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James Fenimore Cooper, Carey, Lea & Blanchard, and the Fable of the Indulgent Publisher

Steven P. Harthorn
(Williams Baptist College)

Placed on line August 2009

Presented at the 16th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2007

©2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 29-43)

Return to SUNY Seminars Articles & Papers

April 1844 marked the end of an eighteen-year-long business relationship between James Fenimore Cooper and his primary American publishers, Isaac Lea & William Blanchard of Philadelphia. It was negotiation—or perhaps the lack thereof—over Cooper’s 1844 novel Afloat and Ashore that would break this tie, which had lasted through the publication of some twenty-four new titles of Cooper’s works, beginning with The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and spanning several iterations of the publishing house, from Carey & Lea of the early 1820s to Carey, Lea & Carey in 1827, Carey & Lea again in 1829, then Carey, Lea, & Blanchard in 1833, and finally to Lea & Blanchard upon Henry Charles Carey’s retirement in October 1838.

Cooper’s early years with the firm had been prosperous: having taken on many of the roles of publisher in his early years of authorship from 1820-1825, he had been able to dictate strict terms for sales of his works that allowed him to reap sizeable returns on his editions. After a couple years of coaxing, and the death of his then-publisher Charles Wiley, Cooper yielded to Carey & Lea’s enticements of solid organization, expanded markets, and certain money—more than $5000, in fact, for Mohicans, a sum repeated again for The Prairie (1827), The Red Rover (1828), and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), and reduced only slightly to $4500 for his next three novels, The Bravo (1831), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Headsman (1833). Then, too, Cooper may have been swayed by the publishers’ assurances that “when an author makes an arrangement with us, he is never disposed to leave us,” implying not only profitable financial results but also the kind of personal attention and loyalty that that extends beyond the mere transaction of business.

Such assurances led William Charvat, the pioneering scholar of professional authorship, to declare in 1951 that “This statement represents the dawn of the modern author publisher relationship in America—a relation based on the conviction that there is no monetary or legal substitute for mutual confidence.”1 Similarly, David Kaser, in his Messrs. Carey & Lea of Philadelphia, has claimed that, in a period before author/publisher relationships in America were well-defined, Carey & Lea “had learned how to establish an author’s reputation and develop markets for his works, as well as to build up a feeling of confidence and trust to the mutual benefit of both the author and themselves.”2 Certainly the firm must have been doing something right to be able to claim as its own by the 1830s such luminaries as Cooper, Washington Irving, John Pendleton Kennedy, Robert Montgomery Bird, and others.

But did this ability to nurture “confidence and trust,” if it truly did exist, still remain intact by April 1844, when Cooper sought terms with Lea & Blanchard for Afloat and Ashore but was rejected? Much had changed over the years: for one thing, Henry Charles Carey, the ambitious son of the firm’s founder Mathew Carey, retired in October 1838 at a young forty-five years of age, leaving brother-in-law Isaac Lea and his partner William Blanchard (once a humble employee) to manage the business. Publishing had undergone a revolution as technology brought faster and cheaper methods of mass production, so much so that in 1842-1843 a craze for cheap publishing glutted the market with the nation’s first major wave of paperbacks. Profit margins in mass-market literature, correspondingly, became smaller and more dependent on large-volume sales. The economy had seen a number of ups and downs, with hard times in the wake of President Jackson’s removal of funds from the United States Bank, the Panic of 1837 and the Debt Repudiation crisis of the early 1840s. And most notably, Cooper’s writing during the 1830s had entered its “political” phase, causing sales of Cooper’s works to plummet and the author himself to become disillusioned with much of his reading public. It is this latter fact—supposedly illustrative of the argumentativeness and bitterness in Cooper’s nature—that is sometimes cited as the reason for the eventual dissolution of the connection between Cooper and Lea & Blanchard. Charles Madison, for instance, in Irving to Irving: Author-Publisher Relations 1800-1974, brushes aside the last two decades of Cooper’s career with the following remark:

After 1829 Cooper became tendentious in his writing—The Deerslayer excepted—and his books ceased to appeal widely to readers of fiction. Moreover, his political conservatism during the rise of Jacksonian liberalism and his contentious character tended to alienate his erstwhile admirers. His books ceased to be profitable, and Carey and Lea lost interest in them.3

