The Editorial Crux of “undue erring/undeserving” in The Deerslayer

Lance Schachterle (Editor in Chief, The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper) (With a Response by Hugh C. McDougall)

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. 69-78).

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

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

In the week-long series of initiation experiences in The Deerslayer, the eponymous hero has his “gifts” seriously tested at least three times. He slays his first enemy in battle but remains true to his white and Christian gifts by holding the dying Indian — scalp intact — in his lap in a kind of frontier burlesque Pieta. Later, he shows his fidelity to his Indian schooling by redeeming his pledge of “furlough” and enduring the Huron torture so well as to arouse the admiration of his tormentors.

But the growing ardor of Judith Hutter’s attention constitutes the hardest test of the road to manhood Deerslayer has chosen. Rather than reciprocating her increasingly-direct signs of affection, Deerslayer in the end remains faithful to the voice of his true love, the forest. In a rebuff to Judith early in the book, in response to her query “have you never felt how pleasant it is to listen to the laugh of the girl you love,” he tells her:

“to me there’s no music so sweet as the sighing of the wind in the tree tops, and the rippling of the stream from a full, sparkling, natyve fountain of pure forest water — unless, indeed,” he continued, dropping his head for an instant in a thoughtful manner — “unless indeed it be the open mouth of a sartain hound, when I’m on the track of a fat buck — As for unsartain dogs, I care little for their cries, seein’ they are as likely to speak when the deer is not in sight, as when it is.” (158)

Judith, we are told, “walked slowly and pensively away, nor was there any of her ordinary calculating coquetry, in the light tremulous sigh, that, unconsciously to herself, arose to her lips.”

Judith’s “walk[ing] slowly and pensively away” foreshadows the climax of their relationship almost three hundred pages later. In their final meeting in the text edited by James Kilby, Kent Ljungquist and myself, Judith bluntly demands of Deerslayer:

“I know you do not love another and I can see but one reason why you cannot, will not love me. Tell me then, Deerslayer, — ” The girl paused, the words she was about to utter seeming to choke her. Then rallying all her resolution, with a face that flushed and paled at every breath she drew, she continued.

“Tell me then, Deerslayer, if any thing light of me, that Henry March has said may not have influenced your feelings?”

Truth was the Deerslayer’s polar star. He ever kept it in view, and it was nearly impossible for him to avoid uttering it, even when prudence demanded silence. Judith read his answer in his countenance, and with a heart nearly broken by the consciousness of undue erring, she signed to him an adieu, and buried herself in the woods. (545)

The textual issue at the heart of this paper involved the last sentence. “Judith read his answer in his countenance, and with a heart nearly broken by the c onsciousness of undue erring, she signed to him an adieu, and buried herself in the woods.” Every edition since the first of 1841 reads here “consciousness of undeserving.” In his initial work on the manuscript of The Deerslayer (now at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York), James Kilby read this phrase as “consciousness of undue erring,” a reading with which Professors Ljungquist and I concurred when we prepared the SUNY critical edition of the novel (Albany: State Univ. Press of New York, 1987. All references to the novel are to this text.)

Though Cooper never asserts Judith has succumbed to the sexual wiles of the British soldiers such as Captain Warley (who escorts her back to his post and presumably a life as his mistress), his oblique assessment of her virtue certainly suggests, from her first contact with Deerslayer, she fears her deserved reputation will repel the only man she ever comes to respect and love. In a summary just after the third scene in which, with increasing passion, Judith courts Deerslayer, Cooper comments as omniscient narrator on Judith as follows: “Hitherto she had been compelled to stand on the defensive, in her intercourse with men, with what success was best known to herself, but here had she suddenly been thrown into the society, and under the protection of a youth [Deerslayer], who evidently as little contemplated evil towards herself, as if he had been her brother.” (p. 160)

