Posted by Michael Fong
February 25, 2009
Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences"
"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 indeeed he did some quite sweet things with it...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." (Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences")
The above quote is from Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper, where he further relates Cooper's "gift" in the writing of fiction. Twain pretty much criticizes every aspect of the fiction with Cooper, ranging from the use of language to the lack of logic and attention to detail in the work of Fenimore Cooper.
While being perfectly aware of the fact that "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences" is definitely not one of the most famous works that Mark Twain is remembered by (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer would probably claim that honor), allow me to say here that this essay is by far without question the most entertaining piece of literary criticism and one of the most enjoyable piece of literature I've read in this quarter. I know that with Huck Finn being the masterpiece of Mark Twain I should probably focus on that instead, but still I could not resist dedicating this journal entry to Twain's criticism of Fenimore Cooper (I assure you that comments on Huck Finn would appear in my in-class essay).
I often find that with literature written, say, over fifty or sixty years ago, humor intended for that period of time would always be lost when read by the modern reader. Partly this is due to the difference in social and historical context, and partly this is due to the style and the way humor is perceived at that time, but this had always been my general observation (and to some, maybe an ignorant one too). For example, in my other English literature class, we studied the mock-heroics, satires and various pieces written by Pope, Dryden, Johnson, etcetera. Some are intended to produce laughter, but is hard to laugh to nowadays, even with a decent knowledge of the historical background at that time.
I find that Twain's humor, on the other hand, has a certain timelessness in it. I could easily see Twain as a successful lecturer during his time, with his curly hairdo and bushy moustache, and I could easily see him in the modern 20th century as an entertaining stand-up comedian with his brand of humor. The quote above about the broken twig was one of the moments that cracked me up the most, but there were other passage in the essay, such as the one about "Cooper's Indians", the whole shooting contest with the Pathfinder, which sent me literally laughing in my seat. Of course, having never read Cooper, I cannot say that this essay does him justice but still this is undeniably a remarkably humorous approach to the genre of literary criticism. It is impressive how even a reader like me, who never knew Cooper and thus unable to relate to most of the criticism Twain made in his essay, could still laugh along most of the time when reading it. This is one of the moments when I wish I had been born earlier to be in the audience of one of Twain's lectures, just to experience and hear them delivered by Twain in person. The man is truly a funny person in nature. Cooper Indians, indeed!