James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://external.oneonta.edu/cooper/articles/other/2010other-gilbert.html

An Arch of Trees

Margaret Barbour Gilbert
(Rutgers University)

Placed on line January 2010

Placed on line with the kind permission of the author.
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

From her thesis A Defense of James Fenimore Cooper against a Caricature of his Writing by Mark Twain in his Essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses".

Return to Other Articles | Articles & Papers

In his literary interpretation of The Deerslayer, Twain asserts that the events of Cooper's tales are not probable. "Look at the episodes of "the caves;" and at the celebrated water scuffle between Maqua [should be Magua] and those others on the table-land a few days later [in The Last of the Mohicans]; and at Hurry Harry's queer water-transit from the castle to the ark; and at Deerslayer's half-hour with his first corpse; and at the quarrel between Hurry Harry and Deerslayer later...." (4)

Twain's main thrust in his essay is devoted to the probability or reality of the things involved in Cooper's portrayal, of the stream, then the houseboat, which he says would not fit into the stream, and finally, the verisimilitude of the Indians; and when Twain claims that Cooper's tales are not probable "because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it" (4); we must ask just what Twain is actually declaring in his criticism of this depiction from The Deerslayer (which he reduces to comedy) and how Twain's burlesque is projecting its own world view.

Peter Messent suggests that "Twain targeted the aesthetic and representational failures of the genteel romance, targeting its high-flown rhetoric, illogical plotting, underpinning his vehement attack on Cooper" (193), fueled by his (political) belief in a realist aesthetic.

A passage on New Orleans from his book Life on the Mississippi is revealing of Twain's attitudes towards romance:

This Mardi-Gras pageant was the exclusive possession of New Orleans until recently. But now it has spread to Memphis and St. Louis and hardly exist in the pit would last in London. For the soul of it is the romantic, not the funny and the grotesque.

Twain goes on to blame Sir Walter Scott for the prevalence of romance in the Southern United States.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress[the progress of the French Revolution], and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries or a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived a good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization and so you have the practical, common-sense, progressive ideas and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. (467-468)

In his mind, Twain equated Cooper with Sir Walter Scott, although they are quite different writers, as W.C. Brownell has pointed out:

It is misleading to compare them -- in any sense which implies that Cooper's originality is in any way inferior. It is idle to characterize so voluminous a writer as imitative. Whatever its initial impetus imitation will not furnish the momentum for forty volumes. Cooper's inspiration is as genuine, his zest as great, his genius as individual, as Scott's own....It is indeed in his material that Cooper presents the greatest possible contrast to Scott. (11-12)

But it is with Sir Walter Scott in mind possibly, that Twain, in the second part of his essay, concluding that Cooper's inventions of situations are improbable, lampoons Cooper's scene below on the Ark with the Indians from Cooper's The Deerslayer:

As he took his stand at a window, the Ark was just passing through the narrowest part of the stream, a point where the water first entered what was properly termed the river, and where the trees fairly interlocked overhead, causing the current to rush into an arch of verdure, a feature as appropriate and peculiar to the country, perhaps, as that of Switzerland, where the rivers come rushing literally from chambers of ice.
The Ark was in the act of passing the last curve of this leafy entrance, as Deerslayer, having examined all that could be seen of the eastern bank of the river, crossed the room to look from the opposite window at the western. His arrival at this aperture was most opportune, for he had no sooner placed his eye at a crack, than a sight met his gaze that might well have alarmed a sentinel so young and inexperienced. A sapling overhung the water, in nearly half a circle, having first grown towards the light, and then been pressed down into this form by the weight of the snows; a circumstance of common occurrence in the American woods. On this tree no less than six Indians had already appeared, others standing ready to follow them as they left room, each evidently bent on running out on the trunk, and dropping on the roof of the Ark, as it passed beneath. This would have been an exploit of no great difficulty, the inclination of the tree admitting of an easy passage, the adjoining branches offering ample support for the hands, and the fall being too trifling to be apprehended. When Deerslayer saw this party, it was just unmasking itself, by ascending the part of the tree nearest to the earth, or that which was much the most difficult to overcome, and his knowledge of Indian habits told him, at once, that they were all in their war paint, and belonged to a hostile tribe.

"Pull Hurry, " he cried; "pull for your life, and as you love Judith Hutter. Pull, man, pull!"

