Cooper's interest in the history of Spain and the Spanish Colonies began long before he was inspired to write Mercedes of Castile. While still a teenager living in Cooperstown, Cooper became fascinated by the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda and his plot to overthrow Spanish rule in his country; Cooper even wished to accompany him to the Caribbean. Although this plan never came to fruition, as a sailor on the merchantman the Stirling Cooper later became acquainted with another sailor, Ned Myers, who had been one of Miranda's recruits to Santo Domingo.1 While in the service of the Stirling, Cooper spent time in the Spanish city of Almeria, a city with a long history of Roman and Moorish settlement, and biographer Wayne Franklin suggests that Cooper's time on shore in Almeria may have fueled his interest in that country's history.2
As a writer Cooper continued to be fascinated by Spain, and when his longtime London publisher, Richard Bentley, suggested that he write a work on Christopher Columbus, Cooper responded with zeal. Bentley had published the previous year William H. Prescott's history, Ferdinand and Isabella, which dealt with the reign of the famed Spanish monarchs, devoting two chapters to the first and second voyages of Columbus. In early October of 1839, while hard at work on his newest Leatherstocking Tale, The Pathfinder, Cooper received from Bentley "a handsome copy" of Ferdiand and Isabella to fuel his imagination.3 He would later credit this work for inspiring Mercedes: "reading Prescott's capital work on Ferdinand and Isabella [has] excited a desire to treat it [the subject of Columbus]."4
Two weeks after receiving the book, on October 17 or 18, Cooper wrote to Bentley expressing his excitement at the idea of Columbus, and in this letter, Cooper reveals his thoughts on his anticipated work: "Such a book, however, must be better than common; written with care, and a little in the 'Ercles vein. ... I really like the subject, and have an ambition to touch the heroics."5 Cooper's interest in "the heroics" reveals the author considering how he wants to treat Columbus and how much he wants the focus of the work to be on the navigator himself. Columbus had been much celebrated in Prescott's work, as well as in Irving's Life and Voyages of Columbus, another work Cooper was inspired by and responding to.
Cooper clearly wanted his work to have historical value, but he also longed to inhabit his fictional sphere, and the murmur of conflict within arose within Cooper and his budding novel is evident in his correspondence. Writing to Bentley of his vision for the novel in November, Cooper says, "Such a book ought to be better than common; more accurately written, and more carefully elaborated.... my desire is to make of the Columbus a high wrought and standard fiction..."6 This letter reveals a conflict within Cooper with respect to fiction and history. Ferdinand and Isabella was a history, and Cooper wanted his book to be "accurately written" but also "carefully elaborated" and a "standard fiction." Herein arose within the new work a tension between the factuality of history and imagination of fiction. Cooper's comments later in the letter on the subject of the title further reflect his inclination towards the fictive in this new work: "I do not intend to call the new book 'Columbus.' There must be a love story, of course, and that will affect the name. I only intend that the voyage shall be a leading point in the work."7 By December, Cooper referred to the novel as "a tale connected with the first voyage of Columbus [my italics]," revealing how much his emphasis had moved towards romantic fiction rather than history.8 Cooper's focus a few months into conceptualizing the novel was not Columbus at all; rather, he saw the navigator and his voyage as a backdrop for romance. This change of focus, however, did not agree with his publishers. Throughout the publication process, Cooper would battle both Lea & Blanchard and Bentley for a title other than "Columbus," which he considered "a miserable misnomer and a pure catch penny."9
In December 1839 Cooper was finishing up The Pathfinder,10 and he may have begun work on Mercedes sometime that winter.11 By March Cooper was hard at work on the new novel, writing to his attorney, James Ogden, of "a good deal of literary work." He reported in this letter that Mercedes was "not quite half done, but so far I think it pretty good, the love story being rather ingeniously brought in."12 Cooper finished drafting Mercedes that autumn amid a flurry of legal and family affairs. On August 2, Cooper wrote of his busy life to Robert Hare, providing an update on Mercedes, his libel suits, his son's departure for college, and his daughters' upcoming trip to Niagara, finally concluding, "I never had so much to do, in so short a time."13 Cooper finished revising his manuscript in mid October onboard the Macedonian en route to Philadelphia to attend the 1840 presidential election between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison. He worked diligently, even passing up a yacht party, "in order to get on with Mercedes"14—likely in response to frantic requests from Lea and Blanchard for more manuscript:
We are quite disappointed in not hearing from you with more M.S. The time is passing away without making the progress we calculated on + we fear that the season will get by unless you make an exertion to put the remainder of the M.S. in our hands.15That November, when he returned from Philadelphia to his family in Cooperstown, Cooper brought a copy of the newly printed book. He assured his wife that his trunk would include the book, saying, "There will be very few books. Mercedes, however, will be among them."16 The closing to this also letter reveals his affection for his wife, as well as, implicitly, the completed novel: "God bless you all, and rest assured of my tenderest love—you are my Mercedes."17
While writing Mercedes, Cooper also busily planned for its publication and closely oversaw the printing of the first American edition by Lea & Blanchard. In the late 1830s, Cooper's popularity was waning. Additionally, because of the publishing industry's shift to New York at this time, Lea and Blanchard had begun focusing increasingly on medical publishing rather than fiction. By 1838, Cooper had his doubts of their continuing in business together, writing to his wife, "I think my connection with Carey draws near a close. I do not expect that he will publish either Home-As-Found or the Naval History."18 Nevertheless, on May 18, 1840, Lea and Blanchard signed a contract with Cooper to publish a work in two volumes, yet untitled, "on the subject of the voyages of Columbus to America." The contract permitted them to print at least 5000 copies and gave them exclusive copyright on the work for two years. Cooper was to have the manuscript ready for printing by September, and he would receive $2500 in two payments for the work.19
Mercedes went to the printer, Isaac Ashmead, in early June,20 with stereotype plates ordered from John Fagan.21 While finishing the manuscript, Cooper had early portions of the book in press, and, upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Cooper personally oversaw the novel's printing. The printers set the book directly from his holograph manuscript, and the author edited the printed proof sheets—likely more than one set, as Lea & Blanchard's cost book reports paying $2.00 for extra proofs. The cost book gives an idea of the labor involved in printing the book: 513.20 hours for initial composition with an additional 173 hours to make alterations in the proofs.22
On November 21, the New-Yorker printed an excerpt of the novel, "having been favored by the publishers with a copy of the work in advance of its public appearance." This excerpt was of Chapter 5, and was entitled "The Court of Castile in the Days of Christopher Columbus."23 Three days later, on November 24, the complete Mercedes of Castile was finally presented to the public. The first American edition was published in two hardback volumes, bound in purple cloth with paper labels, under the title of Mercedes of Castile, or, the Voyage to Cathay. Production costs to print and bind the 5000 copies totaled $720.39, with an additional $10.50 for the stereotype plates.24
While Lea & Blanchard prepared the first American edition of Mercedes in Philadelphia, Richard Bentley was at work on the first British edition in London. In fact, Cooper had signed a contract with Bentley well in advance of Lea & Blanchard. In November of 1839, Cooper was already negotiating with Bentley on the price for the work. On November 8, Bentley submitted a proposal for Cooper's signature for 500 pounds for the copyright in the U.K. for The Pathfinder, minus 200 pounds in consideration of the loss he had suffered on account of the Naval History, and 500 pounds for the copyright in the U.K. for the work on Columbus.25 Cooper acceded to these terms, with, however, a difference of 50 pounds remaining unresolved between him and Bentley well into the book's printing.26
As was Cooper's usual practice, he supervised the printing of the edition where he was present—in this case, Philadelphia—and then sent proof sheets to other publishers, requesting that they set their editions from the printed sheets. For Bentley, Cooper also forwarded the manuscript, which Bentley needed to back his copyright on the novel in the British courts. On August 29, Cooper wrote to Bentley,
