Fictions of Violence in The Deerslayer

Michael Kowalewski (Rutgers University)

Presented at the 5ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1984.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1984 Conference at State University of New York College — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 60-74).

Copyright © 1985 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

THE style of sane authors has variety in it, but Cooper’s style is remarkable for the absence of this feature. Cooper’s style is always grand and stately and noble. Style may be likened to any army, the author to its general, the book to the campaign. Some authors proportion an attacking force to the strength or weakness, the importance or unimportance, of the object to be attacked; but Cooper doesn’t. It doesn’t make any difference to Cooper whether the object of attack is one hundred thousand men or a cow; he hurls his entire force against it. He comes thundering down with all his battalions at his back, cavalry in the van, artillery on the flanks, infantry massed in the middle, forty bands braying, a thousand banners streaming in the wind. ... Cooper’s style is grand, awful, beautiful; but it is sacred to Cooper, it is his very own, and no student of the Veterinary College of Arizona will be allowed to filch it from him.

— Mark Twain, “Cooper’s Prose Style,” Letters From the Earth


[The Deerslayer] is a gem of a book. Or a bit of perfect paste. And myself, I like a bit of perfect paste in a perfect setting, so long as I am not fooled by pretense of reality ... Of course it never rains: it is never cold and muddy and dreary: no one has wet feet or toothache: no one ever feels filthy, when they can’t wash for a week. God knows what the women would really have looked like, for they fled through the wilds without soap, comb, or towel. They breakfasted off a chunk of meat, or nothing, lunched the same, and supped the same.

Yet at every moment they are elegant, perfect ladies, in correct toilet.

Which isn’t quite fair. You need only go camping for a week, and you’ll see. But it is a myth, not a realistic tale. Read it as a lovely myth. Lake Glimmerglass.

— D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

Poking fun at James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer was and remains a kind of literary rite de passage. It is, for Lawrence, one of Cooper’s “lovely half-lies” (952); for Twain, “just simply a literary delirium tremens“ (594). Even defenses of the book usually admit that in some basic way it fails or bores. Lawrence, like Twain, is temperamentally incapable of doing what he recommends: reading the novel as a “yearning myth” (953) and not as a realistic tale. Both writers measure Cooper’s performance against the standard of what Lawrence calls “actuality.” Both prefer and value realistic fiction or at least they value it enough to crow over Cooper. Their particular brand of intemperate response relies on a comic hyperbole or a smug wryness more interested in its own deprecatory force than in an attentive scrutiny of Cooper’s novel. The impatience implicit in their responses to the novel suggests, beyond the ease of their flippancies, the depth of their commitment to a realistic aesthetic. That commitment entails less a championing of what Twain’s prankster-persona in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” teasingly entitles the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction” (583), than an antagonism towards what Richard Poirier calls an “artificiality,” which Cooper exemplifies in American writing, a “compulsive and also inadvertent imitation ... which exerts a pressure of accommodation on visionary moments” (Poirier, “Writing” 122). The determining force of such stylistic accommodation exerts a pressure not just on visionary moments, however, but on everything it touches. Reading The Deerslayer without admitting an awareness of Cooper’s verbal artifice does more than desensitize defenses of the book which conveniently forget to notice, as Leslie Fiedler puts it, that Cooper s writing is “shamelessly periphrastic, euphemistic, and verbose” (Fiedler, “Cooper” 1). It changes the imaginative status of the novel and prevents us from attending to how Cooper’s novel actually does differ from realistic fiction. I hope to demonstrate that the representation of violence provides a telling example of how what we term “romance” involves and invokes a different order of imaginative perception than realistic fiction.

The primary goal of realistic fiction is to convince us of what might be awkwardly termed the “unverbalness” of its reality. It is writing made to persuade us that as writing it is simply beside the point, most successful when least noticed. Its energy remains dedicated to making us imaginatively see, which is also a function of making us feel that we know what we are seeing. As James Guetti puts it, in his invaluable book Word-Music,

The relation between seeing and knowing in verbal sequences thus takes the form of a constant demand or pressure to number and to total the parts of an imagined world as we move through it to its end (Guetti 2).

