Elinor Wyllys: The Story of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Novel

Hugh C. MacDougall (James Fenimore Cooper society )

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. 46-56).

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

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

{46} Susan Fenimore Cooper is best known today for her nature diary, Rural Hours, but her longest literary work was a novel, Elinor Wyllys; or, the Young Folk of Longbridge. 1 Published in 1846 under the pseudonym of “Amabel Penfeather,” the book attracted little attention when it appeared and has today been almost totally forgotten. Indeed, the very fact that Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote the book was not generally known outside the Cooper family until some forty years after her death in 1894. But I want to discuss Elinor Wyllys for two reasons. The first is that it deserves to be read on its own merits-as a story with an innovative plot, written with strong personal feeling, and providing a fascinating window into American culture and manners during the 1830s. The second is that, as an expression of Susan’s philosophy, 2 and of her personal writing style, Elinor Wyllys can increase our understanding of Rural Hours, the classic work of nature writing for which she is best known today.

Because I believe that literary scholarship should serve primarily to enhance the enjoyment and appreciation of literature, I want to begin with Susan’s novel as a text, reserving discussion of its genesis and reception for the end of my paper. Elinor Wyllys has the strengths and weaknesses of many first novels; displaying an intensity that reflects the author’s deeply felt feelings, while her inexperience tempts her to include more characters and events than she can comfortably handle. But, in my view, it is in the end a story worthy of being read and enjoyed.

Elinor Wyllys; or, The Young Folk of Longbridge, narrates six years in the life of the eponymous Elinor Wyllys, from her seventeenth birthday party until her marriage. Elinor is an orphan brought up quietly by her grandfather, a country gentleman of intellectual tastes, and by a devoted maiden aunt who runs the Wyllys household. Elinor has spent her childhood with two close friends: her beautiful cousin Jane Graham, and the handsome Harry Hazlehurst, a budding lawyer and heir to a rich widow. Harry becomes engaged to Elinor on the eve of his departure for a year in Europe. But, when Jane Graham unexpectedly shows up in Paris, Harry gradually becomes infatuated with her beauty and growing sophistication. On his return to America Harry unwittingly reveals this infatuation, and Elinor, though heartbroken, releases him from their engagement and sorrowfully resigns herself to an unmarried future. Jane Graham, however, rejects Harry to marry a rich playboy, and Harry goes off to Latin America as a diplomat.

When the story resumes three years later, Harry has returned, only to face a legal threat from a sailor, who claims to be the missing heir to the fortune Harry expects to inherit. Thus begins a major sub-plot of legal conniving, a frantic search for evidence and clues, culminating in a dramatic courtroom scene. Following Harry’s near-death in a boating accident, both plot-lines are resolved; the impostor is exposed and Elinor and Harry are united in happy marriage.

Woven among the tribulations of Elinor and Harry are the stories of a large cast of friends and relations — both the young folk and the old folk of Longbridge, and the outsiders who enter their lives.

Much of the action of Elinor Wyllys is centered at Wyllys-Roof, the Wyllys home on the outskirts of Longbridge, a small but growing market town whose location Susan refuses to specify, but which from the context appears to be in northern New Jersey, convenient both to New York and to Philadelphia. But the action, though not always Elinor herself, moves to other places — to Paris, to New York and Philadelphia, to the resort town of Saratoga Springs, and to a final denouement at Martha’s Vineyard. Like her father, Susan Fenimore Cooper is deeply concerned with questions of morality, both individual and national. She considers such issues in three ways: first, in describing and relating the stories of her fictional characters; second, in their conversations on ethical and cultural issues; and finally in brief authorial asides, short “mini-essays,” in which she addresses her readers directly. On many of these issues, Susan expresses views similar to those of her father, though often with a different personal twist.

But one thing sets Elinor Wyllys dramatically apart from most domestic love stories. The orphaned Elinor, though endowed with rare qualities of personality, generosity, honesty and charm, suffers from a major handicap-her face is so ugly as to attract adverse notice whenever she appears in public. From her seventeenth birthday party, in the opening chapter, when a visitor exclaims that “she has not one feature that can be called good; and her eyebrows are so heavy; and her complexion is so thick and dark, too!” (I:I, 16), 3 to her marriage to Harry Hazlehurst in the last, when a guest snorts {47} that “she is downright ugly — I wonder at Hazlehurst’s taste” (II:XXIII, 323), Elinor’s plain looks are constantly emphasized. Elinor’s response to this affliction is conditioned by a long posthumous letter, written by her dying mother years before and given to her as the story opens, advising her to accept cheerfully the ugly appearance that will be her lot, and if necessary the unmarried life to which it may condemn her (I:XX, 204-11). Though Elinor is granted a fictional happy ending, the restoration of her looks is not included; in an authorial aside, Susan notes that “the days are past, when benevolent fairies arrive just at the important moment, and ... change the coarsest features, the most unfavorable complexion, into a dazzling image of everything ... most beautiful. ... Elinor was just as plain on the evening of her wedding as she was six years before, when first presented to the reader’s notice” (II:XXIII, 323). But neither Elinor nor her author despises female beauty; they appreciate its aesthetic values, and the practical advantages it confers, while recognizing that men — like Harry Hazlehurst — can inevitably become so dazzled by beauty as to misread other aspects of female character.

