February 6, 2010

Cooper and his last Mohican

According to a letter by James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans was published by the publishing house of Carey on February 6, 1826. Cooper admits he was a bit surprised, noting it came out "about 10 days earlier than I anticipated."

Cooper was already at work trying to find an overseas publisher in England, and even offering that publisher the opportunity to sell it to translators for publication in continental Europe. Cooper, like his contemporary (and sometime rival) Washington Irving, was concerned about book piracy thanks to the lack of international copyright. In the same letter to his potential British publisher, he notes that his earlier novel The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea "has been printed by some adventurer or other." He pleadingly asks, "Is there no way of stopping this?"

For Cooper, concern over European editions was important. The American publishing industry was in its infancy and offered little to no financial return for authors. Worse, the critical world was hard to break into; like many other American authors of the time, American audiences did not fully embrace Cooper until European audiences did so first. In fact, in this same 1826 letter, Cooper announces his plan to move to Europe, partly to take advantage of the presumed higher tastes of Europeans. He stayed for several years. Cooper's star lost some of its brilliance in later years as the author became extremely bitter, and somewhat litigious.

The enduring legacy of Cooper in general and The Last of the Mohicans specifically remains tenuous. The author has been heavily criticized by many, including James Russell Lowell. Lowell said Cooper was capable of writing only one character — Natty Bumppo, the star of many of Cooper's novels — and "all his other men-figures are clothes upon sticks." As for the women characters, Lowell calls them "sappy as maples and flat as a prairie." Edgar Poe had similar views. In his criticism veiled as handwriting analysis (the so-called "Chapter on Autography") he notes there is no distinct character to Cooper's writing and the lines he produces are crooked.

Perhaps Cooper's most well-known criticism came from Mark Twain, who referred to Cooper's various "literary offenses" in essay form. He wrote of The Deerslayer (a sequel to The Last of the Mohicans), "in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record."

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