Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper, and how am I doing?

Writing is an important activity for me. I endeavor to do good thinking that produces thoughts worth conveying, and to write about them in a way that can entertain, inform, and generally add to your day.


James Fenimore Cooper, by John Wesley Jarvis, 1822

But intentions aren’t a guarantee of accomplishment. I’m sure that James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, intended that his writing be first-rate. He wrote over fifty novels, plays, and stories, and was quite successful, I believe, but here’s what Mark Twain had to say in his 1895 essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”:

Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician. His ear was satisfied with the approximate words. . . . There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now.

For his part, Twain critic Sydney Krause stated that the “sulfurous grumblings over Cooper [are] hardly the work of a judicious person.”

Other Twain critics maintain that in the above-quoted essay he was taking aim at Romanticism in general, and not just at the hapless author. Twain didn’t come up with zingers like that by accident though, and wrote enough additional material lambasting the man that it was posthumously published in an essay called “Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses.” Our time in history isn’t the only one to go in for sequels when the first round got a lot of notice.


Mark Twain, by Ernest C. Mills, 1895


I guess what I’m asking is, now that I’ve published 500 of these posts, how am I doing? You can certainly tell me in the comments, but if you prefer (and/or have particularly sulphurous things to say), you can find me at noteslori [at] gmail. I’m definitely interested to hear your views.

[Images: Wikipedia]


2 thoughts on “Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper, and how am I doing?

  1. I appreciate that your posts have a wide and rich variety, and you get quickly and clearly to an interesting point. I don’t think you are guilty of “literary flatting and sharping”, as Twain calls it.

    You probably know that Twain also claimed to detest Jane Austen, and said some very rude and funny things about her writing as well. Twain overlapped slightly with Robert Service, though I could not find, in a 30-second internet search, whether he ever said anything about Service, who has his own take on Literary Sins at the beginning of one his books of poetry.

    “I have no doubt at all the Devil grins,
    As seas of ink I spatter.
    Ye gods, forgive my ‘literary’ sins –
    The other kind don’t matter.”

  2. Because I don’t have much experience with James Fenimore Cooper, hearing Mark Twain lambasting him doesn’t have the bite that I’d experience reading his criticisms of Jane Austen. But I may have to look them up anyway.
    Also, that stanza from Robert Service packs a punch!

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