American Fiction before Cooper Worth Reading

James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/articles/suny/2008other-schachterle.html

American Fiction before Cooper Worth Reading

Lance Schachterle
(Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

Placed on line February 2010

Put on-line with the kind permission of the author
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletters Nos. 54 and 55, Vol. XIX, Nos. 2 and 3 (Fall and Winter 2008)

Return to Other Papers | Articles & Papers

Part I

Approximately 125 novels can be considered American in origin before Cooper in late December 1821 published the first continuing success in American fiction, The Spy, or A Tale of the Neutral Ground. This number is approximate since different scholars have used different criteria in "counting" an early novel as American. Was the author an American writing in English (no one I have seen has looked at French or Spanish claimants to this title)? Was the work long enough or fictional enough or "American" enough to be an early American "Novel" (though more likely the author would have called it a "Tale" or even "History")?

Having never read in any way systematically in American fiction before Cooper, I recently enjoyed this task in preparing a bibliographical essay for the second volume of Literature in the Early American Republic: Annual Studies in Cooper and His Contemporaries (edited by fellow Cooper Society members Matthew W. Sivils and Jeffrey Walker). In addition to working through more scholarship on pre-Cooper fiction than I had imagined existed, I re-read or (mainly) read for the first time some of the titles that turn up most often in accounts of early American fiction. Readers of the Newsletter might enjoy perusing some of Cooper's predecessors, both for their intrinsic interest and merit and to get (as I did) a clearer idea of why The Spy took American (and European) readers so much by storm.

Until Cathy N. Davidson published her monumental Revolution and the Word in 1986, virtually all commentators on early fiction favored adventurous or satiric stories by men (Brackenridge, Brown, Imlay, and Tyler) over the sentimental domestic fiction most often associated with women authors like Rowson. Davidson changed all that, by arguing forcefully that the fiction of early American women authors gave voice to people and concerns silenced by the male politicians (and novelists) of the early Republic. While some of the critics who followed up on Davidson's ground-breaking work pushed her feminist agenda to degrees I find hard to accept—making to me intrinsically weak novels into enormously subtle subversions of the Patriarchy—her scholarship, probity, and common sense continue to provide reliable and reader-friendly guides to fiction in this period.

I have chosen eight novels to comment on—five by men in this issue, and three more by women in the next. This gender division almost parallels that between adventurous and domestic/sentimental fiction, the exception being that the earliest of the latter, The Power of Sympathy, was written by a man. All these texts are currently available in paperbacks, largely for college audiences (noted below), and should be accessible through libraries, book shops, or online at places like Amazon or Abebooks.

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) is the early American novelist most readers have heard about if they can identify anyone before Cooper. In a remarkable outburst of creative energy, in 1798-99 Brown published the four novels by which he is now best known—Wieland, Arthur Mervyn (in two parts), Ormond, and Edgar Huntly. I re-read Edgar Huntly on the grounds that Cooper mentions it by name in his 1821 preface to The Spy where he mocks the novel's most famous scene which "contains an American, a savage, a wild cat, and a tomahawk, in a conjunction that never did, nor ever will occur." Edgar Huntly is also important in the Cooper canon because Brown's preface argues for using American not European materials in language quite close to that which Cooper himself employed a generation later. Instead of turning for fictional excitement to "Gothic castles and chimeras," Brown argues, American novelists must recognize that "[t]he incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable; and, for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology."

Charles Brockden Brown

Like all Brown's best-known fiction, Edgar Huntly is told by a first-person narrator. Early critics attributed the occasional inconsistencies and dead-ends in the plot (happily there are fewer here than in his other fiction) to Brown's clumsy technique.

But for the last several decades, most critics—Davidson is the rare exception—attribute such lapses to a highly artful authorial design to render the narrator unreliable—not the author. In my view, the jury is still out, novel by novel, on the key question of who's really confused—the teller or the tale.

