“A Game of Architectural Consequences”: Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Dissolving View

Duncan Faherty (City University of New York Graduate Center)

Presented at the 12ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1999.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar (No. 12), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 26-29).

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

{26} In the “Autumn” section of Rural Hours Susan Cooper describes the impact of the American wilderness on the writing of European natural history. The “discovery” of New World nature prohibited Europeans from myopically accounting for the physical world. She sketches a process of cross-pollination through which Europeans, particularly the English, reconceived their environment in light of a new found respect for American scenery: “Some foundation for the change may doubtless be found in the fact, that all descriptive writing, on natural objects, is now much less vague and general than it was formerly; it has become very much more definite and accurate within the last half-century.” 1 Cooper cites the popularity of landscape painting and the propensity for a “more natural style in gardening” as possible causes for this transition (208).

While she does not explicitly mention the increase in the availability of scientific natural history volumes as another cause for this increased attentiveness to exact description, her own reliance on them as sources betrays her familiarity with a variety of natural historians; Susan Fenimore Cooper avidly read natural history. Familiar with the works of Louis Agassiz, Andrew Jackson Downing, and Charles Lyell, she also immersed herself in the writings of John James Audubon, François Chateaubriand; Georges Cuvier, Alexander Von Humboldt, DeWitt Clinton, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Wilson, among others.

The subject of my talk today is to suggest how Susan Cooper’s familiarity with emergent natural history informed her writing, making her understanding of the American wilderness far different from that of her father’s generation. Born in 1813, Susan Cooper came of age in a very different America than that of James Fenimore Cooper. Time does not permit me to touch on the myriad of ways in which the War of 1812 transformed the social and artistic spheres of the United States. However, I do want however to suggest that for those who came of age after the Victory at New Orleans, remembering a subordinate America required an act of imagination which ran counter to the national mythos. Throughout the late 1830s and 1840s, the generation coming of age, Susan Cooper’s generation, moved from habitually measuring American identity through abstract comparisons with Europe, to ground these debates in questioning how individuals were shaped by the environment that they inhabited. In effect, I would like to posit, for those born after the War of 1812 the weight of the past was less burdensome then it was for their parents’ generation.

In part, this effort was concentrated in interrogating the legacy of the institutions of the Republic and the role they played in forming post-Revolutionary subjectivities. 2 Rather than explicate the variety of ways in which this trend manifested itself, I would like to focus on one way in which an increase in attention to the domestic provided a ground for these questions. As the social structure of America altered to keep pace with transforming economic change, Jacksonian cultural anxiety concerning the effect social migration would have on the formation of a national culture was often grounded in domestic fictions, advice manuals, and conduct guides. If Americans secured their identity through a primary connection to nature, what would be the cost of urban expansion and industrialization? Linked to this phenomenon, I want to suggest, was a burgeoning interest in scientific and educational associations dedicated to the study of natural history. The creation of these institutions responded to the reigning belief in the correlation between the natural environment and character development. While these projects may seem divergent, for Americans of the mid-nineteenth century, environmentalism was understood as incorporating both interior and exterior regulation.

Typically, studies of American natural history have bypassed the connections of mid-nineteenth century literary renditions of nature to social, scientific, and political practices. Seldom do we examine the linkages that join the projects of social refinement, the development of an America art, and the rise of a scientific natural history. Susan Cooper reminds us that for most Americans during their cultural “renaissance” the embrace of nature as model for culture was not a means of transcending their material lives but a move toward formulating a better one. Using Susan Cooper’s writings as a locus for these intersections, I want to try in the time I have left to display how in the mid- nineteenth century natural history empowered American artists to seek new patterns for the creation of an American aesthetics freed from residual European restraints.

In Rural Hours, Susan Cooper began investigating American social manners as an extension of the Republic’s relationship to its natural environment. In a pivotal essay which appeared two years later she continued that search, mapping the historical terrain of American architecture and its connection to the landscape. “A Dissolving View,” {27} Cooper’s essay on which I will focus today, urged readers to emancipate themselves from received practice. Conscious of contemporary work on the American natural environment, Susan Cooper was also aware of national debates concerning the need to cultivate an American architecture capable of reflecting the democratic spirit of the nation. 3 In “A Dissolving View,” she recapitulates residual conceptions about American social evolution, and represents how emerging interests in natural history and landscape aesthetics dissented from that inherited tradition. 4

Susan Cooper situates her essay “A Dissolving View” during autumn in Cooperstown. Her choice of season grounds her argument by locating her essay within (as she conceives it) the truly American season. Beginning in Rural Hours, Susan Cooper argued that the autumnal color palate of the American wilderness offered unrivaled vistas. While it is customary to associate nature with vernal scenes, the explosion of color in an American autumn afforded a spectacle unfamiliar to Europeans; for “there is no precedent for such coloring as nature requires here among the works of old masters, and the American artist must necessarily become an innovator” (215). Autumn is, Cooper argues, an unworked genre, delivering American artists from the constraints of unfavorable comparisons to the artistic traditions of Europe.

