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Illustrated Editions of Cooper's The Spy: A Survey

Steven Harthorn
(University of Northwestern-St. Paul)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on "Cooper and Visual Culture" at the 2016 Conference
of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

©2016 by James Fenimore Cooper Society
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal, Spring/Summer, 2016, pp. 6-12

Placed on line September 2016

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Dunlap Spy Picture
Fig. 1. William Dunlap, Scene from The Spy, 1823-24. Fenimore House Collection

{p. 6} Next to James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales, one of the most popular of Cooper's works has been his 1821 novel The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. The Spy was the book that secured Cooper's fortune as a novelist after his initial experiment at authorship with Precaution in 1820; its treatment of Westchester, New York, during the Revolutionary War suited Cooper's talents much more than his attempts to imitate British society in Precaution, and The Spy became an international sensation. Although its popularity seems to have waned in the last few decades, the novel enjoyed well over a century of widespread readership in America and abroad.

One testament to the cultural currency of The Spy can be found in the number of illustrated editions the novel has spawned. Indeed, The Spy may rival many of the Leather-Stocking Tales in this regard, as Cooper's talents for portraying action and capturing a sense of place make this novel a natural for visual portrayal. These visual qualities were recognized early in the novel's history: stage adaptations of The Spy began appearing as soon as ten weeks after the novel's publication, and it is said that the cast from the first, an American adaptation by Charles Powell Clinch, posed for a painting William Dunlap made in 1823-24 illustrating a scene from Chapter 5, in which Virginia cavalryman Captain Lawton has discovered the disguise of British Captain Henry Wharton—a scene that would prove popular with many illustrators (Fig. 1). More than stand-alone works of art, though, book illustrations would be the dominant means of carrying on the visual legacy of The Spy over the years.

Even though Cooper himself would have little to no connection to the illustrated editions of his works produced during his lifetime or after, these works are well worth examining as part of the Cooper legacy. For one thing, they provide glimpses into how artists from various times and places—many of them among the most prominent in their day—visualized Cooper's portrayals. To me, though, part of the charm of illustrated editions lies not only in their visual appeal but in the extra measure of care they suggest: illustrated editions take deliberate time, effort, and expense to produce; they may give us insight into how the publishers hoped to increase the appeal of the work in the marketplace, or they may suggest something about a literary work's cultural or artistic relevance, including its status as a classic. In that sense, then, The Spy has dozens of illustrated editions testifying to its staying power.

Fig. 2.

It may seem surprising that the first illustrated editions of The Spy were produced not in America, but in Europe. European publishers at that time often had more resources at their disposal than their American counterparts, and American publishers publishing American authors found themselves at a cost disadvantage if they paid their authors (whereas they could reproduce foreign authors cheaply due to a lack of international copyright). Many of the earliest editions and translations were produced without illustration, but as it became clear by the late 1820s and early 1830s that Cooper's writings would have staying power, illustrated texts began to appear. One of the first illustrated editions of The Spy was produced in the Netherlands: a Dutch translation, De Spion, appeared in 1827 in two volumes from publisher W. Van Boekeren in Groningen, containing a frontispiece engraving (the same in both volumes) by Dutch painter Christiaan Julius Lodewyck Portman and engraver A.L. Zeelander (Fig. 2). It depicts the ghastly moment when Harvey Birch's father, Johnny Birch, staggers out wrapped in a bedsheet and on the verge of death to bless his son, frightening an invading band of marauding Skinners away—another scene that would be a favorite with many subsequent illustrators.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

The novel was popular with other illustrators on the continent, too. Among the several Italian translations of The Spy that appeared, an 1834 one by Constantino Mezzana of Rome (incorrectly billing itself as the first Italian translation) was illustrated (Fig. 3).

Two years later, the Milan publisher Angelo Bonfanti brought out Un Episodio della Guerra Americana (An Episode of the American War) in three volumes (translated by "F.D.G.") with frontispiece illustrations by Demarchi and Gandini (Figs. 4a-4b). A similar but not quite identical edition appeared from {p. 7} Naples publisher Niecula Vanspandocii in 1840. In Spain, Barcelona publisher J.M. Grau brought out El Espia, a four-volume translation (by "J.....") with frontispieces by Ribo & Amills (Figs. 5a, 5b, 6).

