Cooper in New Dress: The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper

James H. Pickering (University of Houston) *

Published in New York History, Vol. LXIII, No. 3 (July 1982), pp. 295-306.

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

A review of the first four volumes of the projected forty-eight-volumeThe Writings of James Fenimore Cooper 1

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

IN OCTOBER OF 1970 I noted in these pages that the publication by James Beard of the final two volumes of his six-volume Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper “marks ... a turning point in the history of Cooper scholarship.” Now, more than a decade later, with the publication by the State University of New York Press of the first four volumes of The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, we have entered into a second, and equally important, phase of what might be called an ongoing “Cooper revolution” — a concerted attempt on the part of scholars led by the indefatigable Professor Beard to make Fenimore Cooper, the man and his work, available to twentieth-century readers. When completed, the currently projected forty-eight-volume Cooper Edition, jointly sponsored by Beard’s own Clark [296] University and the American Antiquarian Society, will constitute the largest effort yet undertaken to provide a definitive edition of the works of a nineteenth-century American author. Such an undertaking will obviously take years to complete. And at some time during the process we will have still another important milestone to celebrate: the publication of James Beard’s long-awaited critical biography of the novelist himself — a project upon which he has labored since the late 1940s. Only with the conclusion of all three projects — the Letters and Journals, Beard’s biography, and the Cooper Edition — will it finally be possible to know and fully appreciate the man and the writer who was James Fenimore Cooper.

To understand the full enormity of what Beard and his colleagues have accomplished and are accomplishing one must also understand something of the obstacles that they have had to face and overcome. Though fellow author Herman Melville confidently predicted, in memorializing Cooper the year following his death, that “a grateful posterity will take the best care of Fenimore Cooper,” he was clearly being optimistic. Gratitude, of course, is predicated on understanding, an understanding that Melville and his fellow memorialists — literati such as William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Francis Parkman — presumably at least partially shared. But if so, as is clear enough from the record of the years that followed, they were virtually alone.

It was not so much that critics refused to acknowledge Cooper’s contribution to the development of American fiction in novels like The Spy, The Pilot, and the five volumes of Leatherstocking Tales — though their author was often made the butt of parody and satire by such members of the next literary generation as Bret Harte (“Muck-a-Muck: A Modern Indian Novel After Cooper,” 1867) and Mark Twain (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences” 1895). Rather, it was that Cooper the man, and the underlying motives and principles that called forth and framed his writings, remained for the century following his death widely misunderstood, misinterpreted, or simply ignored.

The fault, to be sure, was in large measure Cooper’s own. Unable by temperament and conviction to play out the role of the genial and reticent professional man of letters — as, say, [297] was the case with fellow Yorker Washington Irving — Cooper allowed himself to become embroiled in a series of causes-célèbresand arguments with both his Cooperstown neighbors and his countrymen at large, culminating in frustration, alienation, and the overpowering sense (as early as 1832) that “I am not with my own country — the void between us is immense — which is in advance time will show.” To Cooper himself his basic motives and the principles at stake were clear enough: his fear of the “slavish dependence on foreign opinion” and the deleterious influence it exercises on the all-too-susceptible and undiscriminating American mind; his growing discomfort at the excesses of an expanding laissez faire capitalism and the egalitarian leveling tendencies of Jacksonian democracy; and, perhaps most painfully of all, his sense that in the America to which he returned in 1833 after seven years abroad there was no longer a place for the man of “intelligence and breeding,” “the man of taste, sentiments, affections, or tone.”

No small part of his difficulty was the way in which Cooper characteristically went about things. Given a personality that was not infrequently irascible, querulous, and unnecessarily aggressive, Cooper often compounded his difficulties and his sense of frustration and outrage by allowing his personality and manner to obscure an objective understanding of the substance of his arguments and beliefs.