According to others, it was only the indulgence of Cooper’s publishers—Carey, Lea & Blanchard in America as well as Richard Bentley in Britain—that preserved the author-publisher tie for so long, as they continued to deal with Cooper for loyalty’s sake long after the relationship had ceased to become profitable from a commercial point of view. William Charvat is one proponent of this argument:

For seventeen years the Careys patiently demonstrated to Cooper that they were doing everything a publisher could possibly do for an author, that they valued their association with him, but that they must be guided not only by his interests but their own, and by intelligent trade practice. Their surviving letters to him are models of candor, tact, sympathy, firmness, and humorous indulgence.
They needed all of these qualities, for Cooper was something of a spoiled child.4

James Franklin Beard also subscribes to this reasoning at times, such as when he suggests that the prices Cooper received for his novels “dropped sharply though gradually during the 1830's because of the unpopularity of his writings, though indulgent publishers had sustained him—often without profit or at an actual loss to themselves.”5

Unlike Madison’s dismissive oversimplification of Cooper’s later career, there is much truth in the observations of Charvat and Beard. Cooper himself recognized all too well that unpopularity was the price he paid for speaking his mind and standing up for what he saw as truth. He was also, undoubtedly, a shrewd and sometimes manipulative negotiator, if not quite the “spoiled child” Charvat brassily labels him to be. And there certainly were those works on which the various iterations of Carey, Lea, and Blanchard lost money, including a claimed $2600 on The Monikins alone. Still, I wish to suggest that there is something one-sided about these portrayals of Cooper’s author-publisher relations, or what I might call collectively the fable of the indulgent publisher. This fable is, in essence, a fable of patronage, one that ascribes more altruistic motives and implies deeper sacrifices on the part of the would-be patrons (the publishers) than might truly be the case.

First, the record of Cooper’s publication with his publishers, even during its bleakest years, was not so unprofitable to them as the returns on his first editions would suggest. Just as a movie today might fare poorly at the box office but eventually reap many times its initial returns in the secondary markets of home video, cable, merchandizing, and so forth, well-positioned publishers stood to harvest easy profits from subsequent impressions and editions of a work, especially if the work had been stereotyped. Cooper was usually amenable to arrangements that gave Carey’s firm rights to reprint, sometimes permitting a specific number of copies at a fixed rate but sometimes granting entire control of copyright and plates for a set period of time, allowing the publishers to reprint at will with no further monetary obligation to Cooper. In 1826, for instance, he not only sold Carey & Lea for $5000 the rights to his new novel The Prairie for four years but for another $2500 gave them the rights to reprint his five earlier books, The Spy, The Pioneers, The Pilot, Lionel Lincoln, and The Last of the Mohicans, to the ends of their respective copyright periods. By the mid-1830s, when the “retired” novelist Cooper was publishing his unpopular travel series and the would-be indulgence of the firm could be said to have reached its height, Carey, Lea & Blanchard still had an impressive portfolio of profitable Cooper literary property they could fall back on—some thirteen works between The Spy and The Headsman. Title-page imprints suggest at least eleven different impressions of The Last of the Mohicans between 1826 and 1838, and at least sixteen before 1849. The Spy would see at least nine by 1838 and thirteen by 1843, with additional loaning of the plates to J. & J. Harper in 1832 and Justin Carpenter and P.N. Wood of New York and Baltimore, respectively, in 1834.

Even works that sold slowly in their first editions soon made their appearance in new editions. The firm had complained to Cooper in 1832 about The Heidenmauer, which they disliked from the beginning (partly because of its “politics,” partly because of its “detestable name wh. no one can pronounce”6) saying that the book “has failed more completely, we think, than any book you have written.”7 Nevertheless, by 1835 the book was already appearing as “A New Edition.” Likewise, in 1828, while Cooper was commanding $5000 sums for his fiction, Carey, Lea & Carey offered only $1500 for his nonfiction Notions of the Americans, doubtful of its commercial prospects, but the work would appear under at least nine new imprints from as early as 1832 on, with Lea & Blanchard’s last coming as late as 1848.

