Monday, January 28, 2008

Cooper's art has some defects.

Is James Fenimore Cooper a terrible writer? The reader of The Deerslayer (1841) should be forgiven for asking, whether or not he is familiar with Mark Twain's brilliant hatchet job "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895):

"Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in 'Deerslayer,' and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record."

This is obviously not meant to be fair, exactly, but Twain does score some real hits. The Deerslayer includes the scene (Chapter IV) where six Hurons are lurking over a river on a "sapling", ready to drop onto the "ark" and attack the Deerslayer and his friends. Five of the six attackers miss the ark, splash splash splash, while the sixth is pushed off the boat by the plucky heroine. The whole scene is not as bad as Twain makes it out to be, but it's pretty stupid.

When characters are speaking in Huron or Delaware, Cooper can't just tell us that. He needs some sort of preface, every time, to let us know that he's translating, "for the reader's convenience only." Thanks.

There's a "feeble-minded" character. I don't want to guess how many times the word "feeble-minded" is used. Cooper is always worried that we are going to forget, through the entire 500 pages. "Yes, that was it; my mind was feeble - what people call half-witted..." This is on page 491 of the Bantam Classic. I got it.

Twain again: "A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that."

Over the next couple of days I'll set Twain aside and see if I can make some sort of defense of The Deerslayer.


  1. Twain wrote his hit-piece on Cooper because he harbored a lifelong jealousy and resentment of Cooper's success. Cooper, through the expansiveness of his imagination, had so thoroughly pioneered the American novel that other 19th-century writers, including Twain, were left tiptoeing around the margins. Twain never really escaped from Cooper's shadow. His most successful character, Huck Finn, is in many respects a latter-day Natty Bumppo. And in his own novels Twain himself is guilty of many of the "literary offenses" he accuses Cooper of committing.

    It's true that Cooper did not condense and edit ruthlessly like Twain. He was writing for audiences that had different expectations for polite literature. Novels were also expected to fill a certain number of pages. Cooper's grammar and usage are appropriate for his day, and although Cooper himself never claimed to be a great stylist, I find his writing elegant. I hope you'll enjoy your reading!


  2. Thanks for visiting. More about Cooper today and tomorrow, so I hope you return.

    Two arguments: first, the word elegant never occurred to me at any point while reading Cooper. An example would be great. The grammar I don't care about, and I bet Twain didn't either.

    Second, those margins are pretty big! They include "Moby Dick", "The Scarlet Letter", "Little Women", and a shelf of Henry James. I don't think Twain himself was much of a tiptoer.

  3. I greatly admire your persistence, I'm not sure I would have to patience to wade through this one.