James Fenimore Cooper, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and the Work of History

Rochelle Johnson (Albertson College of Idaho)

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. 41-45).

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

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

{41} In the Introduction to her 1853 edition of John Leonard Knapp’s Country Rambles, Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote, “We Americans ... are still, in some sense, half aliens to the country ... there is much ignorance among us regarding the creatures which held the land as their own long before our forefathers trod the soil, and many of which are still moving about us, living accessories of our existence, at the present hour” (16). Even a cursory look at Susan Cooper’s publishing career reveals her interest in curbing this ignorance; in addition to writing Rural Hours and seeing it through nine editions, and then preparing a “revised,” much shortened version, she wrote a number of essays devoted to natural history and undertook some substantial editorial projects that contributed to the genre. She also wrote quite a few articles about history in general; and her correspondence suggests that she nearly — if not entirely — completed a historical narrative about indigenous peoples. I would like to explore briefly here Susan Cooper’s particular construction of history and, specifically, how the sense of national consciousness that emerges from her writings differs fundamentally from that of her father. By exploring Susan Cooper’s specific uses of history in conjunction with her interests in natural history and in the various life forms present on the North American continent prior to European settlement, I hope to demonstrate that her writings work to revise the dominant national-historical myth of nineteenth-century America.

Lawrence Buell has suggested that part of what reveals the difference between Susan and James’s environmental visions is Susan’s emphasis on the natural world. Buell notes that throughout Rural Hours, Susan Cooper privileges nature to such a degree that one comes away from her book with the sense that she hoped to lead her readers toward a specific belief — namely, that human society would benefit from a more meaningful relationship with its natural surroundings. 1 Indeed, Cooper suggests throughout her volume that natural history is integral to human society. She also suggests, however, that natural history is integral to human history, and, more specifically, to American culture’s sense of its presence on — and development of — a particular landscape.

For example, as she discusses in an often-anthologized section of Rural Hours the various significances of a stand of old-growth trees, she explains that it holds a value beyond its aesthetic and potential economic benefits to humans; it is, she asserts, valuable also in a historic sense. The trees are “a monument of the past,” the only stand left in “the fields of the valley,” for “their nearer brethren have all been swept away” (116). Cooper explains that “[t]here is no record to teach us” all that these trees have witnessed, but then, as if to demonstrate their historical significance, she uses them as a means to a speculative historical record of all that they have witnessed. That is, she imagines history from the perspective of the stand of trees. Through this perspective, she gains insight into what Philip Fisher has called the “moment just before beginning” — the period immediately preceding the formalization of European colonization (Fisher 26). By looking back in time through the trees, as it were, and into the “pre-history” of America that they witnessed, Cooper is able to share with her readers the changes that the landscape underwent preceding the period of discovery, during exploration, and then during early settlement.

Cooper’s use of this single stand of old-growth trees as a symbol of an earlier, idealized time, as well as of a vanished wilderness, is quite typical of her period. As Fisher explains, during this period in American letters, “The wilderness is always understood as vanishing or threatened” (10) 2; furthermore, “the historical consciousness of the 1840s” was “fixed” on this “moment just before [the] beginning” of America’s founding (26). Yet Fisher’s analysis asserts that most mid-nineteenth-century authors used this trope of the vanishing wilderness as a means of “collaps[ingl” pre-history (26) — as a means, that is, of obviating the need to consider fully the destructive nature of European settlement. Susan Cooper, however, does not seem to use the trope in this way. Rather than invoking pre-history in order to “[train] resignation” or depict “forces as beyond control” (18), as Fisher explains other writers do, Cooper invokes pre-history by means of the old trees, specifically in order to call this pre-history to readers’ attention — to remind readers that “forces” are not “beyond control” but, instead, are a matter of human control. “The aspect of the wood,” she writes, “tells its own history” (118); and the trees ought to be preserved, she claims, precisely because of their ability to remind readers of a time prior to America — and prior, even, to the idea of America (119-20). She criticizes “the stout arm so ready to raise the axe to-day” (120) and expresses her gratitude at the individual who “has so long preserved them” (119). Americans’ resignation thus seems to be a problem for Cooper, not an inevitable outcome of the country’s development.