In thus characterizing her heroine, Susan Fenimore Cooper is, I believe, drawing on deeply felt emotions that help to make Elinor Wyllys a compelling novel. Susan herself never married, and her few surviving photographs seem to reflect the description of her fictional heroine. Moreover, in Rural Hours, Susan strongly identifies herself with the Biblical figure of Ruth, whose story she retells at length and describes as “one of the most pleasing pictures of the ancient world preserved to our day.” 4 Ruth, Susan concludes, was “very possibly not [beautiful],” since alone of Biblical women her good looks are not specified in Scripture. “May we not, then,” Susan states earnestly, “please ourselves with believing that Ruth was not beautiful; that she had merely one of those faces which come and go without being followed, except by the eyes that know and love them?” 5

Elinor’s sense of loss, when her childhood companion jilts her for her best friend, dominates the text, despite Elinor’s efforts to recover her composure and move ahead in her life. This theme is symbolized at critical moments when Elinor sings Robin Adair, a then popular song of irreplaceable lost love. 6 It is also highlighted by the novel’s title-page epigraph from Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper”:

“Familiar matter of to day;

Some natural sorrow, loss or pain,

That has been, and may be again.” 7

Although Susan Fenimore Cooper shares many of her father’s views on political and cultural matters, she writes from the perspective of a woman, who knows full well the daily tasks and periodic crises faced by the American middle-class housewife of the 1830s, all of them taken largely for granted by their husbands and sons. Somehow, James Fenimore Cooper never requires his heroes or his pretty, often intellectual heroines, to concern themselves with how the next meal is to be served. To Susan Fenimore Cooper, in Elinor Wyllys, such concerns are evident — and often viewed with a bemused irony at the men who are so oblivious to it all. Entertaining house guests when the servants have all walked out (I:XI-XII), the social and culinary requirements of a fashionable evening ball (I:XIV), the flirtatious and social antics of adolescent girls, demonstrate and transmit to the reader Susan’s detailed understanding of the domestic and social life around her.

Susan Fenimore Cooper accepted, as did her father, Victorian notions of the separate cultural sphere of women; which allotted them a special role as moral arbiters of society and trainers of the young, while sheltering and virtually excluding them from the realms of business and public affairs. 8 Her fictional Elinor shares this outlook, accepting with Christian humility and cheerfulness the impositions of a male-dominated world, and devoting herself to serving her family and friends and aiding the unfortunate. This teaching is at the emotional core of Elinor Wyllys.

But though many of her social views seem old fashioned, Susan Fenimore Cooper writes — as she will do a few years later on in Rural Hours — from an educated, cosmopolitan viewpoint, describing foibles of character and of American culture in the light of other times and other places. Few writers of the 19ᵗʰ century, of either gender, exemplify so well as Susan Fenimore Cooper the modern adage of “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

But this is far from the only thread in Elinor Wyllys. A second issue is that of money. Like her father, Susan Fenimore Cooper is appalled by the dollar-centered culture that seems to dominate the Jacksonian America of the 1830s and 40s, propelled by speculation and greed. Thus Susan presents us with Mr. Pompey Taylor, a self-made businessman whose only interest in life is the acquisition and prominent display of wealth. Mr. Taylor is a monument to poor taste: his grandiose New York City townhouse slavishly apes that of a neighbor across the street; his new column-studded mansion in Longbridge exemplifies all the excesses of Greek-revival architecture that both Susan and her father detested. Moreover, Mr. Taylor is a source of unhappiness for those around him. He educates his son to become a sophisticated man-about-town, but instead turns him into a dissolute, unprincipled wastrel. He tries to please his faithful wife, but his ostentation and social climbing only cause her personal grief.

{48} Contrasted with the Taylor family is Elinor’s neighbor, Miss Patsey Hubbard. Without pretensions to culture herself — though she teaches ABCs to a few young children — Miss Patsey single-handedly cares for her widowed invalid mother while raising a crowd of younger siblings. She is especially devoted to her younger brother Charlie Hubbard, who during the course of the novel becomes a nationally-recognized landscape painter. His career gives Susan the opportunity to endorse the newly-born American landscape school of painting while criticizing American dependence on foreign cultural critics. She even puts forward the sensible suggestion — since she knows that American governments are unlikely to emulate European ones in subsidizing art and culture — that private organizations bestowing civic honors substitute American art works for the traditional engraved cups and plaques.

Money troubles the relationship between Elinor and her Harry Hazlehurst as well, when his financial expectations appear to collapse just as hers are starting to rise. Under such circumstances, how can Harry renew his attentions to Elinor, after having jilted her, without appearing to be a scheming adventurer? Only the novel’s somewhat contrived denouement rescues him from this dilemma.

