Saturday, June 13, 2009

365 - 27: The Pathfinder (& Twain on Literary Offenses)


In the K-Mart parking lot, a couple blocks from my house.
The yellow arrow is also the marker for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago.
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Recently I was shocked to learn that Mark Twain disliked Jane Austen, to put it mildly. Could he really have been so dense as to miss her wicked humor?
Virignia Woolf didn't.
She said, in The Common Reader, "Sometimes it seems as if her creatures were born merely to give Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off."

Twain was wrong about Austen, and it's disheartening when someone you like hates someone else you like; but bygod, he makes it up by gutting with the skill of one who knows "the delicate art of the forest" the prose of James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Pathfinder), whom I discovered, just this past Tuesday, as a jaw-droppingly Bad Author.

In his humorous essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses", Twain says that in The Deerslayer Cooper scores "114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115."
(Which one does he not offend, I wonder? I suppose his use of the at least is acceptable.)

Twain skewers Cooper's violations of the "rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction." For instance:
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.
Most important, I think, is the rule that "crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader." I wish I'd know this eminently stealable-from essay when I reviewed the new Star Trek.

2 comments:

Nancy said...

Just to cross check this I googled "twain hates austen". Among other quotes I found:"I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."
- Letter to Joseph Twichell, 13 September 1898

I wonder if Twain would like the new Pride and Prejudice featuring zombies?

fresca said...

Really? P&P with zombies? That sounds awesome!

Great quote Nancy!

I read more about Twain's hatred of Austen too and came across an article saying they were like Bogart and Hepburn in "The African Queen"--hated each other but actually were complementary. I think so too--I mean, as a reader, I think their works go together well, in a yin/yang sort of way, they were both social critics with wicked sharp tongues.