The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 14. The Spy
This stirring tale has been, for many readers, an important factor in the tradition which national piety and the old swelling rhetoric have built up around the Revolution. 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 heroes, while the figure of Washington moves among them like an unsuspected god. Such a quality in the novel might have gone with impossible partiality for the Americans had not Cooper’s wife belonged to a family which had been loyal during the sturggle for independence. As it was, he made his loyalists not necessarily knaves and fools, and so secured a fairness of tone which, aside from all questions of justice, has a large effect upon the art of the narrative. It is clear the British are enemies worth fighting. Perhaps by chance, Cooper here hit upon a type of plot at which he excelled, a struggle between contending forces, not badly matched, arranged as a pursuit in which the pursued are, as a rule, favoured by author and reader. In the management of such a device Cooper’s invention, which was great, worked easily, and the flights of Birch from friend and foe alike exhibit a power to carry on plots with sustained sweep which belongs only to the masters of narration. To rapid movement Cooper added the virtues of a very real setting. He knew Westchester and its sparse legends as Scott knew the Border; his topography was drawn with a firm hand. In his characters he was not uniformly successful. Accepting for women the romantic ideals of the day and writing of events in which, of necessity, ladies could play but a small part, Cooper tended to cast his heroines, as even that day remarked, into a conventional mould of helplessness and decorum. With the less sheltered classes of women he was much more truthful. Of his men, too, the gentlemen are likely to be mere heroes, though Lawton is an interesting dragoon, while those of a lower order have more marked characteristics. Essentially memorable and arresting is Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, outwardly no hero at all and yet surpassingly heroic of soul. The skill with which Birch is presented, gaunt, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious—a skill which Brown lacked—should not make one overlook the half-supernatural spirit of patriotism which, like the daemonic impuless in Brown’s characters, drives Birch to his destiny at once wrecking and honouring him. This romantic fate also condemns him to be sad and lonely, a dedicated soul who captures attention by his secretary and holds it throughout his career by his adventures. No charcter in American historical fiction has been able to obscure this first great character, whose fame has outlasted every fashion for almost a century.