Mark Twain’s Critique of Cooper

James Fenimore Cooper is a giant among American writers. An enormous number of sayings, concepts and Americana have drifted into American Literature as a result of Cooper’s work. I am reading the Deerslayer right now and it is pure, artistic literary genius. If anyone claimed that Cooper is not a great American writer, I would soak my hand in ice-cold Aqua-Velva TM(r)(c) and slap him briskly in the face. If I didn’t have this book with me right now, I think I would actually go insane in a manic-depressive spiral. I was born in Cooperstown, so I am severely biased.

On “The Deerslayer”

Mark Twain wrote a scathing criticism of The Deerslayer. To be honest I have read Twain’s critique of Cooper. To some degree it has merit, but is way overblown. In defense of Cooper I say this.

1. His writing is very complex.

2. Sometimes there is a lack of consistency in facts.

3. Sometimes he over-uses certain dramatic stunts.

4. Hawkeye is a little bit of an archetype.

I will respond to each of these criticisms seriatim:

1. Complexity of writing. Like Poe and Lovecraft, Cooper is creating a mood with his literary style. Sometimes there are defects of grammar, style and usage but those are the collateral effects of literature as prose.

2. The lack of consistency in facts is a bit of a problem. Cooper wrote some relatively long novels. Maybe he put them down in quill and was loath to go back and do fact-checking. The same might be said for the editors of the day. It is sloppy, but it is like finding bloopers in film. It still happens, but shouldn’t detract from the piece as an ”oeuvre en entier”.

3. Over-use of dramatic stunts is common for Cooper, but we have to remember, Cooper was the literary version of Spielberg for his time. Cooper wrote for several reasons, one of them was to entertain his audience, which of course leads to some excess. I don’t deny the excess, but Cooper may have been one of the first to have such a dramatic and entertaining style and yes many concepts used by Cooper have been re-used in literature and cinema since he first put them down on paper. So there Twain!

4. Hawkeye is an archetype, but every one of us has known someone like him. The circumspect devout Christian, quiet, unassuming, enjoys his craft, and excels at all things athletic, good thinker, deeply principled. There are not many people like that, but there are people like that.


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