“A Union of Art and Nature”: Cooper and American Landscape Aesthetics
Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1998 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 10, August 1998.
Copyright © 1998, James Fenimore Cooper Society.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
The focus for this paper shifted somewhat during my research. Initially, I intended to examine Cooper’s fictional works from the 1840s for what they revealed about his landscape aesthetics. Wyandotté (1843), Satanstoe (1845), The Chainbearer (1845), The Redskins (1846), The Crater (1847), and The Oak Openings (1848) contain splendid and problematic fictional landscapes. Fortunately, these works are discussed by Blake Nevius, H. Daniel Peck, and Warren Motley, who have, respectively, examined Cooper’s picturesque, pastoral, and patriarchal visions of the American landscape. 1 My contribution to this discussion focuses on the more quotidian concerns that Cooper faced as a landowner interested in improving his grounds and gardens.
My primary sources for information about Cooper’s interest in horticultural experiments and landscape design were his letters and journals. To put Cooper’s views on landscape design within an historical and aesthetic framework, I read Ulysses P. Hedrick’s A History of Horticulture in America to 1860 (1950), and Andrew Jackson Downing’s influential work, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America; with a View to the improvement of Country Residences (1841). I also examined the writings of Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper, particularly Rural Hours (1850), and A Cooper Gallery: or Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (1865). In the process of examining what Susan Cooper tells us about her father’s landscaping projects, I discovered that she had well-formed opinions on the management of wood lots and the improvement of grounds and was not shy about informing her countrymen of their aesthetic shortcomings.
In 1851 George Putnam, “believing that ample material ... exists for illustrating the picturesque beauties of American landscape” and determined “to ascertain how far the taste of our people may warrant the production of home-manufactured presentation books,” published The Home Book of the Picturesque; or, American Scenery, Art, and Literature (New York: Putnam, 1851). In his “home-manufactured presentation-book” (the predecessor of our contemporary coffee-table book) Putnam offered readers thirteen engravings of American scenes by American artists and twelve essays on American scenery by eminent American writers. Artists whose works were reproduced included Asher B. Durand, Frederick Church, and John Kensett. Among the writers represented were James Fenimore Cooper and Miss [Susan Fenimore] Cooper.
In his essay on “American and European Scenery Compared,” Cooper informs his readers that although the Rocky Mountains “possess many noble views,” they are not as picturesque as the region around Lake Como because they lack the “accessories” of manmade art, “for a union of art and nature alone can render scenery perfect” (56). In “A Dissolving View,” an essay on autumn scenery, Susan Cooper echoes her father’s sentiments about the relationship between picturesque scenery and signs of human habitation. She writes that “There is something of a social spirit in the brilliancy of our American autumn” (81-82). Although she allows that a “broad expanse of forest is no doubt necessary to the magnificent spectacle,” Cooper adds that “there should also be broken woods, scattered groves, and isolated trees; and it strikes me that the quiet fields of man, and his cheerful dwellings, should also have a place in the gay picture” (82). Signs of human settlement soften the scene. “The hand of man,” she writes, “generally improves a landscape” (82).
Her father’s early attempts to improve his ancestral grounds attest to his belief that the hand of man improved the landscape. The evidence that Cooper took a genuine interest in the improvement and design of the landscaping surrounding his estates seems clear. When he returned to Cooperstown in 1813 with his wife and young family, after resigning his naval commission, Cooper set about learning the art of farming, which he practiced at Fenimore Farm. In a 30 June 1814 letter to his wife, who was visiting her family in Mamaroneck, Cooper remarked on the slow progress of his improvements at Fenimore. “I am clearing the Lawn burning stumps &c. We have already made great alterations in its appearance, but hay harvest & the house put me back so much that you will find but few of the anticipated improvement[s] completed.” (L&J, I, 32).
Conscious of the need to convince his neighbors to improve their lands, Cooper sought a public forum for his ideas. Among his public tasks was to serve as secretary for the Otsego County Agricultural Society. On 13 March, 1817, less than a month after the society was founded, he wrote to the “Freeholders of the County of Otsego” urging them to support the society, appealing to their regional pride.
The result of similar societies in our own country, affords undeniable evidence of their usefulness. The Pennsylvania Agricultural Society has wrought a surprisingly advantageous change in the mode of farming in the elder counties of that state. ... (L&J, I, 36)
Having noted that the effects of modern husbandry were most pronounced in the “elder counties” of Pennsylvania, he extends this anthropomorphic metaphor to include his home county. “The country of Otsego has passed its infancy, and is rapidly maturing into manhood. It is hoped that this institution will influence its character (L&J, I, 37). Clearly, Cooper felt that regional (and perhaps national) maturity was reflected in the improvement of farms and properties.
