MR. TWAIN'S CRITIQUING OFFENSES
Just having fun with Mr. Twain here. Please don't get any twigs bent out of shape!
"A cynic is one who can't see the good in anything yet sees the bad in everything."
- Oscar Wilde
It's been 103 years since Mr. Twain penned his vitriolic denouncement of James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales." Though his critique is amusing, at times hysterical, it is rife with exaggeration, rabid jealousy, and literary hypocrisy. Time enough has passed to permit a patiently considered response to the gentleman's charges of literary offenses. In other words, Mr. Twain, he who lives by the pen, dies by the pen.
It should be remembered, while romping through Mr. Twain's cunningly caustic criticisms, that he was the personification of Oscar Wilde's definition of cynic. However witty and entertaining his sarcasm is, the truth is that the Mississippi gambler was a cynic of the most grievous sort .... nasty, nasty, nasty. His dark, bitter mood distorted his opinions and blackened his perceptions. Mr. Twain's sadistic jealousy allowed little room for praise or compliment of others, and prohibited objectivity or honesty. He was, in his own eyes, a brilliant, observant author whose talents overshadowed others, who were in comparison mere amateurs and literary imposters. The world according to Twain was a bleak, depressing prison. During his penitential stay, the great mind was forced to suffer the idiocy of humanity by amusing himself with his own wit. This is not all bad, of course. It can be a useful ruse and effective anti-depressant for miserable men who find other men intolerable. Twain was his own best company and most devoted love. His was a lifelong romance. When he was alone he was never lonely, for the company he kept was brilliantly charming.
Looking at Mr. Twain's enumeration of "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" one finds an element of truth. It is hard to argue against his charges that Cooper rather lacked in his ability to engage his characters in succinct conversation. In Twain's rule # 5 of romantic fiction we read ;
"They require 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."Though Mr. Twain violated his own rule while explaining the rule, it is nonetheless a sound requirement. In this area, Mr. Cooper does appear to have a bit of difficulty. He often permitted Natty Bumppo to deliver verbose speeches detailing his life philosophy, mastery of the woodcraft art, his favorite pleasures, personal hatreds, biographical history, accounts of his great hunting successes, irritations with females, and a record of his father's people when a simple greeting would have sufficed. He simply did not know when to say when. On this charge, Mr. Cooper is guilty.
If, in the interest of fairness, we were to apply this same literary requirement to Mr. Twain, how well does he fare? Let's look at our all American boy Tom Sawyer. In chapter one we are introduced to the little terror and his broom wielding Aunt Polly as she discovers the miscreant hiding in the closet after having stolen jam. As the haggard guardian, on page two, prepares to whip Tom for his crime against her pantry, he creates a lame, oversimplified diversion and scurries away quick as a mouse. The old woman is expected, by sensible readers, to react with even greater ire. She doesn't. How then does she react? She breaks "into a gentle laugh!" Ha! And what "gentle" utterance escapes her lips? Read on...
"Hang the boy, can't I never learn anything? Ain't he played me tricks enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can't learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike two days, and how is a body to know what's coming? He 'pears to know just how long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it's all down again and I can't hit him a lick. I ain't doing my duty by that boy, and that's the Lord's truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I'm a-laying up sin and suffering for us both. I know. He's full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he's my own dead sister's boy, poor thing, and I ain't got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks."Unbelievably, Aunt Polly continues;
" Well-a-well, man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble, as the Scripture says, and I reckon it's so. He'll play hooky this evening, and I'll just be obleeged to make him work tomorrow, to punish him. It's mighty hard to make him work Saturdays, when all the boys is having holiday, but he hates work more than he hates anything else, and I've got to do some of my duty by him, or I'll be the ruination of the child."
Mercifully, Mr. Twain allows Aunt Polly to take a breath at this late point in time, and the reader is offered the opportunity to escape the ear bending tale before it's too late. We're only on the third page. Without debating the necessity of peppering Aunt Polly's tiresome monologue with neat little quotes, biblical recitations, and overused idiomatic phrases - or whether or not there may have been an audience present (other than the broom) in the room that Mr. Twain neglected to mention, one must wonder if a simple "Damn that boy!" would not have been a more effective response. Even Natty Bumppo rarely went on so long. Who could really believe it a plausible scene? An angered woman ready to beat an unruly child is given the slip, yet she responds to the additional offense with a long winded account of her degree of kinship to the boy, reminds herself that he is the son of her deceased sister who has died, recounts his previous offenses and prior record, explains to herself - lest she hasn't yet grasped it - that the wayward lad always manipulates her, anticipates his next crime, delivers a sermon on parental duty and the obligation for discipline, explores the nature of crime and punishment, mentions the lad's sentiments in regards to holidays and work details, and declares they're both going to hell in a hand basket. This, she does, while breaking into "a gentle laugh." Is this how humans "talk?" Mr. Twain is as guilty as Mr. Cooper in violating rule # 5.
