Forward to the online version of the Dresden edition of The Water Witch

Prof. Thomas Philbrick

The edition of The Water Witch that was printed in Dresden, Germany, in the summer of 1830 is among the rarest of James Fenimore Cooper’s works, existing in only a handful of copies and commanding an exorbitant price when it makes an infrequent appearance on the book market. The reasons for the rarity of the edition can be found in the circumstances of its publication.

During his seven-year residence in Europe, James Fenimore Cooper adopted the practice of having the manuscripts of his newly written novels set in type by local printers so that he could supply his American, British, and Continental publishers with identical legible texts to serve as copy for their own typesetters and translators. When he came to arrange for the publication of The Water Witch in December, 1829, he found that the authorities of both Naples, where he was then living, and Rome refused to permit him to print on the grounds that the book’s references to the decay of Italy from its grandeur in antiquity were offensive. Forced to look elsewhere by what Cooper called these “thin-skinned gentry,” he journeyed north to Dresden in the spring of 1830 where he arranged with the bookseller Walther for a tiny edition of the new novel. Walther was to supply Cooper with eight copies and have the right to sell the rest in Europe. No money changed hands, clear evidence that Walther anticipated small sales in central Europe of a nautical novel in English.

Although Cooper’s contract with Walther stipulated that the writer was to be furnished proof sheets for correction, the text as published suggests that either Walther did not fulfill this obligation or that Cooper did not have time to make the corrections before the edition was published. Evidently he made corrections in the sheets that he sent to his publishers in England and the United States, but the Dresden edition itself is shot full of obvious errors, the result of Walther’s employment of printers who were ignorant of the English language.The importance of the Dresden edition to textual scholars resides in the fact that it represents a very early stage in the evolution of the text of The Water Witch. The only versions of the text that preceded it are the author’s manuscript and the fair copy that was made by his nephew William Cooper, who accompanied the novelist’s family abroad. Since both the manuscript and the amanuensis copy exist now in only fragmentary form, the Dresden edition constitutes the first complete text of the novel and indeed supplies the earliest text of several passages for which neither the manuscript nor the amanuensis copy survive.

Typographical Note: We seek to reproduce as exactly as possible, and without any corrections, the Dresden original in this text.

The plus symbol (+) indicates a hyphen at the end of a line in the original, which may or may not have been intended to indicate a compound word; ordinary hyphens (-) indicate a compound word not at the end of a line.


“Mais, que diable alloit-il faire dans cette galère?”