The price paid by Cooper personally was a heavy one, as we can see by the subject matter, themes, and tone that dominate — and often mar — his later works. The price, moreover, was compounded by the author’s own family and their heirs, who for more than three-quarters of a century honored Cooper’s wishes by retaining in their own custody many of the key documents that might — in the right hands — have set the record straight. Robert E. Spiller tried in 1930, with the publication of Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times, the first important landmark of modern Cooper scholarship. But it was not until 1948, when James Franklin Beard, Jr., who in taking up Cooper as the subject of his doctoral dissertation at Princeton quickly discovered that “little substantial progress could be made in Cooper scholarship until systematic searching revealed what additional sources were discoverable,” entered into an agreement with Cooper’s two great-grandsons to obtain access to the fami[298]ly’s holding of unpublished letters, documents, and papers, that the groundwork was finally laid for Cooper’s reconstruction. The first fruits of that agreement came with Beard’s publication of the six-volume Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (1960-1968) and the still-to-come biography on which Beard has simultaneously been at work. The 1948 agreement also laid the groundwork for the new edition of Cooper’s Writings by providing the indispensable historical and biographical background which is so necessary a part of modern editing.

The “Cooper Edition,” as it is popularly called, also has its background and story, and once again the role played by Professor Beard, the acknowledged dean of Cooper scholars, has been decisive. It began in the late 1960s, the period when work on the Letters and Journalswas drawing to a close, in a series of conferences arranged by Professor William M. Gibson, then director of the Center for Editions of American Authors of the Modern Language Association. The agenda of these sessions was clear: to provide for the works of Fenimore Cooper the same kind of new and “definitive” edition, adhering to the highest standards of modern textual bibliography, that was being provided for such other important nineteenth-century American authors as Irving, Hawthorne, Melville, Crane and Howells. The need for such a “new” edition was obvious. Fully 80 percent of Cooper’s published writings were then out of print, and the “standard” edition used by most Cooper scholars (the thirty-two-volume 1859 edition published by W A. Townsend and Company — often called the “Darley Edition” because of its five hundred drawings by the incomparable American illustrator F.O.C. Darley) was textually inaccurate, hard to obtain, and, by design, excluded Cooper’s nonfiction.

Modern textual editing, a series of standardized practices that have come fully into their own only in the past quarter century, is an art. Taking as its basic premise that a definitive text or manuscript of any literary work is the one that can be shown to be “closest to the author’s hand” and thereby closest to the author’s intention, it requires exact “collation” (or comparison) of the original manuscript, when available, with each successive edition of the work printed during the author’s lifetime, with special attention to editions known to [299] bear the author’s own personal revisions. Standing in, the way are a legion of errors well-known to any author who has watched his or her work proceed from manuscript to or through one or more editions of a printed work. Many of these errors are initially the fault of typesetters who misread (easy enough in a day of hand written manuscripts), skip, or make unilateral changes, sometimes to conform, to real or implied “house styles.” Second and subsequent editions, revised or unrevised by the author, continue to compound the textual editor’s difficulties by retaining old errors and adding new ones.

The first task of any textual editor, then, having assembled the original manuscript if it still exists (many of Cooper’s and those of other early authors of course do not) and all the editions of the same work published during the author’s lifetime, is to compare the manuscript and the printed texts to establish the differences or “variants” they contain. Some of these variants may be described as “accidentals” — minor differences in spelling and punctuation which do not, by and large, affect meaning. Other variants (“substantives”) are more important since they potentially affect the reading of the text, as for example where the compositor of The Pathfindersubstituted “glassy” for “glaring” to describe the look of Chingachgook. (There are, by the way, some four hundred such compositorial errors in The Pathfinderalone.) Though perhaps of minor significance to the general reader, substantive variants become important to the extent that a given critic will sometimes be influenced by, or even erect his argument upon, words or passages that the textual editor shows to have been erroneously presented in the original.

The function of the textual editor, then, is to examine these variants, make judgments between accidentals and substantives, and embody them in an apparatus approved by the Center for Editions of American Authors of the Modern Language Association and appended to the text, providing the reader with a graphic road map of how the final copy text was arrived at from start to finish. The apparatus not only contains a list of all the variants discovered but an explanation of how choices were made between them in establishing the “text closest to the author’s hand.” Such work, is, as it sounds, both laborious and time-consuming. But for those who enjoy it the process of textual editing provides pleasures [300] akin to those of unravelling a complicated and elaborate puzzle.

The Cooper Edition, of which Beard is editor-in-chief, has been aided immensely by its ability to draw upon the incomparable collection of Cooper’s works housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts; by its ability to obtain a variety of grants, large and small, upon which all such scholarly projects must necessarily depend; by the existence of a small but dedicated band of Cooper editors, headed by chief textual editor James P. Elliott of Clark University; and by the willingness of the State University of New York Press at Albany to publish the completed volumes. It is, as one would guess, a very costly undertaking — one, sad to say, that is very much at the mercy of the kind of financial cutbacks and retrenchment which we are told will become the norm of the 1980s.

