January 25, 2012
Mark Twain Flays Deerslayer
Last week, I reviewed Toxic Feedback, a discussion on how harmful the negative opinions of well-meaning people can be to writers. This next is a great follow-up, sent to me by one of the members of my writers’ critique group. To have your writing flailed by the man whose picture likely appears next to the dictionary definition of ‘Writer’ might convince you to end your career. Lucky for us, James Fennimore Cooper either never read it or shook it off as the rantings of a jealous colleague:
Mark Twain’s Critique of The Deerslayer
So peeved was Mark Twain by critics’ acclaim of The Deerslayer that he unspooled them with delightful attention to detail. Twain said, “In the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115.” And:
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In The Deerslayer, Cooper violated seventeen of them. These seventeen require:
- That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
- They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
- 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. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.
- They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.
- 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. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the Deerslayer tale to the end of it.
- 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. But this law gets little or no attention in the Deerslayer tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
- 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. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale.
- 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. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.
- 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. But these rules are not respected in the Deerslayer tale.
- 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. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
- 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. But in the Deerslayer this rule is vacated.
In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:
- Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
- Eschew surplusage.
- Not omit necessary details.
- Avoid slovenliness of form.
- Use good grammar.
- Employ a simple and straightforward style. … … …
Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate word. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called Deerslayer. He uses “verbal,” for “oral”; “precision,” for “facility”; “phenomena,” for “marvels”; “necessary,” for “predetermined”; “unsophisticated,” for “primitive”; “preparation,” for “expectancy”; “rebuked”, for “subdued”; “dependent on,” for “resulting from”; “fact,” for “condition”; “fact,” for “conjecture”; “precaution,” for “caution”; “explain,” for “determine”; “mortified,” for “disappointed”; “meretricious,” for “factitious”; “materially,” for “considerably”; “decreasing,” for “deepening”; “increasing,” for “disappearing”; “embedded,” for “enclosed”; “treacherous;” for “hostile”; “stood,” for “stooped”; “softened,” for “replaced”; “rejoined,” for “remarked”; “situation,” for “condition”; “different,” for “differing”; “insensible,” for “unsentient”; “brevity,” for “celerity”; “distrusted,” for “suspicious”; “mental imbecility,” for “imbecility”; “eyes,” for “sight”; “counteracting,” for “opposing”; “funeral obsequies,” for “obsequies.” …
The Deerslayer a work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.
Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.