Introduction to Precaution (1820)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered: This Introduction to Precaution, from Pages and Pictures only, includes: biographic information relating to Cooper’s residence at “Angevine” in Scarsdale, 1818-1820; his horticultural interests; his reading habits and preferences; genesis of Precaution; childhood reading in Cooperstown; writing ballads; publication and reception of Precaution; thoughts on writing.

Pages and Pictures, pp. 13-22

Contents: INTRODUCTION. — Precaution — First compositions — Proud heroic romance — The ballad — The first sale — Elaborate imitation — Supposed English origin of the book — Extract, Charity

[13] When the year 1820 opened on Mr. Cooper, it found him living a quiet rural life, on a small farm in Scarsdale, some five-and-twenty miles from New York. He was at that time in his thirty-first year, having been born on the 15ᵗʰ of September, 1789, at Burlington, New Jersey; and, as yet, there was no clue to be gathered among his pursuits at the moment, or from his previous career, which might lead to the opinion that he would ever become known as a great writer.

Active life had commenced early with him. In 1805, he had received a midshipman’s warrant, but soon after his marriage, which took place in 1811, he had left the navy. Had his friends been called upon to predict his future career, many would probably have anticipated a return to the profession of his early youth, for which he still continued to cherish a very warm partiality; or others might have conjectured that the lively interest he had often shown in public questions would be likely to lead him eventually to fix his attention on political life. Beyond the facts that he was known in society to possess unusual talent, and that he had received all the advantages of education which the country afforded at that period, there appeared no grounds for believing that he would ever attain distinction as a literary man.

[14] A farmer’s life was that to which he himself looked forward. The cottage he then occupied had been recently built, and he took very great pleasure in the improvements required by a new place. At that period landscape-gardening was in its very earliest stages in America, where very little indeed had yet been done toward giving beauty of design, or finish of detail, to pleasure grounds of any kind. The educated men of the country had indeed shown judgment and taste in placing their houses, the positions of which were often very beautiful; a pleasing view was always considered desirable, and the advantages of a grove, or a stream of water, were seldom overlooked. Many of the oldest places in the country possess very great natural beauties in this way, more particularly those on the banks of rivers first peopled by the colonists, and those within reach of the civilizing influences of the older towns. But, beyond this single fact of a choice of position, very little had been attempted. Straight rows of trees shading the house, or forming an avenue from the gates, or lining the nearer fences, were then the general form of ornamental planting practised by our country gentlemen. Many were the noble elms, the fragrant locusts, the exotic willows, and poplars, thus ranged, like sentinels, about houses which within doors possessed much of the elegance and luxury of the same class of dwellings beyond the sea; while the drawing-rooms were rich in expensive woods, gilded mirrors, choice carpetings, delicate porcelain, the gardens and lawns of the same establishments were but little superior to those of the laboring farmer who had no leisure for finish of improvement. Horticulture and landscape-gardening are the growth of an older and a much higher civilization than that which flows from commerce alone. The early dawn of improvement in pleasure-grounds was just then, however, beginning to open upon the country, and some of the gentlemen in Westchester county were giving much of their attention to subjects of this kind; English books had led the way, returning travellers suggested new ideas, and people were beginning to talk about grouping trees, and shrubbery, and grading lawns. The improvement of his grounds became a task into which Mr. Cooper entered with instinctive good taste, and with all the animation and warmth of interest peculiar to his character. The position of the house was one, commanding a beautiful view over the farms and woods of the adjoining country, in whose varied groves hickory and tulip-tree, cedar and sassafras, grew luxuriantly; a broad reach of Sound stretched beyond, always dotted with the white sails the sailor’s eye loved to follow in their graceful movements to and fro, while the low shores of Long Island, with the famous pippin orchards of Newtown, formed the distant background. Planning a lawn, building a ha-ha fence, then a novelty in the country, and ditching a swamp, were the tasks of the moment; [15] while the friends who followed his movement often smiled at the almost boyish eagerness with which he watched the growth of shrubs, or they shook their heads sagely at the size of the trees he was engaged in transplanting. Active in all his habits, and full of vigorous health, he superintended the work going on, in all its stages, often undertaking some light task himself, and never failing to shorten the time by chatting with his laborers — picking up amusement or practical information in this way.

