Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rail away, Twain

Today is the birthday of James Fenimore Cooper, the popular American frontier novelist of the early 19th century. His most famous book is The Last of the Mohicans.

About fifty years after Cooper wrote his tales, Mark Twain took them up -- and then put them down, with a vengeance. In his famous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Twain did the opposite of Tom Sawyer, who whitewashed that fence: he lay bare what he saw as the glaring sins of a literary fraud.

"Cooper’s art has some defects," Twain wrote. "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. It breaks the record.

"There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction–some say twenty-two. In 'Deerslayer' Cooper violated eighteen of them."

Twain gave Cooper absolutely no "clemensy":

"Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment...Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly...

"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...

"Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull."

The critic built up steam until he was a runaway Twain:

"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 tremens.

"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."

Today's coined word: atwaint, v.: to denounce the literary pretensions of someone or some thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment