Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer stand at the head of Cooper's
novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works
which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and
scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with
either of them as a finished whole.
The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight.
They were pure works of art.--Prof. Lounsbury.
The five tales reveal an extraordinary fulness of invention.
... One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty
The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the
delicate art of the forest, were familiar to Cooper from his
youth up.--Prof. Brander Matthews.
Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction
yet produced by America.--Wilkie Collins.
It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English
Literature in Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and
Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having
read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent
and let persons talk who have read Cooper.
Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in 'Deerslayer,' and in the
restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences
against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of
romantic fiction--some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated
eighteen of them. These eighteen require:
1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the
Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.
2. They require that the episodes of 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
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. But this detail has often been overlooked
in the Deerslayer tale.
4. 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.
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 in 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.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a
personage in his 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.
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. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the
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. But this rule is
persistently violated in the Deerslayer 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. But these rules are not respected in the Deerslayer
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. 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
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. But in the Deerslayer tale this rule is vacated.
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.
Even these seven are coldly and persistently violated in the Deerslayer
Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but
such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects,
and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of
stage properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices
for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with,
and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things
and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread
in the tracks of the moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail.
Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick.
Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently
was his 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 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 Leather Stocking Series ought to have been called the Broken
I am sorry there is not room to put in a few dozen instances of the
delicate art of the forest, as practised by Natty Bumppo and some of the
other Cooperian experts. Perhaps we may venture two or three samples.
Cooper was a sailor--a naval officer; yet he gravely tells us how
a vessel, driving towards a lee shore in a gale, is steered for a
particular spot by her skipper because he knows of an undertow there
which will hold her back against the gale and save her. For just pure
woodcraft, or sailorcraft, or whatever it is, isn't that neat? For
several years Cooper was daily in the society of artillery, and he ought
to have noticed that when a cannon-ball strikes the ground it either
buries itself or skips a hundred feet or so; skips again a hundred feet
or so--and so on, till finally it gets tired and rolls. Now in one place
he loses some "females"--as he always calls women--in the edge of a wood
near a plain at night in a fog, on purpose to give Bumppo a chance to
show off the delicate art of the forest before the reader. These
mislaid people are hunting for a fort. They hear a cannonblast, and a
cannon-ball presently comes rolling into the wood and stops at their
feet. To the females this suggests nothing. The case is very different
with the admirable Bumppo. I wish I may never know peace again if he
doesn't strike out promptly and follow the track of that cannon-ball
across the plain through the dense fog and find the fort. Isn't it
a daisy? If Cooper had any real knowledge of Nature's ways of doing
things, he had a most delicate art in concealing the fact. For instance:
one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago,
I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the
forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I
could ever have guessed out the way to find it. It was very different
with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running
stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were
that person's moccasin-tracks. The current did not wash them away, as
it would have done in all other like cases--no, even the eternal laws
of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of
woodcraft on the reader.
We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper's
books "reveal an extraordinary fulness of invention." As a rule, I
am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews's literary judgments and
applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular
statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless your heart,
Cooper hadn't any more invention than a horse; and I don't mean a
high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes-horse. It would be very
difficult to find a really clever "situation" in Cooper's books, and
still more difficult to find one of any kind which he has failed to
render absurd by his handling of it. Look at the episodes of "the
caves"; and at the celebrated scuffle between Maqua and those others
on the table-land a few days later; and at Hurry Harry's queer
water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer's half-hour
with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and
Deerslayer later; and at--but choose for yourself; you can't go amiss.
If Cooper had been an observer his inventive faculty would have worked
better; not more interestingly, but more rationally, more plausibly.
Cooper's proudest creations in the way of "situations" suffer noticeably
from the absence of the observer's protecting gift. Cooper's eye was
splendidly inaccurate. Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw
nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly. Of course a man who
cannot see the commonest little every-day matters accurately is
working at a disadvantage when he is constructing a "situation." In the
Deerslayer tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it
flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along
for no given reason; and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to
be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the
brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become
"the narrowest part of the stream." This shrinkage is not accounted for.
The stream has bends in it, a sure indication that it has alluvial banks
and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If
Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed
that the bends were oftener nine hundred feet long than short of it.
Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place,
for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less
than twenty to accommodate some Indians. He bends a "sapling" to the
form of an arch over this narrow passage, and conceals six Indians in
its foliage. They are "laying" for a settler's scow or ark which is
coming up the stream on its way to the lake; it is being hauled against
the stiff current by a rope whose stationary end is anchored in the
lake; its rate of progress cannot be more than a mile an hour. Cooper
describes the ark, but pretty obscurely. In the matter of dimensions "it
was little more than a modern canal-boat." Let us guess, then, that it
was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth
than common." Let us guess, then, that it was about sixteen feet wide.
This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as
long as itself, and scraping between banks where it had only two feet of
space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle.
A low-roofed log dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length"--a
dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say a kind of
vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms--each forty-five feet long
and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the
Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime,
at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's
exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to
accommodate the Indians--say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on
each side of the boat. Did the Indians notice that there was going to
be a tight squeeze there? Did they notice that they could make money by
climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when
the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things,
but Cooper's Indians never notice anything. Cooper thinks they are
marvelous creatures for noticing, but he was almost always in error
about his Indians. There was seldom a sane one among them.
The ark is one hundred and forty feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet
long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the
arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the
rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a
minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety foot dwelling
a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would
take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it
up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their
chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian,
warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him, and when
he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as
he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the house! That is actually
what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow.
It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there
unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have
made the trip. The fault was Cooper's, not his. The error lay in the
construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.
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 farther 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 a Cooper Indian. In
the matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the
Indian that stands in front of the cigarshop is not spacious. The scow
episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not
thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of
fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper's
inadequacy as an observer.
The reader will find some examples of Cooper's high talent for
inaccurate observation in the account of the shooting-match in The
"A common wrought nail was driven lightly into the target, its
head having been first touched with paint."
The color of the paint is not stated--an important omission, but Cooper
deals freely in important omissions. No, after all, it was not an
important omission; for this nail-head is a hundred yards from the
marksmen, and could not be seen by them at that distance, no matter what
its color might be.
How far can the best eyes see a common house-fly? A hundred yards? It is
quite impossible. Very well; eyes that cannot see a house-fly that is a
hundred yards away cannot see an ordinary nailhead at that distance, for
the size of the two objects is the same. It takes a keen eye to see a
fly or a nailhead at fifty yards--one hundred and fifty feet. Can the
reader do it?
The nail was lightly driven, its head painted, and game called. Then the
Cooper miracles began. The bullet of the first marksman chipped an edge
off the nail-head; the next man's bullet drove the nail a little way
into the target--and removed all the paint. Haven't the miracles
gone far enough now? Not to suit Cooper; for the purpose of
this whole scheme is to show off his prodigy, Deerslayer--
"'Be all ready to clench it, boys!' cried out Pathfinder,
stepping into his friend's tracks the instant they were vacant.
'Never mind a new nail; I can see that, though the paint is
gone, and what I can see I can hit at a hundred yards, though
it were only a mosquito's eye. Be ready to clench!'
"The rifle cracked, the bullet sped its way, and the head of the nail
was buried in the wood, covered by the piece of flattened lead."
There, you see, is a man who could hunt flies with a rifle, and command
a ducal salary in a Wild West show to-day if we had him back with us.
The recorded feat is certainly surprising just as it stands; but it
is not surprising enough for Cooper. Cooper adds a touch. He has made
Pathfinder do this miracle with another man's rifle; and not only that,
but Pathfinder did not have even the advantage of loading it himself.
He had everything against him, and yet he made that impossible shot; and
not only made it, but did it with absolute confidence, saying, "Be ready
to clench." Now a person like that would have undertaken that same feat
with a brickbat, and with Cooper to help he would have achieved it, too.
Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His
very first feat was a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was
standing with the group of marksmen, observing--a hundred yards from the
target, mind; one Jasper raised his rifle and drove the centre of the
bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result
this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major Lundie.
Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm,
indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has covered Jasper's
bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the
Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through
the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for
nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people
have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply
sanity, and these were all Cooper people.
"The respect for Pathfinder's skill and for his 'quickness and
accuracy of sight'" (the italics [''] are mine) "was so
profound and general, that the instant he made this declaration
the spectators began to distrust their own opinions, and a
dozen rushed to the target in order to ascertain the fact.
There, sure enough, it was found that the Quartermaster's
bullet had gone through the hole made by Jasper's, and that,
too, so accurately as to require a minute examination to be
certain of the circumstance, which, however, was soon clearly
established by discovering one bullet over the other in the
stump against which the target was placed."
They made a "minute" examination; but never mind, how could they know
that there were two bullets in that hole without digging the latest one
out? for neither probe nor eyesight could prove the presence of any
more than one bullet. Did they dig? No; as we shall see. It is the
Pathfinder's turn now; he steps out before the ladies, takes aim, and
But, alas! here is a disappointment; an incredible, an unimaginable
disappointment--for the target's aspect is unchanged; there is nothing
there but that same old bullet-hole!
"'If one dared to hint at such a thing,' cried Major Duncan, 'I
should say that the Pathfinder has also missed the target!'"
As nobody had missed it yet, the "also" was not necessary; but never
mind about that, for the Pathfinder is going to speak.
"'No, no, Major,' said he, confidently, 'that would be a risky
declaration. I didn't load the piece, and can't say what was
in it; but if it was lead, you will find the bullet driving
down those of the Quartermaster and Jasper, else is not my name
"A shout from the target announced the truth of this
Is the miracle sufficient as it stands? Not for Cooper. The Pathfinder
speaks again, as he "now slowly advances towards the stage occupied by
"'That's not all, boys, that's not all; if you find the target
touched at all, I'll own to a miss. The Quartermaster cut the
wood, but you'll find no wood cut by that last messenger."
The miracle is at last complete. He knew--doubtless saw--at the distance
of a hundred yards--that his bullet had passed into the hole without
fraying the edges. There were now three bullets in that one hole--three
bullets embedded processionally in the body of the stump back of the
target. Everybody knew this--somehow or other--and yet nobody had dug
any of them out to make sure. Cooper is not a close observer, but he is
interesting. He is certainly always that, no matter what happens. And he
is more interesting when he is not noticing what he is about than when
he is. This is a considerable merit.
The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern
ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people's mouths
would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to
a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom
to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man's mouth was a
rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs
of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by
attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk
wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted
mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy
with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.
Cooper was certainly not a master in the construction of dialogue.
Inaccurate observation defeated him here as it defeated him in so many
other enterprises of his. He even failed to notice that the man who
talks corrupt English six days in the week must and will talk it on
the seventh, and can't help himself. In the Deerslayer story he lets
Deerslayer talk the showiest kind of book-talk sometimes, and at other
times the basest of base dialects. For instance, when some one asks
him if he has a sweetheart, and if so, where she abides, this is his
"'She's in the forest-hanging from the boughs of the trees, in
a soft rain--in the dew on the open grass--the clouds that
float about in the blue heavens--the birds that sing in the
woods--the sweet springs where I slake my thirst--and in all
the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!'"
And he preceded that, a little before, with this:
"'It consarns me as all things that touches a fri'nd consarns a
And this is another of his remarks:
"'If I was Injin born, now, I might tell of this, or carry in
the scalp and boast of the expl'ite afore the whole tribe; or
if my inimy had only been a bear'"--and so on.
We cannot imagine such a thing as a veteran Scotch Commander-in-Chief
comporting himself in the field like a windy melodramatic actor, but
Cooper could. On one occasion Alice and Cora were being chased by the
French through a fog in the neighborhood of their father's fort:
"'Point de quartier aux coquins!' cried an eager pursuer, who
seemed to direct the operations of the enemy.
"'Stand firm and be ready, my gallant 60ths!' suddenly
exclaimed a voice above them; wait to see the enemy; fire low,
and sweep the glacis.'
"'Father? father!' exclaimed a piercing cry from out the mist;
'it is I! Alice! thy own Elsie! spare, O! save your daughters!'
"'Hold!' shouted the former speaker, in the awful tones of
parental agony, the sound reaching even to the woods, and
rolling back in solemn echo. ''Tis she! God has restored me my
children! Throw open the sally-port; to the field, 60ths, to
the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive
off these dogs of France with your steel!'"
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."
There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could
write English, but they are all dead now--all dead but Lounsbury. I
don't remember that Lounsbury makes the claim in so many words, still he
makes it, for he says that Deerslayer is a "pure work of art." Pure, in
that connection, means faultless--faultless in all details--and language
is a detail. If Mr. Lounsbury had only compared Cooper's English with
the English which he writes himself--but it is plain that he didn't;
and so it is likely that he imagines until this day that Cooper's is as
clean and compact as his own. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart,
that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,
and that the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper
I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work
of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every
detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to
me that Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens.
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.