American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE PILOT (1824). James Fenimore Cooper’s* (1789-1851) professed purpose in writing this, the first sea novel in English, was to portray shipboard life accurately and to honor the naval heroes of the Revolution. At the time, The Pilot successfully challenged the authenticity of Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate (1821).

The action of the book takes place in the North Sea, where two Continental vessels, a frigate and a schooner, send a party ashore to retrieve a mysterious pilot known only as Mr. Gray. His speech betrays his Scottish origins, which causes some distrust among the Americans. It also partly explains his hatred of England and his devotion to freedom.

The pilot and the American vessels have been sent to capture important English citizens to use as hostages. This mission perfectly suits two young American officers whose fiancees are being held in an old abbey, where their loyalist guardian has taken them. Cooper’s attempt to incorporate young women and a love plot into a historical novel largely taking place at sea requires choreography in blending public duty and private desires. Once aboard ship, it is one of the women, in fact, who calls attention to a British frigate approaching through the fog.

With the exception of one treacherous coward, a lawyer named Dillon, characters on both sides of the war are likable, although the upper-class characters are less interesting than the common seamen and soldiers. The titular hero, obviously based on the historical figure John Paul Jones,* is petulant and moody some of the time and comes alive only when ships and lives are in peril. The memorable episodes in the book take place at sea. In the first, the pilot uses his intimate knowledge of the waters of the North Sea to extricate the Continental frigate from some shoals during a fierce storm that blows a sail from the boltropes. In the second, the Americans battle a British cutter, then board and capture it after Long Tom Coffin* uses his harpoon to pin the British commander to the mast of his own ship. Finally, the pilot defeats one British frigate and then skillfully outsails another while escaping to safety.

FURTHER READING: Cooper, J. Fenimore. Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846; Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961.

Kay Seymour House