It is difficult to know, without exhaustive collation, whether each of the many supposedly new editions truly represents a new impression off the plates rather than just being old stock dressed in the new livery of title page and covers. Publishers sometimes kept stock on hand in sheets, binding volumes only when demand required, but they were also not averse to more elaborate machinations: during the cheap publishing boom, for instance, Lea & Blanchard are said to have torn the cloth bindings off of unsold copies of some of Cooper’s works (including, most notoriously, Mercedes of Castile) in order to repackage them in paper covers for quick clearance sale. Nor is it easy to ascertain the size of the new editions. The firm only rarely entered reprints into their cost books: we have record, for instance, of a run of 500 copies of The Pilot in early 1842 for inclusion in a set of Cooper’s sea tales, done at a cost of $110.00. From around the same time we have an entry for a set of Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales that shows a unit cost of $1.90 per set but gives no clear indication of how many were printed. Such haphazard recordkeeping would cause Cooper to become suspicious that the firm was reprinting some of his works beyond their contractual rights without paying him his proper due. On one trip to Philadelphia in early 1844, he thought he had uncovered signs of discrepancies, as he reported to his wife: “I have been busy among the trade, and have learned a great deal. I have been giving Lea & Blanchard from $1500 to $2000 a year.”8 The precise nature of these findings is unclear, but a day later he gave written notice that the rights he had granted them to reprint The Spy, Pioneers, Pilot, Precaution, and Lionel Lincoln would terminate on 27 August 1844—a move that may well have contributed to the impasse over Afloat and Ashore only a few months later. We know of no actual acts of fraud on Lea & Blanchard’s part, and indeed have record of several instances in which the firm wrote Cooper to negotiate additional printings, so the matter remains murky; what is clear, however, is that the indifferent accounting of reprints made misunderstanding more likely. More importantly, looking at Carey, Lea, & Blanchard’s total accumulation of Cooper’s literary property over time rather than focusing only on the returns of individual first editions makes it clear that the publishers had ample means to recoup any losses they might suffer on a single work. Overall, whatever difficulties they might have faced with a particular work—or even a number of subsequent works, as in the mid-1830s—publishing Cooper was a profitable enterprise.

The firm’s “indulgence” in defending that profitable enterprise was limited. Indeed, despite their well-established relations with Cooper, the firm expressed no initial willingness to take several of Cooper’s works. The firm at first declined to offer Cooper any money for Gleanings in Europe: Italy, the fifth and last volume in his European travel series, though Cooper eventually was able to barter a meager $200 for his efforts. When the publishers failed to make an offer for Home as Found after taking Homeward Bound, Cooper told his wife, “I think my connection with Carey draws to a close.” When Cooper sought terms for The Wing-and-Wing in 1842, Lea & Blanchard replied that in the state of the times, they had little disposition “to enter into new enterprises.” And in September 1843, Cooper was uncertain as to whether or not Lea & Blanchard would purchase Ned Myers, telling his wife nearly a week after arriving in Philadelphia to negotiate, “Lea & Blanchard do not come into my terms, and I may be obliged to print myself.”9 Although he was able to secure terms for that book through Carey & Hart, his outlook would soon prove prophetic when negotiations for his next book, Afloat and Ashore, would come.

The firm’s indulgence proved limited in other ways as well. When Cooper’s novels fared poorly in the marketplace, they seldom failed to remind him that they had warned him of their misgivings in the first place. Despite the unqualified success of The Bravo against Carey & Lea’s doubts, they expressed hesitation about his next novel, The Heidenmauer (1832). Worried about bad conditions in the book trade, the quality of the story, and even its “detestable” title, they delayed publishing to wait for more favorable conditions for sales. Whether or not they had created their own self-fulfilling prophecy from the start, they soon announced to Cooper that the book has “failed more completely, we think, than any book you have written— The times are against it, but it was very much against itself.” Indeed, the publishers professed, “So strong was our impression that such would be the case, that we would very gladly have sold out at cost, or below it, before publication.”10 Along the same lines, as publication for Mercedes of Castile neared in October 1840, Cooper reported to his wife that “Lea has read it, and likes it too,” yet when the novel failed miserably in the marketplace, Lea & Blanchard sought a partial refund of the copyright money they had paid Cooper, to the tune of some $500, noting that “under the circumstances of this state of the sale of this work & the fact that we stated to you our disappointment in the character of the work before publication it being different from what you stated previously to finishing it, we would ask you if this heavy loss should fall entirely upon us.”11 Then, too, at one point in 1834 when the Carey, Lea & Blanchard encountered cash flow problems amid a rash of bookseller bankruptcies, Cooper was asked by Henry Carey to extend the terms of notes the firm had paid him for The Headsman, at a time when the only project Cooper had on the horizon was The Monikins, about which the firm proved cagey in hazarding a bid.12 As can be seen from these examples, the publishers were not the only ones who had to extend indulgence now and then.

