Editing Cooper’s Works

James P. Elliott (Clark University)

Presented at the 1ˢᵗ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1978.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, or Getting Under Way, Papers from the 1978 Conference at State University of New York College at Oneonta and Cooperstown, New York. Edited by George A. Test. (pp. 55-61).

Copyright © 1979 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

At present, the activity of the Cooper Edition encompasses editorial work on fourteen volumes: the five Leatherstocking Tales, the five Travel Works, and the four Revolutionary War Novels. These projects are in various stages of completion; proofreading is virtually finished for The Pioneers and Switzerland, and two others — The Pathfinder and Italy — are in press. The Edition has enjoyed wide support, including an Editorial Grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Altogether, it represents a large commitment of effort and money to publish reliable texts of Cooper’s works.

Why such a commitment, one might ask. Why do Cooper’s works need editing? What is the good of it? These questions can best be answered by discussing briefly the need for textual editing and its basic premises, and by illustrating the ways we are solving the textual problems encountered in editing Cooper.

Only in the last few decades have scholars recognized the need for editing the works of nineteenth-century American authors. The past fifteen years has seen an acceleration of establishment of accurate and dependable texts of both fictional and non-fictional works of such American writers as Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Howells, and Crane. Scholars have realized that purifying these works must occur while manuscripts and early printed forms of the works are still available, and, more importantly, before additional corruption can occur. This mandate the Cooper Edition has accepted, and, because Cooper was a careful and popular writer and many of his works have seen edition after edition, the task is not an easy one.

Textual editing is the process by which an editor tries to separate the writer’s intended text from its corruption. It may be surprising to learn that the texts we read and teach are corrupt: that is, they contain punctuation, spelling and wording that the author did not initiate or intend. This phenomenon is easily explained. Each time a text is recopied or set in type, human fallibility creates errors. It is like a game of rumor: seat several people in a circle and whisper a few sentences to the person on your right. Have him whisper the same sentences to the person on his right and so on around the circle. Inevitably the sentences return garbled and misshapen. Figuratively put, the textual editor’s task is to thresh the wheat of the author’s original words and his subsequent revisions from the chaff of compositors’ misreadings, mistakes and house-styling tendencies. The more new editions of a work — the more reprinting — the more accumulation of error.

Nineteenth-century copyists and typesetters, who worked from a manuscript, had more difficulty deciphering an author’s script than today’s typesetters, who use typescripts as printer’s copy. They were apt to misread the author’s hand, to miss an interlined phrase, to ignore a cancellation, and to correct what they felt was an error or an ambiguous reading. The editor of The Pathfinder, Richard D. Rust, found more than 600 misreadings by the Philadelphia compositors who set that novel from manuscript. As one would expect, Chingachgook has a “glaring” rather than a “glassy” eye, as the first edition reads. When a compositor is resetting from a printed text, the same fallibility can operate: his eye might skip over a phrase or even a whole sentence. In addition, a publishing house usually requires its compositors to style the prose they set according to certain standards. British reprintings of Cooper’s works show great variation in spelling and punctuation from the American texts they used as printer’s copy, and this variation extends to the wording of the texts as well. In Switzerland, for example, the British reprinting renders “this country” as “America,” a change obviously made for the benefit of British readers.

If the author proofread the typesetting, he usually did not compare it with the copy used for the setting. He responded, as authors do today, to the text in front of him. Thus Cooper did not realize that the compositor or the copyist made Weucha in The Prairie call himself “believed” instead of “beloved.” Whether he is reading proof for the initial publication or revising it for further reprintings, the author is rarely aware of the liberties taken with his text.

