Cooper’s Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief as a Defense of Authorship

Steven P. Harthorn (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 29-33).

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

After publishing The Deerslayer in 1841 and following up with the almost equally successful sea novel The Two Admirals in 1842, James Fenimore Cooper found himself in what was for him an unusual position. His works were by most accounts reasonably popular and even critical successes, despite pitched battles with members of the Whig-dominated newspaper media who had been assailing his character along with his books. One journalist Cooper was suing for libel, Thurlow Weed, become so captivated by The Two Admirals that he brought the book with him to his libel trial and snatched every opportunity to read it during breaks. However “well received” these books were, though, they were not financial successes for Cooper. In his peak years, 1826 and 1827, Cooper had earned as much as $5000 for his outright sale of The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie to his American publishers Carey & Lea. Even a work such as The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish that failed to capture the public’s fancy put $4500 in Cooper’s pocket from Carey & Lea alone, not to mention another £600 (about $2900) or so from his British publishers Colburn and Bentley as well as 2000 francs from Gosselin in France. 1 Cooper continued to negotiate advantageously right up through his “retirement” from fiction writing, but his ill-fated series of European travels that followed underwhelmed his public, the press, and his publishers, quickly reduced Cooper’s bargaining power to meager sums. His earning abilities were further whittled away by a severe downturn in the book market in the 1830s, so bad that Carey & Lea froze many of their publication efforts. Hard times for booksellers would persist well into the 1840s, even as a boom in cheap publishing swept the nation. Like the internet craze in the 1990s, the late 1830s and early 1840s saw a flurry of activity as ventures rose and fell and the inevitable shakedowns affected a volatile, highly speculative market. Old-line publishers faced pressure from new media in the forms of penny papers, cheap paperback editions, and periodicals. Many of these new ventures lasted only a few months.

One that had more staying power and considerably more influence was George Rex Graham’s famous Graham’s Magazine. Graham, trained as a cabinetmaker in his youth, had risen from humble beginnings to become the most prominent periodical publisher since Louis Godey of Godey’s Lady’s Book fame. Purchasing two Philadelphia Magazines, The Casket in May 1839 and Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in November 1840, Graham merged the best qualities of both to form Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine (The Casket and Gentleman’s United). Setting his sights on Godey’s and other popular monthlies, Graham sought out a popular audience balanced between men and women. He contracted for original steel and copper engravings, including color plates, for every issue rather than reprinting old material as was common. He also sought to maintain a periodical with distinctly American content rather than relying on pirated material from English sources. Knowing the power of celebrity, he sought out the most prominent illustrators authors of the day and paid them well for their contributions, anywhere from a modest but livable four or five dollars a page (of about 1000 words) to Edgar Allan Poe (never a favorite of Graham) and Nathaniel Hawthorne to a more lucrative ten dollars a page for stars like Catherine Sedgwick — this during a time when one or two dollars a page was the norm and when many periodicals only paid some of their contributors. 2 His list of contributors reads like a literary “Who’s Who” of the 1840s — Hawthorne, Poe, Bryant, Longfellow, Paulding, Sedgwick, Frank Forester, Lydia Sigourney, Nathaniel Parker Willis, James Russell Lowell, Anne Stephens, and a host of others. Graham’s generous gamble paid off handsomely: in the magazine’s first year he cleared an estimated $15,000 profit and boosted subscriptions from an estimated 5500-8000 to a claimed 25,000. By March 1842 Graham advertised 40,000 subscribers. 3

Such financial generosity may have been one of the reasons why in July 1842 James Fenimore Cooper began an engagement with Graham’s that would last until 1848 (a year when Graham lost control of his own magazine). Although the exact details of how Cooper became involved with Graham’s are not all known, he seems to have been recruited by Graham’s editor and talent-seeker at the time, Rufus W. Griswold, who had replaced Poe in May 1842. Though he had once written reviews hostile to Cooper, Griswold made a point of seeking out Cooper as a contributor to the magazine, and the two probably met on 29 or 30 June 1842 when Cooper stayed at Saunderson’s hotel in Philadelphia. 4 Less than two weeks later, Cooper was sending Griswold manuscript for his first installment for Graham’s, part of a series of Naval Biographies. 5 To Graham, it mattered little at first what Cooper wrote for Graham’s; it was enough to be able to advertise that the most famous novelist in America was writing for Graham’s. He paid decently for the privilege: $1200 total for the Naval Biographies, $500 for an experimental novella, Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief, and $1800 in all for a serialized novel, Islets of the Gulf, published later in book form as Jack Tier.

