“Imagination” (1823)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 74-77.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

The first of two tales for adolescent girls written by Cooper under the pseudonym Jane Morgan, “Imagination” is a piece of light fiction 124 pages in length. [1] It begins along the Hudson River on the outskirts of New York City at the summer home of Miss Margaret Emmerson, where that lady’s niece and ward, Julia Warren, sixteen, is bidding farewell to her closest friend, Anna Miller. The Millers, a large family, are, for economic reasons, moving from New York City to the banks of the Genesee in the western part of the state. The two boarding-school companions are distressed at the necessity of parting, and Anna is further disturbed about leaving the metropolis to live in a frontier village. They promise to write to each other frequently. As the Miller carriage disappears from view, Julia rushes to her room to give vent to her feelings.

An hour later Julia, composed again, descends to the parlor to join her aunt and Charles Weston, a distant relative of Miss Emmerson and a frequent visitor in her household. Charles, not yet twenty-one, is enamored of Julia, but the girl shows no interest in him at all. In the conversation that ensues, Miss Emmerson indicates her wish that Julia would renew her friendship with her other niece, Katherine, daughter of Miss Emmerson’s brother, an affluent attorney in whose office Charles is studying law. With an excellent education and a position among the city’s social elite, Katherine would, Aunt Margaret thinks to herself, have a better influence on Julia than does Anna Miller. A conversation develops concerning affection for others. Julia takes the position that her affection for her cousin Katherine is that natural love due between relatives but that her affection for Anna Miller is of a superior kind, a love born of mutual sympathy, a kind of “innate evidence” (p. 18).

[2-3] Julia waits for some time for her first letter from Anna, and at last it arrives, delivered on horseback from the local post office by Charles Weston. Taking this missive to the summerhouse in the garden, Julia locks herself inside to read and reread Anna’s message several times. Besides requesting an invitation to winter with Julia and her aunt in the latter’s Park Place residence, Anna writes at length about Edward Stanley, a young man she has recently met. Of special interest to Julia is the comment that Edward has expressed admiration of her after hearing Anna describe her former schoolmate. So absorbed has Julia become in Anna’s letter that she has not noticed the gathering thunderstorm outside. When she emerges from the garden, she is whisked into the home of her aunt by Charles lest she be drenched by the downpour then commencing. During a series of thunderclaps that follow, Charles candidly acknowledges that each loud peal frightens him momentarily. Outwardly, Julia mocks Charles for his unheroic timidity; inwardly, she compares him unfavorably with Edward Stanley, who is, according to Anna, very brave.

In the exchange of letters that follows, the girls use the code name Antonio for Edward Stanley. Anna is soon able to report to her friend that Antonio has declared his love for Julia. Anna also reveals that she too has a beau, a resident of New York City to whom she gives the code name Regulus. This is also exciting news to Julia, and she begins to scrutinize surreptitiously every young man she sees in an effort to determine if he might perhaps be Regulus. Anna wants especially to winter with Julia and her aunt, she says, in order to be near her paramour, and in every letter she presses Julia to secure for her an invitation from Miss Emmerson to be their houseguest. But, as Aunt Margaret tells Julia, there is only one spare room in the Park Place house, and she would like to offer it to her other niece, Katherine, who will be alone when her parents spend the winter months in Carolina. They agree not to invite either potential guest until September.

[4] Late in the summer Miss Emmerson announces her intention to take Julia and Charles to see Niagara Falls, stopping for a night en route at the Miller home. Julia receives this news with delight, for the stop along the Genesee will enable her both to visit with Anna and to meet Antonio. In a subsequent letter Anna informs her that Antonio, upon learning of the projected trip to the Falls, has rushed to New York to accompany and protect the party of travelers. He will, of course, be in deep disguise to protect the secrecy of their love, and Julia will probably have great difficulty in recognizing him.

[5] The first leg of the journey, from New York City to Albany, is made by steamboat. Along the way they pass a sloop carrying, among other freight, the horses and carriage hired to take them westward across the state from the capital. When Julia learns that the coachman is named Anthony Sandford, she is certain that he is her heroic Antonio assuming a menial role in order to be close to her. She resents the fact that Charles calls the driver Tony and treats him like a servant. The man attending the horses on the sloop is tall, stout, and swarthy; he appears to be middle-aged, and he wears a large green patch over one eye. All of these features Julia attributes to appearance only, a clever disguise.

[6] Throughout the overland leg of their trip Julia indulges in a love fantasy, giving every word and act of the coachman a romantic interpretation. The farce is able to be sustained at length because it exists entirely in the imagination of Julia.

When the traveling party reach the Miller home, they are welcomed by the whole family, and it is some time before Anna and Julia have privacy in which to exchange girlhood confidences. When at last they are alone, Anna’s main concern is to learn if and when she will receive an invitation to spend the winter in New York City with her old schoolmate. Julia is more interested in talking of their secret lovers, Antonio and Regulus. This wish-fulfillment fantasy is shattered when Anna reveals that Antonio and Regulus are straw men she had created to add excitement to her letters. The coachman is but a coachman, says Anna, ” ... and an ugly wretch he is” (p. 122). Sobbing for an hour in the arms of her aunt (who never learns the cause of all this grief), Julia pulls herself together sufficiently to take leave of their hosts with composure and respect. Reality is reinforced when Julia mounts the step of the coach and sees a brown liquid stain her new shoes and stockings — tobacco juice drooled by the driver and carried back by a gust of wind. The same gust blows aside Anthony’s patch to expose a Face deformed by disease and lacking one eye.

The author spares the reader the details of the remainder of the trip, telling him only that the group returns by boat, down Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence to Montreal, then southward over Lake Champlain and Lake George to the headwaters of the Hudson. It is not until Julia has been married to Charles Weston for more than a year that she can admit, even to herself, that ” ... she had once been in love, like thousands of her sex, ‘with a man of straw’” (p. 124).

Katherine Emmerson, Margaret Emmerson, Miller, Anna Miller, Henry Frederick St. Albans [Regulus], Anthony Sandford, Edward Stanley [Antonio], Julia Warren, Charles Weston.