Elinor Wyllys is also concerned with what we today might call “family values.” What are the responsibilities of parents for their children? What are the duties of a wife to her husband? Susan criticizes the easy-going “modern” parents of the 1830s for ignoring the activities of their adolescent children, allowing them to run riot and leaving them open to peer-pressure. Susan also believes that wives should be unswervingly loyal to their husbands; in the course of Elinor Wyllys at least three wives are commended for remaining faithful to husbands ranging from the insensitive businessman Mr. Taylor to the utterly despicable lawyer William Cassius Clapp. At the same time, Mrs. Hilson, a self-centered wife who flirts outrageously with foreigners, gets little sympathy when her long-suffering husband finally throws her out (II:XV).

Still another thread in Elinor Wyllys is the nature of patriotism. Harry Hazlehurst, like the Wyllys family, loves America without excusing its defects. Travelling in Europe and the Near East, he returns home with broadened horizons but with a keener eye for the faults of a young Republic. But he must contend with the otherwise worthy Dr. Van Horne, who distrusts everything foreign and considers all criticism of his country un- American, even when it is accurate (I:XII, 121-26). Equally misguided is the flirtatious Mrs. Hilson, who despises everything American (including her unhappy husband), proclaims her imaginary British blue blood, and is fair game for a series of European adventurers (e.g., I:XIV). For a time Harry, seeking to forget his troubles at home, goes abroad as Secretary to an American diplomat; this gives Susan the opportunity, in Harry’s voice, to praise the straightforwardness of American diplomacy, while criticizing a government that often mistreats those who conduct it (e.g., II:IX). 9

Though cryptic events are sprinkled through the first volume of Elinor Wyllys, it is in the second volume that one of American literature’s first courtroom mystery plots unfolds. A sailor appears from nowhere, backed by the unscrupulous lawyer William Cassius Clapp, and claims to be the long lost heir to the fortune which Harry Hazlehurst has confidently expected to inherit from a widowed relative. The claimant’s accurate knowledge of family matters, and his possession of family documents, give credence to his case; and one long chapter (II:XVI) is devoted to Harry’s unsuccessful efforts to find convincing witnesses against him. The trial itself, which fills the longest chapter in the novel (II:XVIII), includes detailed testimony and cross-examination of witnesses, and eloquent speeches by the attorneys — with Clapp pandering shamelessly to the populist prejudices of the jury, while Harry — representing himself — defends the truth and his own honor. Not surprisingly, the jury finds for the plaintiff, leaving Harry apparently impoverished and thus unable to renew his suit for the now wealthier Elinor.

Susan Fenimore Cooper introduces many more people and their stories into this long novel (I count over one hundred named characters), which I shall not try to describe here. Some of these characters are earnest, others are broadly comic. More importantly for modern readers, Susan provides vivid glimpses of American life in the 1830s, such as the ways of American visitors to Europe, the antics of fashionable young ladies at the New York resort town of Saratoga Springs, and traditional Anglo-Dutch customs on New Years Day in New York City. 10

The story of Elinor Wyllys concludes with the cruise of the schooner Petrel down the coast of Long Island to Martha’s Vineyard, where a vividly described squall leads to the novel’s denouement. Here, Susan demonstrates her familiarity with the water, and gives credence to her authorial aside that, while the “Navy Department is decidedly ungallant” towards women, rarely allowing them even to visit warships, there exist many women who are “quite capable of examining a midshipman on points of seamanship” (II:XXI, 281).

{49} The style of Elinor Wyllys often anticipates that of Rural Hours. Susan Fenimore Cooper tells her tale from the point of view of a sympathetic onlooker, who describes her characters and the culture in which they live with a subtle irony. She is reluctant to condemn without reserve even the characters she most despises, while remaining amused by the foibles of those she admires. The authorial Susan Fenimore Cooper, like her eponymous heroine in Elinor Wyllys, accepts American society as she finds it, but she is never blind to its contradictions or taken in by its self-deceptions.

In short, Elinor Wyllys is a complex novel, in which genuine feeling, felicitous writing, and a keen eye for American life seem to me to outweigh the defects of its author’s inexperience. It is a book that deserves to be read, for pleasure as much as for scholarship.

I want now to turn to the genesis and publication of Elinor Wyllys, its relationship to some works written by Susan’s father, and the novel’s rapid descent into virtual oblivion. I shall also consider, and disagree with, the couple of modern critics who have examined the book.