Edgar Huntly is Brown's only novel dealing with the frontier and Indians, themes of special interest to Cooperians. Set vaguely in Norwalk, a small frontier community on the Delaware River somewhere around Philadelphia, the novel takes place mainly out of doors and at night—for the titular hero is disclosed to be a sleepwalker. The landscape of Edgar Huntly is anything but Cooper's sometimes vivid, sometimes chiaroscuro sketches; Brown's intention to make the landscape a drab wasteland is clear throughout. This wasteland mirrors the protagonist's mental state, as Edgar early on is drawn by the power of sympathy (a key concept as we shall see) to a mysterious—and ultimately mad—Irish emigrant, Clithero Edny. Clithero is a fellow sleepwalker and therefore, a psychological double to Huntly. Here as elsewhere, Brown concentrates on mental not social states, to the degree that most of the central characters seem implicated, in some mysterious way, within the mental conditions of the others with the result (to me) that they lack individuality or motive. At the same time, Brown has little interest in describing Norwalk as a "pioneer" village; no scene of animated village life appears remotely like the vitality of Templeton in The Pioneers.

Brown's style is solid wood, and varies little in tone throughout—in part because the entire 250-page novel is a narrative Huntly ostensibly is indicting for his fiancée (so that action, conversation, and reflection pass through an unvarying formal voice.) Brown/Huntly verbalizes only in structures of elaborate, balanced grammar with elevated, generalized diction—which I found especially distracting when Huntly, employing the genteel formalities of late 18th century prose, tries to tell us of the several occasions when he's freaking out.

And then there are Brown's denizens of the frontier—panthers and Indians. Huntly tomahawks one of the former when escaping from the pitch-black pit he finally realizes his somnambulism has led him into, by braining it between its glowing eyes—all the physical description we get of the beast Cooper was to make so real a threat in The Pioneers. Huntly then goes on to kill, in various ways, no less than five Indians—for the rather delicate Huntly is nonetheless a hunter, both physically and psychologically. Possibly Cooper recalled Huntly's reflections on killing his first Indian in Natty Bumppo's initiation scene in The Deerslayer four decades later. But there is no nobility whatsoever to Brown's Indians: they are brutes and often equated with animals. Even a promising lead on an Indian character, whom Huntly calls "Queen Mab"—an old woman past one hundred who refuses to be driven from her lands and lives on white guilt—goes nowhere. Brown mentions but does not develop her character; rather "Queen Mab" is thrown away by dismissing her as an evil conspirator with the Indians who have invaded the settlements in revenge of their wrongs. (Cooper did enormously more with a similar character, Susquesus, in The Littlepage Trilogy.)

Nonetheless, I'd recommend Edgar Huntly to anyone wanting to "try" Charles Brockden Brown in terms of his relationship to Cooper. Arthur Mervyn is a more complex work, which modern critics have taken as a brilliant first exposition of the American con-man: Arthur, like the Ben Franklin of his Autobiography, seeks the reader's favor while increasingly disclosing his self-aggrandizement. But the plot is difficult to follow compared to the relatively straightforward Edgar Huntly (though the psychology is really fascinating), and the Philadelphia-sited Mervyn lacks all the interest of an attempt before Cooper to depict the frontier and its inhabitants. In Edgar Huntly Brown provides by far the best novel before The Last of the Mohicans on "[t]he incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness."

The Power of Sympathy

The "power of sympathy" to bring two people into communion was an important concept in late 18th century psychology and fiction. William Hill Brown (1765-1793) used exactly that phrase as the title of his 1789 novel, which—coinciding neatly with the new Constitution—is now generally taken as the first American novel. Like so much fiction of the period, Brown follows Samuel Richardson in using the epistolary narrative, though Brown employs the technique with little of the psychological complexity of the best of Richardson's followers. (And to date no one has approached the complexity of Richardson's own masterpiece of 1748, Clarissa Harlowe.) In The Power of Sympathy, Brown inserted no fewer than three tales of seduction into the template of incestuous love that is the main narrative. Harrington, an avowed rake, initially proposes to seduce the beautiful but lower-class Harriot to whom he is strongly attracted for reasons he cannot quite fathom. However, Harriot's beauty and virtue lead him to abandon seduction for genuine and successful courtship—which Brown, in a patriotic bid, parallels with Harrington's conversion from British to American political, moral, and artistic preferences. But the short narrative soon discloses that the source of this sympathy is Harriot's being Harrington's father's illegitimate daughter and thus the hero's half-sister. Harriot dies of grief at not being able to consummate her love, and Harrington commits suicide—incestuous love in the late 18th century not quite yet a consummative scandal, as it was to become for Byron, Poe, Melville, and Wagner.

