Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cooper - without encumbering themselves with details

Many writers, innovators, especially, include instructions on how to read their work, hidden somewhere in their actual novels. This is quite common. Here is a character in The Deerslayer, reading letters containing the secrets of her family history:

"As she obtained the clue to their import, her impatience could not admit of delay, and she soon got to glancing her eyes over a page, by way of coming at the truth in the briefest manner possible. By adopting this expedient, one to which all who are eager to arrive at results without encumbering themselves with details, are so apt to resort, Judith made a rapid progress in this melancholy revelation of her mother's failings and punishment." (Ch. XXIV)

I am not normally one to suggest readers skim novels and not "encumber themselves with details" - quite the contrary, the more encumbering the better - but Cooper seems to be giving explicit permission here, just at a point when many readers are probably thinking "Forget Judith, how is Deerslayer going to escape from the Hurons."

About those details. The Deerslayer is set at Lake Otsego in upstate New York, about 40 years before Cooper's own father founded Cooperstown at the south end of the lake. So this is Cooper's home territory. The novel has a plot involving elephant-headed chess pieces, not worth explaining, that gives us this (Ch. XIV):

"Little did either of them imagine at the time that long ere a century had elapsed, the progress of civilization would bring even much more extraordinary and rare animals into that region, as curiosities to be gazed at by the curious, and that the particular beast about which the disputants contended would be seen laying its sides and swimming in the very sheet of water on which they had met."

What? Cooper helps us out with this footnote:

"The Otsego is a favorite place for the caravan keepers to let their elephants bathe. The writer has seen two at a time, since the publication of this book, swimming about in company."

This is not yet a defense of Cooper, but that's pretty great.


  1. Interesting. Almost makes me want to read the book in spite of Twain's snarky review and the defects you point out in the previous post

  2. Well, one thing I've learned about Twain is never believe a word he says. All-time classic hatchet job, though.

  3. How funny.

    Still not putting The Deerslayer on my reading list for the near future, but I'm very interested to see what else you make of it.

  4. Cooper is sort of teetering on the edge of the canon now, isn't he? A hundred years ago, he would have been an obvious "must read" for any well-educated American.