Selling Cooper, Selling Chicago; Or, Selling Mohicans as Bestseller

Jeffrey Walker (Oklahoma State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 2 (Talking about Fenimore Cooper with Undergraduates) at the 2009 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 26, pp. 20-24. Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors.

Copyright © 2009 by The James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Talking about Fenimore Cooper to undergraduates — whether his five Leather-Stocking Tales, arguably the most famous collection of novels conceived as a series in American literature, or any of his other works — has become a full-time challenge for most Cooper scholars, and however much breath we expend deflecting baseless charges that he was the careless, slipshod artist Twain and others had declared him to be, Cooper’s novels seldom surface regularly in American literature classrooms or grace the reading lists of summer travelers. And while we are all familiar with the old chestnut that Cooper’s texts were remarkably corrupt because compositors had difficulty reading his script, because he had not read proof against printer’s copy, and because his frequent resettings left a heavy toll of corruptions, it is also true — and by now should be a fait accompli — that in the last quarter century the CSE-inspected, NEH-funded, SUNY (and now AMS) Press-published “Writings of James Fenimore Cooper” series (the “Cooper Edition”) has not only established Cooper as a far better craftsman than earlier readers have admitted, but also made those novels available in a variety of affordable and attractive editions for the classroom. Of course, however textually accurate or readily available his writings may be, or however vigorously we may argue for his position as America’s first successful and most popular novelist, we still find it almost impossible to make Cooper attractive to twenty-first century American readers who consider him obsolete.

So when Kay Seymour House once asked whether Fenimore Cooper was obsolete, she answered her own question with a cultural footnote.

Students having difficulty with Cooper’s prose often ask why the average reader of his time had no problem. The answer points to the fact that in the typical American home, the Entertainment Center used to be the bookcase, and it usually contained at least the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost, or Homer. Beyond these minimal holdings, readers relied on reprints of British books cheaply pirated in those days before international copyrights. Generations raised before electric lights or TV passed the evenings writing letters, playing board games, or listening to someone read aloud. The last was the choice of the Cooper family, and Fenimore read routinely from the latest import or from his current writings. ... People raised in this way were used to conjuring up pictures of the scenes being described, and this mental exercise continued into the days of radio broadcasts of fictional adventures. (The sound of a galloping horse named Silver is all one needs to evoke a white horse in a cloud of dust.) The ability to imagine scenery described only in words accounts for the instant popularity of Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales not only among city dwellers in the United States, but readers in Europe and Asia.

“Cooper’s descriptions,” House concluded, “were also responsible for starting something like a mystique of the American west. Even in staid Boston, a reader wrote of Natty Bumppo as he disappeared into the forest with his hounds at the end of The Pioneers, ‘I longed to go with him.’” 1 While contemporary American travelers may long to follow the same paths as Leather-Stocking, few use his Tales as their Baedekers.

Can we solve this problem? Can we entice our undergraduates to read Cooper? There really are effective strategies we can employ to teach long fiction, but in any scenario it always depends on the book and the device we employ. For example, I can generate a loyal following for a close reading of Dickens’s Bleak House, as I did this past Spring semester in my undergraduate “Bestseller and the Book” class, because I taught it as it originally appeared in March, 1852, in the first of nineteen monthly installments in England, surfacing a month later in America and running for the same time span and in the same format in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Teaching a long novel serially, as Michael Lund has persuasively argued for thirty years, can engage readers as they move through the world of their novels — they expand certain elements of the text, they contribute to the development of fictional characters, and they directly involve themselves and their own concerns in the form of the novels. 2 But, of course, until Cooper’s Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief, first printed and published in Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia in 1843, or Jack Tier, printed and then published from November, 1846, to March, 1848, simultaneously in America in Graham’s as The Islets of the Gulf, or Rose Budd and in England in Bentley’s Miscellany as Captain Spike, or the Islets of the Gulf — his only ventures in serial installment publishing — appear for classroom use, and they are, I must announce, in production from the Cooper Edition and AMS Press, we can make little use of this effective device for teaching Cooper.

