Worcester Polytechnic Institute Scholar Co-Edits Definitive Edition by James Fenimore Cooper

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WORCESTER, Mass. - July 18, 2002 - Worcester Polytechnic Institute Assistant Provost Lance Schachterle and two other scholars - James P. Elliott of Clark University and Jeffrey Walker of Oklahoma State University, have edited a definitive and scholarly text of James Fenimore Cooper's "The Spy."

"'The Spy,' published in December of 1821, is considered America's first great novel," explained Professor Schachterle. "The work was actually Cooper's second novel, but it launched his career. Cooper crafted an unanticipated best seller by creating a story that was truly American - involving American characters in a situation that could only have taken place in America."

Cooper situated "The Spy" in the military and ethical 'neutral ground' separating the British and American armies in 1780. The novel weaves a sentimental love story with events from the American Revolution in West Chester County, New York, in 1780.

"The romance is hopelessly dated to modern readers, but the espionage themes (including George Washington in disguise) are strikingly modern in terms of the moral issues they raise," explained Schachterle. "'The Spy' introduced the first of Cooper's profoundly 'American' character-types: Harvey Birch. Nothing like Birch had ever appeared before in American literature. In his next novel, 'The Pioneers,' Cooper metamorphosizes Birch into Natty Bumppo, the hero of what were ultimately Cooper's five 'Leather-Stocking Tales.'"

Schachterle and his colleagues began the painstaking work of comparing Cooper's three revised editions nearly two decades ago, before computer usage was widely available for scholarly work. They did it using traditional methods - taking meticulous notes, utilizing the help of students and colleagues, and relying on their own training in the techniques of scholarly editing.

"The point of this scholarly edition is that Cooper took three occasions in his professional career to heavily revise the novel," explained Schachterle. "Our edition produces a text in accord with contemporary textual practice of trying to get as close as possible to the author's intentions, and as far away as possible from intrusions from others like typesetters. Cooper took great pains to repair the blunders in his own text and those made by printers in his first edition. He also made significant improvements in the text for the second and third New York editions (March and May 1822,)" said Schachterle. "Then in 1831, after his career and practice were well established, he returned to the novel with "a severe pen" to effect a thorough revision for the Bentley Standard Novels edition."

Schachterle and his colleagues compiled almost one-hundred pages (double column) providing the detail of Cooper's revisions.

"We believe that this list contradicts the view that Cooper was indifferent to the precision of his prose," said Schachterle, who now leads the Cooper Edition scholarly team planning on publishing additional volumes. A website for this project is available at www.wjfc.org

The scholars found all types of revisions, but one that Schachterle found especially amusing was a reference to a 'sappy young lady' - a character who is killed off later in the novel. Schachterle found Cooper's notes on this event indicating "I'm damned glad she's dead!" indicating his remorse at having had such a character in his novel.

Schachterle points to Worcester Polytechnic Institute's increasing scholarly endeavors in nineteenth century literature, including work on Dickens, Poe and Emerson. "WPI has become a major center for the study of nineteenth century fiction."

About the publication

This scholar edition of James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy is published by AMS Press of New York.

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