*The Deerslayer*, an appreciation

by on July 2, 2017 at 1:26 am in Books, History, Law, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

Yes,I mean the book by James Fenimore Cooper.  I am reading it for the first time and it is much better than I had expected.  Mark Twain’s mockery of Cooper led me wrong, as I let it turn me away from being an appreciator.  And for all the more recent talk of the book being archaic and racist, I am finding it surprisingly sophisticated, for instance:

“Why, then, does the pale-face use them [rifles and powder and bullets]?  If he is ordered to give double to him that asks only for one thing, why does he take double from the poor Indians who ask for no thing?  He comes from beyond the rising sun, with his book in his hand, and he teaches the red-man to read it; but why does he forget himself all it says?  When the Indian gives, he is never satisfied, and now he offers gold for the scalps of our women and children, though he calls us beasts if we take the scalp of a warrior killed in open war.  My name is Rivenoak.”

The white settlers are perplexed and dumbfounded in response.

The Deerslayer himself is a kind of naif, frequently confronted with new situations and trying to figure out the boundaries between man and nature, between man and woman, what law might mean across differing civilizations, and which of the rules apply or do not.  He is continually experimenting with one point of view and then moving on to the next, though I suspect by the end of the book he will settle somewhere.

It seems he is attracted only to the Delawares (Native Americans) and he doesn’t quite know what to do about that.  At least up through my p.196.

It’s also about the loss of innocence, and to what extent violence is an inevitable part of history, some of the plot line being drawn from Homer’s Iliad.  The protagonist is called Deerslayer to highlight that he has not yet taken human life.

There was, by the way, a 1920 German silent movie version of the book, with Bela Lugosi playing the role of Chingachgook.  “This was the first part of the two-part Lederstrumpf silent film.”

And: “While on his death bed, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert wanted most to read more of Cooper’s novels.”

It has a good amount on the evolution of property rights and also how to, verbally, make credible or enforceable agreements.

I’m find this book much fresher and more stimulating than my recent reread of the well-worn Crime and Punishment.  Twain’s essay, while full of talent and his good humor, is actually one of the most harmful and misleading pieces of literary criticism ever penned.  You can take it as a model for what to avoid in life and in your intellectual thought — what I call “devalue and dismiss.”  Appreciate, there is so much to appreciate in books.  Do not devalue and dismiss.

1 Steve Sailer July 2, 2017 at 1:44 am

Mark Twain was very racist against Indians: compare Jim in “Huckleberry Finn” to Injun Joe in “Tom Sawyer.” Cooper was much more sympathetic toward Indians.

In American cultural history, the further you lived from the frontier, the more pro-Indian you tended to be. Cooper grew up, unsurprisingly, in Cooperstown, NY and lived much of the time in England. Clemens/Twain grew up in Missouri and spent much of his young manhood even further West.

2 anonymous July 2, 2017 at 10:12 am

I haven’t read enough Twain to know how he felt overall about the Indians of his day – Injun Joe and Huck Finn’s (Scotch-Irish, from the sound of the last name) alcoholic Dad are each the most monstrous character in Twain’s 2 most famous books . 2 (other?) reasons that Twain was inclined to write negatively about Cooper were Cooper’s similarity to the romantic, aristocratic Walter Scott, whom Twain blamed for so many of his fellow Southerners volunteering so quickly to fight in the Confederate cause (I think this is fairly well known about Twain) and second Twain, as a proto-animal-rights activist, may have felt that the portrayal of trappers as decent and heroic in Cooper’s works was a deep flaw (this is more speculative).

3 Mark Trump July 2, 2017 at 7:23 pm

Failing, low IQ writer James F Cooper asked me to blurb his book. He was bleeding heavily from a recent Indian attack. I said NO!

4 So Much For Subtlety July 2, 2017 at 3:02 am

It is easy to engage in romantic fantasies about Indians when your ancestors killed them all or drove them out so they are not sitting on your doorstep demanding a share of your property.

