My love-hate relationship with James Fenimore Cooper

I’m not sure what to make of James Fenimore Cooper. Unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose books I loved, despite their flaws, Cooper is an author whose books I wish I could love.

There’s a little boy deep inside to whom Cooper is magic. Growing up in Upstate New York, keenly interested in colonial history and Northeastern Indians, put me right in line for devouring Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It also made me wish he had done a better job writing them.

Cooper could spin a yarn. He was imaginative, and there is enough drama in his books to keep you turning pages. The problem with Cooper is there are far too many pages to turn. I don’t mind long books. I just don’t like needlessly long books.

Cooper was profligate with the English language. He thought words grew on trees, which is not a good thing for a writer whose stories take place in the forest. Cooper grabbed handfuls of words from the nearest low-hanging branch and tossed them willy-nilly. Adverbs, adjectives, whatever he had in hand; there must be something lying among the twigs they could be used to describe.

The only time he was able to restrain himself from putting in more than his two-cents-worth.

The only time he was able to restrain himself from putting in more than his two-cents-worth.

If you can weave your way through the superfluous words, the other thing that might grab at your ankles is the flawlessness of the hero. No matter where Natty Bumppo points his rifle, he is sure to hit the head of nail. On his off days, he shoots easier things, like deer, Indians, and Frenchmen, who sometimes need to be shot but hardly pad his resume as a marksman.

Natty never brags about his marksmanship. He is famous for not bragging. He repeatedly avoids self-congratulation while talking up of his exploits until his humility becomes annoyingly boastful. Bumppo is a thoughtful, taciturn man who seems always to be talking at somebody. By contrast, Tarzan was exceptional at swinging through trees, but he didn’t waste all your time not bragging about it.

A rare scene in which Natty's mouth is closed.

A rare scene in which Natty’s mouth is closed. (Artist: E. Boyd Smith)

There are a surprising number of upper-class, young women traipsing through Cooper’s wilderness. Natty Bumppo is never tempted by them. Maybe he’s too wise to get tangled up with impulsive women who can’t quell the urge to visit the far side of a border war. More likely, Natty is too pure. Naturally, when a man who has been alone in the forest for ages finds a beautiful woman in his path, it presents a wonderful opportunity to spew his backwoods philosophies at her.

If Natty Bumpo had missed his target once, or at least shut up about how un-noteworthy his “gifts” were, he’d have been a lot more interesting. If he’d entertained one lustful thought, he would have been more believable. In the end, he was just a guy who could get you through the woods, if you didn’t allow yourself to get trapped in a conversation with him.

Having said this, I admit to reading all the Leatherstocking Tales. If lost volumes were discovered, I would read them too. Cooper snared me with his subject matter. His writing frustrates me, but what can I do? There aren’t a bunch of people running around New York during the French and Indian War besides Natty Bumppo.

So here’s to you, James Fenimore Cooper; you may not have done it the best, but you did it the most, and that should be worth something.

 

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He blinded me with science: The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

The Mysterious Island recounts the adventures of six Yankees who escaped a Confederate prison by stealing a hot air balloon.  They ride the winds of a monster storm until the balloon fails and deposits them on a deserted island in the South Pacific. The castaways have nothing but the clothes on their backs to help them survive.

One of the castaways is an engineer. All the others have man-crushes on him because he knows how to make anything out of dirt and gumption.

Another of them is a teenaged boy, who, despite his tender age, knows everything there is to know about exotic fauna and flora, including the various medicinal uses of the latter.

The third Yankee is a sailor, capable of building a pleasure yacht by himself, on a deserted island, in about four months.

The fourth castaway is a journalist. He is exceptional at making himself appear wise, though he is of less practical use than any of the others.

The fifth castaway is the black “companion” of the engineer. He is under no “obligation” to the engineer, and could have gone his own way at any time during his long “devotion” to the engineer.  Guess who does all the cooking on the island.

The final castaway is a dog, who turns out to be marginally more useful than the journalist.

Don't worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Don’t worry for their safety. Jules Verne only kills bad guys.

Remarkably, the island contains every natural resource necessary for five men with clothes on their backs to develop a western industrial society. The castaways, who, for reasons associated with the tourist trade, quickly become colonists, busy themselves in the production of steel, textiles, and other assorted necessities and luxury items.

