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Fenimore Cooper's Literary Defenses: Twain and the Text of The Deerslayer

Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist
(Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

©1988 Studies in the American Renaissance
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Originally published in Joel Myerson, ed., Studies in the American Renaissance, 1988 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988) (pp. 401-417)

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"Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English in Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote." -- Mark Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"
"Is this kind of thing to be soberly described as 'criticism'? or is it not rather, to borrow one of Twain's own phrases,'a literary delirium tremens'?"--D. E Hannigan, -- "Mark Twain as a Critic"

IT WAS MORE THAN A BODY COULD STAND. Six years after Mark Twain's "swan song," A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, had supposedly finished off writers like Cooper and Scott (just as Fielding and others had thought -- erroneously -- that Cervantes' Don Quixote had slain the medieval romance), here was Brander Matthews not only praising Cooper but editing a new five-volume illustrated edition of The Leather-Stocking Tales. Worse yet, Putnam's was bringing out a new thirty-two volume edition of Cooper's works complete with illustrations. Bankrupt, and bitter over the failure of his typesetting machine, Twain decided to take on Cooper by name, and he knew just where to get his blast published -- in the same North American Review that had elevated to the status of gospel Indian-hater Lewis Cass' sneers at Cooper's Indians.

Though some writers, from D. F. Hannigan and D. L. Maulsby in the 1890s to Sacvan Bercovitch and Sidney I. Krause in the present,1 have questioned the fairness of Twain's attack on his predecessor, many casual readers have accepted Twain's hilarious spoof of The Deerslayer (along with The Pathfinder and The Last of the Mohicans) as an essentially just assessment of Cooper's typical plots, characterization, and diction. Even Brander Matthews, whose praise of Cooper was one cause of Twain's diatribe, mentioned Twain's piece and described Cooper's style as at times "slovenly" in his introduction to Crowell's edition of The Leather-Stocking Tales. Typical of serious critics who offer faint praise conditioned by an acceptance of Twain's judgment is Stanley Williams, writing in The Literary History of the United States: "Despite his 'literary offenses,' as Mark Twain called them, Cooper stands with Dumas and Scott as one of the great romancers of all time."2 Not only has Twain's Cooper bedeviled the real Cooper as one of Twain's extraordinary twins plagued the other, but Twain's Cooper has threatened to replace completely the author who had died over forty years earlier. One of the present authors recalls spending more time in a year-long survey of American literature on Twain's 1895 attack than on any of Cooper's own prose. While Cooper wrote thirty-two longish novels as well as a dozen major volumes of social criticism, excerpts of a length suitable for anthologies can be pried out of them with difficulty. Consequently, Twain's brief spoof substitutes for Cooper with a frequency that Twain, with his penchant for impostors, would love.

The eighteen rules for effective fiction that Twain claims Cooper habitually violated fall under three heads: he could not formulate a plot that got anywhere; his characterization was vapid, inert, or unconvincing; and his diction was wretched. Twain seeks to win the reader's assent to this view of Cooper by alternating elegant and brassy variations of his own critical judgment with illustrations apparently drawn straight from the text. Precisely by his choice of examples Twain reveals his satirical strategy. With "circumstantial evidence," Twain actually distorts what Cooper wrote and presents the illusion of conclusive proof without any real substance. By carefully manipulating Cooper's texts, wilfully misreading, and sometimes fabricating evidence, Twain leaves the reader with the impression that he has polished Cooper off. By looking at Twain's treatment of plot, characterization, and especially diction in The Deerslayer, we can lay bare Twain's rhetorical strategy and satirical distortions.


"A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air." -- Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"

Twain does not tell us why The Deerslayer fails to "accomplish" something.3 That is, he does not analyze the novel's supposed inconsistencies of plotting, shifting directions of intent, confusions of theme, or the spasmodic execution that characterize a work that loses focus as it develops -- problems that Twain himself confronted in his longer fictional efforts.4 He simply asserts that The Deerslayer has no plot, and readers with only vestigial or juvenile recollections of the text may agree.

Twain's attack stimulated an almost immediate response in Cooper's defense. D. L. Maulsby disagreed vigorously with most of Twain's dicta, particularly this charge about inept plotting:

The Deerslayer, which is selected for the most abundant ridicule, is clearly the account of a mission undertaken by the hero and his Indian friend in behalf of the latter. In carrying out this mission the fortunes of Deerslayer are united with those of another group of characters, and after the mission is accomplished, the book ends when the hero, is released from peril of his life incurred as a consequence of this piece of unselfish devotion. Surely there is a tolerable adherence to the accomplishment of a definite object in this story, to say nothing now of others. The object is, it is true, as usual, connected with a practical end, involving a series of adventures, and thus as far as possible removed from the thought- analysis of the modern school. But here, as in general, the story accomplishes something under a somewhat orderly development.

