A Matter of “Improvements”: Cooper, Race, and Manuscript Alterations in the Transatlantic Revision of The Spy

John J. Garcia (California State University, Northridge)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “James Fenimore Cooper and American Women Writers” at the 2017 Conference of the American Literature Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Spring 2018, pp. 35-42.

Copyright © 2018, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

{p. 35} It’s no secret that James Fenimore Cooper was a prolific revisionist who approached the new editions and reprintings of his novels as the opportunity to rewrite or insert paratextual material (such as introductions and explanatory footnotes) as well as to make subtle verbal alterations in his novels that affected the narrative style, tone, characterization, dialogue, syntax, and diction of his stories. In the case of The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821), which will be my focus in this essay, scholars are aware of three reasons as to why the author obsessively revised his first successful novel. Beginning with changes to the novel’s second and third editions of 1822, and up to the “Author’s Revised Edition” issued by Putnam’s in 1849, The Spy exemplifies Wayne Franklin’s assessment that Cooper “did not allow himself the time that coherent aesthetic revision would have required” since he wrote, unfortunately, “on the run” (458). I wish to survey some of these reasons for The Spy’s textual emendations, which will require delving into the concerns of bibliography and book history, in order to show how bibliographic analysis gives us the tools to connect Cooper’s revisionary strategies to the problem of racial representation vis-à-vis the author’s careful rewording of scenes involving the character Caesar Thompson.

The Spy was hastily written from the moment of its conception, so much so that Cooper claimed that he had a printed copy of the novel’s first volume in his possession before composing the manuscript of The Spy’s second half (16). 1 As later recounted by the author on several different occasions, Cooper was advised by his publisher, Wiley and Halsted, to make sure that the second volume wouldn’t grow much longer than the first. Cooper responded by skipping ahead to write the final chapter, and he even had the second volume’s concluding pages typeset and paginated by the publisher before going back to compose the intervening chapters. As a result of these practical considerations that ultimately determined the length and pacing of the novel, The Spy is a somewhat uneven book, at once plodding and verbose in the opening chapters set in Henry Wharton’s family estate, but rather quick with the storytelling details in its latter half, most notably in the abrupt resolution of a romantic subplot that was accomplished through the killing of Isabella Singleton by a stray bullet (Chapter XXIV). A first motivation {36} for the revisions that began in 1822, therefore, arose with Cooper’s discomfort with the evident stylistic flaws in his first success. He desperately wanted to shed the trappings of a literary amateur. Hence, on the occasion of Charles Wiley’s second 1822 edition, Cooper would make over 300 alterations to various words and phrases, but this was only a drop in the bucket compared with whatwas to come.

The Spy’s growing popularity with a national and international readership also necessitated that Cooper would need to employ a “severe pen” to correct errors made in the typesetting process (Letters and Journals 63). Stated simply, popularity and its material basis, the printing of new editions, meant in practice that each new setting of type threatened to introduce corruptions and deviations from the author’s language. The preface to Wiley and Halsted’s second edition blames these deviationson the unwanted intervention of “printer’s journeymen, who had much too large a hand in the first edition” (7). This is the second reason for Cooper’s revisions: prior to the novel’s stereotyping by Carey, Lea, and Carey in 1827, each new edition after the first introduced unwanted printer’s mistakes. And, if we include the European piracies and unauthorized editions based upon Wiley’s books, then it’s clear that The Spy’s textual corruptions multiplied in copies circulated in places like London (by G. & W.B. Whittaker in 1822, 1823, 1825) and Paris (Baudry & Galignani, 1825), to name just a few examples included in the invaluable stemma of editions compiled by James P. Elliott, Lance Schachterle, and Jeffrey Walker in the Cooper Edition (436). Only with the 1827 Carey edition would stereotyping remove a major cause of the novel’s corruptions, but even here the fixing of the text in the stereotyping process snuck in a significant amount of errors in wording, spelling, and punctuation. The 1827 stereotyped edition would be the most widely read version of the novel in the United States prior to the Civil War, with 21 further printings issued from these plates made between 1828 and 1859 by Carey and other publishers, exemplifying the book historian Michael Winship’s belief that stereotyping profoundly transformed the making of nineteenth-century books. And, as previously mentioned, textual corruption arose from international piracies issued from places such as Paris, London, Saxony, and Halifax. In sum, each of Cooper’s authorized editions manufactured by American publishers led to further deviations from the author’s ideal vision. Stereotyping fixed Cooper’s text while also introducing further mistakes; and many of those errata spread much further, beyond the author or his publishers’ control, {37} through a thriving piracy trade that capitalized on the absence of international copyright protections.