Despite Susan Fenimore Cooper’s growing fame as a pioneer of American nature writing, and her local fame in Cooperstown as a philanthropist with a vocation for helping poor children, there has been comparatively little study of her life. 11 Some of her letters are scattered in various archives, 12 but most of what is known about her comes from semi-autobiographical fragments composed during her lifetime, some of them prefacing novels or excerpts of novels by her father James Fenimore Cooper, 13 or what can be found in the published editions of her father’s correspondence. 14

Though Susan had apparently written a group of stories as early as 1843, 15 the first reference to Elinor Wyllys comes a year later, in an August 1844 letter from James Fenimore Cooper to his wife discussing the cost of stereotyping Susan’s novel. 16 By the spring of 1845, typesetting was evidently under way. 17 Early in October, however, James was still trying to find a publisher for Elinor Wyllys; 18 a week later he had sold it to the Philadelphia firm of Carey and Hart, 19 with publication scheduled for November. Susan received an advance of $100. 21 The text was also sent to Richard Bentley, Cooper’s London publisher, for anonymous publication at a price to be determined by Bentley. 21

Although James Fenimore Cooper hoped to promote his daughter’s novel, it was not an auspicious moment. In the mid-1840s his reputation was at a low ebb, with much of the press castigating or ignoring his works on principle. 22 His earnings from new novels in America had dropped drastically, to the point where he was barely breaking even, 23 and he had turned for the first time to writing for magazines. 24 In 1843 he had broken with his long-time Philadelphia publisher 25 and was negotiating with a new publisher in New York. He was also quarrelling over money matters with his long-time English publisher, Richard Bentley. 26 During the summer and fall of 1845, as James Fenimore Cooper tried to place his daughter’s novel, he had other and serious preoccupations. His only son Paul believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that he was coming down with tuberculosis; 27 he was involved in a religious controversy involving New York City Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Onderdonk, 28 and was defending against a libel suit brought by Cooperstown’s Episcopal Rector Frederick Tiffany. 29 And, of course, the American reading public was distracted by the looming of the war with Mexico.

It seems probable that Carey and Hart printed some 3,000 copies of Elinor Wyllys, 31 but, as Susan’s father wrote, its price was too high to sell. 31 Things were no better in England; Richard Bentley reported gloomily, on May 1, 1846, that fewer than 150 copies had been sold. 32 Apart from her advance of $100, we don’t know what Susan derived from her efforts. 33

Publication of Elinor Wyllys created barely a ripple. Most who thought about the matter at all seem to have assumed that the author was James Fenimore Cooper, 34 who appeared on the title page as editor and whose preface identified the author only as “a valued female friend” (I:Editor’s Preface, iii). Though Godey’s Lady’s Book saw “marks of a female hand in the style and handling” of the story, 35 few sought to identify the pseudonymous Amabel Penfeather. The publisher did tell James of a rumor in Philadelphia that Susan was the author, but — like a similar rumor that she had written her father’s little-known novelette, The Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief — it seems to have died quietly. 36 When Rural Hours appeared in 1850, one magazine found it “not improbable” that its author had also written Elinor Wyllys. 37

{50} Though I have not searched exhaustively, I have found no reviews of Elinor Wyllys, though I have seen it suggested that there were unfavorable ones. 38 A few periodicals noted receipt of the book from its publisher; of these, Godey’s Lady’s Book was most expansive, commenting that “the narrative is highly interesting, and the book will undoubtedly be popular.” 39 Cooperstown’s weekly Freeman’s Journal noted the book’s publication in England, but apparently not in America. 41

The assumption that James Fenimore Cooper must have written Elinor Wyllys reminds one of the confident assumption made a few years earlier that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein must have been written by her famous poet husband. However, even a cursory comparison of the works of Susan Fenimore Cooper with those of her father makes clear that Elinor Wyllys is her own work, and that her father was no more than accurate in insisting that his editorial input was minimal (I: Editor’s Preface, iv).

Susan Fenimore Cooper was intimately familiar with her father’s ongoing work, both as his copyist and literary secretary and because she deeply admired his character, his books, and most of his opinions. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one can find connections with her father’s work both before and after 1846. Elinor Wyllys, in its critique of the American society of the 1830s, resonates with views found also in her father’s twin novels of 1838, Homeward Bound and Home as Found, although James Fenimore Cooper’s politically-oriented heroine Eve Effingham is very different from the more domestic Elinor Wyllys. The xenophobic Dr. Van Horne, and the foreigner-loving Hester Hilson, have their counterparts in Home as Found’s Mr. Wenham and Thomas Howel. An even closer resemblance may exist between Pompey Taylor, the crass businessman of Elinor Wyllys, and Henry Halfacre, the social-climbing speculator, in James’ little-known novelette of 1843, The Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief. The ways of sailors described in Elinor Wyllys draw on the recollections of an old sailor who visited Cooperstown during 1843, and whose life James published later that year as Ned Myers; or, A Life Before the Mast. And the desperate plight of sailors stranded on a barren shore (in a narrated tale at the end of Elinor Wyllys) suggests similar incidents in novels by Susan’s father. 41

But in one important instance it appears to be Susan who has influenced James. The legal drama in Elinor Wyllys, with its careful examination of clues, its appraisal of witnesses, and the pyrotechnics of courtroom lawyers, breaks new ground in the development of the mystery story. Though lost heirs and false claimants were pretty stale by 1846, Elinor Wyllys’s detailed concern with evidence, witnesses, and courtroom testimony seems quite new, a forerunner of what would become the detective story. And this is a theme that Susan’s father would develop and build on in his 1850 murder mystery, The Ways of the Hour. Between them, daughter and father must be considered pioneers in what was to become an important American genre.

As a novel, Elinor Wyllys sank almost without a trace in 1846. Susan herself rarely, if ever, mentioned it in later life. Long after Susan’s death in 1894, biographic references assumed that Rural Hours was her first book. 42 When James’ grandson published selected Cooper family correspondence in 1922, he included two letters referring to “Elinor” without considering its authorship; the index listed the book as “Elinor Wylie.” 43 It was not until 1934, forty years after Susan’s death, that Robert Spiller and Philip Blackburn, in their descriptive bibliography of James Fenimore Cooper, finally established Elinor Wyllys as Susan’s work, noting both its stylistic resemblance to Rural Hours, and an 1849 letter in Susan’s hand, found at Yale University, in which she signed herself “the author of Elinor Wyllys.” 44 But it was really not until 1968, with the full publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s letters, that Susan’s authorship of Elinor Wyllys moved from thesis to accepted fact.

In recent years, so far as I can determine, only two scholars have written about Elinor Wyllys. In her 1974 Doctoral Thesis at Fordham University, 45 Rosaly Torna Kurth devotes a short chapter 46 to Elinor Wyllys, in which she summarizes its plot but dismisses the novel disdainfully as an early precursor of the “domestic, sentimental novel” — a genre she obviously does not like — and guilty of what she calls the “faults” of “sentimentality, didacticism, and moralizing.” 47 To twentieth century readers, Dr. Kurth concludes, “Elinor Wyllys does not bear too searching a scrutiny. The plot is not plausible nor is it unified [because of] numerous digressions and much attention ... to domestic matters, which, needless to say, retard the action.” Just when the poor reader expects some action, Dr. Kurth avers, she “gets merely piffle.” Dr. Kurth concludes that “the theme of her novel, that virtue despite physical ugliness can triumph in the end, or, more precisely, can insure happiness and fortune, is, of course, quite unrealistic.” 48 Dr. Kurth, with an apparent shudder, goes on quickly to the more detailed examination of what she considers Susan Fenimore Cooper’s important work — Rural Hours and biographical insights about her father. While recognizing Dr. Kurth’s diligence, and her valuable contributions in seeking out Susan Fenimore Cooper’s scattered published writings, I think I have said enough to indicate that I strongly disagree with her appraisal of Elinor Wyllys.

{51} A second scholarly consideration of Elinor Wyllys appears in a 1988 article by Lucy B. Maddox of Georgetown University, entitled “Susan Fenimore Cooper and the Plain Daughters of America,” published in American Quarterly, 49 in which she asserts that “in Elinor Wyllys, Susan Cooper had demonstrated her acceptance of the writing daughter’s obligation to produce plain American books to replace the foreign novels that can turn the daughters away from their fathers.” 51 As evidence of this thesis — which seems to me intended both to put down the father for sexism and the daughter for passivity — Dr. Maddox cites primarily “Mrs. Hilson, whose credulous reading of foreign novels is the immediate cause of her scandalous flirtation with a visiting French dandy.” 51 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Dr. Maddox states, has accepted her father’s direction to write books that will “keep the Mrs. Hilsons of America within the patriarchal home rather than enticing them out of it.” 52 Susan has thus, Dr. Maddox suggests, collaborated with her father in a scheme to imprison the women of America.

This interpretation of Mrs. Hilson strikes me as bizarre. Though a conventional concern with the influence of romantic novels on susceptible young women can be found in some of James Fenimore Cooper’s earliest writings, 53 he never seems to have tried to restrict his daughters’ reading, and he both encouraged and appreciated the cultural sophistication their European education had given them. Indeed, in Home as Found, he contrasts favorably the sophistication of his heroine, Eve Effingham, with the home-grown but lesser virtues of her untravelled friend Grace Van Cortlandt. Mrs. Hilson is enamored of things foreign — like Home as Found’s Thomas Howel — but her moral crime is that of leaving her husband’s side to flirt with others. Susan’s model for the wayward Mrs. Hilson was probably the head-strong Harriet Douglas who in 1843 had walked out on her husband and Cooper family friend, the henpecked Henry Cruger, 54 and who also sat figuratively for the equally wayward Mary Monson in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Ways of the Hour.

In conclusion, Susan Fenimore Cooper’s novel Elinor Wyllys deserves to be rescued from its long obscurity, and to be read and considered in the twenty-first century, both as a book worth reading in itself, and for the insights it provides of a writer increasingly recognized as an important voice in 19ᵗʰ Century American literature. Though still out of print, Elinor Wyllys is today accessible online at the internet. A new published edition is also reportedly under consideration. 55

But if Elinor Wyllys, like Charles Dickens’ Dr. Manet, has now been “raised from the dead,” there remains a deeper mystery. In 1852 the New York publishing firm of George P. Putnam announced as “in press” a new novel by the author of Rural Hours, to be entitled The Shield: A Narrative. 56 Though there survive a few letters to Putnam relating to this work, the novel never appeared and no trace of it or its manuscript has yet been found. May we hope that the rediscovery of Susan Fenimore Cooper has welcome surprises still in store.