The best example of which would be Karl May. Presumably a big influence on making the Bela Lugosi movie. May is still supposed to be the best selling German author ever. There are still German re-enactment societies where everyone pretends to be an Indian. And it caused some of them to introduce American species to the German countryside like the raccoon.

5 ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ July 2, 2017 at 10:32 am

I am sure you got “who was on whose doorstep” just right.

6 Christopher Root July 2, 2017 at 4:03 am

“Do not devalue and dismiss.”

Isn’t the overrated portion of the flippant overrated or underrated segment devaluing?

7 Darf Ferrara July 2, 2017 at 7:20 am

It’s especially strange coming two sentences after devaluing Crime and Punishment.

8 MikeP July 2, 2017 at 11:08 am

Yeah, but he didn’t dismiss it.

9 Thursday July 2, 2017 at 11:55 am

He was dismissive. Perhaps not totally dismissive, but dismissive.

10 sort_of_knowledgable July 2, 2017 at 5:21 pm

He was saying that book A was better than book B which isn’t really dismissive. Not like saying book B was stale and unstimulating or a literary offense.

11 Jack July 2, 2017 at 8:30 am

Very interesting observations on a book that I had never before considered reading. As for Twain, talk about overrated — he wrote one worthwhile book and the rest is tedious second rate literature. Only in America would a second rate intellect like him be taken seriously.

12 Brent July 2, 2017 at 9:00 am

….well, about how many books have you not read?

how does one decide which books not to read?

13 Off The Street July 2, 2017 at 9:43 am

I often decide to not read two or more opposing books before breakfast.

14 dearieme July 2, 2017 at 9:13 am

If I may rephrase: “… recent talk of the book being archaic and racist implies that it is unsurprisingly sophisticated”.

15 Benjamin Cole July 2, 2017 at 9:27 am

I want Tyler Cowen to review my detective novel.

16 peri July 2, 2017 at 10:02 am

We’re told Twain loved beautiful women, in a frank sort of way, and it seems more than anything Fenimore Cooper’s sniffy locution “the female” was more than he could take.

I appreciated your appreciation, though, and if I didn’t read so slowly, I would be tempted to give “The Deerslayer” a go. But five pages a night – it would take me all year.

17 Benny Lava July 2, 2017 at 10:55 am

Cooper was a forgettable lightweight writing pulp “frontier” novels. More interesting for how the city dwelling society viewed the frontier than anything. The movie was, quite frankly, far better than the book associated with it.

18 Anonymous July 2, 2017 at 11:13 am

The flint and buckskin age seems more romantic, perhaps because it was closer to nature than later, more technological periods. The colonists did not have such a huge advantage in the forests.

They should have made more love, less war.

19 Thursday July 2, 2017 at 11:34 am

While The Deerslayer may be underrated, when you find yourself rating it more highly than Crime and Punishment, it’s time to take a look in the mirror. Sheesh.

20 David R. Henderson July 2, 2017 at 11:48 am

Thanks, Tyler. You’ve motivated me to buy a copy and take it to my cottage for my summer reading.

21 Anonymous July 2, 2017 at 11:55 am

It is on Project Gutenberg, but I might try to find a nice Penguin Classic paperback.

22 Thor July 2, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Me too.

23 Ted Craig July 2, 2017 at 12:22 pm

Twain’s critique is garbage. He makes claims without support and accuses Cooper of poor writing that isn’t even in the books. He was even wrong about the part he was supposedly an expert in: the flow of the river. Twain claims Cooper’s description of a river was completely wrong, but a later study of period maps found the river had changed course between when Cooper wrote his book and Twain wrote his critique.

Twain married into East Coast society and always felt looked down upon. You see it in his writing, as he moved away from the vernacular frontier pieces like Huckleberry Finn to works like The Prince and the Pauper. And he attacked every author whom the establishment respected, from Cooper to Henry James.

24 Thor July 2, 2017 at 2:42 pm

Slightly off topic but I found Bernard Bailyn’s book The Barbarous Years on the early frontier to be bleak but fascinating.

