Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief

James Fenimore Cooper (1843)

Transcriber’s Preface

Hugh C. MacDougall Secretary/Treasurer of the James Fenimore Cooper Society

Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief was James Fenimore Cooper’s first serious attempt at magazine writing, and Graham’s Magazine would publish other contributions from him over the next few years, notably a series of biographic sketches of American naval officers, and the novel Jack Tier; or, the Florida Reef (1846-1848). Though hardly one of Cooper’s greatest works, Autobiography remains significant because of: (1) its unusual narrator — an embroidered pocket-handkerchief — that is surely the first of its kind; (2) its critique of economic exploitation in France and of the crass commercial climate of ante-bellum America; and, (3) its constant exploration of American social, moral, and cultural issues. This said, it must be admitted that the telling of Adrienne’s sad plight in Paris becomes a bit overwrought; and that the inept wooing of Mary Monson by the social cad Tom Thurston is so drawn out and sarcastic as to suggest snobbery on Cooper’s part as well as on that of his elite hanky. Finally, the heroine-handkerchief’s protracted failure to recognize her maker, when she has proved so sensitive to her surroundings in every other fashion, is simply unbelievable. Still, there is enough to reward today’s reader, if only in the story’s unique “point of view” and in the recognizable foibles of Henry Halfacre and his social-climbing daughter.

The text is taken from the novelette’s original appearance in Graham’s Magazine, Vol. XXII, pp. 1-18, 89-102, 158-167, 205-213 (January-April) 1843. Autobiography was simultaneously issued as a separate number of Brother Jonathan magazine (March 22, 1843), under the title Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance. Also in 1843 it was published in London by Richard Bentley as The French Governess; or, The Embroidered Handkerchief. A German translation quickly followed, as Die franzosischer Erzieheren, oder das gestickte Taschentuch (Stuttgart: Lieschning, 1845, reprinted 1849). Interest in the book then lapsed. The Brother Jonathan and Bentley editions divided the story into 18 chapters (as we have in this transcription).}

At the end of the century a limited scholarly edition (500 copies) appeared, edited by Walter Lee Brown, the first scholary treatment of any Cooper work, noting variations between the original manuscript and the various published texts: Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (Evanston, IL: The Golden-Booke Press, 1897). Another edition, unannotated and taken from the Graham’s Magazine version, was printed half a century later as a Festschnrift (farewell testimonial) for retiring Cooper scholar Gregory Lansing Paine of the University of North Carolina: Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (Chapel Hill: Privately printed, 1949). Autobiography was never included in published collections of James Fenimore Cooper’s Works, and this scarcity is an important reason for making it available to scholars everywhere through the Gutenberg Project.

Unless otherwise indicated, translations are from the French. The spelling and punctuation of the Graham’s Magazine periodical text have generally been followed, includings its often inconsistent use of italics and French accents, except that certain contractions (e.g., “do n’t” or “do’nt” for “don’t”) have been silently regularized.

Annotations, in blockquotes and {curly braces} have been added to translate most of the French words and expressions which Cooper frequently employs, to define occasional now-obsolete English words, and to identify historical names and other references. Cooper frequently alludes, in the beginning of the work, to events and persons involved in the French Revolution of 1830, which he had witnessed while living in Paris, and about which the beginning of the plot revolves.