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Double Dutch Delights:
Irving's Knickerbocker History and Cooper's Water Witch

David Lampe
(Buffalo State University)

Placed on line July 2015

Presented at the 19th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013

©2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 18-24)

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"[T]his is probably the most imaginative book ever written by the author. Its fault is in blending too much of the real with the purely ideal."
—James Fenimore Cooper, Preface to The Water Witch, 1851

"It has the plot, entrances, exits, abductions, and mysteries of comic opera; and the style is adjusted to the plot in a manner at once brilliant and meticulous."
—Yvor Winters. In Defense of Reason (1947)

I had some reservations when I first heard that Nautical Cooper was the topic for this year's conference since I am not a sailor (I can't even swim) and when I built model sailing ships I could never get the riggings right. But since I had enjoyed reading The Pilot in 2007 before my first Cooper Conference, I blundered ahead and bought two of Cooper's nautical novels: The Water Witch and Jack Tier. I never got to the second and was surprised by the first. I seemed almost alone with Yvor Winters in enjoying Water Witch. Winters even suggests that "the characters…have the unreality, the consistency within themselves" of Ben Jonson's Volpone. I also enjoyed the sparkle and style of the novel and in this paper will suggest that Cooper's model is, as his plot lines, epigraphs, and recent editors suggest, Shakespearean comedy.1

Putting Irving and Cooper together in a brief conference paper also requires some explanation, especially to a group of Cooper specialists. For even though JFC would use Irving for his own purpose (when seeking a publisher) he was quite outspoken in his distaste for Irving's works for political reasons mixed with some jealousy. Irving was a success with the English, becoming a close friend of Scott's and a literary sensation read by the literati (Dickens is said to have carried The Sketch Book in his pocket). Cooper, on the other hand admits a deep dissatisfaction with English society:

for myself, I have always felt a stranger in England. This has not been so much from the want of kindness and a community of opinion many subjects, as from a consciousness, that in the whole of that great nation, there is not a single individual with whom I could claim affinity. And yet with a single exception, we are purely of English extraction. (France, 35-6)

Put another way, Irving was a wit and brilliant stylist who both in his person and prose charmed an English audience. Cooper seems never to have been at ease—while Irving was congenial and social, he was prickly and stiff. Even some one as sympathetic to Cooper's literary work as Thackeray sensed:

How gracefully the aristocracy of genius [Cooper] accepted the attentions of the genius of aristocracy, and how graciously he requited them.... How he received every little act of hospitality as a simple right—how he construed every mark of politeness into an effort of servile homage—how he denounced every little symptom of neglect or indifference as a positive lèse majesté. (168-9)

Though In 1840 Cooper suggested that Irving was "below the ordinary, in moral qualities" and believed that he had sold out to the British and to the money of John Jacob Astor, Irving remained, as James Grossman put it "imperturbably friendly to Cooper" (166). Irving even helped arrange a memorial service for Cooper in New York City and spoke at that event. In a letter to Lewis G. Clark, he praised Cooper's originality:

his Leather Stocking Tales and his Tales of the Sea, those eminent inventions of his genius, have opened regions of romance which he has made his own. Whoever ventures into them hereafter will be accused of treading in his footprints. (IV.261-2)

Despite this "one-sided enmity," both writers present us with a fascinating picture of the old Dutch world of New Amsterdam/Old New York.

Even those critics who dislike The Water Witch (and they seem a majority) praise the "capricious and fanciful language" of Alderman Myndert Van Beverout, Dutch uncle of the novel's heroine. Donald Ringe declares both The {19} Red Rover and Water Witch "particularly weak in that Cooper departs from themes with which he had been so successful to compose a pair of tales of the romantic, swashbuckling variety." Pirates and smugglers on the home front apparently do not ring true on the Hudson though they did in Venice. The "complicated apparatus of supernatural trappings that invest the ship" are too much for Ringe, and he agrees with Grossman that the "supernatural elements are overdone." After all, he concludes "the light touch was never Cooper's forte" nor for that matter Ringe's.2 And yet, as the editors of the recent AMS edition of the novel explain, the novel was popular with readers (especially with sailors) and was frequently reprinted (xxi, xxv-xxvi).

