Editing James Fenimore Cooper

James A. Sappenfield (University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee)

Presented at the 9ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1993.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1993 Cooper Seminar (No. 9), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. James D. Wallace, editor. (pp. 64-80).

Copyright © 1993, State University College at Oneonta.

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


My association with the editorial enterprise devoted to the works of James Fenimore Cooper now spans twenty years or so, The Cooper edition is one of more than a dozen projects in the restoration of the works of major American authors. The goal of this enormous editorial program, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and involving scholars and institutions from coast to coast, was, for these authors, to produce reliable, authentic texts. The impulse to recover authentic texts goes back at least to late classical times, and as a modern discipline textual criticism grew out of the devout Christian imperative to derive the most authentic texts of the Biblical canon. The stakes for editing modern secular books and plays and poems are certainly not so high. But the scholarly edition aims always to recover what the author thought he or she wrote. (Someone else might want to modernize, annotate, or even select or abridge the text after that; but the textual critic’s job has been to create a baseline text which “recovers the author’s final intention.”)

Until the 1950s, if I may paint with the broadest brush, editorial opinion wavered between two opposing viewpoints on the treatment of modern, published texts: the edition should be based the form closest to the author’s own hand — manuscript, typescript, or first edition — as the least subject to the corruptions of the printinghouse. Or the editor should choose the latest edition possibly incorporating authorial revisions (the last in his or her lifetime, or even the first posthumous edition) because, though it will be corrupted to some extent, it will also contain the author’s last precious corrections and improvements. (Parenthetically, I remember my teacher, poet and critic Yvor Winters, who argued that the editor ought simply to select the best reading of the poem and print that: poets get old and dotty and muddle up what they wrote in their younger, better days.)

The great bibliographers of the 1950s, notably Walter W. Greg and Fredson Bowers, contributed sophisticated new theories and practices to textual studies. Greg’s “The Rationale of Copytext” is fundamental to the work we do, and though I have called it sophisticated, it is not very difficult to understand. Whereas earlier editorial practice — whether wedded to the earliest form of a text or to the latest — demanded fidelity to that form in exclusion of all the rest, Greg described a process which resulted in an eclectic text: One which might not (and in the case of James Fenimore Cooper’s works does not) exactly resemble any version of the text hitherto printed. Greg required {65} that evidence be collected about the widest plausible range of sources for a text. They would include the author’s manuscript, fair-copy or typescript if one was made from the author’s manuscript for the printer, proofsheets supplied to the auth the printer, the first edition and all other editions either where the author made revisions or where a later text became the source for a still later one that the author revised (this last unlikely-sounding scenario actually applies to The Last of the Mohicans.)

Collecting evidence in Greg’s usage means comparing all authorial, or relevant, forms of the text and recording all variant readings. Walter Greg’s real insight was that textual variants are of two sorts and that in general the two sorts of variation are to be scrutinized differently by the editor. Every text is made of words or substantives, and the tissue of spelling and punctuation and capitalization that we call accidentals.

To recover the author’s accidentals, Greg prescribed that the copy-text be that version closest to the author’s own hand — preferably his or her autograph MS. Greg knew that spelling, punctuation, and capitalization are — or anyway were — most likely to be altered, improved, corrected by printers — and that in general, those alterations are not the sort authors fight about. Our experience in editing Cooper’s works for which manuscripts survive suggests that compositors or typesetters virtually ignored, or certainly tried to ignore, the author’s punctuation, spelling and capitalization, and considered it part of their job to style the text in terms of accidentals. I reread my own Textual Commentary for The Two Admirals to find some figures for this paper, and discovered that I said there were “literally thousands” of accidental variants between the manuscript and the first edition (obviously I had no idea how many and no inclination to tally them up). Again, without counting, I estimate that in The Bravo, the text I am working on now, there’s a variant in punctuation or spelling in almost every other line. Nor does the tissue of accidentals become fixed by the first edition. Compositors of subsequent editions apply their own sense of correctness in matters of spelling and punctuation. And so, it is clear that Greg was right. If one values the author’s accidentals, one must get as close to the author’s own hand as possible.

The words — substantives — change as the author revises his or her text, and the editor will make a careful examination of all forms of the text which the author could have had a hand in. Words also change as they are misread, inadvertently dropped, or changed on purpose by printers who think they ought to be changed. The nineteenth-century compositor, who received the author’s handwritten manuscript without intervention of a copy-editor or anyone else, was to my mind a remarkable workman. Cooper, for instance, wrote a graceful hand, but his writing was often not very readable and always very small. It is no wonder to me that compositors made a lot of mistakes; the wonder is that they didn’t make more. But setting one word when the author wrote another, whether by accident or on purpose (which British compositors often did when confronted {66} with English that didn’t look British or a dialect representation that emphatically didn’t look right) is corrupting the text.

