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Old August 11th, 2010, 10:34 AM   #1

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Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


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If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly. Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.


Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


Text available at: http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/pr...o/offense.html


Open for discussion Sunday, 15 August, 2010.


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Old August 14th, 2010, 12:54 PM   #2

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


First taking care of old business.
We are extremely pleased with the response to last weeks ‘Curious Case of Benjamin Button’. Not a bummer in the lot. Great going and saludos to all you very special Historum people. If there was a Mensa of Historum you would all automatically be members. (BUT!!..thank heaven we don’t have one…phew..that was close.) Now… on with the show with a few rambling remarks masquerading as an introduction.



A Historum Book Discussion on Mark Twain’s
Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses
First published in the North American Review 161 (July 1895)


On his trip to Italy Twain wrote of the Milan Duomo, “Howsoever you look at the great cathedral, it is noble, it is beautiful!” and of the sculptured figure of a man without skin he noted that it was, “a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it somewhere. I am very sorry I say it, because I shall always see it, now. I shall dream of it, sometimes. I shall dream that it is resting with its corded arms on the bed’s head and looking down on me with its dead eyes.”

He continues on in this vein and realizes that he has seen it before; has lived and dreamed it before. “It is hard,” he admits, “to forget repulsive things." When he wrote that he was likely remembering that as a boy he once hid at night in his father’s law office, only to discover that he was keeping company with a corpse. “That man had been stabbed near the office that afternoon, and they carried him in there to doctor him, but he only lived an hour. I have slept in the same room with him often, since then – in my dreams.”

On reading ‘Coopers Literary Offences’ one feels that Twain’s revulsion to deathly prose is the same revulsion to dead people that young boys exhibit. Was writing it his way of ‘whistling while passing the graveyard?’ His way of exorcising the hideous, emaciated prose that invaded his dreams?

Perhaps that is to read into Twain something that is not there, but I can’t help but see the kinship. However you approach it I have always found Twain’s repulsion to Cooper to be the funniest essay I have ever read. Every time I read it I laugh aloud. His diatribe is my antidote to the blues; my way of whistling while thoughts pass the dark side of my soul.

This is a work that should be read by all budding authors. It is full of good, if indirect, advice on literary sins to avoid. I haven’t counted how many but I trust he left none out. I am very glad I have read it, because I shall always see it. I shall dream of it sometimes. I shall dream that Twain is resting against my bedstead, looking down at me and smiling.

My idea of eternal hell is being locked in an office with only copies of the Cooper corpus to read. If that should come to pass, recalling Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses will get me through… and may the devil think I am laughing at him.
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Old August 14th, 2010, 02:24 PM   #3

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


You know, I love Mark Twain, I love him like he was my brother or uncle, but he could be a real son-of-a-gun sometimes. This was Twain's ego getting the better of him. I appreciate the wit, I appreciate the lesson, but I don't think attacking the dead (and it is an attack) makes anyone look good. In 1895 when Twain wrote this, Cooper (1789-1851) had been dead 44 years. Twain was in deep financial trouble, probably depressed, and not getting the literary fame he felt he deserved. Has Cooper ever been out of print? I think Twain, who knew he was a better writer, just resented Cooper's fame. Anyway, that's my take on it.
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Old August 15th, 2010, 10:05 AM   #4

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


Welcome. It’s nice to see a new face in our corner of the forum. And to meet a fellow Twain lover.
I gotta agree that Twain could be a son of a gun. I can't recall anything specifically about that, but when considering his commentaries on the human race he must have been hard to be around. I’d like to think it was a matter of not suffering fools gladly or in any other mode.

In Twain’s defense on attacking the dead it’s worth noting that Twain attacked (boy did he ever!!) Coopers writing style and not his person. If one is going to go public in print I think they become fair game for such criticism.