This call was made to one that the young man knew had the strength of a giant. it was so earnest and solemn, that both Hutter and March felt it was not idly given, and they applied all their force to the line simultaneously, and at a most critical moment. The scow redoubled its motion, and seemed to glide from under the tree, as if conscious of the danger that was impending over head. Perceiving that they were discovered, the Indians uttered the fearful war-whoop, and running forward on the tree leaped desperately towards their fancied prize. There were six on the tree, and each made the effort. All but their leader fell into the river, more or less distant from the Ark, as they came sooner or later to the leaping place. The chief who had taken the dangerous post in advance, having an earlier opportunity than the others, struck the scow just within the stern. The fall proving so much greater than he had anticipated, he was slightly stunned, and for a moment he remained half-bent and unconscious of his situation. At this instant, Judith rushed from her cabin, her beauty heightened by the excitement that produced the bold act, which flushed her cheek to crimson, and throwing all her strength into the effort, she pushed the intruder over the edge of the scow. (78-79)

The Deerslayer, published in 1841, is the first of the Leatherstocking novels in the chronology of the life of Natty Bumppo, their hero, and the last to be written. Cooper is said to have considered it to be his best novel. Set in the wilderness of Lake Otsego, New York during a single week in June between 1740 and 1745; the novel begins, as a young Natty Bumppo (Deerslayer) journeys through the wilderness with his Indian friend Chingachgook and a companion Hurry Harry, where they come to the aid of Thomas Hutter and his two daughters under attack by the Iroquois Indians. The Hutters live in a floating scow, The Ark, on Lake Glimmerglass, and in the fight Hurry and Hutter are captured.

The episode above takes place on The Ark, after Deerslayer and Hurry Harry have just arrived in their canoe, in a kind of slow motion inside Deerslayer's head as he observes the scene from the frame of a window of the Ark near the beginning of the novel. The events of the scene are removed from the reader and given an emotional objectivity in being seen through a double frame - the reader perceives Deerslayer looking through the frame of the window through a window of his own consciousness. The style of writing also provides distance and formality from the events of the scene.

As Deerslayer takes his stand at the window and sights the Indians in a tree, his simple act of sighting is described in six sentences of elaborate syntax in two paragraphs - one short and one very long, in the hypotactic style, principal clauses and subordinate clauses juxtaposed and opposed like blocks. These contrasting elements create a dramatic tension in the prose of what is basically a still life, as Deerslayer surveys the eastern bank of the river from the window of the boat in a complex sentence having a simple sentence with four dependent clauses and participial phrases in apposition. In this first paragraph, the Ark is passing the last curve of the tree-laden riverbank and Deerslayer crosses the room to scan the western bank for signs of danger from the opposite window.

The second paragraph relates that he sees something alarming as soon as he places his eye to a crack. Cooper describes this simple moment in complex prose structure consisting of compound and complex units. In the third sentence, there is another complex sentence as Deerslayer encounters the bent sapling overhanging the water pressed down by the heaviness of winter snows common to the American woods; and consists of a simple sentence followed by three participial phrases and two dependent clauses, in which Deerslayer sees the Indians. On this tree no less than six Indians have already appeared, others standing ready to follow them as they leave room. The layering of these sentences is very complex and dramatic, leading up to the discovery of the Indians on the scow, and at the same time, it establishes a parallel between the complex consciousness of Deerslayer and the thick screen of the foliage along the riverbank. The relating of this event also approaches a climax by means of its syntactical layering. Cooper's four sentences are layered like the branches of a tree and create an effect of density and lushness through the prose. In sentence five, a simple sentence followed by three participial phrases, Cooper describes how it is relatively easy for the Indians in the tree to descend onto the boat because the adjoining branches offer support for the hands, and a fall to the ground would be minimal. When Deerslayer finally focuses his vision closely in the sixth sentence, like a movie freeze or close-up, he perceives instinctively that the Indians are all in war paint and belong to a hostile tribe. He sees them fully now just as a party is climbing up into the tree. The remaining sentences in this passage describe how when Deerslayer sees the Indians, he calls out to his friend, Hurry, to pull the boat away from the tree. The scow redoubles its motions, and when the six Indians are aware they have been discovered, they run forward on the tree towards the boat, which is now moving away, and all but their leader fall into the river. The chief lands on the deck of the scow, and Judith Hutter fearlessly takes the opportunity to push him over the edge of the boat.