But when it comes to the one Cooper book we can teach most effectively, The Last of the Mohicans, like Uncas, always “move[s] in front.” If we examine it “with much of that sort of scrutiny, that a money-dealer, in these days of pecuniary doubts, would bestow on a suspected due-bill” — and by the way, I am quoting directly from the novel, not from the Wall Street Journal — we can “be satisfied with the result of the examination.” 3 Many of my colleagues have taught Mohicans successfully using a variety of traditional approaches, but in my upper division “Bestseller and the Book” class, one that addressed “seduction, betrayal, murder, moral outrage, mystery, romance, the narrative engines of nineteenth-century America’s most popular stories, bestsellers published as sequels (Charlotte Temple and Charlotte’s Daughter), as series (the Horatio Alger boys books), as serial installments (Bleak House in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine), as subscriptions (Huckleberry Finn), and as bestsellers turned into blockbusters (The Age of Innocence and The Thin Man),” I asked “what texts were popular and why, and what [can] our reading (a historie du livre) of these works today — on the page and on the stage — tell us about the society that produced, and then, by the millions, consumed them?” I presented Mohicans first as a bestseller and then challenged my students to discover why a novel they initially shunned caused a sensation in nineteenth-century Philadelphia, so much so that its publishers, Carey and Lea, “were thinking of paying an extra charge for stereotyping it, thereby allowing virtually unlimited future reprintings.” 4 Mohicans was the first of his novels stereotyped, and for Cooper, the plates themselves were his main source of income. The abstract concept of backlists was not something Cooper understood, in part because he continued to think in terms of money made from new titles, not old ones. He did get paid, however, when he leased the new plates for new editions beyond the first edition. But in the 1840s, Cooper sold some older titles to Stringer and Townsend, something which prevented Putnam from doing a complete author’s edition and which proved to be lucrative for them — and not for the Cooper estate — after his death.

When first printed in two volumes in New York by Clayton and Van Norden for Carey and Lea, the Philadelphia publishers of many of Cooper’s novels, on 6 February 1826, the novel’s first printing totaled some 5,000 copies for which Carey and Lea paid the author $5,000. Six weeks later, on 18 March, John Miller published 1,250 copies of Mohicans in three volumes in London, set from advance sheets forwarded to London as they came off the press in Philadelphia, cementing the novel’s almost instant transatlantic popularity. Of course, production cost disputes among author, publisher, stationer, printer, and binder make this short story a much longer and more convoluted one, but these are the basic facts in the case. And if we read our Spiller and Blackburn carefully, we can easily discover when and where and who published later editions of Mohicans stateside and on the continent in England, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark, Italy, and Portugal in the years after its publication and before Cooper’s death in 1851. We could conservatively estimate that probably more than ten thousand copies of Mohicans were sold in the half-decade after its publication, but records are difficult to find that would support any more specific figure. After his death, translations were published in Greece, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and many other European countries. Cooper and his Mohicans were clearly bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic. 5

Now how do we turn these facts into a strategy to sell Mohicans both as an early American bestseller and as a unique cultural document in the rise of the book in America, rather than as merely another tale of Cooper’s Indians who “for the most part,” lamented Francis Parkman, are “superficially or falsely drawn.” 6 “Will our rescue” of the Mohicans from “the cluster of lolling savages” (105) merely be the “deed of Providence” (120), or can we devise our own “cannon ball” (143) to guide us? To that end, I would argue that selling Cooper, selling Mohicans, and selling the book — as opposed to selling the second Leather-Stocking Tale as simply another novel, with its attendant plots, characters, metaphors, and images — requires dialogue among disciplines, as Cathy Davidson explains it, that do not always speak the same language. 7 To talk successfully to undergraduates about Cooper requires a new language and an approach that uses this language.

We need to generate questions and create assignments that will bring many of these issues to undergraduate attention. One trick I learned from the late Harry Meserole — my dissertation director, fellow early Americanist, and chief bibliographer of the Modern Language Association’s International Bibliography in the 1960s and 1970 — was how to turn students into literary sleuths by asking them to examine evidence critically and to expose what the late Richard Altick called the “’Five Little Half-Truths (or Non-facts) and How They Grew.’ Once a mistake is set adrift,” Atick argued, “it not only harbors its original modicum of untruth but swells and proliferates.” 8 As the opening gambit in our graduate “Bibliography and Methods” class, the “fact finding” assignment, Meserole labeled it, taught us how to find and verify sources. Each member of the class selected one problem from a list of questions and set out to furnish a satisfactory answer. Most of us quickly learned that no single encyclopedia, compendium, or other such familiar reference work yielded such satisfaction. Indeed, for some questions there are no conclusive answers; instead, there are conflicting arguments and inconsistent data. From our research, we made conjectures or “scholarly guesses” based on all the available evidence. For example, we have no tape recordings to tell us how seventeenth-century audiences spoke the name of Shakespeare’s Hermione. Here we must consult studies in etymology, semantics, prosody, and phonology to arrive at the scholarly approximation, Harmion. And, while we know that T. S. Eliot edited Seneca’s Tenne Tragedies and wrote about them, we do not know how thoroughly (or if) he read them.

