The Pilot and The Red Rover: James Fenimore Cooper’s love-letters to the sea

I’m going to knock two books off my Classics’s Club List in this post. They’re both written by James Fenimore Cooper (best known for The Last of the Mohicans) and both take place on and near the sea, so grouping them together makes sense. In fact, the library book I read has both in a single volume. The Red Rover (1827) is a re-read for me, but The Pilot (1824) was new.

I really wanted to like these books. They’re the sort of stories that I usually love. But I just wasn’t really liking them and found myself skimming large chunks. It wasn’t until halfway through The Red Rover (which I read second) that I finally figured out why. My favorite books are usually character-driven, but Cooper isn’t really writing to tell his characters’ stories. He’s writing love-letters to the sea and the men who sail her waves.

Scarcely A Favorite With Females

In a preface to the 1849 edition of The Pilot, it says that this book “could scarcely be a favorite with females. The story has little interest for them, nor was it much heeded by the author of the book in the progress of his labors. His aim was to illustrate vessels and the ocean rather than to draw any pictures of sentiment and love.”

At first, I felt compelled to prove him wrong. I like books about vessels and the ocean. And the story’s plot centers around two young American naval officers (Griffin and Barnstable) who risk their real mission in trying to rescue the women they love. There’s also a mysterious Pilot, who has an equally mysterious connection with another woman at the house. It’s a perfect recipe for a romantic adventure.

But Cooper doesn’t take full advantage of the compelling plot he’s crafted. Oh, he keeps with that story line but the characterization starts falling apart. Cooper will spend several chapters describing in loving, minute detail how a ship’s crew navigates away from a particularly dangerous piece of coastline during a storm. But if you’re expecting such care taken with the characters you’re in for a disappointment. Read more

Tall Ships

The Unicorn, Tall Ships Festival
The Unicorn

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Tall Ships Festival. I have loved ships for as long as I can remember. As a child, my mother and sister and I toured a reproduction of the Santa Maria, but since then the closest I’d been to tall ships has been seafaring stories, films, and paintings.

I love a good pirate story, or pretty much anything set on a ship in the 17th or 18th Centuries. Raphael Sabantini’s novels (which I highly recommend). James Fenimore Cooper’s Red Rover. Linda Chaikin’s Buccaneers series. Myriads of teen novels. Errol Flynn films. Pirates of the Caribbean (I suppose the setting more than anything else is why I’ve seen all four).

Though I rarely paint anymore, ships have been a reoccurring motif in my art for some time. Ships in the sky, on the ocean, surrounded by hostas, worked in relief on clay, and sailing through a psychological self-portrait. Strangely, I’ve never written a story with ships. Perhaps that will change now that I’ve been on board a ship.

There were eight ships at the festival, and we toured three: the Denis Sullivan, The Niagara, and The Unicorn. We didn’t leave the dock or see them under sail (that cost a lot more than we were prepared to spend), but it was so cool to be on the deck of a sailing ship and, in The Niagara’s case, below deck. I was surprised how short the space below deck was — I’m only 5′ 6″ and I had to bend over to walk around down there.

The Niagara, Tall Ships Festival
The Niagara

The Niagara  is a training ship used to preserve “the skills of square-rig seamanship.” You can pay to become a trainee on board the ship, learning the art of sailing hands-on for a minimum of three weeks. It costs a little more than I can afford while looking for a car (mine died about a month ago), but part of me wonders if putting up with the authentic/spartan living conditions would be worth it for the chance to go to “sea” (on the Great Lakes).

The Windy, Tall Ships Festival
The Windy

I’m not sure what make tall ships so appealing to me. Perhaps it is the romance of the sea and idea of adventure. Maybe its my obsession with water. Part of it could be the way the ships look, like so many old things they are elegant and beautiful as well as useful. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I had the chance to tour these ships and hope someday I’ll be able to actually sail on one.