In 1817 Cooper moved his family to “Angevine,” a property near Scarsdale in Westchester County, which his wife, Susan DeLancey Cooper, had inherited. Here, he continued his efforts in landscape renovation and agricultural innovation. In his study of Cooper, Henry Walcott Boynton cites Susan Cooper’s “pleasant picture of Angevine and its activities,” particularly her father’s interest in improving the grounds (68). Boynton observes that “The fever for ‘improvements’ which ravaged England from Pope to Jane Austen, was just firing up in America. The gentlemen of Westchester (according to Miss Susan) were much excited about the new game, the proper grouping of trees, the grading of lawns.” (68)
In his monograph on Cooper’s landscapes, the late Blake Nevius writes that when Cooper moved his family to Westchester County and began to supervise the improvement of his grounds, he was undertaking a task that was quite new. Nevius observes that “The art of landscape gardening was then in its infancy in America” (65). In her “Introduction” to Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, 2 Susan Cooper recalls her father’s efforts at improving “Angevine,” providing evidence that Cooper was interested in the theories of landscape gardening that were just coming into America in the 1820s. She contrasts her father’s efforts with the general state of American landscape design at the time.
The cottage he then occupied (Angevine, 1820) had been recently built, and he took great pleasure in the improvements required by a new place. At that period landscape- gardening was in its earliest stages in America, where very little had yet been done toward giving beauty of design, or finish of detail, to pleasure grounds of any kind (14).
She remarks that the placement of houses and their interior ornamentation received more attention than the surrounding grounds and woods.
The educated men of the country had indeed shown judgment and taste in placing their houses, the positions of which were often very beautiful, a pleasing view was always considered desirable, and the advantages of a grove, or a stream of water, were seldom overlooked. Many of the oldest places in the country possess very great natural beauties in this way, more particularly those on the banks of rivers first peopled by the colonists, and those within reach of the civilizing influence of the older towns. But, beyond this single fact of a choice position, very little had been attempted. Straight rows of trees shading the house, or forming an avenue from the gates, or lining the nearer fences, were then the general form of ornamental planting practised by our country gentlemen. Many were the noble elms, the fragrant locusts, the exotic willows, and poplars, thus ranged, like sentinels, about houses which within doors possessed much of the elegance and luxury of the same class of dwellings beyond the sea; while the drawing-rooms were rich in expensive woods, gilded mirrors, choice carpetings, delicate porcelain, the gardens and lawns of the same establishments were but little superior to those of the laboring farmer who had no leisure for finish of improvement (14).
Like her father, Susan felt that improvements in agriculture and horticulture signified the maturation of a society.
Horticulture and landscape-gardening are the growth of an older and much higher civilization than that which flows from commerce alone. The early dawn of improvement of pleasure grounds was just then, however, beginning to open upon the country, and some of the gentlemen in Westchester county were giving much of their attention to subjects of this kind; English books had led the way, returning travellers suggested new ideas, and people were beginning to talk about grouping trees, and shrubbery, and grading lawns (14).
Typically, her father eagerly involved himself in the process of reshaping the landscape to set off the features of the house.
The position of the house was fine, commanding a beautiful view over the farms and woods of the adjoining country, in whose varied groves hickory and tulip-tree, cedar and sassafras, grew luxuriantly; a broad reach of Sound stretched beyond, always dotted with white sails the sailor’s eye loved to follow in their graceful movements to and fro, while the low shores of Long Island, with the famous pippin orchards of Newtown, formed the distant background (14).
Employing ideas that were common in England but still novel in America, he set about improving his grounds.
Planning a lawn, building a ha-ha fence, then a novelty in the country, and ditching a swamp, were the tasks of the moment; while the friends who followed his movement often smiled at the almost boyish eagerness with which he watched the growth of shrubs, or they shook their heads sagely at the size of the trees he was engaged in transplanting. Active in all his habits, and full of vigorous health, he superintended the work going on, in all its stages, often undertaking some light task himself, and never failing to shorten the time by chatting with his laborers — picking up amusement or practical information this way (14-15).
During their stay in Westchester, the Coopers became very much involved in the agricultural life of the area. As he had done earlier in Otsego County (1817), Cooper served as secretary of the Westchester County Agricultural society. In her Small Family Memories (1883) 3, Susan Cooper remembers her father’s and her mother’s involvement in the Agricultural Society. “I remember making a flag to be hoisted at the annual fair there was a black plough, and the words Westchester Agricultural Society on the white ground, a joint effort of genius on the part of Father and Mother.” (37)
Writing as she does some forty years after the time she spent at Angevine, Susan Cooper should be excused some small exaggeration about her beloved father’s contributions to an emerging landscape aesthetic in America. Certainly, most of the influences on American landscape design were, as she observes, borrowed from English books on the subject or imported in the form of travellers’ remembrances of the gardens they had seen in Europe. As Nevius observes, Andrew Jackson Downing in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841), “could recall only one previous American work on the subject, Bernard M’Mahon’s American Gardener’s Calendar (1806), and it was primarily a planter’s manual of seasons, fertilizers, and species” (65).