In addition to establishing a chain of textual reproduction and deviation, a bibliographer’s approach to The Spy’s publication history also focuses critical attention on how Cooper sought to thwart these corruptions of his text with an exhaustive revision, undertaken in 1831, as part of his contractual arrangement with the London firm of Colburn and Bentley. If the initial motivation for revision was to correct infelicities of style and wording caused by Cooper’s rush to first publish The Spy, and if a second reason for continuing to rewrite the book was to combat the cumulative changes wrought by human error, then the third reason for substantial revision was tied to Cooper’s ambition to become a truly successful writer in the transatlantic world. As the literary scholar Joseph Rezek has demonstrated, the prestige of the London book trade held an irresistible allure for Cooper. At the same time, according to Rezek’s analysis, Cooper’s entry into the transatlantic circulation of books was part of a larger process wherein the London book trade solidified the distinctive national literatures of America, Scotland, and Ireland. Counter-intuitively, we can say that Cooper’s 1831 revisions, made while living in Paris, had the effect of consolidating the literary capital of an avowedly nationalist author through his strategic participation in the transatlantic literary marketplace. The Spy stood out in the author’s eyes as needing improvements in order to succeed within these expanded parameters. In the preface to his London edition, Cooper expresses these concerns through architectural metaphors; the novel contains “faults so interwoven with the structure of the tale that, as in the case of a decayed edifice, it would cost perhaps less to reconstruct than to repair” (16). Colburn and Bentley provided the opportunity and resources to finally reconstruct the first successful American novel, and in doing so they and Cooper helped transform provincial authorship into an aesthetic mode that alternated between national and universal scales of representation (Rezek 15). But how exactly did Cooper go about the business of repairing his “decayed edifice”? What literary effects did Cooper have in mind when he assured his London publishers that The Spy’s revisions would make the novel “very materially improved” (Letters and Journals 68)?

The remainder of my essay will offer a material analysis of the central document in the transatlantic revision of The Spy, namely a bespoke volume that Cooper commissioned from Colburn and Bentley so that he could finally see the novel printed in his exact language. 38) However, in a move that both builds upon Rezek’s analysis while moving in a different direction, I demonstrate that this specific artifact proves that Cooper’s business with London publishers in turn prompted the author to a heightened linguistic sensitivity to racial representation, in particular, with regards to Caesar Thompson. As he wrote in a March 1831 letter, Cooper instructed Colburn and Bentley to acquire a copy of The Spy’s 1827 stereotyped edition: “Buy it — you will have to cut up a copy — have it cut open, and rebound with a leaf of writing paper between each two pages, and send it to me, as soon as you please” (Letters and Journals 64). By April 5, 1831, the interleaved book arrived in Paris; on April 13 — just nine days later — Cooper sent the volume back to London. Working at a fever pitch, the author added some 8,000 verbal changes, including sixteen footnotes, to the volume’s blank leaves in just over a week of writing.

Cooper specialists have long been aware of the existence of this fascinating print/manuscript artifact, currently held in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library. That said, the author’s interleaved copy has only been considered thus far to establish the bibliographer’s “ideal text” and not as an object of literary analysis of its own. Even a brief parsing of its contents suggests that this unique volume resonates with the theoretical and archival goals of recent Cooper scholarship. The “interleaved volume,” according to John Bryant, reveals the novel to be a fluid text whose various iterations can be analyzed as distinct rhetorical and conceptual phases for the early Cooper (I’ll suggest below that this also means that we can, and probably should, read the 1831 Spy as rewritten in response to the Leatherstocking Tales). We can begin with Cooper’s alterations to the novel’s title page as evidence of how the London edition opened new avenues for authorial self-fashioning. With a generous helping of ink, Cooper blots out the 1827 title’s identification of him as the author of Precaution, replacing this in the interleaved book with The Pilot. On the facing page, he adds a special note for the London printers: “Nota Bene ” no attention will be given to the spelling, except in words of local use, the names, or those which are evidently intended to be corrupt, the proofreader will take care of the others.” Here we see a manifestation of Rezek’s “aesthetics of provinciality” in Cooper’s own hand. Cooper at once instructs Bentley to link the author to a more relevant and successful work — The Pilot, and not Precaution — while also insisting that the London edition must be carefully managed in order to convey the linguistic details of Cooper’s regionalism, his use of dialect, local color, and deliberate misspellings or malapropisms by characters such Caesar, {39} the aging black slave of the Wharton family. This preliminary note to the printers — not reproduced, incidentally, in any modern edition of The Spy — is another vivid reminder of the author’s past frustrations with unintended changes made to his language. More importantly, it also calls attention to the significance Cooper places on “words of local use,” and as such requires that any critical reading of this edition must reckon with the underlying meanings and connotations put forward when one word is replaced by another in the act of revision.