Within this hundred-page text, three other sex scandals illustrate the pious admonition on the title page that the novel will "expose the dangerous Consequences of Seduction." Most extraordinary is the story of the fictional Ophelia's seduction by her brother-in-law Martin, extraordinary because it derives from the contemporary real-life scandal of the powerful Perez Morton's seducing his young sister-in-law. Every reader in Boston would have seen through this transparent fictional guise, and also would have appreciated the separate inserted story of the death in childbirth of the well-born but unmarried Elizabeth Whitman—a narrative clumsily inserted as a long footnote deriving from contemporary newspaper accounts which told a story that American Fiction before Cooper resonated for almost a century later. (Hannah Foster fictionalized the account of Elizabeth Whitman in her 1797 novel The Coquette, which I shall review in the next installment.) The third tale concerns a young swain who drowns himself after his fiancée is abducted by a libertine.

Thus within a hundred pages, The Power of Sympathy relates four juicy sex stories within the guise, as the preface assures us, of a text written to promote morality and education—for women. Perhaps, as Davidson argues, the book did not sell particularly well because much of the text is devoted to moralizing on these sins—perhaps along with the attempts (debated for generations of Boston historians) of the Perez Morton family to suppress the book. In any case, the efforts of Isaiah Thomas—one of the two most prominent publishers of the day and the founder in Worcester of the American Antiquarian Society—to make a best-seller of what he promoted as the first American novel largely failed. Many modern readers, though, will appreciate Brown's attempts to boost American cultural currency. Not only does Harrington eschew Lord Chesterfield's aristocratic and rakish morality to propose an American democratic marriage among different classes, others in the novel specifically promote the poetry of the Connecticut Wits—even the young Noah Webster receives a free puff. And slavery in the South gets, as usual, a bad press from a New England author. Modern critics, with some reason I think, see the narrated delinquencies of the senior Harrington and Morton/Martin as efforts on the author's part to challenge the power of established patriarchal politics in the early American Republic. But I am left to wonder how many readers at the time would have stepped back from an early version of Peyton Place to make such conceptual extrapolations.

Hugh Brackenridge

Modern Chivalry (1792-1815) is the product of a colorful Princeton graduate who settled out west (Pittsburgh), Henry Hugh Brackenridge (1748-1816). A practicing lawyer and politician, who like many early American college graduates, could always turn his hand to literature, Brackenridge began publishing (ultimately in five installments over twenty three years, totaling 800 pages) a modern rendition of Don Quixote, with his Captain Farrago the Don, his Irish "bog-trotter" servant Teague O'Regan as Sancho Panza, and, most important, early America as a land full of illusions the book illustrates and often punctures. Modern Chivalry has never lost an audience, thin though its readers may have been at times, because of its reputation for good writing and excellent satire. I found both the style and the satire over-rated; Brackenridge more often uses the club than the rapier. I suspect historians of early American literature—virtually all men before Cathy Davidson—liked the book because it's blunt, sometimes racy, and never sentimental or domestic, women virtually never having roles except as foils to men.

Modern Chivalry

Modern Chivalry has its merits, but more for its satiric illuminations of society and politics in the early Republic than as a work of art. Critics have always seen, rightly I think, Captain Farrago as a somewhat self-serving and malleable source of authority (partly paralleling Brackenridge's own moderate and wavering Federalist career) who tries with very mixed success to guide his servant (read: the unwashed American electorate) into the paths of righteousness. As the volumes proceeded from their author's pen, Farrago grows less effective, O'Regan more outrageous and successful, and Brackenridge more frustrated as he increasingly lectures the reader in the authorial voice.

But many incidents still are fun. Like all good satirists, Brackenridge needles politicians, the professions, and especially the learned societies, as well as the working and mechanical classes. Contemporary American electioneering receives in Modern Chivalry the comic immortality Dickens confers on the British variety a generation later in Pickwick Papers. Brackenridge casts an interesting light on Indian policy in the 1790's when con-men try to hire O'Regan to impersonate an Indian chief who will sign away ancestral lands: O'Regan's thick brogue serving perfectly, for their purposes, as appropriate Indian gibberish. As the con-man tells Farrago, "Indian speeches are nearly all alike. You have only to talk of burying hatchets under large trees, kindling fires, brightening chains; with a demand, at the latter end, of blankets for the backside, and rum to get drunk with." Starting with The Pioneers in 1823, Cooper began to show decisively that Indian speeches are not all alike.

