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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. 19-22)
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Fourteen years ago, on this very stage, I announced in words echoing those of Mr. Vincent Crummles, of Provincial Celebrity, that it would be “positively the last appearance on any [page]” of my efforts to locate, to collect, and to edit any more extant unpublished letters of Fenimore Cooper.1 Alas, my announcement, like that of Mr. Crummles, has been repeated, endlessly, as—and because—the ever-elusive letters of Mr. Cooper, like those of Mr. Micawber, keep turning up. On that day I had about seventy letters; now I have about a hundred. Since James Franklin Beard’s sixth and final volume of Cooper’s Letters and Journals appeared in 1968, these new discoveries now make a seventh volume even more possible. While few of these letters will add any significant insight or new information to the life and times of America’s first and most popular novelist, each letter, like a piece of flotsam or jetsam, may provide answers to unsolved problems if read in the context of other letters. They, too, tell a story, and help to solve an endless mystery—one I call “The Case of the Missing Corpus,” the corpus, in this case, the elusive and unpublished correspondence.
One of the problems with editing letters is that once you begin, you find it impossible to stop. Cooper letters surface regularly, and they may continue to “turn up (which I am, I may say, hourly expecting)” almost indefinitely. No one made the slightest effort to collect the letters after Cooper’s death, and when Beard began to assemble the texts in the 1940s, with the family’s blessing, they were inconceivably scattered. As Beard indicated in a letter to me in 1988, “I had the greatest difficulty persuading my peers that a sufficient number of Cooper letters had survived to justify an edition. Less than 200 of his letters had been published, including those in The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, published by the grandson and namesake of the novelist in 1922, many those incompletely given. With the generous assistance of the Cooper family and innumerable collaborators—I mean the hundreds of librarians, collectors, fellow editors, friends, and interested persons all over the globe—it was possible to assemble the approximately 1,200 letters included in that edition. I have continued the search and letters have continued to surface, unpredictably, year after year; and so it is still possible that the job may someday be reasonably complete.”2
If we are committed to the proposition that texts—whether letters, literary works, or documents—are the indispensable basis for sound scholarship and criticism, then biography and practical criticism—however important—can be truly useful only if they are based on accurate texts. We have a voluminous and increasing body of scholarship on the subject of literary texts and a growing body of scholarship on the subject of biography, but we have an exceedingly small body of literature on the subject of editing letters, aside from statements of editorial policy in editions of letters themselves, and an even smaller body of scholarship on the interrelationships of different kinds of editing and the arts of biography and criticism. My interest in editing is with the nature and implications of these interrelationships.
The modern practice of assembling, editing, and publishing posthumous collections of letters of prominent and even minor authors is relatively new, encouraged if not inspired by nineteenth-century biographical practices, usually sponsored by universities or learned societies. Sometimes letters were published in tandem with the literary works and a biography. This perfectly natural association of the works, the letters, and a biography persists in many of the CEAA-CSE projects for which there is no satisfactory pre-existing edition of letters. Multi-volume editions of letters have burgeoned recently, so that their total expanse measured in volumes sometimes equals or exceeds the expanse of the works. Thomas Tanselle argued in Studies in Bibliography that “‘literary’ editors of letters have frequently tended to pay more attention to purely textual matters; ‘historical’ editors, on the other hand, have concerned themselves fully with such matters as arrangement, annotation, and other amenities that encourage and enlarge reader interest and contextual involvement.”3 The Cooper Edition has embraced both principles, but argues that letters should not be presented simply as a bare-bones sequence, prefaced as they sometimes are by long lists of recipients and dates, in unbroken sequence, and with minimum annotation; but instead should be supplied with whatever explanatory matter is needed to elucidate the texts and to enhance the reader’s understanding and enjoyment—to supply that in an informed factual context.
Different editors and different university presses have acknowledged this problem of context in different ways. Beard’s edition divides Cooper’s letters into segments corresponding to chapters and distributes the burden of the footnotes by prefacing each section with a brief biographical essay, two or three pages, usually pertinent to the letters each segment contains. Beard employed this method because he believed that editors have a double responsibility to readers—to devise a method for presenting the text that is as fully responsible to the copy-text as possible and to design a context that enables the reader to appreciate the larger significance of the contents of the letters.