The height on which the cottage was built had received the name of Angevine. Early in the history of the county, a colony of Huguenots had settled on the shores of Long Island Sound, at the village of New Rochelle. They were a very respectable and interesting people, with a high character for industry, honesty, and for simple fidelity to their religious duties. A touching instance of the last characteristic has been preserved, as a tradition of the neighborhood. In the earlier days of the little colony there was no minister of the gospel among them, and no place of public worship where the services were held in French, nearer than the church of the St. Esprit, in New York. With the earliest hours of Sunday, by starlight or moonlight, a little band of simple-hearted pilgrims, men and women, old and young together, were in the habit of setting out on foot, walking from their cottage homes, more than twenty miles, to join in the public worship of the Lord’s day, in their mother tongue. At a rather later period, a little stone church, rude and quaint, with pointed roof, was built in their village; and within its square walls the households of the Anglican communion, for many miles around, attended the services, until the building was pronounced unsafe and taken down. Many families from this little colony were scattered over the adjoining country, among the farms of Mamaroneck, Rye, and Scarsdale, where Huguenot names are still very common; one of these households had settled, as tenants, nearly a hundred years earlier, on the height alluded to, in Scarsdale. When Mr. Cooper came to examine the ground for the site of a house, he found their rude graves, a rough field-stone marking the head and foot of each, lining one of the fences, as was so frequently the custom on American farms at that period; a kindly feeling of regard for the Huguenot colony, and respect for their graves, which of course remained unmolested, led to the name of Angevine being given to the new place.

Reading, which always enters so naturally into country life, was a regular resource for the evening hours, and rainy days, at Angevine. It is needless to observe that the books on every table were, at that day, almost exclusively English. The roll of all the contemporary authors in the country, of any note, might have been called over in a trice; and if, among these, there were already [16] several brilliant pens, yet the united influence of the whole class on the nation was still very slight indeed. the American people, in the forty-fifth year of their independence, were in fact living on English literature almost as exclusively as they had done a century earlier, in a state wholly colonial. The very brilliancy of that epoch, so remarkable in British literature, was in one sense discouraging, and unfavorable to the birth of original writing in America; the idea of publishing in the same language, and on the same day, with Scott, with Byron, with Burns, with Wordsworth, thus boldly challenging the world to comparisons the most critical, might almost have sufficed in itself, one would suppose, to silence all literary labor on the part of a people still so provincial at heart as we then were.

At that period there came sailing into the harbor of New York, with each returning month, one or two packet ships, from London or Liverpool, their arrival in the lower bay being duly announced to Wall street by the unwieldy arms of the wooden telegraph on Staten Island; and, among bales of English calicos and broadcloths, there never failed to be some smaller package of far greater and more lasting value — some volume fresh from the London press, high in merit, full of interest, a work whose appearance had been already heralded, and whose arrival was eagerly expected by every reader in the country. Perhaps it was a romance of the Waverley series, still a delightful mystery as regarded their origin, or a brilliant canto of Byron, or a charming social tale by Miss Edgeworth, or a valuable religions work by Mr. Wilberforce, or Miss More. With the next day’s papers the news of the arrival spread through the country-houses of Westchester. Orders were immediately sent to the bookseller in New York. At that day each village on the Sound had its own sloop, plying two or three times a week to and fro, through the perils of Hell-Gate, carrying the produce of the farms to Fulton Market, and bringing back sugar and tea, and good things of all sorts, to the rustic wharf. Among other imported luxuries came the last new book. Or perchance it was the mail-coach, which, as it travelled eastward along the winding roads of Westchester, dropped the precious parcel at the quiet village post-office. Lucky was that household deemed which could first cut the pages of the new volume; and long did its contents, rich in entertainment or instruction, offer subject for social talk and clever discussion, about the firesides of the whole neighborhood. The most imposing living personages of the day, moving through the great cities and over the battlefields of old Europe, scarcely filled a wider space in familiar household talk than the brilliant figures on the many-colored canvas of Sir Walter Scott. Kings and queens, of ancient abdicated dynasties and the newly-crowned alike, victorious [17] marshals and generals, successful statesmen, cabinet ministers and court beauties, were compelled to share the honors of fireside fame with Dominie Sampson, and Edie Ochiltree, and Jennie Deans, and Meg Merrilies.