The timing was fortunate for Cooper, who was seeing his British and particularly his American returns tumble. In the space of a single year, 1842, Cooper saw his bargains with Lea & Blanchard sink from $2000 for rights to 5000 copies of The Two Admirals to only $1000 for 10,000 copies of his next novel, The Wing-and-Wing. 6 Whereas Cooper in his negotiations for The Deerslayer had been able to leverage a deal for free copies of every new book Lea & Blanchard published, by 1844 his offer for Afloat and Ashore was rejected entirely, causing Cooper to undertake self-publication. Cool relations with Lea & Blanchard, coupled with constant reductions of his printings and payments and complaints about the poor market in England from Bentley, caused Cooper to become suspicious of publishers and “booksellers.” In the literary marketplace around him there was feverish competition for books, yet his labors brought him only a fraction of what he had made ten or fifteen years earlier. His attempt to make money on The Wing-and-Wing by selling more books at a cheaper rate failed; even at the rock-bottom price of fifty cents for two paperbacked volumes, Lea & Blanchard did not sell enough books beyond the initial 10,000 to bring Cooper the profit he had hoped. Surely some of the problems were beyond Lea & Blanchard’s control, and American books did suffer a competitive disadvantage to pirated British literature; but their marketing of Cooper’s books was not what it had been, and he was not alone in his suspicions: Washington Irving, in thanking George Palmer Putnam for reviving his books and his career in the late 1840s, complained how his old publishers — also Lea & Blanchard — had let all his old books go out of print and nearly persuaded him that they (i.e., the books) were “defunct.” 7 Whether entirely justified or not, Cooper by 1842 had developed a sense that he was being exploited by booksellers, undervalued and underpaid for what was clearly work of high quality and in many cases high popular appeal.

In an odd way, then, it seems fitting that Cooper would give vent to these frustrations in the pages of Graham’s, in his experimental story Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief, the second work he submitted to Graham’s. Writing for Graham’s, Cooper enjoyed a degree of creative freedom with the format of his work that he could not usually exercise under the constraints of the “three-volume straight-jacket” of traditional novel length. It was largely Richard Bentley’s apprehension about selling anything less than a full-length work, after all, that had caused Cooper’s earlier satire The Monikins to be so dreadfully drawn out. Moreover, Cooper could make a fair return on projects that would not in themselves be profitable as books. He made money twice on his Naval Biographies, published first serially by Graham over a period of three years, then again in book form by Carey & Hart. On Islets of the Gulf, he profited thrice — once from Graham’s, once from publishing in America in book form as Jack Tier, and once from publishing in England under Bentley’s title Captain Spike. Ironically, no such fate greeted Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief. The story that Cooper thought would take about a fortnight to finish took much longer, and worse yet, the work was pirated by Wilson & Co., publishers of the massive Brother Jonathan weekly. 8 It is ironic that this work, rather than any other, should suffer piracy, for it only serves to reinforce one of Cooper’s arguments in the work, that the artist receives little benefit from his or her own work when it falls into the hands of commercial interests.

It is the deliberateness with which Cooper treats the creative process in Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief that attracts my attention to this story. Critics have long recognized Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief as an incisive social satire directed against human — especially American — greed and materialism. The few critics who have written more than a sentence or two about the story — namely James Grossman and Hugh C. McDougall — have correctly identified exploitation and ostentation as dominant themes. 9 But more than a generalized critique of labor and commerce, Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief is also a critique of the status of craftsmanship, taste, ethics, and even art in such a commerce-centered world.