Perhaps because Cooper's use of the "light fantastic" was not expected, critics seems to have dismissed the novel as a failure. Yet when Irving treats the old world of New Amsterdam, everyone recognizes him as a "gentle humorist" of a whimsical work. Indeed, The Knickerbocker History of New York (1809) is often compared to Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Elizabeth Bradley says, "Knickerbocker History of New York is irreverent when it should have been pious, anarchic when it should have been orderly, and sentimental when it should have been academic and dry" (2).

Both Irving and Cooper were of English extraction (Devonshire and Isle of Wight) and thus could look back on the Dutch days of New Amsterdam with amusement. Irving's whimsically unreliable narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, invents the history of the three Dutch Governors of New Amsterdam: Wouter Van Twiller3 becomes "Walter the Doubter," who was

a very wise dutchman, for he never said a foolish thing—and of such invincible gravity, that he was never known to laugh, or even smile.... He was exactly five feet six inches in height, and six feet five inches in circumference. His head was a perfect sphere...he had not a little the appearance of a robustious beer barrel, standing on skids (463-4)4

Next came Wilhelmus Kieft, aka "William the Testy" who was "the very reverse":

a brisk, waspish, little old gentleman, who had dried and wilted away partly through the natural process of years, and partly from being parched and burnt by his fiery soul…[he] grew tougher in proportion as he dried.... The corners of his mouth were curiously modeled into a kind of fret work, not a little resembling the wrinkled proboscis of a irritable pug dog—in a word he was one of the most positive, restless, ugly little men, that ever put himself in a passion about nothing. (512-13)

He had, however, "puzzled himself considerably with logic," with Greek and Latin so that "in a word [he] was unanimously pronounced an universal genius!"—a shot at Jefferson (514-15)5 And of course the one we all remember, Petrus Stuyvesant a.k.a. Hard-kopping Piet, or PETER THE HEADSTRONG" (567) with his "redoubtable wooden leg" and "aversion to experiment" who "made but very few laws." (565-6)

In fact there were actually six governors. And no one really objects (except for old Dutch families) but instead recognizes that Diedrich Knickerbocker is an unreliable historian (what other kind are there?) or if you prefer that stylish figure "an unreliable narrator" even though he claims to have insider information from his great, great grandfather who was a cabin boy for Henry Hudson in 200 years earlier. Irving's purpose is to parody the pretentious absurdity of historians—there are still many around today—and to make sly comments on Thomas Jefferson and the prominent Dutch families, the last of the patroons. Such frivolity was not appreciated by the van Kortlandts whose name Irving etymologizes as "lack land," or the Van Zandts ("from the dirt"): both were still major land holders. Or by the Hardenbroeks, a.k.a. Tough Breeches. His exuberant "circus history" features a flamboyant range of styles and self-dramatizing narrative interruptions that satirize the assumptions that special interest historians often make silently. For after all, history is always written by the victors or by their paid praise singers.

Cooper is more restrained and subtle. If Irving's comedy is visual, his is verbal, and he models himself on Shakespearean comedy rather than Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne (Irving's models). He refers to "masquerade" (114), "farce" (275) or "mummery "(290, 294) all well-known conventions of Shakespearean comedy, the rules of the game his novel follows. And it is these rules of the game/genre that many Cooper critics have, unlike early readers, not accepted—almost like those Roman censors who refused to allow the novel to be printed because of one clause in the third paragraph of the novel ("Rome itself is only to be traced by fallen temples and buried columns"). What critics have admired in passing is the extravagant language of Alderman Myndert Van Beverout, that man of alliteration and antithesis, though no one seems to have examined how this doubleness functions in the plot of the novel. Though he may pose as a man of probity and classical virtue, he is really more interested in trade than in service to the commonwealth. He is a poltroon passing as a patron, and though he may seem more lively than stolid Oloff Van {20} Staats, Patroon of Kinderhook (a "large, slow-moving gentlemanly-looking young man of five and twenty-nine"), the Alderman's candidate for his niece's husband, he is less reliable.