Many of the commercial texts now used in classrooms and in criticism are resettings of the last edition printed in the author’s lifetime. This latest edition, it was felt, would contain all the author’s revisions made at different times in his life. Perhaps; but such a point of view ignores two important facts. It does not take into account the accumulation of error as the work is reprinted. And it neglects to consider that nineteenth-century writers sometimes revised for editions which were never again used as printer’s copy. If a revised edition lies outside the mainstream of the transmission of the text — as the Murray edition of The Pioneers does — these unique alterations disappear because they are not incorporated into any subsequent reprinting. The textual editor strives to recover these alterations and include in his text all the changes which collation, research of the records of various publishing houses, review of the writer’s correspondence, and knowledge of the author’s writing and revising habits argues are the author’s revisions.

The premises which govern textual editing were first elaborated by Sir W. W. Greg in his article “The Rationale of Copy-Text,” (Studies in Bibliography, III [1950], 19-36). He posited that, in any reprinting or recopying of a text, the form — the punctuation, spelling and capitalization — is more likely to be altered by a compositor or copyist than by the author during revision. On the other hand, changes in wording and word order are more likely to be instituted by the author than the compositor. The editor begins with a “copy-text” — the text closest to the author’s hand (manuscript if it exists; proof, or, most probably, the first edition set from the manuscript if it doesn’t exist) — and inserts into that basic text all subsequent changes that he determines are the author’s. The heart of the editorial process is deciding which changes in subsequent reprintings are the author’s. To arrive at these decisions, the editor compiles a complete record of all changes in the reprinting — the record of collation. From this record he selects those changes which he deems by his experience and research are the author’s. The others, which he considers corruptions, he refuses to incorporate into the basic text. The result is an eclectic text, combining the form of the earliest known version with the substance of subsequent authorial revision. Because of the pervasive nature of possible error, the editor must argue his rationale for accepting variants as the author’s. This is the purpose of the essay following the text; it has various titles in different editions — Note on the Text, for example, or as in the Cooper Edition, Textual Commentary.

The second responsibility of the textual editor is to present a record of all changes that he makes in the copy-text. In this record, called Emendations in the Cooper Edition, one finds all changes that the editor accepts — both in form and substance — identified by source and keyed by page and line number to the text itself as it is printed in the Cooper Edition volume. The discussion in the Textual Commentary justifies these emendations; the decisions concerning other readings which encompass special problems are presented item by item in Textual Notes, an augmentation of the Textual Commentary. The editor also presents a list of significant readings which he determines are corruptions — called Rejected Readings in the Cooper Edition — and a Word-Division list, which is a guide for transcribing words hyphenated at the end of the line in both the copy-text and the Cooper Edition text. Most importantly, the reader finds a clear text of Cooper’s work — called “clear” because it is free from editorial interpolations, notes or explanations. In the clear text the reader finds the copy- text form — the initial most easily corrupted aspect of an author’s writing — combined with the substance of any later intentions and revisions the author had about his work.

The need for editing Cooper should be clear from the preceding discussion. Cooper was a prolific writer, and his most popular novels underwent much reprinting and revision. Habitually, he worked over the proof for his first printings very carefully, as comparisons between located manuscripts and the editions set from them show He revised many works two, three, or even four times. Between 1831 and 1833 he revised nine early romances, including the first three Leatherstocking Tales, for Richard Bentley’s Standard Novels series. And between 1849 and 1851 he revised — albeit lightly — eleven works, including all five Leatherstockings, for G. P. Putnam’s “Author’s Revised Edition.” The Leatherstocking Tales boast perhaps the greatest number of reprintings. The three of the 1820’s — The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie — went through myriad new editions and re-impressions, and all of them were revised at least twice. Editorial work on all three is complete: Pioneers contains more than 4,000 distinct revisions; Mohicans more than 2,000; Prairie more than 6,000. Even The Pathfinder, written over a decade later, has about 4,000 changes between the manuscript and the first edition, about half of which seem to be Cooper’s revisions in the non-extant proof.

Of the works presently being edited, The Prairie has the widest range of textual problems. If we examine it in some detail, we can see how editorial procedures address these complexities. We will begin with the Stemma — “family tree” of editions showing which descend from which earlier (piracies are omitted from this example).