The order in which these first four volumes came to press is, in a measure, deliberate. To begin with two volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales, The Pioneers (1823) and The Pathfinder (1840), makes good sense on any number of grounds, not the least of which is the fact that it is on these five volumes that Cooper’s critical reputation has traditionally rested. The choice of the other two volumes, Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland (1836) and Gleanings in Europe: Italy (1838), two of Cooper’s so-called “travel books,” recommend themselves on still other grounds: their lack of availability and the fact that they both represent editing projects which Robert E. Spiller began long ago. Subsequent volumes have been projected according to various logical groups: Cooper’s four novels of the American Revolution, the sea novels, the naval writings, the political books, and the novels of social criticism.

The format followed, by pre-arrangement, is a common one. It consists of a historical introduction, containing information on the genesis of the work, its composition, publication, and contemporary reception, addressed to intelligent and, informed readers “but not necessarily an audience of Cooper specialists”; the copy text itself, unmarred by editorial intrusion, but including Cooper’s own prefaces and introductions (Cooper often wrote new prefaces or revised old ones for subsequent editions) and in the case of the travel books some additional information in respect to proper [301] names where Cooper frequently followed the nineteenth-century practice of according anonymity; and finally the textual apparatus (ranging in length from Less than twenty-five pages in the case of Switzerlandto almost a hundred in the case of The Pioneersand The Pathfinder). The apparatus in each of these four works is complete, rigorous, and to the uninitiated a bit intimidating, yet beyond question impeccable in meeting the editorial standards of the CEAA and those prepared expressly for the Cooper Edition by Professors Beard and Elliott.

The general reader will, no doubt, be most interested in The Pioneers, for whose historical introduction and explanatory notes James Beard has drawn upon his almost encyclopedic knowledge of Cooper to establish a standard to be admired and emulated by all future Cooper editors. “Written,” as Cooper notes in the preface, “exclusively, to please myself,” The Pioneersrepresents the novelist’s nostalgic tribute to his pioneering father, Judge William Cooper, the man who carved the village of Cooperstown out of the Otsego wilderness and who as its resident landlord and first citizen quite literally brought civilization to the “Sources of the Susquehanna.” It was a novel, moreover, that Cooper had to write, for during the period of its composition the Judge’s once-sizable land-holdings were being swept away by creditors, and Cooper’s own heritage — together with all that he had been told and remembered of early Cooperstown — was very much in jeopardy. It is thus hardly surprising, as Beard notes, that the economically helpless novelist should turn in 1822-1823 to an imaginative attempt to repossess a past that, then more than ever, seemed no longer his.

Following his own earlier injunction that the American writer of fiction should seek to capture “our domestic manners, the social and the moral influences, which operate in retirement and in common intercourse, and the multitude of local peculiarities which form our distinctive features upon the many peopled earth,” Cooper succeeded in The Pioneersin producing one of the finest genre-pieces in American literature. Though historical and autobiographical details abound in both the characters and incidents with which he invests the world of Templeton, Cooper’s instinct was that of the artist who uses fact in the interest of fiction, in this case to [302] illustrate the activities and individuals which typify “the sort of life that belongs to ‘a new country,’ forming a link in;the great social chain of the American community.”

The Pioneersalso, of course, introduces Natty Bumppo, the Leatherstocking, a crotchety and garrulous old hunter of the Otsego hills, who would become through a series of increasingly idealized reincarnations one of the quintessential heroes of the American literary imagination. Though the navel ostensibly turns on the conventional motif of the lost heir, its thematic center belongs to Natty and Judge Temple, Templeton’s founder and leading citizen, and to their opposing and irreconcilable views on private property and the need to establish law and restraint within a morally imperfect world. Natty can claim a time-honored right to hunt and a code of self-discipline that makes him “an exception” to the new laws with which Judge Temple has structured his settlement, but it is a contest which, given the terms of the argument, Natty cannot win. His defiance of the Judge’s law is both foolish and short-lived, and in the aftermath — with the surface plot happily resolved — the Leatherstocking takes his leave to turn westward, “the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent.”

