Narrating History in Precaution: The Genre of Masculine Sentimentality
Presented at the No. 2 Cooper Panel of the 2013 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 30, May, 2013, pp. 13-16.
Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
It should not be surprising that in seeking a popular audience for his novels, Cooper would turn to the sentimental form given the ways that sentimentality defined antebellum American culture. 1 As Signe Wegener reminds us, despite the “undomestic” settings of Cooper’s novels, courtship remains at the very center of all his tales. 2 Women “are of central significance” in the novels and that their storylines hinge on the male characters’ demonstration of their worthiness, thereby assuring the resolution of the marriage plot. At the same time, it is the relationship between men that generates the strongest sentimental affect in the novels. In fact, it is the vicissitudes of historical events and the charged nature of adventure that give license to dramatic feelings among male characters. I would suggest that from this confrontation of history and domesticity, Cooper characterized a narrative of masculine sentimentalism whereby the hero moves to the center of both the novel’s sentimental and historical plots and emerges as a narrative bridge between them. The male hero becomes the focus of the sentimental plot, but whose role in the novel materializes from the test of his character defined by the historical events around him. To me, it is striking how, attentive to the contingencies of historical narrative, Precaution reveals the violence that underpins and undermines the resolution of the domestic plot. As such, Precaution lays out the plot structure that Cooper developed throughout his career as he explored the narrative possibilities that emerge when national history influences the conventions of sentimental narratives.
Few critics approached Precaution with much sympathy. Focusing primarily on the fact that it is Cooper’s first novel, critics move our attention quickly to his next works. I, however, would like to show that Precaution is more than an ineptly executed copy of an English novel, one that should be primarily treated as an inept first work — instead, Precaution establishes a benchmark of literary experimentation that Cooper would work through his entire career. A brief synopsis of the plot reveals Precaution’s debt to British novels of manners. The novel opens with the story of Emily Moseley and her aristocratic family as they navigate the world of courtship and marriage. Reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice, Precaution follows the Moseleys’ attempts at finding appropriate mates for their children. Among the potential suitors is the mysterious George Denbigh. As the tale unfolds, the various characters court each other and the first two-thirds of the novel follow the rise and fall of their various matrimonial prospects. After a series of deceptions and revelations, Denbigh’s true identity as the wealthy Earl of Pendennyss is revealed and the way is cleared for him to marry Emily, fulfilling the expectations of the sentimental plot. For the sake of clarity I will refer to him as Denbigh — though, by the last third of the novel, he has three names, George Denbigh, Lord Lumley, and, the Earl of Pendenyss.
However, rather than ending with the happy resolution of the tale’s domestic ambitions, the novel begins anew by unfolding Denbigh’s tragic family history, which emerges in the wake of the American Revolution and, later, Napoleon’s Spanish campaigns. With Denbigh’s personal history disclosed, the novel seems to end with the marriage between him and Emily finally realized. But, historical events interrupt the nuptials again, forestalling the novel’s domestic closure. The story moves to the Battle of Waterloo. Finally, after Napoleon’s defeat, Denbigh returns to Emily. The novel closes with the various, virtuous couples established in their rightful place in society, problematically vindicating Mrs. Wilson’s precautionary stance that “prevention is at all times better than cure” (418). 3
As the above synopsis highlights, Precaution follows most of the generic conventions of the sentimental courtship novel. However, a plot summary of Precaution is insufficient. What makes the novel interesting is the ways in which it deviates from the explicit conventions of sentimentalist fiction under pressure of Cooper’s own interests in historical contingencies. Though Cooper “commenced the writing of a moral tale” within the form of a novel of manners, 4 he quickly moved beyond the female characters’ concerns over domesticity and courtship and reoriented the novel toward his male characters, testing and asserting their moral standing in light of and determined by historical events. Each time the novel seems to arrive at a domestic resolution, it is interrupted by an historical account. This strategy defines the character of male heroes and, at the same time, gives an historical perspective to the domesticity of the sentimental storyline. As a result, Cooper situated the sentimental novel within historical narrative in order to test masculine characters without undermining their masculinity.
From the start, Precaution casts Denbigh’s character as a sentimental figure. His dramatic entrance generates a deep emotional response, shattering the congenial atmosphere of good manners. Denbigh enters the story as the figure of the dutiful son “who supported his venerable parent into the room with a grace and tenderness that struck most of the beholders with a sensation of pleasure” (25). The pathos of his feelings gives “pleasure” and frames his reception by both the characters and the reader alike. Denbigh’s appearance, both in his person and in his comportment, is one of affect. Through his grief and silent dignity, Denbigh emerges as a suffering figure, a role usually reserved for female characters in sentimental narratives.
