To me, Mark Twain is the key by which all all 19th century American literature is to be assessed. My shelf is full of Twain’s books and essays and my sense of humor, my feeble story-telling abilities and my lens to view the world has been completely shaped by his work. His humor was, in a word, perfect. His ability to pull the Ridiculous out of any situation and cause it to blossom is so brilliant, yet understated and nuanced that by the time you’re done laughing, you can’t perceive the serious reality of the event anymore at all.
So when I first read Twain’s essay “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” as a high schooler, I was fully persuaded that Cooper was a sub-par, overly romanticized writer who set 19th century dollhouse figures marching around a rural frontier setting.
I realize that his title “The Last of the Mohicans” is a household phrase and that by most he is a romance writer to be reckoned with. I’ve seen him compared to Sir Walter Scott, whom I absolutely adore but yet, I remained unmoved. I wasn’t able to see any of his novels in their cheap reprintings without scoffing at the suckers who take him home expecting to read literature.
So why did I send my husband to the store to blow $8 on a mammoth volume with such a tacky name as “The Deerslayer”? I’m not sure. Maybe sometime in the last couple of years I felt a touch of remorse for my automatic dismissiveness. Maybe I just figure that I should give Cooper a chance. Or, most likely, I just wanted to read Cooper and see everything that Twain said proven true. I wanted to rest assured that my hero was justified in everything that he said.
225 pages in, I alternate between chuckling in disbelief and banging my head against the page. And all I can say now is, Twain was spot on. Deerslayer is no hero; but I’m not left wanting for someone to idolize.