Such a process requires that the language of realistic fiction justify itself by its imagined referentiality. Words are not to be seen, but to be seen through. The words of realistic sequence are, as Guetti says, “like a treadmill slipping away beneath us, and we have to keep moving on them and away from each of them as they occur. In this way they are not a presence but an action; their substance consists of the motion of self-neglect, of leading beyond themselves” (Guetti 84-5).

Realistic fiction is a self-involved effort, its verbal resources work to disguise their own status as language. It strives to be imaginatively self-sufficient, to invoke the imagistic variety that the illusion of imagined life requires. That illusion can only be sustained when our attention is distracted away from the language by which it is invoked. Realistic narratives are devoted not to their words but to some experience that opens out beyond the words, and whose presence we feel, as Guetti says, “just because the narrative seems to say, again and again, that the words do not count” (Guetti 85). The effort to convince us as quickly as possible that we are dealing with an extra-literary reality, presumes only a tangential relationship with an audience. Nothing in a realistic sequence is to remind us that someone remains backstage designing and manipulating effects. The more successful that sequence, the more it disguises its language as “reality,” and implicitly denies that there is any authorial user of language contriving that reality.

Romance, on the other hand, doesn’t generally display a compulsiveness about disguising its status as fiction. It is recognizable not only in that it relies, for instance, upon what Richard Chase calls a “penchant for the marvelous, the sensational, the legendary, and in general the heightened effect” (Chase 21), but because it expresses such a penchant in a certain way, it renders such effects in particular verbal forms. Romance depends upon a storytelling voice or a narrative manner which directs its effects and events but is never consumed or extinguished by them. One analogy here might be that the language of realistic fiction functions like a window through which we imagine we are seeing life, while the language of romance, its storytelling voice, Presents us with a stained-glass window whose opacity we can’t see through, an opacity necessary for its own effects. 1 The formalized and formulaic language of romance, like a plate of stained glass, should be judged for what it is and not, as it were, as a failed window. The language of romance is an end in itself, not a means for seeing something else.

Harold Martin rightly asserts that the “heaviness” we associate with the language of romance is due to the “telling” relationship it establishes between an author and his reader. The reader is encouraged to be more passive than active, to listen to a narrative voice choreograph an obvious fiction rather than to visually extend or translate a text. “The total effect,” Martin says of such language, “is to blunt action, to distribute the energy of action throughout the sentence, rather than to focus it for striking effect” (Martin 120).

Cooper’s narrative hallmark is a verbal luxuriousness which is out of all proportion to the actions and characters it describes. But while we may treat this verbal excess, what Twain calls “surplusage” (584), as a constant reminder that we are reading a romance, Cooper himself considers his writing, as we may see in the last sentence of The Deerslayer, to be a species of realistic fiction:

We live in a world of transgressions and selfishness, and no pictures that represent us otherwise can be true, though happily for human nature, gleamings of that pure spirit in whose likeness man has been fashioned are to be seen, relieving its deformities and mitigating if not excusing its crimes.

This sounds like nonfictional prose, and not only because it has an expository function here. There is an assurance (that might pass as resignation) in this voice which allows it to talk unabashedly about the “world” and “human nature.” Cooper offers a small apologia here for the moral orientation of what he considers realistic writing: that which includes both pure and depraved characters, both deformity and “relief.” Though we live in a world full of the likes of Tom Hutter, Briarthorn, Hurry Harry and Captain Warley, Cooper implies, we are not without our Deerslayers and Hetty Hutters.

But Cooper also implies an aesthetic correlation to these moral coordinates: though we live in the midst of “transgressions and selfishness,” thank goodness we can still identify them as such. The moral vocabulary he relies on here, as throughout the novel, bears about the same relation to realistic fiction as the “pure spirit in whose likeness man has been fashioned” bears to actual people. The depiction of that pure spirit requires not only the qualities which Deerslayer exemplifies but the language which allows Cooper to create their exemplification in the first place:

Deerslayer stood at the end of the pallet, leaning on Killdeer, unharmed in person; all the fine martial ardor that had so lately glowed in his countenance having given place to the usual look of honesty and benevolence, qualities of which the expression was now softened by manly regret and pity (514).

By the time we reach this point in the novel we still may not know what “honesty and benevolence” look like glowing in someone’s “countenance,” but we can be sure that we are supposed to know, if we have all accepted the imaginative conditions the book has established for itself from the start. The “usual look” of Deerslayer is, of course, no look at all in terms of visual definition but rather Cooper’s usual way of describing it.