Fig. 4a.
Fig. 4a. Fig. 4b.
Fig. 4b. Fig. 5a.
Fig. Fig. 5b.
Fig. 5a.

French illustrators were especially prolific. The Paris firm of Charles Gosselin had come out with a French translation (by Auguste Jean-Baptiste Defauconpret) of The Spy in 1822, without illustrations. A second edition, also without illustrations, followed in 1824, but by 1827, the firm was issuing L'Espion as part of a series of Cooper's collected works, with illustrations by Tony and Alfred Johannot, who also illustrated other Cooper titles (Fig. 6.) By 1835, Gosselin came out with yet another edition, this time with more illustrations and even a map (albeit one with scarcely any detail) showing the location of New York amid the surrounding states (Fig. 7a, 7b). Gosselin would reprint this edition, with minor variations, in 1839 and later. Another Paris publisher, Gustave Barba, got into the game later but introduced some innovations of his own.

Fig. 6.
Fig. 6. Fig. 7a.
Fig. 7a. Fig. 7b.
Fig. 7b

At first using the same Defauconpret translation as Gosselin for an edition he published in 1840, Barba later introduced a new translation by Emile de la Bedolliere as part of a set of Cooper's works in his "Romans Populaires Illustrés" ("Popular Illustrated Romances") series. The text was accompanied by twenty-five vignettes by popular illustrator and caricaturist Charles Albert d'Arnoux, better known as Bertall. Bertall's images seem particularly suitable for Cooper's novel with their engrossing blend of the pathetic, the comic, and the grotesque (Figs. 8a, 8b, 8c, 8d).

{p. 8} None of these continental editions had any direct connection to Cooper; the only European edition that could claim some connection is that published in London by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley in 1831 for their Standard Novels series. Colburn and Bentley contracted with Cooper to revise the texts of several of his earlier novels to include in this series of one-volume editions, which were geared toward a lower price point and more popular readership than the expensive original three-volume format.

Fig. 8a.
Fig. 8a. Fig. 8b.
Fig. 8b. Fig. 8c.
Fig. 8c. Fig. 8d.
Fig. 8d.

Accordingly, Colburn and Bentley (without Cooper's involvement) commissioned two frontispiece engravings by Daniel Maclise and Charles Marr to enhance the work's appeal (Figs. 9a, 9b).Maclise was one of Britain's leading painters of historical and literary scenes, and one of his illustrations—that of Harvey Birch fleeing for his life—captures a fluid sense of motion missing from many contemporary illustrations. By the 1840s, Bentley had new competition in London from publisher W.M. Clark, who issued a cheap version of The Spy in 1843 with text in two columns per page and illustrations by Calvert interspersed.

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Fig. 9a.
Fig. 9a. Fig. 9b.
Fig. 9b.

Bertall's French volume seems to have inspired many of the choices of scenes and character portrayals, even so, several of the illustrations in this volume have a comic quality reminiscent of artwork for Punch magazine during this same era, portraying caricatured stereotypes or illustrating humorous moments in the story (the best being the moment when Henry Wharton topples a distracted sentry through an open window) (Figs. 10a, 10b, 10c, 10d). Back in America, illustration did not come to most of Cooper's works until well after his death in 1851. In the case of The Spy, a few special stand-alone illustrations appeared during his lifetime. By the 1840s, Bentley had new competition in London from publisher W.M. Clark, who issued a cheap version of The Spy in 1843 with text in two columns per page and illustrations by Calvert interspersed.

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Fig. 10a.
Fig. 10a. Fig. 10b.
Fig. 10b. Fig. 10c.
Fig. 10c. Fig. 10c.
Fig. 10c.