The unpublished letters in my edition will follow Beard’s modus operandi. All letters will be numbered according to their chronological location within Beard’s six-volume edition by assigning Arabic numerals indicating their approximate positions in the main chronological sequence and by adding lower case letters (14a, 26b, 38c, for example) at the end of the numerals to fix their positions exactly. Additional editorial procedures used to present the text (the process of presenting the physical body of the text in terms of orthography, grammar, syntax, paragraphing, and punctuation; the use of descriptive notes and footnotes, for instance) will be followed; and the edition will contain a list of abbreviations, short titles, a catalog of sources, an index of recipients, and a general index.
Certain problems reading Cooper’s script predominate. Kay Seymour House once wrote to me saying some files at the American Antiquarian Society on Cooper’s novel The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish had been labeled by work-study students as the “Wept of Washington.”4 And Lance Schachterle explained several years ago to this body the conundrum caused by the compositor’s apparent misreading of Cooper’s hand in that famous scene in The Deerslayer where the reader must ask whether Judith Hutter’s marital fate is a product of her “consciousness” of “undue erring” or “undeserving,” an argument that still has not been solved to everyone’s satisfaction.5 Other such errors may not mislead the reader, but they do delete nuances Cooper wanted. In Satanstoe, for example, the compositor’s misreading of Cooper’s now for soon destroys the humor of Corny Littlepage’s discovery about the heroine when she disapproves of a cynical remark made by his rival&mdsh;“I thought something like displeasure settled on the fair, polished, brow of Miss Mordaunt, who I could now see [as opposed to soon see], possessed much character and high principles for one of her tender years.”6 In The Spy, the editors discovered both author and compositor missing errors (such as Dr. Sitgreaves firmly establishing his “segar box”—rather than his cigar—in his mouth) and Cooper’s humorous marginalia commenting on Isabella Singleton’s death—“I’m damned glad she is dead,” clearly unintended for, but no doubt shared by many of his readers—surviving.7
Collation of the many states of Cooper’s books reflects the same kinds of problems encountered in editing letters. The best example remains the problem Kay House raised when she alerted me to the existence of an unpublished Cooper letter for sale for $1,750, at Howard Mott’s Rare Books and Autographs shop in Sheffield, Massachusetts, in 1991. Described in Mott’s catalog as an ALS to Richard Bentley, dated May 27, 1848, from Otsego Hall, Cooperstown, the one-page holograph, Mott notes, is “An excellent letter about London publication of The Bee-Hunter; or, The Oak Openings.... Cooper speaks of Fagan, the New York stereotyper, and inquires whether the duplicates of the first 18 chapters have been received. Says he is leaving about the 10th of June for Detroit on the same business that took him there the previous year, and that he will then finish the book and forward the sheets, putting publication about the end of July, having delayed as Bentley wanted. He worries twice about theft of the sheets from shipboard, speaking of ‘Mr. Newby’s jackal’ as a ‘regular thief.’ Apparently Cooper suspected Newby of piratical practices.”8 I immediately checked the index in the Letters and Journals to find what other references might be there to Mr. Newby since the piracy of Cooper’s manuscripts was a recurrent problem in the international-copyright-less nineteenth century, and more than once Cooper apparently wrote and set in print “dummy” chapters in order to catch such a thief.
