Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fortnightly Book, September 16

Cooper's art has some defects. 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.

So says Mark Twain in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, which is in great measure an attack on James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath, which is the next fortnightly book.

The Deerslayer is part of Cooper's Leatherstocking Pentalogy. Putting the books in the order published, they are:

The Pioneers (1823)
The Last of the Mohicans (1826)
The Prairie (1827)
The Pathfinder (1840)
The Deerslayer (1841)

However, in the order of internal chronology:

The Deerslayer (up to 1745)
The Last of the Mohicans (1757)
The Pathfinder (late 1750s)
The Pioneers (1793)
The Prairie (1804)

(There seems to be some doubt about the date of The Pathfinder. It's almost always listed as number three, but at least one source I've seen puts its internal date at 1756, which puts it before The Last of the Mohicans, which certainly occurs in 1757.) So The Deerslayer was the last book published, but is the prequel of them all. By this point, Cooper's reputation was solid, and it was an instant hit; two editions appeared virtually simultaneously both in the United States and in England, both claimed by their respective publishing houses as the actual first edition. A French and a German version followed shortly.

Cooper himself was an extaordinarily combative person. He wrote his first novel, Precaution, simply to prove that he could write one. He made many enemies in his lifetime, and was famously litigious, slapping a libel lawsuit on practically anyone who criticized him (he generally won).

He became known as America's version of Sir Walter Scott, which is probably what made him a target for Twain, and was one of the things that James Russell Lowell tweaked Cooper about in his notoroius A Fable for Critics:

But he need take no pains to convince us he's not
(As his enemies say) the American Scott.

His characterization also comes in for sharp criticism by Lowell:

All his other men-figures are clothes upon sticks
The derniere chemise of a man in a fix,
(As a captain besieged, when his garrison's small,
bets up caps upon poles to be seen o'er the wall;)
And the women he draws from one model don't vary,
All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.

Nonetheless, this should not be the last word, because part of all this is that Lowell and Twain had to deal with the extraordinary length of Cooper's shadow. For many European authors and critics, British and continental alike, James Fenimore Cooper was the serious American author, the one on whom American claim to have literary talent primarily rested. Nor is the list of his fans small or slight in name: Balzac, Victor Hugo, Rudolf Drescher, Wilkie Collins, and more. With Cooper, American literature entered the world stage as a major contender. And, perhaps more importantly, the Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Deerslayer is the first, have continued to be read and enjoyed through generations.

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