Though barely remembered today, once upon a time Madison Cooper made huge waves in the literary and publishing world. His novel, Sironia, Texas published in 1952 would have the distinction of being the longest American novel ever published – a staggering 2,119 pages containing close to one million words. After initially reading Cooper's submission, the staff at Houghton-Mifflin deemed it "the great American novel". And that was at a time when the term wasn't overused, abused, and clichĂ©d like it is today. He was an eccentric, a philanthropist, a businessman, temperamental, a complex man living in a simpler time, the "Streetwalker's Hamlet"…he was all these things and he hailed from my home town of Waco, Texas.
To fully come to terms with Madison Cooper, one has to come to terms with Waco, Texas itself. If the state capitol's unofficial motto is to "Keep Austin Weird", Waco's is to "Keep Waco Wacko". Give me your crazed, your dysfunctional, your religious zealots, your teeming masses yearning for existential pain are words that must be written on a highway billboard somewhere or part of the Waco welcome wagon…at times. The town has nourished (if you want to call it that) other artistic types down through the years, most notably film director Terrence Mallick and avant garde theatre director Robert Wilson. Comedian/actor/banjo player Steve Martin was born in Waco but it seems his parents smuggled him out as soon as they could. But after all, didn't he once call himself "a wild and crazy guy". The town has seen more than its share of tough times, tumult, and terror. Once known as Six Shooter Junction, Waco had much of its downtown devastated by a 1953 tornado. In 1982, the Lake Waco murders made national headlines. Of course, everyone remembers the 1993 Branch Davidian fiasco which made international headlines. At the time of the incident, I was working on a farm in Ireland. The large Irish Catholic family I was staying with began to wonder if I was an escapee from the compound. David Koresh. the leader of the doomed cult called himself the "Madman of Waco". The majority of his followers were actually citizens of other countries and the compound was not actually located in Waco, but it made no difference – another black eye for the city. And then there was the Baylor University basketball scandal in 2003, in which one basketball player was murdered by another. It is interesting to note that Mallick's film Tree of Life was set in 1950's Waco.
Growing up, the Cooper name was always part of the civic landscape. In 1943, Cooper started a foundation in honor of his parents with the expressed purpose of making "Waco a better place to live". When my mom would drag us kids to the public library, we would pass his house which was across the street. He lived in a grand three story Victorian style house in which the attic was used as an office. Born prematurely in 1894, Madison Alexander Cooper, Jr. was the son of a wealthy, Waco wholesale grocery merchant. He would go on to graduate from the University of Texas with a degree in English. Expectations it seems were not for Cooper to set out on a literary career but to one day take control of the ever expanding family grocery business. And while Cooper complied to a certain extent, he began taking correspondence courses in the 1930's that dealt with composition and short story writing from Columbia University. It was from that experience that he developed friendships and contacts into New York literary circles. He would try short story writing for a while but achieved little success. One of his correspondence instructors, Mack Gorham, would later act as an agent to help get some of Cooper's stories published. Nothing substantial would come out of that collaboration. Failures at other endeavors would also ensue. Even efforts at early philanthropy met with little progress. A dairy farm donated to Texas A&M University for research soon reverted back to Cooper. Efforts to be recommissioned back into the army during WWII (Cooper was an officer during WWI) also proved to be fruitless. He then tried the Navy. They turned him down as well. And with that and the death of his mother in 1939 and father in 1940, it seems Cooper had no remaining expectations to live up to – he lived life on his own terms. In 1941, he began to type out the first pages of an epic novel covering a fictional Texas town during the years 1900-1921.
Cooper would work on his grand novel for eleven years. In between scheduled slots for writing, he would pursue business interests, check in at the library, run errands, jog at the local track, and keep appointments. He would dress in old torn work clothes as he made his rounds – odd attire for a rich man. But Cooper didn't give a tinker's damn about what others thought of him. In my research I came across stories of the infamous "kitchen timer". When one had an appointment with Cooper, it seems there was an allotted time he would spend with you. Cooper would set the timer for however long he thought necessary. When the timer went off, hopefully your business with Mr. Cooper was finished. He would go on to his next scheduled activity. As the 40's wore on, Cooper became more reclusive and devoted more time to his novel. The people of Waco had no idea what he was up to.