As Beard has written, "By conceiving Deerslayer's consciousness as the focal point of the action, Cooper was able simultaneously to suggest a model for a rational pattern of conduct" (xxxv). Twain, however, has missed much of the complexity of perception present in Deerslayer in this scene, and reduces the entire sequence to the details of burlesque. He begins his discussion of the scene by focusing instead on what he claims is the shrinkage of Cooper's stream from 50 feet wide to 20 as it winds along "for no given reason":

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. The stream has bends in it, a 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 often nine hundred feet long than short of it. (4)

Next, Twain concludes that Cooper made the exit of that stream 50 feet wide, in the first place, "for no particular reason" (4). Then he says that 14 pages later in Cooper's novel it shortens another 30 feet to become the narrowest part of the stream. Therefore, Twain argues, Cooper is not a punctilious observer because this is unrealistic for streams. The only trouble is that the careful reader will discover that there is no mention of an exact length of the stream anywhere in Chapter III (or Chapter IV) of The Deerslayer.

As Hurry Harry and Deerslayer set off in their canoe in search of the Ark, the men move into a bay, a body of water partly enclosed by land, and an outlet of the lake (54). "This point, instead of thrusting itself forward, like all the others, ran in a line with the main shore of the lake, which here swept within it, in a deep and retired bay, circling round south, again, at the distance of a quarter of a mile, and crossed the valley, forming the southern termination of the water" (55). After the appearance of a single deer on the bank in the luxuriance of the pervading stillness (which Harry tries unsuccessfully to kill), the men discover the stream. The banks have an elevation of perhaps 20 feet, 100 feet apart from each other, but extend so far forward that the stream's width is reduced to possibly that of 50 feet.

It may strike the reader as a little singular that the place where a stream of any size passed through banks that had an elevation of some twenty feet, should be a matter of doubt with men, who could not now have been more than two hundred yards distant from the precise spot. It will be recollected, however, that the trees and bushes, here as elsewhere, fairly overhung the water, making such a fringe to the lake as to conceal any little variations from its general outline. (60)

Cooper depicts the stream as about 50 feet wide, as Twain has calculated. "The high banks might have been a hundred feet asunder, but on the western side a small bit of low land, extended so far forward, as to diminish the breath of the stream to half that width" (61). He next portrays the density of the foliage that overhangs the water beneath, and the canoe advances slowly beneath an arch of trees:

As the bushes hung in the water beneath, and pines that had the stature of church steeples, rose in tall columns above, all inclining towards the light until their branches intermingled, the eye, at a little distance, could not easily detect any opening in the shore to mark the egress of the water. In the forest above, no traces of this outlet were to be seen from the lake, the whole presenting the same connected and seemingly interminable carpet of leaves. As the canoe slowly advanced, sucked in by the current, it entered beneath an arch of trees, through which the light from the heavens struggled, by casual openings, faintly relieving the gloom beneath. (61)

They no sooner pass the fringe of bushes on the shore than:

...the adventurers found themselves in a narrow stream, of a sufficient depth of limpid water, with a strong current and a canopy of leaves, upheld by arches composed of the limbs of hoary trees. Bushes lined the shores, as usual, but they left sufficient space between them to admit the passage of any thing that did not exceed twenty feet in width, and to allow of a perspective ahead of eight or ten times that distance. (62)

Thus, Twain deliberately misreads Cooper's text with regards to the stream shortening from 20 to 30 feet. The breadth between the banks of the stream in Cooper's text does narrow from 50 to 20 feet, but if there is an additional shrinkage of 30 feet, as Twain claims, these 30 to 40 feet, which Twain mentions in his attack (of Chapter IV), are caused by the thick growth of the foliage along the banks:

In many parts of the lake and river, where the banks were steep and high, the smaller trees, and larger bushes, as has already been mentioned, fairly overhung the stream, their branches not unfrequently dipping into the water. In some instances they grew out in nearly horizontal lines, for thirty or forty feet. The water being uniformly deepest near the shores, where the banks were highest and the nearest to a perpendicular, Hutter had found no difficulty where it had been anchored with a view to conceal its position, security requiring such precautions, in his view of the case. Once beneath the trees and bushes, a few stones fastened to the ends of the branches had caused them to bend sufficiently to dip into the river, and a few severed bushes, properly disposed, did the rest. The reader has seen that this cover was so complete, as to deceive two men accustomed to the woods, and who were actually in search of those it concealed, a circumstance that will be easily understood by those who are familiar with the matted and wild luxuriance of a virgin American forest, more especially in a rich soil. (65)

