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Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences

January 7, 2009

Everyone loves well-written reviews of bad movies, right? Few things are funnier. And a review of practically anything will do, so long as someone is being witty at its expense. The best one I’d read recently was actually about a phone — David Pogue’s review of the Blackberry Storm in the New York Times (he finished by calling it dark, sodden, and unpredictable) — but yesterday it was displaced by this Mark Twain essay on the literary defects of James Fenimore Cooper.

Few people could be as wonderfully insulting as Mark Twain. He starts by quoting praise of Cooper from Wilkie Collins and two noted professors of English, and then accuses them of never having read any of Cooper’s work.  But he really wants to insult Cooper, not Wilkie Collins, so he immediately goes on to tell us that “In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115.”

And it only gets better.

And then there’s this piece on The Last of the Mohicans, and it’s even better. In it, he analyzes a short passage from the book. This is the passage:

Notwithstanding the swiftness of their flight, one of the Indians had found an opportunity to strike a straggling fawn with an arrow, and had borne the more preferable fragments of the victim, patiently on his shoulders, to the stopping-place. Without any aid from the science of cookery, he was immediately employed, in common with his fellows, in gorging himself with this digestible sustenance. Magua alone sat apart, without participating in the revolting meal, and apparently buried in the deepest thought.

And this is the analysis, or part of it:

No, the remark about the swiftness of their flight was not necessary; neither was the one which said that the Indian found an opportunity; neither was the one which said he struck the fawn; neither was the one which explained that it was a “straggling” fawn; neither was the one which said the striking was done with an arrow; neither was the one which said the Indian bore the “fragments”; nor the remark that they were preferable fragments; nor the remark that they were more preferable fragments; nor the explanation that they were fragments of the “victim”; nor the overparticular explanation that specifies the Indian’s “shoulders” as the part of him that supported the fragments; nor the statement that the Indian bore the fragments patiently. None of those details has any value. We don’t care what the Indian struck the fawn with; we don’t care whether it was a, struggling fawn or an unstruggling one; we don’t care which fragments the Indian saved; we don’t care why he saved the “more” preferable ones when the merely preferable ones would have amounted to just the same thing and couldn’t have been told from the more preferable ones by anybody, dead or alive; we don’t care whether the Indian carried them on his shoulders or in his handkerchief; and finally, we don’t care whether he carried them patiently or struck for higher pay and shorter hours. We are indifferent to that Indian and all his affairs.

Now, I’m only moderately fond of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and I was traumatized as a child by The Prince and the Pauper, but sometimes I really, really love Mark Twain.

Here he proposes his own version of that first sentence:

“During the flight one of the Indians had killed a fawn and he brought it into camp” holds up its chin and moves to the front with the steady stride of a grenadier, whereas the form “Notwithstanding the swiftness of their flight, one of the Indians had found an opportunity to strike a straggling fawn with an arrow, and had borne the more preferable fragments of the victim, patiently on his shoulders, to the stopping-place” simpers along with an airy, complacent, monkey-with-a-parasol gait which is not suited to the transportation of raw meat.

Also:

“Digestible sustenance” is a handsome phrase, but it was out of place there, because we do not know these Indians or care for them; and so it cannot interest us to know whether the meat was going to agree with them or not. Details which do not assist a story are better left out.

Isn’t that wonderful?

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2 comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I was quite unaware that Mark Twain was so critical of literary work of other writers.


  2. Three things that might account for it:

    1. Cooper was dead and out of style when Twain wrote this.

    2. Twain was probably the single most important American literary figure of his day. He could basically say whatever he wanted.

    3. Twain was kind of a jerk. ;)



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