The Odyssey of The Water-Witch and a Susan Fenimore Cooper Letter

Max I. Baym * (Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn) and Percy Matenko (Brooklyn College)

Published in New York History, Vol. LI, No. 1 (January 1970), pp. 33-41.

Copyright © 1970, New York State Historical Association, and placed online with its kind permission.

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

THE GROWTH of the image of a literary personality in the mind of his reading public may be accounted for not only by his own achievements but by any ancillary facts that the historian of ideas turns up and relates to the creativity of that figure. One must not underestimate, then, the relevance of any fact that bears directly on the life and work of a literary artist. It is in the light of this conviction that we publish here for the first time a letter by Fenimore Cooper’s daughter, Susan. 1

On July 18, 1826, Fenimore Cooper arrived in France and after a two-year stay there he crossed the Alps to spend the Winter and Spring in Florence and its vicinity. In the Summer of 1829 he sailed down the Italian coast to Naples. A three- month stay in Sorrento followed. Then, after spending the winter of 1829-30 in Rome, he resorted to Venice during the Spring. Thence he journeyed to Munich by the Tyrol, and finally settled down in Dresden. While there the July Revolution broke out in Paris, but this did not deter him from mak{34}ing that city his residence until his return to America in 1833. 2

Let us retrace our steps, however, to the summer of 1829 in Sorrento. After a final audience with the Grand Duke Leopold II, sovereign of Tuscany, Cooper left Florence with his family on July 31, 1829, making the picturesque passage from Leghorn to Naples in a chartered felucca. On August 30, following days of sight-seeing and apartment-hunting in and about Naples, the Coopers occupied the Palazzu detta del Tasso, a spacious and charming villa on the cliffs of Sorrento. Here in a study whose windows and terrace overlooked Naples, Vesuvius and a long sweep of the Neapolitan coast, he wrote most of The Water Witch. 3

The Water Witch or the Skimmer of the Seas, A Tale, is set in the region of New York City at the end of the seventeenth century, and concerns the small brigantine, Water Witch, whose pirate captain is known as “The Skimmer of the Seas.” His abduction of Alida de Barbérie, a beautiful heiress, causes her suitor Captain Ludlow to give chase in the Coquette, an English sloop of war which he commands. Though remaining in Long Island Sound, the Water Witch manages to elude the pursuing vessel until the Coquette is engaged in battle by two French ships. The Skimmer feels honor-bound to come to the aid of his fellow countryman. When Ludlow’s fiancée is restored to him, he shows his gratitude by offering protection to the Skimmer, But the pirate, lured by new adventures, departs in the Water Witch.

Cooper’s daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, commented upon this work in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, which she wrote in 1861:

This was rather a drama of the coast than a tale of the sea; the movements of the vessels being confined entirely to the waters connected with the harbor of New York. If less brilliant than “The Red Rover,” the spirit and interest which pervade “The Water-Witch” are still very striking; there is an atmosphere of romance infused into the narrative, {35} singularly different from the sober coloring of Puritan life in “The Wish-ton-Wish.” It is strikingly picturesque also, more so than most works from the same pen. But on the other hand, there is less of high moral tone in the book than was usual with Mr. Cooper; it carries a carnival aspect about it; the shell was very gay and brilliant, the kernel was less nourishing than usual. 4

Efforts were made to print a small edition of the work in English, and several influential Italian friends, particularly sanguine about the success of this venture, appealed to authorities for aid in publication. The first chapters of the book were placed in the hands of the censor. When no answer was forthcoming, the application for permission to print was renewed. Finally came a negative reply. The whole book, it was ruled, would have to undergo rigid revision. One passage in particular incurred the Papal censor’s displeasure:

It would seem that, as Nature has given its periods to the stages of animal life, it has also set limits to all moral and political ascendency. {36} While the city of the Medici is receding from its crumbling walls, like the human form shrinking into “the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,” the Queen of the Adriatic sleeping on her muddy isles, and Rome itself is only to be traced by fallen temples and buried columns, the youthful vigor of America is fast covering the wilds of the West with the happiest fruits of human industry. 5

All ideas of printing the work in Rome were abandoned. After the Easter holidays, Cooper left the holy city. He commenced his migration northward with the intention of passing the following year in Germany where, he thought, there would be little difficulty of finally seeing his book in print. His eventual destination was Dresden where The Water Witch was finally seen through the press. 6

The Dresden in which the American novelist arrived was astir with cultural life. To be sure, there was much ceremoniousness and the superficiality that went with it. Nevertheless, members of the court found time to read such Romantics {37} as Hoffmann, Tieck and Jean Paul Richter. 7 The elements of vastness, primitiveness and heroic venturesomeness which appealed to these writers also fascinated the American. Indeed, America itself was a matrix for all these mobilia of the imagination. Tieck’s own reading in Cooper is reflected in Die Vogelscheuche (1834), especially in the part devoted to the ‘fantasia’ on the Indian worship of the scarecrow. Cooper’s works formed a part of Tieck’s library. 8 We are not surprised to learn that four years after his stay there, the memory of Cooper was very much alive in the minds of Dresden’s illuminati. 9

In Dresden, the Coopers passed some pleasant months in a cheerful apartment overlooking the Alt-Markt. They found the quaint and busy show of homely German life considerably different from that of Italy. The fine public grounds, the noble river and bridge and, above all, its art gallery gained their admiration. At Dresden, The Water Witch was printed without the least difficulty. 10

Though Susan Cooper has been, for the most part, overlooked in the history of our literary annals, she was none the less a literary figure of some account. One has but to look at some of her writings to see that she was pre-eminently fit to appreciate the work of her father. Her most distinguished effort was her first work, Rural Hours (1850; reprinted by Syracuse University Press, 1968), which, according to some critics, exhibited a Thoreau-like feeling for nature. 11

In 1886 Susan commented-upon The Water Witch in a letter which is apparently a reply to an inquiry by the Rev. Richard Salter Storrs, D.D, (1821-1900), president of the Long Island Historical Society from 1873 to 1900, concerning a {38} leaf from the original MSS; of the work. The leaf in question was part of an album containing autographs of eminent authors. This was assembled and arranged by Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt of Flatbush, for a benefit for the United States Sanitary Commission, held at the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair on February 22, 1864. The leaf was presented by Miss Cooper to Mrs. Vanderbilt, the donor of the album. The letter follows:


Oct 4ᵗʰ ‘86

Dear Sir

The M.S. to which you refer is from the original “Water-Witch,” written in my father’s study, on the terrace of the “Casa Tasso” at Sorrento. 12 And most happy he was in that charming summer home, where we remained until the snows of December. I understand the house has now become a hotel — when we occupied it we spread ourselves through the entire house, or rather through the principal rooms on the first floor, the lower stories (built into the cliff) were only occupied by the gentleman in charge of the property, many pretty lizards, and not a few scorpions and tarantule — with these exceptions we had the house, its large rooms, its delightful terrace, its exquisite views of the bay, Naples and Vesuvius entirely to ourselves. My Father generally wrote in the terrace study an hour or two in the morning, and rowed my Mother, and us children, on the bay in the afternoon or else walked with us, the whole family party included, among the lovely land about Sorrento. He was very domestic in all his habits. My Father corrected an edition for Stringer & Townsend and these verbal corrections were probably made at that time. The foot-note 13 to which you allude also belongs to that date. It was my Father’s intention to print the book at Rome during the winter of 1830 — but the papal Censor rejected it, nothwithstanding several gentlemen of high standing at Rome — themselves Italians — supported his application. He then took it with him to Dresden, when we moved northward in the Spring. Here it was printed in two volumes, 14 I think. The original M.S. was sent to Carey & Lea {39} in Philadelphia and copied there for the printers. I do not know of any copies of the Dresden edition now existing. Neither can I be certain of the precise day of publication in America. The M.S. is written in my Father’s usual hand. Several amusing incidents occurred in connection with my Father’s arrival at Dresden — there was much surprise expressed that he and his family were white! They expected a negro family! We children were sent to school to learn German more thoroughly, and it was some weeks before our Teachers and schoolmates could believe that we were native-born Americans — they had an impression that all inhabitants of the Western hemisphere were blacks! So much for public opinion at Dresden in the dark ages of the early decades of the nineteenth century. These negro notions had been strengthened by the appearance of Madame Christophe 15 and her daughters, who left Dresden after a residence of some months, just as we appeared there. Madame Christophe, as you may remember was the wife of the Ex-Emperor of Hayti. ... Another impression common in Europe at that date was the fixed belief that all Americans in the United States were descended from convicts, sent by England to her Colonies, very frequently was the American author at that time obliged to defend his countrymen from this aspersion. I close with an amusing incident, 16 which occurred as we were travelling northward to Dresden, with the M.S. “Water-Witch” in the writer’s desk, reaching a small German city about midnight we were stopped at the gates by the usual demand for the passport — at that date the number of Americans travelling in Europe was small indeed, compared with the throngs crossing the Ocean today. No sooner had the principal official seen the passport than he came eagerly to the waiting carriage: “You come from America?” “Yes.” {40} “How long is it since you left there?” “Four years.” “Did you see my brother Hans in America?” —