The literary and commercial judgments of the firm were not always right, and, particularly after the 1838 retirement of Henry Charles Carey, the member of the firm who sought a strong presence for the firm in fiction, they became skeptical about their once strong faith in the possibilities for American fiction. Opportunities were missed, with Cooper and with others. An entry for Lea & Blanchard in The American Bookseller’s Complete Reference Trade List for 1847, for instance, shows the discrepancy in presentation of their most famous American author—Cooper—and their most famous British one—“Boz,” a.k.a. Charles Dickens. One finds a listing for The Curiosity Shop in royal octavo, “with over 100 illustrations, extra cloth,” for the trade price of $1.25, or in a “common edition, sewed,” for forty cents. Below, an entry lists “Boz’s Works” in seven volumes royal octavo, “with numerous plates and cuts,” for $9.00, or in the common edition for forty cents per volume. By contrast, Cooper’s works show no such ornamentation: one finds a set of “Cooper’s Novels and Tales” in 47 volumes (including the single-volume Ned Myers) for twenty cents a volume (forty cents for an entire novel), sewed, or in a fancier two-volume-in-one sheep gilt format for $13.80, making sixty cents per volume (Ned Myers being omitted from this set). Undoubtedly some of these titles were old stock, since by late 1844 Lea & Blanchard had sold off their rights to several of the works, which were being issued by Cooper’s subsequent publishers, Burgess & Stringer of New York. One also finds “Cooper’s Sea Tales” in six volumes and “Cooper’s Leather Stocking Tales” in five, for sixty cents a volume in cloth.13

It is tempting to point the finger at the lack of international copyright for the relative fanciness of the Dickens volumes; after all, Lea & Blanchard could conceivably invest more in the production of the work since their copyright costs were nothing or next to nothing. Yet many of the Cooper works they issued required no further royalties to the author, allowing them to be sold at a competitive price against foreign titles—indeed, when the firm sought to sell off its last remaining Cooper holdings in 1849, some twenty-eight volumes, it specifically stated that “There is no copy-money payable on these works.”14 Clearly, Lea & Blanchard did not deem Cooper’s works of significantly “premium” value to invest similar attention to fine editions as they showed for Dickens. It would be up to Cooper’s later publishers to seek out a premium niche for his novels as classics of American literature, most notably with George Palmer Putnam’s revised edition of eleven of Cooper’s tales, Stringer & Townsend’s “Choice Edition” of the mid-1850s, and especially with William Adee Townsend’s splendid 1859-61 edition of Cooper’s novels, illustrated by Felix Octavio Carr Darley. Townsend in his advertisement for the series would boast in bold capital letters of his investment of twenty thousand dollars for the over five hundred engravings adorning his “Splendid national edition,” which he labeled a “national literary enterprise.”15 Lea & Blanchard, perhaps jaded by their years of dickering with Cooper, saw no such opportunity and made no such investments in their American authors. As they would tell William Gilmore Simms (in the course of calling his novel Confession “a total failure” and predicting the same fate for The Kinsman), “We do not see much hope in the future for the American writer in light literature—as a matter of profit it might be abandoned.”16

Cooper and Simms were not the only authors to encounter bad luck at the hands of Lea & Blanchard. Edgar Allan Poe found himself turned away entirely for a second book with the firm in 1841 after his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque failed to remunerate the publishers—this despite the fact that in both cases all profits would go to the publishers, Poe’s only compensation being twenty copies of each book for “distribution to friends.”17 And in 1842 Washington Irving, after some complicated back-and-forth to negotiate new terms for his old works, which Lea & Blanchard had been allowed to reprint for an annual fee of $1150 under a contract that would soon expire, found himself without a publisher after no satisfactory terms could be agreed upon, leaving him stuck in Madrid in a diplomatic post with his “home resources” in America “drying up.”18 When at the end of the decade he found his reputation and income revived through the enterprising efforts of George Palmer Putnam, the supposedly “amiable” Irving would tell Putnam, “You had confidence in the continued vitality of my writings when my mousing Philadelphia publishers had suffered them to mould in their hands and had almost persuaded me they were defunct.”19 Clearly, Lea & Blanchard did not hold the same high opinion of American literature as they once had held: by the 1850s, fiction would largely disappear from their offerings as the firm saw the appeal of slow but steady and ample profits from textbooks and medical writings. Cooper, perhaps more shrewd than his literary peers, had managed to weather a number of hard times in his own career and in the literary marketplace, but by 1844 the determination of both author and publisher to work together was growing thin.