1 Elinor Wyllys; or, The Young Folk of Longbridge. A tale, by Amabel Penfeather (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 2 vols., 1846 {copyright 1845}). The novel had appeared shortly before in England as Elinor Wyllys: A Tale, by A Lady (London: Bentley, 1845).

2 Because Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894) shares her middle and last names with her father, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851), I have often, for reasons of brevity, referred to them as “Susan” and “James.” No condescension is intended in either case.

3 Citations to Elinor Wyllys will be given parenthetically (Volume:Chapter, page numbers) from the Philadelphia edition.

4 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours, August 21, (Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson, eds., University of Georgia Press, 1998), p 160. (Citations to Rural Hours are from this, the only complete modern edition, but with the date of the diary entry included to facilitate location in other editions. Rural Hours, by “A Lady,” (New York: George P. Putnam, 1850) went through several editions in America and England in the 19ᵗʰ century; an abridged version (by Susan Fenimore Cooper) appeared in 1887, and was reprinted in 1968 by Syracuse University Press.

5 Ibid., p. 162.

6 Three times during the novel, Elinor sings Robin Adair (described as her grandfather’s favorite song), punctuating as it were the major events in her relationship with Harry Hazlehurst: the moment when he leaves her (I:XVI, 167); the moment when he first resumes a relationship with the Wyllys family (II:XII, 145); and the eve of his departure on the almost fatal voyage of the Petrel (II:XIX, 262). Although Susan Fenimore Cooper does not so connect it, and never mentions the lyrics, she obviously has in mind (and presumably expects her readers to recall) the three verses of the song:[for the tune, in MIDI file, see: Robin Adair (two versions), or Robin Adair (bagpipe version), or Robin Adair (several versions). For a sentimental card imprinted with the words see Robin Adair.] [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]

“What’s this dull Town to me      

Robin’s not near

What was’t I wish’d to see,

What wish’t to hear;

Where’s all the joy and mirth

Made this Town a Heav’n on earth

Oh, they’re all fled with thee,

Robin Adair.


What made th’Assembly shine?

Robin Adair

What made the Ball so fine?

Robin was there;

What when the Play was o’er,

What made my heart so sore? Oh! it was parting with

Robin Adair.


But now thou’st cold to me,

Robin Adair;

Yet I’ll be true to thee

Robin Adair;

And him I lov’d so well,

Still in my heart shall dwell,

Oh I can ne’er forget

Robin Adair

7 William Wordsworth, “The Solitary Reaper” 22-24, from Memorials of a Tour in Scotland, 1803 (1807). Overhearing a lone Scottish reaper singing in the Gaelic tongue, the poet asks whether she sings of long-ago battles, “or” — introducing the phrase quoted by Susan Fenimore Cooper — “is it some more humble lay”? Thomas Hutchinson, ed., The Poetical Works of Wordsworth (Oxford University Press, 1928), p. 289. For Susan Fenimore Cooper, as for her father, book epigraphs (those which appear on title pages) seem to be chosen with more care than those at the heads of individual chapters.

8 “Home, we may rest assured, will always be, as a rule, the best place for a woman; her labors, pleasures, and interests, should all centre there, whatever be her sphere of life.” Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours, July 3, p. 100. In 1870, she wrote a long two-part article opposing voting by women: “Female Suffrage: A Letter to the Christian Women of America,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 41, pp. 438-46; 594-600 (August & September 1870).

9 Susan seems to have had a more favorable view of American diplomats abroad than did her father. See, e.g., his Gleanings in Europe: The Rhine [orig. published as Sketches of Switzerland, Part II, 1836] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), pp. 33-39, 232-237.

10 On New Year’s Day visiting, see, e.g., Alice Morse Earle, Colonial Days in Old New York (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), pp. 187-188.

11 The first scholarly article about Susan Fenimore Cooper, so far as I know, appeared in 1944, and like most accounts of her father at and prior to that time refers to Rural Hours as her “first work.” Anna K.Cunningham, “Susan Fenimore Cooper — Child of Genius,” New York History, Vol. XXV, pp. 339-50 (July 1944). Subsequent publications discussing Susan — except for one thesis and one article discussed below — have concentrated on Susan’s perspectives on her father { e.g., Max I. Baym and Percy Matenko, “The Odyssey of The Water-Witch and a Susan Fenimore Cooper Letter,” New York History, Vol. LI, pp. 32-41 (January 1970)}, or with Rural Hours {e.g., Rochelle Johnson, “Placing Rural Hours” (paper presented at the 1998 Conference of the American Literature Association); Jessie A. Ravage, “Susan Fenimore Cooper: Nature’s Observer,” Kaatskill Life, Vol. XI, No. 2. pp. 35-41 (Summer 1996)}. See also introductions to modern editions of Rural Hours by David Jones (Syracuse University Press, 1968) and Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson (University of Georgia Press, 1998), and discussions of the book in numerous books on the now-popular theme of nature writing. Daniel Patterson and Rochelle Johnson are currently editing Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on Rural Hours and Other Works, scheduled for publication in 2001, comprising a series of essays by various scholars. Susan Fenimore Cooper studies are, therefore, on the upswing.

