January 19, 2018
Cooper, Twain, Twigs
On this day in 1841 James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer was published. This was the last-written of the five Leatherstocking novels, though it covers the earliest phase of the saga, that part wherein the twenty-three-year-old Natty Bumppo must pass his first tests in the wilderness, rise above the worst of paleface and redskin ethics, avoid being burned at the stake, return to Chingachgook his beloved Wah-ta!-Wah ("which rendered into English means Hist-oh!-Hist") and, to the fetching Judith's despair, explain the whereabouts of his own true love:
She's in the forest-hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain-in the dew on the open grass -- the clouds that float about in the blue heavens-the birds that sing in the woods -- the sweet springs where I slake my thirst-and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!
This sort of talk, and the taste for it among scholars and the reading public, so riled up Mark Twain that in 1895 he published an article entitled "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences." Twain found The Deerslayer guilty of breaking eighteen of his nineteen rules for romantic fiction, including Rule Three: "that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others." Twain wanted Cooper's entire Leatherstocking series to be renamed his "Broken Twig" books:
It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one.
A new name would not have bothered Natty Bumppo. He was Straight-tongue, Pigeon and Lap-ear before Deerslayer, and of course he was Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, Long Rifle and Pathfinder too. (Natty sometimes knows Chingachgook as "the sarpent," so named for the wily side of "a sartain sarpent at the creation of the 'arth"; Twain knows him as "one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think).")
The twig-snap may have been genetic. Twenty-five years after her father's death, Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote introductions for many of his novels. In her imaginative account of young Bumppo, perhaps recreated from the stories her father used to tell, she explains that the Deerslayer tried to be a farmer in order to please his family. He planted corn, but "long before the maize was in the tassel" he "could bear the life in the thickly peopled country no longer":
In a few hours he reached the first belt of forest. He threw himself down to drink from a mossy spring, and then leaning against an old tree sat in silent happiness looking upward toward the blue sky through the shady canopy of leaves he loved so well. Squirrels gamboled about him. A wood-thrush sang him a song of greeting. A twig cracked beside him. He looked up, and there stood young Chingachgook. Great was Natty's delight.
"I knew my brother would come!" were the only words of welcome spoken by the young Mohegan brave.