Twain On Cooper

Book Cover for a Child's version of the Leatherstocking Tales (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Book Cover for a Child’s version of the Leatherstocking Tales
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I think everyone who ever wrote a book of any sort wants a review. I have had a number of them, mostly mixed — including a couple that seemed to have been written by a person who never opened the book! But what the author fears worse than anything is the scathing review. One can only imagine how James.F. Cooper might have felt had he read Mark Twain’s review of his “Leatherstocking Tales.”  As it happens, Twain wrote it long after Cooper’s death, largely in response to such exaggerated praise as that of Wilkie Collins who called Cooper “the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.” Twain’s review essay is  not only scathing, it is hilarious! Cooper’s tales were read and enjoyed by young and old alike, all over the world. Hawkeye was the Indiana Jones of Cooper’s day.  Not only Collins but many other reviewers praised the author to the skies and couldn’t find enough compliments to heap on the books themselves. But not so Mark Twain who couldn’t find anything good to say about Cooper or his books. In this famous (infamous?) essay review that focuses on Deerslayer, Twain begins by chastising several reviewers (including Collins) for praising the books without having read them (!) and then tells us that “in two-thirds of a page Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” He then goes on to list twenty-two “rules governing the art of romantic fiction. Cooper violated eighteen of them.” (Actually, all twenty-two, as it turns out.) But then Twain gets rolling and the results are very funny. One portion of the review is especially delightful and I copy it here for your enjoyment. It focuses on one suspenseful episode in Deerslayer that Twain thought especially objectionable. Of special concern to Twain is Cooper’s “flawed inventive faculty” — which had been highly praised by one reviewer. The scene is a river flowing from a lake on which the Hutter family is fleeing in their floating home to escape angry Indians who are in hot pursuit.

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 leviathan 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 filed down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in 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.

Cooper was fortunate not to have lived long enough to read this essay, which Twain wrote to get some pocket money and in response to learned critics who, he was convinced, totally lacked critical acumen.  His essay was itself criticized by other readers as a “deliberate misreading” of the tales that was “devastating.” To be honest, the essay used Cooper as a foil and Twain turned his comic genius loose against a writer who was defenseless (given that he was on the other side of the grass). In the end Twain had written what his critics called a “satirical but shrewdly observant essay” on Cooper’s romantic, sometimes flowery style which Twain simply didn’t like: he preferred his own more economical and straight-forward style. It is hilarious and worth reading, but it certainly does not stand as an example of a fair and honest appraisal of an author’s writing — which is what a review ought to be, one would think. Still….

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7 thoughts on “Twain On Cooper

  1. This is too funny. Twain did not suffer fools too well, although he did take a liking to U.S. Grant, as he knew Grant felt in over his head as President. Of course, I must confess my liking of “The Last of the Mohicans.” Nice job. BTG

    • I also liked Cooper. It’s easy to get swept up in the plot and ignore the bits Twain points out! Twain and Grant were very close: Twain saw to the publication of Grant’s memoirs.

  2. I really loved reading Twain’s “Literary Offenses” for the first time. I realized that I was in good company at not finding Cooper’s work all that wonderful, although I realize that Cooper is still an important figure in American literature. But I tend to agree with Twain!

  3. Funny! Mark Twain is one of my favorite writers, but he hated another of my favorites, Jane Austen, to the point of wanting to dig her up and beat her in the skull with her own shin-bone. Seems he had a habit of bashing dead writers. He probably knew that he would be subject to similar treatment after his passing.

    • Yes, I knew about his attack on Austen. I lump it in with this attack on Cooper — probably the result of Twain’s bad liver, or something. But Austen was head and shoulders above both Cooper and Twain as a writer. She’s one of my favorites as well!

  4. Mark Twain on the banjo!!
    When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!

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