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Writer’s Wit Found Target in ‘Mohicans’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Delighted, are you, that filmmaker Michael Mann has given new life to “The Last of the Mohicans,” James Fenimore Cooper’s early-American literary masterpiece?

Before all you Cooperites absolutely insist that everyone who saw the movie go revel in the artistry of the book, don’t forget what another equally famous U.S. writer had to say about that pioneer of the great American novel.

“Cooper’s style is always grand and stately and noble,” wrote Mark Twain, for the July, 1895, edition of North American Review. “Style may be likened to an 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 a 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, 40 bands braying, 1,000 banners streaking in the wind.”

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In one of several passages from “The Last of the Mohicans” that Twain chose to illustrate his critique, Cooper describes a young woman named Alice:

“Her eyes were radiant with the glow of grateful feelings; the flush of her beauty was again seated on her cheeks, and her whole soul seemed ready and anxious to pour out its thanksgivings, through the medium of her eloquent features. But when her lips moved, the words they should have uttered appeared frozen by some new and sudden chill. Her bloom gave place to the paleness of death; her soft and melting eyes grew hard, and seemed contracting with horror; while those hands which she had raised, clasped in each other, towards heaven, dropped in horizontal lines before her, the fingers pointed forward in convulsed motion.”

Responded that stickler-for-precision Twain: “I do not approve of the word seated to describe the process of locating a flush. No one can seat a flush. A flush is not a deposit on an exterior surface, it is something which squshes (sic) out from within.

“I cannot approve of the word new. If Alice had had an old chill, formerly, it would be right to distinguish this one from that one by calling this one the new chill; but she had not had any old chill, this one was the only chill she had had, up till now, and so the tacit reference to an old anterior chill is unwarranted and misleading.

“And I do not altogether like the phrase ‘while those hands which she had raised.’ It seems to imply that she had some other hands--some other ones which she had put on the shelf a minute so as to give her a better chance to raise these ones; but it is not true; she had only the one pair.”


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