First edition title page
|Author||James Fenimore Cooper|
Lionel Lincoln is a historical novel by James Fenimore Cooper, first published in 1825. Set in the American Revolutionary War, the novel follows Lionel Lincoln, a Boston-born American of British noble descent who goes to England and returns a British soldier, and is forced to deal with the split loyalties in his family and friends to the American colonies and the British homeland. At the end of the novel, he returns to England with his wife Cecil, another American born cousin.
The novel was originally conceived as part of a 13 volume series of historical novels by Cooper; however, he was generally dissatisfied with his work as a historical novelist. Both contemporary and modern critics regard the novel as one of the poorest novels written by Cooper.
After the success of The Spy, The Pioneers, and The Pilot, Cooper intended to try his hand at historical fiction with a series of 13 novels called Legends of the Thirteen Republics, wishing to reflect on the role of each colony in the revolution in each novel. However, Lionel Lincoln was the first and last of the novels to be written and published. Generally, Cooper was disappointed with the reception of his novel by the American audience and dissatisfied with his first attempt at historical fiction.
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Both Lionel Lincoln and his eventual American bride, Cecil, come from British Aristocratic families. For the American audience and for Cooper, such nobility represented the corrupt and promiscuous British nobility. Though the novel was supposed to be about American republicanism and the praising the American revolution, the titular character Lincoln and his wife return to Britain at the end of the war. One major theme is whether Lincoln will in fact be moved to join the American cause. Throughout the novel, he is repeatedly given arguments of reason to favour the American cause over the British. But as critic Donald Donnell points out, the obstinate loyalty to the King which results in Lincoln's return to England at the end of the war, seems to be a deliberately negative trait with which Cooper endows many of Loyalist characters. In his dissertation, Paul Jonathan Woolf examines the effect the decision for these aristocratic characters to leave the United States at the end of the novel:
Arguably, though, Cooper wrote himself into a corner. To keep Lionel and Cecil in America would have had disturbing implications. If Lionel and Cecil, whose own branch of the Lincoln family is tainted by her grandmother’s diabolical scheming, remained in America, the new nation would not be rid of what Cooper depicts as the endemic insanity, sexual deviancy and deceit of the English aristocracy. Furthermore, to invest in Lionel and Cecil the leadership of the new republic would raise some unsettling political questions... for Cecil and Lionel to become leaders in the United States would surely risk blurring the line between natural and titled aristocracy; they would here be one and the same.
Joseph Steinbrink called Lionel Lincoln Cooper's "first and ultimately his only strict attempt at historical fiction". According to Steinbrink, Cooper was one of the few early American authors who appreciated the early history of the United States, and saw that the American Revolution was really the gem which Americans could enjoy, if there were to be historical novels. However, the generally poor reception of the novel by contemporaries led to Cooper being dissatisfied with the genre of historical fiction, believing that the American literary audience was not yet ready to explore the Historical fiction genre. According to Steinbrink, however, the novel's failure resulted from Cooper's inability to integrate character and plot development into the history of the American Revolution.
Scholar W.B. Gates strongly links the plot of Lionel Lincoln to that "King Lear," emphasizing the similarity between Lionel Lincoln's plot and that surrounding the Duke Gloucester. He compares the plot of the two:
Both Lionel Lincoln and the Gloucester plot involve a distinguished gentleman who has an illegitimate son; in the play the son (Edmund) proves to be a villain; in the novel the son (Job Pray) proves to be a half-witted creature who embodies many of the traits of Lear's Fool. Similarly to the Fool, he attaches himself to a man whom he likes but whom he chides unmercifully (Major Lincoln, his half-brother). In each story, the distinguished gentleman later has a legitimate son of noble character whom circumstances place in opposition to his father. In the play, Edgar is wrongly accused of plotting against his father and is forced to flee; in the novel, Major Lincoln is a British officer, whereas his father is an ardent (though mad) supporter of the colonists.
Contemporary critics of Cooper had a decidedly negative reception of Lionel Lincoln. American writer John Neal was very disappointed: "It is not such a book, as we might have, and shall have, we do hope yet; a brave, hearty, original book, brimful of descriptive truth-of historical and familiar truth; crowded with real American character; alive with American peculiarities; got up after no model, however excellent; wove [sic] to no pattern, however beautiful; in imitation of nobody, however great." To Neal, Lionel Lincoln was an unrealistic imitation of the Scottish historical novelist Sir Walter Scott, and was completely unsatisfactory.
Modern critic Joseph Steinbrink points out that the historical retelling of battles and events by Cooper is very good, but that this is obscured by both a very weak character of Lionel Lincoln and too much "gothicism and sentimentality". Steinbrink suggests that Cooper may have concentrated too hard on researching the historical information, rendering the art of storytelling unduly hard, because the knowledge of the American Revolution didn't come naturally to him.
- Steinbrink, Jeffrey (Winter 1976–1977). "Cooper's Romance of the Revolution: "Lionel Lincoln" and the Lessons of Failure". Early American Literature. 11 (3): 336–343. JSTOR 25070797.
- Woolf 36-37
- Darnell, Donald G. (May 1977). ""Visions of Hereditary Rank": The Loyalist in the Fiction of Hawthorne, Cooper, and Frederic". South Atlantic Bulletin. 42 (2): 45–54. JSTOR 3199063.
- Woolf 37.
- Gates, W. B. (Sep 1952). "Cooper's Indebtedness to Shakespeare". PMLA. 67 (5): 716–731. JSTOR 460023.
- Ringe, Donald A. (Nov 1977). "The American Revolution in American Romance". American Literature. 49 (3): 352–365. JSTOR 2924987.
- Woolf, Paul Jonathan. "Special Relationships: Anglo-American Love Affairs, Courtships and Marriages in Fiction, 1821-1914." PHD Diss. The University of Birmingham, 2007.
- Williams, Jr., Kennedy (1978). George A. Test, ed. "Cooper's Use of American History". State University of New York College at Oneonta and Cooperstown, New York: 15–25 – via James Fenimore Cooper Society.