Among the changes made for The Spy’s 1831 edition, no character underwent as much authorial scrutiny as Caesar Thompson, and my remaining examples from the NYPL volume will discuss this character’s racialization, particularly in terms of revisions made to the narrative’s descriptions of Caesar’s physical body and his emotional and mental life. Examination of Cooper’s manuscript reveals how the 1831 revisions inscribe a materiality of the writer’s hand that is also an embodied engagement with the literal inky stuff of his characters. Cooper’s pen, in other words, occasionally uses ink as a form of productive erasure, not just adding new words to the novel, but also reinforcing the meaning of existing words by crossing-out what surrounds them, as in instances where the author calls attention to the very materiality or, in this case, the excessive material “injudiciously used” to form Caesar’s enslaved body. Discussing the size and curvature of Caesar’s legs, the old version read thus: “There was an abundance of the material, but it had been injudiciously used.” Cooper revises this to: “There was an abundance of material injudiciously used” (55). Verbal economy, in this particular instance, is accomplished by a crossing-out of words that has the effect of heightening attention to the materiality of Caesar’s own body. Further examples discussed below will conclusively demonstrate that Caesar’s body was a persistent object of Cooper’s transatlantic revisions.

Of course, it would be a disservice to suggest that Cooper’s black character is only depicted negatively in The Spy. John Bryant, for instance, believes that the author’s revisions to Caesar amount to a kind of “muted abolitionist rhetorical ploy,” albeit without further developing the claim (329). Changes made to the novel’s seventh chapter show how Cooper’s revisions could both elevate Caesar’s character and further circumscribe his subjectivity. On a positive note, Cooper has Caesar proudly declare his equality with a rebel soldier, with Caesar stating (in the 1831 revision) that “A bullet hurt a colored man as much as a white” (99). However, we must pay attention to what gets left out of these verbal compressions, as Caesar’s subjective feeling, described by the narrator as held “with much self-satisfaction” (in the {40} original wording), is reworded as a slightly different “of much satisfaction.” The difference matters. Placing critical pressure on this revision shows Cooper modifying Caesar’s possibilities of selfconsciousness through subtle verbal decisions, from the original emphasis on Caesar’s reflective awareness and satisfaction in himself to the 1831 volume’s more economical feeling of “much satisfaction.” However minute, there’s a palpable difference between the two phrasings, and I believe Cooper here has taken something away from Caesar’s character, even if the rewording gives sharper focus to the scene.

A related example occurs in the context of one of the novel’s lavish dinners, held at the Wharton family home, where Caesar officiates the labor of serving the guests. Once again, we see that changes to the text come with a price for Caesar. In the earlier version, Caesar worries that his guests will ignore their food, “The black well knew the viands were getting cold, and felt his honor concerned in the event.” Cooper inserts a significantly longer statement for the London edition: “The black well knew the viands were not improving; and though abundantly able to comprehend the disadvantage of eating a cold dinner, it greatly exceeded his powers of philosophy to weigh all the latent consequences to society which depend on social order” (178-79). As with previous examples, Caesar’s materiality is emphasized and refined by circumscribing his mental faculties, here a rational conception of the relationship between dining etiquette and what Cooper refers to as the “social order.” This revision insists, by a clear implication, that Caesar’s officiousness during the dinner is all show and no substance, a playing at decorum that lacks the lived reality of those persons for whom the social order serves. And of course, let’s not ignore that this revision erases the crucial word honor, consequently taking away one emotion and replacing it with a simulacrum.