Given Judith’s status in the book as suspected fallen woman, the argument over which reading is Cooper’s intention is important for our understanding how the author wants us to respond to Judith. (Interestingly, Cooper told Thomas Field in a letter of 17 August 1842 that “Hetty is my own favorite, and I think she is better done — requiring more finesse to execute, and a greater familiarity with human nature to conceive, but I find no one of my own way of thinking.” See James Franklin Beard’s Historical Introduction to the SUNY edition, liv.) The challenge for editors is that both readings provide for Judith Hutter a strong final characterization — an important point in appreciating Cooper’s artistry in perhaps his most psychologically subtle work. The received reading, “consciousness of undeserving,” could demonstrate Judith’s repudiation of the conventions of society that label her — even to herself — a fallen woman. That is, here “undeserving” could mean Judith feels she does not deserve Deerslayer’s rejection and a life of misery. That, at least, is how I took the reading in making the case for the “undue erring” reading, which makes quite the opposite point: Judith accepts responsibility for those actions which result in her loss of Deerslayer.

The reading in the manuscript is difficult to make out, and even scholars used to Cooper’s hand might argue “undeserving” versus “undue erring.” In the absence of an undisputed textual witness at this crucial point in the novel, I’ll explore four lines of inquiry concerning why we decided to follow “undue erring” as Cooper’s intention in this passage:

1. Cooper’s practice of writing and proof-reading his texts.

2. A close look at what Cooper wrote in the manuscript itself.

3. Related examples (thanks largely to the research of Hugh C. McDougall) of Cooper’s use in other texts of the same and similar phrases.

4. The context of the psychological and esthetic integrity of the novel.

First, in proof-reading, could Cooper have missed a compositorial error as important as the one discussed in this paper? The short answer is “probably yes.” The work since 1980 in the “Writings of James Fenimore Cooper” ( WJFC hereafter; see provides much evidence about Cooper’s writing and production practices for the twelve novels (including The Deerslayer) already published in our scholarly edition. As Cooper began in 1840 his intensely-productive final decade as an author, he had developed practices and expectations for collaborating with publishers to see his handwritten manuscripts through the press in ways that ensured a high degree of fidelity to his intentions without unduly burdening himself or others. He abandoned his earlier procedure of having a family member copy out his manuscript, in a hand easier to read than his own small and sometimes garbled script. Instead, he relied onlined paper to counter his tendencies to bunch lines too tightly together, he paid more attention than earlier in his career to writing clearly, and he revised each manuscript lightly to clarify cruces in his writing he knew caused problems for compositors, such as vowels and terminal letters like “s.” In short, with remarkably few alterations or second thoughts, what he first wrote in the clearest hand he could muster went to the printing shop with few changes.

Following his self-imposed regimen begun with his first novel, Precaution of 1820, he read the proofs carefully (but not perfectly) the printers (Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard, in this case) prepared from his manuscripts. Lacking for The Deerslayer any authorially-revised proof sheets, we cannot be sure how careful his proof-reading was for this text. We do know where both manuscript and proof sheets survive that Cooper, in proof reading, did not find all the misreadings compositors perpetrated on his manuscripts. Thomas and Marianne Philbrick report in their as-yet unpublished WJFC edition of Afloat and Ashore that, in the first of two volumes alone, Cooper missed some 600 compositorial misreadings of his manuscript, in part because it was never his practice to read his manuscripts against the proof sheets.

Similarly, the editors of The Deerslayer found such misreadings eluding Cooper’s proof-reading and slipping into the first and subsequent editions as:

  • Hetty’s pious ejaculation when Hurry Harry and her father fail to scalp any Indians was perverted from the manuscript text, “Thank god for that, father!” to “Thank you for that” in all printed editions (186.23).
  • At 285.16-17, the printed text uncharacteristically refers to the Deerslayer’s “hearty, benevolent laughter”; what Cooper actually wrote was “hearty, but silent laughter.”
  • Finally, at 87.28-29 all printed texts read “The savages scalp your fri’nds, the Delawares, or Mohicans, whichever they may be, among the rest; and why shouldn’t we scalp?” In the context of Hurry Harry’s argument that it’s morally acceptable for whites to scalp Indians for the bounty, Cooper’s manuscript reading (which like the others cited here he failed to restore in proof) carries more weight in his argument with the — Deerslayer “The savages scalp — your fr’inds the Delawares, or Mohicans, whichever they may be, among the rest — and why should’nt we scalp?”

Given these and many other evidences that Cooper did not always restore his manuscript readings while proofreading, the editorial practice of the WJFC has been to follow as copy text the manuscript reading when the printed text disagrees with it, in cases where compositorial misreading is the most likely explanation for the variant. These examples of compositorial misreadings which Cooper missed while proofing Deerslayer make it at least possible that he would also have overlooked the misreading in his manuscript of “undue erring” as “undeserving.”

Second, what does a close look at the actual manuscript show? In the passage illustrated here (Illustration 1), several points about the disputed reading can be made. Is the wording in question one word or two? Some spacing does occur in the passage circled, but no greater than in “succeeding” three lines below, which is clearly a single word. In making our decision to read the passage as “undue erring,” we were guided more by another feature in the inscription. Following the open letter “d,” the remaining scawls before the slight break seem to accord more with two letters rather than three, “ue” rather than “ese.” The “erring” reading also required us to take the remaining letters as a double “r” and not “rv”; again, a hard call — compare the double “r” in “irresolute” just below against the “v” in “even,” in the first line. Looking back at this reading, my position is admittedly split — the first half seems to me more likely “undue” than “undese” while the second seems more likely “rving” than “rring.”

Third, do readings similar to “undue erring” or “undeserving,” especially in contexts like that at hand in The Deerslayer, occur in other texts? Of special interest are similar readings from the same period, the early 1840’s, where manuscript evidence would allow for comparisons to the Deerslayer manuscript itself.

Hugh C. McDougall’s citation list for “erring,” “deserving” and “undeserving” is appended to this essay. Of special interest in his discovery of our phrase “consciousness of undeserving” in chapter 9 of Miles Wallingford (Afloat and Ashore, part 2) for which we have the original manuscript. Here it is (Illustration 2). Unfortunately Cooper neatly splits the word on two lines, so we can’t judge this inscription with respect to the spacing issue in Deerslayer. And in Afloat and Ashore, Cooper is being really careful to write clearly. Note how much more clearly he shapes his words, adding pen stokes (presumably when looking his first inscriptions over) to clarify features like the second “e” in “detained” in the line above the one of interest to us.

It seems indisputable that the reading here is “consciousness of undeserving,” showing that Cooper did use this phrase in a novel of the same decade as Deerslayer. Oddly, he uses the initial old-fashioned long “s” form in the final two consonants of “consciousness,” but his shaping of the “e-se” after the “d” in “unde-serving” is quite clear. And “undeserving” (in, as we shall see, one of its two opposite meanings) as “without merit or goodness” is appropriate here in the context of the moral weakling Rupert’s meeting with the hero Miles Wallingford. Note “consciousness of undeserving” is coupled with ” humility“ in the sentence “His manner was full of the consciousness of undeserving, and its humility aided my good resolutions.” (Darley edition, p. 143)

The second of Hugh C. McDougall’s examples of “consciousness of undeserving” provides another possible parallel for the phrase relative to the Deerslayer crux, for here the phrase clearly is associated with guilt. In the second chapter of The Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (Cooper’s only short novel and only magazine serial, published in four installments in Graham’s Magazine January to April 1843), the “hero” handkerchief recounts its origins in a flax field and the indignities it suffered in being harvested and manufactured. Recounting that as a seed, the handkerchief was spared at least the humiliating torture of the milling wheel, our hero states that “Innocence was our shield, and, while we endured some of the disgrace that attaches to mere forms, we had that consolation of which no cruelty or device can deprive the unoffending. Our sorrows were not heightened by the consciousness of undeserving.” (Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief, ed. by Walter Lee Brown, Golden-Booke Press [Evanston, IL: 1897], pp. 24-25.)