How does Twain lead us to share his dismissal of the plot of The Deerslayer? After much chuckling over broken twigs, supposedly misplaced undertows, and unpronounceable Indian names, Twain mounts his major attack on Cooper's plotting by providing his version of an Indian attack on Hutter's scow. Such a comic tour de force promises to laugh down any sober rebuttal. (Thus Sidney J. Krause does well to cast his analysis of Twain's strategy in the form of an implied analogy between Twain's playing fast and loose with Cooper's description and Alice's changes of shape, in Alice in Wonderland.) Here is Twain's version of Cooper's river: "In the Deerslayer tale Cooper has a stream which is fifty feet wide where it flows out of a lake; it presently narrows to twenty as it meanders along for no given reason, and yet when a stream acts like that it ought to be required to explain itself. Fourteen pages later the width of the brook's outlet from the lake has suddenly shrunk thirty feet, and become the narrowest part of the stream. This shrinkage is not accounted for." As Krause shows, however, Cooper has in fact carefully accounted for the shrinkage. The navigable part of the lake outlet is reduced by the luxuriant growth of vegetation where the Susquehanna River begins. Cooper's repeated emphasis on the almost jungle-like verdure not only underscores its value as a hiding place for the Iroquois but sustains a major theme of the novel -- the paradisiacal abundance of plants and animals in the Lake Otsego region before white settlements began in earnest.

Twain, nevertheless, relentlessly stockpiles evidence of Cooper's "glass eye": "The stream has bends in it, sure indication that it has alluvial banks and cuts them; yet these bends are only thirty and fifty feet long. If Cooper had been a nice and punctilious observer he would have noticed that the bends were oftener nine hundred feet long than short of it." Cooper described "two or three" turns in the first one hundred yards, that is, turns 100 or 150 feet apart, and in his general description of the river (62.10-12),5 the two men in the canoe have a perspective ahead of 160 to 200 feet. Twain invented the thirty and fifty foot bends to make it impossible for the canal boat he (not Cooper) also invented to negotiate the turns.

Twain's observation about the size of the bends or meanders in a stream cutting alluvial banks has a reassuring scientific ring to it which, added to our recollection of Twain's expressed interest in such matters in Life on the Mississippi and elsewhere, prepares us to accept his -- not Cooper's -- version of the geology of the stream. The U. S. Geological Survey map of the outlet of Lake Otsego, however, shows the bends of the nascent Susquehanna as about two hundred to three hundred feet long.6 Since Twain does not dispute Cooper's figure of fifty feet as the maximum width of the river after it leaves the lake, the meander length is well under nine hundred feet.

Twain's transformation of Cooper's river, of course, does more to dismiss than to dispute the details of The Deerslayer's topography. Twain could hardly do the latter, since Cooper was literally on home ground. As Cooper told his readers in the 1841 and 1850 Prefaces, as well as in the text (149.16), he was writing of scenes he knew from childhood. Maulsby's 1897 article pointed out Twain's dismissive jocularity, and offered some local history to support Cooper's accuracy:

Is it not presumptuous for a critic to find fault with the description of places which the author has known from boyhood, but which the critic himself presumably never visited? An example of this fallacy is in Mark's comments upon Cooper's picture of Otsego Lake and the Susquehanna flowing from it. By jocular comparison of some of Cooper's figures concerning the breadth of the river in different places, a humorous effect of stupid incongruity is produced. As it happens, Mr. C. A. Perry, of Cooperstown, who has frequently fished upon the lake and river in question, declares that, with due allowance for the shelving shores of the lake, and for the trees and bushes lining the banks of the river, of both of which Cooper himself makes special mention, there is no necessary absurdity or contradiction in the details as given of the scene.
Susquehanna River

W.H. Bartlett
View of Northumberland (On the Susquehannah)

In 1841 Cooper attributed to Hutter's ark or scow the dimensions of a "modern canal boat" (64.18); fifty years later, Twain gleefully assigned lengths appropriate to his own era and manufactured a navigational colossus too awkward to negotiate the bends he (not Cooper) had previously assigned to the Susquehanna. Cooper undoubtedly had in mind, as a prototype for Hutter's boat, a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed scow designed in the 1790s specifically for navigation on the upper Susquehanna. A recent historian of American canals gives the maximum dimensions of such a boat as seventy-five feet long and sixteen feet wide, a substantial craft, but one smaller than Twain's leviathan 140 feet long.7 An 1839 engraving by W. H. Bartlett, entitled "Northumberland, on the Susquehanna,'" depicts a canal boat and an ark of a time and place close to Cooper's scene; the crude ark is much like what Cooper had in mind for Hutter's craft with dimensions roughly twelve by twenty-five.8 Such a draft and size make Cooper's ark manageable by Hurry Harry alone (364.29-32).

