Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses" by D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence pulls out the strangeness in the writers he covers in Studies in Classic American Literature, even in writers not commonly considered to be strange, like James Fenimore Cooper.

Five years – can that be right? – five years ago I spent a week writing* about The Deerslayer, launching off of Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” into a treatment of Deerslayer as a heroic fantasy novel, albeit one which ends in genocide.  At one point, just as an example, a lady in the lake gives the hero a magic rifle.  The novel is fascinating, although Cooper’s actual literary flaws, not the amusing ones invented by Twain, are real enough that I have not quite been inspired to try another Cooper novel.

Lawrence does what I did, but at greater length and depth.  He read all of Cooper as a child, so he goes as far as devoting a tangled chapter to “Fenimore Cooper’s White Novels” (The Spy and Eve Effingham and so on), before turning to the Leatherstocking novels, Cooper's attempt to use the new-fangled novel to create myth, a big new American myth.

How often in his own novels is Lawrence working on a similar problem?  He was doing it in The Rainbow (1915), with his earth mothers and archetypes and so on, I can see that now even at the distance of 25 years.  I sure did not see it then.

Lawrence sees Cooper groping towards this idea, with the five novels moving in “a decrescendo of reality, and a crescendo of beauty” (55), although he still calls the first one, The Pioneers, “[a] very lovely book.”  “The most fascinating Leatherstocking book is the last, Deerslayer” (65).  I just wrote that up above.  Lawrence is always ahead of me.

It is a gem of a book.  Or a bit of perfect paste.  And myself, I like a bit of perfect paste in a perfect setting, so long as I am not fooled by pretence of reality.  And the setting of Deerslayer could not be more exquisite.  Lake Champlain again.  (66)

Lawrence is way off there.  Lake Otsego.

Of course it never rains: it is never cold and muddy and dreary: no one has wet feet or toothache: no one feels filthy, when they can’t wash for a week.  God knows what the women would have really looked like, for they fled through the wilds without soap, comb, or towel  They breakfasted off a chunk of meat, or nothing, lunched the same and supped the same.

Yet at every moment they are elegant, perfect ladies, in correct toilet.

Which isn’t quite fair.  You need only go camping for a week, and you’ll see.

But it is a myth, not a realistic tale.  Read it as a lovely myth.  Lake Glimmerglass.  (66)

*  The link is included as a reference, and is not really meant to be followed.


  1. I have yet to read any Cooper. Maybe one day.

  2. I know how you feel. He is better than his reputation, yet still kind of a klutz and kind of a drag.

    He would benefit from an anthology, which sounds like heresy, but it's true. The Pioneers, for example, has an amazing description of the mass slaughter of passenger pigeons, a famous scene - Lawrence singles it out, too - that in no way needs the rest of the novel to be understood.

  3. I've not read Cooper but I've never thought of him as being strange. Maybe Lawrence finds the strange because he can be so darn strange himself. A takes one to know one sort of thing.

  4. We're sold a line that Cooper is a clumsy realist. And The Scarlet Letter is about adultery, and Moby-Dick is about whaling, and on like that.

    True in part, but these are also fantasy novels, as fantastic as Poe. It is a curious phenomenon that this is so hard for some people to see, with the text right in front of them.

    1. True, Scarlet Letter (and a lot of Hawthorne really) and Moby-Dick are very strange books I would never consider realist. Perhaps I will venture into the possible strangeness that is Cooper one of these days.

  5. I suppose I should have read Fenimore Cooper as a child. Instead, in college I read the Twain essay following on the heels of a devastating lecture on Cooper by a professor who loathed him. That pretty much killed my interest in Cooper in the bud. Curiously, though, it was piqued recently by discovering 19th century painter Thomas Cole's paintings, several of which depict scenes from The Last of the Mohicans. Have you seen these? Talk about a perfect setting with little pretense to reality!

  6. I think the easiest - most productive, interesting, I don't know - way into Cooper now is to focus on all of the destruction in his novels. I mean not just violence but obliteration - extinct species, demolished landscapes, genocidal wars. The end of The Deerslayer is apocalyptic. It is simultaneously the end of the series and, strangely, the beginning.

