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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 27

—and particularly that of New York, including its sparse antiquities and its topography—Cooper knew unusually well, though here again his knowledge came generally from the commoner sources. As a true New Yorker of the old breed, he had, of course, a tender and intimate acquaintance with the British peerage. Of the European continent he had no very wide knowledge, and like the average American of Federalist sympathies, he distrusted the French. In seamanship, his actual profession, he was better grounded than any man, English or American, who had ever used the ocean as the scene of a novel.
  The accident which threw Cooper, thus equipped by 1820, into fiction was a challenge which his wife made him to write a better novel than one which he had been reading with great disgust. He accepted the challenge, wrote an unimportant domestic-sentimental romance, Precaution (1820), and found himself so much attracted by authorship that within three years he had written three of his best novels, each of them in one of the types he later clung to, and had completed his experimental stage. In The Spy (1821) American fiction may be said to have come of age with a tale of the recent Revolution. Love of country is its theme, and its hero a spy who had served John Jay against the British, as Jay himself had told Cooper, with singular purity of motive. The share of historical fact in it, indeed, is not large, but the action takes place so near to great events that the characters are all invested with something of the dusky light of heroes, while the figure of Washington, disguised as Mr. Harper and yet always looming gigantically through his disguise, moves among the other personages like a half-suspected



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