*The Deerslayer*, an appreciation

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.


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