As Poirier affirms, Deerslayer is at his most impressive when he is “described rather than self-articulated”:

When we think of the Leather-Stocking Tales years after reading them we forget the hero’s dialogue and remember him as one of the great creations of American fiction ... silent, marvelously alert, capable of irresistible mechanical proficiency without explanatory claptrap, the servant of principles the more eloquent for being vaguely defined, and with a will undisrupted by muddled personal feelings of sexual love or the desire for gain (Poirier, World 76; 71-2).

But in seeing Deerslayer as an American Adam or a kind of founding father of the brotherhood of what Tom Wolfe terms “the right stuff,” we too often forget, as Poirier puts it, “the Sunday School prize essayist who emerges from the dialogue” (World 72). It is the seepage of Cooper’s own consciousness that we recognize in much of the dialogue, which is another way of saying that Deerslayer gains his mythic dimensions by the extent to which he escapes not from the Iroquois or from encroaching settlers but from Cooper’s narrative voice. What Lawrence takes to be “the essential keyboard of Cooper’s soul” — the dramatization of “THE WIGWAM vs. MY HOTEL” and “CHINGACHGOOK vs. MY WIFE” (Lawrence 951) — is evident, it seems to me, as much in the sounds of Cooper’s prose as in its subsequent thematic translations.

Twain was painfully and painstakingly sensitive to Cooper’s genteel volubility and it remains to be understood that his exuberant satire of Cooper’s style is as shrewd as it is dismissive. Twain’s remarks, when drained of their pejorative venom, are critically astute, especially when we remember that “the sulphurous grumbling over Cooper,” as Sydney Krause calls it, is not the work of “a responsible citizen like Samuel Clemens” but “a hoodwinking persona who puts up a good front but is not always entitled to the horror he exhibits and is not the unsuspecting reader he pretends to be” (Krause 128): 2

Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician (593).

Twain is often right about Cooper, he’s just not right in the ways he thinks he is. While Twain’s general appraisal of Cooper’s literary merit is, in Krause’s words, “a bacchanal of sophistry” (128), he does attend here to Cooper’s ability to “flat and sharp right along,” to establish a rhythmic continuity, whether or not he thinks it’s out of key. Twain rightfully asserts that we “perceive” his language as language, we don’t attempt to see through it. In Twain’s own terms, Cooper actually is a word-musician; he does create a sound we can’t ignore, it just doesn’t happen to suit Twain’s taste.

The sheer volume of what Cooper’s inflationary syntax can bring within its grasp is seen as smothering by sane of his critics. Arthur Mizener claims that Cooper’s interpolative “sermons,”

like everything else in Cooper’s novels, are written in an insensitive, mechanical version of the genteel style of the eighteenth century. Even at the most dramatic and emotional moments, Cooper does not deviate from this rather dry and pompous style ... its orderly, dispassionate, reasonable tone is incongruous with the passionately romantic subject matter it is often required to express.

Written as they are in this style the sermons in The Deerslayer may seem to modern readers both awkward interruptions of the narrative and dull in themselves, but Cooper’s instinct is right: it is the moral drama of his novels that gives them their power (Mizener 4-5).

The shift in Mizener’s discussion from narrative behavior to “moral drama” conveniently prevents him from considering what, so automatically, makes Cooper’s subject matter — Indians, escapes and chases, natural scenery, religious half wits — “passionately romantic.” And if Cooper’s sermons are as “mechanical” as “everything else in his novels,” then how can they be interruptions of the narrative? Preoccupied with finding something to defend in Cooper (moral drama), Mizener fails to notice that the mechanistic verbal grindings of Cooper’s style fundamentally determine how that drama is created and perceived. Cooper’s verbal manner remains unavailable to the kind of reductive editing Mizener and others want to impose, though the conspicuous use of ellipses in much critical quotation from Cooper’s work helps make such an approach seem tenable. Cooper’s style doesn’t operate mathematically (narrative minus genteel style equalling moral drama) but chemically, introducing imaginative conditions which render our ways of processing realistic fiction inapplicable.

