Susan Fenimore Cooper — Child of Genius
Published in the Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, Vol. 42, pp. 339-350, 1944, and in New York History, July 1944.
Placed online with the kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
IN THE summer of 1813 young James Cooper (the Fenimore was not formally added until an act of the New York State Legislature in 1826) drove with his wife and infant daughters, Elizabeth and Susan Augusta, from Mamaroneck up to Cooperstown, the settlement founded by his father, Judge William Cooper. James Cooper brought his little family over the old Cherry Valley Turnpike down into Otsego in a carriage which he called — in the vocabulary of a seafaring man, ¹ — the “rasée”. The little party in the rasée, drawn by a team of greys, stopped to rest at Cherry Valley. There the elder of the two little girls, Elizabeth, was fed some over-ripe strawberries and she died in Cooperstown shortly after from food poisoning. And so a journey that was to prove eventful had a sad note. It brought an end to a short life for the firstborn child of James Fenimore Cooger, and it brought to Cooperstown as an infant a woman who left an impress on the community that is strong today, one hundred and thirty-one years later. For Susan Cooper was to be a leading spirit in the founding of Thanksgiving Hospital, so named in gratitude for the close of our own Civil War, and from Thanksgiving Hospital has grown, at least in inspiration, Cooperstown’s Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital.
But Cooperstown is, after all, only a small community and the Bassett Hospital, outstanding though it be, a memorial limited in influence for one who once gave promise of a career to rival, if not outshine, her father’s. Listen to what William Cullen Bryant said of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s first work Rural Hourswhen it appeared (1850): “It is a great book — the greatest of the season.” In a sense it was to be expected that the judgment of Susan’s fond father would be favorable but his opinion is phrased in terms so considered that they show him almost leaning over backwards in an effort to be fair. Writing to his wife in Cooperstown from his New York publisher’s office in March, 1850, Cooper said: ²
I have written to Sue how much I am pleased with her book. It is not strong, perhaps, but is so pure, and so elegant, so very feminine and charming, that I do not doubt now, of its eventual success — I say “eventual”, for, at first, the world will not know what to make of it. Let her be at ease — I shall do all I can for her. She has struggled nobly, and deserves success. At any rate she has pleased us, and that is a great deal for so dear a child.
To his daughter he had written a day or two previously, evidently in acknowledgment of her submitting the galley to him and to reassure her fear that he might find the work “disjointed and tame”; ³
I cannot let the occasion pass without expressing to you the great satisfaction I have had in reading the sheets [Rural Hours]. So far from finding them disjointed and tame, they carried me along with the interest of a tale. The purity of mind, the simplicity, elegance, and knowledge they manifest, must, I think, produce a strong feeling in your favor with all the pure and good. I have now very little doubt of its ultimate success, though at first the American world will hesitate to decide.
There is in this approval a temperance, almost a reluctance, that indicate here speaks Cooper, the craftsman skilled in his trade, as much as Cooper, father of the author.
But we do not need to depend on the opinion of Cullen Bryant nor Fenimore Cooper, honored through those opinions be. Take up Rural Hourstoday, and its quality is still strong, its flavor distinct. Few books of ninety years ago, certainly not, it must be admitted, the works of Susan’s “dearest Father” have as clearly that timeless readability that marks good, not to say great, work. Susan Cooper stands the test of time.