It is quite needless to declare that Mr. Cooper took great delight in the Waverley novels; when the secret of their authorship was still a subject for discussion, he was among those who never doubted that they were written by Walter Scott, the poet. He read aloud delightfully. His voice was very fine; deep, clear and expressive. Good reading was, with him, a natural gift, the impulse of the moment, an instinct of genius. During those quiet country evenings, he often read aloud; there was one who listened with affectionate interest — one for whom, through along life, he read with especial pleasure. Poetry was occasionally chosen: his reading of verse was particularly good, accurate, and full of deep poetic feeling. For Shakespeare he was always ready; entering with unfeigned delight into the spirit of his works, whether comedy or tragedy. Pope, Thomson, Gray, were also in favor. But he could seldom be induced to read more than a page or two of fiction, at a time; the great epic poet he considered too correctly cold and classical in spirit, for his theme; and this opinion continued unchanged through life. “Shakespeare should have written Paradise Lost. What a poem he would have given to the world!” was a remark he repeatedly made. But new books were, of course, in particular request; and rapidly as the great Scotch novels succeeded each other, something more was needed to fill up all those quiet evening hours at Angevine. Unfortunately those English packets brought trash, as well as treasures literary, from beyond the sea. On one occasion, a new novel chanced to lie on the table; he was asked to read. The title and look of the book were not to his taste; he opened it, however, and began. Suddenly, after wading through a few pages, it was thrown aside in disgust:

“I can write you a better book than that, myself!” was his exclamation.

The consequences of that careless declaration made half in jest, were, indeed, little foreseen. He was playfully challenged to make good his promise. And when urged to commence at once, immediately began throwing together the outline of a tale, something in the style of the rejected volume. Ere long, the first pages of “Precaution” were written.

The idea of writing a book was certainly, under the circumstances, a very bold one. Hitherto no man could have shown himself farther from any inclination for authorcraft. He was not one of those people who like the feeling of foolscap, the sight of pen and ink, who indulge secret partialities for note-books, diaries and extracts. His portfolio was wholly empty; scarcely, indeed, pro[18]vided with letter-paper for an occasional correspondent. The mere mechanical drudgery of writing was irksome to him; so much so, that in a letter dated only a year or two earlier, he made use of the words: “Much as I dislike writing in general,” &c. But, how often the latent tastes, the dormant inclinations, the undeveloped thought and feeling which are yet to shape the future course, lie unobserved, until unexpectedly aroused into action! Some occasional act, some isolated flash of temper, some sudden gleam of intelligence, are, in such cases, often found, however, to reveal character and ability more clearly than the quiet tenor of the daily course. Such had been the case with Mr. Cooper. As a boy, he had taken great delight in certain old-fashioned heroic romances, a taste inherited, perhaps, from his mother, who was much given to reading works of imagination. When about eleven years old, he pored over several strange old tales of this class, with a playfellow of his own age; and among others was one bearing the title of “Don Belianis of Greece,” now, doubtless, wholly forgotten. These produced a great impression, and he had barely finished them when he gravely informed his comrade that he should write a book himself! He should begin at once. It was to be a great heroic romance, with knights, and squires, and horses, and ladies, and castles, and banners. “Don Belianis of Greece” was, of course, to be the model. There was, however, one formidable difficulty in the way; the penmanship was a part of the task for which he had not the least partiality. After due deliberation, an idea occurred which removed this obstacle entirely. It was agreed that the new work should be printed without the usual preliminary labor of writing it. There was, at that time, a little blue newspaper, called the Otsego Herald, published in Cooperstown, by the father of his companion, who was its editor. It was agreed that while the press was resting from its weekly labors, the projected romance should be dictated and printed in the office by the two boys. This new Beaumont and Fletcher production was accordingly commenced, and several chapters were printed, when, as might have been foreseen, the young author became weary of his task, and threw it aside. Such was the first composition of which any record has been preserved, and for years it appears to have remained an isolated production.