The editorial process, accordingly and in a nutshell, is to preserve the tissue of the author’s accidentals and to incorporate all of the substantive changes made by or intended by the author throughout the subsequent vicissitudes of that text. The resulting version is literally eclectic. For The Last of the Mohicans, we preserve what we can recover of Cooper’s 1826 punctuation, while incorporating a very small handful of substantive — word — revisions made in 1850. While I can imagine sensible objections to and theoretical arguments with the notion of an eclectic text, on balance and based on my experience with Cooper, I think it makes pretty good sense. Given the choice between the author’s accidentals and substantives and somebody else’s, I haven’t much doubt about which to choose.


In practical fact, how good are these historical restorations? My argument is that, given a competent editor or editorial team, the goodness or reliability of any text is a function of the amount of information available. Which brings me to my jigsaw puzzle analogy. A textual project is a lot like putting together an old jigsaw puzzle found on the shelf of a seashore summer house. In other words, editorial work is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle which has most of its pieces missing.

The simplest textual situation — a child’s first puzzle — involves a minimum of three forms: the author’s autograph manuscript, printer’s page proof, and first published edition. I am not sure how many texts present a profile quite that simple. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is one. Three pieces of the puzzle, if you had them, would permit a virtually definitive edition of Hawthorne’s American classic. The novel was printed by Metcalf & Co. in Cambridge from the author’s autograph manuscript. Hawthorne read and marked the proof. Ticknor and Fields issued the first edition. Inasmuch as the author never intervened in a subsequent edition of The Scarlet Letter during the last thirteen years of his life, that text does in fact present the simplest possible textual jigsaw puzzle.

Cooper’s books are almost invariably more complicated than Hawthorne’s or Melville’s or Thoreau’s. A good many Cooper manuscripts survive. For some of his books, Cooper turned to an amanuensis or secretary to prepare a fair copy more legible than his own manuscript. The amanuensis copy, when it exists, is obviously another very significant witness of the text. Copyists, even relatives as Cooper’s were, act like compositors. They “correct” accidentals and they misread substantives. They leave blanks in their copies when they can’t read a word or words, and the author restores the unreadable word — or if he can’t read it himself or doesn’t bother {67} to look for it in the original manuscript, he substitutes another word or phrase.

The surviving scraps of Cooper’s corrected proof confirm what editors have inferred by comparing manuscripts and first editions: that Cooper made significant alterations in proof. He handled compositors’ misreadings just as he did those of his copyists. That is, since it’s clear that Cooper didn’t read proof against MS copy (the printer kept the MS and sent proof in small batches) he obviously substituted for words that compositors misread. And he felt free to tighten and otherwise improve the text at the proof stage. The fact that so little author-corrected proof survives leaves the Cooper editor with a substantial vacancy near the center of his puzzle.

Cooper’s books, early on, were popular of course. They found British publishers who set their editions from advance sheets — corrected proof — of the American edition. In routine cases, like The Two Admirals, it’s clear that Cooper worked over his proofs, the printer made the corrections, the sheets went to London, and Richard Bentley’s compositors followed copy (with no more than the usual officiousness about American English). But in some exasperating cases, the transatlantic editions turn out to be authorial — which can happen if the author decides for whatever reason, to jot more corrections on the sheets before they are committed to the sea. I say, “transatlantic” editions, because some of Cooper’s books were published first in France (The Prairie) or in England (The Bravo), and so the direction reverses.

The popularity of Cooper’s early novels caused them to sell out and to require new editions. Before the books were routinely stereotyped — that is printed from steel plates cast from impressions of standing type — an early second edition, as of Pioneers or Mohicans, involved a new setting of type. In the case of Pioneers, which had been published under the nearly impossible conditions of a yellow fever epidemic, Cooper took advantage of the resetting of the novel to make significant corrections and revisions — only weeks after its initial appearance. The Last of the Mohicans was originally printed in New York under Cooper’s supervision, but when the first edition sold out, Henry Carey, Cooper’s new publisher, had stereotype plates made for a new edition by his printer in Philadelphia. There is some correspondence between Carey and Cooper. Carey invited Cooper to make corrections; Cooper writes with apparent irritation that the copy has not arrived. Evidently, the new stereotype edition was published without authorial intervention; and though it was a relatively faithful resetting of its original, this edition introduced 20 substantive variants — changes in words. Two of those were obvious corrections; the rest were corruptions — which would not matter too much were the stereotype edition a collateral branch of the Mohicans family tree — or stemma. But as I mentioned above, the second or stereotype edition of Mohicans is situated in the main line of transmission of this text. It forms part of the trunk of the tree.

A second result of Cooper’s popularity was that he was offered the opportunity — really two {68} major opportunities — to revise some of his works, years after their original appearance. The first such opportunity was presented by his London publisher Richard Bentley in 1831. Bentley wished to secure the British copyright for the author’s early novels in order to publish them in his new Standard Novels Series. (Cooper was to be a major contributor and mainstay of Bentley’s Standard Novels.) The author was paid fifty pounds each for revisions of six novels — going back to The Spy and including, of course, The Last of the Mohicans.

Whereas a non-authorial second edition may be an insignificant piece of the editorial jigsaw puzzle (or perhaps no piece at all), a major revision generates not one but a handful of puzzle pieces. There is a form of the text comparable to the original manuscript — the author’s handwritten source of revisions. There may or may not be a new set of author-corrected proof. And then there is the published revised edition.

For Bentley’s revision, Cooper did not propose to sit down and write out the text of six novels, even though he remarked that several of them required a “severe pen.” Rather he asked Bentley to find copies of the latest American editions, unbind them, interleave them with a sheet of white paper for each page, rebind the resulting bundle, and send it to him. What we call amongst ourselves “the interleaved copies” became the bases for the Bentley editions. The latest American edition of The Last of the Mohicans was some printing of the stereotype edition from Philadelphia (it had been reprinted in 1X27, 1828, 1829, and 1831). It doesn’t matter which printing Cooper used, because copies printed from the same plates look very much alike; but the stereotype edition did have 18 substantive corruptions. Of those 18, Cooper missed nine in the process of revision; for three of them he characteristically supplied a substitution different from what he had originally written five years earlier.

Almost twenty years later, Cooper was approached by the American publisher, George P. Putnam, fresh from the commercial success of publishing the Author’s Revised Edition of Washington Irving’s works. Putnam proposed to repeat with Cooper a venture which had made both author and publisher a good deal of money. In the end, because Cooper had sold the copyright to a number of his books, the Putnam edition of his works made nobody rich and was aborted after publication of eleven titles. However, near the end of his life, Cooper had yet another opportunity to revise some of his best known books — including two of my favorites, The Last of the Mohicans and The Two Admirals.


The obvious question to ask at this point is, how many pieces really are missing from that jigsaw puzzle? The answer, of course, is, it depends. I’ve already mentioned Hawthorne’s The {69} Scarlet Letter. It is the simplest kind of puzzle: three pieces. Of those three pieces, two are missing. When James T. Fields wrote the author in the fall of 1850, asking if he could have the manuscript, Hawthorne replied that it had been “burnt long ago.” It is not surprising that the author-corrected proof is lost; that material survives only by the rarest sort of accident. The editorial puzzle of The Scarlet Letter consists of only one surviving piece.

Parenthetically, the situation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is similarly bad. Melville’s manuscript is lost along with the fair copy prepared by various female relatives. There is no surviving author-corrected proof. Variants between the first American edition (Harper — but stereotyped under Melville’s own supervision by R. Craighead) and the first British edition (Bentley) persuade Melville’s editors that the author made last minute corrections in the advance sheets sent to London. But those sheets are gone too. So Moby-Dick was a relatively elementary five-piece puzzle to start with, but only two pieces survive.

I have already explained why Cooper’s works present more elaborate puzzles. I have worked on establishing the texts of three of his novels: The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Bravo (1831), and The Two Admirals (1842). Though the assignments were fortuitous largely, there is a nice symmetry to that program of Cooper research. Mohicans was certainly an exciting project for a relatively inexperienced and young editor. The Bravo is, of course, one of three European historical novels, composed during Cooper’s residence in Paris; but it’s a curiosity to me that Cooper was finishing his Venetian Story at the same time that he was revising Mohicans for Richard Bentley’s Standard Novels Edition. Then, of course, The Two Admirals is one of the great sea tales as well as a relatively late novel — in fact, the project Cooper undertook next after closing the Leatherstocking series with The Deerslayer (1841).

The three novels present a nice variety of textual problems as well. I’m going to discuss them here in the order in which I have worked with them — leaving Bravo till the end. I am still sorting the puzzle pieces of that novel, getting the colored sides up, as it were.

The Last of the Mohicans — the most famous and widely read of the books I have dealt with — presents the editor with the least information. Cooper burned the manuscripts of his early novels in 1826, clearing the decks for his family’s move to Europe. There is no surviving author-corrected proof. Our first witness of the text, accordingly, is the first edition set, printed, and bound in New York, but nominally published by Carey & Lea of Philadelphia.

As I have alluded to Mohicans already in describing what happened to Cooper’s more successful novels over the years, I can quickly explain here that the interleaved copy of Mohicans, used as setting copy for the Bentley edition of 1831, is lost (though not all of the interleaved copies {70} are), nor do we have Cooper’s corrections for the 1850 Putnam edition.

In short, my colleague E. N. Feltskog and I might as well have been Hawthorne or Melville editors. Our only real witnesses to the text of Mohicans were the printed texts: the first American and British editions, the non-authorial second American edition which inadvertently became involved in the transmission of the text, Bentley’s Standard Novels Edition of 1831, and the Putnam edition of 1850.

Certainly a great deal of the puzzle is lost forever. Cooper’s spelling, capitalization, and particularly his punctuation are unrecoverable without his autograph manuscript. We do not try to reconstruct or synthesize punctuation or spelling; rather we work from the available witnesses. And we have this small consolation: though compositors did their best to ignore manuscript accidentals, our experience with Two Admirals and Bravo demonstrates clearly that they are influenced by the copy before them. That they set some of the punctuation of the manuscript is obvious from the fact that the first editions frequently preserve actual errors in punctuation — the failure, for example, to close a quotation which the author left open. W. W. Greg’s theory about the recovery of authorial accidentals is, therefore, clearly demonstrable in the works of Cooper. The tissue of accidentals is largely lost with the manuscript, but every subsequent edition of the text corrupts the accidentals further; and so the edition set from the author’s manuscript is decidedly to be preferred.

