The Brutal & Hilarious Critique Written by Mark Twain

English: Lesson 85

How fair was Twain’s critique of Cooper’s literary style?

“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.” (Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, 1895).

That is the final paragraph from the critique, Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, written by Mark Twain after reading Cooper’s final novel in the Leather Stocking series, The Deerslayer. And it was indeed a brutal critique that had me laughing so hard I had to read it over again to make sure I didn’t miss any other minor critiques he made. A book that has so many literary offences, that even the great author Mark Twain had to write a critique on it, I just had to read.

Here are just a couple of quotes from Twain’s critique that would break the heart of any novelist were they directed at him:

“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.

“Wasn’t it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person.”

“There is a foot to spare on each side of the boatDid 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 Indians 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.”

“There may be a hundred handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leather Stocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.” (That’s my favourite!)

All these things are true but are hard to notice when reading the book because of Cooper’s use of ornate and flowery language, that when reading at a normal pace, can lose all meaning. I agree with Twain and think that Cooper failed to abide by the rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction, yet these books are one of America’s greatest literary treasures and people throughout generations have read and loved these books. Why? I believe there are three reasons the Leather Stocking novels are so popular.

The first reason is that there is a definite romantic element to the stories. The books are not meant to be read like a history textbook, they are to be enjoyed while on vacation, before going to bed, and while reading to your children. The fantastical aura that Cooper captured in his writing is why the movies The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Pathfinder (1996), Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans (1957), and the series Hawkeye (1994) were made.

The second reason that people loved the books was that Cooper wrote about a time that was already fading by 1841. Industry was changing the landscape and the way people lived, and the time of living off the land in the woods like their grandparents was gone. But Cooper preserved that time by putting it on paper.

And the final reason these books became and remain so popular is that people like reading stories that are big, exaggerated and fantastical. People want a break from real life and the hardship of day-to-day, and these books provide a place to lose yourself and enjoy the story. It does not matter that parts of the book don’t make perfect sense, or that Cooper’s logic is not always perfect, or that the characters are sometimes utterly ridiculous. It’s like when a person has a dream, a really vivid, happy, exciting dream. It does not have any logic to it or make any sense when you wake up, but you still wake up and tell everyone what a fabulous dream you had that night. Hopeless romantics, like myself, just want a thrilling exciting tale where the characters are outlandish, exciting, and uncommonly brave, and we don’t care if it was realistic or not. That is what Cooper captured in his novels and why they are an American literary treasure.

In conclusion. Yes, Mark Twain is right about there being no believable characters, no steady dialogue, humour, accurate settings, or captivating plot, but just like a Hallmark movie – and I think this is a great deal better than a Hallmark movie – the Leather Stocking tales are to read and enjoy on a sunny summer afternoon or a cozy snowy winter day.

6 thoughts on “The Brutal & Hilarious Critique Written by Mark Twain

  1. Good job. I agree with you. I like Mark Twain’s books than Cooper’s. But I did enjoy a little bit of the deerslayer, even if I had already read it.

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    1. I defiantly enjoy Mark Twain more (who can compete with Huckleberry Finn?) but I did feel like Gary North, the English teacher of this course, did not give Cooper a fair trial and basically thought these books pointless and no good. But, I think that is partly to do with him being more of an economics guy and less of an artistic romantic novel person 😀

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      1. Yes, Dr North would sometimes give his opinions on the authors books. So he does this all the time, in the 4 English courses, and in other subjects too. Don’t take his criticisms personal. He is right all the time as a professor. I’m used to him criticizing, but every teacher has his/her personality.

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      2. If cooper was alive today he would be sad. He is not alive today, but at least he famous for writing a decent book. Same goes for Twain.

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