I checked the Letters and Journals and discovered the letter had been published by Beard. I compared the Mott catalog copy with the printed letter and found that they were identical with but two exceptions. First, Mott’s copy states the “the duplicates of the first 18 chapters have been received”; Beard’s edition says the “first 15 chapters.” Second, Mott states that Cooper spoke of “Mr. Newby’s jackal” as a “regular thief,” while Beard’s edition states that “Mr.-----Gadsall is a regular thief,” with a notation that “Mr. Gadsall” is unidentified. Because The Spy was published in America as a two-decker (15 chapters in each volume), and because Cooper’s fives are often misread as eights, the 15 chapters was the correct reading. And whoever read the holograph for the facsimile edition must have misread “Mr. Newby’s jackal”; I concluded Beard followed suit.9
When I wrote to Mott of Sheffield (not to be confused with Brooks of Sheffield) and asked if I could have a photocopy of the holograph, two weeks later he sent me an answer as well as the much sought-after photocopy.10 Mott quickly admitted what I had already concluded: he had misread 15 for 18. A close examination of the manuscript solved the second—it was “Mr. Newby’s jackal,” although the lowercase “jackal” described by Mott is actually an uppercase “Jackal” in the manuscript. The manuscript of this letter is like other Cooper letters in particular and manuscripts in general in containing what Lance Schachterle calls “capitalization by contagion.” Cooper frequently precedes or follows one capitalized word with another. Slips of the pen and inadvertent capitalization will be emended in my edition. At the beginning of a word, Cooper’s s, t, and g could either be capitals or lower case; consequently, the transcription is governed by interpretation of his intentions. Capitals are clearly called for at the beginning of a sentence and on proper nouns, while lower case is needed for words like “some,” “the,” and “good” occurring within a sentence.
Cooper’s punctuation is equally mystifying. He often used a short line, placed low at the level of the lines on the paper, as a period. These are fairly easy to distinguish from his frequent dashes, but sometimes they are also misleading. Cooper often left confusing spaces in the middle of compound words. Confronted with “in deed,” I have had to compare that space with the equally large spaces, often on the same line, and transcribe “indeed” as one word. As a rule, however, he seemed to prefer “anywhere” and “everywhere” as one word, while “any thing,” “some thing,” and “every thing” (the thing words) are generally written as two words. Then, too, Cooper’s spelling needs attention. Words he habitually misspelled, such as “particularly” (particularily), “receive” (recieve), “coolly” (cooly), and “fortnight” (forthnight) have been emended, as have other words in the letters (“route” and “rout”) where an acceptable spelling could be misleading read in context.
Such recycling, remaking, and retelling the same stories repeatedly—if we agree that each letter tells its own story—is not the aim of textual editing, but if it can clarify or expand the meaning of a text, it is a worthwhile objective. To the lay reader, such minutiae may appear insignificant, but to the textual sleuth, whose responsibility is to provide critics with accurate texts, and to the critic, whose task it is to interpret those texts, it is very significant. For example, two weeks ago at the American Antiquarian Society, I discovered in their manuscript collections a long, two-page letter from Cooper to Samuel F. B. Morse dated 25 August 1832 from Zurich.11 According to the lightly penciled notations made on the manuscript by an unidentified hand, attached with typed information on a second white sheet of typing paper, the letter and a Cooper portrait had been “remove[d]...from vol[ume] 1 of [the] set in [a] blue box” containing an 1841 Philadelphia-published Lea and Blanchard edition of The Deerslayer held at the Society. I immediately checked Beard’s edition and found the letter published in his volume two. Or so I thought. I quickly discovered that in Beard’s edition the first paragraph of the letter was missing. Having used as his source of the letter, a copy from the Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, Beard indicates in a note that “The first page of the copy is missing. According to the catalogue listing, however, the letter began with an invitation to Morse and Greenough to join the Coopers at Vevey, where they intended to await the abating of the cholera epidemic in the United States.”12 The letter itself provides Cooper’s responses to contemporary events as he and his family survey Switzerland and the “great plotting and counter-plotting all over  Europe,” and the newly-discovered first paragraph of the letter in manuscript opens the conversation with Morse, exchanges pleasantries and greetings from Mrs. Cooper, and provides a missing link. It completes one story, and it may help complete another page of another story.
The unpublished holographs I have collected record events from 1826 through 1850. Some are undated or short notes; others are several pages long. Most of them can be classified roughly into three areas—letters written to publishers that deal with the ongoing publication of Cooper’s works; letters addressing financial matters, including litigation; and familiar letters written to friends from both the United States and Europe.
