Reading Rose Budd; Or, Tough Sledding in Jack Tier

Jeffrey Walker (Oklahoma State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel No. 1 (James Fenimore Cooper: Nation, Law, and the Sea) at the 2010 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 27, pp. 11-14. Steven Harthorn and Shalicia Wilson, Editors.

Copyright © 2010 by The James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Fenimore Cooper’s entry into serial installment publishing took place in the last decade of his career, and at that time America was just beginning to embrace the magazine as a venue for long fiction. Before the establishment of Harper’s Monthly in 1850, little American fiction was printed in periodicals, few American novels were serialized, no major American writers had published their long works in installments, and by that date Cooper had serialized only two of his own works. The first, The Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief, appeared in four consecutive installments from January until April 1843 in Graham’s Magazine, and the second, The Islets of the Gulf; Or, Rose Budd, surfaced in Graham’s in seventeen parts from November 1846 through March 1848, showing up simultaneously in Bentley’s Miscellany as Captain Spike; Or, Islets of the Gulf. Burgess and Stringer would print the novel as a two-decker in 1848, reissued as Jack Tier; Or, The Florida Reef. Three-deckers appeared in London in 1848, with Thomas Hodgson publishing the novel under the same Burgess and Stringer title, and Richard Bentley printing it as Captain Spike; Or, the Islets of the Gulf. 1 But despite this flurry of activity, the magazine racket had not caught on by mid-century for American authors as a new and tempting source of income.

In 1842, Cooper had offered Richard Bentley the opportunity of publishing “a short magazine story ... called ‘The Auto-Biography of a Pocket Handkerchief.’” He asked him “Do you want such a thing for your Miscellany?” 2 But a week later, he announced to Mrs. Cooper that he had struck a better deal and “sold the Autobiography to Graham, 50 pages for $500” (L&J, 4:316) so it could appear as a novella in Graham’s Magazine. The idea of serial installment publishing was not foremost on Cooper’s mind in the 1840s, but four years after Pocket Handkerchief had appeared, Graham requested that Cooper create a new serialized novel to run through ten numbers of his magazine, “a sea tale full of incident, and I think character — for a little love ‘goes a great way’ in making a magazine sketch attractive & popular with the readers of the lighter magazine.” 3 Cooper jumped at the chance to try the installment format again. A month later, in a letter to Richard Bentley, he admitted to “negotiating here to publish a nautical tale in a Magazine — Graham’s and I should like to know what could be done with it on your side of the water. The magazine is printed so much in advance of the publication as to allow of its being sent over in good season. Will you drop me a line as early as you can, on this subject? I have offers from Europe, but wish to hear from other parties before I close” (L&J, 5:148). Ever the opportunist, Cooper wanted to make sure he got top dollar for the challenge of writing to demand.

As Steve Harthorn reconstructs the relationship between the author and his magazine publisher, when the two signed the contract a month later in June, Cooper agreed “to supply the first installment of five numbers (averaging ten Graham’s Magazine pages apiece) ninety days thereafter, the remaining five in 180 days. Cooper further agreed not to republish the tale in America until it had appeared in its entirety in Graham’s (or 31 December 1848 — whichever came first), the copyright remaining in his name. He could, however, sell the tale for publication outside the country before that time, provided that no part of the tale should appear elsewhere before it appeared in Graham’s.” 4 So Cooper negotiated with Bentley to see if he were interested in the novel. When the truculent author complained to his publisher that while “I am ready to give as strong a nautical tale, as any body going, ... the publishers pay so little now, as almost to induce me to turn to some other pursuit” (L&J, 5:148-9), Bentley responded to Cooper’s lament by offering “to advance £100 upon the price of the last novel” if “it will be of the usual extent of your other novels, that is, of such amount as to make three fair volumes. ... [and if] from your letter that you mean to make this ‘a strong nautical tale’” (L&J, 5:158). Because Bentley wanted the novel to fit the British triple-decker format for later book publication, and because Cooper wanted to insure his full payment, Bentley provisionally advanced Cooper the money on the understanding it would make “three fair volumes” (L&J, 5:158). Cooper readily agreed, but he needed Graham’s permission to make such a change. To that end, Cooper compromised with Bentley by proposing “you pay me one third less than £ 350, for the tale as now settled, or the £ 350 if I can effect a change with Graham, in the length of the story” (L&J, 5:156). Cooper failed to alter the contract with Graham, whose representative insisted on Cooper sticking with the original plan — “on confering [sic] with Mr. Graham we have come to the conclusion that we would prefer the Sea Story should be the length agreed upon. You will therefore please finish it the short road.” 5