And you are so right about Twain being in deep financial trouble. I think it was to the amount of a hundred thousand dollars. If he was depressed about that it was probably because he believed it a duty to pay off debts. The idea of filing for bankruptcy protection was distasteful to him. To pay his bets he went on a world lecture tour which was very successful. If he had any doubts about his fame they were dispelled by the warm and enthustaic reception he received everywhere. Even in far off New Zealand he found fans. Some historians have suggested that Twain was the first “celebrity” in the modern sense of being famous for being famous. Now days you don’t even have to write a book to gain fame, just get caught on tape. I’d be inclined to cut him a lot of slack. At least until the Twain sex tapes turn up. [Just what was Kipling suggesting when he wrote…”and never the Twain shall meet”?]
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Old August 15th, 2010, 11:24 AM   #5

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


Quote:
Originally Posted by Pedro View Post
In Twain’s defense on attacking the dead it’s worth noting that Twain attacked (boy did he ever!!) Coopers writing style and not his person. If one is going to go public in print I think they become fair game for such criticism.
Hmm, sorry, I have to disagree on this point. A dead man can't fight back, that's an unfair advantage. To me, it just makes Twain look unchivalrous.
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Old August 15th, 2010, 11:31 AM   #6

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


I'll agree that he didn't need to use an elephant gun when a slingshot would have done the job. But other than that I guess we will have to agree to disagree.
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Old August 15th, 2010, 11:38 AM   #7

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


Quote:
Originally Posted by Pedro View Post
Now days you don’t even have to write a book to gain fame, just get caught on tape. I’d be inclined to cut him a lot of slack. At least until the Twain sex tapes turn up. [Just what was Kipling suggesting when he wrote…”and never the Twain shall meet”?]
Yes, we live in the era of instant fame..and sex tapes...but Twain will be famous 300 years from now. Who will remember Paris Hilton?
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Old August 15th, 2010, 01:36 PM   #8

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


I'm at a disadvantage here having read neither Twain ( except a little required in high school) or Cooper, so don't have a fund of personal knowledge to draw on. It does seem curious that Twain would attack someone's work long dead... it does seem a matter of jealously.

In reading a little of Cooper's biography, as Twain mentions in his rant, Cooper was a naval man, in the merchant marine and the US Navy. He only made midshipman in the navy before he quit.... he wasn't much of a navy man I think!
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Old August 15th, 2010, 02:32 PM   #9

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


I'm late to the show after being delayed by the inexplicable. Very annoying, but no matter! Avanti!


Firstly, the piece itself. It is one of the best pieces of criticism that I have read. There is more than one phrase that I am a tad jealous of. Its a great piece.

I see two interrelated themes here. Sure, Twain talks about Cooper's literary failings - and that is largely a matter of taste - but I think his main target is Cooper's archaic representations. I think his representations of Indians is the main target. That Twain does this in his own inimitable style, is only of secondary importance; it is the apparent purpose that I find myself focussing on. What he quite reasonably terms 'Cooper Indians' were something that he had written on before.

http://www.twainquotes.com/18670811.html (Scoll down to 'The Indian Row'.)

It's about representation and accuracy. Let's be honest, Cooper's Indians are little more that literal devices, and people are so fickle that this was surely how many perceived Indians to have been. The article served that purpose and Twain's mockery of Cooper's literary abilities was merely a vehicle to that end.

Should we take everything he writes as gospel? Of course not, he's exaggerating and distorting 'Fenimore Cooper' in much the same way as Cooper did with 'Indians'. Neither is any more accurate than the other.

btw - Some of the criticisms are annoyingly accurate. Where he talks about Cooper's 'word sense', he's bang on. Where he notes that he uses far too many words, he's bang on. So, there are, as Pedro notes, literary lessons to be depart with.

With regards to the points about criticising a dead man's artistic efforts, I don't see the issue. We do this all the time; as historians we pass judgement on the past; as art historians, music historians, cultural historians, we pass artistic (and sometimes technical) criticisms on the arts of the past. In this way, the likes of Cooper, or Twain, Mozart, Bach, Schubert et al move in and out of vogue as time passes. Fifty years ago, Bach was rarely heard; sixty or seventy years ago, few musicians played Mozart with and regularity. Vogue is a vicious critic. I have no truck with the principle. Of course, Twain was always characteristically barbic.
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Old August 15th, 2010, 02:33 PM   #10

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Re: Mark Twain, Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses


Quote:
Originally Posted by Pedro View Post
[FONT=Courier New]
A Historum Book Discussion on Mark Twain’s
Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses
First published in the North American Review 161 (July 1895)

Very eloquent post, Pedro. Nice.
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