As the reader can see, Cooper carefully accounts in his descriptions for the dimensions of the wide and narrow path of the stream, and for the fact that wide streams can also narrow, perhaps inexplicably to humans, according to the laws of nature (53), and Cooper admits that their own smaller boat is a tight squeeze, when Deerslayer remarks that "this seems no place for a vessel of any size...and it appears to me that we shall hardly have room enough for the canoe..." (62). Krause also believes the shrinkage of the stream is actually carefully accounted for by Cooper and that the navigable part of the stream is reduced by the luxuriant growth of vegetation, where the Susquehanna River begins (53).

Just as Twain writes that the shrinkage in Cooper's stream is not accounted for, he quarrels that the size of the Ark will not fit into the stream for it is behind this thick curtain of bushes that The Ark is concealed, just beyond the outlet of the lake on the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, where Tom Hutter is tending his muskrat and beaver traps. This gives Twain occasion to write that Cooper describes the Ark rather obscurely. This is in itself illogical. (If you can't see something clearly, how can you know its exact size?)

But in Chapter IV, Cooper actually describes it in vivid detail:

The Ark, as the floating habitation of the Hutters was generally called, was a very simple contrivance. A large flat, or scow, composed the buoyant part of the vessel, and, in its centre, occupying the whole of its breadth and about two thirds of its length, stood a low fabric, resembling the castle in construction, though made of materials so light as barely to be bulletproof. As the sides of the scow were a little higher than usual, and the interior of the cabin had no more elevation than necessary for comfort, this unusual addition had neither a very clumsy, nor a very obtrusive appearance. It was, in short, little more than a modern canal boat, though more rudely constructed, of greater breadth than common, and bearing about it the signs of wilderness, in its bark-covered posts and roof. The scow, however, had been put together with some skill, being comparatively light, for its strength, and sufficiently manageable. The cabin was divided into two compartments, one of which served for a parlor, and the sleeping-room of the father, and the other was appropriated to the uses of the daughters. A very simple arrangement sufficed for the kitchen, which was in one end of the scow, and removed from the cabin, standing in the open air; the Ark being altogether a summer habitation. (65)

Twain refers to it as "a kind of vestibule train," a passenger car on a railroad train (4). Cooper refers to it as a "scow," a large flat-bottomed boat with square ends, used chiefly for transporting freight. Twain is very concerned with The Ark's dimensions, which he estimates are 140 feet long by 16 feet wide, although Cooper never really says. He guesses that it has been prowling down bends which are "but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side," although this is only a guess too, because there is nothing like this in Cooper's text. It has two rooms each forty-five feet long and 16 feet wide, one of which is the bedroom of the Hutter girls and the other which is both a parlor and the father's bedroom, as Cooper describes it. But Twain writes there is a foot to spare on either side of the boat although in no place does Cooper refer to specific dimensions of this boat. But Twain describes to the reader how big it is:

In the matter of dimensions "it was little more than a modern canal boat. Let us guess, then, that it was about one hundred and forty feet long. It was of "greater breadth than common." Let us guess then that it was about sixteen feet wide. This leviathan had been prowling down bends which were but a third as long as itself, and scraping between banks where it only had two feet of space to spare on each side. We cannot too much admire this miracle. A low- roofed dwelling occupies "two-thirds of the ark's length" -- a dwelling ninety feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us say -- a kind of vestibule train. The dwelling has two rooms -- each forty- five feet long and sixteen feet wide, let us guess. One of them is the bedroom of the Hutter girls, Judith and Hetty; the other is the parlor in the daytime, at night it is papa's bedchamber. The ark is arriving at the stream's exit now, whose width has been reduced to less than twenty feet to accommodate the Indians -- say to eighteen. There is a foot to spare on each side of the boat (4).

