Poe and Twain: Cooper Reviewed and Revised

By Dameron, J. Lasley | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Poe and Twain: Cooper Reviewed and Revised


Dameron, J. Lasley, The Mississippi Quarterly


DOROTHY PARKER, NOTED WIT AND JOURNALIST, once quipped, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."(1) With comparable wit and obvious overstatement, Mark Twain concluded that Deerslayer, a novel by James Fenimore Cooper, "is just simply a literary delirium tremens."(2) Equally candid, with less intended wit, Poe declared that the prose style of Cooper's novel Wyandotte, or the Hutted Knoll has verbal inaccuracies and sentences "arranged with awkwardness so remarkable as to be matter of astonishment...."(3)

Poe and Twain not only belittle Cooper's prose style in their critical essays but take upon themselves the judicious task of rewriting some of Cooper's sentences. Not since the criticism by the contributors to the Edinburgh Review, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and, notably, William Hazlitt's appraisals of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Examiner--has a major writer of considerable stature been subject to such close scrutiny.(4) Poe and Twain's condemnation of Cooper's prose style reflects the traditional practices of early nineteenth-century British reviewers to attack authors (especially poets) without restraint.

Both Poe and Twain dwell upon Cooper's semantic and structural imperfections. Although they examine a few works by Cooper, they have little hesitation in suggesting that similar defects of diction and style can be found throughout Cooper's compositions. Poe's two extended criticisms of Cooper include reviews of Cooper's The History of the Navy of the United States of America in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, July 1839, and Cooper's novel Wyandotte in Graham's Magazine, November 1843. Herman Melville, Francis Parkman, and others were later to praise Cooper; Bret Harte and Twain were to become two of Cooper's chief detractors.(5) Often considered a humorous satire, Twain's renowned essay on Cooper entitled "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," North American Review, July 1895, continues to draw adverse criticism.(6) A second version, possibly composed as a lecture, entitled "Fenimore Cooper's Further Literary Offenses," was published posthumously in the September 1946, issue of the New England Quarterly, edited by Bernard Devoto. Twain's second essay, unsurprisingly, reinforces Twain's dissatisfaction with Cooper. In this study, I will center my attention on the four criticisms of Cooper I have specified--two reviews by Poe and two essays by Twain.(7)

Was Twain aware of Poe's reviews of Cooper? Perhaps.(8) Alan Gribben carefully examines the relationship of Twain and Poe but does not refer to their comparable evaluations of Cooper.(9) Twain once wrote William Dean Howells that he would read "Poe on salary,"(10) yet Gribben pinpoints evidences of literary affinities between Twain and Poe (passim). Whether Twain was aware of Poe's frequent comments (some favorable) on Cooper throughout his reviews is not known. It is clear, however, that in the essays I examine they attack Cooper's mode of expression on a common ground. Poe the Gothic Romanticist and Twain the incipient Realist of Huckleberry, Finn appear to put aside any possible temperamental proclivities as artists and declare in no uncertain terms what they feel to be poor literary composition. Both Poe and Twain, in pointing to examples of Cooper's faults as a writer, adhere to the fundamentals of eighteenth-century, prescriptive rules and to fundamentals of rhetoric and composition that would have been available to them in complete or in adapted editions of Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres by Hugh Blair.(11)

Blair, a Scots minister and lecturer, first published his collection of lectures in 1783. Frequently studied in secondary schools and colleges, Blair's Rhetoric went through "at least one hundred and thirty editions ... the last in 1911."(12) According to Michael G. Moran, Blair's Lectures was "one of the most influential rhetorics during the nineteenth century in both England and America. …

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