In substantive terms the value of the original manuscript is to establish a baseline. A greater or lesser number of words will have been illegible to the compositors, and so will have generated authorial substitutions in the page-proof or will have got into the published first edition as readings different from, and often bizarrely different from those intended by the author. When compositorial misreadings are isolated by editors in the late 20ᵗʰ century, it is often difficult to imagine that Cooper or anybody else could have let them stand. In most if not all such instances, the Cooper Edition restores the manuscript reading. The bundle of pages consigned to the flames in the spring of 1826 held the key to all those weird misreadings along with the accidental texture of The Last of the Mohicans.

In any event, Cooper had two further chances to make substantive improvements in The Last of the Mohicans. When we compared the first American edition of 1826 with the Bentley Standard Novels edition of 1831, we found more than 1,100 changes involving words and phrases — that is in addition to the 9 corruptions of the second American edition that Cooper failed to correct in his revision. The interleaved copy of Mohicans in which Cooper made his revisions has not been located, but I had a photocopy of the interleaved Spy.

{71} Cooper had spent the second week of April, 1831, on The Spy, and returned it to Bentley complaining that he had needed more time. Just less than two months later he transmitted to Bentley, corrected proofs of The Bravo plus the interleaved revised copies of The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans. We reasoned that the interleaved copy of The Spy would be of inferential, though not direct, application to the problem of emendation from the Bentley edition of Mohicans. In preparation for my examination of The Spy I made a taxonomy of the variants between the two editions of Mohicans. 1 then spent several days studying and classifying Cooper’s changes in the interleaved Spy.

As we had hoped, we found that in striking ways the variants of Mohicans resembled changes Cooper had made in The Spy. Both revisions were characterized by the deletion of words which on second thought seemed superfluous to the author. Almost 700 of the 1,100 variants in Mohicans were deletions. The word “all” was excised 23 times and never added; “then” disappeared 19 times. I found a similar pattern of deletion of “all” in my examination of the interleaved Spy — although in his hurried revision of that novel, Cooper revealed his penchant for use of that word: he excised it 8 times and added it in four other places.

Thus, in several categories of variation, The Spy confirmed what we suspected to be an authorial pattern of changes. One group of variants we might not necessarily have attributed to the author except for the fact that it was so prevalent in The Spy: that was the replacement of personal pronouns by articles. There are almost 30 instances in Mohicans where “their” or “our” becomes “the” or “a” — and so forth. We would probably have rejected these changes as compositorial had I not found 38 analogous revisions in The Spy. In addition to my own examination of The Spy, we had the benefit of consultation with Jay Elliott, editor of The Prairie, who was able to help us identify other classes of revision from the interleaved copy of that novel, which either had not been so obvious in The Spy or which I had missed there.

My study of The Spy also enabled us to reject with some confidence various classes of changes which appeared in the Bentley edition. I have already alluded to the most obvious class of British changes we found reason to reject: those are normalizations of dialect spelling. That pattern was wonderfully established in the dialogue of the many dialect speakers in The Spy. Again, however, other categories of variant stood out in pretty high relief. For example, the Bentley edition contains 11 alterations in verb tense from past perfect to simple past; there is only one change from simple past to past perfect. An almost exactly opposite pattern obtains in Cooper’s revision of The Spy, where I found simple past changed to past perfect 11 times and perfect to simple past four times.

About 850 Bentley variants fit categories that we could characterize as authorial with a fair {72} degree of certainty. We identified about 50 as compositorial, and rejected them. But that left us with more than 200 variants — almost 300 — of indeterminate origin. That is, these changes (probably each of a single word) did not conspicuously correspond to changes in the interleaved copies of Spy and Prairie. And remember that I am characterizing these as changes of “indeterminate origin” after we have established an entirely inferential basis for the “determined” choices. We accepted those changes as emendations which, to our minds, demonstrably improved the sense of a passage, rejecting in the end about a hundred Bentley readings. The definitive answer to each instance was lost with the interleaved copy. What we accomplished with the Bentley variants of Mohicans was pretty good, we thought — ingenious, rigorous, and defensible. But no degree of probability is a substitute for certainty.

When we came to compare the Bentley edition with the 1850 Putnam edition, we found that Mohicans was exactly like the other ten novels in that series. None of the author’s holograph revisions for the Putnam editions survive. Cooper’s stereotyper, John Fagan in Philadelphia, had a good deal of latitude in dealing with the texts. Cooper reposed great confidence in Fagan, asking that he read proofs (of The Spy) “carefully, and let nothing unintelligible pass. In very difficult cases the proofs might be sent to me.” Fagan must have read this letter as we read it: it authorized him to make necessary corrections in Cooper’s old books — and to get them right even if it meant asking Cooper himself to correct “unintelligible” readings.

