In a famous 1895 essay, Mark Twain delivered a stinging critique of one of America’s 19th century literary icons, James Fennimore Cooper. Twain was very much a modern writer, advocating active, descriptive verbs and short rather than long words. His essay is worth reading, not necessarily for what it says about Cooper, but for what it says about writing itself.
In a defense of Cooper, Lance Schachterle and Kent Lyungquist say Twain manipulated the evidence against Cooper and was ultimately unfair to him.
The eighteen rules for effective fiction that Twain claims Cooper habitually violated fall under three heads: he could not formulate a plot that got anywhere; his characterization was vapid, inert, or unconvincing; and his diction was wretched. Twain seeks to win the reader’s assent to this view of Cooper by alternating elegant and brassy variations of his own critical judgment with illustrations apparently drawn straight from the text. Precisely by his choice of examples Twain reveals his satirical strategy. With “circumstantial evidence,” Twain actually distorts what Cooper wrote and presents the illusion of conclusive proof without any real substance. By carefully manipulating Cooper’s texts, willfully misreading, and sometimes fabricating evidence, Twain leaves the reader with the impression that he has polished Cooper off. By looking at Twain’s treatment of plot, characterization, and especially diction in The Deerslayer, we can lay bare Twain’s rhetorical strategy and satirical distortions.
Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses: Twain and the Text of The Deerslayer by Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Studies in the American Renaissance, 1988.
Read Twain’s essay and see for yourself.
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