Letters to publishers provide us with another look at Cooper at work. Included in this group are instructions to John Fagan, Cooper’s stereotypist. One deals with corrected proof sheets of The Crater he wishes Fagan to send to the Globe Hotel in New York where he expects to stay on 15 June 1847;13 another instructs Fagan to take “to press at once” The Sea Lions so he can get off a volume by the middle of September, 1848;14 and a third details the financial and stereotyping arrangements between Cooper and Fagan for the publication of the Putnam edition.15 Three more letters reveal Cooper’s business acumen. In the letter from St. Ouen on 2 July 1827 to Francis Moore (the agent of Henry Colburn, Cooper’s British publisher at the time) about Red Rover, Cooper urges that “the different editions should be set in motion” because his “interests...require that he [Colburn] should decide speedily.”16Cooper adds that “I can prove to you that I cleared nearly the sum I ask by the sister book The Pilot and I presume had I not sold the remains of the second edition in a lump, with other books, I might have got the whole. The publisher made as much as myself.” In Moore’s response a day later to Cooper’s letter, also in manuscript at the American Antiquarian Society, he acknowledges “receipt of [the] very obliging note of yesterday’s date, and I take advantage of the departure of a friend, who proceeds this day to London, to write again to Mr. Colburn on the subject of ‘the Red Rover,’ requesting he will give me his final instructions on it immediately.”17 Moore adds, “If I might presume to hope you would agree to the same conditions as those for which you had disposed of your admirable Romance of ‘the Prairie,’ I would close the bargain immediately.” Three weeks later Moore announces that Colburn has agreed to pay the author “Three hundred pounds for a first Edition of 1750 copies,—and a further sum of one hundred pounds, should he be able to publish a second edition of it.”18 All three letters illustrate the nature of the publishing business in the first half of nineteenth-century America and expose author and publisher’s agent as single-minded in seeking the advantage.
In a new letter to Richard Bentley dated from New York, 17 March 1845, Cooper informs Bentley that “by the Montezuma, or Liverpool Packet, which sails today, I send you half of Satanstoe, or the Family of Littlepage. This is half of the first three books. Each book will have a distinct name, distinct hero, heroine, and the connection will be historical rather than personal. Duplicates will be sent by the next ship, and the work complete will be sent about the 20th next month. As I wish to publish here about the middle of May, or 20th, at latest, you had better go to press. Against this book I have already drawn for £123.6.10 I shall now draw for £76.15.2— making £200 in all, and for the balance of £150, when the book goes forward complete.” He even instructs Bentley to “Put my running title at the top.”19 It is a simple letter; nonetheless, it provides us with another glimpse into Cooper’s business instincts.
Similarly, in a letter to George Palmer Putnam, dated 20 April 1850 from “The Hall,” Cooper addresses Stringer and Townsend’s control over his copyrights and plates and Putnam’s publication of his book in the forthcoming Putnam edition.20 Ever the businessman, Cooper even queries the quality and price of the paper Stringer and Townsend want to use. Paper was very expensive in Cooper’s day, and if you have ever examined any of Cooper’s manuscripts, you will readily note that he uses virtually every inch of the paper in writing letters and novels. There is no white space in a Cooper manuscript. He ends this Putnam letter by remarking that the “sheets of Rural Hours have not arrived,” and he wants them soon, for “Mr. Bentley may wish to go to press.” As a father, he believes his daughter’s book is “delightful” and “far out-tops any book of this country with which [he] is acquainted.” Ten days earlier, in another April letter to Putnam, Cooper had inquired about the publication of The Ways of the Hour and the criticism that Cooper fears may come from its resemblance to the sensational trial of Harvard professor John White Webster, sentenced to be hanged for the murder of Dr. George Parkman, uncle of the historian.21
A final letter, typical of its kind, reveals Cooper’s desire to maintain control over his work at all stages of composition. Cooper writes to Carey, Lea, and Blanchard on 16 April 1836 and details the final changes he has made in Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland, published later that same year.22 In it, Cooper describes the errata he has discovered and changed, a list that demonstrates Cooper’s developing critical eye for detail. For example, he corrects spelling (accessories for accessaries), punctuation (changes a comma to a semicolon), meaning (substitutes mildness for temperature), and grammar (replaces detaches for detach). These minor editorial changes once again help us realize that Cooper was not the careless, slipshod writer he has sometimes been suspected of being. Cooper’s texts were remarkably corrupt because compositors had difficulty reading his script, because he did not always read proof against printer’s copy, and because frequent resettings had left a heavy toll of corruptions.
