Literary daybook, Aug. 27

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published August 27, 2002 6:19PM (EDT)

Today in fiction
On Aug. 27, inmates can have color pictures taken.
-- "Falconer" (1977)
by John Cheever

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1841, James Fenimore Cooper's "The Deerslayer" was published. This was the last written of the five Leatherstocking novels, though it covers the earliest phase of the saga, that part wherein the 23-year-old Natty Bumppo must pass his first tests in the wilderness, rise above the worst of paleface and redskin ethics, avoid being burned at the stake, return Chingachgook's beloved Wah-ta!-Wah to him and, to the fetching Judith's despair, give this explanation of his own true love's whereabouts:

"She's in the forest -- 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!"

This sort of talk, and the taste for it among scholars and the reading public, so riled up Mark Twain that in 1895 he published an article entitled "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences." Twain found "The Deerslayer" guilty of breaking 18 of his 19 rules for romantic fiction, including Rule No. 3: "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." Twain wanted Cooper's entire Leatherstocking series to be renamed his "Broken Twig" books:

"It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one."

A new name would not have bothered Natty Bumppo: he was "Straight-tongue," "Pigeon" and "Lap-ear" before "Deerslayer," and of course he was Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, Long Rifle and Pathfinder too. Natty sometimes knows Chingachgook as "the sarpent," so named for the wily side of "a sartain sarpent at the creation of the 'arth"; Twain knows him as "one of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think)," and one equally obsessed with the sound of one twig snapping.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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