Arts criticism is alive and kicking

Mark Twain was an adroit political and social commentator, but a waspish literary critic. Writing about James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Deerslayer (1841) were among the most popular American books of the 19th century, he pulled no punches. Twain’s essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses (1895) is a litany of complaints. He begins by casually observing that:

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

The tirade that follows concludes:

“Cooper’s word-sense was singularly dull. When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it. This is Cooper. He was not a word-musician.”

Twain, clearly a word-musician himself, was notably unsympathetic to opera. Indeed, he was scathing about Wagner:

“I have witnessed and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything which Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; whenever I have witnessed two acts I have gone away physically exhausted; and whenever I have ventured an entire opera the result has been the next thing to suicide” (Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review, p. 175).

So, Twain would undoubtedly have enjoyed this review of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser at London’s Royal Opera House, which recently appeared on theartsdesk.

Theartsdesk was launched just over a year ago by journalists dismayed at the decline in space devoted to the arts in print media. The site has long since won its critical spurs and is, to my mind, quintessential reading. It covers both mainstream and fringe cultural happenings, including film, new music, opera, theatre, art, classical music, dance, comedy and television.

If you want to be amused, startled, provoked – and occasionally incensed – this is the place to go.

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