The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, the second novel of James Fenimore Cooper, was first published in 1821. The novel was a huge success around the world and was quickly translated to a number of languages. As the first American novel to win large world-wide acclaim, its romantic style was influential for many years to follow.
The setting of the novel is Westchester County during the Revolutionary War. The book is subtitled ‘A Tale of the Neutral Ground‘ because Westchester was exactly that. The Monthly Letter describes it as a ‘No Man’s Land’, saying:
The British held New York City, the Americans held the Hudson north of New York City. Whichever side could get unquestioned control of Westchester would be an odds-on favorite to win the war, because New England would then be cut off from the South, and each of the sundered flanks could be rolled up separately.
The protagonist, Harvey Birch, is suspected by all to be a spy, though nobody really seems to know his real story. He is ostensibly a peddler, but few believe that. He is a wanted man, especially from American authorities who consider him a traitor. In reality, Birch is a patriot, though this is only known at the highest level of American command (i.e., George Washington). Birch’s sacrifice to his country results in a terribly wretched life, with anguish a near constant companion. It has been suggested that Birch’s character is loosely based on a real spy who helped John Jay during the revolution.
James Fenimore Cooper (1789 – 1851) was America’s first ‘superstar’ writer. His works of frontier life, romanticized and full of adventure, were enormously successful and created a form of American Literature that influenced many later writers. His historical novels, collectively known as the Leatherstocking Tales (featuring hero Natty Bumppo, partly inspired by Daniel Boone), are amongst the most loved of all early American novels. The Last of the Mohicans, one of the Leatherstocking Tales, is generally considered his masterpiece. Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Henry David Thoreau, among other greats, considered Cooper’s works well worthy of admiration, though Mark Twain was not a fan. I found The Spy engaging, sometimes suspenseful, and entertaining.
This edition, from the Limited Editions Club, is nicely designed and heavily illustrated. I would not call it spectacular, but it is nicely done and can still be found in near fine or better condition for an amazingly inexpensive price. Artist Henry C. Pitz provided 28 full color (a few of which are double page spreads) and 30 monochrome illustrations for the edition. The narrative based illustrations are colorful, mood setting and add to the realism of the story. The binding, a cotton fabric bearing an authentic early American all-over pattern of bald eagles and arabesques, is certainly apropos to the times in which the story takes place. I have always like the look and feel of the binding, it is one of my favorites. I also like the chapter heading decorations, as well as the LEC decoration on the colophon page, as you will see below. All in all, a very nice effort for an engaging story that is fun to read.
About the Edition
- 28 full color illustrations by Henry C. Pitz, three of which double spreads, as well as 30 monochrome illustrations, and an end-paper drawing
- Color illustrations colored by hand in the studio of Walter Fischer in New York
- Introduction by John T. Winterich
- Designed and Printed at the Press of A. Colish
- Text 12 point English Monotype Bell; headings set in Bell italics, and the Chapter initials in Erasmus
- Paper is natural white, vellum finish, made by Mohawk Paper Company of Cohoes, New York
- Binding by Frank D. Fortney with boards covered with a tough cotton fabric bearing an authentic early American all-over pattern of bald eagles and arabesques; the title is stamped in gold on the leather label affixed to the shelfback
- 6 3/4″ x 10 1/4″, 456 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Henry C. Pitz
Pictures of the Edition
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