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james fenimore cooper - afloat and ashore

A book by James Fenimore Cooper.

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"Vice is twice as active as virtue"

  • Aug 28, 2010

AFLOAT AND ASHORE focuses on a bit more than four years in the young life of Miles Wallingford. In 1797, at 17, orphaned Miles runs away from home up the Hudson River in New York for a one year voyage on an American merchant vessel trading to Canton, China and then returning home. His ship is beset with stirring adventures. The reader will pick up much obsolete information about sailing vessels, longitude and latitude, ropes, sails, spars, tides, currents and winds. You also sense how dangerous international sea trade was in those days. Malay pirates were even more abundant then than now.


But let me invite you to look into some of the characters of this sea tale, especially of four young people, and into their growing up to be good or bad. Miles Wallingford, an old man in the 1840s, looks back on his long life and narrates this story. He and his younger sister Grace were early orphaned and left to be raised by their Anglican parish priest, Rev. Mr. Hardinge. Kind, saintly Rev.Hardinge was also authorized by will to manage the sizable, century old Wallingford family farm, Clabonny, until Miles comes of age in 1803. Hardinge has two youngsters of his own: Rupert, a few months older than Miles, and Lucy, a couple of years senior to Grace.


We sense early on that the odds are good that Rupert will marry very religious, delicate Grace and Miles will marry more down to earth Lucy. The fly in this ointment, however, is the relentless, selfish degeneration of the character of Rupert Hardinge. First, Rupert persuades Miles to run away to sea with him. They tell the girls but not Rev. Hardinge. They take the Wallingford family sloop and Miles's young black slave Neb down their creek and down the Hudson river to Manhattan where they three board an "Indiaman" bound for Canton. Miles's father had been a respected sea captain, and well known to their current ship's master. Miles takes to seamanship like a natural. Rupert dodges all the hard work he can and makes slave Neb fill in. The captain sets Rupert to work on clerical duties aboard ship. Important for the rest of the life of Miles Wallingford is this vessel's first mate, 50-ish Moses Marble.


After a year's adventures, Miles, Neb and Rupert return to Clawbonny and to the forgiveness of Rev. Hardinge. Rupert determines to study law; and Miles and Neb receive permission to return to sea for a sail around the world. Miles, on the recommendation of re-met by chance Moses Marble, is made an officer - Third Mate -a good promotion for an 18 year old. On this second, adventure-packed voyage we meet two more characters important to Miles and his family and friends: retired British Major Merton and his beautiful daughter Emily. Among the voyage's adventures, Miles, Neb and Moses Marble rescue the Mertons from French captivity on a deserted island in the Pacific. As ships exchange masters or take prizes during naval engagements, young Miles rises and becomes himself a very young master or Captain.


The final few chapters of AFLOAT AND ASHORE show Miles and his slave Neb returned to Manhattan after a three-years absence at sea. Here Miles finds Rupert newly admitted to the New York bar and moving in high society. The Major and daughter Emily are soon also the toast of New York. Rupert is in the process of jilting -- for Emily Merton -- Miles's other-worldly sister Grace, whose health collapses as a result. Meanwhile Miles finally grasps that he is head over heels in love with Rupert's sister Lucy, his childhood playmate. But Lucy, now also living betimes in Manhattan, is courted by wealthy, honorable young Andrew Drewett. Our hero thinks therefore that he has no chance with Lucy.


The novel ends abruptly in the summer of 1803 far up the Hudson River near Albany after Andrew Drewett, who cannot swim, has fallen into the river showing off to Lucy. Miles dives in to save him and is almost drowned for his pains. To find out what happens next you must lay hands on the continuation novel, MILES WALLINGFORD.


The bad character of Rupert Harding propels AFLOAT AND ASHORE. Those nearest to Rupert, his doting father, his loving sister, his best friend from boyhood, are all slow to interpret how seriously immoral he is becoming and how his bad behavior is tearing apart old, sacred ties. For Rupert is lazy, in love with money almost as much as with himself, a liar, a social climber, happier to take money from others than to earn it and constantly living beyond his means. "It is an old saying that vice is twice as active as virtue" (Ch 12. p. 160).


I liked this novel very much. As other readers have noticed, this is essentially a novel about vessels propelled by sails. The first steam  boat will appear on the Hudson in 1807. There is much nautical detail which I, a non-sailor, find difficult. You may well do the same. But you take away a great sense of the world of 1797 - 1803. America was newly independent, briefly at war with France. WIth no navy, America was nonetheless a great ship-building and mercantile people. And those who went down to the sea in sailing ships faced far greater challenges than would their successors in steam-propelled paddle-wheelers.



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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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