What readers learn from such activities is that no one work, or combination of works, will provide a convincing answer or answers to these fact-finding problems, that they must become skeptical about evidence encountered in literary histories, biographies, critical studies, and editions — and especially those works online. They learn that it is precisely this sort of problem — and not one merely involving a date, a name, or an event — that they will face most often in their undergraduate studies and in their lives. Finally, they learn that aimless search or trial and error takes time, that time is valuable to them, and that research involves planning and imagination before visiting the library — or the internet. The solution they produce — in a paper, in an oral presentation, or, simply, in class conversation — briefly explains what “answer” they have decided upon, why they prefer one authority over another, and how they arrived at their conclusion. Perhaps you, like Sir Toby, now “smell a device” (2.4.162).

Therefore, I would argue, if we can choose which questions to ask and the order in which the asking must be done, we can enhance undergraduate reading skills. We all talk about race, gender, and ethnicity in Cooper’s world, and we can continue to discuss them. But if we ask different questions, questions that address the novel’s role as bestseller and the source of the national mania that drove readers to purchase and consume Mohicans, then we can use the answers to supply parts for at least one chapter of the history of the book in nineteenth-century America. We might ask, for example, what impact The Last of the Mohicans had on the popular culture in Cooper’s lifetime, a time when public education started to become a reality in an increasingly literate America and factory girls and farmers began to spend their nights reading under the glow of a kerosene lamp. Or, we could try to discover what real-life person Cooper’s Hawkeye was based upon, if there were much talk of it, and if so, what effect, if any, it had on the sales of his novel. The questions seem endless. What publishing companies printed Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans in his lifetime, what else did they publish during the same period, and how did the book’s reputation with the public compare with other books they produced? And with its bestseller status, ask undergraduates to “follow the money” and find out how much profit Cooper reaped from the publication of his sixth novel. Consider, too, how a study of the conditions under which Cooper wrote Mohicans — his relationships with printers, publishers, and booksellers, in particular — might generate a far clearer understanding of the role of the book in a world far different from that of our undergraduates. If the ipod and the iphone have dramatically changed the way we read, write, and communicate with each other in twenty-first century America, imagine what issues in book production and promotion affected the development of society in nineteenth-century America. How did Cooper battle the legal and financial threat of piracy with Mohicans? How did booksellers in Cooper’s time determine what books were available for sale, decide what areas of the country might purchase those books, and, then, communicate all this important information to their customers? What affordable alternatives did the book trade provide to middle class Americans, and how did they participate in the world of books if they could not afford them? What published forms did the American novel take in the first half of the nineteenth century, to what audience — think ethnicity, gender, age, and class — were they directed, and how were they produced and sold?

This experience with the book as material object can lead us into many theoretical questions. What is the nature of the book? What is the nature of the author? How did the idea of authorship develop? What is the role of the author, the publisher, and the reader in the production of textual meaning? What is the nature of the reader? How do we understand the place of the reader, given that the evidence of reading (as opposed to sales) is difficult to determine? How were cultural identities profoundly shaped by “cultures of print” — what sorts of reading practices, patterns and institutions of publication, and “literary” societies emerged from the book?

Apply these questions to the Mohicans. How a book was composed and published in the nineteenth century was closely tied to how it was disseminated and received. While neither manuscript nor author-corrected proof of any authorial edition of Mohicans is known to survive, we do know that Cooper made major revisions in 1831 for the Bentley Standard novels edition and minor changes for Putnam’s Author’s Revised Edition in 1850. 9 By comparing a single chapter — or even a page or two — of the 1826 Carey and Lea first edition with the same chapter in the later revised Bentley and Putnam editions, students could identify the differences among them, why the choice of an edition can influence literary interpretation and theory, and how much attention should be paid to authorial intention — why, for example, Cooper resisted the attempts of editors, compositors, and amanuenses to normalize dialect expression (changing “’arth” to “earth,” “ag’in” to “again,” “buskin” to “buckskin,” and “Injin” to “Indian”). And finally, just as publishers issued books in leather bindings and in “cheap” editions (bound in stiff paper boards) to expand their consumer base, so, too, as the book increased in popularity later in the century, did authors eventually bargain for double publication with book and magazine publishers. “For part of 1885,” Richard Ohlman reports, “excerpts and serials of Huckleberry Finn, The Bostonians, and The Rise of Silas Lapham filled every fiction page in the Century.” 10 In this sense, one text actually may be many texts and tell many different stories because the mode of publication (in book form or in magazines) determined who bought what, in what form, and at what price. What is the “story” of the “story” of The Last of the Mohicans in 1826 and in the last two centuries, published in single and multiple volumes, in magazines and newspapers, as illustrated classic comic books, as fodder for Hollywood melodrama, and, thus, printed and presented for different kinds and generations of readers?