By President, steamer, I send you not quite half of Mercedes of Castile; the work [is] in press, and will be forwarded as soon as possible. I send manuscript as far as sheets, but you will correct from last, as a matter of course. A Duplicate goes by London Ship.Cooper's parting comment tells Bentley to "[d]epend on having time, and expect to publish in all October."27 Despite Cooper's confidence, however, not all went smoothly with these transactions. On Saturday, November 7, he wrote to his wife that he would be unable to make it home as early as he wished for the winter, "[o]wing to an unlucky mistake with the manuscript."28 The "unlucky mistake" likely referred to a mishap in the shipping of the manuscript; Bentley, as of November 13th, still had not received it:
I have been most anxiously expecting for the last three weeks the remainder of the novel Mercedes of Castile, of which even at this date 13th November I have had no tidings. I trust that no accident has happened to the manuscript in the course of its being transmitted to me.29Cooper appears to have resolved this problem, as he sent the last of the MS on the steamship President on November 11, writing the concerned Bentley to inform him of this on the 10th and instructing him to "publish as soon as possible, as I have accidentally been delayed in printing. ... L & B, will publish Mercedes about the time you can."30 Bentley's concerns stemmed from the fact that he needed to print before or at the same time as Cooper's American publishers in order to have copyright in the United Kingdom; the majority of Cooper's correspondence with Bentley deals with this very problem. Thus, the delay in shipping the manuscript well into November was a point of great anxiety for Bentley. Nonetheless, the manuscript and sheets arrived in England, and the book was printed, this time in three volumes. It was announced as "just ready" on October 24 and November 21, and as "now ready" on December 5 in the Literary Gazette.31 Bentley officially published Mercedes on December 5, printing 1500 copies.32
When Mercedes arrived in bookshops that winter, the circumstances were already inauspicious for its success. Embroiled in his well-publicized lawsuits, having become more politically outspoken in his novels than was palatable to his readers and reviewers, and having strayed from the subject matter that had made him famous (that of the Leatherstocking Tales), Cooper had sunk in popularity. Both his American and English publishers had failed to make a profit on the several novels leading up to Mercedes. As previously mentioned, Cooper doubted his continuing long with Lea & Blanchard,33 and even Bentley, with whom Cooper had forged a strong author-publisher relationship over many years, was offering Cooper less and less money for new books to compensate for losses on earlier ones. Mercedes became a part of this general downward trend, and, despite Cooper's beliefs that the book would "hit" with the public, it proved a failure, commercially and with critics.34 Both publishers reported having problems selling their first print runs of the novel. Bentley wrote in January that the sales "leave [him] a loser to some amount,"35 and as of March, the demand in London for Mercedes stopped altogether.36 Lea & Blanchard reported sales of no more than 1,500 or 1,800 copies of 4,000 they printed, saying, "Every where we find, in place of being able to draw for the money, that the work is on hand."37 Both publishers asked for financial consideration on the part of Cooper, due to their heavy losses: Lea & Blanchard asked him to consider remitting them the money paid him for the 1,000 copies they did not print,38 and Bentley requested to put the aforementioned debated 50 pounds toward Cooper's pay for The Deerslayer.39
The likely causes for this book's failure are themselves a subject of peculiar interest. Bentley partially attributed Mercedes's lack of success to its name, writing, "It was unfortunate that you enjoined me to preserve your title; which gave no interest of an extraordinary bent to your work. On the first appearance of a book a title has somewhat to do with its favorable reception."40 Lea & Blanchard suggested the problem being the nature of the work itself: "we stated to you our disappointment in the character of the work before publication it being different from what you stated previously to finishing it."41 Perhaps this difference had to do with Cooper's eventual move away from a focus on Columbus (indeed, the contract with Lea & Blanchard was for a work on Columbus's voyage) to the much greater focus on the romance between Luis, Mercedes, and Ozema.