{42} The stand of old-growth trees is significant to Cooper, then, both for what it can remind Americans of — namely, their comparatively short occupation of this land and their displacement of both human and nonhuman presences on the land — and for its power to serve a certain function of history. Without the presence of this natural life form, Cooper herself would seemingly lose her imaginative access to the historical “record” that the trees signify. Their physical presence, that is, enables her natural history. The demise of the trees, on the other hand, would weaken the culture’s knowledge of its land by removing this symbol of pre-history. The small stand of pines conveys “the spirit of the forest” (120), a spirit that younger trees could not possibly convey, because they were not alive during the forest’s reign. Without these trees, then, American history — the nation’s sense of its presence on the land — is incomplete and, therefore, in the mind of Cooper, inadequate. This passage from Rural Hours thus makes an implicit argument for the importance of preservation as a means of reconstructing natural history.

Susan Cooper undertakes in this entry for Monday, July 23, a brief essay in “natural history,” then, in two senses of that term. First, she provides the history of a natural life form; and, second, she puts “history” — usually thought of in terms of humans — into “natural” terms — or, into the terms of nature — by providing a history from the trees’ perspective. Her entry, of course, also has the effect of commemorating the stand of trees — of communicating its very presence on her valley floor, for, needless to say, it is now gone. This brief essay serves to mark the trees in her culture’s memory. Finally, then, we can see the July 23 entry as an attempt to document a changing landscape and to inform future readers of the importance of preserving life forms that pre-date European settlement. Rural Hours — like the pines themselves — thus serves as a “record” of history, a chart of change.

Interestingly, stands of old pine trees reappear in one of Cooper’s later essays, one which helps us understand that she herself conceived of Rural Hours as a record of history. This later essay also helps us realize Cooper’s own refusal to sanction an ideology that deemed the disappearance of species “inevitable.” This later essay appears in the August, 1893, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, and opens with a description of “a stern crest of spearlike pines” which stood forty years ago atop the hills along the Susquehanna (“Lament” 472). Cooper describes the trees and those that lived around them, but concludes her opening paragraph with a terse, but not all that surprising, announcement of their death: “The tall old pines have fallen beneath the axe” (427). With these words, Cooper establishes the theme of the essay: loss. In the essay, titled “A Lament for the Birds,” Cooper lists birds which have now vanished from her area, much like the old pines. She uses the pines to segue to the now- absent birds; as she describes a couple of species that likely “floated on Lake Otsego” in years past — the white pelican and wild swan — she invokes the July 23 entry from Rural Hours and she makes a connection between the absent birds and the absent trees. She suggests that “those wild old pines could have told us a strange tale of bird life connected with the past” (472). Her memory of the trees serves, as the trees themselves did in Rural Hours, as a means to history.

Cooper then shifts, however, from birds whose past presence in her region she surmises to those of whose previous habitation she is certain; as she explains, she has access to “a clear record of bird life” during her current century. Here she discusses the wild pigeon at length, and then she turns to specific moments when the passenger pigeons visited Cooperstown. Her references demonstrate to us that we can see Rural Hours functioning as her record of bird history. Later in “A Lament for the Birds,” she describes, for example, an early morning one summer day — June 8, 1847 — when “a large flock of wild-pigeons became bewildered in the fog, and lost their way” (473), an event which she had described in Rural Hours, where, however, she gives the date as June 7 (68). Later in the essay, Cooper lists a number of birds that “never failed in years past to bring joy with them to our lawns and meadows” but which now, in 1893, “are rare visitors.” She describes seeing, in years past, “twenty merry goldfinches ... clustered in eager company on a single tall thistle,” and those familiar with her September 27 entry in Rural Hours will recall Cooper witnessing a flock of “several hundred” birds, many of which were “goldfinches” (Rural Hours 191); that day, she had seen groups of birds hanging onto one thistle stalk. She confesses in Rural Hours to having seen “six or eight” birds on one stalk, however, not twenty (Rural Hours 192). Cooper similarly makes use of her record of environmental history in Rural Hours when she refers to walking “about the village streets and not[ing] the deserted nests” after the birds have left for the winter. As she says, “Frequently there were two, three, and occasionally even four and five nests in the same tree” (474). 3 Indeed, in Rural Hours she records that on one February 22, she had counted “one hundred and twenty-seven nests” on one afternoon walk (324). “To-day,” she writes for Harper’s, “you may perhaps discover one or two nests in a dozen trees” (474).