The notion that we can chart a critical topography in Cooper’s novels by keeping an eye out for nodes of moral drama and ignoring the surrounding verbal flatlands is viable only if we agree with Leslie Fiedler’s assertion that “contrary to the teachings of the New Criticism, literature is not, finally, its medium; not words at all but something beyond, behind, before, above or below words (Fiedler, “Cooper” 3). But to assume that the words of a narrative do not count is, as Guetti argues, “to think automatically that literary composition is concerned with signifying something” and that one’s “aggressive-assertive” posture in locating what is supposedly signified, in “talking translatively back to a text,” is always justifiable: such an assumption “encourages highly manipulative reading” 3 (Guetti, “Aggressive” 154).

The question of how we perceive depictions of violence in literature is directly related to how we conceive of the nature of fictional representation. By invoking a set of verbal circumstances that are not committed to creating an illusion of imaginative referentiality and that are thus distinctly different from those we find in realistic fiction, Cooper alters our sense of what can or can’t happen in his novel. If we can accept this, we can freely admit to the special kind of literary pleasure afforded by Hetty Hutter’s kneeling for an “Our Father,” unharmed, in front of an upreared brown bear, by Deerslayer’s catching tomahawks by the handle when they are thrown at him, Hurry Harry’s being dragged, as he hangs onto a rope by his teeth, in the water behind the ark. The novel, that is, inhabits an entirely self-contained world, freed from any necessity for our translating it or applying it to an aspect of our experience. Cooper establishes a verbal equilibrium in The Deerslayer whose imaginative artificiality remains much greater than any of the single effects scattered along its narrative surface. But what happens to the imaginative attitudes of a reader when such a medium is employed to represent scenes of violence, scenes which so often depend upon a realistic dynamic for their effect?

Wayne Franklin has recently asserted that Cooper not only “used” violence, but that “he also seems to have relished it” (Franklin 71). There are, of course, many ways of relishing violence, in life and in fiction, but the idea of an author’s using it is a bit more problematic. What do we mean by saying that an author “uses” violence, other than noting that it occurs in his work? Cooper, Franklin says, “possessed some need to destroy things close and dear to himself,” he had “a profound need to do violence to his own creativity, to set history going against whatever myth he might invent” (107). This sounds nicely disintoxicated and tough-minded, but notice how quickly Franklin implies that Cooper’s fictional depictions of violence are somehow separate from his “creativity.” Franklin equates “doing violence to his own creativity” with “setting history going” against myth, a process which seems to be conveniently extra- verbal, as if history or myth could exist in a novel outside of the language by which they are established or de-energized. Franklin wants to translate certain violent scenes into a “reading” of a novel or novels, which is, of course, a common tactic, as criticism generally seems more interested in marking out the boundaries of a reading, than in carefully attending to the act of reading itself.

Franklin makes his position explicit when he approvingly quotes Marius Bewley’s assertion that Cooper had “a remarkable ability to delineate the local details of action and violence” and then adds, in a tone of correction, that that “talent has a source as well as a nature, a meaning as well as a presence in the books” (171). To conceive of representations of violence in Cooper (or any other novelist) as having a “meaning” that is somehow separate from their verbal “presence” is to ignore the language which brings them to life in the first place. Violence does not exist in fiction outside of the language by which it is conceived.

Franklin exemplifies a common and rather pious critical notion that fictional depictions of violence are “about” something. “Pious” because the act of thematically or ideologically translating depictions of violence, of making a kind of critical Rosetta stone out of them, is often a way of ignoring or domesticating them. One of the reasons for this, it seems to me, is that criticism tends to talk about all representations of violence as if they were realistically depicted, which is obviously not the case. We can much more fruitfully begin by considering depictions of violence, even realistic violence, not as being “about” something, but as the symptom or the result of certain verbal conditions established within a novel.

Our accustomization of the presence of artificiality, the felt weight of verbal artifice, in Cooper’s narrative voice in The Deerslayer fundamentally predetermines the way we perceive the scenes of violence it includes. When incidents involving murder, scalping or torture occur within what we recognize as a distinctly verbal or fictional context, the visual and sensory efficiency of what might otherwise become highly graphic or disturbing is largely discounted. The degree to which the descriptive language of such scenes lets us visually participate in them determines the degree to which we feel sad or detached or indignant or terrified by their representations. To “see” an act of violence (on the street or in a film or a book) involves an entirely different response than to be told about it. And though all verbal representations of such acts are “told” in the sense of being re-presented in language, not all of them involve the same representational energies. Our responses to examples of violence in literature depend upon whether a text presents us with an event or with a voice that describes that event.

A descriptive voice clearly seems to dominate the depiction of what greets Hetty and Judith Hutter after the Mingos have futilely chased them on the lake. They have regained the previously occupied Castle, where the Indians were holding their father; Hetty sees him in his room and tells her sister that “he seems to be overtaken with liquor now”:

“That is strange! [Judith says] Would the savages have drunk with him and then leave him behind? But ‘tis a grievous sight to a child, Hetty, to witness such a failing in a parent, and we will not go near him till he wakes.”

A groan from the inner room, however, changed this resolution, and the girls ventured near a parent, whom it was no unusual thing for them to find in a condition that lowers a man to the level of brutes. He was seated, reclining in a corner of a narrow room, with his shoulders supported by the angle, and his head fallen heavily on his chest. Judith moved forward, with a sudden impulse, and removed a canvas cap that was forced so low on his head as to conceal his face and, indeed, all but his shoulders. The instant this obstacle was taken away, the quivering and raw flesh, the bared veins and muscles, and all the other disgusting signs of mortality as they are revealed by tearing away the skin, showed he had been scalped, though still living (340-1).

In the verbal terms of the passage it is not Tom Hutter but “a parent, whom it was no unusual thing for them to find in a condition that lowers a man to the level of brutes” that has been scalped. A parent, we might add, whom it is no unusual thing to find so periphrastically described throughout the novel. Tom Hutter remains imaginatively invisible here: merely something covered by a canvas cap.

What happens when what appears to be highly visual language describes a visual non-entity? “The quivering and raw flesh, the bared veins and muscles”: there is nothing human about such a description, it could apply to a dissected frog. Cooper’s phrasing attempts to visually detail a palpitating mess which neither we nor most of his contemporary audience have ever seen. And how does that work? How does feeling a shock of visual recognition, in response to an imaginatively seen event we can connect with something we’ve seen before, differ from being startled (if we are) by a description of what we have never seen before? In this instance, we end up being unable to entirely credit or discredit the existence of what refuses to resolve itself into something we can imaginatively see. Far from providing an example of what Franklin calls “the bite” of Cooper’s realism in The Deerslayer, which he says “upsets what otherwise might become a pure dream” (108), the language of this moment allows for the reinstallment of the controlling power of the narrative voice.

Cooper’s phrases about Hutter’s scalped head seem to provoke or tempt a flash of visual or sensory potential which is dampened first by its “laboratory” language and then by the quickness with which Cooper’s narrative manner again takes over. The visual ambivalence of one moment in the sentence’s rhythmic stride gets quickly assumed into the fabric of an obviously fictional formulation: “and all the other disgusting signs of mortality as they are revealed by tearing away the skin.” So has Tom Hutter been scalped or not? He has, but within the verbal confines of a romance which keeps its description from visually impinging upon us. We imaginatively process its effect in much the same way we accept Deerslayer’s bringing down two Mingos with one shot: by granting them both a fictional validity which has no extension into nor contingency upon our own experience.

That suspension of disbelief is not, of course, Cooper’s. A scalped head seems disgusting to him as much because it can allow for realistic description (of “bared veins” rather than of the “signs of mortality”) as because it reveals an immoral or inhumane practice. The shudder in the last sentence, which ends the chapter, arises in response to a side of Cooper’s verbal imagination which has no place in this novel. The force of Cooper’s disquisitional Augustan style immediately swamps this tiny visual rupture and reinstates the verbal frequency established all the way through the novel. This moment of violence becomes a sprig of stylistic mistletoe in a much larger host tree. So it will come as no surprise to a reader this far along in the book that Tom Hutter’s scalping is soon made an emblem of “the stern justice of God”:

Such was now the fact with Judith and Hetty, who both perceived the decrees of a retributive Providence, in the manner of their father’s suffering, as a punishment for his own recent attempts on the Iroquois (343).

The “decrees of a retributive Providence” here have about the same imaginative substance as the force that drops the giant boulder flattening the coyote in a “Road-Runner” cartoon. Both remain key ingredients of the self-enclosed autonomy of their own fictional world.

The visual and sensory possibilities present (however defused), in the description of Tom Hutter’s scalping are dampened even further by the time we see Deerslayer, a captive in the Mingo camp, confronted by the Panther, “a grim chief” whose brother-in-law Deerslayer has killed:

“Dog of the palefaces!” [The Panther] exclaimed in Iroquois, “go yell among the curs of your own evil hunting grounds!”

The denunciation was accompanied by an appropriate action. Even while speaking his arm was lifted and the tomahawk hurled. Luckily the loud tones of the speaker had drawn the eye of Deerslayer toward him, else would that moment have probably closed his career. So great was the dexterity with which this dangerous weapon was thrown, and so deadly the intent, that it would have riven the skull of the prisoner, had he not stretched forth an arm and caught the handle in one of its turns with a readiness quite as remarkable as the skill with which the missile had been hurled. The projectile force was so great, notwithstanding, that when Deerslayer’s arm was arrested, his hand was raised above and behind his own head, and in the very attitude necessary to return the attack. It is not certain whether the circumstance of finding himself unexpectedly in this menacing posture and armed, tempted the young man to retaliate, or whether sudden resentment overcame his forbearance and prudence. His eye kindled, however, and a small red spot appeared on each cheek, while he cast all his energy into the effort of his arm and threw back the weapon at his assailant. The unexpectedness of this blow contributed to its success, the Panther neither raising an arm nor bending his head to avoid it. The keen little ax struck the victim in a perpendicular line with the nose, literally braining him on the spot. Sallying forward, as the serpent darts at its enemy even while receiving its own death wound, this man of powerful frame fell his length into the open area formed by the circle, quivering in death. A common rush to his relief left the captive for a single instant quite without the crowd, and willing to make one desperate effort for life, he bounded off with the activity of a deer. There was but a breathless instant, then the whole band, old and young, women and children, abandoning the lifeless body of the Panther where it lay, raised the yell of alarm and followed in pursuit (459-60).

Twain’s (and many other readers’) first response to both the description and the unexpectedness of this moment may have been laughter. The death of the Panther seems to bother Cooper much less than Hutter’s scalping. There is no talk of the “disgusting signs of mortality,” but that is partly because the Indian here is so quickly and neatly deprived of mortality. At the climactic moment Cooper turns the tomahawk into “the keen little ax” (with what sounds like admiration for its efficiency) and its actual impact into an idiomatic phrase: “literally braining him on the spot.” Such a phrase, in its very contradictoriness (since “braining” someone is so obviously a figurative rather than a literal action) seems the perfect example of how Cooper’s style functions. Yet what may be even more characteristic of Cooper’s manner here is the earnestness we can hear in “literally,” as if no other phrase but “braining him on the spot” could convey a precise sense of what has happened.

How a man with a tomahawk stuck in his head “sallies forward” like a darting. snake, even as he heavily collapses at full length, is a question for Twain to ask. Yet Twain would undoubtedly turn this moment into parodic farce, which is not at all what it may seem to a reader to be. The literary pleasure of this scene stems not from the fact that we know people don’t get struck by axes (that isn’t true), but from the fact that they do get struck, in this bloodless fashion, quite naturally in a Cooper romance. The narrative refuses to let the realistic details of violent scenes untrack its verbal continuities. It too abandons “the lifeless body of the Panther” (even if not quite with “the activity of a deer”) and takes up the chase, the continuance of its own imaginative functions.

Realistic fiction often makes a highly visual and sensory description of violence a climactic event whose shock or terror is determined by the degree to which the act of imaginatively seeing it makes us unaware of the language of its description. The insistence that we see through language to grisly particulars is usually an insistence that the words which lead to that seeing do not matter. Violence in Cooper’s novels, however, occurs within the realm of an evenly rhythmic verbal artifice which absorbs and neutralizes whatever realistic-visual impulses it may prompt. Such a context fictionalizes the events it describes. Cooper’s knives have no edges.