Susquehanna Ark

W.H. Bartlett
View on the Susquehanna, at Liverpool

Twain's extravaganza builds to a climax. Using a boat whose dimensions he (not Cooper) assigned and a stretch of river he (not Cooper) designed, Twain casts a group of Indians as stars in a slow-motion exhibition. The Indians mount a "sapling" to attack the boat, with Cooper specifying a "sapling" here (and at 491.37, 498.3, 516.3 and 516.13) to indicate a flexible but substantial young tree. Twain's time-lapse treatment of the Indians' attack results in a Keystone Kops scene of one Indian after another falling into the river after the scow had moved on. The comic effect is great, but the scene is Twain's, not Cooper's.9


"The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and...always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale." -- Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"

In 1897, Maulsby defended Cooper's characters, singling out Natty Bumppo, a figure hardly mentioned in Twain's attack. Cooper's hero, according to Maulsby, represented a "man, who is confessedly the creation of romance, yet whose life is more real to thousands than is many an historic character.... Nor are touches lacking in the minor characters to attest the author's adherence to the broad lines of nature." By asserting that Natty seems real, even though he is the hero of a romance, and that Cooper's portrayal of characters is truthful, Maulsby shows his awareness of the animosity of the Realists towards the writers of romance. But as Krause suggests, Twain's intent was not merely to defend Realism against romance; his purpose, rather, was to declare an unequivocal winner in the battle. While a Realist like Howells would take arms and "bang the babes of romance about" in critical essays, Twain's weapons were satire and ridicule. Attacking the unrelieved solemnity of characters in sentimental fiction, his irreverence also chipped away at the secure solidity of a literary canon into which, Twain feared, Cooper was being ensconced by the likes of Brander Matthews.

In reviews of the period, there was tacit acceptance of burlesque and ridicule if meant as harmless amusement, but a nervous defensiveness resulted if such thrusts took aim at a sacred text, one that needed protection against subversions of the accepted canon. Long before his attack on Cooper, Twain had taken lumps at the hands of those who felt that irreverence was properly directed only at unworthy objects: "When will jesters understand that parodies and travesties of works of true merit are the very poorest forms that wit and humor can take? The best of such parodies ever written are not superlatively good, and the second-rate ones are absolutely insupportable; to say nothing of the impertinence of a man's attempting to make better work than his own look ridiculous, and to bring it down to his own level. To burlesque what is in itself contemptible, and yet popular, is, of course, another matter"10 By the time of his attack on Cooper, Twain was fresh from a salvo against one of the pillars of the literary canon, Thomas Malory. Confident of the canonical security of great works in the face of Twain's ridicule was an anonymous reviewer of A Connecticut Yankee: "It is a mistake to decide that ridicule cast upon the story of King Arthur is an offence in any other way other than in the matter of taste in jokes. Sir Thomas Malory and Lord Tennyson will survive. Masterpieces will stand any amount of parody. 'The Burial of Sir John Moore' and Gray's 'Elegy' are just as impressive as if they had not been parodied with all sorts of jocularity and ribaldry scores of times.11 Whether Twain took to heart references to himself as "jester," one who stooped to ridicule "better works than his own," is open to question. Nevertheless, in outlining Cooper's "offences," he adopted a tack that would further the cause of Realistic characterization as well as challenge Cooper's entry into the literary pantheon.

In his attack, the imagery and diction associated with death serve Twain's dual purpose. His dwelling on corpses, his inclusion of "funeral obsequies" in the list of words Cooper misused (even though no one other than Twain has ever been able to find the terms in The Deerslayer), and his wish that characters in the novel "would all get drowned together" indicate, in all likelihood, his frustration with Cooper's handling of death scenes. The deathbed scene was, of course, a particular bugbear of the Realists, who tended to lump together both romantic and sentimental fiction. Heroes and heroines on the threshold of death droned on, voicing the maudlin sentimentality that marked the consolation literature of the day. Characterization was sacrificed to the exigencies of well-orchestrated social rituals, which included pious speeches and elaborate funeral ceremonies. But on the issue of characterization, as with the ark episode, one must distinguish Cooper's version from Twain's.