Very truly yours

Susan Fenimore Cooper

The footnote in Cooper’s MS that Susan refers to (above) does not occur in printed versions. It is appended to a section in which Cooper describes the quick tide existing throughout the whole distance between New York harbor and Throgmorton, due to the vast pressure of the water at all the narrow passes, This reaches a climax in the narrowest part of the Channel. Owing to a sudden bend in the course of the stream, the dangerous position of many visible and invisible rocks and the confusion produced by currents, counter-currents and eddies, this critical pass has received the name of Hell Gate. 17 The footnote states:

It is a little surprising that, in this age of canals, the idea of removing {41} the difficulties of this passage has never suggested itself to the (“nautical”) engineers. A few hundred thousand dollars, expended in cutting through the tongue of land, would not only lessen the currents, by furnishing an extra route for the water but it would give them a true direction. The individuals whose duty it has been to know the records of this legend [illegible] in their present shape, have often counted fifty and sixty sail coming to this strait in a little fleet or a flood, and there is scarcely a week passes in which some loss is not sustained among its rocks. Coasters, cutting westward, presently lose a day! by not reaching it in seconds, and even steamboats are sometimes unable to stem its current. The writer has often seen vessels with a brisk wind as stationary in the Gate as if they were anchored. Though this passage has not now all the terrors which obsession gave it when the good-man [illegible] journeyed round it by land, it is still worthy of the attention of the Public Servants.

It is interesting to note that in 1903, Peter Ross pointed to the Water-Witch as containing “a most thrilling description of the passage through Hell Gate as it was in the days before Uncle Sam undertook to remove its dangers.” In 1876, a great engineering project, begun in 1870, removed Hallet’s Reef, the most dangerous in the whole passage. The destruction of Flood Rock and other obstructions followed. Thus the United States Government provided a clear channel for navigation through Hell Gate. 18 In spite of his own practical suggestion, the question remains (at least from an aesthetic point of view): Would this have pleased the novelist who had a flare for the wild and the primitive or would it, for him, have subtracted a great deal of the substance of romance?


1 We express our gratitude to Professor Myron H. Luke, President of the Long Island Historical Society, for his kind permission to publish the letter, as well as to the Society’s Executive Director, Mr. John H. Lindenbush and his staff for their most gracious assistance during the course of our research. We are also indebted to Mrs. Joyce K. Dahl and her staff for making available the holdings of the Dickinson Room in the Brooklyn College Library.

2 Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper, Boston and N.Y. (c. 1882), 67-68.