Later in the novel, when Deerslayer is tortured by being tied to a tree and having tomahawks thrown within inches of his head (in one case pinning some of of his hair to the bark of the tree) he does not, of course, flinch or close his eyes. When the Indians shoot at him while he is bound he seems even more insouciant:

Shot after shot was made, all the bullets coming in close proximity to the Deerslayer’s head without touching it. Still, no one could detect even the twitching of a muscle on the part of the captive, or the slightest winking of an eye. This indomitable resolution, which so much exceeded everything of its kind that any present had before witnessed, might be referred to three distinct causes. The first was resignation to his fate, blended with natural steadiness of deportment, for our hero had calmly made up his mind that he must die, and preferred this mode to any other; the second was his great familiarity with this particular weapon, which deprived it of all the terror that is usually connected with the mere form of the danger; and the third was this familiarity carried out in practice, to a degree so nice as to enable the intended victim to tell, within an inch, the precise spot where each bullet must strike, for he calculated its range by looking in at the bore of the piece (489-90).

This is a novel in which “indomitable resolution” can not only be cited as a human attribute but phrased as such and accounted f three-part explanations. Cooper is, after all, describing not Deerslayer but the Deerslayer, what Fiedler calls a sinless “Faust in buckskins” in all his legendary, if formulaic glory. It is such examples of stylistic excess, of steady narrative deportment, that realistic fiction tries to upset and do away with, which is why it customarily presents us with depictions of violence that seem raw and unaccommodated. But when scenes of violence are deprived of a realistic dynamic and set in inhospitable, or rather overly hospitable verbal contexts, they provide a useful example of how our experience of reading romance distinctly differs from that of reading realistic fiction. To participate we have to surrender up our usual methods of visual imagining and accept the verbal conditions Cooper establishes. He seams less interested in dramatically staging scenes than in telling us about than, in packing the sentences which describe them with verbal styrofoam. We can have an opinion about his style, but it seems particularly ungenerous to judge it in terms of realistic fiction. To read The Deerslayer without feeling the need to use ellipses, to thematically edit or visually focus its language, is to confront the novel on its own verbal turf: in the imaginative extravagance which governs its narrative processes. Such an encounter also allows us to more clearly understand the motives of those critics, outside of Twain’s Veterinary College of Arizona, who keep trying to either protect Cooper from his own style or tendentiously “filch it from him.”

Works Cited

  • Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. New York: Doubleday, 1957.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. New York: Signet, 1963.
  • Fiedler, Leslie. “James Fenimore Cooper: The Problem of the Good Bad Writer.” James Fenimore Cooper, His Country and His Art. Papers from the 1979 Conference at SUNY College Oneonta.
  • ------. Love and Death in the American Novel. rev. ed. New York: Stein & Day, 1966.
  • Franklin, Wayne. The New World of James Fenimore Cooper. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Guetti, James. “Aggressive Reading: Detective Fiction and Realistic Narrative.” Raritan 2:2 (1982): 133-54.
  • ------. Word-Music. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1980.
  • Krause, Sydney. Mark Twain as Critic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1967.
  • Lawrence, D. H. “Studies in Classic American Literature” in The Shock of Recognition. ed. Edmund Wilson. New York: Doubleday, 1943.
  • Martin, Harold. “The Development of Style in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction.” English Institute Essays 1958. New York: Columbia, 1958.
  • Mizener, Arthur. Twelve Great American Novels. New York: New American Library, 1967.
  • Poirier, Richard. A World Elsewhere. New York: Oxford, 1966.
  • ------. “Writing Off the Self.” Raritan 1:2 (1981): 106-33.
  • Twain, Mark. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” in The Shock of Recognition. ed. Edmund Wilson. New York: Doubleday, 1943.


1 Credit for this analogy, though not in this context, is due my colleague Bill Millard.

2 It is important to remember, as Krause points out (140-1), that Twain “originally wanted to present himself [in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”] as ‘Mark Twain, M.A., Professor of Belles Lettres in the Veterinary College of Arizona’ publishing his lectures, ‘Studies in Literary Criticisn.’ But instead “of giving himself professorial airs” and taking “the vinegar out of his reaction” by making “a buffoon of himself,” he assumes the persona of “a wholesome plebian.”

3 For a further discussion of criticisn’s “privileging of ‘signification’” see Guetti’s “Wittgenstein and Literary Theory (Part One).” Raritan, 4:3 (1984): 67-84, esp. 75-8.