These examples of Cooper’s 1893 essay drawing on Rural Hours help us make meaning of her 1850 volume as a record of natural history and environmental change. Preservation was clearly a moral imperative for Cooper, not simply for utilitarian or even for eco-centric reasons, but for reasons pertaining to America’s cultural memory. As Margaret Welch has recently demonstrated, American natural history seems to have adapted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the rapidly changing American landscape by making lamentations for disappearing species a {43} staple of the genre; 4 and we can see Cooper’s lament for the trees as evidence of this shift in natural history. She turns her attention in Rural Hours repeatedly to disappearing life forms: in addition to lamenting trees, she writes about animal species that were locally extinct, about plant and animal species that were dwindling in her region, and about weeds and other indigenous plants that were giving way to nonnative species. 5 Through her discussions of these subjects, she calls attention to the ways in which the landscape is being re-written and revised by European life forms.

Cooper clearly felt the need to document what she seems to have realized was a quickly vanishing American landscape, and her documentation serves not as a means of sanctioning change or progress, but as a means of providing Americans ignorant of their environments — as well as future Americans — a record of their material world. In this way, Susan’s writing differs from her father’s.

James Fenimore Cooper had, of course, also given ample attention to a disappearing landscape — and specifically to the “vanishing” race of Native Americans. Numerous scholars, including Philip Fisher, Carolyn Karcher, and Richard Slotkin, have pointed to the ways in which Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in particular reflect the tensions in nineteenth-century America between nature and civilization, between sacrifice and progress, and between despoliation and development. 6 And numerous scholars have interpreted Cooper’s resolutions of these conflicts as participating in an ideology of conquest. Philip Fisher, for example, explains that Cooper’s main genre — the historical romance — is itself “a device for practicing how to meet a certain but postponed future. ... [It] trains resignation and gives an elevated moral tone to stoic regret. It pictures forces as beyond control, already underway, and creates central figures who embody processes they do not control” (18). While James Fenimore Cooper lamented a vanishing wilderness and the rapid demise of a native culture, he also deemed the changes brought about by American progress inevitable.

We see this sense of inevitability even in his Native American characters’ outlooks as, for example, Tamenund in the final sentences of The Last of the Mohicans seems to sanction his own culture’s demise: “The pale-faces,” he exclaims, “are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again” (350). While Tamenund’s words seem to promise hope for the “red-men” — their time may “come again” — the plot of the novel all but assures readers of the disappearance of the native presence: the last of the Mohicans is, after all, dead. And, as if to confirm the Natives’ demise and indicate their complicity in their own cultural genocide, Cooper has Tamenund say, “My day has been too long” (350, my emphasis); apparently, he wants to go. As Lucy Maddox argues, Cooper perpetuates the “master narrative” of the period, which portrays and sanctions the “inevitable” vanishing of both the “savage” red man and the American wilderness (Removals 49). The sense of history that results from Cooper’s narratives is a history shaped by a ratifying of the progress of America, a history destined to a specific and certain end — an end that clearly requires a seriously adapted natural world and the removal, largely, of Native populations.

Susan Cooper, however, as we have seen, tries to create a memory for an immanent material loss. She records a life that has importance outside of human concerns, and in so doing, she calls attention to the prehistory of America. Doing so expands the prevalent mid-nineteenth-century concept of “history” to include natural — or environmental — history. By foregrounding an America that will be seriously diminished through the loss of natural life forms, Susan also reveals her interest in preserving the landscape as part of the cultural memory. We can see her as working against her culture’s tendency to see nature as a backdrop for human affairs, to conceive of the natural world as a metaphoric and ideological confirmation of American progress, or simply as a symbolic place for retreat from the growing urban and industrial centers. She urges readers to see the natural world as a reality — as a place rich in native life forms and therefore valuable, and, finally, as a place reflecting history.

However, she also urges readers — through her example — to recognize their humble position in the natural world. Scholars have pointed to Cooper’s humility and have explained her humble narrative stance through discussions of her gender, her specific role as a fairly privileged woman in mid-nineteenth rural America, her adherence to traditional natural theology, and her position as the daughter of the nation’s most prominent novelist. 7 However, we have not yet explained the fact that her most pronounced humility often occurs precisely in the face of nature, and often in passages that have nothing to do with God or religion. When she discusses forests and laments their rapid demise at the hand of the ax, for example, she emphasizes to readers that the culture largely neglects to consider humanity’s humble position in relation to the natural world. Trees — and other natural life forms — are a means to a historical perspective for Cooper, and that perspective is a means to a humility that she values and finds necessary to the nation’s morality. That humility, in turn, acts as a corrective to a nationalistic ideology of conquest which sanctions the demise of various forms of life. It appears that Cooper’s relation to nature — and her belief in its historical and cultural importance — led her to challenge her country’s national myth of progress and manifest destiny in part because that dominant ideology failed to endorse her experience of humility in nature.