Madison Cooper began submitting different parts of his manuscript to Houghton Mifflin in 1951. They were immediately impressed with what they had read. Cooper was hesitant to send the entire manuscript believing the publishing staff would throw up their hands in exasperation over the book's length. Having submitted it all, Cooper finally received the response he had long waited. Houghton Mifflin would publish despite its length. Those who had read it became "absorbed" by its contents.
Amazingly, considering the manuscript's length, only a few changes were suggested by the publisher. The main contention, if there was one, was over the book's title. The Hackberry Tree was one possibility. This title was based on the imagery of the fast growing hackberry overtaking and replacing the slow growing magnolia which symbolized the aristocratic Old South. Eventually The Hackberry Tree gave way to Sironia, Texas as the book's title. Sironia was a demanding book, requiring the reader to keep track of some 83 characters, fictional, but could have served as a historical document of that time period. His biographer Marion Travis determined that the book "became a means for expressing the feelings he was reared to conceal". It's the story of a town and how it evolved, its politics, race relations, its grappling with a changing societal pecking order, and its sometimes sordid underbelly. To get a sense of Cooper's genius, one would only have to read a passage that describes the murder/torture of a Black entertainer with ties to Sironia. It is within that passage, that the reader is exposed to man's inhumanity to man, the disregard for the rule of law, mob violence, and the ability of politicians to create chaos and take advantage of it. Cooper did not get his thoughts and ideas across by preaching. He simply told a story which made a deeper and more meaningful impact than a preacher's sermon.
With the publication of Sironia, TX in 1952, Madison Cooper had become an "overnight sensation" at the unlikely age of 58. And it seems everybody wanted a piece of the man who wrote the longest novel – The New York Times, Time magazine, NBC News…you name it. Cooper even gave up his beggar's attire and bought a Brooks Brothers suit as he made the publicity rounds. The pre-publication hype helped propel sells…at least initially. Then the bottom fell out.
There were several factors which contributed to the book's early demise. The price of the book itself was an astronomical $10. Of course that was for two volumes, but most books at the time were selling for $4-$5. Houghton Mifflin tried to persuade Cooper that cutting the price of the book would be to his advantage. The book could possibly receive new life, but Cooper's royalties would be reduced. Cooper balked at the proposal. He also struck down any attempts at foreign publication prospects. But perhaps more than anything else that derailed Sironia was the competition Cooper faced from other authors. 1952 also saw the publication of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, John Steinbeck's East of Eden, and Edna Ferber's Giant – a tale of West Texas ranching and oil. It was ironic that Giant became more digestible for human consumption than Cooper's more authentic Texana.
Cooper began having trouble back in Waco as well. The who's who of the town began wagging their tongues. The book was surely about them and their ancestors. The stories hit a little too close to home. Although Cooper went out of his way in an author's note to relay that there wasn't anything in the book "that can rightly cause anyone embarrassment or concern." The note did little good. Cooper scholar Rosemary Petzold was told that it became a nightly ritual for weeks behind closed doors to read and guess at the identities of the characters. The perception rightly or wrongly was that Cooper held up family, friends, and associates all across the racially divisive south to ridicule and criticism. And for that egregious act, Petzold determined that Cooper couldn't be forgiven at the time and not more than a half century later.
Madison Cooper passed away in 1956 due to heart complications but not before completing another novel, Haunted Hacienda. That novel faded even quicker than Sironia. Upon his death, all personal files were destroyed. A lifelong bachelor, Cooper made mention that all correspondence that might embarrass his many women friends be discarded. It's sad that 60 years after the publication of Sironia, that Cooper is relegated to a literary footnote. His life remains an inspiration to writers everywhere for his discipline, his belief in his own talents, his storytelling ability, and his dogged determination. And yes, the kitchen timer thing is starting to grow on me. If you drive by his old house today, don't be surprised if you see a flickering image from that attic window. It's the ghost of Madison Cooper. He'll be looking out at the hackberries.
Special thanks to Rosemary Petzold for her unique
insights into the life and times of Madison Cooper.