Nevius goes on to note that in A History of Garden Design, Derek Clifford turns up only “two advertisements, in issues of New York newspapers of 1768 and 1778, setting forth the credentials of émigré professional gardeners, and no indication that they enjoyed a clientele” (65). Echoing Downing’s remarks on the state of landscape design in early-nineteenth-century America 4, Nevius assures us that “the only practitioner of the art [of landscape gardening] whose name ... has come down to us is Andre Parmentier, a Belgian who arrived in this country in 1824 and in the following year established a botanical garden in Brooklyn” (66).
Although I find Nevius’s monograph on Cooper’s Landscapes a wonderful example of sharply focused scholarship, I wonder if he may not have been seduced by Downing’s claims for his own exceptionalism and Downing’ s desire to admit only one worthy predecessor (Parmentier). Perhaps there were few émigré gardeners finding employment in America but a close reading of Downing’s work, which features examples of American estates with refined landscape designs and mature plantings suggests that Parmentier and others had found a ready market for their skills.
One way to measure the level of interest in landscape gardening in early nineteenth century America is to consult the catalogues of nurserymen. Nevius points to Norman Newton’s efforts in this area of research 5, but he does not exploit the resources that Newton uncovers. In his exhaustive study of the beginnings of horticulture in America, Ulysses P. Hedrick’s observes that “In the closing pages of The Gardener’s Calendar, M’Mahon publishes a ‘General Catalogue’ of garden plants, which is by far the best ... statement of the plant material in America at that time (197-98). M’Mahon’s list of vegetables, fruit trees, deciduous trees, evergreens, shrubs, herbaceous, and bulbous plants is extensive. Although Hedrick concedes that “It is doubtful whether all the plants in the list were to be found in America then,” he concludes that we have to accept M’Mahon’s statement that “‘at present, an immense number of them are in the possession of, and for sale by, the Author of this work’” (198).
My preliminary research into the field of nineteenth century nursery and seed catalogues has turned up not only M’Mahon’s work but also Thomas G. Fessenden’s The New American Gardener (1828). Fessenden, who also edited the New England Farmer, dedicates his book to John Lowell, President of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, citing Lowell’s “indefatigable exertions to encourage and enlighten the pursuits of the Husbandman and Horticulturist, vocations, which, as they are the first in order of civilization, should, in every civilized country, be consulted as of the first importance to the best interests of its inhabitants” (63). In his book, Fessenden includes a lengthy essay on “Landscape and Picturesque Gardens,” which was “written expressly for this work by Mr. A. Parmentier, of New York, a French horticulturist of much taste and science” (184).
In this essay Parmentier argues for a more ‘natural’ form of landscape gardening. “Our ancestors gave to every part of a garden all the exactness of geometric forms: they seem to know no other way to plant trees, except in straight lines; a system totally ruinous to the beauty of prospect” (184). Fessenden must have felt that Parmentier’s essay would appeal to his audience. A glance at the contents of the rest of Fessenden’s book and a quick study of the ornamental shrubs and plantings listed for sale in nursery catalogues from the 1820s and 1830s testify to the growing sense of horticultural sophistication in American during this period. It was due to the efforts of landowners such as Cooper and promoters of horticultural change such as M’Mahon, Parmentier, and Fessenden that American taste in landscape design began to change. Downing deserves considerable credit for his pioneering work in allying garden and house design but it is not necessary to create the illusion of an American gardening wasteland prior to his arrival on the scene.
The best evidence of how successful these American gardeners were in changing American attitudes toward landscape design is to observe how closely Susan Cooper in Rural Hours (1850) follows the principles laid down some twenty years earlier by Parmentier and others. Rural Hours is organized according to the passage of the seasons, beginning with spring and concluding with winter. In his introduction to a reprint of Rural Hours, David Jones writes that this work, read in conjunction with William Cooper’s A Guide in the Wilderness; or, the History of the First Settlements in the Western Counties of New York with Useful Instructions to Future Settlers (1810), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823), provides one family’s history of the growth of Cooperstown (Jones, xxxiii).