The author gave most of his attention in that “revision” to the Introduction — his hand is manifest there. The body of the text presented 137 substantive variants from its setting copy — which was the Bentley edition, sensibly. Almost 120 of those are purely officious changes — of “upward” to “upwards” and “toward” to “towards” or are otherwise negligible improvements. But we did adopt 19 Putnam changes as emendations in the SUNY edition — some of them corrections of accidentals actually — others, substantive changes involving agreement. In other words, eleven emendations were in the category of obvious corrections of typographical errors. But there were a very small handful of changes — eight or fewer, depending on how far one is willing to go in his definition of “obvious corrections of typographical error” — which either introduced dialect (a Cooper hallmark) or which decidedly improved the clarity of a sentence. A knotty sentence in Chapter III seems to have bothered Cooper every time he read it. In the first edition the sentence read, “Notwithstanding these symptoms of habitual suspicion, his countenance was not only without guile, but the moment which he is introduced, it was charged with an expression of sturdy honesty” (30.7-8). Cooper, we assume, tried to fix it in 1831, where the Bentley edition reads, “but at the moment at which he is introduced was charged with an expression, etc.” The final version, Putnam 1850, presented a synthetic solution: “but at the moment at which he is introduced, it was charged, etc.” And that was the reading we accepted as an emendation.

{73} What can have been in our minds? Could we make ourselves believe that Cooper scoured the 401 pages of the Bentley Standard Novels edition to repair eleven or five or three mistakes that had troubled him for more than 20 years — twenty years during which he had written about thirty other books? Such comfort as there was we took from the fact that all editors working with Putnam editions seem to have confronted the same dilemma: a very small number of improvements that look as if they could only have been made by the author. Is it perhaps possible that John Fagan did submit these “very difficult cases” to Cooper? In the age of the fax machine and email, I could readily believe it. But perhaps Fagan did, and the letters are lost. So many pieces of the puzzle are missing, these may have disappeared too.

I have just been discuss a category of puzzle piece that I have not mentioned above. I mean collateral evidence which bears on the text: Contracts, correspondence with publishers, correspondence with anyone in which the author happens to mention something critical about a text, reminiscences of authors’ relatives. Hawthorne’s laconic reply to Fields’s request to have the MS of The Scarlet Letter would indicate that the author “burnt” it; but in 1931 Julian Hawthorne wrote that Metcalf’s printers threw the sheets in the wastepaper basket and then retrieved them to light their cigars! Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Pages and Pictures (1861) has been an invaluable source for all of us — probably more reliable in general than Julian Hawthorne’s account — 80 years after the fact!

A last word, however, on The Last of the Mohicans: this textual puzzle had eleven major pieces: the author’s manuscript, author-corrected proof of the first American edition, the first American and British editions, the second (nonauthorial) American edition, the interleaved copy of that edition which became setting copy for the Bentley edition, possibly Bentley’s proofs (though I do nor remember any evidence that Cooper corrected them), Bentley’s Standard Novels edition of 1831, some manuscript form of corrections for the Putnam edition delivered to John Fagan the stereotyper, any Fagan proof that went to Cooper, and finally the Putnam edition of 1850. As I have indicated, we had fewer than half the pieces — only five. Of course, the historical importance of Mohicans (and Pioneers — the other Leatherstocking manuscript that went into the fire in 1826) rendered the preparation of those texts essential to the Cooper project. But the author’s manuscript is at the center of the textual puzzle.

In early 1983 when we had read the final proofs of Mohicans, leaving a few errors of our own in the SUNY setting, Professor Feltskog and I were offered the textual work on The Two Admirals. It was in fact the death of a valued colleague and friend, Lucy Ringe, that occasioned the reassignment of Two Admirals to us. The Two Admirals was one of those texts for which the author’s manuscript survives. The compositors’ notations on the sheets identified the manuscript as setting copy for the first American edition. The manuscript was of 260 leaves, 32 cm long by {74} 20.7 cm wide, closely written with between 40 and 50 lines to the page. (Though in Milwaukee, I was working with a significantly enlarged photocopy). I remember being struck by Cooper’s remarkable professionalism as manifested in that manuscript. The hand was graceful and regular, though in certain of its features difficult to read. The text was written with uncanny assurance, with relatively few cancellations and interlinear insertions. The chapters were neatly planned. Cooper evidently selected the epigraphs or “mottoes” for the chapters later, because they were written on the verso of each manuscript leaf on which a new chapter began.

Comparison of the manuscript and the first American edition (Lea & Blanchard, 1842) identified about 1,000 substantive variants. As I have indicated above, such variation probably arose from two causes: Cooper did not hesitate to improve and correct the text in the proof stage, and he was confronted with compositorial misreadings of the manuscript which produced absurdities that called attention to themselves. Feltskog and I found fewer than 100 clear misreadings in the first edition which had escaped Cooper’s notice in the proof. In Chapter XXX, for example, the humble Captain Parker tells Admiral Bluewater, “We are not, like yourself, descended from a noble family; but must earn our rights to distinction” (432.38). For earn the compositor set a plausible though slightly weird carve. The manuscript reading coveted honors becomes created honors (80.9); and Admiral Oakes watches Captain Denham bring his ship back in trim after it was struck by enemy fire, and feels materially relieved: the compositor read that mentally relieved. Cooper’s diction has been called into question from time to time; it may be comforting to be able to ascribe some of his infelicitous choices to the printinghouse. It is more desirable to be able to correct them.