In “A Dissolving View”, Cooper locates her narrator on the trunk of a fallen pine tree, which “overlooked the country for some fifteen miles or more,” framing her field of vision and enabling her perception of the picturesque (81). From this perspective within the forest, Cooper’s narrator overlooks a cultivated landscape which figures the progressive development of American settlement: “the lake, the rural town, and the farms in the valley beyond, lying at our feet like a beautiful map” (81). From this topological position, familiar to the painters of the Hudson River School, Cooper’s narrator witnesses — and records — the history of American social evolution, while ruminating on the consequences of all human development. 5 She concludes that although “the hand of man generally improves a landscape,” there is a danger that terraforming projects partake of the hubristic (82). In such work man “endeavors to rise above his true part of laborer and husbandman” assuming “the character of creator” (82).

For Cooper, this problematic hubris has contaminated architecture since its advent. Europe is full of architectural projects which compete with nature rather then harmonize with it: “Indeed it would seem as if man had no sooner mastered the art of architecture, than he aimed at rivaling the dignity and durability of the works of nature which served as his models; he determined to scale the heavens with his proud towers of Babel” (84). While such “imposing” ancient piles stir up wonder in viewers, they also recall the combative cultures out of which they arose. 6 Should Americans mourn the absence of ancient edifices which consistently remind its inhabitants of outmoded cultural values? If a cultivated landscape should epitomize the specific social and cultural values of its population, as Cooper seems to believe, then is it tragic that the United States lacks monuments to monarchies and feudalism? European cities, burdened by medieval architecture, are dominated by buildings which were formed by the “prevalence” of a “warlike spirit” (86). These ancient buildings “are likely” to “outlast modern works of the same nature,” for those who built them imagined a future that would be dedicated to the same principles that governed them. While Americans are “in some measure influenced by those days of chivalry and superstitious truth,” they are not bound by them (87). By affirming America’s agency of choice, Cooper extends her contention that European architecture is ill-suited for the United States. Like a canopy formed by towering trees, the shadows of the European past prohibit new growth from taking root. “Thus it is that there is not in those old countries” she observed, “a single natural feature of the earth upon which man has not set his seal” (88).

For Cooper there is a freedom in Americans’ being “the borderers of civilization” for this often means they “act as pioneers” (89). Her examination of American society extends by freighting the landscape with predictive power, as Cooper observes that “the peculiar tendencies of the age are seen more clearly among us than in Europe” (89). The unfolding of the American scene, measured by its architecture, its landscape design, and its consequent social refinements, is a matter of more than local interest. It is a barometer of the age, a register of the future.

Inheritors of the western tradition, but free from the restrictions of its determining environment, the United States could emanate an architecture suited for the more “subtle” nineteenth-century (90 & 89). America’s historic monuments were not to be found in man-made ruins but within nature itself. Paraphrasing the natural historian Louis Agassiz, Cooper proclaims that “as the surface of the planet now exists, North America is, in reality, the oldest part of the earth” (90). The United States occupies ground that is coterminously older and more vigorous than the natural environment of Europe: providing Americans a unique opportunity to determine their own social structures.

Cooper continues by returning to Agassiz who “tells us that in many particulars our vegetation, and our animal life, belong to an older period than those” of Europe (90). Agassiz believed that vegetation which existed only in fossil state in Europe, continued to flourish in North America. By the 1850s Louis Agassiz was the most prominent natural historian in the United States, and Cooper’s citation of him is no surprise. 7 Agassiz’s conception of nature, which dominated natural history prior to Darwin’s publication of On The Origin of Species in 1859, rested on the assumption {28} that an environment developed independently from all others; in effect that it was constructed by divine power for a particular end in that specific area. Agassiz’s sense of the uniqueness of each territory’s natural history, empowers Cooper’s promotion of a specific American architecture, or interaction with the landscape, which she undertakes in the final pivot of her essay, and which will be the focus of the rest of my talk.

Cooper ends her essay with an enigmatic, speculative turn. Seizing a “sprig of wych-hazel,” Cooper’s narrator plays a “game of architectural consequences” in which she imagines the landscape as it might have appeared if the culture which had formed it had been driven by different forces (91). The inroads of civilization formed by generations of settlers in Cooperstown disappear, and with a wave of the wand, the landscape is restored to wilderness. But “merely razing a village” and restoring the valley to its virginal state “did not satisfy the whim of the moment” and so the spell is cast again, until she “beheld a spectacle which wholly engrossed” her attention (91-92).