As with the example from Afloat and Ashore, the uncommonness today of the phrase “consciousness of undeserving” makes it difficult to grasp Cooper’s meaning here. The editor of this edition of Pocket-Handkerchief, who helpfully notes Cooper’s manuscript alterations, points out that before inscribing “undeserving,” Cooper first wrote and then cancelled “guilt.” The phrase then can be read “consciousness of guilt,” which reinforces the handkerchief’s proclamation that through the tortures of manufacture, the seeds-about-to-become-linen were at least aware of their innocence, and of not deserving their sufferings.

Before looking more closely at Deerslayer itself, please observe that Cooper has used “consciousness of undeserving” in two somewhat different ways in these two examples. In the Afloat and Ashore scene, Rupert knows he has wronged Miles and his sister. He meets his erstwhile childhood friend to acknowledge his weakness, “conscious of undeserving” in the sense of being aware of his lack of merit or goodness. “Consciousness of undeserving” is linked with “humility.” In the Handkerchief passage, the phrase is linked with “guilt,” though in the negative sense that the “hero” is proclaiming with characteristic complacency its innocence of any wrong-doing.

Furthermore, the OED makes clear that in Cooper’s period, our contested phrase could be read two diametrically opposite ways. The OED records both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century examples of “undeserving” meaning “not deserving (something good), lacking desert or merit; unworthy” (first meaning) and “not deserving (harsh treatment, etc.); guiltless, innocent” (second meaning). Not knowing the parallel examples Hugh C. McDougall has identified of Cooper’s using the phrase in the first sense, we took the received reading in Deerslayer, “consciousness of undeserving” in the second meaning which seemed to us a more familiar one. 1

The final, and most important argument with respect to our textual crux, brings to bear the evidence of how Cooper portrayed Judith. In terms of the simple dichotomy I set up earlier, does the evidence of the full text prepare us for Judith to proclaim convincingly that her fate is “undeserved” (that is, not merited) or does she acknowledge her error? I think Cooper goes to great pains to show the latter.

From Judith’s first proclamation, screened behind the bushes concealing the Ark, that “it is a pleasure to hear truth from a man’s tongue,” (p. 63) Judith detects in the Deerslayer a transparent attachment to right speaking and acting wholly new in her experience with men. But as we have seen earlier, her resistance to masculine wiles has met with success “best known to herself” (p. 160). Cooper is not being unduly roundabout here — his point is precisely that her success — or lack thereof — is known with certainty only to herself.

Thus, in scene after scene as Judith hopes and then despairs of hope to win the love of the one true man she has encountered, the memories of deeds which lend substance to Hurry Harry’s rude suspicions cause her pain and embarrassment. At the beginning of chapter 7 when Hurry Harry and Hutter are in Mingo hands, Deerslayer suggests he and the two girls hold out until “the officers in the garrisons, hear of this war-path” and come out to the lake. “’The officers!’ exclaimed Judith, impatiently, her colour deepening, and her eye expressing a lively but passing emotion. ‘Who thinks, or speaks of the heartless gallants, now?’” (p. 131). In the long conversation between Judith and Deerslayer that ensues, she loses her composure again when the officers are referred to (p. 136). Similar descriptions of her embarrassment whenever the subject of her relationships with the military gallants occur in Deerslayer’s presence are described on pages 140, 161, and 204.

Cooper summarizes this theme on page 217. After Judith impulsively decks herself out in the rich finery hidden in her father’s chest, she wins rare praise from Deerslayer. “Never did eyes of mine gaze on as glorious a lookin’ creatur’, as you be yourself, at this very moment!” (p. 213) Judith luxuriates in his praise, precisely because she knows of his innocence and truth-telling.

Perhaps Judith was the first individual of his own colour, who fairly submitted to this natural consequence of truth and fair-dealing, on the part of Deerslayer. She had actually pined for his praise, and she had now received it, and in the form which was most agreeable to her weaknesses and habits of thought. The result will appear in the course of the narrative. (p. 217; italics mine)

Cooper exercises here the customary authorial prerogatives of the period to editoralize on his character Judith Hutter. The import of his judgment here about the “form which was most agreeable to her weaknesses and habits of thought” is that her special sensitivity to Deerslayer’s praise of her beauty discloses her vanity. But of greater importance is Cooper’s comment that “the result will appear in the course of the narrative.”