AMS (Manuscript; exists for about three-fourths of the novel)      


AMAN (Amanuensis copy: exists for about one-third of the novel)      


Proof (Twelve pages)


Bossange (1827) [First printed edition] ----------> Colburn (1827)

     ¦                                                         ¦

Carey (1827)                                           Baudry (1828)      


Interleaved Carey      


Bentley Standard Novels (1832)


Putnam (1850)

If we look at the characteristics of each stage of the Stemma, we will obtain a better sense of how to proceed with the editing of The Prairie. The copy-text for this novel is patchwork. Where the manuscript has been located, it is copy-text. At times — most notably the river battle between Hard-Heart acid Mahtoree — the amanuensis copy is the earliest. One page of the proof is copy-text. For the rest — about five chapters in all — the Bossange, the first printed edition, is the text closest to the author’s hand. Beyond these in a direct line of descent are the Carey, the interleaved re-impression of the Carey, the Bentley Standard Novels edition and the Putnam. All these versions except the manuscript are sources of changes in the copy-texts.

The sections of manuscript are sometimes difficult to decipher, but they are coherent, fully executed drafts. In the interest of efficiency, we will not include tables of manuscript alterations in the Cooper Edition volumes; the manuscript as Cooper finally revised it and gave it to his nephew William, his amanuensis, is the version we use for copy-text. The Prairie is apparently the first novel that Cooper had copied. Realizing that even typesetters could not readily decipher his small hand, he gave them his nephew’s copy after he had revised it. But William had difficulty with Cooper’s hand. In those sections of the novel for which we have both manuscript and amanuensis copy, we see numerous misreadings: “desert swale” in the manuscript becomes “deserted swell” in the copy. When William had no idea what a word or phrase was, he left a blank, which Cooper then filled in during his revision. But since Cooper was not reading the manuscript as he revised the copy, many of the fill-ins vary from his original version. When Le Balafre is admiring Hard-Heart tied to the stake, he speaks in the manuscript of a “little vine” that “winds itself about another tree.” But William could not read “another” and left a blank. In revising the amanuensis copy, Cooper replaced ” [blank] tree” with “a tree that is green.” In addition, William took many liberties with the form of the manuscript. Evidently on his own initiative, he omitted many occurrences of the relative pronoun “that.” Often when Cooper ended a sentence and began a new one, William copied the phrasing as two independent clauses separated by a semicolon. He regularized many instances of spelling and punctuation, in effect attempting to smooth what he seems to have felt were the ragged edges of the prose.

What then is the intention of the author that the Cooper editor must determine regarding these misreadings? Each instance must be examined on its own merits and in its own context. Since the procedures of textual editing tell us to return to the copy-text — here the manuscript — for the form of the text, we can avoid William’s misreadings and changes of punctuation and spelling. But the decision is less clear when Cooper revised a misreading to something different from the original phrasing. In the first example — Le Balafre’s speech — we accept Cooper’s revision, since the new phrase, despite being a response to a corruption (a blank) in the amanuensis copy is more highly metaphorical than the original reading; and throughout his revisions of Indian speech, Cooper attempted to elevate the metaphorical language. In other instances, however, we might be more in keeping with his intention to retain his original expression.

The twelve pages of proof show us that, in fact, the French compositors were not very accurate. Many of Cooper’s revisions of the proof cleaned up misspelled words or confusing punctuation. But he also adjusted the substance of the text. He was working over the proof quite carefully, making even minor changes like “in” to “on” and “this” to “the,” changes that might ordinarily be expected to originate with a compositor. Having examined Cooper’s actual revisions in the existing proof and amanuensis copy, the editor can make decisions regarding differences between the manuscript and the Bossange. The new phrasing must reflect Cooper’s revisions in those portions of the proof and amanuensis copy which do not survive. Where a difference seems to be a misreading of the manuscript (or the relative pronoun “that,” for example, is dropped in the Bossange), he retains the manuscript reading and rejects the Bossange. Where the differences are similar in kind and degree to those made in the surviving portions of the proof and amanuensis copy, he can accept the Bossange variant as an emendation of the copy-text, knowing that Cooper probably made that change.