Gilbert Imlay (c.1754-1828) is an American author I first encountered when reading the British Romantics, for he formed a professional and sexual liaison with Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) before she married William Godwin, and died in bearing a daughter Mary who lived to marry Shelley and write Frankenstein. His only novel, The Emigrants (1793), is often cited as a major source of Romantic day-dreaming about creating a radical Utopia on an Edenic American riverbank. (Coleridge married, ultimately unhappily, for companionship to emigrate to just such a colony, but the plan fell through.) Unfortunately, the novel falls far short of that aim, since the presentation of the Utopia occupies only a single page and is presented as a future scheme, not a design under way. The Emigrants is an epistolary sentimental love plot in which the hero does (virtually by accident) save the heroine from Indian captors, but the violence is at a minimum. Imlay's language is highfalutin' in the extreme, as if he's always trying to show his cultivated audience he can indict in the style of a class far above his own. The novel is worth the attention of anyone who wants an example of American landscape painting in words before Cooper, since Imlay's ulterior motive in writing the book was to market his own endless and failing real estate ventures in the newly-opened Ohio valley.

The final early novel by an American male I want to commend to our Newsletter readers is Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive (1797). Like Brackenridge and C. B. Brown, Royall Tyler (1757-1828) earned his living as a lawyer. (American colleges educated those who sought professions either for the law or the clergy, and both occupations afforded time for "amateur" writing on the side. Clergy who wrote novels in the period naturally stuck to more didactic fiction.) The Algerine Captive never fell from complete favor as The Power of Sympathy did until recently; Cooper referred respectfully to it in his 1822 review of Catharine Maria Sedgwick's A New England Tale as one of two early American works he would like to see preserved.

Royall Tyler

The novel takes places in the 1790's when Britain no longer protected the American merchant marine. Europeans dealt with the Barbary pirates either by superior naval force or paying an annual bribe. The young Republic could do neither, and Washington was highly embarrassed by these depredations on Americans which he could not resist. President Jefferson did resist by force, sending the navy and marines to the shores of Tripoli—to the great delight of Cooper, always an advocate for a strong navy and an early chronicler of these wars in his 1839 History of the Navy.

Like most of the other works discussed here, The Algerine Captive is a fairly short work; it fell to Scott in the early nineteenth century to popularize the 600-700 page novel that became the standard in England but not America. (Cooper published in two volumes here but his novels were stretched out to the three volumes required in the British trade by generous margins, type font and spacings.) To this modern reader, Tyler's only novel is the best read of this lot. Crafted in sixty-nine short chapters (few over four pages) in two volumes, the novel is really three separate narratives, the last two interconnected. The story of the early life of the up and down hero, Dr. Updike Underhill, is a pleasant satire on the pretensions of a poor but college-educated gentleman to make his way in the world. Underhill quotes Homer in the original at the drop of a lady's handkerchief, and is met with dumb silence (when unlucky, worse happens). His short tenure as a country schoolteacher is nasty, brutish and hilarious. His attempts to establish himself as a country physician are wonderful send-ups of the profession at a time in which minimal medical intervention was the safest cure. Underhill's birth, youth on a farm, education, and travels in the early Republic form volume one of the novel; Tyler's clear and amiable satiric prose strongly anticipates Washington Irving's, the young Underhill resembling in many ways the young Ichabod Crane.

The second thread of the novel is the scenes of captivity in Algiers (which largely occupy volume two), which provide not only a fillip of adventure, but social criticism still of interest today. Before embarking on a career as a maritime physician (after numerous failures on land), Underhill narrates a painful encounter with a black slave in Virginia savagely beaten by his master, a minister whom the slave fails to get to church on time. Tyler's satire on Southern mores is intensified by his showing the minister compensating for the delay by telescoping his sermon so that all at church may get on with the real business of a Sunday, horse-racing. Tyler's subsequent graphic scenes of the suffering of slaves on a captivity ship are as powerful as the early first-hand accounts he may have used as sources. The early Abolitionist views of narrator and author come through clearly here, so the reader, then and now, should have no trouble in drawing the appropriate conclusions when Moslem Algerian pirates enslave a white American man: slavery is an evil no matter who practices it on whom.