Since Twain was so sure of the size - although this appears to be based on guesswork above - , we inquired as to exactly what were the dimensions of a "modern canal boat" in Cooper's day? Schachterle and Ljungquist have found that:

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.1 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.2 Such a draft and size make Cooper's ark manageable by Hurry Harry alone (364.29-32). (quoted on 4)
Susquehanna Ark

W.H. Bartlett
View on the Susquehanna, at Liverpool
(1839) from Schachterle's Essay

Twain has created a huge mammoth of a boat for Cooper's story even though he is not its author and set it in a tiny stream with no room to spare on either side to move. Schachterle points out that Twain gleefully assigned lengths appropriate to his own era and manufactured a navigational colossus too awkward to negotiate the size of bends he (not Cooper) had given to the Susquehanna, using a boat whose dimensions he (not Cooper) had created, and a stretch of river he (not Cooper) designed (4). Moving the parts of Cooper's scene about in a broad parody, a burlesque of scrambled geography, Twain has constructed the climax of his own tale as the Indians appear on the tree.

It is Cooper's Indians and their verisimilitude in Cooper criticism that have received the brunt of Twain's scathing criticisms and have been the object of subsequent ridicule,3 and in the following passage, Twain describes how Cooper "bent a sapling to form an arch over this narrow passage and concealed six Indians in its foliage," as though this were a joke:

The ark is one hundred and forty-feet long; the dwelling is ninety feet long. The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judged, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect. (4).

The Ark arrives at the stream's exit, and Twain seizes on Cooper's detail earlier that the stream has narrowed to twenty feet, to elaborate on this by adding that Cooper did this to accommodate the Indians. The Indians, who are stock figures in Twain's rendition, are lying in wait for The Ark, which is being hauled through the stream by means of a rope anchored in the lake, out of the perceived danger; and fall into the water one by one as they jump, the laughing stock of the joke. Only their chief lands on the deck of the scow. They are so stupid their intellect is equivalent to that of the once familiar wooden Indian outside the cigar store.

Twain writes:

Did the Indians know there was going to be a tight squeeze here? Did they notice that they could make money by climbing down out of that arched sapling and just stepping aboard when the ark scraped by? No, other Indians would have noticed these things, but Cooper's Indians never notice anything. (4).

W.C. Brownell believes that Cooper's Indian characters are as carefully studied and as successfully portrayed as his white ones (19). Furthermore, Brownell reaffirms "that the so-called 'noble red man', whom he has popularly supposed to have invented, does not exist in his books at all," (17) or that Cooper's Indians are in any sense purely romantic creations. "Cooper's view is certainly that the Indian is human." But the fact which is so generally lost sight of is that the "noble red man" -- the fictitious character he is charged with inventing -- is not to be found in his pages" (Brownell 18).

But Cooper himself acknowledged in the 1826 Preface to The Last of the Mohicans that "the reader who takes up these volumes, in expectation of finding an imaginary and romantic picture of things which never had an existence, will probably lay them aside, disappointed. The work is exactly what it professes to be in its title-page--a narrative" (3). He also admitted to a friend that he was never among the Indians. "I never was among the Indians. All I know of them is from reading, and from hearing my father speak of them" (quoted in Pearce 200). But Cooper denied that they were unrealistic in his Preface claiming poetic license. He has nevertheless created one of the most enduring images of the Native American in American literature.

Albert Keiser states that "the writer who more than anyone else impressed his conception of the Indian upon America and the world at large is James Fenimore Cooper, in eleven of whose books the red man plays a prominent part" (101).

To label Cooper's Indian characters, therefore, as stereotyped is an injustice to the quality of Cooper's art.4 Cooper's Indians are not sentimentalized as in the romantic sense in that they do not elicit easy sympathy. They are real people...Rather, those writers who contributed to the romantic stereotype of the noble red man may be those pre-romantic early American writers of captivity narratives such as Mary Rowlandson, John Smith, and Christopher Columbus. (Captain John Smith's Pocahontas in A True Relation may be the most romantic Indian in all American literature.) But if Cooper is also guilty of attempted portraiture of racial types, then so are Faulkner and many other writers, including Melville.

Beard defends Cooper against the lack of verisimilitude of his Indian characters in the following way: "Though Cooper seems never to have prepared a systematic list of readings, the extraordinary assimilation of information displayed in his fiction suggests that his knowledge of Indians was as full and authentic as discriminating study of the printed sources of his time allowed" (quoted in Peck 8).

