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Cooper and His Collaborators: Recovering Cooper's Final Intentions for His Fiction

Lance Schachterle
(Editor-in-Chief, The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper,
Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2003 Conference of the American Literature Association in Cambridge, MA.

© 2003 by James Fenimore Cooper Society
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers
No. 18, August 2003, pp. 1-3

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Author's Note: The Complete Draft Text is Available from the author.

In his thirty-year-long writing career, Cooper achieved an epistolary friendship with at least three important contemporary publishers, Charles Wiley in New York, Richard Bentley in London, and Henry Charles Carey in Philadelphia, as well as the Philadelphia stereotyper John Fagan. The necessities of nineteenth-century publishing required Cooper to rely upon the faithful professional collaborations of these publishers and their staffs — especially the compositors who set type, the proofreaders who spotted errors and hopefully assured that Cooper's corrections to proofs were incorporated into the published texts, and later the stereotypers who oversaw the production of plates derived mechanically from the standing type.

Understanding Cooper's interactions with those professionals he had to work with to get his words into print is crucial for placing his work and its current reputation in its proper place. Modern readers, even academics (who, as we shall see, should know better), too often dismiss Cooper, like the equally-prolific Scott, from serious consideration as a writer because of his alleged indifference to style and to the overall quality of his writing. Too often the fun of reading Twain on Cooper becomes in college surveys the easy substitute for the harder work of reading the real Cooper.1 Even important scholars like William Charvat contributed to the unjust denigration of Cooper's work ethic when (against evidence readily available had he looked), Charvat blithely stated that "rewriting and revision of manuscript seem never to have caused him [Cooper] any pain — simply because he did not rewrite."2

Begun in the late 1960's, the scholarly series "The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper" (WJFC) seeks to provide evidence of Cooper's concern for presenting his texts clearly and accurately in their initial appearance before his reading public, and when opportunities arose, for revising earlier titles he knew, as his career matured, would benefit from careful revision. The evidence of the twelve novels in the series in print demonstrates conclusively that Cooper developed effective (but never fool-proof) procedures for revising his manuscripts before submitting them to his printers and for reading and revising the resulting proofs. (For more information on the WJFC, see our Web site at www.wjfc.org.)

Like all authors before the advent of the typewriter, Cooper had to submit to his publishers a handwritten manuscript — either in his own difficult and crabbed script, or one copied by a secretary from his own draft (producing a document easier to read but already at one remove from Cooper's own words.) In Cooper's first novel, Precaution (1820), he discovered painfully that even the best print-shops in New York introduced many errors into their typesettings of his manuscript. On August 25, 1820 a steamed Cooper complained bitterly to his publisher Andrew Thompson Goodrich that

if the book be printed in this careless manner revision by the author is useless it is possible from haste there may be grammatical errors — but I wish my own language printed — having quite as much faith in my own taste as in that of any printer in the Union.3

Clearly Cooper did care about his writing style — "I wish my own language printed — having quite as much faith in my own taste as in that of any printer in the Union." But in the very same phrase of his letter Cooper acknowledged his inevitable reliance on the professionals in the print-shop, to whom he (like every author before or since) looked implicitly to correct those "grammatical errors" which slipped in "from haste."

The full text of my paper draws upon Cooper's correspondence and the textual comentaries in the volumes of the WJFC to show in detail the evolution of Cooper's relationship to those he worked with throughout his career in help him get his writings, in texts as accurate as his collaborations could make them, before the reading public. This evidence shows the following:

When Cooper sent his manuscripts directly to his publishers (without an intervening secretarial fair copy), he always re-read his manuscripts and tried valiantly to clarify what he had learned were cruces in his handwriting that caused problems for compositors — especially distinguishing vowels and the terminal letter "s." His care was especially apparent in his prolific last decade (in which half his fiction was written) when he usually sent his own final manuscript directly to the printers for composition.

In 1831, Cooper agreed to revise eight of his earlier works for inclusion in the new and prestigious "Bentley Standard Novels" series. The surviving revised manuscripts (for The Prairie, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, The Water Witch, and especially The Spy) show how seriously Cooper went about this task, changing not only whole paragraphs but correcting punctuation and dialect spelling to achieve with uncommon precision the pacing of the reading and the differentiating of the tonalities of American speech he wanted.

While Cooper was always willing to corner his printers and let them know their duties (as he wrote his wife in 1850, the year before he died),4 he did come to respect and rely on real professionals when he found them — either in Bentley's establishment or in the stereotyper John Fagan, on whom he came increasingly to rely in the 1840's to query major manuscript problems or even to use his own judgment and knowledge of Cooper's practices to correct minor ones.

Better understanding Cooper's expectations for his collaborators is important for addressing the contemporary debate over editorial theory and practice: should critical editions choose as their base texts the forms closest to the author's original inscriptions (such as the manuscript, thus preserving the author's first thoughts on wording, spelling and punctuation) or the earliest printed version (thus capturing any improvements resulting from copy-editing and authorial proof-reading)?5 Resolving this question requires the kind of understanding of the author's writing and proofing practices that this paper attempts to provide for Cooper. Beyond establishing the bases for editorial practices for the WJFC, knowing how he supervised production to try to get "my own language printed" helps us to comprehend how he produced over fifty books in thirty years.


1. In "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Defenses: Twain and the Text of The Deerslayer," the present author and Kent Ljungquist recount Twain's jealous dislike of Cooper. Twain not only purposely misread Cooper for his own comic purposes, but freely invented "offenses" in The Deerslayer that are not in Cooper's text. See Studies in the American Renaissance (1988), pp. 401-417. Also on-line at: http://www.oneonta.edu/external/cooper/articles/other/1988other-schachterle.html.

2. "Cooper as Professional Author," in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal (Cooperstown, NY: New York State Historical Association, 1954.) Even a cursory glance at one of Cooper's manuscripts would have shown Charvat how inaccurate this statement is.

3. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1960), 1, 54.

4. 22 May 1850, Letters and Journals, 6, 180.

5. For a recent review of these issues, see the first two parts of Peter L. Shillingsburg, Scholarly Editing in the Computer Age: Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) and D. C. Greetham, Theories of the Text (NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), especially chapter 4, "Intention in the Text."

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