25 Dave Tufte July 2, 2017 at 3:12 pm

I love The Deerslayer. One of my favorites of all time. So glad Tyler is reading it.

It’s tough reading*, but I love it for the comical nature of the whole situation. It’s a set of intertwined fish out of water stories.

I have often thought, that with a good script, it could make an amazing comedic, action, period movie. Drop the earnestness of Lewis’ Natty Bumppo, add a touch of your favorite Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala humor, and let Cooper’s overlapping follies take the audience away. It could be “Noises Off”, juxtaposed with horrific violence and conflict … you’d still be unsure of whether you should laugh or cry at the previous scene before the next one was on top of you. Of course, it will never happen because the original story line isn’t PC, and updating it would probably ruin it.

* I’m not sure tough is the right word for a novel from that era. They are tough like overdone meat: a lot of time and work to get through, that could have been reduced by judicious care at earlier stages of preparation.

26 Bob N July 2, 2017 at 4:53 pm

Twain criticized Cooper from a realistic perspective. Cooper was in the romantic tradition. Twain has wit, but not insight. Much of Lawrence’s critique of American literature is in this vein. The five novels (Deerslayer, Pathfinder, Last of the Mohicans, The Pioneers, The Prairie) involving Natty Bumppo are all worth reading. The Prairie is the best.

27 GoneWithTheWind July 2, 2017 at 9:38 pm

I read a lot when I was young and I read The Deerslayer three times. But I read Last of the Mohicans five times. IMHO the latter is the better book. Of course I read and enjoyed Mark Twain too, but they are both just writers and I see no value in comparing them. Currently reading Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone. Highly recommend it, interesting and full of historical facts.

28 education realist July 2, 2017 at 8:37 pm

I’ve always liked the one that’s also the best known, Last of the Mohicans. I mean, it’s not often you get a good French and Indian War novel.

Cooper wrote the books much earlier than Twain wrote his. Neither of them had much first hand knowledge–Twain wrote most of his Western books living in Connecticut, Cooper wrote most of the Leatherstocking Tales in New York City. But his father founded Cooperstown on what was once Iroquois land, so maybe he saw a lot growing up. He served in the navy for several years, was commissioned, and spent a lot of time learning woodcraft, oddly.

Cooper was was born incredibly rich, and inherited a fortune when he was 20. Unlike Twain, he did well with money.

29 Frank D July 2, 2017 at 9:39 pm

My wife and I are both very intelligent and read very widely in our childhood. We both found The Deerslayer literally unreadable. Perhaps the only book of repute that had that effect. I personally tried to start reading it several times.

Although Crime and Punishment is not his best novel, indeed it is sort of a Dostoevsky for Idiots, it is still a pretty great novel by a very great writer.
He is the kind of writer who can change a person’s understanding of human nature, who opens a window into the mysteries of the mind and the soul.

Obviously Tyler has a very different kind of temperament, of soul, of self, of insight than people who are classically well read. Perhaps a tiny bit of an idiot savant, in an unusual kind of way, but with wonderful curiosity and industry.

30 RPLong July 3, 2017 at 11:33 am

Agreed. Deerslayer is highly underrated. There’s a tendency for us moderns to discount the value of a book that discussed those themes in the language of the time in which it was written. I think Cooper did a wonderful job of it.

I’d also recommend A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs as an excellent-even-if-anachronistic discussion of race relations.

31 Alan Baumler July 3, 2017 at 2:14 pm

If you like Deerslayer you might enjoy
Taylor, Alan. William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic. New York: Vintage, 1996.
It deals with Cooper’s Dad? Grandfather? (I have not read it in a while) and his life as a land speculator, town founder and politician in (you guessed it) Cooperstown NY. Lots of stuff about property rights if you like that sort of thing, and also a lot on how a grubby land agent tried to make himself “genteel.” Makes a nice background to the Romanticism of Cooper the younger and it is a good book in general.

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