As I have already indicated, the alterations in punctuation, spelling, and capitalization, by the Lea & Blanchard compositors ran into the thousands. Close study of a Cooper manuscript reveals that he was no infallible speller or pointer. In many instances the compositors correct errors, and those corrections are adopted — whether of punctuation or spelling (Cooper consistently misspells receive and deceive, as my students would be delighted to learn). But where his spelling is not contrary to Webster’s 1828 dictionary or the historical examples of the Oxford English Dictionary, we prefer to leave it. And, as James F. Beard used to say, Cooper punctuated with his ears — as perhaps it should be done — creating the rhythm of a sentence as it sounded to him in his head. Compositors, of Two Admirals at least, tended to point the text heavily, adding commas where Cooper didn’t put any and raising Cooper’s commas to semicolons.

I remarked above about the routine nature of The Two Admirals’ first British edition, and in the end we concluded that there was no evidence of authorial intervention in the Bentley edition. There were, however, two puzzling readings which woke us up of nights for awhile. Richard Bentley prepared his edition from advance sheets from Lea & Blanchard. Bentley was a manuscript {75} collector and had told Cooper that to secure British copyright he had to have physical possession of the manuscript (it was, parenthetically, Bentley’s hobby that probably saved many of Cooper’s manuscripts). And so on or about 11 February 1842, the original manuscript of Two Admirals was posted to Bentley along with the advance sheets of the second volume (American novels were commonly printed in two volumes in the early 19ᵗʰ century, at the time English novels were customarily bound as three volumes. Cooper’s novels often break neatly in two — as The Last of the Mohicans and The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.)

The puzzling readings were two points at which Bentley’s edition followed the author’s manuscript rather than the first American edition. Even though everything else about the Bentley edition seemed to be entirely uninteresting, we had to try to account for those two eccentric readings. It was not that Bentley’s compositors had set from the manuscript, even though the publisher had it in his possession while at least part of the setting was being done. The Bentley edition follows the first American edition in hundreds of its variants from the original manuscript — reverting to the manuscript only in these two places. No explanation of the phenomenon seems entirely satisfying. The compositors could conceivably have consulted the manuscript for readings that confused them, but they would not likely have been thrown by these two: a substitution of purely for common, in a sentence where Cooper seems to have regarded common as an ambiguous word, and the misidentification of a minor character which the first American edition corrects. Applying Occam’s Razor we concluded that Bentley must have received sheets in an intermediate stage of correction. The solution was not an attractive one, inasmuch as the variation is manifest in only two readings, but it remains a hole in the puzzle. Without the evidence of the American advance sheets sent to Bentley, we can’t test the theory.

This was an instance, if I may shift the metaphor, of an editorial molehill ambitious to become a mountain.

The Two Admirals was one of three nautical novels the publication of which marked the end of Putnam’s ambitious Author’s Revised Edition of Cooper’s works. It appeared in the spring of 1851. Whereas Cooper had instructed his stereotyper John Fagan to set The Last of the Mohicans from the heavily revised Bentley Standard Novels edition, The Two Admirals for Putnam was based on the first American edition. True to our experience with Mohicans, we found about 120 substantive variants between the 1842 and 1851 editions, but we ended up adopting only two of them for the SUNY edition: both of them syntactically necessary words. Fagan had the authority to correct grammatical errors, and these corrections may have originated with him — but Cooper should have made them.

The The Admirals was a pretty simple text, with — for Cooper — relatively few pieces in its {76} puzzle. There was the author’s manuscript, American proofs and advance sheets sent to England, no Bentley proofs read by the author, the first American and first British editions; some form of author’s revisions for the Putnam edition, proofs probably only read in Fagan’s Philadelphia shop, and the Putnam edition of 1851. There were in other words, seven major pieces to the puzzle of The Two Admirals. We had four of those seven pieces. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, some pieces are more definitive of the picture than others. There are edge pieces and sky pieces, and there is the piece with the Mona Lisa’s smile. The author’s manuscript is a critically important piece — obviously for the accidental texture of the text, but as I have explained, the manuscript is also important as the baseline for substantive variation. Although Cooper revised the proofs to improve the style and effect of his prose, I suspect that a great deal of the work at that stage of production was the wrestling with his own and the compositors’ mistakes. If we could set a complete manuscript alongside a complete set of author-corrected proofs, I could test that theory.

But the point is that The Two Admirals is a lot more reliable, if that’s the word, than The Last of the Mohicans. Though we did not have all the evidence we needed for the Admirals, we did have more and more critical pieces of evidence than we had for Mohicans.

