Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mark Twain and the hard-boiled style

Stumbled upon a lecture of Twain's on the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper. Summary would be invidious:
Here is a passage from Chapter xi of The Last of the Mohicans, one of the most famous and most admired of Cooper’s books:
Notwithstanding the swiftness of their flight, one of the Indians had found an opportunity to strike a straggling fawn with an arrow, and had borne the more preferable fragments of the victim, patiently on his shoulders, to the stopping-place. Without any aid from the science of cookery, he was immediately employed, in common with his fellows, in gorging himself with this digestible sustenance. Magua alone sat apart, without participating in the revolting meal, and apparently buried in the deepest thought.
This little paragraph is full of matter for reflection and inquiry.
And he goes on to pick it apart, sentence by sentence, needless word by needless word, until he arrives at what he thinks Cooper should have written:
During the flight one of the Indians had killed a fawn and he brought it into camp. He and the others ate the meat raw. Magua sat apart, without participating in the revolting meal.
Though Twain has some qualms about "revolting," since it's vague who is revolted - presumably not Magua.

And that seems nicely to illustrate how we get to Hemingway and Hammett.

The PDF is excellent for distribution to a composition class, as Twain illustrates the editor's mind in action.


  1. This is "part two" of Twain's dismantling of Fenimore Cooper. In part one Twain proposes 19 rules for romantic fiction and then explains how Cooper violated them. It also starts with three quotes and a nice jab:

    ""The Pathfinder" and "The Deerslayer" stand at the head of Cooper's novels as artistic creations. There are others of his works which contain parts as perfect as are to be found in these, and scenes even more thrilling. Not one can be compared with either of them as a finished whole. The defects in both of these tales are comparatively slight. They were pure works of art.
    --Professor Lounsbury
    The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention. ... One of the very greatest characters in fiction, Natty Bumppo... The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.
    --Professor Matthews
    Cooper is the greatest artist in the domain of romantic fiction in America.
    --Wilkie Collins
    It seems to me that it was far from right for the Professor of English Literature at Yale, the Professor of English Literature in Columbia, and Wilkie Collins to deliver opinions on Cooper's literature without having read some of it. It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper."

  2. Good stuff. I observe that "eschew surplusage" is the evident predecessor to Strunk's "omit needless words." One could debate which formulation is superior.

  3. And we could paint everything in black and white, and we could stop using spice in our cooking, and we only need one musical instrument, as long as it can hit all the notes (assuming you really need all those notes)...
    What Twain is doing is appropriate for a legal brief, not literature. The point of a novel is not to just convey facts, it is to transport you, as entirely as possible, to another place. Twain's "just the facts" approach lacks nuance, and it reads like a newspaper article.

    All the King's Men was one of my favorite books before law school. I've tried to read it again since then, and it's physically painful to me. I HATE adjectives now, because I'm trained to rapidly skim for facts and determine what happened, and adjectives just slow me down. But that doesn't mean it's not a great work of art. It just means I've lost the ability to appreciate it.

    Or, "F*ck Mark Twain."

  4. Just to clarify, Anon, I'm observing the trend that Twain's essay embodies, not arguing for it. One of my favorite novels is The Golden Bowl, which I'm confident Twain would have despised if he ever picked it up.

    But it's difficult for me to believe that Hemingway, for instance, didn't know Twain's essays on Cooper.

  5. Sorry. I should know by now your retweets are not endorsements. I'm going to go out and get a copy of The Golden Bowl today.

  6. No prob, I liked your comment. The weaknesses of Twain's argument became sadly clear when every young writer thought he had to write like that.

    If you haven't read any late James before ... well, be patient, is all I can say. Like The Wings of the Dove, it combines a fairly lurid plot with subtle, psychologically astute prose that cannot be read in a hurry.

    And for god's sake, don't watch that horrible Merchant & Ivory movie of The Golden Bowl, one of the darkest acts of sheer hostility against a source novel that isn't associated with the noun "Stephen King."