A look at the contemporary reviews of the book upon its release reveals a number of elements which either repulsed or simply confused readers. The novel did receive some positive remarks. For instance, Godey's Lady's Book called it "one of the best novels he has produced yet." The magazine clearly enjoyed the novel, not heralding it for great complexity or depth, but for being a clean, pleasurable read: "The plot of the tale is simple, but it is managed with much skill, and the characters are conceived and drawn with great ability of portraitism." The novel was also appreciated for its management of the historical content. Graham's Review applauded Cooper for the way he condensed the many events of Columbus's voyage into a readable narrative. The magazine even goes so far as to say that Cooper's descriptions of some of the great moments of Columbus's story, such as his departure from Spain and then hasty recall to the court, "are worthy of the best passages of the Pioneers, the Water-Witch, or the Last of the Mohicans." However, for every admiring comment on an element of the novel, there is another criticizing that very same point. For instance, although Godey's praises Cooper's characterization, reviewers G. & C. Carvill, writing for the Ladies' Companion, call those same characters "feebly drawn." Graham's, according to its review, did not even look for characters, "for that is not Cooper's forte." Meanwhile, in contrast to Graham's approval of Cooper's historical descriptions, Godey's calls the book "only a compound of historical incidents already known to every one who is in the least acquainted with the life of the celebrated navigator." 42
A simple explanation might be that the critics and the readers wanted more Leatherstocking Tales, and indeed, the Lady's Companion would open its review of The Deerslayer, Cooper's next novel after Mercedes, saying, "We are happy to meet Mr. Cooper once more in his proper sphere delighting and instructing by his beautiful delineations of the characters and scenery of his own 'free land.'"43 Still, I suggest that what most baffled readers was the peculiar way in which Cooper uses Columbus as a backdrop for the fictional plotline. The novel's purpose, arguably, is to write the 'real' history pertaining to the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean—not that which celebrates Columbus, but an alternative history which takes a moment to delve deeper into the trauma wreaked upon the natives of the islands in the process of meeting the Spaniards, suffering their attempts at conversion, and undergoing colonization. Cooper's deliberately unsubtle incorporation of Luis's adventures into the otherwise stable retelling of Irving's account of Columbus—while being the kernel of the novel—was not something readers or critics were prepared to encounter. In fact, Graham's review selects this conflict between the genres of history and novel as its chief point of criticism: "As a history, this work is invaluable: as a novel, it is well nigh worthless." Furthermore, it is clear that the writer of Graham's was looking for—like Irving's Life of Columbus—another work which focused on Columbus: "It is but justice to the author to say that the necessity of adhering closely to fact in his romance, is the true secret of its want of interest; for how could any hero, no matter whom, awaken our sympathy strongly, so long as Columbus figured in the same narrative?"44 In addition to suggesting that the reviewer's favorite part of the work was Columbus himself, this comment pinpoints the reason why Mercedes fails to deliver as brilliant and gripping a plot as some of Cooper's other novels: as long as it is a faithful history, its ability to be a vivid novel is curtailed. Thus, the tension between history and fiction which is evident in Cooper's earliest comments on Mercedes carried over into the final published novel and perplexed readers.
Entirely apart from the novel itself, however, the Press Wars in which Cooper was engaged did not help the success of Mercedes. At the time, Cooper was actively pursuing several libel suits against various newspaper editors—who had published articles claiming Cooper had written The Pioneers intending it to be about himself and his family in Cooperstown.45 Mercedes became the target of vindictive reviews by these editors' papers, and Cooper triggered even more such reviews by his belligerent remarks in the preface to Mercedes. Speaking of the press, for instance, Cooper writes, "we state truths, with a profession of fiction, while the great moral caterers of the age state fiction with the profession of truth." This is a clear reference to the libel of which Cooper accused several presses. Cooper also makes explicit fun of critics, saying that they are "more apt to wink at these minor inconsistencies [such as Irving's using both nautical and standard time in his Columbus], than to pass over an error of the press, or a comma with a broken tail. As we wish to live on good terms with this useful class of our fellow creatures, we have directed the printers to mis-spell some eight or ten words for their convenience." These comments likely annoyed even those presses with which Cooper was not at war, such as Godey's Lady's Book, which writes at the end of its otherwise positive review, "We wish Mr Cooper had spared us the flippant preface."46 When the preface met the eyes of New World Review editor, Park Benjamin, who was himself being sued, it prompted not one but two reviews which had more to do with the libel suits than they did with the novel. On December 5, in response to the passage quoted above from the Preface, the New World Review replied, "Meaning us, you perceive, dear public. Delicate, isn't it? Neatly hit off. Courteous withal, modest, and in good taste."47 The review went to execute more attacks on Cooper, practically ignoring Mercedes of Castile, of which, by its own account, it had only read the Preface. A week later, the magazine issued another so-called review on Mercedes: "We have taken it in hand three several times with the desperate resolution of reading it, but the thing is impossible—the task is beyond our power. We have not read it. We cannot read it."48 The reviewer concluded that, not having read Mercedes, he could not make any comments on its quality, and therefore would not fall victim to libel. Any readers familiar with Cooper's affairs at the time could not have missed the personal ire at the bottom of these reviews, but, notwithstanding, the reviews did not help Mercedes's sales or reputation.
