Twain Thwacks Cooper

Last night Scott read to me Mark Twain’s essay on Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper. I’m sure most of you are familiar with it but I was not. Dear readers, I laughed. A lot.

Mr Twain, it seems, was unfond of Cooper’s writing. In one of the bits that made me laugh the hardest, Twain sets out the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction,” and exactly how Cooper violated them. The fifth of these rules requires 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

Excuse me. I am rolling about laughing all over again. As it happens, I have attempted to read Copper (The Last of the Mohicans) and was completely unable to finish it and the insanely ridiculous dialogue was a big part of that. Also I just finished reading a book that violated this rule just as outrageously as Cooper did.

Bless you, Mr Twain. This almost makes up for your insane blindness on the subject of Jane Austen. Almost.

Of course, I do hope Mr Cooper was dead when the article was published. I’d feel awful if he ever read that essay. I mean, yes, I know, criticism is part of this business but still. Vicious. (Even if completely true.)

I do find this kind of savage (but accurate) criticism a pleasure to read. (When done well.) But on the other hand I always feel dreadful for the writer and/or book it’s aimed at. Because it really is mean. And yet . . .

I have a similar discomfort with Go Fug Yourself. I love that site. I adore laughing at dreadful clothes. I figure as they only take aim at celebrities it’s okay. Laughing at people with more social status is very different from the other way around.

But I also can’t help thinking that celebrities, no matter how annoying, are people too, and wondering how I’d feel having my favourite outfit so mercilessly mocked. Then I feel less good for laughing at their lime green formal pants teamed with black fishnet stockings, tan spike-heeled pumps, a pastel pink Bonds singlet and a white fedora worn backwards. But seriously, how could anyone not mock such a combination?


In the meantime, the Twain essay on Cooper is still making me laugh.


  1. David Moles on #

    that essay is the best. I have lost count of the number of books that have given me occasion to say: the reader of [X] dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

  2. Kristan on #

    Oh man, I LOVE the Fug Girls. That said, I think what helps is that fashion is all a matter of taste and opinion, and that differs for everyone. I don’t even always agree with what they fug, you know? So I’m sure any celebrity that wishes to live in la-la land can easily brush off the criticisms. I mean, they have healthy enough egos to wear that stuff in the first place, right?

  3. veejane on #

    Cooper died in 1851, so no, his life and Twain’s career do not overlap. Although, given the givens, I think Cooper would sneer at Twain’s criticism, and probably call him unAmerican to boot. And then sue him! Apparently, he was a very lawsuit-happy fellow.

    Although, in looking him up, I discovered this criticism of his writing about women, by a contemporary named James Russell Lowell:

    “. . . the women he draws from one model don’t vary
    All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”

  4. Chelsea on #

    Mark Twain, I love you. Oh my goodness.

    I find it a lot more difficult to feel bad about heavy criticism when it’s done well and when I agree with the criticism. I’ve never read any of Cooper’s work, but this essay has me cracking up.

  5. Jet Harrington on #

    Twain’s critique is accurate (bonus points on that), but even if it weren’t, it is such a pleasure to read that I would forgive an error.

    “in the neighbourhood of the subject at hand”… oh, how I want to use that phrase sometime.

    Also, I just spent WAY too much time at the fugly site. I’m not sure I want to thank you for pointing that out. 😉

  6. Justine on #

    David: That essay is a work of genius. I feel that I am a proper USian now that I have been initiated into its wonders.

    Kristan: Oh, sure I disagree with the fug girls all the time. Especially over stuff they think is good.

    I don’t really feel bad about celebrity clothes mocking. It’s more that I feel bad that I don’t feel bad. Erm, never mind.

    Veejane: I only didn’t google cause of the extra key strokes. Injured me, not lazy. Honest. Thank you for the info and that gorgeous quote.

    Chelsea: I’m the same even though I know that to be a recipient of such a critique hurts. A lot. Though maybe if someone of Twain’s calibre tore a book of mine to shreds I’d feel honoured. Maybe . . .

    Jet: That site is why the internet was invented. But, yes, you are a very bad person for enjoying it. 🙂

  7. Katharine Beutner on #

    Bizarre: I was just reading Twain’s nasty comments about Austen out loud to T. (in injured tones, of course), who said, “But have you seen what he wrote about Cooper?” And then I clicked over to the tab I’d already opened — but not looked at — with this entry. Now I feel slightly less eager to hit Twain over the head with his own shin bone. Thanks for the essay link!

  8. Lauren on #

    I know the feeling about The Last of the Mohicans… I never did find out what happened in the end… but then again, I never understood what did happen in the beginning!

  9. caitlin on #

    In college I had to read Cooper’s The Prairie. UGH! My Dad the English teacher recommended Twain’s essay which made the Cooper slightly more digestible. To this day I’ve yet to meet anyone who has read The Prairie.

  10. Julia Rios on #

    Eee, yes, love that essay! Hurray for more Twain love in the world!

  11. Doselle Young on #

    Cooper was the valium of his time.

  12. Kasey on #

    All I have to say is that reading this has been the highlight of my entire day. Even though I did not have to read the book in school, we did watch the movie and read an excerpt that seems to follow exactly what Mark Twain has written about. He is probably my new literary hero, just for this masterpiece alone. Funniest essay ever. By far.

  13. Sean the Blogonaut on #

    I read last of the Mohicans and promptly forgot most of it. I had the advantage/disadvantage of seeing the film and loving it. I was depressed to find that the tale had not the same action or romance as the movie script.

    Mark Twain – a man far ahead of his time.

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