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Literary Ramblings
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Oh, poor Mary Anne! They have her reading Fenimore Cooper! (And barely days after getting through Shelley. The stylistic whiplash alone would prostrate one!) I'll say it again: you gotta be tough to do an English Lit. Ph.D.

Mary Anne, if you haven't read Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, I recommend it. You ought to get a few chuckles out of it, at least.

I haven't read The Last of the Mohicans. At the beginning of my junior year of high school, I read The Deerslayer, and wrote an essay lampooning it mercilessly (taking a great deal of inspiration from Twain, whom I duly acknowledged in my essay.) My English teacher was highly amused, the essay got passed around among the school's other English teachers during coffee breaks, and I had to spend the rest of the year trying to figure out how to top that essay. (Ridiculing a book that irritated me turned out to be an easier task than trying to talk about books that I really liked.)

I'm kind of ambivalent about Fenimore Cooper's continued relatively high place in the literary canon. On the one hand, it's kind of cool to see popular adventure fiction get some respect. This is the kind of fiction, after all, that often gets trashed in much the same terms as science fiction: it's escapist, it doesn't deal with real life, it's only read by spotty teenage boys, etc. The only other American writer of adventure fiction I can think of who has high literary status is Melville, and Moby Dick is a pretty odd sort of adventure novel. (But a great one: I read Moby Dick over and over and over again as a child and as a teenager. First in an abridged kids version, later in unabridged form in a paperback my father[1] bought for me on a family trip to Mystic, CT to see the old whaling vessels. The front cover eventually fell off the paperback.)

On the other hand, Fenimore Cooper's prose is pretty bad; the books are surprisingly dull for ripping adventure yarns; and they're also deeply racist and misogynistic. Do these sound like works that have "Timeless Classic" written all over them?

Basically, what they've got going for them is this incredible force of mythopoiesis that somehow comes roaring through. Fenimore Cooper created these archetypes that have permeated our culture: every brave and self-reliant woodsman, every stealthy scalping "bad" Indian, every noble and incrutable "good" Indian, every male-bonding macho hero-and-sidekick pair from subsequent fiction and TV and film owes something to Fenimore Cooper. In terms of creating a pervasive and powerful cultural myth, he is up there with Dickens, and Melville, and so on.

But, geez: if we're just in it for the mythmaking, can't we just watch the movie, which at least has Daniel Day Lewis, and then get on to reading something good?

1. My dad was a wonderful nurturer of my love of reading. Both my parents were, and it was my mom who really had the job of the regular care and feeding of my reading habit: she took me to libraries and bookstores regularly, and being a librarian herself, she knew how to help me find books that I wanted to read. But the great thing about my dad was that he always had absolutely no sense of age "appropriateness" or what "kids my age" were interested in. He bought me the complete works of Ogden Nash for my 2nd birthday. When my mother pointed out to him that I couldn't read yet, he said something like, "She'll grow into it." I think I was all of 8 when he bought me that copy of Moby Dick -- it took me a few years to grow into that one, too. He always let me borrow books from him, too.

The upshot of this was that I learned that I liked a lot of books that I wouldn't have thought I would like on first glance (like Moby Dick).

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