Friday, July 25, 2008

American Lit 2, Poor Me 1

So I've been following the lead of my friend Jacqui in her Remedial Literature Project, trying to get caught up on some of those American authors and novels I somehow missed when I was farting around playing Lode Runner immersed in British and Latin American Lit in college. I'm not nearly as ambitious as Jacqui, trying to read one book a week; I've got other important things to read, like the latest for my children's book club (checking out the competition) and Entertainment Weekly's New Classics! the newspapers and newsweeklies I need to keep up on local elections and various important events in the world.

So if you've been following my blog, you'll know so far I liked Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, while Meville's Moby Dick totally kicked my ass. So I turned to James Fenimore Cooper, author of the classic Leatherstocking Tales, to break the tie. The Pioneers (1823) is the first and most realistic of the Tales, and made Cooper an international success. One critic called it his masterpiece. As a bonus, I was pretty sure there weren't going to be any chapters on whale heads.

I'm sad to report, however, that for me, reading The Pioneers is like undergoing "advanced interrogation techniques" at Gitmo. It may not technically be torture, but it sure feels like it. I'm a third of a way through the book, and so far Judge Marmaduke Temple has shot and grazed a young woodsman while trying to hit a deer. Then he argued with Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking) about whether the deer was his or not. Then they took the young woodsman home to treat his minor wounds while they argued some more. Then they went to church. Then they went to the pub, where they argued about both the sermon and the deer. It's like Cooper decided to avoid breaking the classic literary rule of "Show, don't tell" by both showing and telling. (And I hate to break it to you, but having people sit around discussing what just happened counts as "telling," even if it is dialogue.)

That might not be so bad if he didn't break another rule regarding dialogue, namely, MAKE IT READABLE. Let's say you have a character who you want to portray as "uneducated." Ya cud do it by makin' everythin' he says drop a 'postrophe in ever' friggin' word, until yer reader feels like 'e is drownin' in 'postrophes. Or you could throw in a few choice words like "reckon" and "yonder" and the reader will supply the right voice.

Now, I understand that Cooper is trying to portray the diversity of the New York frontier. (It is set in 1793, back when New York state was the frontier.) There are immigrants from all over: a German major, a French gentleman, and an Irish barmaid, not to mention an African-American slave and the Native American John Mohegan. And Cooper had the right idea with the Monsieur, who speaks half in French, half in legible English. But then I had to endure the following within the space of two pages:

German major: "Ter teer is not so plenty as in ter old war, Pumppo; put ter lant is not mate as for ter teer to live on, put for Christians." Holy crap. At least I had the clue they were already talking about deer (teer), but mate for made? Put for But? Someone get me an aspirin.

Irish barmaid: "It's varry pratty men is the French; and jist when I stopt the cart, ... to kape the rig'lers in, a rigiment of the jontlemen marched by." I guess she's saying something nice about French soldiers, but exactly what is beyond me. If I have to stop to decipher what your characters are saying, I'm not reading anymore, I'm translating. And that's work.

Stubborn person that I am, I do plan on finishing The Pioneers. I'm pretty sure I know one of the major themes—who owns the land's bounty—and I think there might be a romance hidden among all the discussion about the deer. Here's hoping it's not so much more work to uncover it.


  1. Oh no no no! That is horrible. I'd use your one free "I simply cannot finish this" card.

    But "Ya cud do it by makin' everythin' he says drop a 'postrophe in ever' friggin' word, until yer reader feels like 'e is drownin' in 'postrophes" is hilarious.

    But I'll bet your book this week doesn't have any trees strewn with scalped baby corpses in it...

  2. Mark Twain ( would have agreed with you - and serves as a warning for anyone who believes that "classic" literature was born that way....

  3. These are my favorite offenses that Twain names:

    "They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

    "They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.