Suddenly the conjuring wand manifests for the narrator’s view, the valley as it would have appeared “had it lain in the track of European civilization during past ages; how, in such a case, would it have been fashioned by the hand of man” (92). In the midst of this reverie, in which everything was “so strangely altered,” the narrator required “a second close scrutiny to convince [herself] that this was indeed the site of the village which had disappeared a moment earlier” (92). Only through an intense examination of “all the natural features of the landscape” is the narrator assured that it is the valley and not herself that has been recast (92). Noticing the geographically appropriate vegetation, and recognizing the outline of the lake shore, she understands that it is the history of cultural production which has mutated the landscape. After discerning these familiar markers, “all resemblance ceased,” for the “hills had been wholly shorn of wood,” and the “position of the different farms and that of the buildings was entirely changed” (92). The little town “dwindled to a mere hamlet” (92-93).

The valley is now dominated by two structures, the church and an “old country house,” which give the surrounding habitations their meaning, or at least stratify them into “various grades of importance” (93). The church and manor house define the social structure of this European village: all its citizens share one religion, and just as clearly they are cast into a delineated social hierarchy based upon architectural style. The hustle of industry of Cooperstown becomes in the “European” hamlet “two or three small, quiet-looking shops,” the wooden bridge replaced by a “massive stone” one guarded by “the ruins of a tower” (93).

By recomposing the scene in the form of a European village, Cooper underscores the difference between American and European society. Within the denuded European landscape, the relationship of its current occupants to their environment is entirely predetermined (93). Unlike the somewhat less ordered American scene, the social roles of Europeans are always already fixed. In sharp contrast, the current state of United States architecture and civic planning renders the social relations of America in a continual state of flux.

Finally I want to turn to the disruption of her narrator’s reverie by “a roving bee, bent apparently on improving these last warm days, and harvesting the last drops of honey” (94). The bee, cast here as a symbol of an intrusive market economy, quite literally stings the narrator out of her Hudson River fancy and reminds her that the wilderness location from which she views the American scene might soon fall victim to the energies of regnant capitalism. Or, perhaps, having imagined the valley’s appearance if it had been shaped by European cultural advancement, readers of her essay would perceive the inherent destruction in choosing foreign models as social guides. Through the management of their particular natural resources, Cooper suggests Americans can still form a cultural identity of their own making.

Prior to her wych-hazel fancy Cooper contemplates the current state of American architecture, suggesting that “it is yet too unformed, too undecided to claim a character of its own, but the general air of comfort and thrift which shows itself in most of our dwellings, whether on a large or a small scale, gives satisfaction in its own way” (91). I do not read this critique as melancholic, but rather as a recognition that America is a nation whose identity will be decided in the immediate present, a borderland between a determining past and an unknown future. While American architecture may lack a character of its own, that absence does not obstruct future generations. Moving beyond residual aesthetics, requiems for an America which did not adopt foreign social models, Susan Cooper makes a case for preserving the wild as the locus of the imagination. By registering the vulnerability of the space from which these older perspectives proceeded, she uncovers the need to reject them: anything built on such foundations is doomed to collapse. But Susan Cooper does not embrace the dystopian fears of her father, displayed in such novels as The Deerslayer (1841) or The Crater (1847), but rather she records the optimism of her generation, plotting a course into the future, rather then retreating into the past. Her vision is not one of collapse, but of hope.


1 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours (1850), ed. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 208. Hereafter references to this volume will be cited parenthetically.

2 For an extended discussion of the shifting representation of America’s Revolutionary heritage see Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1978).

3 Aside from her readings of Andrew Jackson Downing and other authors concerned with the need for an American architecture, Susan Cooper would have been familiar with her father’s own speculations on this question figured most prominently in such works as Home As Found (1838) and The American Democrat (1838).

4 “A Dissolving View” was published in The Home Book of the Picturesque: Or American Scenery, Art, And Literature (1852; reprint, Gainesville: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1967). All references to this volume will be cited parenthetically.

5 Like a Hudson River School painter, Cooper locates her narrator within the confines of wild nature, but casts her field of vision into a settled landscape. As an example of how this trope was employed by painters see Angela Miller’s The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 39-45.

6 Cooper in particular singles out the architecture of Babylon, Greece, and Rome for its fortitude in surviving numerous attacks at the hands of “savages” and “barbarism.”

7 The most detailed account of the importance of Agassiz in America is Edward Lurie’s, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).