Though it is probably true that only Cooper specialists will use, let alone fully appreciate, the nearly one hundred pages of accompanying apparatus provided by textual editors Schachterle and Andersen, it is clear that they have done their work extremely well. Particularly interesting and valuable is the commentary that reconstructs Cooper’s efforts to correct the errors and corruptions which his own haste and carelessness had allowed to mar the first edition published by Charles Wiley in February, 1823. The substantive nature of those revisions — the three which Cooper undertook during the winter of 1823, and the two subsequent ones of 1831 and 1850 — together with the care and concern they evidence, tell us a good deal about Cooper as a literary artist that scholars have not previously known, or at least have not before been in a position to prove. They more than confirm, in fact, the assertion made by Beard and Elliott in their 1977 statement of “Editorial Principles and Procedures” that:

Quite contrary to assumptions of earlier scholars, investigation has shown that Cooper, was some of his books and revised corrupt texts with a sure hand — sometimes repeatedly; and his supposed lapses of diction have been shown to be, to a remarkable extent, the undetected, progressive corruptions of careless compositors. If the number of alterations in manuscript and apparent corrections in proof were the only indications of self-conscious stylistic concern, Cooper could be considered a more self-conscious stylist than Hawthorne. In short, the testimony of Cooper’s texts invites a thorough-going skepticism towards earlier conclusions about his art and artistry.

The new edition of The Pathfinder (for which Richard Dilworth Rust has provided the historical introduction and served as textual editor) is, by contrast, less impressive. Though the textual apparatus adheres to the standards established by Beard and ]Elliott and followed by Schachterle and Andersen, the historical introduction must be judged a disappointment. Professor Rust devotes a scant nine pages to the task (as opposed to Beard’s thirty-one), and fully two-thirds of these are taken up with a discussion of the novel’s critical reception. Little attempt is made to acquaint the reader with the novel’s relationship to the known facts of Cooper’s life or with the printed sources upon which the author is known to have drawn. A glaring omission in this respect is the absence of any discussion of the use of Anne Grant’s Memoirs of an American Lady (1808), from whose pages Cooper lifted the character of Major Alexander Duncan (“Duncan of Lundie”), the commander of the Oswego garrison, and other historical details which, though not crucial to our understanding of the novel, do shed interesting light on Cooper’s method of composition. One must also fault Professor Rust for not raising, however briefly, the thematic concerns of Cooper’s novel (as Beard does), and for not discussing how Cooper’s long-deferred return to the story of Natty Bumppo in a “nautico-lake-savage romance” both confirms and significantly departs from the vision of the three Leatherstocking Tales written during the 1820s.

Gleanings in Europe: Switzerlandis the first of the five epistolary travel narratives written by Cooper between 1836 and 1838 — Italywas the fifth and last. Composed almost a decade after the fact, the Gleaningswere the final, residual product of the seven critical years, 1826 to 1833, which Cooper spent abroad in England and on the continent, during which he forged his already-developing political, social, intellectual, and aesthetic interests and concerns into a unique [304] version of nineteenth-century American cosmopolitanism that few of his contemporaries were prepared to appreciate, accept, or, in the end, forgive.

Though the Gleaningsrecount Cooper’s European travels and experiences, his motives were not autobiographical. Rather, he sought to provide American readers with a sense of Europe and European life as seen through “American eyes” by “a sort of Tocqueville in reverse.” Though an interest in politics and society is present to a greater or lesser extent in all five volumes, his criticism is most pronounced in France (1837) and England (1837), his accounts of the two countries with whose history, institutions, and current political situation Cooper was most familiar, and where, not unexpectedly, he detected most clearly that bias towards monarchism and aristocracy whose influence he believed to act so prejudicially on the public mind at home.