In a number of ways, then, Carey, Lea, & Blanchard were not necessarily the “models of candor, tact, sympathy, firmness, and humorous indulgence” that Charvat saw in their letters. I have taken this somewhat contrarian point of view not to disparage Carey, Lea, or Blanchard, who must despite any shortcomings rank among the greats of antebellum American publishers, but rather to suggest the dynamic and complicated nature of Cooper’s career and the literary marketplace in which he worked. Reading Wayne Franklin’s new biography recently, I am struck afresh with the extent that Cooper interacted in a world of personal relationships. Cooper’s relations with his publishers represent an intriguing blend of the personal and the professional—a business relationship founded on personal loyalty, indeed, but also upon negotiation. In them, we find fascinating exchanges that are usually mutually respectful, often friendly, but seldom disinterested.


1. William Charvat, “Cooper as Professional Author,” New York History (Special Issue—James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal) 35 (October 1954) 508.

2. David Kaser, Messrs. Carey & Lea of Philadelphia: A Study in the History of the Booktrade (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 89.

3. Charles A. Madison, Irving to Irving: Author-Publisher Relations 1800-1974 (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1974), 7-8.

4. Charvat, 508.

5. James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964-68), 4:435.

6. Carey & Lea to JFC, 23 March 1832: Letters and Journals 2:151.

7. Carey & Lea to JFC, 8 October 1832: Letters and Journals 2:361-362.

8. JFC to Mrs. Cooper, 18 January 1844: Letters and Journals 4:443.

9. JFC to Mrs. Cooper, 17 September 1843: Letters and Journals 4:409.

10. Carey & Lea to JFC, 8 October 1832: Letters and Journals 2:361-362.

11. Lea & Blanchard to JFC, 9 February 1841: MS, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

12. See JFC to Henry Charles Carey, 12 February 1834: Letters and Journals 3:32-33.

13. The American Bookseller’s Complete Reference Trade List, and Alphabetical Catalogue of Books Published in This Country, with the Publishers’ and Author’s Names and Prices Arranged in Classes for Quick and Convenient Reference, compiled by Alexander V. Blake (Claremont, N.H.: Simeon Ide, 1847).

14. Clipping of printed listing, possibly in trade sale catalog or similar trade publication, attached to signed contract between Lea & Blanchard and Stringer & Townsend, 21 September 1849, covering purchase of certain copyrights and stereotype plates of Cooper’s works. “Cooper Materials in the Files of Lea & Febiger,” item 12, Lea & Febiger papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

15. “Splendid Illustrated Edition of Cooper’s Novels, Issued in a Style of Unsurpassed Elegance....” [Advertising Broadside] (New York: W. A. Townsend & Co., [1858]), [1].

16. Lea & Blanchard to William Gilmore Simms, 16 December 1841: in Earl L. Bradsher, Mathew Carey, Editor, Author and Publisher: A Study in American Literary Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1912), 93.

17. See Edgar Allan Poe to Lea & Blanchard, 13 August 1841, and Lea & Blanchard to Poe, 17[?] August 1841: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume XVII: Poe and His Friends; Letters Relating to Poe, Ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902), 101-102.

18. Washington Irving, The Complete Works of Washington Irving: Letters, Volume III, 1839-1848, Eds. Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Klienfield, and Jennifer S. Banks (Boston: Twayne, 1982), 186-187, 189-191, 323.

19. Washington Irving to George Palmer Putnam, 27 December 1852: MS, George Palmer Putnam Collection, Princeton University Library. The letter is published in Letters, Volume IV of The Complete Works of Washington Irving, but the editors take their text from various facsimiles of the letter that have “my mousing publishers” expurgated. J.C. Derby’s Fifty Years among Authors, Books and Publishers (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co, 1884), 308, prints the letter with a less offensive “my former publishers” replacing the decidedly unamiable remark.