Text: Edgar Allan Poe, [Review of J. F. Cooper's The History of the Navy], Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1839, vol V, no. 1, pp. 5:56-58


[page 56:]



The History of the Navy of the United States of America. By J. Fenimore Cooper. Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia.

In appearing before the public with this History of our Navy, Mr. Cooper has had two serious difficulties to surmount — one of prejudice, and one of exaggerated anticipation. It cannot be denied that, for many years past, he has been rapidly sinking in the estimation of his countrymen, and indeed of all right minded persons. Even his firmest friends were becoming ashamed of the universality of his cynicism; and his enemies, ceasing in a measure from open hostility, have been well content to abide the apparently inevitable self-ruin which his own unconquerable ill temper was so speedily bringing about. A flashy succession of ill-conceived and miserably executed literary productions, each more silly than its predecessor, and wherein the only thing noticeable was the peevishness of the writer, the only thing amusing his self-conceit — had taught the public to suspect even a radical taint in the intellect, an absolute and irreparable mental leprosy, rendering it a question whether he ever would or could again accomplish any thing which should be worthy the attention of people not positively rabid. In this state of affairs, it was not at all wonderful that the announcement of a Naval History of the United States, by the author of the attack upon Sir Walter Scott, was received with apathy and general distrust — with a feeling very different indeed from that which would have agitated the whole reading world at a similar announcement during the golden days of the celebrated novelist, and once exceedingly popular man.

Among the few, on the other hand, who had better opportunities of penetrating the mystery, and fathoming the extent, of that obstinate disease of the spleen which had so long made the author a burden to himself, and an object of compassion to his friends — among those who knew the disorder not altogether incurable, and who had good reason to rely firmly upon the innate vigor and elasticity of the constitution — even among these we have noticed a want of proper consideration in regard to the subject matter of the anticipated work — a misconception of the extent and capacities of the theme — which has operated to the temporary disadvantage of the historian.

Mr. Cooper’s strength in sea narrative was well known, and justly appreciated; and in a work on Naval History, much was expected of a character very similar to that which had afforded its charm to the “Pilot,” and rivetted attention in the “Red Rover.” This expectation would have been comparatively well founded had the announcement been that of a Naval Biography. Here, an allowable minuteness of detail would have given vigor and vitality to the narration, and the personal adventures of the several heroes would have been overspread, in the simple discussion of fact with all the warm hues of the most spirit-stirring romance. In no general naval record, however, should we look too confidently for interest, beyond that grave species which is attached to the mere statement of fact. In records of our own marine, especially, we should look for little farther than this. The story of the simple events of our experience (for we are a nation of single ships) must always be deficient in that excitement which is derivable from the unity and majesty of the combined operations of fleets. Here then our sea-history labors under disadvantages not experienced by that of Europe. The tales we have to tell, of detached combat after combat, can form, at best, but a series of monotonous episode, where if the mind seeks, as it will, for connexion, this can only be established by means of a dry and barren mass of documental and statistical detail.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, however, (whose importance we have by no means adequately pointed out) Mr. Cooper has succeeded in writing a book which cannot fail to do him lasting honor, not more in a literary point of view, than as affording evidence of the final triumph of his kindlier and more manly feelings over the promptings of Satan and the spleen. The very preface is redolent of a returning good humor — of a recovered modesty — of a resuscitated common sense. Mr. Cooper is evidently Mr. Cooper once again, and as such we most cordially welcome him home to the good will, and to the affections, of his countrymen. That he, in preference to any one, should have written the Naval History of the United States, is a matter about which there is but little difference of opinion; and we rejoice, from the bottom of our heart, that he has arisen to the good work, from the moral death which has so long enwrapped him, while it is yet a convenient season for the undertaking — before the veteran actors in the drama have all passed away from among us while there is yet many a tongue to tell what the eyes have seen — many a living witness to the gallant and glorious exploits which have had so much to do in the rendering us, and in the preserving us, a free people. [page 57:]

It is not our design, of course, to speak at length of any portion of a History which will speak so very eloquently for itself. The narrative commences with the first settlement by the English, proceeds with some details respecting the earliest achievements of the rival French and British colonies, connected with a clear and rapid survey of the condition of the maritime powers of Europe, and after discussing, in a masterly manner, every momentous event in the annals of our Navy, terminates with the contest of 1812. The war of the Revolution is brought to a close about the middle of the first volume, and the more important subsequent occurrences occupy the remainder of the publication.

The work, as a whole, has, we think, all the great requisites of a proper History — distinctness of narration, rigorous impartiality, an evident anxiety for truth, and a concise philosophical discussion of fact, rather than a shadowy speculation upon motive. Every similar book, as a matter of course, is liable to objection — to cavil — in regard to its detail; and, in the present case, we have heard occasional censures upon which we scarcely think it necessary to comment. Battles, whether by sea or land, (and battles form our staple here) are seldom witnessed by distinct authorities from the same points of observation, and this fact alone is sufficient to account for a thousand immaterial discrepancies.

In regard to style, let us hear Mr. Cooper himself.

“Some of the greatest writers of the age have impaired the dignity of their works, by permitting the peculiarities which have embellished their lighter labors to lessen the severity of manner that more properly distinguishes narratives of truth. This danger has been foreseen in the present instance, though the nature of the subject, which seldom rises to the level of general history, affords a constant temptation to offend. A middle course has been adopted, which, it is hoped, while some defects of execution may probably be detected, will be found on the whole to be suited to a recital of facts, in the familiar form that, in a measure, the incidents have demanded.”

