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Literature / Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences

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Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is an 1895 satirical essay by Mark Twain, and one of the most famous pieces of American literary criticism ever written. In the essay, Twain takes aim with both barrels at The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper, and where many literary critics, including three whom Twain quotes in the introduction to his essay, praised them as masterpieces of art and literature, Twain instead eviscerates them as cesspools of verbose Purple Prose, flat and/or inconsistent characterisation, cliché-ridden and hole-filled plots, and much more besides. Whether the essay was meant as a serious critique of Fenimore Cooper's literary output, a scathing indictment of Romantic literature in general, or just another piece of trademark Twain satire is debated to this day.


For the little-known Part II, see Fenimore Cooper's Further Literary Offenses: Cooper's Prose Style, in which Twain enumerates the "114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115" in the space of two-thirds of a page from The Deerslayer that he references at the beginning of Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.

For an opposite opinion, see Fenimore Cooper's Literary Defenses.

This essay uses or describes the use of the following tropes:

  • Artistic License – Geology: Among the many instances of the world in Cooper's books deviating from the real world, one that attracts Twain's attention comes when Chingachgook is tracking someone through the forest and has lost the trail, and gets the idea to divert the course of a stream, which reveals the moccasin prints of his quarry in the slush in the river bed. Never mind that, as Twain points out, the current should have washed away the footprints almost immediately.
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  • Artistic License – Ships: Twain chides Cooper, a naval officer, for writing a passage in which a ship sailing for a lee shore in a gale is guided toward the site of an undertow that will hold it back against the gale.
  • Ass Pull: In-universe, Twain's ninth rule of romantic fiction accuses Cooper of being guilty of these, instead of confining the characters of his story "to possibilities" and making them "let miracles alone", or at least making "miracles" believable in the context of the story.
  • Character Development: Twain is a firm believer in making characters so clearly defined that the reader has at least a sense of how they will react to a change in circumstances. Cooper, he says, gives no such attention to clearly defining his characters.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Twain takes issue with a scene in which Colonel Munro, a veteran Scottish military commander, talks "like a windy melodramatic actor" who, when he hears the voices of his daughters through the fog during the heat of battle, exclaims, "'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!"
  • Damned by Faint Praise:
    • Twain doesn't think much of the intellecual capacity with which Cooper endows the natives in his stories, and describes one in particular who tries to drop onto the 90-foot passenger cabin of the Hutter family scow as it passes the river below him, only to miss the cabin completely and knock himself out on the stern deck, as "a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian".
    • After saying that Cooper's writing boasts uninventive and meandering stories; characters that bear no resemblance to real people, are poorly established, and behave inconsistently; situations that defy multiple laws of the universe; unfunny humour and funny pathos; odious love scenes; and crimes against the English language, Twain concludes, "Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that."
  • Dan Browned: According to Twain, "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest", as described by Brander Matthews, are just "crass stupidities" which Cooper inflicts on the reader as a cover for his lack of knowledge about the subjects at hand.
  • Eight Deadly Words: In-universe, Twain reacts this way to the non-heroic characters in The Deerslayer, describing the average reader as "indifferent" to them, and wishing that they and the heroes "would all get drowned together".
  • Filler: This is Twain's perception of the "episodes" in The Deerslayer; since there is no overarching Story Arc to develop, they serve only to waste the reader's time.
  • Funetik Aksent: Twain ridicules the characters in The Leatherstocking Tales for speaking the purplest of Purple Prose mere paragraphs before or after they speak with coarse phonetic accents, and gives two examples from Bumppo, including "It consarns me as all things that touches a fri'nd consarns a fri'nd," and "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." This from the same character who says, when asked if he has a sweetheart, that "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!"
  • I Have Many Names: Twain doesn't think much of the many monikers given to Natty Bumppo over the course of The Leatherstocking Tales, and at one point refers to him by several of them at once, as "Deerslayer—Hawkeye—Long-Rifle—Leather-Stocking—Pathfinder—Bumppo".note 
  • Informed Attribute: Twain's sixth rule of romantic fiction is that the behaviour of a character should justify the descriptions of their abilities and personality, something Cooper completely overlooks in The Deerslayer.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Twain has boundless disdain for the sheer improbability of Bumppo's marksmanship as seen in The Pathfinder. First, he hits a nail-head from a hundred yards away with such accuracy that it is driven further into the piece of wood into which it has been set. Then, after a first marksman has hit the bullseye of a target and a second has fired almost directly into the bullet hole made by the first, Bumppo fires a third bullet so accurately into the existing hole that it doesn't even mark the wood around the edge. In both cases, he is using a borrowed rifle that has been loaded for him.
  • Improbable Use of a Weapon: In his younger days, Cooper spent a lot of time around cannons and other artillery, and so Twain says he should have noticed that when a cannonball is fired, it either embeds itself in the ground or bounces like a stone being skipped on the surface of the water until it has lost enough energy to simply roll the last few yards. He sets all of this aside for a scene in which Natty Bumppo is leading a group of lost settlers through the forest in a dense fog in search of a military fort, and they hear a cannon blast, and moments later a cannonball rolls toward them and stops at their feet, which allows Bumppo - and only Bumppo - to deduce the direction from which the cannon was fired.
  • Insistent Terminology: Twain has little patience for Cooper's insistence on only ever referring to women in his stories as "females".
  • Insufferable Genius: This is another of Twain's evaluations of Bumppo's character. In his summary of the marksmanship contest in The Pathfinder, he describes Bumppo's insistence that the second bullet fired at the target has hit the same mark as the first as being delivered in a "calm, indifferent, know-it-all way".
  • Law of Conservation of Detail: Twain is a firm believer in this, and his fourth rule of romantic fiction is that each of the characters in the story should be there for a good reason, such as to further the development of the plot or the other characters. To Twain, Cooper violates this rule with countless characters who could be cut from the story with no loss of content (after all, zero minus zero is still zero).
  • Long List: The essay includes several, chief among which is the list of eighteen of the nineteen ("some say twenty-two", according to Twain) rules of romantic fiction which Cooper violates in The Deerslayer. Briefly summarised, these rules govern questions of narrative structure, characterisation, dialogue, and language.
    • For narrative structure, Twain's rules state that a tale should have a clearly defined plot, and the episodes of the story should be necessary to the development of the plot and the characters. The events in the plot should be believable, and if they stray into the miraculous, the miracles should still be plausibly set up and carried out.
    • For characterisation, Twain holds that the characters should be sufficiently clearly defined that we can anticipate how they will act in given situations, behave in a manner consistent with descriptions of their personalities, have a clear reason for being in the story, and be written in such a way that we sympathise with those characters the author intends us to like, and hate those characters the author intends us to dislike.
    • For dialogue, Twain says the characters should talk in a way that sounds real, believable, and interesting to the reader, on subjects that have a clear relevance to the story or the development of the characters, and only for as long as necessary. A given character's diction should be consistent unless the story gives a clear reason for it to change.
    • For language, Twain insists that the writer must say what is meant with appropriately chosen words, write economically while still providing all necessary details, and use a simple and direct style with clean form and good grammar.
  • Malaproper: Twain levels this accusation at Cooper several times throughout the essay; his thirteenth rule of romantic fiction requires that the author shall use "the right word, not its second cousin". Near the end of the essay, he rattles off a long list of violations of this rule in just a few pages of The Deerslayer, some of which are crimes of Purple Prose and others of which are simple confusion between two words that might have similar meanings in one context, but not in the context in which Cooper uses them.
  • Mundane Utility: Twain suggests that were Bumppo a real person and alive in the 1890s, his Improbable Aiming Skills would allow him to "command a ducal salary in a Wild West show".
  • Nature Hero: A quote from Twain's friend Brander Matthews describes Natty Bumppo this way, referring to "The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest". Twain spends much of the essay tearing down the idea that any forest possesses the sort of "delicate art" portrayed by Fenimore Cooper.
  • No Pronunciation Guide: Cooper's lack of any indication as to how his characters' names should be pronounced frustrates Twain, who takes to referring to Chingachgook as "Chicago" because the words look similar and he knows how to pronounce the latter.
  • Praising Shows You Don't Watch: In-universe accusation; Twain suggests that Brander Matthews, Thomas Lounsbury, and Wilkie Collins had not actually read The Leatherstocking Tales before enthusing over them in print, and says they should have kept quiet and left the criticism to people who have read the books.
  • Purple Prose: Twain believed that literary style should be "simple and straightforward", and say everything that needs to be said, but in as few words as possible. Cooper... didn't believe this. Twain outlines numerous examples in which Cooper's romanticism gets the better of him and leads into long and unnecessary poetic digressions that raise more questions than they answer.
  • Random Events Plot: This sums up the plot of The Deerslayer in Twain's eyes; as the story "achieves nothing and arrives in the air", the episodes within it have no relation to each other or any overarching Story Arc and might as well be cobbled together from different books.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Twain believes in making the conversations that occur in a story sound like conversations that people would actually have in reality, a rule that is often transgressed in literature and that, as far as he is concerned, is utterly ignored by Cooper.
  • Said Bookism: Among the many examples from The Leatherstocking Tales, Twain quotes a passage which gives us the doozy "'Father? father!' exclaimed a piercing cry".
  • The Scrappy: In-universe, Twain believes that far from making the reader love the good people and hate the bad ones, Cooper has written a story in which the reader "dislikes the good people in it" and is indifferent at best to the bad ones.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: Twain would likely find Seinfeld tedious to watch, as he pours scorn on conversations that do not have "a discoverable meaning", "a discoverable purpose", or "a show of relevancy", that stray from the subject at hand and lose the reader's interest, that do nothing to advance the story, and that continue long after they should have stopped. The Deerslayer is full of such conversations, he says.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: In Twain's seventh rule of romantic fiction, he vents his frustration at Cooper's tendency to have his characters talk "like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering" at the beginning of a paragraph, and "like a negro minstrel" at the end of it.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Twain views The Deerslayer this way; his first rule of romantic fiction is that "a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere." But to Twain, The Deerslayer "accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air."