Early in the novel the Alderman contrasts the English, "who are fomentors of discord; disturbers of the public mind, and capacious disputants about prerogatives and vested rights" with the Dutch:

there is a repose in the Dutch character which lends it dignity. The descendants of the Hollanders are men to be counted on; where we leave them to-day, we see them to-morrow. As we say in politicks, Sir, we know where to find them. (19)

This smug self-satisfaction is apparent even in the name of his villa,

which arguably to a usage of Holland, he had called The Lust-in-Rust, an appelation that the merchant, who had read a few of the classics in his boyhood, was wont to say meant nothing more nor less than "otium cum dignitate. (70)

The citation is from Cicero (though not De Oratore 2.62 as the AMS edition has it).6 But the terms are more complex than "leisure with dignity." Otium can mean retirement as in the case of Philistus of Syracuse (430-356 BCE) "who spent his leisure/retirement in writing history" after being exiled by Dionysius I (De oratore. II. 13,57 ). Cicero also warns that too much otium can harm the commonwealth when there is too much leisure for "more numerous lines of investigation than was really necessary" (III.15. 57).

Dignitas is also multivalent. In his earlier De inventione, Cicero contrasts utlilas (advantage, self-interest) with dignitas (honor, service to the community) (2. 157-75). By the end of the novel we learn that the Alderman's rhetorical display is a disguise for his real duplicity. In other words it is Dutch-bottomed (empty) and could almost be the song of a Dutch nightingale (a frog).

Twice the Alderman meets with Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, grandson of the first Earl of Clarendon (1609-74) and cousin of Queen Anne. In Chapter 1, this disgraced Governor of New York and New Jersey salutes the early-rising Alderman by comparing him with the sun and gun which signal the start of day and then suggests, "were I a King at Arms, there should be a concession made in thy favour, Myndert, of a shield bearing the animal mordant, a mantle of fur, with two Mohawk hunters for supporters, and the motto, 'Industry'." (15) The concession is necessary (as he well knows) and a sneering one since dead beavers, Mohawks, or English are not usual in coat of arms. The Alderman "who did not more than half relish" this pleasantry replies, "what think you, my Lord…of a spotless shield for a clear conscience, with an open hand for a crest, and the motto, 'Frugality and Justice?'"

A stinging reply since Hyde has just been released from jail for his debts and is slated to be returned to England in disgrace (15). They meet again in Chapter 28 near the end of the novel, and Cooper's treatment of Cornbury is more explicit. The reasons for this change will be made clear if you consult my handout. Though Cornbury had been a Member of Parliament for seventeen years, his experience was quite different in New York, where he is famous for being the worst governor the state ever had. Not only were there financial irregularities (perhaps an expectation in NY politics) but Cornbury is said to have met the New York Assembly in hoop skirt and full drag, explaining that he represented his cousin Queen Anne in every way possible. The painting on my handout is from the New York State Museum. Even though there are some recent dissenters to this story,7 it certainly explains why Cooper describes him as the "degenerate descendant of Clarendon" (315) as "degraded" (315), as "profligate" (318), as "effeminate"(322), and as "corrupt" (320)—clearly a "lussus naturae" (319). There are other instances of cross-dressing in Cooper. Harvey Birch cross dresses as an Irish washerwoman Mrs. Flanigan in Chapter 18 of The Spy to escape the Skinners. There are also instances of disguise in The Pilot. Cooper is not explicit about Cornbury's costume, but his purpose is certainly devious as he

had not hesitated to lend his office to cloak the irregular and unlawful trade that was then so prevalent in the American seas, he had paid the sickly, but customary deference to virtue, of refusing, on all occasions, to treat personally with its agents. Sheltered behind his official and personal rank, he had soothed his feelings by tacitly believing that cupidity is less venal when its avenues are hidden, and that in protecting his station from an immediate contact with its ministers, he had discharged an important and, for one in his situation, an imperative duty. Unequal to the exercise of virtue itself, he though had done enough in preserving some of its seemliness. (315; emphasis added)

{21} His companion now is the obsequious grocer Carnaby, "much the most degraded and lowest of those with whom he ever condescended to communicate directly."7 And he is played off against Tom Tiller, the Skimmer of the Seas, whom Thomas Philbrick calls "the epitome of seamanship" and a virtual "deity" in the novel (83), and our Alderman.

