Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses

In 1895, Mark Twain published his acerbic criticism of James Fenimore Cooper. In his essay The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper, Twain asserted Cooper's popular Deerslayer, a Leatherstocking tale, committed 114 "offenses against literary art out of a possible 115." Generally, Twain's biting mockery of Cooper's characterization, plot, and setting is considered by contemporary critics as unnecessary and unfounded.

In Mark Twain as Critic, Sydney Krause asserts:

The sulfurous grumblings over Cooper is hardly the work of a judicious person, of a respectable citizen like Sam Clemens, who after the debacle of 1892, had made it an appoint of honor to pay his creditors one hundred cents on the dollar; rather, it belongs to a hoodwinking persona who puts up a good front but is not always entitled to the horror he exhibits and is not the unsuspecting reader he pretends to be. (128)

John McWilliams in The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility also agrees that Twain's attack is unjustified. He states:
Hilarious though Twain's essay is, it is valid only within its own narrow and sometimes misapplied criteria. Whether Twain is attacking Cooper's diction or Hawkeye's tracking feats, his strategy is to charge Cooper with one small inaccuracy, reconstruct the surrounding narrative or sentence around it, and then produce the whole as evidence that Cooper's kind of English would prevent anyone from seeing reality. (36)

Twain's intention, through his "sulfurous grumblings," is not simply to convince the reader of Cooper's inaccuracy; more so, he is defending his notions of literary and historical appropriateness. Twain, revolting against the entire Romantic tradition, used Cooper as a metonym for the literary characteristics Twain had fought so hard to eradicate. Krause comments that Twain's essay was;

more than a caveat against the pitfalls of romantic fiction; it was a plea for readers to accept the verdict of history that old-style romanticism--at best an exotic movement with a code of feeling engendered by a cult of sensibility, to which America opposed the cult of experience--that this brand of die-hard romanticism was a literary dead letter in post-Civil War America. (134)

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