But unforeseen circumstances changed the agreement. Four months later, Harthorn concludes, Graham wrote to Cooper reporting that the manuscript for the novel had somehow been lost or misplaced, a problem that forced Graham to request Cooper to rewrite those missing portions. In doing so, Cooper not only rewrote the missing sections, but also wrangled a deft agreement to extend the publication of the novel to fifteen numbers (subsequently becoming seventeen through division of the last two parts into shorter installments). All of this complicated sleight-of-hand changed the publication of the novel, as well as the story itself, making the reading of Rose Budd tough sledding, and turning it from a shorter work that would have included ten installments and required Cooper to work under a tighter set of deadlines, to a longer work made up of seventeen parts, allowing Cooper to produce a novel more typical of his earlier work in scope and size and, at the same time, extending its appearance in Graham’s to portions of three years. Cooper may have been no Dickens when writing novels for installment publishing, but he was as shrewd as Boz when negotiating their release.

Having briefly retold the “story of the story,” the tale of how Cooper’s novel was conceived, constructed, and consigned to a number of publishers in a number of forms, I now want to tell the story of how one text can be many texts and tell many different stories and how the mode of publication (in magazine or book form) can determine who buys what, in what form, and at what price.

Sitting in Cathy Davidson’s chair one day at the American Antiquarian Society, I called forth all copies of Jack Tier they held. And like her, I found the texts that arrived displayed many different forms, states, and titles. Here, for example, is a cloth-covered octavo printed as part of Putnam’s thiry-two-volume Leather-Stocking Edition for the collector of complete sets. Here are two twelve-mo first-edition two-deckers, stereotyped by John Fagin for Burgess and Stringer, both leather-spined, one with a marbled cover and the other with a plain wrapper. Here is an 1850 Stringer and Townsend gift book with a signature in the flyleaf, a boxed two-volume 1852 Stringer and Townsend with a leather spine and marbled interior, and a leather-bound Darley illustrated duodecimo. Here is a Burgess and Stringer paperbound volume, priced at twenty-five cents, complete with advertisements on the inside of the front cover and on both sides of the back cover announcing the arrival of The Adventures of Christopher Tadpole, by Albert Smith, and Marmaduke Herbert; Or, the Fatal Error by Lady Blessington. And here is a Seaside Library sixteen-mo paperback, issued by monthly subscription in 1885 for 25 cents, and probably intended for the railroad traveler. Very well. Those are only a sampling of the myriad of copies of Jack Tier produced, but ask yourself, how does each tells its own story and what story does each tell?

Cooper’s revolving titles tell one. In fact, the preface to the novel explains why Cooper changed his title as the novel was about to complete its run in Graham’s and surface in book form from Burgess and Stringer: “This work has already appeared in Graham’s Magazine, under the title of ‘Rose Budd.’ The change of name is solely the act of the author, and aside from a conviction that the appellation given in this publication is more appropriate than the one laid side. The necessity of writing to a name, instead of getting it from the incidents of the book itself, has been the cause of this departure from the ordinary rules.” 6 Cooper had originally christened the novel “Ruby Blossom,” but he cancelled that name and changed it to “Rose Budd” on the opening pages of the surviving manuscript. 7 And eventually, of course, he saw it appear as “Captain Spike” and finally as “Jack Tier.” In 1848, The Literary World took notice of the rolling title changes and quipped that “As this novel has already appeared by monthly instalments [sic] in Graham’s Magazine, under the title of ‘Rose Budd,’ most of our readers will recognize here an old friend under a new name. It would seem to be a troublesome matter to decide upon the most appropriate appellation for the work. At the moment of writing this we perceive that it is advertised in London by the title of Captain Spike; and although the unprincipled captain has no claim upon our sympathies, and we begin to look upon him with dislike and mistrust at an early stage of the story we are disposed to think that either he or his vessel has the strongest claim to the honor.” 8 Despite the title changes, the novel saw print in March, 1848, and a month later, its success led Cooper to remark to Mrs. Cooper that “I hear that Jack Tier takes unusually well. Griswold told me, yesterday, that it was thought one of the very best of my books. I do not so regard it, certainly, but condensed I dare say it reads off smoothly enough” (L&J, 5:330).