To conclude this account of Mercedes's reception, Cooper's novel set against the voyage of Columbus is not one of his most thrilling or comprehensible works. Still, it is not without interest, as several of these reviews suggested. I believe it suffered from a combination of audiences not knowing how to read its interweaving of history and fiction, and presses wishing to repay Cooper for their legal entanglements.
Mercedes was never published again in the United States or England in its own right. It did, however, live on in the many American reprints of Cooper's collected works. Lea & Blanchard released a collected works edition in 1843,49 and may have had plans for an earlier edition, in which Mercedes would have been included. The Bibliography of American Literature reports unsold sheets of Mercedes, probably as part of the collected works, labeled on the back, "Lea and Blanchard Have Commenced The Re-Issue... Of J. Fenimore Cooper... December 1842."50 This edition does not appear to have been published; no libraries report having such an edition on World Cat.
In 1844 Cooper signed a contract with Lea & Blanchard transferring the plates and copyright for several of his novels, including Mercedes, to Cooper.51 These Cooper sold to Burgess & Stringer, a publishing house that specialized in inexpensive reprint editions. In 1849 Lea & Blanchard sold Burgess & Stringer the plates and copyright for its remaining novels.52 The firm would issue numerous reprints of the collected Cooper's Works throughout the 1840s and '50s under the imprints Burgess & Stringer, Stringer & Townsend, W. A. Townsend & Co., and James G. Gregory. These reprints were all printed from the stereotyped plates made from the first American typesetting, and the firm would not reset Mercedes until 1859, when it published an edition of the complete Works with frontispieces by F. O. C. Darley.
Despite Mercedes' dubious reception in the United States and England, it nonetheless was distributed throughout Europe, and the French, German, and Spanish translations published in 1841 show Mercedes, and Cooper himself, to have been of greater interest in that part of the world. The work first appeared in Paris in an English-language edition published by A. & W. Galignani and Baudry's European Library. These two houses apparently published Mercedes jointly, as their editions are from the same setting of type, on the same paper, and by the same printer. That same year, two French translations appeared, one translated by E. de la Bédolliere and published by Gustave Barba in Paris, and the other by translator A. J. B. Defauconpret—who had also translated many of Cooper's earlier novels—and publisher Charles Gosselin. The two French translations in the same year reveal a concern with making the work available to a greater body of readers in France, and the Defauconpret translation was also published in Brussels. Two German editions appeared in 1841 in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, as well as the first Spanish edition, which was translated by Pedro A. O'Crowley and published in three volumes in Cádiz. The work was translated into Spanish again in 1863, and reprints as late as 1907 and 1952 show it to have been of special and continuing interest in that country. Mercedes was also translated and published in Mexico in 1852 as a part of the Biblioteca española, under the title Cristóbal Colón.
The design and features of the French and Spanish editions bear out Cooper's ongoing popularity in Europe at a time when his reputation was waning elsewhere. A third Brussels edition (1841)53 of the Defauconpret translation features a historical and biographical introduction by Charles Romey, who praises Cooper for his brilliant depiction of the sea, his portraits of the American wilderness, and his position as the founder of American literature. He also comments on Cooper's popularity in France: "Many editions of his works, sought eagerly, testified to its popularity among us, and his name is now equally familiar and dear to all friends of literature, as those of our own great national writers" (my translation).54 These translations also show greater care in preparation in that—unlike the American and British editions—the publishers included illustrations in their first editions. The first Spanish edition included numerous lithographs, and the Gosselin French edition, three intaglio prints. These illustrations show how Cooper was still popular enough to merit this added expense. They are also fascinating because they reveal which parts of the novel publishers thought people would be most interested in seeing depicted. The following scenes are a few examples of those depicted in the first Spanish edition: Isabella and Beatriz talking about their suitors, a portrait of Columbus, Columbus departing from Granada with the Alhambra in the background, the lovers embracing, the priest blessing Columbus before he sets sail, sighting land, a portrait of Ozema, and Luis fighting off Caonabo's warriors—the event included in the current edition. The French edition frontispiece features Luis chatting to Columbus on the deck of the Santa María, and its two illustrations are of Luis meeting Columbus the day the Spaniards take the Alhambra, and Ozema throwing herself before Luis to save him from the Carib warriors. These illustrations show what the French and Spanish still recognized as iconic historical images on the one hand, and scenes they found interesting within the fictional parts of the novel; already, their comprehension of Cooper's novel appears to have been greater than that of his American and British readers. Both the historical and imaginary were thought worth visualizing, which aptly reflects the way Cooper seamlessly weaves together history and romance in Mercedes of Castile.54