Tyler qualifies, perhaps sardonically, the brutality of Underhill's enslavement by showing, after some brief episodes of physical suffering, that the Algerians generally treat their slaves much better than the Americans. The third strand in the novel are the chapters summarizing Tyler's readings in the culture, history and customs of the Moslems, who are described with respect. Indeed, Underhill's pallid defense of Christianity against a wise "mullah" (himself a convert from Christianity) distressed many reviewers who thought Underhill should have swept the theological field. As chance enslaved him, chance frees him to return home, presumably a sadder and wise man like Coleridge's contemporaneous Ancient Mariner. In the preface to his travels, Underhill presents much-quoted observations on how American culture has changed during his absence. Before he left for sea, average New Englanders read mainly works of piety, but "[o]n his return from captivity, he found a surprising alteration in the public taste. In our inland towns of consequence, social libraries had been instituted, composed of books, designed to amuse rather than to instruct; and country booksellers, fostering the new born taste of the people, had filled the whole land with modern Travels, and Novels almost as incredible."

Historians of the book in part bear out Tyler/Underhill's observations that novel-reading began to increase in the last years of the 18th century. But it fell to a British woman long resident in America, Mrs. Susanna Haswell Rowson, to publish in Philadelphia in 1794 the first "American" book to gain widespread popular readership which grew through the century. With Rowson's Charlotte Temple we'll begin the second part of the introduction to fiction before Cooper, in the next issue.

Part II

Afra Behn (1640-1689) is the first woman to become a significant English novelist and playwright; her 1678 novel, Oronooko, or the History of the Royal Slave, depicts sympathetically the tribulations of a noble African enslaved in Surinam and is sometimes considered the "first American novel." Jane Austen (1775-1817) wrote her six great novels before Cooper started his writing career; her last novel, Persuasion, published in 1818, is sometimes taken to be the work that inspired Cooper's first novel, Precaution. The early works of the Americans Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867) rivaled in their success Cooper's novels of the 1820's.

susannaa rowson

But the most popular author, male or female, in the early Republic was Susanna Haswell Rowson (c. 1762-1824), whose Charlotte Temple (London, 1791; Philadelphia, 1794), according to the Oxford Companion to American Literature, had 161 editions in the United States by 1933. A tear-jerker about a fifteen-year-old girl seduced and abandoned, Charlotte Temple fell from favor until Cathy N. Davidson's monumental Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (1986) argued for the cultural importance of the work, both in terms of its depiction of male/female relationships and of British arrogance in the Colonies. (The novel takes place during the Revolutionary War though the military conflict never intrudes on the domestic.)

Charlotte Temple begins with a formula that became widespread in the domestic seduction genre: "For the perusal of the young and thoughtless of the fair sex, this Tale of Truth is designed; and I could wish my fair readers to consider it as not merely the effusion of Fancy, but as a reality." Presumably few readers ever mistook these two small volumes—the modern edition runs slightly over one hundred pages—as anything other than a novel, but the conventions of the time led authors, as Rowson does here in her Preface, to assert the story was true, to enforce its moral warnings.

Through the machinations of Mademoiselle La Rue, the beauteous Charlotte is lured from Madame Du Pont's English boarding school into eloping to New York with the rake Lieutenant Montraville, who marries there a wealthy heiress rather than the poor and now pregnant Charlotte. Montraville's intentions to provide for Charlotte and their child are frustrated by the novel's true villain, Belcour, who lusts for Charlotte himself. (Note Rowson shows her patriotism by giving all the immoral characters French names!) Belcour tricks Montraville into believing the faithful Charlotte is sleeping with him, and Charlotte, near term, is cast adrift on a wintry night after Montraville cuts off his support. She dies giving birth to a daughter (there's a sequel herein), just as her father arrives to forgive her. Montraville discovers Belcour's treachery and dispatches him in a duel. His forgiving wife accepts his indiscretion (clearly she knows the ways of the world). The contrite Montraville resorts often to Trinity Churchyard to weep over Charlotte's grave—as generations of affected readers did for decades to come, presumably after admirers of the novel erected a gravestone in Charlotte's memory.