With its changes in title, one might ask if Jack Tier were the same story from beginning to end, and if not, what changes in story line caused the change in title. While Cooper may have found “the necessity of writing to a name” one reason for calling the novel “Rose Budd,” that same “necessity” caused him to change the name itself from the “pretty and youthful ... deep-blue eye” Rose to a Jack “flat and square ... and round as a dumpling.” And just as Captain Spike remembers “little Jack Tier” as “quite a different person from this Jack Tier,” 9 so, too, does the tone of the novel change from an opening one suggesting romance to a later one containing realistic horrors perhaps unseen since the bloody Huron hatchet job in the Mohicans. Part of this change comes from his attempts to write fiction in serial. Jack Tier does demonstrate, in Tom Philbrick’s words, “Cooper’s ability to adapt his narrative to the formal requirements,” to abandon the “intricate structure of many of his later sea novels for a simple, linear plot,” and to shape his chapters “in neatly turned episodes” that end “tantalizingly on a note of high suspense.” Jack Tier may seem like “the work of the cheap romancers of the 1840s” and as a “grab bag of characters and incidents” 10 drawn from Cooper’s earlier novels, but he does create memorable characters and storylines that “make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, [and] make ‘em wait.”

When the Cooper Edition eventually establishes the text of Jack Tier, many of the author’s problems associated with writing individual chapters as installments (such as reading proof for each installment against the entire work) and many of the textual inconsistencies (such as changing the names of the players or developing their characters midway through the manuscript) that typify Cooper’s method of linear composition will be resolved. Unlike many of his Victorian counterparts, Cooper did not compose Jack Tier in monthly parts, serial fashion, but finished the work and then submitted it in pieces. But in the meantime, he did his best to follow the style and employ their techniques. He begins the novel with an installment to set the action moving quickly by introducing the oft-idiosyncratic main characters and character groupings and blocking them out according to their location or function in the action of the novel. We open on the waterfront of New York, where “the wharf in question had not a single vessel of any sort lying at, or indeed very near it with the exception of the Molly Swash” (437). There we meet the brutish Stephen Spike and his foil, first mate Harry Mulford, a “straight-built, handsome sailor-lad of two or three-and-twenty — one full of health, strength and manliness.” Also on board is a young heroine, Rose Budd, and her aunt, the malaproping Mrs. Budd, accompanied by Biddy Noon, a red-faced “Irish servant and factotum“ of Mrs. Budd; a Negro servant, Josh, and a faceless cast of “middle-aged men, ... all thorough-bred seadogs” (442). Once the brig casts off, barely a few feet from the dock, it is hailed by a “short, stout, sailor-like looking person” (445), who asks for and receives a berth on Spike’s ship. This “little fat old fellow” (445) is Jack Tier.

Once Cooper separates the collection of characters into groups, the action begins. Cooper pairs Spike at once with, and then in opposition to, the other characters to develop suspense, and these pairings create conflicts that drive the action and anticipate the endings of each installment. Spike lusts after Rose Budd, but her heart belongs to Harry; Spike uses his Mexican connection, Señor Montefalderon, to cement a deal for illegal sale of gunpowder to the enemy, but then he betrays him for two bags of gold doubloons; Spike invites Mrs. Budd on board for her money, but then throws her overboard and hacks off her hands as she holds desperately to the lifeboat. That’s something. And Jack Tier serves much the same function. As the woman we finally learn to be Spike’s presumably deceased wife, but dressed as a man Friday to serve the ladies on board the Molly Swash, Jack Tier insinuates himself in most of the action and serves as a foil to Spike. When Spike maroons Harry Mulford on a rock in the middle of the ocean, Jack rescues him; when Spike tries to carry Rose Budd away, Jack whacks him on the head and holds him at pistol point; when Spike lies dying in a hospital bed at the end of the novel, Jack sits by his side and reveals his — or her — identity. And Cooper highlights Jack Tier’s character by repeating stock phrases. Barkus may be “’willin,” but “Spike is a ‘willain,” and Jack’s oft-repeated charge of Spike’s “’willainy” reverberates throughout the story with the regularity of Rose Budd’s name. By creating individual installments to offer a view of each character or pairing, Cooper creates subplots and establishes motives that link individuals or groups to the main action and theme of the story. That’s something.