Since “Gendered Perspectives” forms a part of our blessedly open-ended seminar topic, let me digress a moment by mentioning that Cooper’s extraordinary handkerchief narrator is a “she.” Early in his career, when his status as a professional novelist was still very much in limbo, Cooper had written two stories collected as “Tales for Fifteen” and published them under the pseudonym of “Jane Morgan.” Cooper seemed aware even then that writing — particularly novel writing, especially of the sentimental sort — was not the kind of stuff from which a manly man would make a career. If the autobiographical parallels I am trying to draw hold true, Cooper’s identification of literature as a “frivolity” or a “luxury” is fascinating too, once again implying a self-awareness of the “unmanly” pursuit of writing. Cooper’s unusual narrator at once engages and distances the author, and its femininity mystifies matters more: can a feminine pocket-handkerchief be said to speak for Cooper? Cooper may have found such mystification necessary since getting roasted by Whig critics over “the handsome Mr. Effingham” in Home as Found, a character who was in many ways an idealized self-portrait of Cooper. In the libel suits that followed, Cooper spent a good deal of time minutely detailing how he was not like Edward Effingham, but nevertheless these claims stung Cooper and may have left him at a loss for a time as to how to interject his opinion as author into the fabric of the story. The novels that Cooper published after Home as FoundThe Pathfinder, Mercedes of Castile, The Deerslayer, and The Two Admirals — largely sublimate the authorial voice of criticism, withdrawing from much direct controversy. Although Cooper’s repeated emphasis on Christopher Columbus in Mercedes and Natty Bumppo in The Deerslayer as voices of “truth” leaves little doubt of Cooper’s unwavering belief in the legitimacy of the author as cultural critic, such back-door methods were a far cry from the directness of the purgative Home novels. Here, Cooper’s creation of a feminine handkerchief-narrator seems at once cautious and deliberately outrageous, distancing the satire in the story from Cooper yet flaunting the impossibility of an inanimate object’s being claimed as a self-portrait. The experiment apparently fooled at least a few people, for Cooper had to quash a rumor that one of his daughters had written the story. 10 More sophisticated scholars can ponder the levels of meaning to be had from Cooper’s extraordinary use of a pocket-handkerchief as a narrator, but I think it sufficient to note here that the handkerchief invites exploration as a veil for the author and as an emblem for the possibilities of art.

The section of the tale that concerns us is in the first installment, namely the story of how a young French woman, Adrienne de Rocheaimond, creates the exquisitely embroidered pocket-handkerchief to sell for profit. Profit had not been her original intent; rather, she had intended to purchase the fine linen cambric to embroider as a gift to the Dauphine, who had established a pension for her grandmother, a Vicomtesse. But the French “July Revolution” of 1830 intervenes and overturns the social order, leaving the Vicomtesse and her orphaned granddaughter to fend for themselves. By selling items from the Vicomtesse’s trousseau and Adrienne’s taking on work as a seamstress, the pair manages to eke out some support, but Adrienne’s grandmother is ill, and the resources cannot hold out. Adrienne’s lack of experience in the worlds of commerce and labor cause her to be taken advantage of by shop owners and her employer alike: she buys high and sells low, believing the bluffing bravado of those who tell her she should be grateful for getting as much as she is (despite the fact that what she has to offer has real value). As expedient after expedient fails, Adrienne resolves to buy a piece of the cambric she had earlier had her eye upon and embroider the handkerchief in what little spare time she has, in hopes of selling it for a handsome profit that would again allow the pair to live with a little more ease. Adrienne works feverishly for weeks, becoming a physical and emotional wreck in the process. With her eventual victory, though, comes defeat: her grandmother dies and Adrienne has no money to pay the burial expenses. With no better options, Adrienne is reduced to selling the handkerchief for 45 francs — about ten dollars, according to Cooper — to an opportunistic commission agent who keeps it a few years before selling to an American “Colonel” for 100 francs. The next few portions of the story detail the handkerchief’s reselling in America for astronomical sums as the narrator becomes the first “three-figure” handkerchief to grace the world of fashion in Jacksonian American circa 1833. Eventually, through circumstances too complicated to detail here, the narrator is reunited with Adrienne, to whom the handkerchief has special value as a keepsake and a “friend.”

The pages and the pathos that Cooper devotes to the telling of Adrienne’s embroidering of the handkerchief could be written off as one of his excesses of sentiment were it not for other language in the section that prompts a closer reading. Cooper gives a conspicuous status to the production of “art” in this story, and parallels to his own career spring up too often to be ignored, inviting questions about the significance of the handkerchief in the story. If Adrienne is an artist, of sorts, who produces a handkerchief, and Cooper is an artist, of sorts, who produces books, what is Cooper trying to say about the fate of art — particularly his art, in a commercial world? How, if at all, do qualities of true craftsmanship and taste function, and maybe even survive, in this world?