On another occasion, however, after reaching manhood, Mr. Cooper had actually committed himself more publicly in print, and that in verse, too. In his youth he occasionally wrote verses, such as most young men are in the habit of producing — sometimes sentimental, sometimes of a comic character. These are said to have been generally cleverly imagined, and not without a degree of merit, though he attached no value whatever to them himself. On one occasion, when he was in the printing-office of the Herald, at Cooperstown, a poor fellow sub[19]ject to epileptic fits, came in to ask charity from a group of gentlemen he found there. The man’s certificates were particularly good, and his story excited much interest. He proved to be a strolling ballad-singer, a vocation now quite obsolete in the country. A purse was made up for him, when, looking about the circle, he remarked that if some gentleman would write him a few verses, something new, it would be worth far more to him than the silver he had just received. Cooper offered to try his hand at verse-making, and inquired what subject would be preferred. “There’s nothing sells like ballads!” was the answer. A ballad was promised. The last war with England was then drawing to a close; and Buffalo, at that time a small frontier village, had been recently burnt by the troops under Colonel Murray. Some thirty or forty stanzas of doggerel were immediately written, bearing the imposing title of, ” Buffalo Burnt, or the Dreadful Conflagration!” The catastrophe was, of course described in the most pathetic manner. A number of copies were printed, and the poor stroller went off with his wallet full. Some months later he appeared again in the village; he came to beg another ballad. “Buffalo Burnt, or the Dreadful Conflagration,” had been wonderfully successful in the farm-houses of the neighboring counties. A second ballad was written, whose title has been forgotten; but as the poor stroller never applied again to his poet, it was probably less successful than the first effort. Some four or five years later, the writer of the ballad being in a neighboring village, was invited to a tea-party; music was proposed; a young lady was handed to the piano, and to the amazement and horror of Mr. Cooper, very gravely began singing “Buffalo Burnt, or the Dreadful Conflagration!”

Such were the very few preliminary steps in composition when “Precaution” was commenced. As the story advanced, the writer become amused and interested in his task. It was not, however, until it had made some progress that the idea of publishing was suggested. Without this proposition the book would probably never have been completed; but the idea, of appearing in a character so unexpected, of taking his friends by surprise in this way, was in itself amusing, and gave zest to the task. The MS. was read in portions to several persons; to Mr. Charles Wilkes, of New York, a friend of long standing, in whose highly cultivated taste he had great confidence; to Mr. James Atcheson, of Otsego county, an Englishman, a man of learning and talent, but of eccentricity of character, in whose society Mr. Cooper took much pleasure; and to the family of Governor Jay, at Bedford, with whom he had from childhood been on terms of intimacy. These partial friends all advised the publication of the tale. Probably one of the greatest compliments the book ever received came from an excellent lady, a guest in the house, present at the Bedford readings: she was convinced that Mr. [20] Cooper spoke in pleasantry when be declared the MS. to be original; he was clearly making fun of his audience — she was quite confident that she had heard that very tale some years earlier. And so well were the general tone and character of the school he imitated kept up, that, even after the publication of the “Spy” and “Pioneers,” the same excellent lady persisted in the opinion that Mr. Cooper could never have written “Precaution.” It was clearly a woman’s book.

Meanwhile the tale was printed. On the 25ᵗʰ of August, 1820, it was published by Mr. A. T. Goodrich, of New York, under the title of “Precaution; or, Prevention is Better than Cure.” The original publications of a New York house of that day were, of course, very few in number. The book attracted a degree of attention. Its literary merits were considered respectable, though not in the least brilliant. The characters were declared natural, and the moral tone was pronounced excellent. Quite as a matter of course, it was supposed, at first, to have been written in England, and by a woman. The publisher, however, declared that it was an American work, and written by a gentleman of New York. Surprise was expressed, and a degree of curiosity excited in society; but most of those who read the book continued quite incredulous. And when, at length, the name of Mr. Cooper began to be whispered in connection with the tale, incredulity rather increased — the very suggestion was considered a piece of pleasantry. What American naval officer, it was asked, would be likely to write a book so English, and so womanly in tone and execution? In the sense of an elaborate imitation, at least, “Precaution” may be said to have been thoroughly successful. For a long time it was attributed to an English lady, a near connection of Mr. Cooper’s.