Most of the financial-related correspondence is with James De Peyster Ogden, Cooper’s lifelong friend and business associate, and these letters add some new information to their professional relationship and Cooper’s dealing (financial and otherwise) with friends. In one dated 19 March 1837, Cooper tells Ogden that “Mr. [William] Dunlap is desirous of fifty dollars more, and I wish to oblige him. I do not know whether there is that much left of my last draft in your hand or not, but I shall be down at the close of the month, and will draw again.”23 Cooper helped finance Dunlap’s History of the American Theater, later made investments for him, and loaned him money from time to time. Another, dated from Otsego Hall on February 13, 1841,24 addresses George Roberts, publisher of the weekly Boston Notion, and complements a series of correspondence Beard publishes between Cooper, Roberts, Ogden, and David Williams, Boston bookseller and publisher. These letters were written within a month of each other, and each responds to the others’ queries about such issues as Cooper’s lawsuits, problems with newspaper accounts of Cooper’s work, and a discussion of contemporary authors.
Probably the most interesting of the unpublished manuscripts are the familiar letters written to family and friends. Chatty and opinionated, they recount Cooper’s day-to-day observations of European life and the family’s adventures at home. On 12 September 1840 Cooper writes to the Reverend Benjamin Hale, then president of Geneva College (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges), about his son Paul Fenimore, who entered college in the Fall of 1840 and graduated in 1844. He warmly recommends his son and hopes Reverend Hale will find Paul “sufficiently advanced in his studies to be able to enter the Freshman class.” The father understands that his son has “not read all the books [Hale] recommend[ed], while he has read some you [Hale] did not require. He [Paul] is pretty well grounded in the classics, however, and I should think would be fully able to keep up with any ordinary Freshman class. He is a boy of high principles, we think.”25 And on 4 June 1845, Cooper writes a short note to his nephew Richard Cooper about a continuing legal quibble he has with Mrs. (Susannah Pritchard Wayland) Stone, widow of William Leete Stone, the result of a continuing suit Stone filed against Cooper before Stone’s death, one from which she wanted to be released, but a request he refused. Nothing can be gained by the delay, he explains, and “they will have to pay more costs.”26 Eventually Mrs. Stone won the case, and Cooper ironically ended up paying her expenses.
Two letters to Mrs. Peter Augustus Jay illustrate his feel for European life. The first, dated December 20, 1828, from Florence,27 is one of a series of long letters (or, as Cooper says to Mrs. Jay, “Whew—what a lecture I am writing to you.”) he wrote to Mrs. Jay (the next in the series was sent in January-February, less than a month later, about his stay in Europe, and it appears in Beard’s edition). 28 Most of the first letter describes his social rounds in Florence where he resided between October 1828 and July 1829, but it also includes a narration of his travels through Holland, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria on his way to Italy; a description of his digs in Florence; a list of local social customs; and some pointed social commentary on American society. The second letter to Mrs. Jay, dated July 1, 1832, from Paris,29 includes a variety of witty observations of life in France. Taken individually, few of these letters—quite charming in tone—provide any significant insight or new information. Taken collectively, however, I would argue that this flotsam and jetsam contributes several important pieces to the as yet uncompleted puzzle known as the life and times of Fenimore Cooper, as Wayne Franklin demonstrates in the first volume of the life. At worst, even the odd cigarette ash may find itself providing an answer to a knotty problem in an important monograph. New clues—like individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle—often mean nothing until they are understood in the context of other clues and complement other pieces. Then they tell—or sometimes retell—a story, giving it new life and new meaning and new significance.
This morning I have told you stories about the kinds of problems encountered in collecting and editing the letters of a nineteenth-century American writer. I sometimes think that after I see my edition of the unseen corpus of Cooper letters published, I will be more than willing to say that I, like Holmes, shall retire to beekeeping and finally admit, once again, that it will “positively be the last appearance on any [page]” of my sleuthing efforts to establish the text of any of Cooper’s works. But then, of course, how many times did Mr. Vincent Crummles make this announcement?
