Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Eschew surplusage": Twain, JF Cooper & cigar-store Indians

 “He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.”
I haven't read much Mark Twain (I blush to say not even Huckleberry Finn), but his skewering of the “Leatherstocking" novels in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses had me LOLing all over the place. In case you haven't been privy either, I've pulled a few of the choicest excerpts. My familiarity with the stories having been relegated to the Classics Comics versions, I was as dismayed as Twain when I attempted to read the actual prose of Mr. Fenimore Cooper.
Strange: for such a funny guy there are few (if any) images of him smiling
First, the admirers of Fenimore Cooper that Twain quotes:
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 fullness of invention. . . . One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo . . . .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
Then Twain lets it rip:
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.... 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.... 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.... The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate ...  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.... Use the right word, not its second cousin.... [and] eschew surplusage.
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 Twig Series.
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.” ...  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.... 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.”

.... 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 majestic answer:
“‘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 fri’nd.’”
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 Goths!’ 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, Goths, to the field! pull not a trigger, lest ye kill my lambs! Drive off these dogs of France with your steel!’”
.....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.
German version of Leatherstocking tales

1 comment:

  1. I have heard of tales wherein the American Indians have been smoking tobacco prior to the colonial expeditions. The native Americans do harvest tobacco and marijuana for various reasons other than leisure.