The reading world has shown itself much given to indulging in fancies of its own regarding the authorship of a new book. One day it is pleased to ascribe a volume to some pen which is perhaps as yet wholly innocent of bookcraft; at another moment it pertinaciously insists on giving a new work to a distinguished writer, who has, in fact, never read a line of it. In short, it likes to prove itself particularly sagacious in these matters, not easily blinded, very capable of penetrating at a glance mysteries of this sort. It professes to know intuitively the impossibility of this or that individual writing this or that passage, or to trace the sign manual of some well-known and skilful pen on every page of the last anonymous volume. It enjoys vastly showing itself wiser than its neighbor in this way. It would like to be convinced that Homer never wrote the Iliad, and quite recently it has even shown an inclination to assert that William Shakespeare, of Stratford, had very little to do with Othello and Hamlet. The authorship of Junius, we may rest assured, will never be settled beyond all cavil, [21] even should Junius himself be proved to have thrown off his own mask. In fact, however, like all who are prone to indulging conceits, the reading world may be quite easily misled. It is little aware of the great facility with which the pen of a clever writer assumes different characters — ay, characters often the very opposite of that most natural to the individual who writes. Your grave man, perhaps, shall write very gayly; few courtiers of the great Louis so truly sober in mood, we are told, as the witty and humorous author of the “Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” Few worthies have made their friends laugh more heartily than “Gilpin,” that “citizen of credit and renown;” and yet it was the heavy-hearted Cowper who seated him on horseback. Good-natured tempers may be very capable of writing bitter satire and sharp controversy. Boileau is said to have been an amiable man. Miss Hannah More was blessed with a very happy natural temper, and she has left it on record that controversy could have a certain intellectual charm for her; after several very severe letters, admirable in their way, and in answer to the attacks of an opponent, she confesses that the task had given her too much pleasure; she must refrain from any similar work in future. And thus it is that men may assume on paper a quiet womanly tone, and that women may write, if they please, bold and daring pages, quite at variance with the spirit of their own daily life. And in all this there is no hypocrisy. It is simply a work of the intellect, literally jeu d’esprit;the mind is amused with the task it has set itself, and takes pleasure in playing out its own game; is often, perhaps, led onward far beyond its first intention.

There are two different fountains whence inspiration flows to the writer — the intellect and the heart, thought and feeling. Thought makes the best artist, has greater foresight, a wiser command of means, gives greater completeness, higher finish. But heart has a power even beyond this, a power of life and soul, more entirely swaying human sympathy and action; it has more freshness, more originality, more sincerity — its highest influences are even more enduring. Thought sees truth, and reveals it, or often may conceal it. Heart feels truth itself, and, with a generous fulness of eloquence all its own, to which no enthousiasme de commandecan ever attain, compels conviction, Many a highly-polished classic sonnet lies in cold neglect on the library shelf, while the humble ballad, full of true natural feeling, is preserved in affectionate living remembrance. These two great influences, intellect and feeling, are found acting in partial independence of each other. What a man writes with the intellect only, may be entirely foreign to his own life — work wholly artificial; what he really writes from the heart, must necessarily have the same coloring as his character — flowing from his own inmost nature, and carry with it something of the inherent [22] force of truth. “Have a heart and know it,” is the advice of the great Polish poet. It is, however, where both powers are called into action, in all their fulness, that the noblest writings are produced. Where a strong intellect plans, and a generous, upright heart works, there we may look for a great book. Imitation can never, for this reason, attain to the very highest and most effective excellence — it is a work of the head only; it may be very skilful, quite faultless, very successful in its way, but the soul and spirit must ever be wanting. Genius, like the wonderful thrush of the American wood, may have its many voices, it may even condescend to sing its lays to borrowed tunes; the careless wayfarer is deceived; passing along, he fancies that he hears the robin, or the ground-sparrow; but when the rare creature pours forth its own noble song, he pauses, with upward gaze, and lingers, lost in delight, listening to those “native wood-notes wild.”

“Precaution” was soon reprinted in England, and received much as an English book of the same class might have been. While this tale was written under an assumed name, it must be understood that there were two particulars in which it was perfectly sincere. The author’s reverence for the Christian religion, and his respect for purity of female character, were entirely unfeigned. Throughout a long life he was never known to trifle with either subject.

The book was very imperfectly printed on the coarse, dark paper of the day, with almost countless faults of punctuation, and a list of errata closely covering an entire page, at the end of the volume. a copy of the first edition may be considered as a curiosity at the present day, showing the wonderful progress made since then in American typography.

A brief extract from “Precaution” is given, rather that the reader may be enabled to compare the passage with other pages which are to follow, than from any particular merit of its own.

Excerpt: “Charity” [Precaution (New York: W.A. Townsend, 1861), Chapter 16, pp. 165-168]