As with all American fiction before Cooper, readers most often encounter Charlotte Temple as a classroom assignment, especially since in recent decades many teachers have sought to expand the accepted canon beyond the works traditionally assigned by white male authors (and faculty). The sexual revolution of the 1960's rendered the social issues of Charlotte Temple's pregnancy largely moot; the author's frequent apostrophes to direct the responses of various kinds of readers and to drive home her heroine's sense of isolation and loss of love can strike modern readers as forms of sentiment which no longer engage much interest. But I think modern critics, whether feminists or not, are correct to insist that our sense of early American fiction requires us to acknowledge the genre to which Rowson contributed so much. As Davidson argues, novels like Charlotte Temple—popular with all ages and both sexes—helped early readers to understand the crucial importance of "proper" courtships and marriages in an age when women, before and after wedlock, had essentially no legal standing. Once beyond the watchful eye of prudent parents—assuming they were so blessed—young women of this period were targets for sexual and financial exploitation by men to whose immorality the culture largely turned a deaf ear.

The Coquette; Or, The History of Eliza Wharton; A Novel; Founded on Fact (1797) by Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840) probes the condition of young women in the early Republic more searchingly than Charlotte Temple. The novel is, in fact, based on a true story, the death in childbirth in a lowly inn of the well-connected Elizabeth Whitman in 1788. Unlike the inexperienced Charlotte Temple, Eliza Wharton (like the real-life Elizabeth Whitman) is well educated and spirited; as such, she seeks the independence to marry a man she loves, not either of the socially-acceptable but dully conventional suitors her parents arrange for her. Freed through the death of her first suitor, Eliza Wharton accepts without enthusiasm the advances of a second respectable clergyman, a Mr. Boyer. But as her letters to her friend Lucy Freeman show, she is increasingly attracted to the known rake Major Sanford, tempted by the old adage that a reformed rake makes the best husband. Lucy Freeman assumes the role of moral monitor, warning her friend against such folly, but as her own rather drab marriage shows, acceptance of conventional wedlock to support the Republic by overseeing a productive home does not guarantee happiness, much less the freedom her name connotes.

hannah webster foster

Eliza, who is away from home through much of the novel, confesses to her mother she is "volatile"; her coquettishness consists at first in writing frankly about the degrees of attractiveness of the men around her, and then receiving the advances of the sexy but immoral Sanford. (Sanford, unlike Montraville, rarely displays in his letters anything but lust for the object of his pursuit.) When Sanford marries for money, after some qualms about continuing any relationship, Eliza accepts his entreaties to become his mistress, presumably for the sexual fulfillment it brings—like the real-life Elizabeth Whitman, she is in her late thirties and knows her time for passion is passing by. When she flees, pregnant, to an obscure inn, she lectures her seducer on his perfidy but blames herself all the more for giving in, dying after delivering a stillborn child. Sanford's wife returns to her family, and he is consumed by his debts as well as guilt over Eliza's death. Eliza's friend, Lucy Freeman (now Mrs. Sumner), writes to Eliza's other close correspondent, Miss Julia Granby, the final admonition: "From the melancholy story of Eliza Wharton, let the American fair learn to reject with distain every insinuation derogatory to their true dignity and honor."

Unlike Rowson, whose marriage to a deadbeat husband required her to support his family through her very public career as author, actress, and school mistress, little is known about Foster other than that she (unlike Eliza) married a minister and apparently settled down to a life of domestic productivity. On the basis of The Coquette, Foster may be judged the more sophisticated novelist, as she handles the epistolary form with considerable skill. As in Richardson, different letter writers assess the same situations from their differing points of view. To the modern reader, Eliza's coquetry emerges from the egotism to which she confesses in her first letter. She thinks and writes with great self-conscious expression about her feelings and observations. She does not play the conventional game of restraining her thoughts and actions within the circumscribed expectations for an eighteenth-century unmarried woman; she does not accept the guidance of friends and family to achieve a marriage which places the solidarity of the community above her personal desires. Presumably to her first readers, her punishment is just, but modern readers are more likely to respect her attempts to find happiness within a confining, hypocritical, and unjust society.

The final novel by an American woman who published before Cooper which I want to comment on is my own favorite among all these early novels, Female Quixotism, Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (1801), by Tabitha Gilman Tenney (1762-1837). Like Foster, what little is known about Tenney is through her husband, a surgeon who became a Federalist senator for a term. Readers may wish to ponder the irony that all three novelists considered here have names compounded of their given, maiden, and married names; they were known by their husband's standing not their own.