As far as we know, Cooper wrote each chapter seriatim, probably without having the exact details of the conclusion in mind in the earlier parts of the novel. But when he wrote these lines in chapter 12, I believe he had worked out in his mind the denouement between Deerslayer and Judith in the last chapter (36). He was building, as well shall see, for a significant “effect” in their final scene together, which we will examine shortly.

Perhaps the crucial chapter that discloses their growing intimacy is ch. 24. Deerslayer, “furloughed” by the Hurons, has just returned to the Castle for what he believes may be his final interviews with his friends. Judith re-opens Thomas Hutter’s chest, hoping both to learn her past and to find more treasures that might tempt the Mingoes to release Deerslayer. In a small casket she finds letters that reveal Hutter is not her father, but in fact a pirate named Hovey with a price on his head. More important, letters concerning her mother show that she had succumbed to the sexual attentions of an unnamed gentleman, who she concludes was her father. (p. 411) Confronted with an exact parallel to her own situation and frustrated that she may lose her potential savior, she “was goaded by a sense of wrongs not altogether merited” and “incited by the hopelessness of a future that seemed to contain no resting place.” (p. 419) The first phrase provides evidence that Cooper may have intended the “undeserving” crux phrase in the sense mentioned earlier — that in the final scene, Judith is enraged that “wrongs not altogether merited” will cause her to lose Deerslayer.

Later in the chapter, in the dialogue written with a skill in handling inhibitions and misdirections that anticipates Henry James Judith lavishes on Natty Bumppo hints of her attraction that most other young men would gladly have received and reciprocated. However, she stops short of a proposal — she makes one later — when she hits upon “a scheme by which she hoped effectually to bind him to her person.” (p. 425) The scheme of course is her fantastic appearance in the Indian camp decked out in the lavish dress she has found, to appeal as a person of high rank for Deerslayer’s release.

Her scheme — so well suited to her weakness of personal vanity — of course fails. At the end of ch. 30, “the machine in the garden” saves Natty, as “a sound unusual to the woods was heard” and the mechanical-like “regular and heavy” tread introduces the British regulars who put most of the Indians to the bayonet. (p. 521) The troop is led by the haughty Captain Warley, “in truth, the very individual with whom the scandal of the garrisons, had most freely connected the name of this beautiful but indiscreet girl.” (p. 524) Hetty’s wounds and eventual death of course make the Captain’s presence all the more difficult. “To me,” she tells Warley, “the world is full of misery. I wish never to hear of marks, or rifles, or soldiers, or men, again!” (p. 530) With the moment of crisis at hand, she set upon overcoming the “indomitable diffidence” of Deerslayer by “making a desperate effort to rescue herself from a future that she dreaded. ... ” (p. 541) She proposes marriage to Deerslayer (p. 542), who simply responds “we can never marry.” (p. 543) Her response to Deerslayer’s rejection is crucial to my line of argument. Both before and after his rejection, the authorial editorial voice tells us:

[T]his high spirited and impetuous girl entertained no shadow of resentment, then or ever, against the fair dealing and ingenuous hunter. (p. 543)

Contrary to what would have been expected, resentment was still absent, though the colour frequently changed, from the deep flush of mortification to the paleness of disappointment. Sorrow, deep, heart-felt sorrow, however, was the predominant emotion, and this was betrayed in a manner not to be mistaken. (p. 544)

One page later she asks the question which elicits the paragraph this paper has been examining. That question is:

“Tell me then, Deerslayer, if any thing light of me, that Henry March has said may not have influenced your feelings?” (p. 545)

The answer of course is yes. Hurry had conveyed to Deerslayer his sense of Judith’s vanity and promiscuity, so that when Judith first smiles on Deerslayer back on page 95, “even Deerslayer, who had imbibed a prejudice against the girl, in consequence of Hurry’s suspicions of her levity, felt its charm. ... ” But in the paragraph containing our textual crux, Deerslayer is too much the natural gentleman to verbalize his distrust. Here’s the crucial paragraph again:

I know you do not love another and I can see but one reason why you cannot, will not love me. Tell me then, Deerslayer, — ” The girl paused, the words she was about to utter seeming to choke her. Then rallying all her resolution, with a face that flushed and paled at every breath she drew, she continued.

