James Fenimore Cooper's 1838 novel HOMEWARD BOUND, or THE CHASE: A TALE OF THE SEA is fun to read for many readers.
It is also important to scholars of the novel for the two genres that it illustrates: one for the first time ever. First, HOMEWARD BOUND is a "sea adventure" novel of the sort later improved upon by Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad. Cooper had created that genre 15 years earlier in THE PILOT, a tale of John Paul Jones and the American Revolutionary War.
But HOMEWARD BOUND is also the first example of another genre: passengers on a ship presenting a microcosm of their times and countries.
James Fenimore Cooper issued in 1838 two novels: HOMEWARD BOUND and its sequel HOME AS FOUND. He had started to write only one tale. It would focus on the culture shock a wealthy, somewhat snobbish 50 year old father and his 20 year old daughter experienced after returning to their native New York following a dozen years in Europe.
There would be a brief description of their journey by passenger sailing vessel from London to New York. That sea voyage would serve to introduce the main characters: especially Edward Effingham and daughter Eve Effingham, Edward's first cousin John Effingham (who had vied with John to marry Eve's long deceased mother), Captain John Truck of the luxurious 700-ton passenger packet, the Montauk, and a prototype "ugly American," Steadfast Dodge, stupid, opinionated publisher of an American newspaper. In theory Dodge was ultra-Republican. All social distinctions were to be leveled. In fact, Steadfast Dodge, Esq. was in awe of British nobility. All others he "knocked" soundly. Whatever a majority wanted had to be right. Other characters include two young male passengers and the captain of a British corvette, HMS Foam. The first two fall in love with Eve Effingham in this novel, the third during a visit to her father's estate in the sequel, HOME AS FOUND. Several persons are in false or at least hidden identity and their mystery is in at least one case, young Paul Powis, not cleared up until the end of the second novel.
All those and other characters proved too much for an introductory chapter or two. In addition Cooper added more and more about "the ship, the ship." The British corvette pursued the Montauk to the African coast (for reasons not understood by Captain Truck and others on the Montauk until novel's end). After a titanic storm, the Montauk is dismasted and forced to shelter in protected waters off the coast of Northwestern Africa. There they fight for their lives and property with marauding Arab tribes who live from the wrecks washed up on their shores.
In addition to the sea adventure, however, there is much talk among the multi-national crew and passengers of differences between Britain and the young United States. Cooper himself and his family had spent eight years in Europe before returning to the States. They too experienced cultural shock. The America of Washington, Franklin, Madison and even the fiery Jefferson had started brilliantly, but then sunk to crude money-grubbing selfishness and provincialism. In the two novels, HOMEWARD BOUND and HOME AS FOUND, Cooper probed the reasons for America's decline. There is discussion of South Carolina's recent "nullification" efforts and overtones of the Civil War to come 22 years later.
All in all, a very rich book. Read it the first time for adventure. Return to savor it for its descriptions of British and American societies of the 1830s. The guly American, ignorant, supremely confident newspaperman Steadfast Dodge, will long remain in your memory. "Majorities were his hobby." -OOO-
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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