James Fenimore Cooper is certainly not one of my favorite novelists from the 19th century, but at least one of his works has left a lasting mark on Highlands, where three of its streets, indeed, one entire section of the town, are named after his characters and story.
A native of Burlington County who studied at Yale, Cooper is best known for the Leatherstocking tales, the series of five books with Natty Bumppo the hero throughout the series which covers American Indians, the Susquehanna River, Lake Ontario and so much more in these historical novels. Authors including Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant praised Cooper’s writing abilities and the mark he has made on American literature.
But it is The Waterwitch, or as it’s often called, the Skimmer of the Seas, which leaves its mark on Highlands. This was a book Cooper wrote years before even The Pathfinder, the first in the Leatherstocking series; it’s too involved with too many characters and characters playing other characters to make it interesting for me. But now out in revised print, and on Kindle, perhaps there’s a revived interest. It certainly should be a must-read for Highlands residents at the very least.
The Waterwitch, not the name of the section or one of the main streets leading into the down town area of Highlands, but the Waterwitch from Cooper’s literary sense, is actually a ship, a speedy smuggling vessel constantly escaping the grasp of a British cruiser, the Coquette, off the coast of New Jersey in the 18th century. A fascinating ship on its own….it was the days of piracy and local towns were fearful of strange, especially fascinating ships…. its bowsprit was famous for the figure-head of a woman. Cooper gets a bit graphic in describing “a female form that rests lightly on the ball of one foot, the other suspended in an easy attitude.” Clothed, he goes on, in “drapery that was fluttering, scanty, and of a light sea-green tint, as if it had imbibed a hue from the element beneath…” Wow! Then he talks about the hair and face on the carving…”the locks were disheveled, wild and rich, the eye full of such a meaning as might be fancied to glitter in the organ of a sorceress… a smile so strangely meaning, and malign played about the mouth…” . Oh yes, and she was reading The Merchant of Venice! Will Waterwitch Ave ever look the same after reading that?
Barberie Avenue in the Waterwitch section is named for the female interest in the novel, the gorgeous, young and sensuous, Alida de Barbérie, captured by the pirate captain. Lady Barberie was a 19-year old heiress, a bit unruly, certainly out looking for adventure, and the niece and charge of her wealthy uncle, Alderman Van Beverout. (who didn’t merit a street named for him in Highlands!) He was taking Lady Barberie to his home in the Highlands hills, Lust in Rust.
Whether the captain of the Waterwitch is Tom Tiller, or the rather effeminate looking Captain Seadrift, for which the first street in the Waterwitch section is named, is questioned and referenced in several chapters but not revealed until the end. But it’s made clear that when the British Coquette was attacked by a couple of French warships, it was the Waterwitch that appeared, turned the tide, and saved the day.
The story of course has a happy ending, Captain Seadrift is more of a fascinating character than is originally imagined, and love interests all around are satisfied and everyone lives happily ever after!
Cooper wrote the book while traveling in Europe and tried to get it printed in Italy. But of all places, it couldn’t be done! Seems Papal censors forbade the publication there, so Cooper moved on to The Netherlands, where he had it printed, then sent copies to his publishers in the United States and in England.
And the rest is history! And literature.