Indeed, the sympathetic character of sensibility in Precaution is male. 5 While the language of sentimentality is bound up with those of femininity, 6 a man who “possesses them must, necessarily, be in some degree feminized” (Skinner 10). However, Cooper carefully calibrates Denbigh’s portrayal by making him a sympathetic character rather than a character requiring sympathy. Cooper achieves this delicate balance by revealing Denbigh’s character in response to violent situations, which come to authenticate his masculinity.
James Wallace, in his study of Cooper’s early works and career, points out that Precaution’s most “American” quality is its undercurrent of violence. 7 Confirming Richard Slotkin’s thesis that “regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience,” 8 Wallace outlines the recurrence of violent episodes in Precaution, particularly in the modeling of George Denbigh’s character. Denbigh’s emotional displays respond to mortal events. Over the course of the novel, he literally and physically takes a bullet for his beloved Emily, endures the violence of two wars, and two other men die in his arms. Indeed, Precaution repeatedly restages scenes of a pietà, with Denbigh as the consoling figure of sympathy. A vertical axis of strength to the horizontal axis of death, he carries the weight of feeling in these scenes of loss but remains the strong, central pillar of these scenes. Framed as the caring figure who mourns over the dead, Denbigh focuses the novel’s sentiments through him but not projected on him.
As Precaution’s courtship plot unfolds, its interest in masculine character increases, focusing primarily on George Denbigh and Colonel Egerton. From all appearances, Colonel Egerton possesses all the physical and social attributes to promote him in the eyes of society and is an appropriate match for one of the Moseley daughters. In contrast, Denbigh seemingly lacks wealth, property, and title. As a result, Denbigh’s value must be accounted for in moral terms. Unlike Egerton, who is dashing but self-absorbed, Denbigh behaves appropriately, conducting himself with sentiment and illustrating the correct Christian principles of charity, duty, and restraint.
By focusing on the moral examination of its male characters, while simultaneously framing an active version of masculine sentimentality, Precaution develops beyond its sentimental model. The juxtaposition between inner principles and their outward expression not only complicates the appreciation of Denbigh’s character throughout the narrative, but also requires a broader context on which that tension can be understood. Engaged by conscience and moved by events greater than himself, Denbigh becomes the first of a long line of Cooper heroes who establish their masculinity under threat and through restraint.
As noted earlier, one of the peculiarities of Precaution is that in spite of its domestic setting, violence is just under the surface of narrative events. The novel repeatedly places Denbigh in violent situations. Introduced as a military man, he, nevertheless, rejects the swaggering masculinity that defines Colonel Egerton. Indeed, it is Denbigh’s refusal to discuss his military past that raises suspicions, casting doubts on his integrity and honesty. Egerton, who parades his martial honors conspicuously, asserts that Denbigh’s reserve is a sure sign of a disreputable past, though Egerton himself has much to hide.
What is not known at the time is that Denbigh is a highly decorated military officer, whose career has been defined by extraordinary valor. Unlike Captain Jarvis, who is a coward, and Egerton, a scoundrel, Denbigh repeatedly distinguished himself on the field of battle. And yet, governed by a higher principle, Denbigh projects a moral rather than an aggressive masculinity. Tested under the pressure to act, the hero chooses not to act rashly or inappropriately. He would rather take the personal affront or risk personal danger. But, when called to fight for a greater cause, Denbigh is aggressive and unsparingly forceful.
The challenge for Cooper was how to fully realize the character of Denbigh as a sentimental hero, worthy of Emily’s hand in marriage. As the domestic world is antithetical to violence, very often the only refuge against a brutal world, the conventions of the novel required that Denbigh’s manhood be cast in sentimentalist terms. As a result, his strength is measured by his ability to grieve over the death of his father. His integrity displayed through deferral; and, his innate bravery becomes self-sacrifice.
As a result, the novel stages ever increasingly improbable events in order to prove Denbigh’s heroic potential within the confines of a domestic setting. While playing with hunting guns in the garden of the Moseley estate, a loaded pistol goes off by accident. Realizing that Emily was at risk, Denbigh throws himself before her as the gun discharges. His quick thinking heroics become a moment of pathos. Mortally wounded, he turns “to Emily, and smiling mournfully, gazed for a moment at her, with an expression of tenderness, of pleasure, of sorrow, so blended that she retained the recollection of it for life, and fell at her feet” (127). Though he recovers, Denbigh’s brush with death positions him as the self-sacrificing figure whose near death inspires deep and redemptive feelings.
Unfortunately, Denbigh emerges from his convalesces no more secure in Emily’s admiration than before. Mrs. Wilson continues to interfere in their courtship, misreading Denbigh’s actions. Unable to see beyond class distinctions and her strict, unbending attachment to “principles,” Mrs. Wilson discounts Denbigh’s innate heroism and masculine virtues. His marriage proposal to Emily is rejected. Dejected, he departs. Without any viable suitors remaining, Emily’s marriage prospects dwindle, leaving only the elusive Earl of Pendennyss as a possible suitor. However, the Earl’s presence in the novel is felt only through his absence. It would appear the novel arrives at a narrative impasse.
