In Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences, Mark Twain avers:

Cooper's art has some defects. In one page in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them.

pp. 1–2

Twain does not specify the page in the Deerslayer to which he is alluding. Nor does he provide a citation for the list of 115 possible offenses. So it is unclear:

  • What the 115 possible offenses are
  • Which 114 Cooper commits
  • Which one he did not commit.

Twain does furnish a list of the eighteen rules Cooper violates, and examples of the violations, but the remaining rule(s)—one or four, depending on whether one counts nineteen or twenty-two—are unspecified. Nor does Twain provide his authority for these 19 or 22 rules.

So: from where did Twain get his list of rules and of possible offences? And what are the rules Cooper does observe, and the offences he does not commit? Does Twain's later essay, Fenimore Cooper's Further Literary Offences, shed any light on this matter?


  • DeVoto, Bernard, and Mark Twain. “Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, 1946, pp. 291–301. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/361967. Accessed 6 January 2024.
  • Twain, Mark. “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences.” The North American Review, vol. 161, no. 464, 1895, pp. 1–12. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25103547. Accessed 6 January 2024.

1 Answer 1


In "Fenimore Cooper’s Further Literary Offenses" (pp. 299-300), Twain singles out a passage of The Deerslayer, chapter XXX. It concerns this page and the following. The passage begins with "In a minute he was once more fastened to the tree" and ends with "'Heaven itself has sent you on its holy errand.'" In the passage of 320 words Twain counts and identifies 100 "unnecessary" ones. He considers each of them a separate violation of his rule 14 ("Eschew surplusage"). Further violations mentioned and counted are:

  • Rule 12 ("Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it"): twice
  • Rule 13 ("Use the right word, not its second cousin"): three times
  • Rule 15 ("Not omit necessary details"): once
  • Rule 16 ("Avoid slovenliness of form"): twice; and applies to the entire passage
  • Rule 17 ("Use good grammer [sic]"): once or twice
  • Rule 18 ("Employ a simple and straightforward style"): the entire passage

Twain then concludes that essay by re-writing the passage, demonstrating that it can be done without superfluous words and boasts: "Number of words, 220 - and the facts are all in." (301)

Twain's set of "rules" is widely available, e.g. here. There is no indication that they are the result of any accord between writers or the "writing profession" or anything like that. It may be Twain's humorous idiosyncracy. And anyway, literary criticism and scholarship do not thrive on the pedantic observance or enforcement of rules.

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