Places: The Spy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1821

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Spy, TheYork City. At the time in which this story is set, the city that James Fenimore Cooper calls New York is confined to Manhattan Island, whose northern territory is the last major stronghold of the royalist forces.

*Westchester County

*Westchester County. Large tract of land northeast of Manhattan, to which it is connected at the point of narrowest separation by the strategically important King’s Bridge. The country between the Hudson and Long Island Sound comprises a vast patchwork of hills and valleys, until it flattens out to the northeast into the plains of Connecticut. The hills are relatively gentle in the eastern part of the county, but they rise more precipitously as they approach the Hudson, into a ribbon of terrain that Cooper calls the Highlands.

Neutral Ground

Neutral Ground. Land lying to the east of the Highlands that is controlled by neither the British, who command the southern entrance to the Hudson, nor the Revolutionary forces, who hold the Highlands to the north. The effects of the war have left the Neutral Ground abandoned, its fields unplanted, its fences fallen, and its roads in a perilous state. Few of the sites at which the rival armies camp and exchange fire are named, but reference is made to the “hamlet” of White Plains, the heights above Sing Sing and–most significantly–to the village of Fishkill, around which the Revolutionary forces regroup. The most significant setting other than those detailed below is the ledge bearing the log cabin sealed with clay and roofed in bark, where Frances Wharton discovers Harper in hiding and eventually confronts Harvey Birch.

The Locusts

The Locusts. Residence of Henry Wharton’s family; one of three key locations within the Neutral Ground. Wharton’s grounds are situated in a valley that runs from northwest to southeast, opening on to a view of Long Island Sound. The hills on the eastern side are quite steep. The local graveyard is on Wharton’s land, although family members themselves have traditionally been returned to Manhattan–from which the family migrated–for church burial.

The house itself is a long single-story stone building with cellars and a wing at each end. It has a wooden roof and a piazza supported by wooden pillars. Until it is destroyed by fire, it contrives to maintain a certain semblance of grandeur even in the midst of the territory’s ruin, with carpeted floors and curtained windows–in which respect it contrasts quite sharply with Harvey Birch’s neighboring cottage. Dunwoodie fights his first skirmish against the British in this valley, to the left of a small wood. A good deal of information is given in the course of the text about the effect of the changing seasons on the landscape, with particular reference to the effects of the wind; the advent of the winter snows further emphasizes the desolation of the Neutral Ground.

Four Corners

Four Corners. Abandoned village in which Dunwoodie’s Revolutionary troops make camp after the first skirmish. It consists of a half dozen small buildings gathered about a crossroads. The building that plays the most significant role in the story is ironically labeled a “hotel” by the troopers because it is adopted as a temporary residence by the camp follower Elizabeth Flanagan, who serves the troops as a washerwoman and “petticoat doctor.” It is to this rude shelter that the Whartons are removed after the destruction of the Locusts.

*Niagara River

*Niagara River. River in upstate New York that connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. The last chapter of the novel, set thirty-three years after the main story, finds another American army in contention with British forces on the Chippewa plains, on the banks of the Niagara. Here the descendants of the chief characters finally discover for which side the eponymous spy was working.

BibliographyClark, Robert, ed. James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1985. Superior scholarship offered with insight and solid critical analysis. Excellent source for the beginner and for the serious student.Crawford, T. Hugh. “Cooper’s Spy and the Theatre of Honor.” American Literature 63 (September, 1991): 405-419. An interesting and controversial gaze into the character and motivations of Harvey Birch, Cooper’s protagonist.Darnell, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners. Newark: University of Delaware Press, c. 1993. A recent close analysis presenting manners as Cooper’s method of introducing his views on society, humor, and social mores. Chapter three is especially insightful concerning The Spy.Fields, Wayne, ed. James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, c. 1979. This useful volume offers lengthy biographical, historical, and critical studies of Cooper as the representative American author. The volume is particularly well edited.Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Continuum Books, 1990. This lively text offers a colorful introduction to Cooper the man and insightful comparisons to his contemporaries. Chapter 2 provides a concise summary of The Spy.Ringe, Donald. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Twayne, 1962. The book contains an excellent chronology, bibliography, and cogent biographical sketch. The Spy is referenced in Cooper’s canon.Spiller, Robert E., and Philip C. Blackburn. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. New York: B. Franklin, 1968. This is an outstanding and essential tool for a study of Cooper.
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