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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Mark Twain on Fenimore Cooper

The essay/polemic "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895) by Mark Twain is a wonderful case of Karmic Retribution.

Have you ever thought that some books earn the author money and fame despite not being very good? Well, it happens. But please, this is no reason to get cynical and nihilistic. Awful books may surf the wave of the Zeitgeist for a while... but eventually the book's true qualities (or lack of them) will catch up. Many novels which were once praised as "masterpieces" and "art" and sold very well, have now fallen into into disrepute or been forgotten.

Take Fenimore Cooper, for example. Cooper's Western/frontier books Pathfinder, Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer were immensely popular in the 1800s and well into the 1900s.

But, as Mark Twain pointed out back in 1895, Cooper couldn't write worth ****. His essay is not only laugh-out-loud funny; it also provides several very good examples of writer pitfalls to avoid.

For example, lazy use of clichés:

"A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest.

"It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.

"There may be a hundred other 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 Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series."

(From "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" by Mark Twain)

There's more. Much more! Read and be wiser.

2 comments:

Marguerite said...

Yeah, that's a great essay. All creative hand that out the first day.

Marguerite said...

Good lord. I meant to say all writing teachers should hand that out the first day of class.

My gears must be more stripped than I thought.