Our book today is The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, and that's a tough row to hoe these days if you're intending to praise the book, which I am. Despite being one of the best-selling authors in American history, despite being one of the first best-selling authors in America history, Cooper has fallen so far out of literary fashion it's doubtful he'll ever come back. He's had his share of critical biographies (I reviewed the latest one over at Open Letters many months ago), but nobody reads him for pleasure anymore, and he's virtually never assigned in schools at any level nowadays.
Once upon a time, his "Leatherstocking" tales, the adventures of backwoodsman and intrepid frontier adventurer Natty Bumppo, were as unavoidable a set of childhood fixtures as measles or toad-catching, but now that seems like a very long time ago. The Deerslayer was written in 1841 (although it's chronologically the first of the Leatherstocking tales, it was the last one composed), and in 1895 it was savaged with perfect virtuosity by Mark Twain, who joyfully picked apart all of what he termed its "literary offenses."
Few indeed are the works of literature that can survive being made into a laughing-stock, and The Deerslayer wasn't one of those works. That Twain piece, combined with changing attitudes toward America's frontiers days and especially toward American Indians, spelled a slow, irreversible doom for this book and its sister tales - The Last of the Mohicans has proved remarkably resilient, but The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder, and The Prairie have faded to period curiosities, and if you take it into your head to read one of them, you're almost required by polite reading society to have a reason, one that doesn't inherently originate from Cooper himself.
N. C. Wyeth's gorgeous color illustrations (The Deerslayer's were done in 1925, I believe; certainly I grew up with them) provide just such a reason - it's OK to have some Cooper on your bookshelves when the members of your book club show up at your house, but only if the reason you have them can be interpreted somehow, if it can be attributed not to Cooper but to Wyeth.
Don't get me wrong: Wyeth does some first-rate pieces for this book (all the book illustrations he did for Scribner's classics in the first quarter of the 20th century were quite good - all those editions should be perpetually in print, but alas, they aren't). It's a distinct joy to be reading along and encounter one, to watch a scene you've imagined given such vibrant life.
But the far more distinct pleasure comes from the actual reading of the book. The story is set in central New York during the French and Indian War, and it features a wide variety of sure-fire plot devices: good Indians, bad Indians, noble characters like Natty ('The Deerslayer') and the virtuous Judith Hutter, ignoble characters like "Hurry Harry" March and possibly Judith's father, Thomas Hutter, the threat of war, the treachery of blackguards, the fragile flickerings of love, and, for veteran Cooper readers, the added thrill of seeing Natty Bumppo as a relatively unseasoned young man, first learning the ways of the woods and the ways of the world but already filled with the love of nature that readers associate with him from earlier books.
This last item is too easily discounted by modern readers in search of a few tenuous ways of praising the book Mark Twain so famously condemned: the "Leatherstocking" tales were enormously popular, selling copies in every corner of the new country. For the writer of those famous stories to go back in time, as it were, and give us a glimpse of his legendary main character as a callow (and even lovestruck) youth was a pure treat, something no American writer had yet done or been in a position to do. Imagine if Arthur Conan Doyle had written such a book about a teenage Sherlock Holmes - The Deerslayer functions with the same page-turning fascination.
It's true, some of the dialogue - OK, a lot of the dialogue - will strike the modern reader as almost unbearably treacly. An exchange between Judith and Natty early on in The Deerslayer will stand passably well for all its kin:
"And how does that concern you, Deerslayer?" demanded Judith, a little anxiously.
"It consarns me, as all things that touches a fri'nd consarns a fri'nd. I'm here as Chingachgook's aid and helper, and if we can get the young maiden he likes back ag'in, it will give me almost as much pleasure as if I had got back my own sweetheart."
"And where, then, is your sweetheart, Deerslayer?"
"She's in the forest, Judith - hanging from the boughs of the trees, in a soft rain - in the dew on the open grass - the clouds that float about in the blue heavens - the birds that sing in the woods - the sweet springs where I slake my thirst - and in all the other glorious gifts that come from God's Providence!"
But I submit that such a passage isn't nearly as bad as it might seem on first reading! In addition to its electric readability (admit it: you'd have read more if I'd quoted more!) there's an honesty in it, a straightforward conviction mingling right alongside the crass mercantile manipulation of nostalgia. It might sound odd to refer to such an old work as The Deerslayer as being nostalgic, but it's true: Cooper's generation was the first in America to feel that they were actually seeing one age of the continent fade away, to be replaced by a very different age they weren't at all sure they liked better. Mark Twain enormously and calculatedly played on that same nostalgia (by the time he was writing, it was in the full strength of its generation), most openly in Tom Sawyer, so maybe he was a little lacking in generosity to the man who paved the way.
Natty Bumppo is first and always an avatar of that nostalgia. His love of the wild, unspoiled country is his most consistently-evoked trait, prompting arias like this one:
"As for farms, they have their uses, and there's them that like to pass their lives on 'em; but what comfort can a man look for in a clearin,' that he can't find in double quantities in the forest? If air, and room, and light, are a little craved, the windrows and the streams will furnish 'em, or here are the lakes for such as have bigger longings in that way; but where are you to find your shades, and laughing springs, and leaping brooks, and vinerable trees, a thousand years old, in a clearin'? You don't find them, but you find their disabled trunks, marking the 'arth like headstones in a graveyard. It seems to me that the people who live in such places must be always thinkin' of their own inds, and of universal decay; and that, too, not of the decay that is brought about by time and natur,' but the decay that follows waste and violence. Then as to churches, they are good, I suppose, else wouldn't good men uphold 'em. But they are not altogether necessary. They call 'em the temples of the Lord; but Judith, the whole 'arth is a temple of the Lord to such as have the right mind.
The Deerslayer and the rest of Cooper's "Leatherstocking" tales are routinely thought of today as books suitable only for children - 'boys books' no serious adult reader would pause to contemplate on their way to re-reading Huck Finn a couple more times. But there are subtleties in these books that repay their reading, and for want of a better word, their obviousnesses repay that reading too (not to mention their graphic details - when Thomas Hutter is scalped, Cooper gives us details that would make any parent quaver). True, Cooper could be tin-eared at times, and true, his plot contrivances are often outlandish. But to be fair, large chunks of Twain's dialogue read no better (some quite a bit worse, even in the sainted Huck Finn), and his plot contrivances can be every bit as outlandish, often without the sheer gusto that Cooper brought to everything he wrote.
Ernest Hemingway, that prize-winning troublemaker, once famously opined that all of modern American fiction descends from one book, and that book is Huck Finn. He might be right (troublemakers sometimes are), but The Deerslayer and so many of James Fenimore Cooper's other novels are also progenitors, and of an American brood no less populous: the potboiler, the cliffhanger, the genre of 'then-what-happened.' Granted, no Pynchon or Vollmann springs from such a lineage. But all radio dramas do, and all comic books do, and all TV dramas do (Cooper could step unaltered through time and start writing for "Heroes" - he'd have a decent chance of improving it), and all movies do, and that's not a bad legacy for any writer, whether he's committed offenses or not.