If, for example, one turns to the scene of Thomas Hutter's death expecting an outburst of "tears and flapdoodle," one finds an episode marked by restraint and understatement. The chapter's epigraph establishes the tone. Unlike the poetry Twain parodied in "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd," the ballad Cooper quoted, marked as "Disputed" in the 1841 edition of The Deerslayer, is one of taut emotion and controlled effects. Admired so widely during the Romantic period that it came to be parodied in the latter half of the century by Twain himself as well as others,12 "The Burial of Sir John Moore" describes the death of a soldier interred during battle, the occasion passing in the absence of drumbeat, funeral note, or rifle shot, without the accoutrements of coffin, inscription, or stone. Conforming to the reticence of Charles Wolfe's ballad rather than the excess of what Twain called "postmortem poetry"13 the description of Hutter's demise remains uncolored by what one commentator has called "The Age of the Beautiful Death."14 While removal of Hutter's cap discloses "the quivering and raw flesh, the bared veins and muscles, all the other disgusting signs of mortality, as they are revealed by tearing away the skin" (354.16-18), Cooper does not linger over the grisly details of the stabbing and scalping nor does he dwell on the obligatory "acts of filial piety" (355.10) performed by Judith and Hetty. As a nineteenth-century commentator on Wolfe's ballad suggests, the physical spectacle of death has less importance than the effect on those who have survived.15

In the chapter dealing with Hutter's demise, Cooper describes the range of responses of the surviving characters: Judith offers water, but poses no questions "lest something...might disturb her pleasing belief that she was not Thomas Hutter's child" (357.25-26); Hetty remains incapable of distinguishing which parent she loves more or less; and true to his rude nature, Hurry blurts out an indecorous proclamation. Rather than dwelling on physical aspects of mortality, Cooper underscores and deepens qualities in his characters: Judith's rebellion against propriety and parental authority; Hetty's confusion; and Hurry's boorishness. As if imitating the spirit of Wolfe's ballad, Cooper stresses unique features of Hutter's passing: the interment is "peculiar" even in Hist's eyes (365.19); Judith remains "averse to the contemplation of death" (366.7-8); and Hurry makes a "rude attempt...at consolation" (368.12-13) by mentioning the subject of marriage. The scene's rustic simplicity tempers suggestions of sentimentality: "There was no other priest than nature, at that wild and singular funeral rite" (366.39-40). Cooper's use of "singular" erects another bulwark against sentimentality, for it prompts the reader to remember Hurry's saying that the girls' mother was "dead and sunk" -- as Hutter now is and Hetty soon will be.

Hetty's death, an ampler opportunity for maudlin sentiment, follows similar principles of restraint. The surgeon must "abandon the expectation of seeing the girl survive many hours" (527.1). Cooper includes other touches that temper the gloom: Warley remains indifferent to Hetty's plight; the soldiers gather in curiosity rather than piety or sorrow; and Cooper's explanation ("How this wound was received, no one knew; it was probably one of those casualties that ever accompany scenes like that related in the previous chapter" [p. 526.19-211) matches, in its matter-of-factness, Howells' Basil March, who "had no wish to be that peaceful spectator who always gets shot when there is any firing on a mob."16

It is likely that Cooper intended a subtle counterpoint among the novel's three death scenes, each defining character amid contrasting rituals. Natty's killing his first Indian accords with a mythic pattern by which the victim garners respect and avoids being scalped. The torture of Hutter, the corrupt representative of white civilization, reflects a stern, impersonal sentence of retribution. Only Hetty, shot as an innocent under ambiguous circumstances, dies and is buried a Christian. Twain's response is not so much a parody in the spirit of his lampoons of "post mortem poetry," but an outright dismissal along the lines of his scorn of Cooper's plotting. Referring to the initial scene as "Deerslayer's half hour with his first corpse," Twain, with his humorist's zeal to deflate solemnity, avoids coming to terms with Cooper's most memorable character and the first pivotal scene in his initiation. By such a tactic, moreover, Twain hardly disposes the reader to discern Cooper's modulation of that scene in subsequent episodes.

If the object of Twain's attack were Cooper's characters, the alleged inertness of which kept him from telling "the corpses from the others," parody would not inflict a decisive blow. His parodies of "The Burial of Sir John Moore" and similar techniques in A Connecticut Yankee had won various responses from critics: either his burlesques ranged from the innocuous to the tasteless, or the works satirized resided in such canonical security that they remained impervious to attack. A response as mild as parody or burlesque would leave the literary canon intact, probably with Cooper and his characters enshrined therein. Rather, Twain's double-barrelled attack called attention to the lifelessness of Cooper's characters, an allegation that associated Twain with the cause of the Realists. This strategy would dovetail with his second aim, expressed in his wish that characters in The Deerslayer would participate in a communal drowning. Alleging Cooper's ineptness in the interment of his characters would aid Twain in his goal of burying Cooper's literary reputation.


