Sea Tales: The Pilot, the Red Rover

Front Cover
Library of America, 1991 - Fiction - 902 pages
In The Pilot (1824) and The Red Rover (1828), James Fenimore Cooper invented a new literary genre: the sea novel. Collected here in a single Library of America volume, they are among his finest works. Bold, vigorous, original, each is a tale of high adventure that vividly captures the majesty and power of the seafaring life.

Cooper drew on his direct knowledge of ships and sailors to present a truer picture of life on the sea than had ever before achieved in literature. As a boy of seventeen he had sailed before the mast on a merchantman bound from New York to London and then to Spain. On board he experienced the life of a common seaman, learned the craft of sailing, encountered terrifying storms, was chased by pirates, and watched the impressment of crew members by a British man-of-war. He later served as an officer in the United States Navy.

The Pilot is loosely based upon stories of John Paul Jones's daring hit-and-run tactics during the Revolutionary War. The shadowy hero, modeled on Jones, leads a squadron of the infant American navy in a series of raids on the English coast, braving fierce storms and the guns of hostile warships, yet never revealing his identity. In this novel Cooper introduced the character of the "old salt," the seasoned deckhand happy only aboard ship. Long Tom Coffin, with his briny conversation and shrewd nautical advice, is the first of Cooper's memorable portraits of common seaman.

A ghostly ship, an uncanny hero, a heroine kidnapped by pirates, revelations of mistaken identity, and the reunion of long-lost relatives--scenes of romance and adventure fill the pages of The Red Rover, Cooper's most theatrical novel. Set in the mid-eighteenth century, the tale recounts the exploits of a noble outcast and visionary who foresees America's destiny as a sovereign nation. Forced into a life of piracy, the Rover conducts his private war of independence in a story that equates the free and daring life with the American dream of self-reliance and liberty from British rule.

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About the author (1991)

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) grew up at Otsego Hall, his father's manorial estate near Lake Otsego in upstate New York. Educated at Yale, he spent five years at sea, as a foremast hand and then as a midshipman in the navy. At thirty he was suddenly plunged into a literary career when his wife challenged his claim that he could write a better book that the English novel he was reading to her. The result was Precaution (1820), a novel of manners. His second book, The Spy (1821), was an immediate success, and with The Pioneers (1823) he began his series of Leatherstocking Tales. By 1826 when The Last of the Mohicans appeared, his standing as a major novelist was clearly established. From 1826 to 1833 Cooper and his family lived and traveled in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. Two of his most successful works, The Prairie and The Red Rover, were published in 1827. He returned to Otsego Hall in 1834, and after a series of relatively unsuccessful books of essays, travel sketches, and history, he returned to fiction – and to Leatherstocking – with The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). In his last decade he faced declining popularity brought on in part by his waspish attacks on critics and political opponents. Just before his death in 1851 an edition of his works led to a reappraisal of his fiction and somewhat restored his reputation as the first of American writers.

Thomas Philbrick is professor emeritus of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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