1. See Jeffrey Walker, “The Importance of Flotsam and Jetsam in Editing the Unpublished Letters of James Fenimore Cooper,” in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, ed. James D. Wallace (Oneonta: State of New York University College at Oneonta, 1993), 52-63, for an initial discussion of the difficulties of locating, collecting, and editing unpublished Cooper letters.
2. See James Franklin Beard, “Texts and Contents: Some Thoughts on Editing Letters,” an unpublished essay included in personal correspondence, 7 July 1988.
3. See G. Thomas Tanselle, “The Editing of Historical Documents,” Studies in Bibliography, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 1-56, for a discussion of the problems of editing letters and historical documents.
4. TLS from Kay Seymour House, personal correspondence, 18 August 1991.
5. See Lance Schachterle, “The Editorial Crux of ‘undue erring/undeserving’ in The Deerslayer,” in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, ed. Hugh C. MacDougall (Oneonta: State of New York University College at Oneonta, 2003), 69-78, for a discussion of this problem.
6. See the Textual Commentary in Satanstoe; Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts, ed. Kay Seymour House and Constance Ayers Denne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 451-461, for a discussion of such issues.
7. See the Textual Commentary in The Spy; A Tale of the Neutral Ground, ed. James P. Elliott, Lance Schachterle, and Jeffrey Walker (New York: AMS Press, 2002), 435-457, for a discussion of the many textual variants.
8. Howard S. Mott, Autographs, Manuscripts, and Inscribed Books: Catalogue 221, 18 February 1992, Sheffield, MA.
9. Cooper to Richard Bentley, 27 May 1848, in Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-1968), 5:367-368, esp. n. 2, hereafter cited as L&J.
10. TLS from Howard S. Mott, personal correspondence, 20 March 1992.
11. . ALS from Cooper to Samuel F. B. Morse, 25 August 1832, American Antiquarian Society, Box 2, Folder 20.
12. Cooper to Samuel F. B. Morse, 25 August 1832, in L&J, 2:314-316, n. 2.
13. ALS from Cooper to John Fagan, 11 June 1847, Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
14. ALS from Cooper to John Fagan, 8 August 1848, Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
15. ALS from Cooper to John Fagan, 17 October 1849, Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
16. ALS from Cooper to Francis Moore, 2 July 1827, American Antiquarian Society, Box 2, Folder 13.
17. ALS from Francis Moore to Cooper, 3 July 1827, Box 3, Folder 22.
18. ALS from Francis Moore to Cooper, 23 July 1827, American Antiquarian Society, Box 2, Folder 15.
19. ALS from Cooper to Richard Bentley, 17 March 1845, American Antiquarian Society, Box 3, Folder 16.
20. ALS from Cooper to George Palmer Putnam, 20 April 1850, American Antiquarian Society, Box 3, Folder 21.
21. ALS Cooper to George Palmer Putnam, 9 April 1850, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, No. 24708. Typescript by Kay House, donated by Ruth A. Child, 1954.
22. ALS Cooper to Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 16 April 1836, American Antiquarian Society, Box 3, Folder 2.
23. ALS Cooper to James De Peyster Ogden, 19 March 1837, American Antiquarian Society, Box 3, Folder 3.
24. ALS Cooper to George Roberts, 13 February 1841, Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, CT.
25. ALS Cooper to Reverend Benjamin Hale, 12 September 1840, Special Collections, Hobart and William Smith College, Geneva, NY.
26. ALS Cooper to Richard Cooper, 4 June 1845, American Antiquarian Society, Box 5, Folder 22.
27. ALS Cooper to Mrs. Peter Augustus Jay, 20 December 1828, John Jay Collection, Columbia University Library.
28. Cooper to Mrs. Peter August Jay, [January-February 1829?], L&J 1:353-360.
29. Cooper to Mrs. Peter Augustus Jay, John Jay Collection, Columbia University Library.