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by William H. Benson

September 15, 2010

     Born on this day, September 15, in 1789 was the American author James Fenimore Cooper. Because he inherited his father’s vast landholdings—surrounding the city of Cooperstown, New York—at a young age, and then he married well, to Susan DeLancey, the daughter of a landowning family, he never had to work the rest of his life. With little else to do, he bet his wife that he could write as well as any of the books then coming out of England, and so he proceeded to write, over the course of his life, three dozen novels. They sold well: he is considered the first ever best-selling American novelist.

     The best known are the five Leatherstocking tales: The Pioneers, The Last of the MohicansThe Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer. The main character in all five is Natty Bumpo, also called Hawkeye, who is a very practical-minded frontiersmen, more comfortable in the woods than indoors. With his gun nicknamed “Kildeer,” he can shoot anything with deadly aim.

     The rhythm of Cooper’s tales is the repetitive “danger and escape,” scenes that appear before Natty Bumpo with frequent regularity.

     The critics have derided Cooper’s stories ever since, mainly for his stilted use of language that seems obsolete to the modern reader, and also for Cooper’s egregious literary errors. Chief among that host of critics was Mark Twain, who lambasted Cooper with a lengthy essay by writing, “Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in Deerslayer, and in . . . two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”

     Twain especially did not appreciate Cooper’s standard trick, in which he would heighten the danger and the suspense by repeatedly laying in front of Natty Bumpo or Chingachgook a dry twig which they would invariably then step on. “Every time a Cooper person is in peril, “ Twain wrote, “and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig.”

     One can conclude that Cooper’s reputation as a literary artist has plummeted since the days he first wrote his “Leatherstocking Tales,” more so after Mark Twain so hotly disabused him.

     Also born on this same day, in 1890, was the British author Agatha Christie, who wrote her first murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920, introducing to the world of crime fiction Hercule Poirot. In 1926 she came out with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in 1934 Murder on the Orient Express, and in 1939 probably her best known mystery And Then There Were None or as it is sometimes titled Ten Little Indians. All together she wrote eighty mysteries over fifty-six years.

     Virtually all her books are a formula: a murder, a stack of exotic and diverse characters each with a motive to kill, a scenic location, a winding and circuitous plot, and a final scene in which Hercule Poirot draws all the clues together and confronts he or she who had done the deed.

     Agatha Christie was writing her successful stream of mysteries up until her passing in 1976. Along the way she introduced her favorite investigator, Miss Jane Marple, who was most skillful at slipping quietly into a crime scene, and without fanfare, solving it. It was Miss Marple, an elderly spinster, who explained her success. “After all, no one pays attention to an old woman.”

     Like Cooper, Christie too had her detractors, her critics. On January 20, 1945, Edmund Wilson, the book critic at the New Yorker, published an essay that he entitled, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, in which he dismissed the entire mystery genre and most vociferously Agatha Christie. Wilson wrote that, “her writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters because they never can be allowed an existence.”

     David Lehman, another literary critic, countered with a different opinion. “Wilson regarded the genre as terminally sub-literary, either an addiction or a harmless vice on a par with crossword puzzles. But the truth is that for every Edmund Wilson who resists the genre, there are dozens of intellectuals who have embraced it wholeheartedly.”

     I agree. A well-written mystery has always held my attention, ever since my days of soaking up one Hardy Boys mystery after another followed by my discovery of Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. The same I cannot say for Cooper and the western writers.  

     Two authors. An American man. An English woman. Their birthdays separated by exactly one hundred and one years. James Fenimore Cooper wrote romantic fiction, of the early frontier, of adventure stories, was a  forerunner to the western writers Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Agatha Christie wrote murder mysteries, and was a forerunner to Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, and Sue Grafton, who all owe a debt back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and also, to Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin.


     A writer dares to write, a brave thing to do, for the ever-present critic is there to read and then point out the author’s mistakes, and the writer feels bruised. However, in spite of the critic, it is the reading public who ultimately judges whether a work succeeds in the market place. Few critics would have dared to believe, after reading Cooper’s and Christie’s first book, that they would sell so well, and yet they did, for the reading public is fickle: they read what they like, not what the critics like.