In Twain's last passages of his essay, the Indians, hidden in the tree foliage descend onto the Ark as it passes, falling into the river. He acknowledges that the scene is "a sublime burst of invention," but then proceeds on to say that "the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and improbability over it" due to Cooper's inadequacy as an observer (4). But the real burst of invention, the real miracle, in this scene is not Cooper's but Twain's reconstruction of it in his essay. It is incredibly funny but totally inaccurate as rewritten by Twain. In defense of Cooper, Beard has written of The Deerslayer that "Though the book has frequently been denigrated as a simple adventure story, it becomes astonishing complex if read as a work of serious fiction" (xxxiii).

The reader may ask why Twain did this to Cooper, and the answer in part is that Twain's essay serves as his literary omnibus to destroy romantic ideas and images of the past and to demolish the ideas of romanticism. How he has done it is certainly by confusing the reader with numbers and figures in his burlesque, thus reducing Cooper's "inadequacy of details" to a laughable statistical commodity, a technique of dark satire, particularly Juvenalian, dehumanizing Cooper in the process.

On the other hand, Cooper's still life with luxuriant vegetation reflects the values of the Hudson River School of painting and develops a motif of his work, that of the unspoiled wealth of the virgin American forests before their plunder by colonials. George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, depicting life along the river shows how the pulse of American life had roots that were independent of European history. In this painting every day happenings are interwoven with events that have created a nation, as in Cooper's novel. Cooper's scene, while simple and understated, addresses a tone, a feeling of great solemnity found in the stillness of Cooper's wilderness.

"No tinsel, literary or other, accentuates its simplicity, and no footlight illumination colors its freshness. Cooper is hardly to be called a poet, as I have said. yet "The Deerslayer's" romance is, in the net impression it leaves, in the resultant effect of its extraordinary visualization of wild and lovely material, as poetic as Chateaubriand's, and fully as effective as that of any work of Scott" (Brownell 16).

"It is all, then, a matter of the author's attitude toward the reality of the world he represents" (535), as Eric Auerbach writes in "The Brown Stocking," and for Twain, interpreting Cooper was a way of defining his own reality and sense of style.


1. [From Schachterle's Essay] 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."

2. [From Schacterle's Essay] 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].

3. Cooper became synonymous for Mark Twain with wholly unwarranted, sentimental, idealized notions of American Indian tribes. Clemens' experiences in the Far West disabused him of youthful suppositions, and the poverty and squalor he found endemic to the Nevada and California aborigines made him disgusted with the "romances" he had once enjoyed. In 1897 he recalled that Cooper was one of the Hannibal idols during his childhood, when "any young person would have been proud of a 'strain' of Indian blood." He wrote to Jane Lampton Clemens from Carson City on 20 March 1862 to ridicule Cooper's "lordly sons of the forest" and to provide indeed "a full and correct account of these lovely indians--not gleaned from Cooper's novels, Madam" (quoted in PRI, p. 37). In his letter of 5 June 1867 to the Alta California he wrote about marauding natives: "I suppose the humanitarians want somebody to fight the Indians that J. Fenimore Cooper made. There is just where the mistake is. The Cooper Indians are dead -- died with their creator" (MTMB, p. 266) (quoted in Mark Twain's Library. A Reconstruction, Vol.1, 159).

4. "The introduction into literature of the North American Indian, considered merely as a romantic element, was an important event in the history of fiction. He was an unprecedented and a unique figure--at least on the scale and with the vividness with which he is depicted in Cooper, for the Indians of Mrs. Behn and Voltaire and Chateaubriand can in comparison hardly be said to count at all. They are incarnated abstractions didactically inspired for the most part; L'Ingenu, the virtuous, for example, being no more than an expedient for the contrasted exhibition of civilized vices. But Cooper's Indians, whatever their warrant in truth, were notable actors in the picturesque drama of pioneer storm and stress. They stand out in individual as well as racial relief, like his other personages, American, English, French, and Italian, and discharge their roles in idiosyncratic, as well as in energetic, fashion. To object to them on the ground that, like Don Quixote and Athos, the Black Knight and Saladin, Uncle Toby and Dalgetty, they are ideal types without actual analogues would be singularly ungracious" (Brownell 17)

Works Cited

Return to Other Articles Articles & Papers