A "Witch" So Rare It’s Scary October 30, 2009 – Tags: American literature, Dresden Binding, James Fenimore Cooper, Maritime Novels, Rare Books
Some days I wake up lucky. I now have before me one of the great rarities in American literature, the true first edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Water Witch. Published no later than September 18, 1830, the London edition followed in October, and the Philadelphia edition in the the Spring of 1831.
Only sixteen copies of this, the Dresden edition, are known to exist: OCLC and KVK locate twelve copies in institutional collections worldwide, and ABPC records only four copies at auction within the last thirty-five years (one of which was a bound-up train-wreck).
This edition was printed by C.C. Meinhold and Sons in Dresden for the German bookseller who grandly styled himself as Walthersche Hofbuchhandlung, and then distributed to Cooper’s translators and other publishers. Cooper, per his (draft) contract with Walther (at Dartmouth College Library), was given ten copies out of an unknown total print run which must surely have been exceedingly small.
“I do not know of any copies of the Dresden edition now existing” (Susan Fenimore Cooper, Letter dated October 4, 1886, to Rev. Richard Salter Storrs, D.D.).
The copy under notice is bound three volumes in one, in contemporary half-cloth over German marbled boards; a typical Dresden binding of the era.
The most romantic of Cooper’s sea-tales (as a young man Cooper was a midshipman in the United States Navy), the novel occurs entirely in New York City, its environs, and on its waterways during the close of the seventeenth century. The chief character of this rousing drama is the charming and restless brigantine named the Water Witch, whose charming and restless owner and commander is known only as the “Skimmer of the Seas.” The rakish brigand’s romantic abduction of a local burgher’s beautiful niece sets the story in motion.
Cooper’s genius here was to use the late seventeenth-early nineteenth century popular plot device of European lady-kidnapped-by-oriental-pirates and adapt it to an American locale with American characters. Its popularity, like that of Cooper’s novels and tales featuring Natty Bumpo, i.e. The Last of the Mohicans, rests on its faithful recreation of early America, with romance and adventure.
“Cooper’s achievement, although uneven and the result of brilliant improvisation rather than a deeply considered artistry, was nevertheless sustained almost to the close of a hectic, crowded career. His worldwide fame attests to his powers of invention, for his novels have been popular principally for their variety of dramatic incidents, vivid depiction of romantic scenes and situations, and adventurous plots. But a more sophisticated view caused a revival of interest in the mid-20th century concentrating on Cooper’s novels in their creation of tension between different loevels of society, between society and the individual, between the settlement and the wilderness, and between civil law and natural rights as these suggest issues of moral and mythic import” (OCAL).
“This was rather a drama of the coast than a tale of the sea; the movements of the vessels being confined entirely to the waters connected with the harbor of New York. If less brilliant than ‘The Red Rover,’ the spirit and interest which pervade ‘The Water-Witch’ are still very striking; there is an atmosphere of romance infused into the narrative, singularly different from the sober coloring of Puritan life in ‘The Wish-ton-Wish.’ It is strikingly picturesque also, more so than most works from the same pen. But on the other hand, there is less of high moral tone in the book than was usual with Mr. Cooper; it carries a carnival aspect about it; the shell was very gay and brilliant, the kernel was less nourishing than usual” (Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, p.231).
Cooper (1789-1851) wrote the novel in Rome, during his travels abroad (1826-1833) as the nominal U.S. consul at Lyons.
It is a novel that cries out for adaptation to film.
As far as this scarce edition is concerned, the odds are that I’ll never see another copy in my lifetime. Like I said, I woke up lucky this morning
[COOPER, James Fenimore]. The Water-Witch or The Skimmer of the Seas. A Tale by the Author of Pilot, Red Rover, etc., etc. etc. … In Three Volumes. Dresden: Printed for Walther, 1830. Three octavo volumes. xii, 207, [1, blank]; , 292, ; 250,  pp. BAL 3845.