What makes the island mysterious is the presence of an unknown benefactor who aids the colonists whenever they encounter a difficulty requiring too much effort to plot their way through. When pirates attack, a torpedo is placed in the pirate ship’s path by the unknown protector, destroying the threat without having to bother us with an annoying display of military cleverness by the colonists.

I wanted to dislike this novel from the beginning. The characters are flat. There is no conflict between them. They are great guys who always agree on everything, and anything they touch turns to gold. Verne’s obvious  and overabundant  love for his characters means there is no tension caused by worry that any of them will come to serious harm.

Readers more sciencey and less fictiony than I am might enjoy descriptions of the processes by which the colonists manufactured the many fine products used to build their empire. To me, a recipe book for smelting iron does not make a compelling story.

And then there was the time lost deciding upon names for the island’s various features. They really could have done this while I was at work.

In spite of all this, I could not hate this book. I found myself looking forward to revisiting the island. Even though some the colonists’ improvements were far-fetched, I wanted to see what else they were able to develop. The characters themselves were secondary to me. I wanted to watch progress. Jules Verne may not have been much into character development, but he sure was adept at showing off scientific progress. That’s how he got me; apparently, I’m a sucker for progress.

In the end, this collection of brilliant and amiable men faces catastrophe. With their mysterious protector no longer able to bail them out, they do what all clever, resourceful men do to save themselves: they rely on dumb luck.

It was disappointing that the characters did not concoct some ingenious scheme to save themselves, but I didn’t really care about them anyway. I was more concerned about the island itself. This once-primitive, now paradise, land was the true star of the show. Only Jules Verne could make me feel this way about a chunk of volcanic rock.

Learned from Jules Verne: A successful hero knows when to cry

Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne is a 19th century adventure novel. It’s less well-known than Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or A Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I liked it better. I don’t remember much about those novels.

Michael Strogoff is a special courier for the Czar. The Tartar hordes are invading Siberia, and the Czar needs to get a message to Irkutsk warning of a traitor plotting to sabotage that city’s defenses.

The Czar's man in Irkutsk.

The Czar’s man in Irkutsk.

Michael Strogoff would be a typical adventure, with its prerequisite, larger-than-life hero, except for two characteristics. First, it made me root for a Czar and his military forces. I’m no expert on Russia, but I have a notion Czars where not the most sympathetic characters. Nor does the image of Cossack cavalry inspire me with warm fuzzies.

Second, Michael Strogoff is not your typical action hero. In my youth I read 24 Tarzan novels, and I don’t recall Tarzan ever shedding a tear. Mr. Verne never comes right out and admits Michael was crying, but there was clearly something in his eye when he was under duress at the hands of his enemies.

Here’s the situation: the Tartars have captured Michael and his mother. They might decide to do some bad stuff to his mom at any moment. Meanwhile, they are going to make Michael go blind, which, I guess, is what Tartars do sometimes. They pass a red-hot blade before Michael’s eyes, in the Tartar custom of blinding prisoners.

In the tradition of bad guys everywhere, the Tartars grossly underestimate the hero and eventually let him go (because he’s helpless, right?). The blinded Michael, and some girl he hooks up with, struggle across the steppe just in time to save Irkutsk. There, Michael kills the traitor in a sword fight. That’s right, a sword fight. How is blind Michael able to do this? Guess what? Michael’s not blind! He never was.

Everybody (except the reader) is shocked to discover this. Even his girlfriend, who led him across versts and versts (old Russian kilometers) of countryside, was hoodwinked by his blindness scam. It’s anybody’s guess why he couldn’t let her know, in a private moment, he wasn’t really blind. Maybe he was using her pity to coax back rubs out of her.

Anyway, here is the inspirational reason Michael was able to escape being blinded by the hot blade passed over his eyes: he was crying at the time. Mr. Verne doesn’t use the word crying; that might be unbecoming a classic hero. Michael was upset with worry about what the Tartars might do to his mom (they ended up letting her run free too) and there was just a little layer of water covering his eyes when the hot blade passed by. This little bit of water insulated his optic nerves from the heat, or something like that. Consult Dr. Verne for the technical explanation.

Paging Dr. Verne.

Paging Dr. Verne.

