The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Spy, The
SPY, The. ‘The Spy; a Tale of the Neutral Ground,’ Fenimore Cooper's second novel, published in 1821, was the earliest American novel to win wide and permanent fame and may be said to have begun the type of romance which dominated native fiction for 30 years. The share of historical fact in the story, indeed, is not large, but the action takes place so near to great events that the characters are all invested with something of the dusky light of heroes, while Washington moves among them like an unsuspected god. The book is full of swelling rhetoric and the ardent national piety of Cooper's generation. Fortunately Cooper saw the advantage of making his British out to be enemies worth fighting, if only in the interest of the plot, which ranges back and forth over the neutral ground between the two armies with great haste and sweep. To rapid movement Cooper adds the merit of a very real setting. He knew Westchester County, where he was then living, and its sparse legends as Scott knew the border. The topography of ‘The Spy’ is drawn with a firm hand. With his characters, Cooper is not uniformly successful. Accepting for women the romantic ideals of the day, he cast his heroines in the conventional mold of helplessness and decorum. The less sheltered Betty Flanagan, no heroine at all in the elegant sense, is amusing and truthful. Of his men, too, the gentlemen are little more than mere heroes, whatever the plain fellows may be. But Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, his character remotely founded upon that of a real spy who had helped John Jay during the Revolution, is essentially memorable and arresting. Gaunt, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious, he prowls about on his subtle errands, pursued by friend and foe, sustained only by the confidence of Washington, serving a half supernatural spirit of patriotism which drives him to his destiny, at once wrecking and honoring him. This romantic fate also condemns him to be sad and lonely, a dedicated soul. No character in American historical fiction has been able to obscure this first great figure. H. L. Barnum's ‘The Spy Unmasked; or Memoirs of Enoch Crosby, alias Harvey Birch’ (1828; 5th ed., 1864) claimed to identify the original.