I should say straightaway that I do not believe Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief to be an allegorical piece in the usual sense, just as Home as Found is not exactly autobiographical. Exact correspondences would be difficult to pin down; the pocket-handkerchief cannot really be said to equal a book, for instance. But the handkerchief functions on a symbolic level as a piece of craftsmanship approaching the realm of art, not unlike the mechanical butterfly in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s much more refined tale “The Artist of the Beautiful.” While that story seems to beat a retreat from the material world, though, Cooper never withdraws from the world of negotiation. The approaches he uses in the story often come from his world of professional authorship. Cooper’s desire is not for patronage or for withdrawal into a “world of pure imagination” (to quote Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka), but for fairness in assessing the true value of a craft which, if not in the highest realms of art, is nonetheless valuable, socially engaged, and evocative of higher thinking.

A brief survey of some passages may make these autobiographical parallels clearer. If the exploitation of any seamstress is a bad thing, then it is a far worse thing for Adrienne to be taken advantage of, for she is so far above the common needleworker that they are practically two different creatures. Adrienne possesses a taste and skill that places her in complete control of her art: “Adrienne was unusually skillful with the needle, and her taste had been so highly cultivated, as to make her a perfect mistress of all the proprieties of patterns” (71-72). 11 Her good taste, in fact, is justification enough for what would otherwise seem extravagant. Cooper is keen to separate her work — which despite being done for profit still follows the pattern she had intended for the Dauphine — from the usual flashy glitz in the world of handkerchiefs: “They were not simple, vulgar, unmeaning ornaments, such as uncultivated tastes seize upon with avidity, on account of their florid appearance; but well-devised drawings, that were replete with taste and thought, and afforded some apology for the otherwise senseless luxury contemplated, by aiding and refining the imagination, and cultivating the intellect” (72). One does not usually associate pocket-handkerchiefs with such lofty capabilities of “refining the imagination” or “cultivating the intellect,” but here they are. Anyone familiar with the “handsome Mr. Effingham” of Home as Found can recognize phrases similar to these in Cooper’s self-promotion, and here they seem to suggest Cooper’s attempts to elevate the otherwise “trifling” arts of literature — implying, of course, that the artist who can employ these creative possibilities deserves to be valued by society and compensated accordingly. Although the confidence Cooper expressed in his abilities has often been remarked, we also know that he sometimes faced real difficulties and doubts during his creative process. The Spy and The Pilot are the two most famous examples of works that sat untouched for a time while he tried to figure out how to finish the pioneering projects he had started. His health, too, figured prominently in his creative outlook, particularly as ailments set in with more persistence as he passed the half-century mark. In the story, Adrienne works exhaustively, “not only till her fingers and body ached, but, until her very heart ached” (83). Her emotional state as she finishes the work is not happiness, but hysterical sobbing, for “hope had exhausted her spirit” (85). Such costs, of course, are part of the creative process, as I find out every time I sit down to write. Cooper makes them prominent here as something to be kept in mind when reckoning the value of artistry.

James Grossman has observed that the picture of exploitation in this book rivals anything that Marx would later conjure up, 12 and Cooper is especially keen to note how producers of “luxuries” are especially susceptible to being undervalued: “Those who live on the frivolities of mankind, or, what is the same thing, their luxuries, have two sets of victims to plunder — the consumer, and the real producer, or the operative” (73). Adrienne’s exploitation is relevant to what Cooper saw as his own: despite her “neatness, skill and taste” (73) that would probably entitle her to double wages, Adrienne is paid less than other seamstresses. When she finds out and gently broaches the matter with her employer, a milliner, the milliner scolds her for her impudence and threatens to let her go, and Adrienne leaves with a heavier burden of work than ever. Wanting to keep what little she has, Adrienne falls prey to the “artifices of the selfish and calculating” which attempt “to conceal from the skillful their own success, lest it should command a price in proportion to its claims” (81). But by acquiescing to her employer’s demands, Adrienne endangers her own future well-being. In sympathy, the narrator interjects, “Poor Child! Little did she think that she was establishing precedents against herself, by which further and destructive exertions might be required” (83-84).

