Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thank you, James Fenimore Cooper

Today was James Fenimore Cooper's birthday, and I have to thank him for an important lesson he taught me.

When I was in eighth grade I started reading The Last of the Mohicans. By page 17 I had learned a lesson that has stood me well for my entire reading life.

So in honor of this day, take a few moments to read what one of our greatest authors had to say about James Fenimore Cooper.

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses

by Mark Twain

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 record.

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.

Oh yes, and my lesson from Mr. Cooper? There are too many good books in the world to waste my time reading a bad one.

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Blogger Rob Velella said...

Came across your blog looking for James Fenimore Cooper - this entry made me laugh!

September 19, 2009 7:45 AM  
Blogger rbatterson said...

Absolutely. I was forced to read a novel by Fenimore Cooper in college as an English major, and, boy, is he awful--in every possible way.

September 29, 2009 1:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, perhaps, Mark Twain's funny comments are based largely on faked quotations -- not anything Cooper actually wrote! Twain's writing style (which in other contexts I like) was very different from that of Cooper, but a perhaps more serious point is that Twain despised Cooper for describing Native Americans in a favorable light. Twain's views on Native Americans were close to genocidal.
Cooper never considered himself a writer for children! He used a fictional form to transmit very serious commentary on American social, cultural, and political issues. Don't forget that Cora Munro, in The Last of the Mohicans, is the first African-American heroine in American literature (which the movie versions have carefully avoided).
Hugh MacDougall, Corresponding Secretary, James Fenimore Cooper Society, Cooperstown, NY jfcooper@stny.rr.com

October 31, 2009 3:11 PM  

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