Friday, February 13, 2009

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses
by Mark Twain

"The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" stand at the head of Cooper's
novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which
contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even
more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a
finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively
slight. They were pure works of art.
--Professor Lounsbur

The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. ... One
of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo... The craft
of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of
the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
--Professor Matthews

Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
--Wilkie Collins

It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English
Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia,
and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without
having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep
silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.

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

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic
fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated
eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But
the "Deerslayer" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts
of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "Deerslayer"
tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the
episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing
for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except
in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to
tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been
overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive,
shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail
also has been overlooked in the "Deerslayer" tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in
conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such
as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances,
and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a
show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at
hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and
stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this
requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer"
tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a
personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage
shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no
attention in the "Deerslayer" tale, as Natty Bumppo's case will amply

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated,
gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's
Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a
negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and
danced upon in the "Deerslayer" tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the
reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,"
by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is
persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves
to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a
miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look
possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the
"Deerslayer" tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep
interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he
shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the
bad ones. But the reader of the "Deerslayer" tale dislikes the good
people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all
get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly
defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a
given emergency. But in the "Deerslayer" tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These
require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the "Deerslayer" tale.

Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but
such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects,
and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box
of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks,
artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each
other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these
innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a
moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus
hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins
in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of
his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken
twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It
is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on
a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards
around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence
is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.
There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that
wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a
dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the
Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig

I am sorry that there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of
the delicate art of the forest, as practiced by Natty Bumppo and some
of the other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three
samples. Cooper was a sailor -- a naval officer; yet he gravely tells
us how a vessel, driving toward a lee shore in a gale, is steered for
a particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there
which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure
woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn't that neat? For
several years, Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he
ought to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it
either buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a
hundred feet or so -- and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls.
Now in one place he loses some "females" -- as he always calls women
-- in the edge of a wood near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to
give Bumppo a chance to show off the delicate art of the forest before
the reader. These mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a
cannon-blast, and a cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood
and stops at their feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The
case is very different with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never
know peace again if he doesn't strike out promptly and follow the
track of that cannon-ball across the plain in the dense fog and find
the fort. Isn't it a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of
Nature's ways of doing things, he had a most delicate art in
concealing the fact. For instance: one of his acute Indian experts,
Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a
person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is
hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to
find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped
for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in
the slush in its old bed, were that person's moccasin tracks. The
current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other
like cases -- no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when
Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper's
books "reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention." As a rule, I am
quite willing to accept Brander Matthews's literary judgments and
applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular
statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart,
Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and don't mean a
high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very
difficult to find a really clever "situation" in Cooper's books, and
still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to
render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of "the
caves"; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others
on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry's queer
water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer's
half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry
Harry and Deerslayer later; and at -- but choose for yourself; you
can't go amiss.

If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked
better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly.
Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer
noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift.
Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything
correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of
course a man who cannot see the commonest little every-day matters
accurately is working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a
"situation." In the "Deerslayer" tale Cooper has a stream which is
fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to
twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream
acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen
pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly
shrunk thirty feet, and become "the narrowest part of the stream."
This shrinkage is not accounted for. The stream has bends in it, a
sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these
bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice
and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were
often nine hundred feet long than short of it.

Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first
place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it
to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling"
to form an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in
its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is
coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled
against the stiff current by rope whose stationary end is anchored in
the lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour.
Cooper describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of
dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat." Let us
guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was
of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about
sixteen feet wide. This leviathon had been prowling down bends which
were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where
it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too
much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds
of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet
wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two
rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us
guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and
Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's
bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width
has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians
-- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat.
Did the Indians notice that there was going to be a tight squeeze
there? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out
of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped
by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's
Indian's never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are marvelous
creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error about his
Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety
feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from
the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at
the rate of a mile an hour,and butcher the family. It will take the
ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot
dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians
do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would
have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the
Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect
for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed
along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to
exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And
missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house,
and landed int he stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it
knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been
ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in
the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed
under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did
-- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped
for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped
for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then
No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No.
4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even
No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that
matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the
Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The
scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not
thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of
fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of
Cooper's inadequacy as observer.

The reader will find some examples of Cooper's high talent for
inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in "The

A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its head
having been first touched with paint.

The color of the paint is not stated -- an important omission, but
Cooper deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not
an important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the
marksmen, and could not be seen at that distance, no matter what its
color might be. How far can the best eyes see a common housefly? A
hundred yards? It is quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see
a house-fly that is a hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary
nail-head at that distance, for the size of the two objects is the
same. It takes a keen eye to see a fly or a nail-head at fifty yards
-- one hundred and fifty-feet. Can the reader do it?

The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then
the Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an
edge of the nail-head; the next man's bullet drove the nail a little
way into the target -- and removed all the paint. Haven't the miracles
gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of this whole
scheme is to show off his prodigy,
Deerslayer-Hawkeye-Long-Rifle-Leatherstocking-Pathfinder-Bumppo before
the ladies.

"Be all ready to clench it, boys!" cried out Pathfinder, stepping into
his friend's tracks the instant they were vacant. "Never mind a new
nail; I can see that, though the paint is gone, and what I can see I
can hit at a hundred yards, though it were only a mosquito's eye. Be
ready to clench!"
The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail
was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead.

There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and
command a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back
with us.

The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it is
not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made
Pathfinder do this miracle with another man's rife; and not only that,
but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself.
He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot;
and not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, "Be
ready to clench." Now a person like that would have undertaken that
same feat with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have
achieved it, too.

Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very
first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing
with the group of marksmen, observing -- a hundred yards from the
target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center
of the bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited
no result this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major
Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in
that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has
covered Jasper's bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the
trouble to examine the target."

Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through
the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did;
for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people
have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply
sanity, and these were all Cooper people.

The respect for Pathfinder's skill and for his quickness and accuracy
of sight [the italics are mine] was so profound and general, that the
instant he made this declaration the spectators began to distrust
their own opinions, and a dozen rushed to the target in order to
ascertain the fact. There, sure enough, it was found that the
Quartermaster's bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper's, and
that, too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be
certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly
established by discovering one bullet over the other in the stump
against which the target was placed.

They made a "minute" examination; but never mind, how could they know
that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest
one out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of
any more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the
Pathfinder's turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and

But, alas! here is a disappointment; in incredible, an unimaginable
disappointment -- for the target's aspect is unchanged; there is
nothing there but that same old bullet hole!

"If one dared to hint at such a thing," cried Major Duncan, "I should
say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target."

As nobody had missed it yet, the "also" was not necessary; but never
mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.

"No, no, Major," said he, confidently, "that would be a risky
declaration. I didn't load the piece, and can't say what was in it;
but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving down those of the
Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name Pathfinder."
A shout from the target announced the truth of this assertion.

Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder
speaks again, as he "now slowly advances toward the stage occupied by
the females":

"That's not all, boys, that's not all; if you find the target touched
at all, I'll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the wood, but you'll
find no wood cut by that last messenger."

The miracle is at last complete. He knew -- doubtless saw -- at the
distance of a hundred yards -- this his bullet had passed into the
hole without fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that
one hole -- three bullets embedded processionally in the body of the
stump back of the target. Everybody knew this -- somehow or other --
and yet nobody had dug any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a
close observer, but he is interesting. He is certainly always that, no
matter what happens. And he is more interesting when he is not
noticing what he is about than when he is. This is a considerable

The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our
modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of
people's mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time
was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when
it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a
man's mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in
turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of
conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom
faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived
nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with
here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as
not being able to explain how it got there.

Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue.
Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many
other enterprises of his life. He even failed to notice that the man
who talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it
on seventh, and can't help himself. In the "Deerslayer" story, he lets
Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other
times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks
him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his
majestic answer:

"She's in the forest -- hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a
soft rain -- in the dew on the open grass -- the clouds that float
about in the blue heavens -- the birds that sing in the woods -- the
sweet springs where I slake my thirst -- and in all the other glorious
gifts that come from God's Providence!"

And he preceded that, a little before, with this:

"It consarns me as all things that touches a friend consarns a friend."

And this is another of his remarks:

"If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in the scalp
and boast of the expl'ite afore the whole tribe; of if my inimy had
only been a bear" -- [and so on]

We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in- Chief
comporting himself like a windy melodramatic actor, but Cooper could.
On one occasion, Alice and Cora were being chased by the French
through a fog in the neighborhood of their father's fort:

"Point de quartier aux coquins!" cried an eager pursuer, who seemed to
direct the operations of the enemy.
"Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!" suddenly exclaimed a
voice above them; "wait to see the enemy, fire low, and sweep the

"Father! father" exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist. "It is I!
Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!"
"Hold!" shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of parental
agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and rolling back in a
solemn echo. "'Tis she! God has restored me my children! Throw open
the sally- port; to the field, 60ths, to the field! pull not a
trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with
your steel!"

Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear
for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He
keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear
for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you
perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he
does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear
was satisfied with the approximate words. I will furnish some
circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are
gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called "Deerslayer." He
uses "Verbal" for "oral"; "precision" for "facility"; "phenomena" for
"marvels"; "necessary" for "predetermined"; "unsophisticated" for
"primitive"; "preparation" for "expectancy"; "rebuked" for "subdued";
"dependent on" for "resulting from"; "fact" for "condition"; "fact"
for "conjecture"; "precaution" for "caution"; "explain" for
"determine"; "mortified" for "disappointed"; "meretricious" for
"factitious"; "materially" for "considerably"; "decreasing" for
"deepening"; "increasing" for "disappearing"; "embedded" for
"inclosed"; "treacherous" for "hostile"; "stood" for "stooped";
"softened" for "replaced"; "rejoined" for "remarked"; "situation" for
"condition"; "different" for "differing"; "insensible" for
"unsentient"; "brevity" for "celerity"; "distrusted" for "suspicious";
"mental imbecility" for "imbecility"; "eyes" for "sight";
"counteracting" for "opposing"; "funeral obsequies" for "obsequies."

There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper
could write English, but they are all dead now -- all dead but
Lounsbury. I don't remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many
words, still he makes it, for he says that "Deerslayer" is a "pure
work of art." Pure, in that connection, means faultless -- faultless
in all details -- and language is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only
compared Cooper's English with the English he writes himself -- but it
is plain that he didn't; and so it is likely that he imagines until
this day that Cooper's is as clean and compact as his own. Now I feel
sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest
English that exists in our language, and that the English of
"Deerslayer" is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that "Deerslayer" is not a
work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of
every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it
seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium

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.



and yes, i'm afraid james fenimore cooper and i are distant relations - and getting more distant.

Maureen said...

Suzanne -
I have always loved this essay by Twain, especially after I tried to read Last of the Mohicans. Having been pierced through the heart by Daniel Day-Lewis' Nathaniel, I thought I would surely love the book. Early nineteenth-century literature doesn't scare me, after all. Then I picked it up, and found that really, this was about Natty Bump-kin, not Haweye, and I cast it from me, besides which I found myself saying, "Wait, I thought James Fenimore Cooper was supposed to be a good writer?"

I actually live quite close to Cooperstown, so when you come visit me, we can go over there and check out your ancestor's abode. Obviously, your writing abilities came not from him.


Thank you, Maureen. I'd love to see Cooperstown.