The mere English of our author was never, at any period, remarkable for precision of arrangement, and however easily, in a work of pure romance, such defect may be disregarded, we must own that it derogates very materially from the beauty of an otherwise excellent historic style. In the volumes before us sentences occur, by far too frequently, where positive ambiguity arises from sheer negligence in regard to the ordinary proprieties of grammar.

“Republicanism itself is brought into disrepute, in denying the just rewards of long services to officers, by attaching to it the weakness of a neglect of incentives, an ignorance on the subject of the general laws of discipline, and the odium of injustice. It is by forgetting the latter quality, more through the indifference of a divided power, than from any other cause, that republics have obtained their established character of being ungrateful.”

Here is great confusion of expression. By “the latter quality” justice is intended, while injustice is implied.

“A territorial aristocracy, promotion, in both the army and the navy, is the inevitable fruit of favor, or of personal rank.”

This sentence, as it stands, is utterly unintelligible, and can only be comprehended at all by placing before it the words immediately antecedent — which are “The nature of the English government is no secret.” It now appears that the English government is “a territorial aristocracy.” But every properly constructed sentence should have within itself the means of its own (grammatical) comprehension.

“The man who, refusing to adopt remedies that he believes unsuited to his constitution, is discreet, when he carries his system so far as to forget to look for others to supply their places, becomes careless and culpable.”

This exceedingly ambiguous proposition is rendered perfectly plain by merely a different arrangement of the same words.

“The man who is discreet in refusing to adopt remedies that he believes unsuited to his constitution, becomes careless and culpable when he carries his system so far as to forget to look for others to supply their places.” But upon this topic quite enough has been said.

Mr. Cooper’s observations on the subject of our general marine policy are, we think, among the very best portions of his book. They are strikingly comprehensive in view, and evince a profound knowledge of the true incentives of human action. Our limits will permit us to give but a small portion of his remarks.

“A careful review of these facts and principles must satisfy all who study the subject, that the United States of America have never resorted to the means necessary to develope, or even in a limited sense, to employ their own naval resources. As a consequence, they have never yet enjoyed the advantage of possessing a powerful marine in time of war, or have felt its influence in sustaining their negotiations, and in supporting their national rights in a time of peace. As yet the ships of America have done little more than show the world what the republic might do with its energies duly directed, and its resources properly developed, by demonstrating the national aptitude for this species of warfare.

“But the probationary period of the American marine is passing away, and the body of the people are beginning to look forward to the appearance of their fleets on the ocean. It is no longer thought there is an unfitness in the republic’s possessing heavy ships; and the opinion of the country [page 58:] in this, as in other respects, is slowly rising to the level of its wants. Still many lingering prejudices remain in the public mind, in connexion with this all important subject, and some that threaten the service with serious injury. Of these, the most prominent are, the mode in which the active vessels are employed; a neglect of the means of creating seamen for the public service; the fact that there is no force in commission on the American coast; the substitution of money for pride and self-respect, as the aim of military men; and the impairing of discipline, and lessening the deference for the justice of the state, by the denial of rank.

“Under the present system of employing the public vessels, none of the peculiar experience that belongs to the higher objects of the profession is obtained. While ships may be likened to regiments as regards the necessity of manœ uvring together, there is one important feature in which they are totally dissimilar. It may be pretty safely thought that one disciplined regiment will march as far, endure as much, and occupy its station as certainly as another, but no such calculation can be made on ships. The latter are machines, and their qualities may be improved by human ingenuity, when their imperfections have been ascertained by experiment. Intelligent comparisons are the first step in this species of improvement.

“It will be clear to the dullest mind, that the evolutions of a fleet, and, in a greater or less degree, its success, must be dependent on the qualities of its poorest vessels; since its best cannot abandon their less fortunate consorts to the enemy. The naval history of the world abounds with instances, in which the efforts of the first sea-captains have been frustrated by the defects of a portion of the ships under their command. To keep a number of vessels in compact order, to cause them to preserve their weatherly position in gales and adverse winds, and to bring them all as near as possible up to the standard that shall be formed by the most judicious and careful commander, is one of the highest aims of naval experience. On the success of such efforts depend the results of naval evolutions more frequently than on any dexterity in fighting guns. An efficient fleet can no more be formed without practice in squadrons, than an efficient army without evolutions in brigades. By not keeping ships in squadrons, there will also be less emulation, and consequently less improvement.

“Under the present system three principal stations are maintained; two in the Atlantic, and one in the Mediterranean. On neither of these stations would the presence of a vessel larger than a sloop of war be necessary, on ordinary occasions, provided a force of heavy ships could periodically and unexpectedly appear on all. It is seldom that a single ship of the line is required on any service; and it is certain that a solitary two-decked vessel could have no great influence on those important interests which it is the practice of the rest of Christendom to refer to the agency of fleets. By putting in commission six or eight two-decked ships, and by causing them to appear, from time to time, on all the more important stations this side of the two great southern capes, the country, at no material additional cost, would obtain the several objects of practice in fleets, of comparative trials of the qualities of the most important class of vessels in the navy, of a higher state of discipline, and of a vast improvement in the habits of subordination on the part of commanders, a defect that all experience shows is peculiar to the desultory mode of service now in use, and which has produced more naval disasters in the world than probably any other one cause. In a word, the principal ends of a navy can no more be obtained, by the services of single ships, than wars can be decided by armies cut up into battalions.”





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