"Cooper's word-sense was singularly dull.... He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate word. I will furnish some circumstantial evidence in support of this charge. My instances are gathered from half a dozen pages of the tale called Deerslayer." -- Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"

What follows immediately after his assertions about plot and characterization is a daunting list of thirty-one examples of Cooper's alleged solecisms taken, Twain claimed, from a mere half-dozen pages. Scrutiny of this list, however, confirms Maulsby's judgment that Cooper's diction was perfectly apt for the period in which he wrote. Maulsby, closer in time to the composition of The Deerslayer than we are to him or to Twain, recognized that much of Twain's "circumstantial evidence" presents, or rather misrepresents, an earlier usage:

Mr. Clemens has much to say about Cooper's English. He gives a number of examples of misused words, alleged to have been drawn from half a dozen pages of "The Deerslayer." Unfortunately the lack of references renders the reader unable to examine the context of these words, and thus, in some cases, leaves him undecided whether Cooper or Mr. Clemens is correct.... To expect from him [Cooper] academic nicety, or such accuracy as comes from studying today's rhetorical treatise, is to look for what he does not try to give. When the editor changes Cooper's "none were" to "none was," he is guided by what may fairly be called academic standards.... If Cooper's English, then, is sometimes inaccurate, it is with the inaccuracy of contemporary usage, while its ease and freedom are in themselves better than the cramped mannerism of certain bookmen.

Had Twain shared an interest in the history of the language with his contemporaries who were assembling the Oxford English Dictionary, he would have discovered that every locatable instance on this list shows Cooper using the word in a sense legitimate in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century diction. As Maulsby notes, Twain's lack of specific verbal contexts in The Deerslayer forces the reader to accept on good faith the burden of his evidence. Work on establishing the text of The Deerslayer has had the subsidiary benefit, moreover, of locating some of Twain's notorious examples.

Of the numerous substitutions that Twain suggested, the only place in the text where Cooper's stood appears over Twain's stooped comes late in the novel when Natty arrives at Hetty's bedside: "This request was complied with, and the hunter stood by the side of the pallet, submitting to the wishes of the girl, with the docility of a child" (533.6-8). In terms of nineteenth-century usage as well as the sense of the passage, Cooper's choice has perfect legitimacy: Natty would stand at the bedside rather than stoop. Also legitimate is his choice of "eyes" for what Twain would replace with "sight" in a nearby passage: "'Mother always said I had the best eyes in the whole family. Yes, that was it; my mind was feeble -- what people call half-witted -- but my eyes were so good"' (533.36-38). Another cluster of Twain's complaints comes apparently from a passage in which he preferred facility over precision and marvels over phenomena: "The precision with which those, accustomed to watchfulness, or lives of disturbed rest, sleep, is not the least of the phenomena of our mysterious being" (309.23-25). Cooper here describes the exactness with which the watchful person monitors "phenomena," in the words of the OED, occurrences very notable, "extraordinary," "exceptional or unaccountable. Twain also recommended predetermined for Cooper's necessary on the same page: "The head is no sooner on the pillow, than consciousness is lost, and yet, at a necessary hour, the mind appears to arouse the body, as promptly as if it had stood sentinel over the while" (309.25-27). The OED confirms Cooper's usage in one of its accepted definitions of "necessary": "Inevitably determined or fixed by predestination or the operation of natural laws; happening or existing by inherent necessity." Twain's objection to Cooper's use of mental before imbecility (178.13-16, 258.32), apparently on the grounds of redundancy, is not sustained by the OED's definition of imbecility as weakness, feebleness, debility, impotence." Accordingly, Cooper subjects the term to qualification in The Deerslayer and elsewhere: in The Spy, Mr. Wharton had a "natural imbecility of character"17 and in The Pioneers, Major Effingham had "contempt for their [the colonists's] moral imbecility."18

Not all of Twain's words can be found, most notoriously the funeral obsequies -- though we all know where we can find that expression, a fabricated "redundancy" supposedly suggestive of nineteenth-century culture's fixation on swollen and maudlin ceremonies. The following list contains the most likely targets of Twain's satire, with Cooper's word coming first, Twain's alleged improvement second, and page numbers keyed to the text of the Cooper Edition. The reader will note that no six pages, let alone six contiguous pages, are capable of yielding up Twain's storehouse of examples; here as elsewhere, Twain's attack depended on fabricated evidence that followed hard on the heels of a direct charge. We have alphabetized the remaining examples for the reader's ease in checking possible instances against Twain's list:

counteracting/opposing (170.5-9); decreasing/deepening (324.18) and increasing/disappearing (324.17); dependent on/resulting from (279.15-19); different/differing (17.4-14, 65.15, 108.29); distrusted/suspicious (261.28, 280.23); embedded/enclosed (113.13-18, 323.19); explain/determine (227.24); fact/condition (199.1-3); fact/conjecture (263.22); funeral obsequies/obsequies (not located); insensible/insentient (265.6-10); materially/considerably (347.21, 478.34); meretricious/factitious (332.10-15); mortified/disappointed (264.37, 371.15 420.20, 495.38); precaution/caution (65.5, 76.29, 140.22, 150.8, 154.26, 164.27, 181.1-2, 184.1, 198.18, 240.4, 243.20, 258.3, 276.21, 277.21. 277.37, 291.37, 469.39); rebuked/subdued (42.6-11, 123.3, 174.34, 279.37, 322.36, 530.33, 543.39); rejoined/remarked (96.33, 111.14, 204.19, 229.21); situation/condition (66.7-9, 74.27-28, 79.15, 82.27, 98.20, 114.13, 143.20-21, 172.34, 173.7, 176.19, 185.30, 201.35, 224.31-32, 252.28, 286.2, 318.38, 336.35, 338.28, 346.33. 347.2, 361.13, 405.22, 485.23, 508.19); softened/replaced (36.14); unsophisticated/primitive (181.6-10, 192.3, 234.24-25, 310.1, 448.1); treacherous/hostile (126.6-7, 141.34, 159.17, 247.1); and verbal/oral (not located).


"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." -- Twain, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"

For modern readers schooled by the New Critics and others to expect novelists as well as poets always to choose le mot juste, Twain's deliberate misreading of Cooper has been devastating. By accepting as literal fact Twain's linguistic fantasy, even critics of Cooper who are otherwise sympathetic (such as James Grossman and Sydney J. Krause) have been put on the defensive by his language. Twain valued economy of style (a possible but not necessary criterion), but such concision simply was not a characteristic of many early nineteenth-century novelists' work. Writing with the expectation that their readers would often read their works aloud, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Cooper, and Melville favored a full, sometimes orotund, style that Twain and his fellow Realists a generation later spurned.

This quarrel over style, along with the rapidity with which he produced book after book, has unfortunately led some people to assume that Cooper's compositions were slapdash performances. Recently, however, the Textual Commentaries of the Cooper Edition have begun to correct this misconception. Especially in his concern to revise texts that were poorly typeset and proofread, Cooper's attitude was thoroughly professional. His patterns of revision and attention to detail are evident in works published in the 1820s: the holograph revision of The Spy (1821); the over four hundred substantive changes he made in the second American edition of The Pilot (1823); and the over one thousand changes he made in The Last of the Mohicans (1826) for the Bentley Standard Novels edition.

No manuscripts of these early works are known to exist, but we have the manuscripts of the two later Leather-Stocking Tales, The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841), both of which provide evidence of Cooper's revisions in preparing printer's copy and of the errors typesetters typically made in setting from his small, compact script. For The Pathfinder, 820 "variants in words, word order, and dialect forms are reflected as non-authorial in the Cooper Edition Text."19 The textual history of The Deerslayer discloses that many questionable examples of diction are misreadings of Cooper's hand. Alleged incoherencies in the novel, in many cases, derive from mistakes by the typesetters rather than the author.

For example, had Twain read The Deerslayer with the careful attention he claims on his behalf, he would have been delighted to charge Cooper with the following kinds of errors resulting from a misreading of his manuscript. (The 1841 first edition text, which was followed by all subsequent editions, appears first; the actual manuscript reading -- what Cooper intended -- appears second, keyed to the Cooper Edition text. Changes are italicized.) When Hetty Hutter addresses her father after his plan to collect scalps in the Huron camp has been thwarted (186.23), the 1841 edition reads: "Thank you for that, father!" Cooper had written: "Thank god for that, father!" A Twainian skeptic might laugh, or possibly wince, at the pious Hetty's thanking her father for pursuing a scalping expedition, but she is, as Cooper actually recorded the conversation, thanking the deity for the mission's failure.

At another point when Hetty is singing on the Ark at evening (91.13-18), the 1841 edition reads: "That the men forward were not indifferent to this touching interruption was proved by their inaction, nor did their oars again dip until the last of the sweet sounds had actually died among the remarkable shores, which, at the witching hour would waft, even the lowest modulations of the human voice, more than a mile." Cooper had actually written echoes rather than shores. One with a keen eye for stylistic precision might have complained that shores, no matter how remarkable, do not waft. Echoes, which Cooper wrote, do.

A more significant example occurs at the novel's conclusion (545.19-22) when Judith realizes that Deerslayer will never marry her. The 1841 edition reads:"Judith read his answer in his countenance, and with a heart nearly broken by the consciousness of undeserving, she signed to him an adieu, and buried herself in the woods"; Cooper, however, had written undue erring.

The first misreading reverses Hetty's meaning; the second makes nonsense of a carefully wrought scene on Lake Glimmerglass and of the reaction of the principal characters to a moment of idyllic repose. Most significantly, the error at 545.19 produces a baffling ambiguity (Is Judith undeserving of Deerslayer or of her bad reputation?), and destroys the sense of tragic recognition Cooper intended Judith to experience, a final example of the theme of human "erring" announced explicitly in his prefaces. A full listing of compositorial misreadings for The Deerslayer would comprise a series of gaffes in diction far more blatant than that compiled by Twain, none of which he cites in his purportedly authoritative survey of Cooper's verbal "offenses."20

Our purpose here has been to disentangle the authentic text of The Deerslayer from the legends surrounding it, the misperceptions having accrued over decades because of Twain's hilarious essay and having contributed to a critical tradition that often damns Cooper with the faintest of praise. An almost immediate response to Twain's attack ensued, as is evident from the well-meaning essays of Maulsby and Hannigan. These well-intentioned and generally accurate defenses notwithstanding, Twain's humor won the day, and his brassy exaggerations and explosive irreverence led to a tradition of evaluating Cooper by citing his "offenses," an assessment inattentive to Cooper's actual plots, his character portrayals, and his textual modifications. Fortified by the assumptions of Realism, Twain's assault on the Romantic house of fiction took dead aim at these supposed defects in plot, characterization, and style. If Cooper's fictional edifice has weathered the storm, it is largely the result of his excellence in these three categories that Twain so gleefully dismissed, a consequence of some readers following Cooper's narrative rather than Twain's partial and distorted version of it. It is, nevertheless, a tribute to Twain that his comic masterpiece has more than survived, but flourished, often obscuring the legitimate features of its object of attack. "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" has survived, for its willful fabrications, hilarious exaggerations, and satirical intent aside, the rest of the essay, if we may borrow Twain's phrasing, is art.


1. D. F. Hannigan, "Mark Twain as a Critic," Free Review, 5 (October 1895): 39-43; D. L. Maulsby, "Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain," Dial, 22 (February 1897): 107-109; Sacvan Bercovitch, "Huckleberry Bumppo: A Comparison of Tom Sawyer and The Pioneers," Mark Twain Journal, 14 (Summer 1968): 1-4; Sidney J. Krause, "Cooper's Literary Offenses: Mark Twain in Wonderland," New England Quarterly, 38 (September 1965): 291-311, reprinted in Mark Twain as Critic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), pp. 128-47. For other comments on the Cooper-Twain relationship, see Allen Gribben, Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction, 2 vols. (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), 1:159-60, and W. R. Moses, "Mark Twain's Best Satire of Cooper," Mark Twain Journal, 21 (Fall 1983): 25-27.

2. The Literary History of the United States, ed. Robert E. Spiller (New York: Macmillan, (1963 [1948]), p. 255.

3. All quotations from Twain's 1895 essay derive from the text in Literary Essays, in The Writings of Mark Twain (New York: Harpers, 1899), 22:83-95. Twain completed another essay on Cooper, the second essay edited by Bernard De Veto under the title, "Fenimore Cooper's Further Literary Offences," New England Quarterly, 19 (September 1946): 291-301. Subsequently reprinted in Letters from the Earth (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) under the title "Cooper's Prose Style"(pp. 135-145), the second essay uses a comic persona, a dimwitted authority on Cooper's artistry.

4. In "Mark Twain's Literary Offenses; or the Revenge of Fenimore Cooper," Mark Twain Journal, 21 (Spring 1983): 19-20, Craig Cotora claims that in A Connecticut Yankee Twain violated "all'" the rules governing fictional practice, rules he imposed disparagingly on Cooper.

5. All page and line numbers are from the critical edition of The Deerslayer, ed. Lance Schachterle, Kent P. Ljungquist, and James Kilby (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).

6. Under normal conditions the length of bends in alluvial rivers is a factor of the river's width: "Among different groups of data the values obtained for the coefficient relating meander length to channel width are of the same magnitude; meander length varies from 7 to 10 times channel width" (Luna B. Leopold, M. Gordon Wolman, and John P Miller, Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology [San Francisco: W H. Freeman, 1964], p. 297). We thank Professor Joseph Sage of Worcester Polytechnic Institute for help on this problem.