Although Susan Cooper admires the work of settlement, she laments the depredations of the settlers. “The first colonists looked upon the tree as an enemy, and to judge from appearances [the clear cutting of forests], one would think that something of the same spirit prevails among their descendants” (l51-52). Logging practices are particularly wasteful. “Mature trees, young saplings, and last year’s seedlings, are all destroyed at one blow by axe fire; the spot where they stood is left, perhaps for a lifetime without any attempt at cultivation, or any endeavor to foster new wood” (152). She argues that tracts of forest should be conserved and preserved for economic and aesthetic reasons. “Independently of their market price in dollars and cents, trees have other values: they are connected in many ways with the civilization of a country; they have their importance in an intellectual and in a moral sense” (153). She finds it ironic that a man “who yesterday planted some half dozen branchless saplings before his door, will to-day cut down a noble elm, or oak, only a few rods from his house, an object which was in itself a hundred-fold more beautiful than any other in his possession” (l53).
Drawing on her reading and travels, she artfully rearranges a typical American rural landscape, imagining the improvements that could be made upon the vista if suggestions of the forest were allowed to remain.
How easy it would be to improve most of the farms in the country by a little attention to the woods and trees, improving their appearance, and adding to their market value at the same time! Thinning woods and not blasting them; ... permitting bushes and young trees to grow at will along the brooks and water-courses; ... sparing an elm or two about the spring, with a willow also to overhang the well; planting one or two chestnuts, or oaks, or beeches, near the gates or bars; ... and setting out others in groups, or singly, to shade the house — how little would be the labor or expense required to accomplish all this, and how desirable would be the result! (154)
Susan Cooper’s imaginative rearrangement of the Otsego landscape shows the influence of her travels in England and on the continent and the effects of theories of landscape design advanced by Downing and others. Her writings deserve to be read more closely both for what they tell us about her father’s interest in landscape design and for what they reveal about her own thoughts on the topic. We might also consider the degree to which she has instructed us in how to read her father’s fictional landscapes.
As for her father, he kept up his interest in improving his estates and expected that his children would share his enthusiasm. In a 30 March 1839 letter written from Philadelphia to his son Paul, who was at Cooperstown, he urged his son to apply his talents for design — within prescribed boundaries and according to aesthetic guidelines.
I expect something of your taste, in the way of gardens. If Joe wants work, as soon as the frost is out of the ground, let him fill up the place by the gate with hemlocks with bushy tops. Then let him set out as many trees as are necessary to fill up the space in John’s old garden. He may go as low, as the comer of the fence, or even lower. and as far out N - E as the old barn, or the place where it stood. ... He may fill in with small trees, under the fence near Mr. Tracey’s, and place some on the other side of the paths, but not in straight lines. ... These trees may extend as far [as] fifteen feet from the fence, but must have a gentle curvature suited to the path. On the north side also he may set out as many more, and he may set out as many shrubs, such as lilacs, along the low fence to hide the garden, as he can find. (371)
He closes this part of the letter by reiterating that he attaches “a good deal of importance to this planting, and as I shall not be home in time, I confide in your taste” (372). He is particularly concerned about the hemlocks, which he expects “to find in their places, the largest behind and the smallest in front” (372). As his parting mots d’ordre, he tells Paul to “plant away, and keep the cow out” (372).
I have found no evidence of any return correspondence that indicates how closely or successfully Paul was able to follow his father’s plans but the above letter certainly attests to Cooper’s having imbibed the new spirit of landscape design and his continuing efforts to unify art and nature. When read along with his daughter’s writings on rural landscapes, Cooper’s correspondence provides us a glimpse of an emerging aesthetic of American landscape design.
- Beard, James Franklin, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961-68.
- Boynton, Henry Walcott, James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Century, 1931.
- Cooper, James Fenimore, ed., Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922.
- Cooper, Susan Fenimore, The Cooper Gallery; or Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1865.
- ------. Rural Hours [1850, rev. ed., 1868] Introduction by David Jones. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
- Fessenden, Thomas G., The New American Gardener. Boston, 1828.
- Hedrick, Ulysses P., A History of Horticulture in America to 1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.
- M’Mahon, Bernard, The American Gardener’s Calendar. Philadelphia, 1806. Motley, Warren, The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- Nevius, Blake, Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976)
- Newton, Norman T., Design on the Land The Development of Landscape Architecture Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. Peck, H. Daniel. A World By Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
1 See Blake Nevius, Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976); H. Daniel Peck, A World By Itself: The Pastoral moment in Cooper’s Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); Warren Motley, The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
2 Next to Rural Hours (1850), Pages and Pictures (1861) was Susan Cooper’s most popular work. It sold well enough to be reissued in a second edition as The Cooper Gallery; or Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1865).
3 Reprinted in volume one of Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, edited by James Fenimore Cooper (Cooper’s grandson) 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922).
4 In his Treatise, Downing referred to Parmentier as “the only practitioner of the art of any note” in early nineteenth century America (24).
5 See Norman T. Newton, Design on the Land: The Development of Landscape Architecture (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971).