As Cooper noted, Rural Hourscarries one along with the interest of a work of fiction. The book is divided into the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter; these seasons in turn are broken down into the days and dates of the month, as, for example “Sunday, March 6ᵗʰ”; the year, however, is a synoptic one summarizing the experiences of many years. ³ᵃ In substance the volume is a series of reports — on the weather, the activities of the family circle and the life of the village of Cooperstown. The year’s slow round on the woody shores of the Glimmerglass is Susan Cooper’s province: the melting snows of spring, the first robin, housecleaning, walks in the May woods, the lushness of full summer, the autumn air spiced with burning leaves and the brightness of the autumn sky, the county fair, grey November, family gaiety at Christmas and the round of New Year’s calls. The emphasis is on the natural background against which man plays his little part. Four years before Thoreau published WaldenSusan Cooper spoke of nature with something of the same understanding. Sometimes her account is written with considerable elaboration and sometimes as tersely as her father’s 1848 Journal (which was rarely more than three or four lines a day, with the inevitable last sentence “Played chess with Mrs. C. tonight as usual.”). There may be an entry for “Monday, July 8ᵗʰ” with the haze of heat and the harvest of hay in the Otsego Hills told of so clearly and beautifully that one turns the page in delighted haste but, alas, the next entry is a dry little note for “Saturday, August. 11ᵗʰ!” ³ᵇ
This quality of casualness is at one and the same time the strength and the weakness of Susan Cooper’s work. It is the charm which makes a book, primarily of nature lore and one which treated differently might easily be dull and heavy, so universal. And it is perhaps the key to the enigma of why a writer possessed of so rich a native talent should have remained a minor figure in American letters. For so Susan Cooper did remain. Rural Hours, this beginning so promising, proved not the prelude to greater achievements but the utmost peak she was ever to achieve. True, she kept on with her writing, if such elegantly bound and illustrated scrapbooks as The Rhyme and Reason of Country Life (an anthology of rural lore ranging from Virgil on the keeping of bees to old German carols) and Pages and Pictures (clippings from her father’s works) can be dignified by the name of writing. Her complete bibliography would include also an American edition of Country Ramblesby John Leonard Knapp (1853), Rural Rambles (1854), Mount Vernon, a Letter to the Children of America (1859), William West Skiles, a Sketch of Missionary Life in Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina, 1843-1862 (1890), the “Small Family Memories” which was unfinished at her death and which her nephew, another James Fenimore Cooper, was to use as the introduction to his edition of his grandfather’s correspondence, and prefaces to the Household Edition of Cooper’s works. ³ᶜ All these, however, were mere word-chopping, in no way comparable to the freshness, grace and originality of Rural Hours. The question then stands, why did Susan Fenimore Cooper, possessed of her literary heritage and fine capacity, equipped too with entrée into literary circles both in America and abroad, remain a woman of one book? An able writer with an unusually clear, observant eye for color, detail, and dramatic quality, reared with the smell of printer’s ink continually in her nostrils, gives to the world but a single major work. We ask why was this? Why did not Susan Cooper reach the literary stature to which her father aspired for her? Today, we search for the factors that muted her talents and kept her only a dilettante of letters.
The riddle is hard to read, for Susan Cooper is today, despite the abundant and obvious evidence of her good works, an elusive figure. There is enough written into the record for us to know that she was a dynamic personality and a leader in her circle, but we must imagine the little lady — she was very slight and very deaf in age — waving away with a deprecating hand any suggested memorials which would have helped today’s searcher. She was born at Scarsdale, New York, April 17, 1813. In The Story of Cooperstown, we find this picture of her. ⁴
A memorial window in Christ Church idealizes in form and color the spirit of this noble woman, without attempting portraiture. A real likeness of Miss Cooper, as she appeared in her ripest years, would recall a sweet face framed in dangling curls, a manner somewhat prim, but always gentle and placid, a figure slight and spare, with a bonnet and Paisley shawl that are all but essential to the resemblance. She would best be represented in the midst of orphan children whom she catechises for the benefit of some visiting dignitary, while the little rascals, taking advantage of her growing deafness, titter forth the most palpable absurdities in reply, sure of her benignant smile and commendatory, “Very good; very good indeed!”
We know a little more from the “Small Family Memories.” Fenimore Cooper remained with his family in Cooperstown from 1813 until 1817. Then the family — there were two other little sisters to make the return trip with Susan Augusta, Caroline and Anne Charlotte — returned to Westchester County, the home of the De Lanceys, Mrs. Cooper’s people. It was there, at Angevine, that Cooper on a day tossed aside one of Mrs. Opie’s novels, just in on a packet from England, with the statement that he could write a better book himself. Sue Cooper tells ⁵ of playing with her dolls one day under a table completely covered with a deep heavy cloth and of the novelist and his wife entering the room and sitting down to read aloud a chapter of Precaution. The little girl became so sad over the fate of the hero at one particular point that she began to sob aloud and was dragged out from under the table by the astonished author. She tells again of driving with her mother and the burgeoning novelist to Bedford, home of the Jay family, close friends, with Precautionin manuscript. There a group listened to the reading of it with only one or two being told the authorship. So intimate was the little girl with the beginnings of literary fame.
