Mercedes of Castile, or, the Voyage to Cathay by James Fenimore Cooper: a Critical Edition of the Preface and Chapter 23

Kingsley, Stephanie, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Vander Meulen, David, Department of English, University of Virginia


James Fenimore Cooper is well known as the author of the Leatherstocking Tales, novels which set the character of Natty Bumppo against the backdrop of the American wilderness and various important historical moments in the colonial and founding era. He was also one of the most widely read authors of the early nineteenth century, and through his success helped to promote American literature beyond national borders. Cooper's works have, consequently, received a great deal of editorial attention. Thirty-one out of Cooper's thirty-six titles have been edited according to standards of modern textual criticism for "The Writings of James Fenimore Cooper" or are currently being prepared for inclusion in the series by members of the Cooper Society.

A novel of Cooper's which has not been edited but which is nonetheless a vital member of his corpus is Mercedes of Castile. Published in 1840, Mercedes of Castile is one of Cooper's least-known works. Most students of American literature do not realize that Cooper, along with other notable figures as Washington Irving and William H. Prescott, wrote on the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. The subject was one of great fascination for Cooper, and his treatment of it constitutes a unique approach to historiography which, in addition to other issues such as race and gender relations, makes Mercedes of Castile a work worthy of further study. To enable this study and produce a reliable text which reflects Cooper's final intentions for this important novel, I have chosen to prepare a critical edition of the work.

In Mercedes of Castile, Cooper sets the first voyage of Christopher Columbus within the fictional story of Luis de Bobadilla, a Spanish nobleman, and Mercedes de Valverde, a Castilian heiress—both living in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Luis desires to marry Mercedes, but Isabella views his suit unfavorably because he has the reputation of a wanderer, having indulged in too many sea explorations. While the Spanish court is living in the freshly conquered Alhambra, the final stronghold of the Arab Muslim kings, Columbus comes to request the patronage of the Spanish monarchs. Mercedes prompts Luis to accompany Columbus and restore his honor, and it is partly Mercedes's interests that persuade Isabella to sponsor Columbus. Cooper retells Columbus's westward voyage, with Luis acting as the great navigator's confidante. When they reach Cuba, Luis meets the Indian princess Ozema, whom he and Columbus take back to Spain as a "specimen" to show Isabella. In the course of the voyage, Ozema falls in love with Luis, thinking he has plighted his troth to her by presenting a crucifix to her, when he only meant the gift to be a safeguard during a storm. Upon reaching Spain, Ozema discovers Luis is engaged to Mercedes and ultimately dies of illness and disappointment.

The present edition includes only Cooper's Preface and Chapter 23. The Preface is of particular interest for Cooper's sometimes whimsical, sometimes curmudgeonly, commentary on history. He declares that his work of romantic historical fiction delves deeper than the "slight and superficial researches" conducted by previous works on Columbus, and he attacks Irving for his apparently inconsistent treatment of nautical time in his The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). The Preface also includes commentary which firmly situates Mercedes in the context of Cooper's Press Wars, in which he sued multiple newspaper editors for libel. It is thus a fascinating glimpse not only into Mercedes, but into a tumultuous moment in the life of its author. Chapter 23 features Luis exploring Haiti, meeting Ozema, and defending her from a rival chieftain who wishes to kidnap her and make her his bride. The chapter is of interest because it shows, according to Cooper, "the first occasion on which the Spaniards had come to blows with the mild inhabitants of the islands they had discovered." The central feature of the chapter is the extensive description of Ozema, who is depicted as a doppelganger of Mercedes, so nearly does she resemble Luis's Spanish love.

The present edition is preceded by a historical introduction describing the development of the idea of Mercedes of Castile, its publication, its contemporary reception, and its critical importance. I have chosen to present a clear text, with a minimum of explanatory notes listed at the back of the text, so that it will be approachable both to scholars and general readers. The explanatory notes provide contextual knowledge which contemporary readers would have had, but which the modern reader may lack. It will thus enable readers to experience Cooper's text with as little distraction as possible while providing essential historical knowledge, thus approximating the original reading experience of Cooper's own readers. The apparatus includes the "Textual History," which is a discussion of the various stages of revision and corruption which Cooper's text has undergone, and textual notes explaining particularly important textual variants are to be found immediately after the textual history. Cooper's handwriting was especially prone to misreading during composition, and compositors freely changed his punctuation—to name only a couple ways in which his work was altered against his wishes in the course of publication. By collating, or comparing word for word, the manuscript and the printed editions published during Cooper's lifetime, I traced these changes. Scouring publisher records and Cooper correspondence at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Yale), the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library (University of Virginia), I gathered details about Cooper's personal life and publishing practices. Guided by these discoveries, I analyzed each change in the text and determined which reading best represented Cooper's final intentions for Mercedes. Thus, the text of Mercedes of Castile which Cooper wished his readers to experience is presented for the first time ever in this edition.

In preparing this edition, I chose to edit without a copy-text, taking the majority of my readings from the author's holograph manuscript and the first American edition. The "Editorial Principles" provides a detailed account of my treatment of the different types of textual variants, such as wording, capitalization, punctuation, etc. The "Historical Collation" lists all variants between the manuscript and contemporary printed editions. These supplementary materials will provide interested readers with a thorough understanding of the origin and evolution of the text which they encounter in this edition. Another resource which I offer to the interested reader is my digital edition of the Preface and Chapter XXIII of Mercedes of Castile. I built the digital edition as my Rare Book School Fellowship project this year. It is useful in that it enables users to change between the texts of the manuscript, interpolated proof stages, and printed editions at any point while reading the text. It also includes diplomatic markup showing additions and deletions in the MS and proof stages, as well as color-coded variants. Readers interested in how often Cooper's punctuation was changed as opposed to his capitalization have merely to look for the appropriate colors to make the comparison. Lastly, if a reader is interested in a particular variant, clicking on that variant will produce a pop-over window with a list of all the readings of the different witnesses. The digital edition contains exactly the same information as this edition, but it enables the user to interact with the text differently: the metamorphosis of Mercedes is visible right in the reading text itself; history is but a click of the mouse away. The digital edition is hosted on GitHub and may be viewed at

MA (Master of Arts)
Columbus, American, textual, nineteenth, book history, edition, literature, Cooper

See also Mercedes of Castile: A Digital Edition, a project prepared by Stephanie Kingsley for the Rare Book School, Charlottesville, April 2014:

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