or large, in my nearly 75 years of life. But then how many Americans had sailed anywhere in 1830? Most of their ancestors had come from Europe by sea but they were farmers and people who moved westward mainly on foot. THE WATER-WITCH minutely details the construction of sailing ships in the very early 1700s: British, American Colonial and two French warships. I had to look up a few words in dictionaries. Thus, a sailing ship "in stays" is about to turn back into the direction whence it had just sailed. But I imagined James Fenimore Cooper as a kind of hi-tech fictioneer happily introducing Americans and Europeans to the intricacies of sailing vessels. I was enthralled and so apparently were Cooper's contemporaries. They were like Walter Scott's readers, who had enjoyed his minutely detailed description of medieval body armor and weapons.
Cooper knew and loved the sea. Some of his descriptions stay with me:
"So profound was the stillness in the Coquette, that the rushing sound of the water she heaped under her bows was distinctly audible to all on board, and might be likened to the deep breathing of some vast animal, that was collecting its physical energies for some unusual exertion" (Ch. XXX).
And those partners of the sea, the winds, what are they like? "Women and winds are only understood when fairly in motion" (Ch. VI).
If winds, tides, the ocean, shores, sea chases and shipboard minutiae are not enough to tempt you to open THE WATER-WITCH, there is more. There is humor in Falstaffian New York Alderman and dealer in smuggled goods, Myndert Van Beverout, a patriotic Dutchman who wishes Queen Anne, would give back their colony to the Netherlands. There are romances, trysts, cross dressing, hidden identities, arguments about free trade versus Britain's imposed colonialism. There are male jealousies and instances of great courage and gallantry by land and by sea.