While the first two-thirds of Precaution centers on the courtship of the Moseley children, the last third shifts its attention to the Earl of Pendennyss (George Denbigh’s true identity) and the transatlantic events that shape his family history. Placed in an historical frame, Denbigh’s personal story is defined by world events that provide the context for his elaborate masquerade. Family and national history merge as Denbigh/Pendennyss must come to terms with his own past before he can marry and bring about the tales’ domestic resolution. Ironically, the more Cooper tried to situate Denbigh’s character in the world of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe, the more difficulty he had ending the novel.
With Denbigh seemingly rejected as Emily’s suitor, the narrative slowly reveals his true identity and discloses his family’s tragic past. At first, the novel withholds the connection between Denbigh and Pendennyss, introducing the earl as a new character. So far in the story the elusive earl has been conspicuously missing, with only his acts of beneficence alluded to. The embodiment of generosity, Pendennyss is known “not in person, but by character,” exactly the means of identification that Denbigh has sought to establish for himself through his selfless acts (38). But, Pendennyss’ character is validated by his highborn personage. His person is his character, while Denbigh has only his actions to speak for him. The novel exploits this contradiction. On the one hand, Pendennyss can be admired for his conduct, the consequences of which are only felt but never witnessed. On the other hand, everyone recognizes Denbigh’s selfless actions and moral behavior but dismiss him because he lacks credible position and title.
As Denbigh’s complicated back-story unfolds in the last hundred pages of the novel, Precaution’s plot expands, both geographically and generically. The revelation of his family history covers several generations and is set against the backdrop of the colonial Revolution beginning with his grandfather’s insensitive actions. A complicated and ultimately tragic family story of the older generation’s indifference over the younger’s self-determination unfolds, metaphorically alludes to the ideological motivations of American independence and establishing the conflicts that result in the breakdown of Denbigh’s family.
There is an interesting foreshadowing of The Spy, the novel Cooper began writing at about the time these scenes were likely composed. In The Spy, Cooper characterized the American Revolution as “a family quarrel” and juxtaposes the events of national formation against the domestic disorder and resolution of the Wharton family. 9 In Precaution, the Denbigh family quarrel initiates a series of woeful events that haunt the future Earl. Conflating a domestic conflict with a national narrative must have presented Cooper with novelistic possibilities he had not imagined at the outset of writing Precaution. It is fascinating to imagine that arriving at a moment where historical and domestic narratives merge, Cooper realized the novelistic potential for bringing these two forms together, conceptualizing the story of American independence in domestic terms, the frame for his future Revolutionary period novels.
Providing further historical details, the novel continues by tracing Denbigh’s military career against the backdrop of Napoleon’s Spanish campaigns. Confirming his true nobility, he garners acclaim as a brave and compassionate leader in the midst of war. Appreciating that war is “the very consummation of human misery,” he becomes a better man as well as soldier (375). However, for Denbigh, the experience of war does not mark the end of violent tragedies. Upon his return to England, he arrives just in time to witness his mother’s death. At her bedside, he learns of her indiscretions and the pain it brought upon his family. The reader now realized that his father’s pathetic death during the novel’s opening scenes was another casualty of the family history. Haunted by his mother’s impropriety, Denbigh, now the Earl of Pendennyss, fears that he will attract the attention of ambitious women, like his mother, so he assumes the masquerade of the lowly Denbigh. This masquerade becomes the means of winning approval for the man he is rather than for the title and wealth he possesses. Shaped by war but personally scarred by family tragedy, Denbigh emerges as a character of masculine sentiment, whose part in world events will continually interfere with personal and domestic fulfillment.
Unable (and perhaps unwilling) to end the novel with the traditional wedding that resolves all conflicts in sentimental fiction, the story takes Denbigh away to military service once again postponing his nuptials. He is recalled to fight at the Battle of Waterloo. Robert Lawson-Peebles, in his essay tracing the transatlantic influences on the writing of Precaution, suggests Cooper’s interest in these historical events stems from a family connection. I would suggest that Precaution reveals more broadly and aesthetically Cooper’s committed interests in international affairs in his novels. The move to the Battle of Waterloo allowed Cooper to further elaborate on the historical pressures that sentimental novels tend to overlook. Moreover, by moving back to the arena of war, the novel shifts its interest away from Denbigh and Emily, the central figures of the sentimental plot, and back to the relationship between Denbigh and Egerton, the central figures of the historical plot.