Then, after a few years spent in the vicinity of the De Lancey estate at Westchester and in New York City, Cooper secured an appointment through the good offices of DeWitt Clinton as United States Consul for the city of Lyons in France. The family sailed for Europe aboard the Hudson on June 1, 1826, and remained abroad until 1833.
Miss Cooper’s description of the family’s first days on the Continent as they traveled by calèche from Rouen to Paris is like an old-fashioned nosegay, pungent and nostalgic: ⁶
At the end of a few weeks we left Southampton for Havre, in a small, rickety, jerky, dirty steamboat. On a bright moonlight night we landed on the soil of Normandy, the native province of our Huguenot ancestors, the de Lancés. At Havre everything was desperately foreign. After a few days we embarked for Rouen in a tugboat. Great was our delight in the views of the banks, the open unfenced farms, the compact dark villages, and the ruined castles. At Rouen we passed several days under the shadow of the grand old Cathedral. ... Our dear Father bought a travelling calèche at Rouen, and we were soon climbing the hill of St. Catherine, where we greatly enjoyed the fine view. A Norman paysanne, in winged white cap and wooden sabots, was walking up the hill as well as ourselves; a dark village of some size lay among the open patch- work fields below; my Father asked its name of the young woman. “Je ne suis pas de ce pays là, Monsieur,” she replied. She did nor live in the village, and therefore did not know its name! A Yankee girl would have known the name of every village in sight, remarked Papa. We were travelling post, the most charming of all ways of travelling, stopping at different points of interest. ... We were soon in Paris, and the first afternoon our dear Mother was enticed out for a walk on the Boulevards by Papa. A few days more and we had left the Hotel de Montmorency and were regularly installed in a temporary home of our own, as bourgeois de Paris, in the narrow, gloomy Rue St. Maur, with its muddy gutter in the centre, and a melancholy oil lamp swinging from a rope, above the gutter. Our first Paris home was in a pleasant furnished apartment, au second, in a fine old hotel, once occupied by a ducal dignitary of the day of Louis XIV. Towards the street it was a most gloomy looking building, blank gray walls. But, once within the porte-cochère, all was changed; there was a lovely garden of more than an acre, with other adjoining gardens, all surrounded with stone walls at least twelve feet high, while groves of fine trees appeared above the walls. The hotel itself was on a grand scale — a noble stone stairway, with elaborate iron railing, rooms with very high ceilings, wide doorways, with pictured panels above and gilt lines on the woodwork — large windows, and parquet floors, of course.
The years that followed were far from dull for the Coopers. Cooper was lionized to a considerable degree, the family was intimate with such important personages as Lafayette and the Princess Galitzin. In writing for her nieces and nephews, Miss Cooper says: ⁷
The Princess Galitzin was an elderly lady, very clever, a very kind friend of your grandmother and grandfather. Madame de Terzè, the Princess’ daughter, gave a brilliant affair, I remember, to which we four little sisters were invited. Another child’s party was given by Madame de Vivien for her granddaughters, Mesdemoiselles de Lostange. The whole Hotel was open, and brilliantly lighted, and a company of cuirassiers in full uniform were on guard in the court and adjoining street, to keep order among the coachmen and footmen. That was the most brilliant affair of the kind that I ever attended, in my childish days.
So we know that the young Miss Sue Cooper who returned from Europe in October of 1833 after two years spent in Paris at the school of Madame Trigant de le Tour and Madame Kautz and five years in Italy and travelling on the Continent of Europe was an accomplished young person. We know too that she had great psychic power — she freguently would move an inverted dining-table with a heavy man seated on a pile of books on it. This must have been an accomplishment of her salad days, however, for we are told that in later life, the sincerely devout Miss Cooper gave up this practice. ⁸ It is apparent also that the returning young lady was possessed of a clear, incisive mind; her letters show her shrewd and observant.