The 1845 presentation volume The Gift contained an engraving of Washington and Harvey Birch by J. Ives Pease after an original by Asher Brown Durand (accompanying a poem, "On a Picture of Harvey Birch," by Anne C. Lynch) (Fig. 11), and in February 1846, Columbian Magazine featured a scene of Harvey Birch warning young Henry Wharton, by Tompkins H. Matteson and Charles Birch, accompanied by a brief reflection by editor Robert A. West (Fig. 12).

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Fig. 11.
Fig. 11.

Fig. 12.
Fig. 12.

Illustrated editions of the novel itself were slower in coming. To the north in Canada, Halifax publisher William Milner published an edition of The Spy with two illustrations in 1847 (Fig. 13a, 13b), but it was {p. 9} not until 1859 that William Adee Townsend's famous "Darley" edition was published in New York. This deluxe volume, part of a collected set of Cooper's novels which Townsend promoted as a national literary enterprise—a "splendid" edition of "unsurpassed elegance"—was printed on fine-quality ivory paper and illustrated with engravings based on drawings by Felix Octavius Carr Darley, America's foremost illustrator of the mid-nineteenth century. The delicate, richly detailed frontispiece engravings of this set of Cooper's works (Figs. 14, 15) have been widely reproduced.

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Fig. 13a.
Fig. 13a. Fig. 13b.
Fig. 13b. Fig. 14.
Fig. 14. Fig. 15.
Fig. 15.

Less familiar are the numerous small vignette illustrations that fill the white space at the ends of chapters (Fig. 16a, 16b). These more minimalistic scenes maintain the sketchier appearance of the original Darley drawings. The Darley illustrations also formed the backbone of the massive presentation volume Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (1861), which contained excerpts of Cooper's writings with introductory essays by his daughter Susan. Along with Darley's illustrations, engravings and woodcuts by other artists were included; for The Spy, Christian Schuessele's Journey over the Highlands was featured (Fig. 17). Schuessele (1824-1879), incidentally, is better known for his composite "portrait" Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside (1864), which features Cooper among other contemporaries in a fictitiously harmonious assembly of literary talent.

Fig. 16a.
Fig. 16a. Fig. 16b.
Fig. 16b. Fig. 17.
Fig. 17.

The "Darley" edition persevered for decades through a number of reprints by successors to Townsend's firm such as James Gregory and Hurd & Houghton as well as others such as Appleton. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, dozens of other publishers had gotten involved with Cooper's works, now long out of copyright, and a huge variety of editions was available. Some of these editions, if they were illustrated, contained generic frontispieces showing a portrait of Cooper or a picture of Otsego Hall, but some contained original artwork. For instance, A.L. Burt & Co. used at least two different illustrations for the frontispieces of their various reprint {p. 10} editions, including those in their Home Library series (Fig. 24). G.P. Putnam's Sons (descendents of one-time Cooper publisher George Palmer Putnam) contracted with prominent lithographer Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum (1849-1925), illustrator for Harper's Weekly as well as numerous other magazines, newspapers, and books (Fig. 19). Zogbaum's ubiquity was so great that Rudyard Kipling wrote him into one of his poems ("Admiral Evans," 1912).

Fig. 18a.
Fig. 18a. Fig. 18b.
Fig. 18b. Fig. 19.
Fig. 19.

By the 1920s, as The Spy passed its century mark, many publishers of cheap editions of Cooper's novels had faded from a glutted marketplace in America, yet surprisingly, that decade saw a spurt of new editions. Many of these were deluxe editions that reinforced The Spy's status as a classic yet employed new generations of artists. One of these artists, Harold Mathews Brett (1880-1955), was a protégé of Howard Pyle (1853-1911) and associated with the Brandywine School style of illustration Pyle founded around the turn of the century. Pyle's own art was characterized by interesting tensions between attention to realism and flamboyant departures from it in his use of bold color (which occasionally hearkens to impressionistic sensibilities) or his occasional disregard for historical accuracy (such as his imaginative costuming of pirates, as in his painting The Buccaneer, Fig. 20). Following in Pyle's footsteps, Brett became one of the most prolific illustrators of the early twentieth century. Often compared to Norman Rockwell, Brett produced artwork for Harper's Weekly, Ladies' Home Journal, Collier's Weekly, The Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines. He illustrated a number of books including The Three Musketeers, Lorna Doone, Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy, and Sabatini's Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk (Fig. 28). Brett illustrated an edition of The Spy published by Houghton Mifflin as part of the Riverside Bookshelf in 1924. Along with a color cover image, Brett created eight color paintings that capture a variety of the novel's moods (Fig. 21, 22).