Female Quixotism is that rarest of literary works, a comic (but bitter) novel over two hundred years old which offers numerous scenes which are still really funny. In Female Quixotism, Tenney narrates in the third person the life story of Dorcas Sheldon, only daughter of an indulgent father whose wife died when their daughter was three. Allowed by her father to read romantic fiction at home (rather than being sent to proper schooling in Philadelphia like her friend Harriot Stanly), Dorcas becomes so enamored of romantic novels that she changes her first name to the more poetic "Dorcasina." Dorcasina's extravagant adventures rarely get her beyond her father's garden, but she finds even there plenty of troubles.

female quixotism

In Book One, the young Dorcasina rejects a suitable conventional suitor on the grounds that his advances are not couched in sufficiently elegant terms; despite the fact that both fathers encouraged the match, the young man retires from the suit, realizing Dorcasina is too fantastical for his commonsense tastes. Roughly a decade later, in the romantic family arbor she meets a young man O'Connor, who quickly decodes her weaknesses and pursues her with the full high-flung romantic style she seeks. Her father, suspicious of her suitor's past and intentions, at length discovers him to be an Irish criminal, but Dorcasina resists many efforts to undeceive her by turning the evidence against O'Connor into the machinations of mysterious enemies to thwart their love. Only when O'Connor is publicly punished does she reluctantly cast him off.

Throughout Book One, Dorcasina's maid Betty plays the Sancho Panza role of realistic servant trying to protect her mistress against harmful fantasies. But Betty herself increasingly, as she ages, becomes susceptible to the supposed attentions of younger men, for herself as well as her mistress. The role of guardian thus moves to the family servant Scipio, apparently an African slave early on but later a freed man—the novel covers roughly half a century. (Scipio, historians note, may well be the first African-American presented sympathetically in American fiction.) While Scipio is not immune from playing tricks on his mistress and her pretended lovers, he seeks to preserve the family's honor more effectively than any one else by thwarting the men who seek the hand (and £1000 a year estate) of a woman never noted for beauty, and older and more gaunt with each new adventurer. In Book Two, Dorcasina, by various interventions of Scipio, her father, and after his death, the Stanlys, is saved from a loveless marriage to the disguised servant of the wounded Captain Barry whom she admires, to a businessman widower who cares only for her money, and finally, to a heartless villain prepared to commit bigamy to secure her fortune. Most romantically, she conceives an attachment for a young rustic in the family service for whom she fantasizes a genteel past—despite all the evidence of his language and bearing to the contrary. To extract Dorcasina from these entanglements, Tenney invents scenes of cross-dressings and cross purposes, along with mistaken identities in ill-lit houses, that are worthy of Fielding (or the Marx Brothers).

The final insult of the near-bigamist awakens her from her delusions. In the long letter closing the novel which she writes to Harriot Stanly, now married to Captain Barry, she confesses that "I now find that I have passed my life in a dream, or rather a delirium; and have grown grey in chasing a shadow, which has always been fleeing from me, in pursuit of an imaginary happiness, which, in this life, can never be realized." She dedicates the rest of her life to the only socially-acceptable role available to a woman her age in her day: a spinsterhood devoted to helping the less fortunate. Tellingly, she signs the letter "Dorcas Sheldon"; Dorcasina is no longer. Tenney rounds out her analysis of a woman's life in the early Republic by briefly signaling that the one "good" marriage in the novel, between Harriot Stanly and Captain Barry, is not without its misfortunes—Harriot's mother dies soon after the wedding, and after the Barrys lose their first-born child, both sink into disease. The realities of early nineteenth-century mortality and health intrude into the one romance of the novel.

Charlotte Temple, Eliza Wharton, and Female Quixotism cannot of course be taken as representative of fiction about women in the early Republic—many romances then as now ended with the expected "they lived happily ever after"—but the emergence of these three novels as the most interesting examples of novels authored by women tell us something about both their period and ours. Judging from these examples, Americans did not encounter an able young American woman with the potential to raise a family to the further glory of the Republic until Cooper created Elizabeth Temple in The Pioneers in 1823.

For further reading:

Henry Hugh Brackenridge (1748-1816)
William Hill Brown (1765-1793)
Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810)
Gilbert Imlay (c.1754-1828)
Royall Tyler (1757-1828)
Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840)
Susanna Haswell Rowson (c.1762-1824)
Tabitha Gilman Tenney (1762-1837)

Return to Top of Page