Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

James Fennimore Cooper


It was hot and I was sweaty, having done the lawn. Really hot. I went into the gas mart at the end of the block and got myself a huge fountain coke, a ton of ice. When I went up to pay, the kid behind the counter said, "The old lady got ya' doing the lawn."
I couldn't help it--I laughed. It was a hilarious line because the image of my wife, hair up in curls, false teeth out, broom in hand, screaming out orders at beleaguered me--a Minnie Pearl to my Dagwood--was just a scream.

But that's the way I see James Fennimore Cooper. One of my favorite literary stories of all time is the story of how Cooper, who never had a dime's worth of aspiration to write anything, was suddenly given inspiration by his wife, who told him, one bony finger raised menacingly, that rather than sit and complain about how bad the books were that he'd been reading, he ought to get off his fat butt and write one himself.

Cooper heard that as a calling.

So he did. And what she created is America's very first real story-teller. I'd hesitate to call Mr. Fennimore Cooper an artist, but he listened to that screeching wife of his, got out the quill and the ink, and started in. Never even took a class.

I wonder what his wife thought of his novels. I've got no idea. But tons of people bought his books because he was just about the first to do what needed to be done: he wrote truly American stories. Up until his time, Americans read Brit lit, which was just fine. But when Cooper's wife got sick-and-tired of his belly-aching and told him to put up or shut up, she created, for the most part, something altogether new, something called American fiction. Only Irving preceded him.

Cooper created American icons like Natty Bumpo, the first American Indian dime-novel hero, the great "noble savage." Mrs. James Fennimore Cooper did a lot more than push her old man to do the lawn; she got him to put the first few titles in a real Amerian library--The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Prairie, The Deerslayer, and 40-some more.

Was he good? Well, yes. He instituted American story-telling. Was he beautiful? Not really. When his wife got him off the couch, she also gave Mark Twain the opportunity to savage her husband's bellicose style in an essay Twain titled, simply, "Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offences," a piece which lists Cooper's sins so cruelly, one might think Twain was a hanging judge.

Such as--

5. The requirement that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "Deerslayer" tale to the end of it.

It's a hilarious essay, and, if you've read Cooper, it's on the money.

No matter. Today is Fennimore Cooper's birthday, and while I'm not sure I'll mention it to the Lord, I'm thankful for his contribution, his immense contribution, to American literature. For goodness sake, he built he built the book case.

And the greatest story of all is how the old lady put him up to it.
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p.s. Wouldn't you know it? I couldn't find a picture of his wife.

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