    As with Cole - this painting at least - the blend of realism and idealism is peculiar.

    In some other respects, Cooper is sure easy to dislike.

  7. Although I have read the Leatherstocking novels (and that before I moved to this house, 200 yards from Lake Otsego), I do muddle them up a bit in mind. I think there are probably a lot of important American-lit cameo moments in the novels, sometimes small moments that launched certain ideas about the wilderness and the West--like that image of the plow magnified against the sunset. Maybe from "The Prairie"? Or any one of the others!

    It is, I think, interesting to set the order of composition against the order of events. All sorts of interesting things could be derived, no doubt. And I do like "Deerslayer."

    I do like the passenger pigeons episode. Also, the water burial in the lake really sticks in my mind. I have pilfered something from each of those passages. And of course I snitched a bit of Cooper for my upcoming novel. Glimmerglass. I walk by his grave frequently, and often tourists ask me which one it is. Not as often as tourists ask me to point out The Baseball Hall of Fame, but still--

  8. p. s. The village still recalls that when Fenimore Cooper came back from Europe, he tried to kick the villagers out of their pleasure-and-boating beach, Three Mile Point, which they had taken over in his absence... Also, his stained glass window at church is didactic, whereas none of the others are!

    His daughter left a good mark on the village, being highly philanthropic. It's fun to take down "Rural Hours" and see what things were like here, not long before "Walden" was published. I'm still a bit suspicious that Thoreau read Susan Fenimore Cooper...

  9. Actually reading Cooper certainly increased my estimation of Cooper. The Deerslayer was idea-packed.

    I figured, given the title of the new novel, that you had some connection to Cooperstown. How strange - how fun - to have these old books and writers embedded in the town. I suppose Concord is similarly interesting. Can't be too many other places. Oxford, MS, maybe.

  10. Cooperstown is a very peculiar place, or so I think! The line between fiction and reality has eroded, so that there are fictional places people talk about--and real places that seem like fictions. Then we have two castles, a Norman tower in the woods and a little tower inspired by the Mouse Tower on the Rhine that stands in the edge of the lake. I can see it from the room where I write some of the time. One of the rectors at Christ Church was a well-known and much-admired poet, ruined by one of Poe's scathing reviews (he went down South afterward and was rector at Vicksburg during the siege!) I've never been in a place that was so fantastical--so full of ghosts of all sorts. Poltergeists. Floaty ghosts. Little children's ghosts. (Three little children dancing in a ring were once seen in what is now our living room.) Mohawk ghosts. Helpful ghosts. Ghosts in mirrors. And there's a lake serpent, of course.

  11. Almost forgot--if you scroll down, there's a bunch about Cooperstown: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/youmans_interview/

  12. I see. Cooperstown has actually become fictional.

  13. I have read through your Cooper musings because he is my current obsession, and I have just finished the full Leatherstocking Saga, have re-read The Pioneers and am now re-reading Last of the Mohicans. I think Cooper is far more subtle and interesting than the current belief, particularly in these times of ours when American Exceptionalism is part of the culture wars. Do you have Cooper on your radar, or is he just too obfuscatory for even this select audience to enjoy and consider? I totally agree with you that Twain did a hatchet job on him, an apples and oranges bit of legerdemain that has eclipsed the writer himself. Although Cooper can be very exciting (The Pathfinder being perhaps the toughest row to hoe of the five novels), he can also be a morass of Bulwer-Lytton proportions. What thinkest thou?

  14. I do want to read more Cooper sometime, especially The Pioneers and Mohicans, and to revisit Deerslayer, but I doubt it will be anytime soon. My mental space is settled at the other end of the century right now. Once I get sick of all that, a look back to Cooper et. al. could be a good idea.

    I have never read Bulwer-Lytton myself, but a number of critics - mostly bloggers - have convinced me that, again, I should ignore his (Snoopy-derived) reputation.