Professor Jay Elliot on the 2021 James Fenimore Cooper Conference

Sophie Stern discusses the upcoming James Fenimore Cooper Conference with the English Department's very own Professor James Elliot

By Sophie Stern

The American Antiquarian Society will host the James Fenimore Cooper Conference May 25 and 26 to honor the 200th anniversary of Cooper’s major novel, “The Spy.” James Elliott, an English professor at Clark University, wrote the introduction and edited the novel. Elliott was also involved with Cooper’s work process.

Elliott recently discussed his role in the novel’s editorial process and some of his thoughts on the conference with Senior English Student Sophie Stern.

Sophie: The AAS Cooper Conference’s panels will address topics such as textual editing in the digital environment; the role of critical race theory, indigeneity, and the canonical author in textual editing and scholarly editions; and who should be involved in the creation and production of scholarly editions. Which aspect of these panels are you most interested in?

Professor Elliott: I think I am most interested in the advances in digital editing. I’m interested to see what kinds of advances people have made, and how they work, because I’m still old-school. Most of my editorial procedures are non-digital, even with the stuff we’re working on now. My collating, for instance, is still all by hand.

Sophie: How has your shift from the emphasis on authorial intention to New Historically inflected Cultural Criticism, which emphasizes the importance of historical context that plays a role in constructing authors’ identities, changed over the past 10 years or so? And, has it changed at all during the pandemic?

Professor Elliott: Back in the 1970s, I was hired at Clark as a textual editor directly from graduate school to work on  the New Cooper edition, which was just being formulated by Jim Beard. Several years into myrole as textual editor, Beard and I were wondering if this new thing called a scanner might be able to do collation for us — if we could get a scanner to read out a particular text, we could read against another text.

Computers were still rather elementary in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We heard about this guy in Cambridge who had invented an optical scanner, Kurzweil Labratories, a company which was eventually bought by the company Xerox. They used the technology invented by Kurzweil to make Xerox scanners. Any of today’s scanners are based on the principles formulated by this project and others.

We took a copy of one of Cooper’s books into Cambridge; we wanted to see if Kurzweil could scan the pages one by one of the early 19th century text and come up with a reliable printing of the scan.

They tried, and it was never successful, because these early 19th century texts were hand-set by compositors, they used the same type over and over. *process* In the individual letters, there are imperfections — we don’t notice them when we read them very well, we can make sense out of them, but the optical scanner couldn’t resolve these inconsistencies consistently enough to produce a reliable text. Hence, the texts we printed out were filled with oddities, mistakes, curious misspellings — because the scanning had misread an “r” to an “e,” for example.  So we gave up, went back to hand sight collating.

It’s only been in the last 10-15 years that digital collation has made its return. We’ve opened the possibility of digital and optical access of these texts, because it makes things easier. So, I’m really curious about how these processes have developed.

When asked about the evolving nature of the relationships between methodologies and processes, and the consequent human relationships that evolve alongside these technological shifts, Professor Elliott said, “I don’t know who has changed more: the students or myself.” It’s difficult to know, when describing a variable as complex and contextual as ‘progress,’ how to measure change.