“Tell me then, Deerslayer, if any thing light of me, that Henry March has said may not have influenced your feelings?”

Truth was the Deerslayer’s polar star. He ever kept it in view, and it was nearly impossible for him to avoid uttering it, even when prudence demanded silence. Judith read his answer in his countenance, and with a heart nearly broken by the consciousness of undue erring, she signed to him an adieu, and buried herself in the woods. (p. 545)

In presenting Deerslayer’s unspoken response to Judith in his countenance, Cooper makes good his pledge 300 pages earlier to show the result of Judith’s weakness for adulation based only on physical beauty. As editors, we read the crux we have been discussing as “consciousness of undue erring” because the actual manuscript seems then — and still seems to me — on balance to convey that reading. However, our critical judgment was very much affected by our sense of Cooper’s design in having Judith recognize her errors. “Consciousness of undeserving” we interpreted in a contemporary sense — conscious of not deserving the fate she now has earned. In this regard, the historical records we examined made clear such a reading was possible. While the text on page 419 shows Judith “goaded by a sense of wrongs not altogether merited,” the repeated authorial stress on her sorrows in the pages immediately preceding page 545 seem to me to make the case for her recognizing her failures and accepted her tragic fate. And in the wonderful retrospective conclusion to the novel, when Deerslayer and Chingachgook return to the lake fifteen years later, Cooper writes that “Time and circumstances have drawn an impenetrable mystery around all else connected with the Hutters. They lived, erred, died, and are forgotten” (p. 547; italics mine). Judith, however, is perhaps too compelling a character for Cooper, and he adds in the final paragraph of the novel that Sir Robert Warley now “lived on his paternal estates, and that there was a lady of rare beauty in the Lodge, who had great influence over him, though she did not bear his name.” (p. 548)

Finally, esthetic judgment also enters into making editorial choices such as this difficult case. As Thomas Philbrick commented when comparing the potential “undeserving” references to both Rupert Hardinge in Afloat and Ashore and Judith Hutter:

“Undeserving” is perfectly appropriate for the weak and mean-spirited Rupert, but seems too conventional and flat for Judith. In Afloat and Ashore Cooper is writing about the apparent “manner” of a hypocritical sneak; in Deerslayer he is writing about the authentic subjective state of a heroic woman. (Personal correspondence, June 4, 2003).

With the evidence brought forward in this rethinking of our decision, I would write our Textual Note to the passage differently. In our published edition, we wrote as follows:

The manuscript reading is difficult, but the [first edition] version can be dismissed safely. The present reading accords with the configuration of strokes in the manuscript and with the sense of Judith’s “undue [i.e., excessive] erring” expressed in the two concluding paragraphs of the novel. (p. 590).

Given what I have learned in re-visiting this editorial decision, were I to write the note now, I would say the following:

The manuscript reading is difficult, but on balance the editors believe the physical evidence favors “undue erring,” not “undeserving.” But given the context and usages of two phrases, the first edition reading “undeserving” cannot be dismissed with certainty. The OED provides contemporaneous evidence for “undeserving” in two opposite senses: “not deserving (something good)” and “not deserving (harsh treatment).” Hugh C. McDougall has discovered the phrase “consciousness of undeserving” in The Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (1843) and Afloat and Ashore, part two (Miles Wallingford, 1844). Though the usages there vary somewhat, in both cases Cooper seems to be using “undeserving” in the first sense, “not deserving (something good).” If “consciousness of undeserving” is what Cooper did write in the holograph of The Deerslayer, we believe he intended it in this sense. Both readings signify Judith’s recognition that she is losing the only man she has loved, either as a result specifically of her excessive erring or more generally, because her past actions deny her something good.

undue erring/undeserving

Illustration 1 (Deerslayer).