Switzerlandand Italyare different both in emphasis and in tone, largely because of the subject matter that engaged their author’s attention. Switzerland, the recollections of the extended holiday which Cooper and his family passed during the summer of 1828, is “primarily a study in the description of nature.” Cooper chose as his model the picturesque travel narrative, a highly-stylized and flexible genre then very much in vogue, which took its inspiration from the aesthetic theory popularized by parson William Gilpin in his Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty (1792). Adopting the conventional persona of “the picturesque traveller,” “a person of taste and sensibility” who sets forth in pursuit of “ideal ‘scenes’ — buildings; cityscapes, genre scenes, rural wilderness — in which every detail contributed to the complex unity of the whole,” Cooper used his excursions as a narrative frame to surround and connect a series of carefully composed pictorial sketches. As Beard and Spiller point out, Cooper chose the subjects of his sketches “for their painterly appeal,” “varying their lengths, their perspectives, their composition, and their textures,” employing in their rendition “tested story-telling devices: anticipatory preparation, foreshadowing, suspense, surprise, and anecdotal elaboration.” As he wrote, Cooper relied for the most part on his own recollective memory, which he stimulated at times by referring either to the brief details and impressions that he [305] had recorded on-site in his journals or (especially in Italy) to standard guidebooks.

At times, to be sure, the quest for stylized beauty could become a bit precious: “All that the lakes of Switzerland need to render them faultlessly beautiful, is islands. ... Here and there an island is met with, it is true, but they are usually insignificant, and not well placed. ... ” Or again: “It is a defect with most great cataracts, that the accessories are seldom on a scale commensurate with the principal feature.” Yet, for all that, Cooper’s Swiss sketches, with their sustained pictorial intensity and “kinesthetic quality,” manage to convey, even to the modern reader, the sense of enthusiasm, excitement, and awe that Cooper himself had experienced a decade before.

Cooper’s Italian interlude, October 1828 to May 1830, was by no means anticlimactic. “Switzerland,” he wrote, “astonishes and often delights, by its union of the pastoral with the sublime; but Italian nature wins upon you until you come to love it like a friend.” Italian scenery, with its soft, subtle tints and shadows and luxurious climate, proved irresistible. But so too did its cities — Florence, Naples, Rome, and Venice — which allowed Cooper to indulge his cosmopolitanism and his taste for good living. If, as Blake Nevius has contended, the galleries and scenery of Europe provided Cooper with “a kind of postgraduate course in aesthetics” and turned him into a “connoisseur, collector, and patron of art,” Italy, not surprisingly, served as the culmination of that education. The contemplation of Italian painting, sculpture, architecture, classical antiquity, together with Italian landscape, both rural and suburban, encouraged Cooper to develop his own symbolic aesthetic of the picturesque in the complex “interaction between light, landscape, and the mind of the beholder.” The best of Cooper’s Italian sketches and tableaux, as the editors note, reflect just how fully he learned that lesson. Drawing, as in the case of Switzerland, on “a remarkable collaboration between Cooper’s visual memory and his journal,” they yield in their “gatherings of various irregular forms transfigured by light and constantly changing as light and perspective change” “a world imbued with a grand design ... which is variously ethical, spiritual, intellectual, and cultural.”

[306] Editors Beard, Spiller, Conron and Denne have carried out their assignments well. Both introductions are particularly valuable for their discussion of Cooper’s aesthetic of the picturesque — its origins, evolution, deployment, and meaning — which in turn sheds considerable light on an important aspect of Cooper’s narrative art which until comparatively recently has gone unexplored. Valuable too are the appendices which provide the reader with a convenient means of setting the original, and rather pedestrian, journal entries of 1828 and 1829 side by side with their expanded versions in the Gleaningsand of thereby appreciating the extraordinary recreative power of Cooper’s memory and imagination.

The new edition of Cooper’s Writingsis quite obviously in good hands and well underway, and we have every right to look forward with confidence to the volumes to come. It has taken a long time, but thanks to the efforts of James Beard and his colleagues Herman Melville’s prediction about Cooper and the “grateful posterity” that will one day take care of him is finally being realized.


1 The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale. Historical introduction and explanatory notes by James Franklin Beard. Text established by Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Andersen, Jr. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980. 4. lvii, 565. $24.95.) The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea. Edited with an historical introduction by Richard Dilworth Rust (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. 4. xxvi, 569. $24.95.) Gleanings in Europe: Switzerland. Historical introduction and explanatory notes by Robert E. Spiller and James E Beard. Text established by Kenneth W. Staggs and James P. Elliott (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980. 4. xliii, 361. $24.95.) Gleanings in Europe: Italy. Historical introduction and explanatory notes by John Conron and Constance Ayers Denne. Text established by Constance Ayers Denne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981. 9. xlvi, 377. $24.95.)

* Cooper scholar James Pickering is now Professor of English and Dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at the University of Houston, Texas.