When my wife came back from a recent research trip to England, she brought me a surprise gift: a copy of Cooper's last novel, The Ways of the Hour, in paperback.
The Ways of the Hour! Coopers very last novel, rarely reprintedrarely even read, except by the most dogged of Cooper specialistssince its original appearance in 1850, and here it was in a handsome trade paperback from Alan Sutton, Ltd., of Gloucestershire, with a tastefully Masterpiece-theatre sort of cover (a detail from "Anticipation" by T. Desmarel) and legible print, as if it were Pride and Prejudice or Our Mutual Friend. As I turned it over in wonder and delight, an insane hope was born in me: that England was enjoying some sort of renaissance of interest in Cooper and his work.
And why not? Some of Cooper's best critics, D. H. Lawrence and Marius Bewley, for instance, were English, and the most recent of the big and revolutionary books about Cooper is by Geoffrey Ransa Canadian, to be sure, but one with charming British accent and manners. There is a very active program in American Studies at the University of East Anglia, where Robert Clark and his colleagues produced some trenchant Cooper criticism in the 1980s. The Oxford University Press's "World Classics" series has published new editions of all the Leatherstocking tales, and Penguin Books, with its own Leatherstocking edition, has also reprinted The American Democrat, not necessarily the most obvious candidate among Cooper's "other" books for resuscitation. Was this a trendor perhaps a trendlet, a small surge of British enthusiasm for the cantankerous American author who had said so many disparaging things about Britain and its people? If The Ways of the Hour could be reprinted, what couldn't? Anything was possible. The Heidenmauer. Oak Openings. Mercedes of Castile!
Since I was going to England myself, it seemed a good idea to find out what was really going on. For that, I needed to speak, not to an academic, of course, but to someone in business, the venturesome publisher himself. I tracked down Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, a small firm located in Stroud, a picturesque Cotswald town, and I spoke with Jacqueline Mitchell, who is responsible for deciding what titles Sutton will publish. It didn't take her long to puncture my balloon.
Ms. Mitchell explained that, among other things, Sutton is interested in reprinting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works of contemporary interest, but they do not handle anything already available from another house. Not Jane Austen, then, and not The Moonstone, but they have issued another Wilkie Collins novel, The Legacy of Cain, as well as Sheridan La Fanu's The Wyvern Mystery, William Morris's The Well at World's End, and Frances Trollope's The Vicar of Wrexhill. Suttons editors take ideas for books to publish either from the recommendation of academics or from their own reading of reference works, and they are interested in foreign authors that fit into a particular "scene" (Chíere Annette : Letters from Russia, 1820-1828 : The Correspondence of the Empress Maria Feodorovna to Her Daughter the Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna, the Princess of Orange is one of their books). Perhaps fearing that I was about to propose two or three more titles to her, she also explained that the "classics" market has been going through a difficult time and Sutton is wary of overburdening it.
When I explained my own mission and asked specifically about The Ways of the Hour, what I heard was even more discouraging. Ms. Mitchell couldn't remember the specific impulse behind their choosing that title, but whatever it was, she regretted it. The book had not sold well at all, and it certainly hadn't opened a space for other Cooper novels to fill. I looked again at my fetching copy of The Ways of the Hour, and I saw where Sutton might have gone wrong. "First published in 1850," reads the jacket copy, "this was the last novel of Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer. A forerunner of the modern mystery novel, the book shows his inventiveness and interest in social justice in its debate on the power and fairness of the jury system." The blurb is aimed at John Grisham's readers, but it doesn't take any reader long to discover the differences between this novel and The Pelican Brief or The Client. In the very first chapter Thomas Dunscombe not only airs his dyspeptic views of Constitutional protections of religious liberty but manages to insult the intelligence of women at the same time: "I think that even Sarah will understand that the United States is no palladium of religious liberty, if it cannot prevent a state from establishing Mohamedanism, as soon as a few forms can be complied with." And Dunscombe is only warming up for the flood of bile he will spray over the land-rent controversy, the cup-and-saucer laws, the American system of jurisprudence in general, American speech, American manners and morals. . . . I thanked Ms. Mitchell for her help and set off for London.
There I went to the British Library for more primary research in the archives of the Henry Colburn/Richard Bentley publishing company: copies of letters, contracts, and royalty payments from Coopers long-time British publisher, Richard Bentley. Reading them is a chastening experience. Bentley evidently really did respect Coopers work and published his later works at a loss for many years, while Cooper complained bitterly about the decreasing amounts Bentley was willing to pay for publication. In 1839 Bentley paid £1000 (less £200 for losses on the History of the Navy of the United States) for both The Pathfinder and Mercedes of Castile. In 1848 he paid £350 for The Oak Openings. In 1850, Cooper accepted a scant £100 for The Ways of the Hour, but only after much haggling and many threats to find another publisher, including the hint that he should have asked for £600an unimaginable figure by then. Economic depression, contraction in the book market, and Coopers own stubborn refusal to cater to the reading public all helped to wither the British market that had once been the most profitable of his publishing venues.
And here in the 1990s that unhappy decrescendo was repeating; Sutton was, if anything, even more vexed than Bentley had been at having gotten involved with The Ways of the Hour. On this side of the water, the SUNY edition has apparently gone into permanent suspension, paperback editions of novels other than the Leatherstocking tales have disappeared from the shelves. . . . The prospect of Coopers dwindling popularity haunted me all the way back to fin de siècle Boston. Is there any future for Cooper studies in the next millennium?
But when I got home, I checked the statistics for the Cooper page on my World Wide Web site and discovered that, for some reason, it is a lively place. In January, 1999, it had been visited 778 timesan average of 25 times a day. This fact, more than the appearance of any paperback edition, seems to point the way to the next century. Traditional publishing may find Coopers work an unprofitable indulgence, but interest in Coopers life and fiction remains high, and the future of Cooper scholarship seems assured in cyberspace. Such are the ways of our hour.