July 17, 2010

Cooper's Precaution manuscript

"I could write you a better book than that myself!" shouted James Fenimore Cooper, throwing aside a now-forgotten book — or, so legend has it. Family members laughed; Cooper didn't even like writing letters, let alone entire books. He set about doing so nonetheless. Family members were surprised and impressed — and encouraging, even suggesting it could be published. So he did.

In fact, Cooper was very controlling of the publishing details of what became his first book, Precaution. He insisted on a larger 10-point type (rather than the usual 8), for example, partly to make the relatively-short book appear longer. "I have written freely," he explained, "the same as I would talk — have aim'd at nothing but simplicity and clearness." However, clearness was Cooper's problem: the poor legibility in the manuscript he submitted to the typesetter (Cornelius S. Van Winkle, who also worked with Washington Irving). He didn't even break paragraphs (an attempt to save paper) and had to insert asterisks into his manuscript to mark them. The first handful of proof-sheets proved disastrous.

On July 17, 1820, after receiving the bulk of his proofs, Cooper concluded the typesetter had made "tremendous mistakes." He wrote two letters that day in response, showing an iron-hard grip in controlling the printing of his book, but disassociating himself for creating problems because of a sloppy manuscript.

Dialogue, for example, was not set apart, but flowed as normal prose. Cooper scolded the printer for typesetting exactly as he wrote it: "do not... be at all guided by my arrangements in the dialogue." The manuscript was also riddled with an overuse of dashes. "I like the frequent use of the dash — and believe they have ommitted it in one or two cases where I was at pains to insert it." Even so, however, Cooper arbitrarily skipped from dashes to commas — sometimes even in the same sentence: "The evening passed off as such evenings generally do—in gayety—listlessness—dancing—gaping, and heart-burnings." In fact, Cooper often ended sentences with dashes, and noted the typesetter should know which dashes should be replaced with periods.

The same day, July 17, Cooper sailed aboard a whaling vessel, where he would be out of touch for a month. When he returned, he was furious to learn that work on his book had stalled. The proofing process would be a long and hard one before Precaution finally saw print — and failed to garner much attention. His subject matter was British (and the book was published in England) because the author believed an American subject was of no interest.

*Much of the information in this post comes from the highly-detailed biography James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years by Wayne Franklin.

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