In its penultimate chapter, the novel details the final moments at Waterloo. The battlefield scene provides the context to further valorize the values of masculine sentiment as the military struggle mirrors the novel’s moral imperatives. Viewed from above, the scene is laid out for the reader: “On one side supported by the efforts of desperate resolution, guided by the most consummate art; and on the other defended by a discipline and enduring courage almost without parallel” (402). The scene frames the combating forces in terms analogous to Egerton’s and Denbigh’s opposing value systems, earlier showcased in their courtship of Emily. Much like Egerton’s artful displays and misguided maneuvers, Napoleon’s “consummate art” leads to his exposure and ultimate defeat. In contrast, “defended by discipline and enduring courage,” Denbigh’s valor and military skill affirm his character’s strength and ultimate victory. And, as both a man of action and feeling, his “contemplation of the field of battle” gives way to a meditation on “the sacrifice of individual happiness with which it is purchased” and the redemption found in family, home, and Christianity (403). While the first two-thirds of Precaution juxtapose militaristic language to courtship, the novel ends by expressing the language of war in sentimentalist terms.
Having reaffirmed his manhood in war, the novel reasserts Denbigh’s disinterested compassion. He makes his way through the battlefield with difficulty and without regard for his personal safety, seeking to console an unidentified, wounded soldier. He is shocked to discover that the soldier is non-other than Egerton. Putting aside his contempt, Denbigh hears Egerton’s confession and cradles the dying man in his arms. Egerton’s passing in Denbigh’s arms recalls his father’s death, the tragic scene that introduced Denbigh to the novel. Returning to the highly charged emotions of sentimentalist fiction, but against the violence of war, the novel reestablishes Denbigh as a figure of profound sentiment with his masculinity intact. He can now finally return to Emily, as all sentimental novels should, with all the deserving couples joyously and appropriately united.
I would like to propose that the novel’s multiple endings suggest Cooper’s exploration of alternative narrative techniques. Not completely satisfied with the neat resolutions provided by the domestic novel, Cooper digressed toward the historical narrative in order to affirm those resolutions. In the world of Precaution, domesticity is never immune from history. Destabilizing the sentimental courtship plot, Precaution integrates historical contingency as a character-determining device. Rather than a priori class status, historical context defines the male character, forging a model of masculine sentimentalism that defines the hero through his participation in the world.
By overlapping the generic conventions of the sentimental novel and historical fiction, Cooper’s novel presents a hero whose actions are guided both by the demands of historical contingencies and moral imperatives. The Cooper hero is both a man of feeling and a man of action. In reading Precaution, I find that Cooper was able to simultaneously appropriate and transcend the conventions of sentimentalist fiction by reorienting those conventions toward masculine action. In this and future novels, it is the hero’s encounter with violence and the historical events that energize that violence that will validate his moral standing.
By moving toward the historical and adventure narrative, Precaution helps recast the sentimentalism of the courtship novel as a masculine genre. Consequently, Precaution should not be read as a failed first novel. Rather, it points forward to Cooper’s novelistic concerns and formal innovations. It highlights the hybrid formulation that underwrites his novels, a creative tension between sentimental and historical genres, allowing him to create new novelistic forms. By recasting the sentimentalist hero as a man of action, driven by a deep sense of principle while open to contingency, Precaution becomes midwife to the birth of Cooper’s most enduring character, Natty Bumppo, and the domestication of the adventure story.
1 Shirley Samuels points out that “sentimentality is the literary form at the heart of nineteenth-century American culture” (4). Shirley Samuels, Introduction to The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 3-84.
2 Signe O. Wegener, James Fenimore Cooper versus the Cult of Domesticity: Progressive Themes of Femininity and Family in the Novels (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2005) 6.
3 Precaution, Leatherstocking Editions. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1898. Throughout, all citations from the text are from this edition.
4 Letter to Andrew Thompson, May 31, 1820; The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard (6 vols., Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-1968), Vol I, 42.
5 Generally the purview of women writers, sentimentalist literature stresses emotional affect in women and the familiar bonds that tie them to community and each other. Though male characters and authors are occasionally featured, the emphasis traditionally falls on women. Likewise, as a genre, its interest lies primarily for female readers. Cooper’s relationship to sentimentalist literature remained complicated and tendentious; his preface to The Last of the Mohicans warns “young ladies” away because they “will surely pronounce it shocking” (Preface to the First Edition, 4). However, in writing Precaution he carefully calibrates its marketability against the sentimentalist novels of Mary Brunton and Hannah More (See letter to Goodrich, 20 September-6 October?, 1820: Letters, Vol I, 63-64). For a defining discussion of the sentimentalist tradition in American literature, see Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860. (New York: Pageant Books, 1959).
6 Skinner, Gillian. Sensibility and Economics in the Novel, 1740-1800: The Price of a Tear. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999): 10.
7 Wallace, James D. Early Cooper and His Audience. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986) 76.
8 Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 5.
9 See James Fenimore Cooper, Introduction  The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (New York: AMS, 2002) 13.