Sunday, September 16, 2012

Look What I Found: The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned. I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931. If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

True confession: as an undergrad at the University of Oregon, I had a mad crush on James Fenimore Cooper.  For at least two semesters, I ate, breathed, and bathed Leatherstocking.  Somewhere in a trunk full of mildewing college papers, I have one or two starry-eyed treatises on Cooper's tales of old New England--man vs. wilderness, the savage breast, overripe romance, all that kind of stuff undergrads think is So Important.

I haven't been back to Cooperland in well over a decade and I have no idea if he'll hold up as well as he did when I would curl up with Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook on drizzly Oregon afternoons in our cramped married-student housing apartment.  Maybe I'd find him dull or maybe I'd find him still delightful.  Whatever the case, I can tell you I just found a near-pristine copy of The Deerslayer in an antique store here in Montana.  But not just any Deerslayer.  Nosireebob.  This was a special Boy Scouts of America edition of the book.  The endpapers are what first alerted me to the book's unique character as I stood in that antique shop: full, two-page photospreads of Boy Scouts sitting around a campfire.  There's no date inside, but the book is illustrated with stills from a 1920 German silent film version of Cooper's novel (starring Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook).  Thanks to the heavenly glories of Google, I was able to find that movie on-line, which you can watch here.  The silent film opens with the Scouts sitting around the campfire.  Their leader brings in a book, gives them a Cliffs Notes version of the plot, then says, "The story of The Deerslayer is too long to read in an hour, so I am going to tell parts of it in my own words."  And then we're off on a truncated version of the 1841 novel.

Come to think of it, maybe that's the best way to appreciate James Fenimore Cooper: speed-reading and picking out all "the best parts."

By the way, yesterday marked the 223rd occasion of Mr. Cooper's birth, so happy belated birthday to you, sir!  Here are some Boy Scouts to help you blow out all those candles....

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