This is a blog about two guys who lived in my neighborhood: James Fenimore Cooper lived a few blocks east of me at 6 St. Mark’s Place, and Mark Twain lived in two places both two blocks to my west—14 West 10th Street and 21 Fifth Avenue.
Fortunately the two authors’ residencies were not simultaneous. Otherwise fisticuffs might have broken out.
Both of these former denizens of my neib were, of course, famous American writers. The earlier one—Cooper—wrote one the most widely read American novels of the 19th Century: The Last of Mohicans. In my studies of American literature, I heard an anecdote about how he came to write fiction. Supposedly he was reading to a novel aloud to his wife at their fireside in Cooperstown, New York, complaining bitterly about how badly the book was written. His wife reportedly suggested that, if he was so displeased, he should write a better one. There seems to be no information about what book Cooper had in his hand at the time.
Nor is there any record of Mark Twain ever hearing this story. If he had, he would have met it with a full frontal attack. I know this because I have read repeatedly Twain’s criticism of Cooper’s prose style: for the first time as a student, and many times since. I find Twain’s essays instructive every time. These days I don’t have to go to my dog-eared copy of Twain’s Letters from the Earth to find them. You can find them both on line in their entirety. Let’s start with “Cooper’s Prose Style.”
Here’s the beginning. (The essay is couched as a lecture to a college class):
“Notwithstanding the swiftness of their flight, one of the Indians had found an opportunity to strike a straggling fawn with an arrow, and had borne the more preferable fragments of the victim, patiently on his shoulders, to the stopping-place…”
Twain then goes on to pillory Cooper for the failings of his style. Viz:
This admonishment in itself is worth the reading of the essay. Many times, over the years, I have found this same mistake in the book I was reading and muttered, “Where is Mark Twain when we really need him.” When I have caught myself doing it, I have imagined the master reading over my shoulder and snickering at my work.
Later on, he continues to take those same sentences to task, especially for unnecessary words. For instance:
And shortly afterwards, Twain brings up a the question of voice:
Cooper, according to Twain, is too unrelentingly grand and stately and noble in the cadence of his story telling. Twain reminds us that it matters what sort of music the words make in the reader’s head. The cadence needs to match the mood. And it cannot be unvarying. (I am proud to recount the best advice I ever gave my writing students—“Every once in a while, write a three word sentence.”)
Twain’s essay goes on to refer to rules he laid out in another essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
Here are those rules in their entirety, but without Twain’s specific jabs at Cooper.
“The… rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.
8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.
16. Avoid slovenliness of form.
17. Use good grammar.
18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.
I love this stuff. I share it here with glee. Not that I find it easy to follow these rules. But they are my GPS. I read them every once in while, just to remind myself of what I am trying to do.
And by the way. Twain’s indictment of Cooper is A-one with me. Once I read these essays I understood why I found The Last of the Mohicans unreadable.
Almost invariably, I like a book better than its movie version. This is one of the few cases where the movie is much better. If you want a tale of the French and Indian War, don’t read Cooper. Watch this:
|I include this picture because ever since I saw this canoe in the film, I have|
lusted after it. Imagine paddling such a thing in the upper reaches of the Hudson River.