Friday, April 29, 2011

Mark Twain vs. James Fenimore Cooper

Last year, when our friend Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone came to visit, he mentioned that Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” was “the greatest literary takedown in history.” We had often read excerpts and heard mention of this essay, and we have decided that it’s time for this smackdown to revive itself into the twentieth century.

Each Wednesday in May, the public is invited to a good-old-fashioned literary faceoff. We’ll be taking Twain’s snark and putting it up against a modern-day defender of the victim. Unlike your usual prizefight, you can see the punches thrown for free. Just show up on Wednesdays at 5:00 for pre-game snacks and a ringside seat. The Trouble Begins at 5:30.

Does this man look tough enough to withstand the eloquent wrath of our Sam?

Round 1: Mark Twain vs. James Fenimore Cooper.

As a teaser, we’ve pulled a few choice moments from Twain’s novella-length rant against Cooper’s literary style and storytelling skills. There are so many hysterical passages to pick from, it was hard to decide, so we’re just going with the ones that tickled us the most. Let’s start with Sam’s opinion on Cooper’s plot devices:

Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

Or, my personal favorite, the idiocy of his Native American villains:

There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did -- you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat -- for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious.

The object of Twain's fury

And, lest you suspect that Twain is too nit-picky on tiny details, this is the stirring conclusion to the whole shebang:

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.

We can’t wait to see what James Fenimore Cooper scholar Dr. Wayne Franklin of the University of Connecticut has up his sleeve. He’ll have to have a good plan in order to get a few blows in.

Let the games begin!

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