The verbally ornate Alderman's favorite rhetorical figure is a doublet exclamation or oath which qualifies him as a colorful conversationalist and a sternly sober Dutch Uncle who gives appropriate advice. I count fifty-two of these (see Appendix 2), forty-seven at the opening of his speech, five in the midst of a declaration). The first of these, "Lixum and philosophy" (27), is a variation on the Dutch bliksem from "dunder und blixum," which are the words of testy Wilhelmus Kieft, Irving's second governor in Knickerbocker History of New York (525). Some of these phrases use alliteration, others antithesis. They become such an expected pattern that Seadrift can parody him twice with "Lanterns and false Beacons" (94) and later with "your lords of manors and mortgagees" (97) after the Alderman has sworn by "Judges and Juries" (96). Some are what we would expect of a professional bachelor, or "Dutch Uncle": "wedlock and blinkers" (51),"Women and vanities" and "women and Vagaries"(142) or its variant "Vagaries and Womanhood" (143). Others are the "snug" talk of a merchant "seizures and warrants" (137), "Cruisers and manors" (141), "propriety and discretion" (200), "beggary and stoppages" (271), along with an elaborate encominum on capital (274-6) which for him is the "soul" of society (see No. 48 on my handout). Other doublet interjections seem to suggest cover-ups or deceptions: "northern lights and moonshine" (83), "prejudice and conceit" (84)," holes and corners" (140), "tongue and twaddle" (27 ). All of this prepares us for the last chapter's revelation of his duplicity, his secret partnership with the free-booter and his preference for property over propriety, that is real Ciceronian dignitas (honor and duty). "Metaphor," says Kenneth Burke, "allows us to see one thing in terms of another and thus gives us perspective while metonymy (a part standing for the whole) introduces a dilemma, a forced choice and is thus reductive" (503-6.) This either/or choice is certainly what the Alderman forces upon us until he himself is finally exposed.

If I had time and your patience, I could trace other language delights in the novel: the Black Dutch slaves—especially Master Euclid ("Ere no'tin' done in all 'e Island, but a colour'man do him," 12); the fractured Franglais of Alida's valet, François ("It is grand malheur dere should be water but for drink and for la propreté, with fosse to keep de carp round le chateau,"50-1); or even Ludlow's terse subordinate, Master Trysail, who speaks "with an eloquence that would do credit to Cicero" (209). The novel is filled with comic verbal exuberance, and I have not even mentioned the exciting sea battles and sea chases.

I have suggested that Cooper is using Shakespearean comedy as his model. His love of Shakespeare is certainly apparent in this novel in which thirty-three of the thirty-four chapters have, as Hugh MacDougall has shown us, Shakespearean epigraphs; and there are at least eight other allusions in the chapters themselves. Most of these are from Shakespearean comedies—especially Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Tempest. So we should not be surprised that disguise (cross dressing-Seadriftt/Eudora, a young woman who assumes the disguise of a young man), magic, and transformation are important plot elements. Both Irving and Cooper note the elaborate figure—heads of Dutch and period ships. For that matter the term bowsprit is of Dutch origin.8 But it is only in Cooper that figurehead speaks in verse. The beauty and mystery of the the Water Witch is not just that she can disappear but that she can change her appearance right before our eyes (she "a celebrated hermaphrodite," 203)9. While there are always critics who remind us that there is no coast of Bohemia, these are usually not the ones who help us to understand the marvel and achievement of Shakespeare's comedies—the final marriages that, for the moment at least, bring calm and concord. These nit-picking critics would probably call Puck a liar and hiss at the players at the end of Midsummer Night's Dream, agreeing with Pepys that it was "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life" (29 Sept. 1662).

