The James Fenimore Cooper Collection provides evidence of the personal and professional life of James Fenimore Cooper, and to a lesser degree, the Cooper family, between 1792 and 1976. The papers chronicle Cooper’s writing career, involvement in the navy, and travels through Europe, and consist of correspondence, writings, personal papers, legal and financial documents, clippings, artwork, and objects. As an author who was engaged in the process of printing and publishing his works, as well as in establishing and protecting his own copyright, Cooper’s papers shed light on book production during the mid-nineteenth century.
James Fenimore Cooper’s creative process can be traced in the collection, which contains documents from various stages in producing a work, ranging from notebooks and research material to handwritten drafts, proofs, printed versions, and reviews. Cooper gained a reputation during his lifetime, and evidence of his fame can be found in correspondents requesting his autograph, letters inviting him to lecture, various articles about him and his home, Otsego Hall, engraved portraits, and correspondence with Horatio Greenough, who sculpted a bust of Cooper (an image of which can be found in the Art Series). However, Cooper’s fame also impacted the preservation of his literary manuscripts, pages of which were often dispersed to various collectors and autograph seekers; for this reason many of his drafts have missing sections. Material objects reflecting Cooper’s profession as a writer, such as his travel desk and desk set, are also part of the collection.
James Fenimore Cooper was keenly aware and protective of his legal rights. His interest in copyright is evident in his correspondence with his printers and publishers, such as his care in establishing copyright in the U.S. and England and his concern when pirated works appeared of his novels. He kept detailed notes about copyright ownership found in his "Copy Right Book” (1842) and was in possession of a pamphlet on "An Act to Amend the Laws Relating to Dramatic Literary Property" (1833). Cooper also held the copyright for Susan Fenimore Cooper’s publication Rural Hours, and his family filed for copyright ownership of a number of Cooper’s works following his death. In many ways Cooper’s interest in copyright reflects the financial realities of his career as an author, as can be traced in various financial documents in the collection.
Between 1839 and 1845 Cooper was also involved in a number of legal proceedings, most notably libel cases filed against publishers, such as Park Benjamin (The New World), Horace Greeley and Thomas McElrath (New York Tribune), William L. Stone (Commercial Advertiser), Thurlow Weed (Evening Journal), and James Watson Webb (Courier and Enquirer). As various clippings in the collection indicate, these cases received extensive press coverage.
Cooper's career in the navy is evidenced by warrants appointing Cooper midshipman, paymaster, and quartermaster. As an author he maintained an interest in maritime topics, which can be seen in his work to write The History of the Navy of the United States of America, seafaring-themed novels such as The Pilot and The Water Witch, and several articles for The Naval Magazine. He also corresponded with a number of naval officers such as William Branford Shubrick and Charles Wilkes, as well as Ned Myers (who inspired Ned Myers: A Life Before the Mast). After leaving the navy Cooper was briefly involved in whaling, which is chronicled in his correspondence with partner Charles T. Dering and an account book for the whaling vessel Union.
Cooper served as the American consul in Lyons, France, and lived in Europe for seven years. A letter appointing Cooper to this position, signed by John Quincy Adams, is included in the collection, along with other items relating to the family’s move to Europe, such as visas, travel documents, a passport, and calling cards. This period is also reflected in Cooper’s correspondence with the Marquis de Lafayette and William Cabell Rives. While living in Europe, Cooper fostered relationships with publishers, such as Charles Gosselin in France and Duncker & Humblot in Germany, who published translations of his novels.
Cooper’s family life can be traced in his correspondence with his wife and children, as well as with extended family members. In addition, the family’s everyday life can be glimpsed through their financial records, documenting the purchase of household items. In his diaries, which largely date from 1832 to 1835 in the collection, Cooper discusses his activities and opinions, including his experience of reading various chapters in the Bible. Because the Coopers, and their relatives the De Lanceys, Phinneys, and Pomeroys, were prominent American families, the collection is a window into social and political life during the nineteenth century. Cooper’s correspondents include Daniel D. Barnard, Charles Jared Ingersoll, Joseph Reed Ingersoll, and John Jay (and his sons Peter A. and William), and Samuel F. B. Morse.