7. Harry Sinclair Drago, Canal Days in America: The History and Romance of Old Towpaths and Waterways (New York: Bramhall House, 1972), p. 139. Alvin E H. Harlow notes that the first canal boats, the "arks" and keelboats, were modified from so-called Durham boats, ordinary length sixty feet and typical width eight feet. With regard to moving canal boats upstream, Harlow writes: "In rocks along the shore...may still be seen some large iron rings which early boatmen used in pulling themselves against the current. Windlasses on the shore were also used, and sometimes the boatmen just hugged the bank and pulled on bushes and boughs of trees" (Old Towpaths: The Story of the American Canal Era [New York: D. Appleton, 1926], pp. 33, 36. "A Day in a Canal Boat," a narrative appearing in the 13 April 1844 Portland Transcript, graphically portrays the cramped quarters on an early nineteenth-century canal boat. The article concludes with a comment by the narrator: "Thus ended my first day on a Canal, for I shortly after fell asleep and dreamed of lying on an inch plank, with nothing to keep me from falling over into the water.

8. See the engraving in N. P. Willis, American Scenery, 2 vols. (London: George Virtue, 1840), 2: opposite p. 62, and also "View on the Susquehanna, at Liverpool," 2: opposite p. 34 [the latter included on this website].

9. In discussing this scene, the only detail Krause finds implausible is Hutter's technique for extricating himself from the river. Yet Rees' Cyclopedia, printed about 1810, describes just such a maneuver for managing a small boat. Cooper even has Hutter mention to Deerslayer and Hurry that he has a small crab or portable winch to effect by himself what he and Hurry do by manual strength under the threat of the savages' attack (75.6). See also note 7 above. Richard VanDerBeets finds several details of this episode anticipated in a captivity narrative published in 1827 ("Cooper and the 'Semblance of Reality': A Source for The Deerslayer," American Literature 42 [January 1971]: 544-46). The Ohio narrative cited is reprinted in Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives, 1642-1836, ed. R. VanDerBeets (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973), pp. 213-318.

10. Matthew Freke Turner's 1876 essay on American humor, reprinted in Mark Twain: The Critical Heritage, ed. Frederick Anderson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), pp. 55-58.

11. Anonymous review from the 15 February 1890 Athenaeum, reprinted in Mark Twain: The Critical Heritage, pp. 170-71.

12. See Twain's 1853 parody, "The Burial of Sir Abner Gilstrap," and his 1866 parody, "The Burial of Sir John Moore," both reprinted in Arthur L. Scott, On the Poetry of Mark Twain (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), pp. 44, 54.

13. A title for a section in Twain's humorous column, "Memoranda," for the Galaxy magazine wherein he commented: "There is an element about some poetry which is able to make even physical suffering and death cheerful things and consummations to be desired" (9 [June 1870]: 864-65).

14. For commentary on nineteenth-century attitudes toward mortality, see the chapter of the same title in Phillip Aries' monumental study, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), pp. 409-74. Aries comments on American attitudes and Twain's irreverence on pp. 451-52.

15. "The poet did not merely mean to tell us the fact, that the comrades of Moore gazed on the face of their dead chief, -- but he meant to convey an idea or impression which that form of death made upon them" (Remains of the Late Rev. Charles Wolfe, ed. John Russell [Hartford, Conn.: F. J. Huntington, 1828], p. 32).

16. Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes (New York: New American Library, 1965 [1890]), p. 358.

17. The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground, ed. Warren S. Walker (New York: Hafner, 1965), p. 26.

18. The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna, ed. Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Anderson, Jr., (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), pĚ 34.

19. See Richard D. Rust's Textual Commentary for The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), p. 479.

20. One could extend the list of glaring compositorial misreadings: the 1841 text refers to the Deerslayer's hearty, "benevolent laughter"; Cooper actually described his "hearty, but silent laughter" (285.17), a trait of Natty's introduced in The Pioneers; describing the miniature "elephant" that fascinates Chingachgook, the 1841 text refers to the "idolatrous head" rather than Cooper's "idolatrous beast" (224.19); Judith should have felt her mother's loss "keenly" (224.30) rather than "heavily" as the 1841 text recorded her reaction; and sticks should have struck against a "war-post" (257.14-15), rather than the 1841 text's "war-pool." While many compositorial errors have to do with regularization of dialect, the Cooper Edition has found over six hundred misreadings of Cooper's manuscript in the 1841 edition of The Deerslayer.

     We would like to thank Professor Kay Seymour House for her assistance in the preparation of this essay.

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