3 James Franklin Beard, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, Cambridge, Mass., 1960, I (Hereafter referred to as Beard, I); James Fenimore Cooper, Excursions in Italy, (London, 1838) I, 205 et passim; II, 1-4; Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, N. Y. 1861, 224f; Household ed. of The Water-Witch ... with an introduction by Susan Fenimore Cooper, Boston and N. Y., c. 1884, xiv f; Susan Fenimore Cooper, “A Second Glance Backward,” Atlantic Monthly, LX (Oct. 1887), 479ff.

4 Pages and Pictures ... , p. 231.

5 The Water Witch (1831), I, 8. The italicized words are those Susan singled out in the second page of the returned MS (cf. “A Second Glance,” 482).

6 “Second Glance,” 481-483 and Household ed. of The Water-Witch, xxif.

7 Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving, N. Y. and London, 1935, I, “The Winter in Dresden ... ,” 215-254, 442-452.

8 Percy Matenko, “Ludwig Tieck and America,” University of North Carolina Studies in Germanic Languages and Literatures, No. 12 (c. 1954), 52, 97.

9 George William Curtis, The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, N.Y., 1889, 1, 35-36 (Tieck spoke of Irving and Cooper); Matenko, Tieck, 8, 111.

10 Pages and Pictures, 230-231. Miss Cooper was obviously mistaken when she stated that “the book was published in America in 1830, by Messrs. Carey and Lea.” Actually, the first American edition was launched by Carey in 1831.

11 Anna K. Cunningham, “Susan Fenimore Cooper — Child of Genius,” New York History, XXV (July 1944), 339-350; Correspondence of lames Fenimore Cooper, ed, by his grandson James Fenimore Cooper, New Haven, 1922, I, passim; Dictionary of American Biography, N.Y. c. 1930, IV, 412-413; Rural Hours, recently republished by Syracuse University Press.

12 Cooper’s impressions of his visit at Sorrento and the surrounding bay of Naples are incorporated in The Water-Witch; Philadelphia, Carey & Lea, 1831, II, Ch. V, 61-68. Here, as in his Excursions, I, 201f., Cooper makes a comparison between the relative beauty of the bay of Naples and the harbor of New York. However, where Naples definitely receives the palm in Excursions, this attitude becomes more equivocal in the passage of The Water-Witch cited above.

13 See p. 40 below.

14 The Dresden ed. of 1830 was in three vols., not in two (as Susan thought). The copy in the Dresden Library has a note pasted on the verso side of the front cover of the first volume in Cooper’s hand, as follows: “There are a few errors in this work, which do not exist in American Edition. In the editor’s anxiety to correct the English, too little attention was given to some of the French in Vol. I — There are a few mistakes in the genders, which it is hoped the reader will overlook, as la genie, le propreté, &e &c — considering the difficulty of printing in a foreign language it is (the word ‘hope’ is crossed out) believed that, in other respects, the work will be found correct.” Under this note, in another hand, is the following statement: Eigene Handschrift Herrm Cooper’s,/ Geschenk der Waltherschen Hofbuchhandlung. — The Household Ed. (p. vi) offers as the probable cause for the unusual number of typographical errors in the Dresden 1830 ed. the fact that it was “first printed [in English] in Germany.”

15 Madame Christophe was the wife of Henry Christophe (1767-1820) who was crowned King of Haiti on June 2, 1811. She had visited Dresden for a few months immediately prior to Cooper’s arrival on May 21, 1830 (see Susan’s letter; “A Second Glance,” 483; Beard, I, 415).

16 This incident is developed in greater detail in “A Second Glance” (p. 483). There the incident is stated as having taken place “at the gates of a small town between Munich and Dresden,” and the full name of the German official’s brother, namely Hans Breitkopf, is given.

17 This occurs in the MS., p. 1, 11. 20-26.

18 Peter Rose, L.L.D., A History of Long Island From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, N.Y. and Chicago, 1903, I, 574.

* A new glimpse of the Cooper family in Europe and additional information on the writing and publication of The Water Witch. Max I. Baym is Professor Emeritus of Humanities, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn; Percy Matenko is Professor Emeritus, Department of Modern Languages, Brooklyn College.