Miles Wallingford

Illustration 2 (Miles Wallingford).


[Hugh C. McDougall’s List of Related Readings]


(search for “erring” in available online texts)

The Pilot (1824)

“one chosen by my own erring passions.” [Chapter 29]

“to my erring faculties, it wears an appearance of mystery.” [Chapter 33]

The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829)

“Let no many arm on behalf of one sinful and erring.” [Chapter 16]

“Truly we are an erring and a fallible race.” [Chapter 28]

The Water-Witch (1830)

“But, deluded or not, erring or deceived, Alida Barbérie is not to be deserted.” [Chapter 18]

The Bravo (1831)

“in this erring pilgrimage to which we are all doomed.” [Chapter 4]

The Heidenmauer (1832)

“He who would attribute the sins of its mistaken performance, to aught but his erring creatures, ... ” [Chapter 8]

“That thou hast been erring, we shall not deny.” [Chapter 31]

Jack Tier (1848)

“To how many of the feeble-minded and erring do those offices of the church prove a stay and support, when their own ordinary powers of resistance would fail them!” [Chapter 7]

The Monikins (1835)

“The inference drawn by counsel, that, not being capable of erring, the king must have the highest possible moral attributes, and consequently a memory, is unsound. The constitution says his majesty CAN do no wrong.” [Chapter 20]

The Oak Openings (1848)

“as we all portray in our memories the scenes, legends, and feelings of an erring childhood.” [Chapter 30]

The Wing and Wing (1842)

“By letting you feel the consolation of this filial love, and by awakening in your own bosom the spark of parental affection, he forshadows the fruits of his own mercy and tenderness, to the erring but penitent.” [Chapter 14]

Wyandotté (1843)

“I apprehend ... That the mandates of the Saviour are far beyond the mutations and erring passions of mortality.” [Chapter 7]

Satanstoe (1845)

“He was erring but impulsive.” [Chapter 30]


(searches for “undeserving” and for “consciousness of deserving” in available online texts)

Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (1843)

“Our sorrows were not heightened by the consciousness of undeserving.” [Chapter 2]

The Two Admirals (1842)

“and which no consciousness of deserving could entirely appease.” [Chapter 26]

Miles Wallingford (1844)

His manner was full of the consciousness of undeserving, and its humility aided my good resolutions. [Chapter 9]

Mercedes of Castile (1840)

“I may not be altogether deserving of her, but, then again, I am not altogether undeserving of her.” [Chapter 10]

The Sea Lions (1849)

“Little do these fellow think of Providence — or of deserving or undeserving.” [Chapter 8]

The Monikins (1835)

“Even the common mariners, feeling a consciousness of deserving” [Chapter 16]

The Spy (1821)

“we are undeserving of it.” [Chapter 4]

The Deerslayer (1841)

“a heart nearly broken by the consciousness of undeserving” [Chapter 17]


Hugh C. McDougall

(James Fenimore Cooper Society)

It was at my first Cooper conference, nineteen years ago, that I met Lance Schachterle, and listened with more than a little awe to his paper on “Textual Editing and the Cooper Edition.” I was still a United States Diplomat. I had rushed home from my last overseas posting in Rangoon, Burma — where my presence at the Ambassador’s Fourth of July Party had been deemed indispensable — to reach Oneonta just in time for my very first literary conference. There I learned for the first time about some of the mysteries of editing. Lance, and his colleagues Kent Ljungquist and James Kilby, were then in the process of establishing the text, for the Cooper Edition, of The Deerslayer, which would duly be published three years later by the State University of New York Press in Albany.

In his 1984 paper, Lance told us how he and his colleagues had, on the basis of Cooper’s handwritten manuscript, changed the reading of a key passage in one of the novel’s last chapters, in which Deerslayer and Judith Hutter part forever. This is, of course the reading he has again discussed today. Where all previous editions had read “consciousness of undeserving,” the Cooper Edition reads “consciousness of undue erring.”