Fig. 20.
Fig. 20. Fig. 21.
Fig. 21. Fig. 22.
Fig. 22.

{p. 11} Also in 1924, Minton, Balch, & Co. published its own color-illustrated version of The Spy, this one illustrated by another prolific artist, Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge (1889-1977). Although not connected with Pyle's Brandywine School, Baldridge's colorful style in this volume is not too distant (Fig. 23, 24). Elsewhere, he tended toward sparser watercolor impressions or Asian-inspired lines. Baldridge had earlier gained fame through his battlefield sketches in World War I for Stars and Stripes and his postwar book I Was There (Fig. 25).

A few other editions from this era show attention to lower price points, such as by printing on cheaper paper. The Macrae Smith Company of Philadelphia published an undated (but probably circa 1930) edition of The Spy in their Fairmount Classics series. S. Gordon Smyth, another prolific magazine illustrator, provided a color cover and six black-and-white lithographs (Fig. 25). And in 1936, Saalfield Publishing Company of Akron, Ohio, brought out a pulpy edition profusely illustrated with line drawings (and a simple color frontispiece) by William P. Couse (Fig. 35). These comic-book-like drawings remind me of those produced in later years for the adaptations of famous novels for children that constituted the Great Illustrated Classics series.

Fig. 23.
Fig. 23. Fig. 24.
Fig. 24. Fig. 25.
Fig. 25.

In 1963, Heritage Press published a fancy slipcased presentation volume illustrated by Henry C. Pitz (1895-1976). During his long career, Pitz illustrated over 190 books and wrote a number of books himself about illustration, including about Howard Pyle's Brandywine School, of which Pitz (as well as another illustrator of Cooper novels, N.C. Wyeth) was also a devotee. Pitz illustrated the Heritage volume with over two dozen ink-and-watercolor color illustrations as well as with numerous simpler line drawings (Fig. 26, 27). For his color illustrations, Pitz employed a limited, muted color palette (usually two colors per picture) and stylized washes that impart a much more modernist flair than Brett's or Baldridge's earlier color portrayals. To me, at least, Pitz's illustrations lack some of the vibrancy and distinctiveness of character that some of the earlier editions possess, and {p. 12} the introduction of the volume, by John T. Winterich, takes pains to note the datedness of Cooper's language—signs, perhaps, that this classic was losing some of its mainstream appeal even as it was being commemorated.

Fig. 26.
Fig. 26. Fig. 27.
Fig. 27.

Finally, although it is not technically an edition of The Spy, who can neglect mentioning the splendid Classics Illustrated comic book adaptation of the novel? Cooper was one of the best represented authors in this long-running series, with eight titles represented, and The Spy enjoyed a successful reception for many years after its initial 1948 publication (see William B. Jones's fine overview in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter No. 65). Artwork by Arnold Lorne Hicks adorned this forty-eight-page volume (Fig. 28), which probably introduced more readers to The Spy than many of the editions listed above.

There are other illustrated editions that I do not have room to cover here in this presentation (such as foreign editions from the twentieth century, for instance), but as I hope this sampling suggests, The Spy enjoys a rich visual legacy that speaks to Cooper's power to captivate through vivid description, lively action, and a substantial exploration of the nature of war and patriotism. If Cooper's writings have fallen out of favor today, his Leather-Stocking Tales are at least still acknowledged even by their detractors for their importance to America's literary history and their widespread influence upon subsequent literature and culture. What about The Spy? The abundance of illustrated editions of The Spy—not to mention all its other editions—suggests that its own influence may be greater than is widely suspected.

Fig. 28

Thanks to Sarabeth Marcello (University of Northwestern-St. Paul) for her assistance in preparing the illustrations for this presentation.


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