Mercedes of Castile is of interest to readers and scholars for several reasons. First, the novel is important in that in it Cooper takes for his subject an earlier historical moment than any he had previously treated; from this perspective, Mercedes might be considered to be the novel that begins Cooper's historiography of the Americas. Thus, anyone interested in Cooper's treatment of the progress of population of the American frontier might view Mercedes of Castile as the first installment; indeed, Cooper appears to have considered it in this light himself. He certainly saw the events of Mercedes as marking the beginning of strife between the Native Americans and the white colonizers, and even though Mercedes, strictly speaking, deals with Spanish colonization, Cooper clearly has the Native Americans of North America in mind as well, as his footnote in Chapter 24 indicates:
The mild aborigines, who were numerous and happy when discovered, were literally exterminated by the cruelty of their new masters [the Spanish].... Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, it is said that two hundred of the aborigines were not to be found in the island, although Ovando had decoyed no less than forty thousand from the Bahamas, to supply the places of the dead, as early as 1513!... All that has said of the influence of the white population of this country, as connected with our own Indians, sinks into insignificance, as compared with these astounding facts.55In this note, Cooper implicitly compares the Indian Removal in the United States, which would be fresh in the minds of his readers (the Cherokee Trail of Tears having just occurred in 1838), with the Spanish genocide in the Caribbean. Whether Cooper is being serious or deliberately provocative in deeming the offenses of the United States less egregious than those of Spain, is difficult to say, but the note does emphasize the fact that Cooper has not forgotten his own country's history while dealing with the history of the Caribbean and Spain; in fact, his comparison of the two suggests them to be very much a part of one continuous pattern.
Perhaps what is equally surprising, and in my opinion, all the more evidence that Cooper sees various colonized peoples as reflecting the plights of other such peoples, is the way the author draws parallels between the Spaniards' ousting of King Boabdil from the Alhambra—and by extension the restoration of Christianity to Spain—and Columbus' and Isabella's hopes of colonizing and converting the people of the New World. This idea is brought to bear the most vividly when Luis gives Ozema a turban stolen from an Arab adversary during the Reconquista:
In one of his onsets against the Moors, he had brought off a turban of rich but light cloth, and he had kept it as a trophy.... This turban was on his head, at the moment he entered the apartment of Ozema, and overcome with the delight of finding so unexpected a resemblance, and, possibly, excited by so unlooked-for an exhibition of feminine loveliness, he gallantly unrolled it, threw out the folds of rich cloth, and cast it over the shoulders of the beautiful Ozema, as a mantle.56Just as the Spaniards triumphed over the Muslims in Spain, so will they overcome Ozema's people; and just as the Reconquista enabled Isabella to restore Christianity to her country, so Luis' romantic ensnarement of Ozema enables him to convert her to Christianity. (Ozema converts in the end with the purpose of becoming Luis' wife, only to find out that because he is already married to Mercedes, he cannot marry her.)
Not only is Mercedes a work of significance for postcolonialist scholars, it would also make a fascinating—albeit at times frustrating—study for critics interested in gender and feminist studies. Cooper relegates Ferdinand to the sidelines of the story, keeping Isabella firmly in the limelight. Indeed, it is arguably women who run the Spanish court. Isabella has her male advisers, but ultimately she discusses her major decisions with her bosom friend Beatriz de Bobadilla, and even includes the young Mercedes in her deliberations: Mercedes's ardent wish for Luis to have an opportunity to prove himself ultimately spurs Isabella to consent to sponsor Columbus. Thus, women are the forces powering the discovery of the Americas and their colonization.