I was immediately fascinated by this question. Looking at a photocopy of the critical passage that Lance had shown the Conference participants, I could not definitively decide from the handwriting which reading was correct. That meant that I was uncomfortable with rejecting the accepted reading of “consciousness of undeserving,” which Cooper himself had not changed when proofreading the original edition in 1841. The most I could say was that it seemed an unusual and perhaps awkward phrase.

There the matter rested until, some years later, I read Cooper’s little known but delightful 1843 novella — The Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief. There, in Chapter 2, the words “consciousness of undeserving” sprang out at me. Now alerted to the phrase, I encountered it again in Chapter 9 of Cooper’s 1844 novel Miles Wallingford. So in two different books, each written shortly after The Deerslayer, Cooper had apparently used the awkward phrase. I did not, and have not, seen the manuscripts of either of these works, and thus cannot assert that they were not also misread by Cooper’s typesetter in Philadelphia, but it seemed to me then, as it does now, unlikely.

This brings us to the question of meaning. Which reading best conforms to what we know of Cooper’s intentions in presenting the critically important characters of Deerslayer and Judith Hutter? And it was only when I read the paper Lance has presented today that I realized that we had always interpreted the passage a bit differently, even though he had made the same point back in 1984.

Most of the passage is clear enough. Judith asks Deerslayer whether his rejection of her as a bride has been influenced by Hurry Harry’s stories of her presumably improper behavior back in the British army garrison. Deerslayer does not reply, but she can see in his expression that this is indeed the case. Broken hearted — either by the “consciousness of undeserving” the “consciousness of undue erring,” — she turns away and leaves him forever.

“Undue erring” seems clear enough — the stories Deerslayer had heard from Hurry Harry were all too true. And it implies that Judith is accepting responsibility for her past behavior, and of Deerslayer’s constitutional inability to overlook it. Here I think Lance and I quite agree.

Where we have disagreed, and I guess still do, is whether reading the passage as “undeserving” would change its meaning. Lance has — both in 1984 and today — interpreted “consciousness of undeserving” — if that is what Cooper wrote — as stating that Judith was conscious that she did not deserve Deerslayer’s rejection.

I have always read it differently. It has seemed to me from the start that it was Judith’s own “undeserving” that she was conscious of. In other words, Judith was conscious that she did not deserve to win Deerslayer. She was conscious, not of her innocence, but of her guilt.

I have agreed to provide this response to Lance’s excellent paper, at his request, not because I think the matter is, or perhaps ever can be, definitively resolved. Rather it is to demonstrate that even reading a novel is not always a straightforward procedure, that little things matter, and that the arcane world of literary editing and criticism is a constantly fascinating one.


1 MacDougall’s research on similar phrases can add some additional information. In The Spy (ed. by James P. Elliott, Lance Schachterle and Jeffrey Walker, AMS Press: NY, 2002, p. 62) “we are undeserving of it” occurs in the context of the speaker believing a perceived reproach was unmerited; this was the sense of the word the editors took in our decision to read the passage as “undue erring.” MacDougall found no other use of “undue erring,” though numerous examples of “erring” as a synonym for bad or sinful behavior occur. In The Monikins (1835, ch. 16, page 237 in the Darley edition) and The Two Admirals (1842, ch. 26, page 468, Darley edition) the opposite phrase “consciousness of deserving” occurs. In both cases, the phrase indicates the individuals are conscious of deserving esteem or a happy fate. From these two authorial usages, one could argue that “consciousness of undeserving” for Cooper meant “consciousness of not deserving something good, recognizing one’s lack of merit.” In Sea Lions (1849), this sentence occurs “Little do these fellows think of Providence — or of deserving or undeserving” (ch. 8, page 136, Darley edition). This citation is the only one located where Cooper uses “deserving” and “undeserving” together, here in a specifically theological sense illustrated by the example in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary: “God continually supplies the wants of his undeserving creatures.”