Cooper’s Last Experiment in Sentimental-Domestic Fiction: Tales for Fifteen

Lance Schachterle (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter No. 56, Vol. XX, No. 1, Spring 2009, pp. 3-4.

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Readers of my previous columns on “American Fiction before Cooper Worth Reading” rightly would surmise that Cooper’s career was built on those adventure stories written by men like Charles Brockden Brown and Royall Tyler, not the sentimental-domestic fiction by women authors like Susanna Rowson. This assumption is of course largely correct, in that a Cooper novel usually emphasizes exciting adventures (a few satires like Home as Found excepted), though it (almost) invariably includes at least one love story consummated in marriage.

This assumption also overlooks Precaution, Cooper’s first published novel (1820), a domestic if not very sentimental story about the romances and marriages in three British families. Scholars have speculated for decades concerning Cooper’s immediate source, the British novel his wife famously recollected he flung away in disgust with the claim he could do better. Though the similarities in title between Cooper’s first novel and Jane Austen’s last, Persuasion (1816), have led some to claim Austen as the author he sought to emulate, a more likely candidate is the work of a more blatantly moralizing author like Mrs. Amelia Opie.

Amelia Opie by John Opie. Public domain.

Opie is an even more likely model for Cooper’s early and little-known pair of sentimental-domestic tales, “Imagination” and “Heart.” James Franklin Beard, in his introduction to a reprint of the 1823 Tales for Fifteen: Or Imagination and Heart, suggests Cooper’s specific model for the title and text was Opie’s Tales of the Heart, published by Charles Wiley and several other printers in 1820 in New York. Wiley advertised in April 1822 that “American Tales, by a Lady, viz. Imagination — Heart — Matter — Manner — Matter and Manner” was in the press. The projected publication date came and passed; only the first two stories eventually appeared in June 1823 as Tales for Fifteen ... by Jane Morgan. 1 The change in title reflects the target audience of adolescent girls; the nom de plume, Cooper’s attempt to pass the work off as by a woman. Both stories differ from their British models in being set in America, just as were The Spy (1821) and The Pioneers (1823) — both of which preceded the “Tales” in publication but not in composition.

“Imagination” Cooper regarded as the stronger of the two tales, as he indicated when he offered its reprint rights without charge to a Boston publisher in 1841 (x). The story begins in tears as the two adolescent best friends, Julia Warren and Anna Miller, part company. Watching the separation is Charles Weston, a distant relative and Julia’s sincere but unappreciated lover. Julia, orphaned young, depends on her aunt Miss Emmerson for guidance, which the older woman does her best to provide. “Miss Emmerson had been educated immediately after the war of the revolution, and at a time when the intellect of the women of this country by no means received that attention it is thought necessary to bestow on the minds of the future mothers of our families at the present hour. ... ” (4-5) Despite these limitations, Miss Emmerson senses the rising debilitation of luxury among some of her New York neighbors — Cooper here starting his lifelong campaign against such ostentation. More specifically, she regrets Julia’s attachment to the frivolous Anna Miller, whose excess of imagination provides the obstacles to true love that Julia and Charles must overcome.

Anna pledges to write Julia regularly and at length about her journey up the scenic Hudson to her new home, a pledge she breaks to Julia’s disappointment. The feeble best Julia can muster is a tissue of clichés reminiscent of the effulgence of Gilbert Imlay’s The Emigrants:

Words are wanting to paint the melancholy beauties of the ride to Schenectady, through gloomy forests, where the silvery pine waves in solemn grandeur to the sighings of Eolus, while Boreas threatens in vain their firm-rooted trunks. But the lakes! Ah! Julia! — the lakes! The most beautiful is the Seneca, named after a Grecian king [sic!]. The limpid water, ne’er ruffled by the rude breathings of the wind, shines with golden tints to the homage of the rising sun. ... (44)

Cooper also supplied suitably genteel verse for the young ladies’ effusions. We can imagine in the mind’s eye the look on Cooper’s face as he aped the style of a vapid young lady, much as he was to do with even more gusto in his later satires: Anna Miller is an early but one-dimensional version of more complex enthusiast Opportunity Newcome in The Red Skins. And of course Cooper returned to the lakes most memorably twenty years later with his descriptions of the Glimmerglass in The Deerslayer.

Julia is thrilled that a family tour to Niagara will bring her briefly to the Miller’s modest home on the Genesee, a thrill intensified by letters from Anna that she is much admired secretly by a local gentleman Anna calls Antonio. At once but at a distance Julia falls in love with Antonio, ignoring the offer of young Weston whom she regards as insufficiently heroic-he had confessed to a very human start when a crack of thunder interrupted a summer outing. So obsessed does Julia become with Antonio that she imagines the uncouth coachman her aunt has hired to convey them to Niagara to be the young gentleman in disguise. (Had Cooper read of a very similar plot line in Tabitha Tenney’s Female Quixotism?) Even when Weston helps save the family from a fatal plunge in their carriage, Julia can see heroism only in the supposed Antonio.

“Heart,” the companion story, preaches the moral of true love unrewarded rather than false love corrected. Charlotte Henley, through her wit and elegance, wins the admiration of Seymour Delafield, the most eligible bachelor in Manhattan, “with his handsome person, and three hundred thousand dollars,” (138) Cooper several times iterates. To his surprise, Charlotte rejects Delafield’s proposal, for she has been in love with her modest and sickly friend George Morton since childhood. By saving a stricken man in winter, Morton exposes himself to the final ravages of one of those unnamed wasting diseases that carried off countless nineteenth-century characters. The unusual twist here is that the victim is male, but at least Charlotte and George confess their love before he expires, presumably amidst the sobs of their readers. Charlotte refuses all other offers, and Seymour consoles himself with marriage to Charlotte’s sensible (and poor) friend Maria.

In his Preface Cooper wrote:

When the author of these little tales commenced them, it was her [sic] intention to form a short series of such stories as, it was hoped, might not be entirely without moral advantage. ... They are intended for the perusal of young women, at that tender age when the feelings of their nature begin to act on them most insidiously, and when their minds are least prepared by reason and experience to contend with their passions. (iii)

Such protestations were of course commonplace in sentimental-domestic fiction on both sides of the Atlantic, before and after Tales for Fifteen. What effect the book had on young women we don’t know; we do know it probably did little good for Wiley’s finances (Cooper had offered the book free to his ailing friend) since, as Beard notes, only four copies are extant, suggesting very modest sales.

The question, as Beard knew, is without answer. To a degree Cooper, like Scott — but unlike the earlier American masculine authors — drew on both traditions; only his late romance Wing-and-Wing ends without a romantic marriage. And there is plenty of domestic pathos throughout his fiction — to mention only books I have read lately, think of the death scenes of fathers in The Spy and The Bravo, or perhaps best known of all, the “funeral obsequies” for Cora and Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans. And like Scott, Cooper also eschewed the more dramatic and even violent sides of earlier sentimental fiction — the abductions and seductions of Rowson and company are absent from both oeuvres. If Cooper did make a strategic decision between the two earlier traditions, he selected the path of the “masculine” adventure story, but not without occasional glances down the road not taken of the sentimental-domestic novel.


1 Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959, 1977, v-ix. The text is also available on the Society website. Further citations will be to this edition and given in parentheses after the quotation.

Illustrations (except that of Amelia Opie) are from the “Darley” editions (W.A. Townsend, 1859-61) of Precaution and The Ways of the Hour. — Ed.