Another literary requirement is rule # 17; Use good grammar. A quick flashback to Aunt Polly's tear jerking lamentation presents a problem for Mr. Twain. But let us leave the old woman and hear what Tom himself has to say.
"I reckon it wouldn't hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly's awful particular.... I reckon there ain't one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it's got to be done."
But Tom and Aunt Polly aren't alone in their criminal speech. Even their fictional conspirators massacre the English language.
And so forth and so on. Would that we could find just one well spoken person in Mr. Twain's Tom and Huck tales, perhaps we might save Sodom. The endless mutterings of botched words and pseudo-speech is tedious to read, painful to absorb, and cruelly overdone . It barely resembles the way "humans talk." (Mr. Twain, do watch those adjectives & adverbs!) One can imagine how uninspired Mr. Twain must have been to waste precious time creating such appalling "dialogue." It hardly carried each "situation" or developed the story. Was he simply bored? Another author more perceptive and possessive of good sense than Mr. Twain may well have burned the entire manuscript after typing the 1000th "warn't" and other verbal muck. Even the author himself can be found wanting in his grammatical applications while narrating the adventures of Tom Sawyer at times. Hey! We all have bad days, Mr. Twain. But bad months? Bad books? Bad speech? Bad boys? Bad "situations? Who were you trying to punish anyway? Jimmy Breslin and Wannabee Internet Harlotquin writers seem gifted in comparison.
Passing over Mr. Twain's rules for the moment, let us turn our attention to his disgust with Cooper's use of "stage-properties" which included "cunning devices, tricks, artifices" which were meant to "deceive and circumvent." Mr. Twain is particularly perturbed over Cooper's dependency on moccasins. He charges Cooper with wearing out "barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick." In all fairness to Mr. Cooper, the moccasin device is at least a logical choice relevant to the subject, title, locale, era, and plot of the "Leatherstocking Tales." What would Mr. Twain have in their place? Skid marks? One-legged vagrants? L. L. Bean heavy duty work boots? Fuzzy slippers? And does Mr. Twain not implement his own stage-properties in the form of frogs, beetles, snakes, dead rats, flies, rusty fish hooks, dead cats, corn cob pipes, and other convenient boy devices? Whenever Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn are in need of amusement or diversion, does Mr. Twain not predictably provide them with such tricks and devices? Whether in church, school, supper, bath, shack, or cemetery, Tom and Huck will somehow manage to discover, capture, pocket, trip over, or happen to have such a weapon to deceive and circumvent.
The greatest device Cooper used, according to Mr. Twain, was the broken twig, which Cooper "worked" the hardest. Yes, there were quite a few twigs popping up, jutting out, getting stepped on, discovered broken, or snapping loudly at the most inopportune moments in the "Leatherstocking Tales." In fact, twigs were so frequently an event, mood setter, scene prop, or cause of discovery that one is led to conclude the tales were primarily set in the forest! So impressed with these multi-purpose twigs was Mr. Twain that he suggested Cooper's tales be renamed the "Broken Twig Series." Witty amusement though it be, Mr. Twain has once again pointed his accusing finger at another for a crime he himself commits. Yes, Cooper has his twigs; and Twain has his rafts. Is it not true that whenever Twain's boys are in need of a water vessel, a raft or riverboat conveniently appears?! Where there is a murder, there be a raft nearby. When the need arises to escape, there be a raft hidden along the river bank. If Twain's boys had urgent cause to protect an innocent man, there be an idle raft waiting for passengers. And if our American boys just simply needed to get away from it all, lo and behold! They'd stumble upon a raft. Mr. Twain certainly "worked very hard" this stage-property device to move his boys up and down the Mississippi whenever he wished to transport them. When the author really wanted to spice up the tale and add suspense, he'd replace the simple raft with an impressive riverboat filled with all sorts of lowlifes and royal imposters. For a couple of illiterate, backwoods, uncivilized lads, these two sure had a worldly sense and reliable knowledge of exactly where and when a raft could be stumbled upon. How lucky does one get? In Twain's boy books, very lucky. And my! What action was to be found in this tiny speck of a town! Come, come, Mr. Twain. Admit your own dependency on YOUR bag of tricks.
