Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper

This is Cooper’s second novel and supposedly the first work that got him noticed as an author. It is pretty much an adventure story set during the American Revolution. Here again I find a character, like Natty Bumpoo in the Leatherstocking Tales and Long Tom Coffin in The Pilot, who lives, speaks, and thinks in the metaphors of his profession. Natty is a frontiersman, Tom is a sailor, and in The Spy, Archibald Sitgreaves is a doctor. Dr. Sitgreaves is a medical officer with the American army, and spends a good deal of time in the book tending to the injured and complaining about how the typical soldier on both sides is too careless when inflicting harm on the enemy, believing that there are ways to knock men out of combat without killing them or maiming them for life. He, like Tom Coffin, is a supporting character in the story, which centers on a family of divided loyalties in the Revolution, the Whartons, and their neighbor, Harvey Birch, who may or may not be an English spy (not, as it turns out in the end. He is in fact a double agent in the direct employ of George Washington himself).

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Secrecy by Daniel Patrick Moynihan

An interesting little read that explains the culture of secrecy that has permeated the U.S. government since World War I and blames it for a lot that has gone wrong with our foreign policy over the years. The most damning accusation is the misguided path administration after administration took trying to beat the Soviets during the Cold War that ballooned deficits and obscenely increased the number of nuclear weapons that must now be disarmed or otherwise dealt with, all based on faulty information provided by “experts” about how the Soviet economy was growing by leaps and bounds over the American and about the need for America to speed up to eliminate the predicted “missile gap.” The information was dead wrong, 180 degrees wrong, but nobody dared question it and nobody could double check it because all the sources were classified. Moynihan argues that a society in which nearly everything is open is much better able to deal with reality because it provides itself with discussion and debate on the real issues, not the worried imaginings of what the government is keeping secret. As Moynihan says, a government that hoards secrets breeds a society that hoards conspiracies, and that, at least, seems like a pretty accurate description of the times we live in.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

The Pilot by James Fenimore Cooper

One of Cooper’s early and lesser known books, written in 1823, the same year as the first Leatherstocking Tale. Most interesting thing is the character of Long Tom Coffin, a sailor who is in many ways the same character as Natty Bumpoo. Well, not so much the same character as the same kind of character. Long Tom is a sailor through and through the same way Natty is a frontiersman. His speech and thoughts are composed in nautical themes and metaphors, the same way Natty’s are based on a life on the woodland frontier. Second most interesting thing is the pilot (who is supposed to be John Paul Jones, but is never named as such) and his tentative ability to lead the other characters in the novel through the shoals of good and morality as well as those of the sea. It’s not fully developed here as it is with Natty, especially in The Pathfinder, but it is there, and I think you can see Cooper beginning to tinker with the idea. If I had nothing but time, I would go back and re-read The Leatherstocking Tales and see just how much Natty is a combination of Long Tom Coffin and the pilot.