At the same time, the women in Mercedes are all uniformly beautiful and pure, and are made interchangeable to some degree. This should come as no surprise, as Cooper is not particularly distinguished for writing round female characters—though he does not hesitate from bestowing upon Ozema a "well rounded form." Still, the effect is especially striking in Mercedes of Castile, and it is the most evident in the way Cooper makes Ozema and Mercedes into doppelgangers. His doubling of two women—one dark, one light—is similar to Edgar Allan Poe's pairing of Ligeia and Rowena, and it would not be going too far to draw comparisons between the way the two male protagonists, Luis and the Poe narrator, see one woman in the face of a completely different woman:
[Ozema's] cheeks were flushed, her eyes became as brilliant as ornaments of jet, and the teeth that were visible between lips like cherries, resembled rows of ivory. We have said that the eyes of Ozema were black, differing in this particular, from the deep-blue melancholy orbs of the enthusiastic Mercedes, but still they were alike, so often uttering the same feelings, more especially touching matters in which Luis was concerned. More than once, during the trial of strength, did the young man fancy that the expression of the rapture which fairly danced in the eyes of Ozema, was the very counterpart of that of deep-seated delight which had so often beamed on him, from the glances of Mercedes in the tourney; and, at such times, it struck him that the resemblance between the two was so strong, as—after some allowance had been made for dress and other sufficiently striking circumstances—almost to render them identical.
Lastly, Cooper presents his fictional women, Mercedes and Ozema, as inhabiting a suppressed history—undiscovered by Prescott and Irving, and only to be rediscovered and given life by Cooper. In the penultimate chapter of the novel, in which Mercedes confronts Luis about his fancy for Ozema shortly before Ozema converts and then dies, both women are mentioned as having their own personal histories—but histories which will soon draw to a close. Shortly before Ozema's death, "all but those who were in the secret of Ozema's history withdrew,"57 and even Mercedes, the heroine and namesake of the novel, tells Luis, "Listen to me, Don Luis... my history will not be long."58 These women thus highlight the apocryphal nature of the history Cooper intends to expose to the world.
Cooper's interaction with history is one of the most fascinating aspects of Mercedes of Castile, and an understanding of the way he uses the well-known voyage of Columbus to couch his own views on colonization, the spread of Christianity, and other important issues stands to inform critical understanding of his other historical fiction. Cooper interweaves historical incidents with his own fiction in this novel in a way that is very different from his usual method. For instance, in The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper uses the French and Indian War and the massacre of Fort William Henry as a backdrop for the adventure of Hawkeye, Chingatchgook, Uncas, Cora, Alice, and Duncan; but he does not create a pretense of writing an actual history. He does in Mercedes, as this last example will demonstrate. When Luis is about to explore Haiti, the narrator explains how Columbus charges Luis to keep his exploration secret so that other sailors won't ask for the same privilege. The succeeding statement is characteristic of the narrative treatment given the fictional portion of the novel:
It is owing to these circumstances, as well as to the general mystery that was thrown about the connection of the young grandee with the expedition, that the occurrences we are about to relate were never entered by the admiral in his journal, and have consequently escaped the prying eyes of the various historians who have subsequently collected so much from that pregnant document.59Cooper deliberately poses as a historian for the very purpose of satirizing the process of historical writing. By telling his own version of Columbus's voyage—the version not found in the admiral's journal, the primary documentary source—Cooper emphasizes how ultimately insufficient are the written histories which are given to the world; not everything makes it into the history, only the events which the author of the history wishes to portray. Cooper finds Prescott's and Irving's histories incomplete, and he adds to the Columbus historical corpus incisive criticisms of early colonization, ineffectual and misguided evangelism, and sexual ensnarement of the natives by the colonizers. The sailor Sancho tells Mercedes, "Any one who hath been in a battle, or seen any other great adventure, and then cometh to hear it read of, afterward, will soon learn to understand the difference between the thing itself, and the history that may be given of it."60 Mercedes of Castile pretends to approximate "the thing itself" while acknowledging the fact that it, too, is just one history of many.
Covering all the potential points of critical inquiry in Mercedes of Castile is impossible to do within the scope of an introduction. I hope, however, that these brief glimpses into what I consider to be some of the more intriguing problems of the novel will inspire readers and scholars alike to turn their attention to a novel long neglected but nevertheless of great and enduring significance.