The Carey (1827) edition, like the Coburn (1827) edition, used as printer’s copy proof sheets pulled from the Bossange forms before publication. In effect, Cooper used these proof sheets as if they were duplicate typescripts. He made revisions in the proof which directed the compositors to correct the type. Then the printer ran off fresh proof sheets, on which Cooper apparently made no new revisions before they went to Carey.

But the Carey edition also presents an odd phenomenon. Probably due to the long sailing voyage, Cooper seems to have sent proof sheets which, at times, did not contain his final revisions of the Bossange type. At times, the Carey edition has the same phrasing as the manuscript, while a different phrasing appears in the Bossange. Cooper must have made further revisions for the Bossange edition after its proof went to Philadelphia. Notice the ramifications of this later revision. Since the Carey edition was the basis for the rest of the editions (see the Stemma), the late revisions of the Bossange were never incorporated into any subsequent reprinting, and disappear from the transmission of the text altogether. When Hard-Heart first appears, the Bossange edition describes the lack of ornaments which “in peace were pendant” from his ears. But the manuscript and the rest of the printed texts have “were ordinarily pendant” from his ears. The addition of “in peace” and the deletion of “ordinarily” — a revision characteristic of Cooper’s desire to add greater specificity of detail to his text — were apparently made after the proof had gone to America. At these points the editor reinstates the Bossange reading in the Cooper Edition text, which, unlike the Carey, Bentley or Putnam readings, represents Cooper’s final intention.

When Richard Bentley contracted with Cooper for the revision of nine early novels, Cooper asked Bentley to send him interleaved copies of the most recent Carey printings. The complete interleaved copy of The Prairie exists, and Cooper’s revisions are clearly marked on the blank pages, each one accompanied by a check mark probably made by the British compositors as they incorporated them into the new typesetting for the Bentley edition. The majority of his changes are in punctuation — chiefly addition of commas — but quite a few substantial ones occur as well. When describing the old Sioux women anticipating Hard-Heart’s torture, he replaced the phrase “as beings of more humanized temperaments are known to love to look upon the interest of scarcely less appalling spectacles” with a specific, Classical comparison much richer in allusion, “as the luxurious Roman dame witnessed the struggles and the agony of the gladiator.” All of these changes, even those in punctuation, are accepted in the Cooper Edition text because we know Cooper made them and not a compositor. And, many of the changes restore punctuation and wording that had become altered during the transmission of the text in its previous forms.

The Bentley edition cleans up some of the confusions that Cooper initiated in his revision of the interleaved copy, and Cooper appears not to have read proof for it. The Putnam edition, which used the Bentley as its printer’s copy, does not contain much evidence of Cooper’s revision. Its differences are, to a great extent, minor, like the regularization of dialect and the imposition of much house- styling. Though we know that Cooper did revise a little for this printing, he seems to have confined himself chiefly to the Introduction. Since most of the changes appear at least as likely to have been made by a compositor as by Cooper, we must reject many of them as not being authorial.

Each stage of the Stemma either contains Cooper’s holograph revisions or is set from a copy he revised. But each stage also compounds the corruption. The Cooper editor begins with the copy-texts and inserts into them only those variant readings from subsequent texts that he determines to be Cooper’s revisions. Thus the Cooper Edition recovers his reworking of the substance of his novel without accumulating the non-authorial corruption that inevitably accompanied it. In order that the reader can follow this process in all its detail, no change is made in Cooper Edition text silently, that is, without editorial acknowledgment.

The editing of Cooper should result in publication of accurate and dependable texts of his works, joined to an Apparatus that explains what has been changed and why. This editing substantiates the fact that Cooper was a careful craftsman extremely concerned with even the smallest details of his writing. It is our responsibility as readers and critics to pay as close attention to his texts as he did.