Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction

Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction

Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction

Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction


Violent scenes in American fiction are not only brutal, bleak, and gratuitous, writes Michael Kowalewski. They are also, by turns, comic, witty, poignant, and sometimes, strangely enough, even terrifyingly beautiful. In this fascinating tour of American fiction, Kowalewski examines incidents ranging from scalpings and torture in The Deerslayer to fish feeding off human viscera in To Have and Have Not, to show how highly charged descriptive passages bear on major issues concerning a writer's craft. Instead of focusing on violence as a socio- cultural phenomenon, he explores how writers including Cooper, Poe, Crane, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wright, Flannery O'Connor, and Pynchon draw on violence in the realistic imagining of their works and how their respective styles sustain or counteract this imagining. Kowalewski begins by offering a new definition of realism, or realistic imagining, and the rhetorical imagination that seems to oppose it. Then for each author he investigates how scenes of violence exemplify the stylistic imperatives more generally at work in that writer's fiction. Using violence as the critical occasion for exploring the distinctive qualities of authorial voice, Deadly Musings addresses the question of what literary criticism is and ought to be, and how it might apply more usefully to the dynamics of verbal performance.


The style of some authors has variety in it, but Cooper's style is remarkable for the absence of this feature. Cooper's style is always grand and stately and noble. Style may be likened to an army, the author to its general, the book to the campaign. Some authors proportion an attacking force to the strength or weakness, the importance or unimportance, of the object to be attacked; but Cooper doesn't. It doesn't make any difference to Cooper whether the object of attack is one hundred thousand men or a cow; he hurls his entire force against it. He comes thundering down with all his battalions at his back, cavalry in the van, artillery on the flanks, infantry massed in the middle, forty bands braying, a thousand banners streaming in the wind…Cooper's style is grand, awful, beautiful; but it is sacred to Cooper, it is his very own, and no student of the Veterinary College of Arizona will be allowed to filch it from him.

—Mark Twain, “Cooper's Prose Style,” in Letters from the Earth

[The Deerslayer] is a gem of a book. Or a bit of perfect paste.

And myself, I like a bit of perfect paste in a perfect setting, so long as I am not fooled by pretense of reality…. Of course it never rains: it is never cold and muddy and dreary: no one has wet feet or toothache: no one ever feels filthy, when they can't wash for a week. God knows what the women would really have looked like, for they fled through the wilds without soap, comb, or towel. They breakfasted off a chunk of meat, or nothing, lunched the same, and supped the same.

Yet at every moment they are elegant, perfect ladies, in correct toilet.

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