WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Sixth Maxim)

Once the rumor spreads…

“Frankel notes that the year Cynthia Ann [Parker] was taken, three of America’s four best-selling novels were by James Fenimore Cooper, with captivity figuring in all; the fourth was the true story of a settler woman who, captured by the Seneca Indians, married into the tribe, had seven children and refused to rejoin white civilization.”

(Source: J. Hoberman, review of Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, from New York Times, Feb. 22, 2013)

We’ll lay aside that “novels” should be books (as the quote itself admits the fourth was a nonfiction account). And I  really don’t want to drag Frankel’s book into this. I’m reading it now and it’s quite good (I’ve already turned up one nugget I plan to use in my next post about the movie). Overall the book seems a well-researched, well-written labor of love and Frankel clearly put a lot of work and care into it.

So I was just going to pass over the messy bit Hoberman cites as one of those things. We all make mistakes. But now that it’s been given the imprimatur of the paper of record, it’s worth mentioning that Hoberman’s reference does clearly demonstrate one of the dangers of what I like to call “industrial criticism.”

So here’s the relevant quote from the book under review:

“At the time of the massacre at Parker’s Fort, [the historical event that forms the basis of Frankel’s book] three of the nation’s four biggest sellers were novels by Cooper–The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, all of which featured captivity as an important plot element.” (p. 35)

Since the massacre (and abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker) took place in 1836 and The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer weren’t published until 1840 and 1841 respectively, this is a somewhat dubious statement.

Again not a terribly big deal in and of itself. Perhaps Frankel really meant bestselling books of the era or “the time” (as opposed to the specific year). Perhaps there was some lapse of research or memory. Perhaps some  initially clear language was garbled at the editorial or typesetting stage. There could be any number of perfectly good explanations.

But, of course, if you do make a mistake–or at least the impression of a mistake–that’s likely to be the very thing a reviewer cites! And he’s likely to apply compound interest. (As here, where the lack of clarity and specificity implied by “the time” immediately becomes the completely counter-factual “the year.”)

Since Frankel’s book is largely about the relationship between fact and “myth” it’s a little ironic–and frankly pretty interesting–to find such a perfect example of how one soon becomes the other in America’s most prominent reviewing space. The author planted a seed. The reviewer (with hundreds of pages to choose from!) immediately homed in on it and turned it into a sapling. Pretty soon word gets around and there’s a mighty oak tree standing about, obscuring all kinds of things!

It won’t surprise me to be googling the subject five years down the line and find that it has been spun into something that is very, very far afield. What that “something” might be I won’t try to guess. For now I’m letting it be the inspiration for The Sixth Maxim:

Please do sweat the small stuff!

 

5 thoughts on “WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Sixth Maxim)

  1. ha! I was puzzled at that part of the Times’ review but I’ve grown jaded, i suppose, over what you aptly call “industrial criticism”. I encourage others to read the book, not the review—but most of all, look at the movie (don’t just watch it once and think you’ve seen it…really LOOK). Frankel certainly got it right in the title, The Searchers is a masterpiece and not just of the western genre.

  2. Yes, I very much encourage people to read the book…I haven’t gotten to the movie part yet (still in the old west!), but I’m especially grateful that Glenn did some serious research on Alan LeMay and Frank Nugent. It’s been notoriously hard to find good info on them!

    One of my principal themes on the blog, whether I’m writing about music, books or movies, is the ways in which false media narratives take hold and this looks like a classic potential building block!…And, as a final point, I think there are some things any professional literary reviewer should know and the publication dates of major American novels is one of them. Call me crazy!

    Totally agree about the movie, of course. Once, about five or six years ago, I finally swore I would watch it every night until I stopped seeing new things in it–and by “new things” I meant things that were actually germane to character, story, etc, not mere ephemera. I gave up after two weeks. Have seen it probably more than a dozen times since and still haven’t got the bottom of it.

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