But it is Cooper’s attempts at ending each installment by tantalizing the reader through his creation of suspense, strong expectations, or burning questions that qualifies him for the installment plan. The first installment ends with the Molly Swash hitting the Pot Rock. Will she sink? Find out next month. The second installment ends with a furious chase and escape. Can the Swash reach Hempstead Harbor before the blackguards close? Find out next month. In another installment, when the Swash battles the Poughkeepsie and endures cannon fire, Mr. Mulford, at his post fails to answer a cry. “No answer was given. ... ‘D’ye hear there, Mr.Mulford? ... ‘Mr. Mulford is not aft, sir.’ ... ‘Mr. Mulford not aft! Where’s the mate?’ No Mulford was to be found” (531). Where is he? Find out next month. And in yet another installment, Harry Mulford must swim more than a mile to catch the runaway lifeboat and save himself and the females from certain death as they sit atop the overturned schooner held up only by the air underneath its hull. But the surrounding water is filled with sharks, and “he saw two dark, pointed objects that resembled small stakes in the water within twenty feet of him. Mulford knew them at a glance,” and with the star as “his beacon, and muttering a few words in earnest prayer, the young man threw his body forward, and left the wreck swimming lightly, but with vigor” (566). Will Harry make it with all his digits intact? Find out next month. That’s something.

These installment endings in Jack Tier were certainly on a par with what the readers of Graham’s, Harper’s Weekly, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine expected to find when they raced to their local newsstand to pick up the latest copy. Cooper could not write novels in serial as skillfully as Dickens, of course. Like Dickens, he often wrote novels simultaneously, but he did not have the touch to maintain a working schedule or a writing habit that would yield one novel after another in serial. And while Cooper never completely adapted his material for publication in magazines and never felt completely comfortable with writing individual chapters in installment form, he, nonetheless, still attracted readers to Jack Tier with his lectures on all things maritime, his creation of suspense and gothic horror, and, despite what Mark Twain might think, his wit. And that’s something, surely.


1 See Robert E. Spiller and Philip C. Blackburn’s James Fenimore Cooper: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York: R. W. Bowker, 1934) for a description of Cooper’s contributions to Graham’s Magazine, particularly the “Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief” (202) and “The Islets of the Gulf; or, Rose Budd” (204). See also the descriptions of the publication of both novels in print editions, namely The Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief (122) and Jack Tier (148-9).

2 Cooper to Richard Bentley, New York, 22 September 1842, in The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard, 6 Vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-68), 4:315. Subsequent references to the letters will be designated as L&J and appear parenthetically in the text.

3 See Steven Harthorn, Chapter 4, “Periodical Publishing: Cooper and Graham’s Magazine” in “James Fenimore Cooper, Professional Authorship, and the American Literary Marketplace, 1838-1851” (Ph. D dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 2005), 305n2, for his richly detailed analysis of Cooper and his relationship to Graham and other publishers of magazines in the 1840s.

4 Ibid., 306n3. Yale’s Beinecke holds Cooper’s contract with Graham, as well as much of Graham’s correspondence to Cooper.

5 Ibid., 307n8.

6 James Fenimore Cooper, Jack Tier, Vol. 7 of Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1893), 436.

7 Harthorn, 317n28. The American Antiquarian Society holds manuscript pages 1-6 and 17-32, while Yale’s Beinecke holds manuscript pages 8-16.

8 Ibid., 317n29.

9 Cooper, Jack Tier, 450. Subsequent paginal references to this edition will be cited parenthetically.

10 Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 203-4.