That such a woman, with her background, should turn to the pen was inevitable. The circumstances which dictated her choice of a theme for Rural Hours she herself attributes to her earliest years: ⁹
I often drove with my Grandfather De Lancey about his farms and into his woods [while she lived at Angevine] and it was my duty to jump out and open all the gates. In these drives he taught me to distinguish the different trees by their growth, and bark, and foliage — this was a beech, that an oak, here was an ash, yonder a tulip-tree. He would point out a tree and ask me to name it, going through a regular lesson in a very pleasant way. Such was the beginning of my Rural Hoursideas.
Her father’s influence was strong in this, too, as in so many other things. She says: ¹⁰
In his own garden he took very great pleasure, passing hours at a time there during the summer months. ... It was his great delight to watch the growth of the different plants, day by day. His hot beds were always among the earliest in the village.
But the publication of Rural Hourswas soon followed by what may well have been the severest cross in Susan Cooper’s life, her father’s death one day before his sixty-second birthday, on September 14, 1851. At any rate, from then on the Mary in her character, concentrated on the business of literature, seems to have yielded to the Martha, busied about many things. Her energy was diffused in numerous charities: the Hospital, a Home for Old Women, and, perhaps most important of all, the Orphan House of the Holy Savior, founded in 1873. Beginning with five inmates, the latter prospered so under her guidance that in 1881 the local paper recorded, “Miss Cooper began this Fall to solicit subscriptions for a fund to be used in the erection of a new Orphan House, the building now occupied being much too small. By its tenth anniversary the institution could boast a plant sufficlent for the housing and education of a hundred boys and girls. Besides these more effective philanthropies, Susan Cooper’s interest in the affairs of the town which had alternately cherished and differed with the family of its founder ranged so widely that on one occasion it is even entered on the record that she took up cudgels to prevent the moving of the graves out of a local churchyard when this was contemplated!
Perhaps the absorption in doing good that Susan Cooper manifested after 1851, a busyness that seems almost a form of escapism from the hard concentration and inner growth that would have been necessary to pursue the path on which she had set her foot with Rural Hours, was a reflection of the disgust with literature and the literary life her father had been feeling in his later years. This might account for a curious episode that occurred before the novelist’s death, for which we are still paying heavily today. In the words of her nephew: ¹¹
Shortly before his death, while sitting on a sofa beside his eldest child, Susan Augusta he [the novelist] said to her that he wished his family not to authorize the publication of any biography. There was even then a difference of opinion in the family as to the extent of the prohibition intended; some members believing that it was only a temporary one prompted by the bitterness still felt toward Cooper by much of the press of the country on account of his libel suits. Acting on the other theory, however, his eldest daughter, before she died, destroyed a great deal of the material which could have been used in the preparation of a biography, and had buried with her the most interesting of his Journals.
Or perhaps the clue to Susan Cooper’s failure to face the obligations of her talent is to be found farther back, in her childhood and early youth. There is a hint to the solution in a letter written by Mrs. Cooper from Paris to her sister in Westchester, dated 4 March, 1827, in which we read: ¹²
Sue goes on very well with her painting. And they all dance very prettily; on Monday next they are to be at a little party at the Marquise de Terzè’s, where there is to be a show of magic lantern. You must not be alarmed — this will only be the second time they have been out this winter, excepting their School ball.
And again and again throughout her correspondence we find Mrs. Cooper reassuring her sisters and her father that the girls have not been exposed to dancing on Sunday or other similar evils then current in European Society.
Those were the days when even Mother didn’t know best. That prerogative was still almost exclusively Father’s. And so from the Cooper parental pen comes our knowledge of romance in the life of young Sue Cooper. Writing to his nephew, Richard Cooper, in Cooperstown from Paris in 1833, he said: ¹³
You speak of some report as in connexion with Mr. Morse and your eldest cousin. Surely they who speak of such a thing can have no idea of the fitness of things. Mr Morse is an old friend of mine, but neither of my daughters would dream of making a husband of him. Morse is an excellent man, but not just the one to captivate a fine young woman of twenty. I had proposals for Susan, last week, coming from a Frenchman of good fortune, noble family, and very fair looks, but the thing would not do. We mean to continue Americans. These things, however, ought always to be respected as family secrets. You can contradict the silly report about Mr. Morse, with confidence.