{44} We have in American literary scholarship a prominent tradition of tracing “nature” as symbol or myth, or as a dominant ideological cultural force. We find these themes addressed in some of the most influential monographs of the twentieth century. Clearly analyses of the public myths surrounding nature are essential to our understandings of American literary, environmental, and cultural history. And arguably, of course, scholars attend to a tradition of symbolic representations of nature because this is precisely what the literature provides.

Susan Fenimore Cooper’s attention to the literal natural world, however, and to her humble stance in relation to it, seems to invite us to expand this tradition in critical praxis and to consider how literary attention to the physical environment — not as ideological force or mythic construction — but as daily reality and material presence, complicates our understanding of nature’s function in American literature and culture. For it seems that Susan Cooper, like her father, envisioned her publications as having historical as well as aesthetic value. And like her father, she wishes to preserve for readers aspects of the natural world and the American landscape. Unlike her father, however, Susan called attention to disappearing physical life forms rather than to the myth that, for many Americans, signified and explained away an America vanishing in the name of “progress.” 8 Indeed, as Susan states in her 1868 preface to Rural Hours, “Progress ... is not always improvement.”

Works Cited

  • Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans [1826]. New York: Penguin, 1986.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, “A Lament for the Birds.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 87 (August 1893), 472-474.
  • ------. Introduction to Country Rambles in England: Or, Journal of a Naturalist: With Notes and Additions, By the Author of “Rural Hours”. By John Leonard Knapp. Buffalo: Phinney, 1853, 11-20.
  • ------. Preface to Rural Hours. New York: Putnam, 1868.
  • ------. Rural Hours [1850]. Ed. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  • Fisher, Philip, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Jehlen, Myra, American Incarnation: The Individual, the Nation, and the Continent. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Karcher, Carolyn L., Introduction to Hobomok and Other Writings on Indians. Ed. Karcher. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986, ix-xxxviii.
  • Kolodny, Annette, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Levin, Susan, “Romantic Prose and Feminine Romanticism.” Prose Studies 10.2 (1987), 178-195.
  • Maddox, Lucy, Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • ------. “Susan Fenimore Cooper and the Plain Daughters of America.” American Quarterly 40.2 (1988), 131-146.
  • Marx, Lee, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
  • Mitchell, Lee Clark, Witnesses to a Vanishing America: The Nineteenth-Century Response. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Norwood, Vera, Made From this Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1993.
  • Rosenthal, Bernard, City of Nature: Journeys to Nature in the Age of American Romanticism. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980.
  • Slotkin, Richard, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. New York: Atheneum, 1985.
  • Smith, Henry Nash, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. New York: Vintage, 1950.
  • Tichi, Cecelia, New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
  • Welch, Margaret. The Book of Nature: Natural History in the United States 1825-1875. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.


1 In Buell’s words, Susan Cooper “valorizes the natural by incorporating it into a vision of society brought closer to nature” (48).

2 Lucy Maddox (Removals) and Lee Clark Mitchell also analyze the nineteenth-century discourse of a “vanishing” America.

3 Cooper’s phrasing in her “Lament for the Birds” essay suggests that she quite likely had a copy of Rural Hours in front of her as she composed: for example, in “Lament,” she writes, “Frequently there were two, three, and occasionally even four and five nests in the same tree” (474); in Rural Hours, she had written, “In several instances this afternoon, we saw two, three, and even four nests in one tree. ... ” (323).

4 Welch explains, “Natural history had begun to act as a record for the disappearance of species” (43). Lee Clark Mitchell also notes the prevalent impulse to lament a “vanishing” America during this period; he refers specifically to “the impulse to fix a record” of disappearing life forms — the Native American and the wilderness in particular (xiv).

5 See pages 49-50, 64-67 and 76-77. The “prettier natives” (50), she states, are giving way to the nonnative “strangers to the soil” (64).

6 These dichotomies are articulated by Lee Clark Mitchell (45).

7 See Buell (especially 47), Levin, Norwood, and Maddox.

8 My reading of Susan Cooper’s challenge to her father’s ideology differs from Lucy Maddox’s reading of the same; see Maddox’s “Susan Fenimore Cooper and the Plain Daughters of America.”