The James Fenimore Cooper Society
Created and maintained by Hugh C. MacDougall.
Reviewed April 2004.
The James Fenimore Cooper Society Web site (currently hosted by the State University of New York College at Oneonta), rich and frequently updated, joins a vast body of digital resources for scholars of the nineteenth century. Cooper (1789–1851), not only one of the most internationally influential American novelists but a historian as well (he was working on a history of New York when he died), demands the kind of full contextual treatment recently given writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson.
The society has obtained permission to include major primary and secondary resources. There are the basics: plot summaries and a character reference list from Warren Walker’s 1978 guide to Cooper; a glossary of places and people; genealogical lists and narratives. But also available are full-text articles and papers by both established and up-and-coming scholars—William Charvat, Leslie Fiedler, and Francesca Sawaya, for example. Though a section explicitly on “Teaching Cooper” offers only a few university syllabi and lecture notes, the site is nonetheless a tremendous pedagogical resource. For secondary or higher education courses, there is enough well-edited material to design a range of source- and context-rich teaching modules. There is rare material on Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813–1894; the novelist’s oldest daughter and literary executor), and the site links to contemporary cultural representations of Cooper, including memorials and recent newspaper and video coverage. Unlike some other author-based sites, the Cooper Society links to external editions, including many in foreign languages.
Some parts of the site will leave readers unsatisfied. In part because of the extraordinary range of materials collated, the site sprawls; while an outline of the site has been made easily accessible, a site-specific search engine would be a valuable addition. The images section is not yet well developed. Perhaps most important, some students of the early United States may find the way in which Cooper’s role in the mythologization of Native American culture is buried in the critical essays at the bottom of the site’s hierarchy irresponsible at best. The annotated bibliography, which might be a place to address this shortcoming, is not deep; Richard Slotkin’s work, for example, some of the most influential on Cooper, is absent.
Technical limitations also haunt the site. Its documents are only encoded in hypertext markup language (HTML); their long-term viability and usefulness are at risk while this is so. At a still-volatile moment of electronic textualization, the energy put into creating digital archives may be wasted unless editors engage with standards development. Encoding in eXtensible markup language (XML), according to standards set by the Text Encoding Initiative (and recommended in the Modern Language Association’s guidelines for scholarly editions), would also enable site-wide searching for both content and textual structures.
This site is clearly something of a labor of love for Hugh C. MacDougall, who founded the society in 1989. In an economy and an academy that offer little reward for the maintenance of digital scholarly archives, users can perhaps only be grateful for resources as vast and detailed as this one. But the cost is suggested here: though the site provides a wealth of material, in its current state it cannot serve as a model for similar endeavors and only weakly participates in a wider theoretical conversation about the digitization of humanistic representation.
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