With regards to Caesar Thompson, the narrator of The Spy ends up emphasizing body over mind, shadow over substance, and bare life without refined sentiments — all these binaries harden and accumulate in the changes Cooper makes for Colburn and Bentley. Chapter 21 fits a related pattern of racial caricature. Readers of the novel will recall that in this vignette Caesar leaps into a fireplace, “where he maintained his position in defiance of a heat that would have roasted a white man” (266). Several pages earlier, a more subtle racializing effect is wrought by Cooper’s severe pen. Commenting on the union of Sarah Wharton and Colonel Wellmere, Caesar says the following:

{41} “I tink I see him afore,” said Caesar, chuckling: “old black man can tell when a young lady make up he mind.” (262)

But readers prior to 1831 would have experienced a slightly different text:

“No, no — I tink I see em afore,” said Caesar, laughing and chuckling with inward delight, as he shook his head with conscious satisfaction at his own prescience, “old black man tell when a young lady talk all alone wid a gem’man in a parlour.”

In terms of this character’s emotional life, what’s kept for the London revision is the “chuckling,” but stripped away are the characterological elements of subjective self-awareness (deleting “laughing” and “inward delight”), which is to say — a flattening of the character. Once again Cooper evacuates thought from an enslaved body whose materiality contains an emptiness that further separates Caesar from the white characters.

Obviously, the full implications of such a thoroughgoing novelistic revision for Cooper’s depiction of race cannot be fully explained within the constraints of this essay, nor do I at all pretend to exhaust the meanings of Cooper’s 1831 volume in this analysis of a single character. Rather, I have tried to offer a preliminary investigation of how race was a determining factor in Cooper’s mature “improvements” to The Spy as that novel circulated in the transatlantic literary field. Such a reading recalls an argument by Ezra Tawil, whose The Making of Racial Sentiment claimed that the first decade of Cooper’s authorial career coincided with a shift in thinking about racial difference. To paraphrase Tawil, Cooper’s historical fiction participated in a larger cultural attempt to distinguish the “races” on the basis of their emotional properties. In works like The Pioneers, racial depth is understood as a “problematic interior,” and various nonwhite or mixed-race characters seem to contain inaccessible depths of interiority. For this critic, the Leatherstocking Tales made their greatest contribution to “American racial discourse [through] the delineation of a racialized interior” (151). Furthermore, if we were to read the 1831 revision of The Spy as composed in the wake of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Prairie (1827) — a perfectly reasonable critical assumption — then the changes regarding Caesar would seem to complement the ideological parameters explained by Tawil, where Cooper’s fiction seeks to minimize the possibility of a free and selfreflective African-American subjectivity.

However, in the unique 1831 volume used to rewrite The Spy, Cooper might also be said to play with ideas of race in a different fashion — not as a way of reflecting on changing American conceptions {42} of racial difference, but rather to signal regional or provincial status within a larger international system of literary production and distribution. This is why any critical reading of Cooper’s revised novel must begin with his “Note Bene” to the printer, since this preliminary instruction tells the immediate audience of his revised book — the printers and editors working for Colburn and Bentley — to maintain strict fidelity to the words describing Cooper’s regional characters. Literary form and the transatlantic circulation of books do therefore triangulate with racialization when it comes to The Spy’s black characters. But what ends up being emphasized is not solely an inaccessible interiority or mystery beneath blackness (contra Tawil), but rather a blackness mystified by the novelist’s obsession with Caesar’s superficial, material features. To cite yet another revised passage, Caesar falls on his head, and “consequently” sustains no “material” damage, according to the narrator (357). It’s up to modern scholars to insist that these narrative decisions were designed to appeal to a global readership — and not solely a national or regional audience. Cooper’s literary production of The Spy gives us a detailed record of publication that enables us to retrace what he termed, in the novel’s 1849 introduction, the “history of this book” (21). Quite clearly, The Spy’s entanglements of author, publisher, printed book, and the literary marketplace rely upon a racialized caricature of a loyal slave as part of its author’s rise to international fame.

Works Cited

  • Bryant, John. “Editing Popular American Texts.” Text 16 (2006): 321-332.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, vol. 2. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960.
  • ------. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Edited by James P. Elliott, Lance Schachterle, and Jeffrey Walker. 2002. Norwalk, CT: AMS Press, 2016.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Rezek, Joseph. London and the Making of Provincial Literature: Aesthetics and the Transatlantic Book Trade, 1800-1850 . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
  • Tawil, Ezra. The Making of Racial Sentiment: Slavery and the Birth of the Frontier Romance. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Winship, Michael. “Printing with Plates in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Printing History 10 (1983): 15-26.


1 For ease of reference, all citations from The Spy are keyed to the Cooper Edition edited by Elliott, Schachterle, and Walker. This critical edition includes a complete list of textual variants (460-549).