Adrienne’s sale of the pocket-handkerchief exposes her to more exploitation. Though Désirée, a commission agent who purchases the handkerchief, bears no malice toward Adrienne, she clearly has her own interests in mind. She undervalues the time it took Adrienne to work the handkerchief and shames her for paying too much for lace. In the end, Adrienne’s forty-five francs ($10) cannot possibly compensate her adequately for her work. She had paid twenty-eight francs for the cambric alone. And we see in the next portions of the book how, once the handkerchief is in the hands of sellers, it suddenly takes on extravagant value and is hyperbolically promoted for large profits. Désirée makes twice what she pays when she sells to Colonel Silky, and the shop in which Silky is a silent partner, Bobbinet & Co., easily makes five times the Colonel’s purchase price. A sort of Rich Man and Lazarus theme occurs here, with Bobbinet trying to get a deduction on a twenty-five cent laundering charge while selling the handkerchief at a “discount” price of $100 (rather than the $120 he “ought” to ask), or to make extra money by allowing the pattern to be reproduced but “not to be worked until our pattern is sold” (112). These figures appear in a simulated account statement that Cooper introduces into the story that in many ways resembles the kind of entries that would appear in a publisher’s cost books or in bills for printing. Cooper’s suggestion here is that there is something disreputable in the marketing tactics of publishers, who, it would seem, complain about poor prospects in the market, undervalue the work to its author, but try to reap maximum profits for themselves once the work was sold. Since Cooper had abandoned publishing on the equal shares system years ago, being unwilling to let a mere publisher eat up half of the profits, his fears were not without grounds. Carey & Lea/Lea & Blanchard made plenty on Cooper reprints (which, incidentally, were not entered into their cost books) long after their original outright purchase of the rights to a story — much as a movie today can be judged not just on its box-office receipts but on its video, TV, and other returns later on. With the Home novels, Cooper had reverted to a copyright leasing system, giving Lea and Blanchard publishing rights for fixed period and a set number of copies, making further agreements for additional runs. But reaping returns depended on accurate reporting, and although many of his fears were unfounded, Cooper distrusted the candor of Bentley (who was actually one of the most honest of publishers), Lea & Blanchard, and the class of “booksellers” in general. Viewing the situation from a distance, Cooper fared relatively well compared to most authors of the time, and his critiques must be viewed as the self-conscious satirical exaggerations they are. But from them we can also see where Cooper laid the blame for his professional difficulties. A gullible public comes under fire, to be certain, but the “cupidity of trade” (91) and its accompanying “great game of brag” (256) shoulder most of the guilt for impeding the progress of true artistry in America.

How “right” Cooper was becomes secondary to how this outlook shaped the remainder of his professional career. In Autobiography of a Handkerchief, Cooper was using his artistic liberty in Graham’s to put out feelers — before a large public, of course — for possible new directions in his publishing and in his art. Around the time the last installment of the Autobiography was appearing in Graham’s, Cooper reunited with an old shipmate from his youth, Ned Myers, who inadvertently gave Cooper a way to interject the first person more successfully into his fiction. The next year of his life would culminate in Afloat and Ashore, a double novel, also in the first person, but narrated realistically by an oldish man, slightly mellowed by time, who very openly resembles Cooper in outlook, if not in all points of fact. It was self-published.


1 Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange rate between the United States dollar and the British pound, 1791-2000 ”. Economic History Services, EH.Net, 2001. URL: 1 July 2003.

2 Figures are from Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1741-1850 (New York: Appleton, 1930): 506-07.

3 Mott 552; Graham’s 20 (March 1842): 154.

4 See JFC to William P. Barton, 30 June 1842, in James F. Beard, Ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-68), 4:300; and Rufus W. Griswold to JFC, 6 August 1842 (Manuscript in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

5 See Beard 4:301 (JFC to Griswold, 11 July 1842).

6 Contracts for both works are preserved in the Lea & Febiger papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

7 The Complete Works of Washington Irving: Letters, Volume IV, 1846-1859, Eds. Ralph M. Aderman, Herbert L. Klienfield, and Jennifer S. Banks (Boston: Twayne, 1982): 344.

8 Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance. By J. Fenimore Cooper, Esq. Author of “The Spy,” “The Pilot,” “Home as Found,” “Wing-and-Wing,” “The Two Admirals,” &c. Brother Jonathan, Extra Sheet. Number XXII. Wilson & Company, Publishers. New York, March 22, 1843.

9 James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Sloane, 1949); Hugh C. MacDougall, Introduction to Online Text of Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief, James Fenimore Cooper Society Website. URL: 1 July 2003.

10 See Beard 5:99 (JFC to Mrs. Cooper, 26 November 1845) and 5:102 (JFC to Mrs. Cooper, 30 November 1845).

11 Page references are from James Fenimore Cooper, Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief, Ed. Walter Lee Brown (Evanston, IL: Golden Booke Press, 1897). Brown’s text, the first “modern” critical edition of any Cooper work, notes textual variants between the Graham’s, Bentley, and Wilson versions of the printed text as well as the manuscript, which currently resides at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

12 Grossman 172.