November 10, 2011

A bad manuscript and worse proof-reading

The novel Precaution was published on November 10, 1820, priced at $2 for both volumes. Its author, James Fenimore Cooper, wrote the book as a challenge to himself. His publisher (A. T. Goodrich & Co.), however, soon learned he was himself a challenge to work with.

Cooper was highly concerned with its marketing (he denied it should be referred to as "original" American work, and hoped people would infer it was a republication of a British work along the lines of Walter Scott) and asked his name not be included. Another reason for this was that he was already working on a new book, The Spy, which he recognized as a superior work. As he told his publisher, "I can make a much better one — am making a much better one."

Still, Cooper hoped Precaution would be successful, and certainly hoped for a respectable financial return. He was concerned, nonetheless, that British publishers would pirate his book. About three months before its American publication, Cooper asked his publisher, "What do you mean to do about England?" He was not impressed by the slow response and took matters into his own hands — but was fairly limited because of his desire for anonymity. His plan was to take a pseudonym, Edward Jones.  Instead, his publisher found a lawyer friend who would negotiate on his behalf.

All this was ironic for a book Cooper never intended to publish at all. Further, Cooper was so disappointed in the poor quality of the first American edition (the fault of his own poorly-written manuscript) that the British edition had scores of corrections. As a later preface noted:

[There] were many defects in plot, style, and arrangement, that were entirely owing to precipitation and inexperience, and quite as many faults, of another nature, that are to be traced solely to a bad manuscript and worse proof-reading. Perhaps no novel of our times was worse printed than the first edition of this work. More than a hundred periods were placed in the middle of sentences, and perhaps five times that number were omitted, in places where they ought to have been inserted. It is scarcely necessary to add, that passages were rendered obscure, and that entire paragraphs were unintelligible.

*For much of this information, I am indebted to the biography James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years by Wayne Franklin.

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