The “Mr. Morse” in question is Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and long an intimate friend of the novelist and his family. How different might this whole story have been if Fenimore-Cooper had been “willing to yield so fair a prize” to either Morse or the young Frenchman of “very fair looks.”
The Cooper girls were members of a family group that was particularly close and devoted to one another. No one of them probably ever questioned, nor had any right to question, but that she was born into the best of all families and the finest of all days. But they were reared in the stern French Huguenot (De Lancey) tradition in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, a time when woman’s place, if not exclusively in the home, was still in homely pursuits. We found the word “prim” in a description of Miss Cooper earlier in this article and that is perhaps the solution to our puzzle. Neither her immediate family circle nor the century into which she was born gave a woman freedom to develop creative talents. Some women might, and did, break their fetters to achieve largely but Susan Cooper was not aggressive for herself, only for others. That, in all likelihood, is the reason why no great stream of books flowed from her pen, no living, lusty children of her brain stepped forth to tread the hills where Leatherstocking roamed and sail the waters Judith and Hetty Hutter knew.
Perhaps it is true that “the fault ... is in ourselves, that we are underlings” but the same wise pen wrote that “the time is out of joint.” Certainly for Susan Cooper’s gentle talent it was so.
1. Susan Fenimore Cooper, “Small Family Memories,” Cooper, ed., Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper (New Haven, 1922), I, 10-11.
2. J. F. Cooper, ed., Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper (New Haven, 1922), II, 671-672.
3. Ibid., II, 671-672.
3a. [In fact, Rural Hoursis based on diary entries made in 1848 and 1849. Rural Hoursbegins with entries for March 1848, shifting to 1849 for much of the summer months (in 1848 Susan Fenimore Cooper was visiting relatives in Geneva, New York), and then reverting to 1848 and following through to February 1849. — Hugh C. MacDougall]
3b. [A most mysterious remark; nowhere in Rural Hoursis there a gap such as this; moreover, July 8 was a Sunday (when Susan Fenimore Cooper never made diary entries), and August 11 was a Friday. — Hugh C. MacDougall.]
3c. [Miss Cunningham has not mentioned Susan Fenimore Cooper’s novel (Elinor Wyllys; or, The Young Folk of Longbridge, published in Philadelphia in 1846). This is not her fault, the book, published under the pseudonym of “Amabel Penfeather” was almost entirely forgotten; it was never reprinted, but can be found — entered by Hugh C. MacDougall — on the Web under the Gutenberg Project (see link on the Susan Fenimore Cooper page). — Hugh C. MacDougall]
4. Ralph Birdsall, The Story of Cooperstown (New York, 1925) 334-335.
5. S. F. Cooper, op. cit., 38-39.
6. Ibid., 62-63.
7. Ibid., 66.
8. J. F. Cooper, Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, (New York, 1921), 44.
9. S.F. Cooper, op. cit., 32-33.
10. J. F. Cooper, The Crater (Household Edition, 1880), preface, 10-11.
11. J. F. Cooper, [grandson], op. cit., 3.
12. Ibid., I, 122.
13. Ibid., 314.
* This is how the article described her, but it fails to do her full justice. Anna K. Cunningham was, until her retirement, Supervisor of Historic Sites of New York State; she also served on boards of many state and national historic preservation organizations. She was a sister of Mary E. Cunningham (founder and first editor of American Heritageand, in 1951 and for many years, editor of New York History). On Anna’s death in 1996, she was endowed the Anna K. Cunningham and Mary E. Cunningham Research Residency in New York History and Culture, at the New York State Library in Albany. Anna Cunningham was for some years before her death in 1996 my neighbor in Cooperstown, and I remember her as a charming, learned, and articulate woman.
— Hugh C. MacDougall