12 E.g., Yale University, the University of Virginia, and the American Antiquarian Society. Other letters remain in the possession of the Cooper family. Most have received only cursory examination. Though sometimes cited as a resource, the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown has few materials directly relating to Susan Fenimore Cooper.

13 Susan Fenimore Cooper, ed., Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861); introductions to 15 volumes of her father’s novels published by Houghton & Mifflin in 1876 and 1884 (Household Edition). An autobiographical memoir, “Small Family Memories”, was begun for the private use of the Cooper family in 1883, but carried only to 1828, when the Cooper family was living in Florence, Italy; it was published in James Fenimore Cooper [grandson], ed., The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper (2 vols., Yale University Press, 1922), Vol. I, pp. 7-72. Further memories were contained in two articles published in the Atlantic Monthly, “A Glance Backward” (Vol. 59, pp. 199-206 {February 1887}) and “A Second Glance Backward” (Vol. 60, pp. 474-86 {October 1887}), but go no further than the writing of her father’s novel, The Bravo, in 1831.

14 James Fenimore Cooper [grandson], ed., The Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper (2 vols., Yale University Press, 1922); James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (6 vols., Harvard University Press, 1961-68) [hereafter cited as Letters].

15 James Fenimore Cooper to Susan Fenimore Cooper, Philadelphia, Sept. 22, 1843: “I have got your manuscript, and shall sell all your tales together. This will be the best plan. I make no doubt of getting one or two hundred dollars for the whole. A name will sell the remainder, and a little habit will set you up. Letters, Vol. IV, p. 411.

16 James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, Philadelphia, August 23, 1844: “I find Anne Penn’s book will cost only $150, near a $100 less than I feared. I entertain no doubt of being able to sell it, and to make some $50 or $100, by the bargain.” Letters, Vol. IV, pp. 470-71. “Anne Penn” is clearly a reference to Amabel Penfeather, the pseudonym under which Elinor Wyllys was published in America — whether a joking reference to, or an early version of the name cannot be determined.

17 James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, Philadelphia, May 4, 1845: “Tell Sue I have read some of her sheets, and sent on others that I have not read.” Letters, Vol. V, p. 25. It is not clear whether James is referring to manuscript pages or corrected proof.

18 James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, Philadelphia, October 3, 1845: “I have hopes of disposing of Elinor, though it will cost $600 to stereotype it. $200 more than one of my books. Still I ask $800 for three years-which with the $200, or $250 from England, will make $3 or 400 profit. All this, however, is only in hope, though a reasonable hope.” Letters, Vol. V, p. 73. The typesetting and stereotyping was done by John Fagan of Philadelphia, who had been setting Cooper’s novels for some time.

19 Carey and Hart was an 1829 spin-off from James Fenimore Cooper’s old Philadelphia publisher of Carey and Lea, but was not directly connected with it; by 1845 it was completely run by Abraham Hart (1810-1885), a prominent member of the Philadelphia Jewish community. Letters, Vol. V, p. 17-18. Later in 1846 Carey and Hart published his Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, a revised compilation of biographic sketches originally published in Graham’s Magazine.

20 James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, Philadelphia, October 11, 1845: “Tell Sue I have her $100, in gold galore, for her. The book will appear in November, as will my own [The Chainbearer]. I shall bring her the new preface, and shall send the sheets to Bentley with my own.” Letters, Vol. V, p. 79. Publication did not occur, however, until about January 1, 1846 — as a number of letters from Cooper to his wife over the next weeks, noting the delay, attest.

21 James Fenimore Cooper to Richard Bentley, October 13, 1845: “I also send you the sheets of a novel called Elinor Wyllys, written by a female friend, and which I hope you will publish. It is a good book and a first book, and may lead to something better. I appear as its editor but with explanations. I shall name no price for these sheets, but trust you will pay such a consideration as the book may be worth.” Letters, Vol. V, pp. 81-82.

22 See, e.g., Thomas B. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1883), pp. 251-52. On Cooper’s treatment by the Whig press, see Dorothy Waples, The Whig Myth of James Fenimore Cooper (Yale University Press, 1938).

23 James Fenimore Cooper to his old friend Commodore William Branford Shubrick, Cooperstown, February 1, 1846: “If I could afford it, I would return to Europe for a few years, at least, but I cannot afford that, now. My pen, which added so largely to my income when abroad before, now produces nothing worth naming in this country, and would produce literally nothing where [sic] I absent. ... I am obliged, therefore, to abandon that hope.” He went on to add that he couldn’t even rent or sell his Cooperstown home, so as to move his family to a more congenial climate. Letters, Vol. V. pp. 121-22. See also, James Franklin Beard in Letters, Vol. IV, pp. 435-36 for an introduction to Cooper’s publishing difficulties.

