Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why We Don't Read James Fenimore Cooper

I had no idea, I'd never even tried. Having nicknamed the dog (post below) Natty Bumppo, however, I thought I should, so I found The Last of the Mohicans online.
Now I know.
It's like finding yourself smeared with highly perfumed oil and parachuted into this painting--landing by that tree, front right--(Frederick Church, "Twilight in the Wilderness," 1860, here)--with a box of damp matches and no insect repellent.

Quickly I found that I was not like "the hardy colonist... emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors." No. Faced with the fragrant and dense wilderness scenery of Cooper's prose, I soon shrank back to safer boundaries.

If you haven't read him, here're a couple lines, so now you can say you have. They're all like this.
A white lady whose tresses "were shining and black, like the plumage of the raven" is startled by an Indian. She says to the attending officer:
"Are such specters frequent in the woods, Heyward, or is this sight an especial entertainment ordered on our behalf? If the latter, gratitude must close our mouths; but if the former, both Cora and I shall have need to draw largely on that stock of hereditary courage which we boast, even before we are made to encounter the redoubtable Montcalm."
The worst danger in such writing isn't fatigue (or gnats up the nose), but contagion: Cooper's style is infectious and my immune system is weak. I'm sure that if I read much of it, I would soon be perpetuating such prolix prose myself.

[See also follow up post--Twain on Cooper's Literary Offenses]


Nancy said...


fresca said...

I hope you'll get to read what Mark Twain said about Cooper!