Water Witch ends with the marriage of Hugenot Alida (the Alderman's niece) with "king-hating Ludlow" (35), commander of the Coquette, and the unmasked Seadrift—Eudora—the Alderman's long-lost daughter—with the free-booter Skimmer of the Seas, with whom the Alderman had secretly been trading. But the lost daughter does not stay with her father. Like Shylock, the Alderman has been more interested in his ducats than his daughter and as a result loses both.

This brief summary highlights many of the Shakespearean elements that appear in the novel. Perhaps this is what Cooper meant when in his third preface to the novel he admitted the "fault [of]...blending too much of the real with the purely ideal." But perhaps we, his modern readers should join with him and suspend our modern/post-modern disbelief, accept the conventions of the genre he adopts, and (unlike many earlier critics) enjoy the adventure and imaginative style of this remarkable novel.

{22} End Notes

1. "Cooper's chief literary indebtedness was a more general one, his to the ancient tradition of romance which comes down to him chiefly from his beloved Shakespeare." Thomas & Marrianne Philbrick, The Water Witch (New York: AMS, 2010), xiv. George Dekker suggests, "this queer baroque romance of land and sea" draws on Shakespeare for its "sometimes sublty nuanced irony (122) and notes that "Van Beverout is modelled after Shakespeare's Jew of Venice" (120). James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967). Again I am indebted to Butler Library's expert archivist Daniel DiLandro for copying and conversation.

2. Donald A. Ringe is unwilling to "suspend his disbelief" in the "magical absurdities" of the novel. But he does echo earlier critics and commends "the magnificent rhetoric of Myndert Van Beverout," though he accuses Cooper of "illegitimate appeals to patriotism" (31). James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Twayne, 1962, revised 1988).

3. Marinus Willet, the "twister" Mayor of New York City in 1807, changed his party and is here satirized.

4. "Readers of 1809 noted many parallels between Wilhelmus Kieft and Thomas Jefferson." James W. Tuttleton, in notes to Irving, History, Tales and Sketches (New York: Library of America, 1983) 1136.

5. Cicero uses the term otium and dignitas repeatedly but not together in De Oratore. All citations are from the Loeb editions of Cicero.

6. Cf. Patricia U. Bonomi. The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America (Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1998). English scandal about Hyde comes from Horace Walpole; in America it is based on four letters by three colonials: William Smith's History (1757) and the late-in-life recollections of Gertrude Van Cortlandt and Janet Montgomery. The portrait was labeled in 1867 and purchased by the New York History collection in 1952 from the South Kensington Museum (London). A 1990 scientific study of it dated the linen and paint as seventeenth/eighteenth century and the wooden frame as nineteenth century.

7. For Cornbury's lurid reputation see Shelley Ross, Fall From Grace (New York: Ballantine, 1988). He would seem to make him the very sort of English nobility that would make Cooper bristle. As he put it in Gleanings in Europe, "Knighthood, except in particular cases, is no longer a distinction for a gentleman…. The case is a little, but not much, better as respects baronets" (II. 188).

8. Irving has fun with Henry Hudson's ship "the Goede Vrouw, or Good Woman" that "floated sideways" and had "for a head, a goodly image of St. Nicholas"(434-5). Bowsprit (Middle Dutch boeschspriet): pole at the bow.

9. Just how changeable this ship is in form and even gender seems quite magical. Thomas Philbrick insists that she is "intensely feminine...the emblem that Cooper conceives of as feminine" (76).

Works Cited

{23} Appendix 1

Portrait of Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury (1661-1723), Oxford, Royal Dragoons, Tory MP (1685-1701),
Governor of New York & New Jersey (1701-08). Courtesy New York Historical Society.

{24}Appendix 2

Alderman Myndert Van Beverout, Dutch Uncle of Alida, "la belle Barberie", daughter of Etienne de Barberie, a Huguenot from France.

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