Mr. Twain continues his assault by declaring Cooper void of inventive skills or "clever situations" in his "Leatherstocking Tales." Twain takes offense at the way Mr. Cooper constructs his "situations," finding them all silly, unrealistic, and boring. Yes, the dancing bear may have been more silly than clever, but a boy falling from the ceiling for an impromptu attendance at his own funeral is just as silly. Or repeated stumblings upon murderers, drunken thieves, grave robbers, and no good paps; is that clever? Surely allowing his boys to be so naive as to believe two rag-tag, foul mouthed, uneducated asses are a king and a duke is not clever. Perhaps Mr. Twain was medicated while he was constructing his own "situations." If a reader really wants to muddle through an uninventive, silly, illogical 'situation,' perhaps the Arabian Nights situation would do. Avoiding unnecessary torment, we shall pass over the situation details of how it was that Huck, Tom, and Jim found themselves in a hot air balloon somewhere over the Middle East. It is remarkable in its absurdity. Nonetheless, there they were, in the Arabian desert, floating in Mr. Twain's handy stage-property, impressed by the vastness of the desert and the endless quantity of "actual Arabian sand." For all Mr. Twain's indignation with Mr. Cooper's silly situations and the improbable, ridiculous actions of his characters, he was not loathe to construct his own. Mr. Twain had his small town, globe trotting, aero-trio concoct a "clever" scheme to sell the "actual Arabian sand." That's right. He would have us believe that Tom, Huck, and Jim thought it perfectly reasonable to land, fill their balloon with the "actual Arabian sand" and float away to fame and fortune. As if this situation was not yet silly enough, Mr. Twain upped the silliness by inexplicably bursting a figurative bubble in the "actual Arabian sand" scheme, rendering the entire situation irrelevant as well as silly. Now, if it were necessary to retract the silly situation, possibly because Twain thought better of it and realized the improbable, ridiculous nature of his idea, he ought to at least have done so through reasonable means. Perhaps a leak in the balloon, or a crash landing. Maybe all that "actual Arabian sand" could have been too heavy a load for flight. These events would at least have offered a neat, believable solution for Twain's understandable need to abandon his silly situation. Instead, our witty, clever author decided to let the trio float on, unaffected by the weight of the sand, undeterred by loss of reason, until they neared the border. Ah! Here's where Twain found his solution. Our American boys were conveniently allowed to notice a ban against crossing the border with goods. Remarkably, they determined that the "actual Arabian sand" was "goods" and therefore could not continue their merchant flight. But what to do with all the "actual Arabian sand?" How would the master of reasoned fiction and clever situations deal with this problem? They simply sailed back a bit, landed the hot air balloon, and laboriously emptied every bit of the "actual Arabian sand" from the basket! Really! Talk about taking it with a grain of sand.
As for characters; Mr. Twain was sorely in need of fresh "personages." Every male being who traveled through Twain's boy series was grammatically challenged, high strung, mischievous or evil, dirty, shoeless, uneducated, dim witted AND brilliantly cunning, expert river navigators, poor, and slow to learn from mistakes. The females were not dirty, but all were neurotic, emotional wrecks, talkative, prissy, flirtatious, grammatically challenged, silly, inclined to cry, and ribbon wearers. At least Cooper supplied variety with his "Cooper persons." The Mississippian insisted on dishing out silly "Twain persons" who differed only in age, gender, or race. One can tolerate only so many "warn't" people in any series. Mr. Twain, who are you trying to kid?
Though James Fenimore Cooper did have some weaknesses in his literary skills, the stories were nonetheless great tales. Great adventures with America's most popular fictional character is no small accomplishment, especially within a series that addressed many complex social, political, historical, and philosophical issues in a pubescent era of a nation. Mr. Twain likewise possessed weaknesses in his literary skills, yet he too told some great tales. Despite the literary crimes committed by both authors, from speech difficulties to silly "situations," their "classic" novels remain popular still... Even if there were too many twigs and rafts.
We should forgive them their trespasses and read them both more often.
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