This is tending toward some concluding observations I want to make about the Cooper project in general, but before I come to those, I should offer a preliminary report of work on The Bravo. Cooper was composing his “Venetian Story” — as I have noted — during the spring of 1831 while working on the revisions of Spy, Mohicans, and the other early novels for Bentley. The author’s manuscript survives, and I have been very slowly completing a collation (or comparison) of the manuscript and the first edition — which in the case of Bravo was British rather than American. But during his residence in Europe — since The Prairie of 1827 — Cooper had been employing a copyist. Initially he had done so because Prairie was being set by French compositors who, though they specialized in English books, would be aided by clean and highly legible copy. By the time of The Bravo Cooper had become dependent upon his secretary and paid him the French and German royalties of each new book. His nephew William had served in that capacity, but died in 1831 and the Susan Coopers, mother and daughter, were pressed into service for Bravo.

I have already mentioned the textual implications of an amanuensis copy: it constitutes an additional piece of the editorial puzzle, being an intervening state of the text between the author’s hand and the first printed edition. I have some very vivid first impressions of the Bravo manuscript. Cooper clearly thought of his handwritten copy as a draft, and was casual about canceling and replacing passages involving several lines of text. Afterthoughts like the preface and the chapter mottoes are wanting. The whole affair is preliminary and provisional. If my projections are accurate, I will identify about 4,000 substantive variants between the manuscript and the first {77} printed edition. Compared to The Two Admirals for which the author’s manuscript was the setting copy of the first edition, Bravo will present us with four times as many substantive variants.

It now appears that The Bravo is a puzzle with the following significant pieces: the author’s manuscript, the amanuensis copy, proof of the first edition, that edition itself published by Colburn & Bentley, London, October 1831; possibly an authorial first American edition published by Carey & Lea apparently in late November; revisions for the Bentley Standard Novels edition of 1834; and that edition as printed. That adds up to seven major pieces. Of those, we expect to have four.

At this stage of the project I am reminded of the value of the scraps of collateral evidence from the correspondence, for example, which, though they constitute edge and sky pieces of the puzzle often permit the editors to anticipate the general shape of the editorial task. Susan Cooper’s Pages and Pictures is frequently helpful, but the greatest resource is, of course, James Franklin Beard’s Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper.

There is a great deal of correspondence between Cooper and his London publisher, and those letters contain provocative implications for the editor. For example, Cooper repeatedly reminds the publisher that he must have five copies of the corrected proofs of his new novel: one for himself, one each for his French and German translators, and two to send to Carey & Lea in America. The fact that it was the author rather than Colburn & Bentley who actually posted the sheets to his American publisher means that he would certainly have had the chance to insert corrections in those sheets which would render the American edition authorial.

The entire process of getting the novel out was a lot messier than one might suppose. As he had done from the beginning, Cooper was reading proof on early chapters of Bravo while composing the later chapters. On 13 June, the author wrote Colburn & Bentley, evidently in reply to a quibble about the Italian motto he had selected for the novel: “It means simply ‘justice in the palace, and food in the streets,’” he wrote, and added, “Its application to our tale cannot be understood until the close of the book. ... ” Obviously Cooper knew how the tale would come out, but Colburn & Bentley could not know until they received the last chapters about the middle of August! Simultaneously, then, Cooper was composing the novel, supervising the copying and correcting the fair copy, reading proof on chapters fresh from the proof-press, and distributing corrected proof to his translators and his American publisher. (He was also revising six early novels — but at least at this stage of his career Cooper was making money from his writing.)

When Bentley sent only one copy of the corrected proofs — instead of the five copies Cooper needed — the author wrote that he had turned the single copy over to his French translator. His German translator and American publisher did not get their advance sheets, accordingly, but also {78} Cooper did not have a set for himself. At one point he writes that he needs a personal copy “in case of accidents,” but in another letter he explains “[I] am absolutely without any thing to refer to myself in correcting proofs, which is quite necessary to preserve uniformity in the names, &c.”

In an early June letter to Colburn & Bentley, Cooper stresses the importance of careful proofreading in the shop. “I pay no attention to any of the spelling,” he remarks, “except in words of particular signification and proper names.” This frequently quoted comment seems to argue that the author was indifferent to spelling, but he goes on to observe, “There is a great difference in the spelling of England and America”; and what he is really saying is that he will acquiesce in the orthography of the London printers and proofreaders. He adds that “The Italians spell feluca with one c, and I have corrected the proofs in that manner, but if your reader thinks there is sufficient English authority to use the two cs he is at liberty to do so.” That offhand comment will prevent us from making a mistake — albeit a little one — in the preparation of The Bravo. A felucca and its padrone play a significant supporting role in the tale, and in the first half of the manuscript at least, Cooper consistently spells felucca with two c’s. The first edition consistently spells it with one. Inasmuch as both are acceptable spellings, we would have followed the manuscript spelling as a matter of course. Since we do not have the author-corrected proofs which would reveal that he ordered the change, we would have no way of ascribing it to Cooper had he not chosen felucca as an illustration of his indifference to spelling.