  • Shaped Like Itself: Twain's third rule of romantic fiction is that the characters should be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that the reader should be able to distinguish between the two. Even this low bar is not cleared by The Deerslayer in Twain's eyes.
  • Signature Style: According to Twain, Cooper had "six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices" for his characters to use, or rather overuse. For example, Cooper often has moccasin-wearing characters step in the footsteps of other moccasin wearers to hide their own footsteps, and Twain notes that few are the chapters where someone doesn't step on a dry twig "and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around".
  • So Much for Stealth: Cooper loved this trope, Twain says, and used it with gusto in almost everything he wrote. Dry twigs in particular seem to show up with a regularity by which clocks could be set, and many characters give themselves away to "all the reds and whites" in a two hundred yard radius by stepping on them while trying to remain undetected. So prolific is Cooper's use of dry twigs as a way to ruin characters' attempts to be stealthy that Twain jokes the series should have been called The Broken Twig Series and not The Leather Stocking Series.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: It's Mark Twain, this is a given. For example, he says of his seventh rule that characters should not switch mid-paragraph from Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness to a Funetik Aksent that "this rule is flung down and danced upon in the Deerslayer tale".
  • Story Arc: Twain believes a well-plotted story should include episodes that are necessary to the development of the tale and the characters therein. However, since The Deerslayer has no plot, the episodes have nothing to develop and serve no purpose.
  • Super Senses: According to Twain, Natty Bumppo must possess these in order to achieve some of the feats with which Cooper credits him, such as seeing a bullet fired during a marksmanship contest enter an existing bullet hole - twice.
  • Too Dumb to Live: This is Twain's assessment of the Indians who try to ambush the Hutter family's scow in The Deerslayer. Already failing to notice that the dimensions of the boat and river as implied by Cooper would make it easier to simply step onto the boat as it passes, and choosing instead to bend a "sapling" over the river and drop onto the boat from it, the chief of the ambush party somehow misses a 90-foot passenger cabin and knocks himself out on the stern deck. If that wasn't enough, one by one, the other Indians drop out of the tree and miss the boat altogether, falling into the water further and further astern of it. Twain sums up the episode by saying, "In the matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigarshop is not spacious."
  • Understatement: In response to Thomas Lounsbury's claim that the defects in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer are slight, Twain says they have "some defects". He goes on for pages and pages describing those defects.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: One of Twain's many problems with The Leatherstocking Tales is Cooper's cavalier attitude toward questions of space and time, with dimensions of both that completely fall apart under scrutiny.
    • In a passage from The Deerslayer concerning an attempt by six Indians to ambush the Hutter family's scow as it makes its way downstream, Twain brings up multiple problems with the dimensions of the stream, the boat, and the tree:
      • For no reason given by Cooper, the stream narrows from fifty feet where it exits a lake to twenty feet, and it has bends that suggest it cuts into alluvial banks, yet these bends are described as between thirty and fifty feet long instead of hundreds of feet as they would be on a real stream.
      • The Hutters' boat is described as "little more than a modern canal-boat", which Twain takes to mean it is around 140 feet long and 16 feet wide, meaning it only clears the banks on either side by two feet. Two-thirds of the ark's length are described as being occupied by a two-room log dwelling, implying the rooms are each around 45 feet long and 16 feet wide. And yet somehow this mammoth boat is navigating bends in the river between 30 and 50 feet long without running aground.
      • The stream narrows still further at the ambush point, where a sapling has been bent into an arch over the river to accommodate six Indians. With little more than a foot on either side of the boat, Twain wonders why they don't simply hop aboard the boat as it passes, as the speed of the boat (roughly a mile an hour) will give them a window of nearly a minute and a half to accomplish this.
    • In The Pathfinder, Bumppo participates in a marksmanship contest in which the competitors must hit a painted nail-head a hundred yards away. Twain notes that the average human eye would struggle to see a house-fly, which is of similar size to a nail-head, at half that distance. Yet the three marksman all hit the target, with Bumppo absurdly outdoing the others.
  • X-Ray Vision: Twain suggests that the audience at the marksmanship contest in The Pathfinder must have possessed this, as they believed Bumppo's claim that first the Quartermaster's bullet, then his own bullet had entered the same hole as Jasper's bullet without actually digging any of them out. Visual inspection would only have revealed one bullet, and the stump against which the target was mounted would have had to be cut up to extract both bullets - but then how would Bumppo have fired a third bullet in such a way that it didn't even graze the edge of the existing hole? Twain also reminds us that Bumppo makes his claims about both the Quartermaster's bullet and his own bullet entering the same bullet hole while he has been standing a hundred yards from the target.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: Twain's quote from English author Wilkie Collins specifies that Cooper is the greatest American author of romantic fiction, implying that Collins still ranks Cooper below his European counterparts.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Among the Long Lists in the essay is Twain's enumeration of instances in half a dozen pages from The Deerslayer in which Cooper misses the mark with his choice of words:
    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."