A Review Of “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” Critical Thinking Sample
Criticism of fiction is a longstanding practice that can bolster an author’s career or ruin it, even if the author has been long dead and buried. In the case of Fenimore Cooper, much has been written about his prose, including scathing condemnation of his glorification of American Indians as well as sincere appreciation for his beautiful romantic notions of the American way of life. In the case of “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain, the noted author and humorist is successful in his biting sarcasm and detailed criticism of Cooper for humor’s sake, but his meticulous explication of Coopers literary talent stops at humor. Through the use of sarcasm and humor, Twain entertains the reader but falls short of a true literary criticism.
Twain structures his criticism beautifully, setting the reader up for a tongue-in-cheek reflection of Fenimore’s tales. For example, by introducing his piece with Professors Lounsbury and Matthews and Wilkie Collins, Twain makes sure that the reader knows that he is writing in opposition to the Professors of English Literature from Yale and Columbia as well as the prolific novelist of romantic fiction. This ought to tip the reader off that Twain is writing in jest, but his scolding tone and serious prose oppose his humor and the reader may not be sure whether or not Twain is mocking or seriously evaluating the prose of Cooper. This makes the piece all the more entertaining. Twain is poking fun at himself in a way by doing this, pretending to know more than these distinguished literary fellows yet making a fool of himself (purposely) while doing so. This is a trademark of Twain – poking fun at himself for the benefit and enjoyment of his readers.
Twain structures his argument in an interesting fashion. After his opening quotes and response to those quotes, Twain’s list of offenses is quite different from how his contemporaries would have written a serious literary criticism, which would have been in a more formal structure organized around a thesis of what the piece did well and what the piece did not accomplish. The use of the list in Twain’s review of Cooper’s work is effective for his goal of entertainment, though. Creating a list of offenses almost makes Cooper a criminal of sorts per Twain’s list. This pronounced vilification of a popular and well-loved writer proves that Twain is writing in jest.
In addition to the odd structure of Twain’s argument, his use of made-up statistics may sound quite authoritative, but he never qualifies where these particular statistics derived from. For example, he writes that “In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” Twain does not explicate what these offenses are or what scale of literary offenses he is using. This tells the reader that he is pulling these “facts” out of the air for the sake of humor and entertainment. Twain goes on to list more of Cooper’s offenses by stating that “there are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In ‘Deerslayer,’ Cooper violated eighteen of them.” Again, Twain is fictionalizing a set of literary rules as well as Cooper’s non-adherence to them.
After Twain finishes listing Cooper’s ambiguous literary offenses in a great amount of detail, he continues with a robust beating of Cooper’s prose. Twain takes great delight in choosing specific details and passages from “Deerslayer” and raking them over the literary coals. For example, Twain writes that “Cooper made the exit of that stream fifty feet wide, in the first place, for no particular reason; in the second place, he narrowed it to less than twenty to accommodate some Indians.” Here, Twain is making assumptions about what Cooper’s motives or intentions were and then mocks them by stating that Cooper wrote what was convenient for making his story work.
Overall, Twain has penned an entertaining piece with “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” However, this is not successful literary criticism in the most formal sense of the definition; this is humor. Criticism of fiction is a judgment, a commentary on the effectiveness, quality, and structure of literary prose. While Twain certainly judges and comments on Cooper’s effectiveness as a fiction writer, this judgment is done in jest with the intent to entertain rather than explicate the worthiness of Cooper’s prose. In the case of Twain’s roast of Cooper, the one popular author is successful in humorously berating another popular author with irony, mockery, satire, and literary disdain. Twain’s painstaking illumination of Cooper’s literary talent amuses the reader but falls short of a true literary criticism.
Twain, Mark. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” University of Virginal Library. 1895. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
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