Literature You Should Know: Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”

It’s November, and all writers know what that means:  National Novel Writers Month!  For those not in the know, NaNoWriMo is an informal competition in which people commit to write 50,000 words of a novel over the course of the month.  The end result doesn’t have to be polished in any way—in fact, only word counts are checked to verify a “win”—but the goal is to prompt would-be novelists to stop making excuses and get that first draft done.  (If November’s too busy for you, as it usually is for me, there are other options like Camp NaNo throughout the year.)

James_Fenimore_Cooper_by_Brady_c1850
James Fenimore Cooper

Aspiring novelists naturally seek out writing advice, and there’s no shortage of advice-giving authors, from Elmore Leonard to Stephen King to Anne Lamott.  Some advice is helpful; some is decidedly not; and for some, your mileage may vary.  Most writing books contain lists of dos and don’ts.  But writers can benefit from detailed analysis of books that fail, or that are wildly popular and/or critically acclaimed despite being objectively bad, just as they can from books that succeed.  While amateur reviews like Mark Reads Twilight can give authors a sense of what the average reader expects from a book, it’s hard to beat the analysis of another author.  And that’s exactly what Mark Twain provides by skewering James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in his 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Now, in discussing a book written in an earlier era, a reviewer has to be careful not to judge by present-day standards that didn’t apply at the time.  That’s not what Twain does here, aside from one remark about dialogue style.  Rather, he begins with eighteen rules for good writing, from “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere” to “Use the right word, not its second cousin,” and then shows

Mark Twain
Mark Twain

with specific examples how these rules are violated.  Given his experience as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, for example, Twain points out ways in which Cooper’s descriptions of a river in The Deerslayer defy logic and the number of ridiculous coincidences and improbabilities in the behavior of Indians attempting to attack a barge on said river that strain credulity to the breaking point.  Six men hiding in a sapling is only the beginning of the mess.

Other outrageous passages Twain cites are Natty Bumppo’s ability to trace a cannonball’s trajectory backward through dense fog to find a fort (“Isn’t it a daisy?” Twain snarks) and his ability in The Pathfinder to hit an unpainted nail with a flintlock rifle while standing the length of a football field away from it.  “Cooper seldom saw anything correctly,” says Twain. “He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.”  And then there are major inconsistencies in the characters’ diction, which stand out all the more for the overall melodramatic style, and a list of thirty-one word usage errors culled from a six-page section of The Deerslayer.  Clearly, in Twain’s estimation, Cooper needed a much better editor!  And to the critics who hailed The Deerslayer as a work of art, Twain replies in conclusion:

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.

108195Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Granted, any first-time author can fall into the same errors, especially those who follow models like Twilight.  But whether you apply it from the first draft or only in the revision stage, Twain’s advice is important.  What Tolkien later called “the inner consistency of reality,” crucial to keeping the reader engaged, depends not only on the plausibility of the setting and plot but also on the details like believable dialogue and correct word usage.  You have to learn the rules before you can break them—and some rules should never be broken.

Elisabeth G. Wolfe

Elisabeth G. Wolfe, from Llano, Texas, is an alumna of the 2012 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop. She is also a freelance translator and editor, indie historical fiction novelist, and adjunct professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida.