Friday, 7 December 2007

Fenimore Cooper the Postmodern Novelist

I've just been reading a collection of short works by Mark Twain, and have discovered conclusive proof that Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer etc.) was a postmodern novelist far ahead of his time.

The Twain piece is called "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". It begins with quotes from two professors of English literature praising Cooper, which is a fairly good start on being a postmodern novelist. But the real proof is in what follows. This is what Twain says, with tedious repetition removed:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction -- some say twenty-two. In "Deerslayer," Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. That the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.

3. 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.

4. That the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. That when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. That when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. That when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.

8. That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. [This is a bit obscure; what Twain apparently means, judging from his later examples, is that some such label should not be used to justify any ridiculous ability or achievement that enters the author's head for the characters to possess.]

9. That the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. That the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. That the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Any novel that violates all eighteen of those rules is clearly a postmodern masterpiece.

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