On 13 February 1832, Cooper was trying to reconcile himself to the critical failure of The Bravo, “though it is out of measure the best book I have written.” But he continues in his letter to Colburn & Bentley, “Should it rally enough to go into a second edition, I wish to correct a copy for you, for there is here and there a sprinkling of nonsense, for want of close proof-reading. I should like also to have an opportunity of writing notes to this book, but I fear its want of popularity, by your account, will deprive us both of this satisfaction — ” The editor is thereby alerted to examine closely the variants of the Bentley Standard Novels Edition of The Bravo, which finally appeared with notes, a new preface, and very probably some additional changes by the author, at the end of March, 1834.


Let me close with a few general observations on the Cooper Edition. I was not a member of the Editorial Board when the major decisions about the direction of the project were made, and so I can praise those decisions with impunity.

The Cooper Project got started later than a number of the editions under the umbrella of the Center for Editions of American Authors, and Jim Beard and his editorial board learned from the {79} mistakes of others. We began work without CEAA funding as well, and received support only in 1976, as I remember it. From the beginning the Cooper project was restrained in the number of titles it projected: at first we set Out to prepare editions of the five Leatherstocking Tales and the European travels, which had been out of print since their first appearance in the 1830s.

Editions like that of Washington Irving fell into inextricable or almost inextricable difficulties owing to their unruly size. To edit a corpus as large as Irving’s or Cooper’s requires a very numerous editorial team. In the 1960s few of us were trained bibliographers; many Irving and Cooper editors were Irving and Cooper scholars and critics. When I went to work for Henry Pochmann and the Irving Edition, I was neither a bibliographer nor an Irving scholar; by the time I finished the text of Irving’s five-volume Life of George Washington, I suppose I did qualify as a journeyman editor. But whatever we were to begin with, we were all humanists, and unlike our colleagues in the laboratory sciences — brought up in a culture of collaborative research — humanists are relative Ishmaelites. It was difficult for some of these new editors to work as members of a research group. A fair number became disillusioned with the arid discipline of bibliography, and frankly, editions had as much trouble finding gifted chiefs as they did competent Indians.

Neither Henry Pochmann of the Irving Edition nor Jim Beard of Cooper was a gifted manager. The elegance of the products of both those editions was a testament not to their success as managers. Rather it was testimony to their ability to overcome their weaknesses as leaders. Both my chief editors did so. But both did so only at incalculable personal costs. I use the word “incalculable” because I am convinced that in each case the effort shortened their lives. They were both my friends and teachers and they died too soon.

Joining the Cooper Edition in the mid-1970s, I was surprised to learn that it projected only ten volumes. The Irving edition was, I knew, foundering with its 30-volume commitment, but at that point I didn’t make the connection. In the subsequent phases of its work — in spite of the critical success of its earlier ventures — the Cooper project has concentrated on volumes for which authorial manuscripts survive. This was the right decision for a number of reasons. Bibliographically the author’s manuscript is the central piece of the editorial jigsaw puzzle. It was essential to publish an edition of The Last of the Mohicans for what that text has been historically. But the availability of the manuscript enables the editor to produce a unique textual artifact. A second reason behind this decision is that the census of Cooper manuscripts is not complete. Bentley seems to have collected most of them, but his collection was dispersed. Additional manuscripts may yet come to light — as a couple have done in the last 20 years. Third, a limited number of volumes in preparation at a given time means a more manageable editorial team; as it is we are spread all over the country and are only humanists to begin with. Finally, all of these editions have had difficulties with their publishers. The presses would have it that it was the other way around. Perhaps the economics of {80} the enterprise was doomed from the start. Certainly the shrinking library budgets of the 1970s and after must have dampened sales of the very expensive sets. At all events, a 50-volume prospectus for the Works of James Fenimore Cooper would have choked any university press or commercial publisher in the country.

I will close with a personal recollection of James Franklin Beard. He was no lover of the arcana of textual bibliography. He made himself a very competent editor, but he recognized that textual scholarship is an unnatural and debilitating activity. The first of several faculties which the editor loses is his sense of proportion. Jim exercised what I now know to have been a very salutary restraint on the propensity to excess, particularly of people like me who were on the textual side rather than on the Cooper side. Our lists were printed in double columns of pretty small type, nor were we indulged in the endless textual note about nothing of particular interest. I came to admire the Cooper Edition’s culture of unpretentious textual scholarship, and take pride in the 9-page Textual Commentary I wrote for The Two Admirals. But the point of this paper has been is that as editors we had best not oversell the products of our scholarship, however much effort and ingenuity we have put into them. However much attention we may direct to the pieces of the puzzle we have before us, the missing pieces are the ones that define our limitations. We have to remember that, and on occasion it may be well to admit it to our colleagues and clients. Speaking personally once more, I am proud of my work with the Cooper project. Our editions are by no means definitive, but they are about the best we could do, and we have all been gratified by their critical reception. The company and the talk have been excellent, and the community of scholars devoting their historical and critical intelligence to the works of Cooper has of course grown exponentially in the two decades I have spent editing his fiction. That fact alone has rendered thousands of unspeakably tedious hours all worthwhile.