This series of events is a great comfort to me, because if Tartars ever come after me with a red-hot blade, I guarantee, even lacking endangered relatives, I will be bawling my eyes out. My optic nerves will remain cool and calm under my pool of tears. I just have to make sure to walk into some stuff afterward so they’ll think the procedure a success and let me go.

Even if he didn’t cry us a river, Michael certainly got teary-eyed. I’d have preferred it if he saved his vision through some more clever means, and then, after wreaking his terrible wrath upon the Tartars, took a moment to get misty-eyed about his poor mama. I don’t mind heroes having a sensitive side, but I don’t like them to cry their way out of trouble; toddlers shouldn’t even be allowed to do that. I want great heroes of literature to hold their tears until some serious bad-guy ass has been kicked. Is that too much to ask?

I shouldn’t make too much of the crying. I did enjoy the adventure. Besides, if shedding a few tears would have helped me defend Irkutsk, when I played Risk as a boy, I would have let them flow in a heartbeat.

Edgar Rice Burroughs and making pulp fiction classic

Classic is a subjective term. Tarzan of the Apes is included in some classic libraries and excluded from others. None of the 100+ other Edgar Rice Burroughs novels is mentioned in any discussion of classics.

But they are classics to me. Even as a child, I recognized their flaws, but I didn’t care. Burroughs took me to Africa and Mars. Even more, he helped me learn to love to read. To me that makes him a classic writer.

ERB’s books followed common plot arcs: Hero meets Damsel. They are indifferent toward each other. Damsel, unmindful of what meeting the hero in the beginning of an adventure story portends, is careless in her personal security. She is kidnapped by slave traders, or some other impolite group.

Hero flies to Damsel’s aid, not out of any personal regard for her, but because a hero wants employment for his skills. Hero rescues Damsel. They talk a bit more and each comes to the unwilling conclusion that the other has cute dimples or some such endearing trait. Things seem to have turned in a good direction.

Edgar Rice Burroughs - the first author I couldn't put down.

Edgar Rice Burroughs – the first author I couldn’t put down.

Yet, there is trouble brewing. The villains have not yet been brought to justice (i.e. killed in self-defense) and we are only halfway through the book. Tragedy strikes when Hero says something innocuous that is misinterpreted as an insult by Damsel. She storms off, leading Hero to conclude such a mercurial woman isn’t worth his affections, her cute dimples notwithstanding.

This emotional rollercoastering causes Hero to lose focus, allowing the slave traders to capture both. The bad guys intend to croak Hero, while proceeding to auction Damsel to the highest bidder, if the rogue leader can keep his grotesque hands off of her until then. He’s noticed her dimples too, and realizing how mercurial she is, he’s really hot for her.

Hero and Damsel are taken in different directions — he to a gruesome death, she to be ogled by a horrid specimen of humanity, who somehow can’t actually bring himself to touch her, but is upon the point of doing so at every moment. Her torture is magnified by knowing Hero is probably dead by now, and realizing she didn’t actually hate him that much when he was alive. In fact, had it not been for his uncouth behavior . . .

Her hopeless eyes are a big turn-on to the villain. They give him the juice he needs to finally come at her with his filthy, greasy hands. His bulbous nose and his brown teeth, together with the smell of animal fat on his unwashed body, cause Damsel to scream exactly once before closing out the chapter by fainting dead away.

While all this foreplay is going on, Hero is brought to the apparatus necessary for the imaginative killing of heroes that is ever being conceived, yet never actually executed, by bad dudes in the arts. Hero quickly assesses and demonstrates the flaws of the lethal apparatus to his captors by killing them all with its safety defects.

Hero flies to the succor (again) of the insufferable Damsel. Though he may give a passing thought to her dimples, he races to her aid for reasons truly noble. It is, after all, more heroic to rescue somebody he doesn’t like, dimples or not.

Hero interrupts the impending outrage just as things are about to progress to where they cannot be allowed to go in the early 20th century. Though Hero takes no pleasure in dispensing death, the lust-crazed fiend will accept no resolution less than giving complete satisfaction to the incensed reader. But he will not die before advising Damsel that she has misinterpreted Hero’s words toward her.

Content at providing closure, the villain breathes his last. Hero and Damsel realize the foolishness of letting a misunderstanding come between them, and they kiss, with no tongues.

I eagerly followed this plot every time. Maybe I was just young and callow, but that doesn’t matter. I was entertained and my imagination was sparked. It kept me reading. That’s what matters.