A study of the book as material object also helps resolve the “Discussion of how and whether to advertise a book,” as Ellen Gruber Garvey explains. This decision “turned on an unstated question: what is a book? Is it the physical object, whether a saddle-stitched pamphlet or bound in expensive leather or cloth? Or is it the text in whatever form it takes? Or is it the subject matter that the text ‘contains’? Is it the literary qualities that might be addressed in a review? Is it the entertainment or education that the book supplies? Or is it the emotions and sensations felt by the reader?” 11 How was The Last of the Mohicans advertised in 1826, and how did those advertisements market the novel and address the needs and interests of its readers?

Then, too, as the critic Mikhail Bakhtin has argued in his “Epic and the Novel,” literary styles and genres in themselves embody ideologies. 12 Bakhtin notes that the novel was initially deemed subversive in every country in which it was introduced, largely because the complex intellectual and emotional activity of reading fiction empowers the hitherto powerless individual, at least imaginatively, by authorizing necessary private responses to texts that function primarily as repositories for those responses. The distinctive feature of the novel as a genre may not be its formal qualities, its verbal artistry, its realistic or sensational plot lines, nor even its paraphrasable content, but rather the “dialogue” that it enters into with the reader, who in a literal sense is required to “complete” the textual transaction. How does our reading of the narrative of The Last of the Mohicans define the “dialogue” we have with the text and embody an identifiable ideology, one with which we identify and embrace?

And finally, part of the purpose of writing and publishing a novel is to convince readers that they can become as many people as they read about and that they can imagine they undergo many of the same feelings and experiences as the characters whose lives they share in the books. If so, a bad book, for example, is a book in whose mock reader — to borrow Walker Gibson’s term — we discover a person we refuse to become, a mask we refuse to put on, a role we will not play, while a good book creates characters we may admire and want to be. 13 How does reading Mohicans, meeting its cast of characters, and engaging in a conversation with the issues it raises help the reader to answer the questions “Who do I want to pretend I am today?” and “What can I learn from it?”

So, if we are very lucky and very skillful, we can turn our reading of The Last of the Mohicans into a dialogue that provides us with some answers to the questions of what and how to talk about Cooper to undergraduates — that “cluster of lolling savages.”

Works Cited

  • Altick, Richard D. and John J. Fenstermaker. The Art of Literary Research. New York: Norton, 1993.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. M. “Epic and Novel.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited and translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, 3-40. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Historical introduction by James Franklin Beard; text established with explanatory notes by James A. Sappenfeld and E. N. Feltskog. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • Davidson, Cathy N. “The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple.” In Reading in America: Literature and Social History, edited by Cathy N. Davidson, 157-79. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Garvey, Ellen Gruber. “Ambivalent Advertising: Books, Prestige, and the Circulation of Publicity.” In A History of the Book in America: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940 , edited by Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A Radway, 170-89. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Gibson, Walker. “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers.” College English 11 (February 1950): 265-69.
  • House, Kay Seymour. “Is Fenimore Cooper Obsolete?” In Reading Cooper, Teaching Cooper, edited by Jeffrey Walker, 15-31. New York: AMS Press, 2007.
  • Lund, Michael. “Clocking the Reader in the Long Victorian Novel.” The Victorian Newsletter 30 (Spring, 1981): 22-25.
  • Ohlman, Richard. “Diverging Paths: Books and Magazines in the Transition to Corporate Capitalism.” In A History of the Book in America: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940 , edited by Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A Radway, 102-15. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Spiller, Robert E. and Philip C. Blackburn. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. 1930. New York: Burt Franklin, 1968.


1 House, “Is Fenimore Cooper Obsolete?” 18.

2 Lund, “Clocking the Reader,” 22-25.

3 Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, 186. Subsequent paginal references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

4 Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years, 515.

5 Spiller and Blackburn, James Fenimore Cooper: A Descriptive Bibliography, 43-47. See Beard’s historical introduction to the SUNY edition, which addresses the number of copies printed by Carey and Lea, and the multiple problems that came with publication on two continents.

6 North American Review 74 (January 1852): 147-61.

7 Altick, The Art of Literary Research, 26.

8 Davidson, “The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple,” in Reading in America, 157-58.

9 Sappenfeld and Feltskog, “Textual Commentary,” The Last of the Mohicans, 371.

10 Ohlman, “Diverging Paths,” 104.

11 Garvey, “Ambivalent Advertising,” 171.

12 Bakhtin, “Epic and the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination, 37-39.

13 Gibson, “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers,” 266.