24 In Graham’s Magazine, which published Autobiography of a Pocket Handkerchief in 1843, ten biographic sketches of American naval heroes (1842-45), and the novel Jack Tier (1846-48).

25 See William Charvat, “Cooper as Professional Author,” in Mary E. Cunningham, ed., James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1954), pp. 496-511, reprinted in William Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America (Columbia University Press, 1992) pp.68-83 (orig. published, Ohio State University Press, 1968). Carey and Lea had been Cooper’s American publisher since The Last of the Mohicans (1826); its name had changed from time to time: H.C. Carey & I. Lea (1822-26); Carey, Lea & Carey (1827-33); Carey, Lea and Blanchard (1833-38); Lea & Blanchard (1838-50).

26 E.g., James Fenimore Cooper to Richard Bentley, September 23, 1845; January 7, 1846; July 20, 1846. Letters, Vol. V, pp. 55-56, 115, 155-58.

27 See James Fenimore Cooper to Paul Fenimore Cooper, October 22, 1845 “Your letter has naturally alarmed me. ... I attach great importance to the opinion of intelligent physicians. ... If three such men have examined you, and unite in saying your lungs are sound, the symptoms must be favorable. ... Leave Cambridge at once, if you entertain any serious doubts, and find the climate bad. ... Your cousin William first betrayed to me the feebleness of his lungs in ascending Mount Vesuvius — He is the only one of my family that I can recall who has died of consumption. This is a great deal in your favour. Then William had the appearance of a poitrinaire, in eyes, teeth, colour, whereas you are just the reverse. ... ” Letters, Vol. V, pp.88-90. Paul (1824-1895) was withdrawn from Harvard Law School, and examined by numerous specialists; ultimately (and after taking the so-called “water cure” popular at the time) his health was restored. Concern for Paul’s health was increased by memories of the unexpected death from tuberculosis, in Paris in 1831, of Cooper’s nephew William Yeardley Cooper (1809-1831), who had accompanied the Cooper family to Europe in 1826 as Cooper’s secretary and copyist, and who was just Paul’s age at the time of his unexpected death. Cooper’s letters for some time spoke of his concern about the health of his only surviving son.

28 Bishop Onderdonk was suspended indefinitely in January 1845 for drunkenness and having repeatedly “impurely and unchastely laid his hand upon the bodies of ... virtuous and respectable ladies.” He denied the charge, but made no defence. In the summer of 1845 Cooper was involved (both as a delegate from Cooperstown, and because he was the brother-in-law of Bishop De Lancey of Western New York), in the Episcopal Diocesan Convention which began sitting in New York City in September 1845, and which tried without result to find a way of replacing a Bishop who had been suspended, but who refused to resign. See James Franklin Beard in Letters, Vol. V, pp. 59-60 as well as numerous Cooper letters of the period.

29 Cooper had accused Rev. Frederick Tiffany, Rector of Cooperstown’s Christ Episcopal Church (and also Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives in 1842-43) of lying and other improprieties; Tiffany resigned as Rector in May 1845, but in September brought a libel suit against Cooper; Cooper defended that his statements were true, and the case dragged on for a number of years. It was dropped when Cooper’s daughter Caroline married Tiffany’s nephew Henry Frederick Phinney in 1849. See James Franklin Beard in Letters, Vol. V, pp. 61-62 and numerous letters from Cooper to various recipients.

30 See James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, November 18, 1845 (“If 3000 sell, the author gets another $100”) and November 30, 1845 (“Hart ... has sold in advance 1000 copies in New York, and has printed his last 1000 copies, in the event of a demand. I think the other $100 will come.”). Letters, Vol. V, pp. 96, 101.

31 James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, April 1, 1846: “Everybody speaks well of Elinor, but its price kills it.” Letters, Vol. V, p. 128.

32 Richard Bentley to James Fenimore Cooper, May 1, 1846, quoted in Letters, Vol. V, p. 116. “I am sorry to inform you that the result of the publication of Ellinor [sic] Wyllys is very unsatisfactory. The number of copies sold does not exceed 150. I regret this much, but assure you that it has not been without my best exertions to prevent such a disastrous result.”

33 As of May 1846, nothing seems to have been received. See James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, Philadelphia, May 23, 1846: “No attempt made as yet for Susy — Nothing done, indeed, in that way for even myself.” Letters, Vol. V, p. 142.

34 E.g., P. K. Foley, “Cooper, James Fenimore,” American Authors, 1795-1895. A Bibliography of First and Notable Editions Chronologically Arranged with Notes (Boston: Printed for Subscribers, 1897), p. 62, cited in Kurth, op cit. infra, p. 105. My copy has been bound as part of a set of Cooper’s Novels.

35 Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, Vol. XXXII, p. 96 (February 1846).

36 James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, Philadelphia, November 26, 1845: “My book is published, but Elinor is not. [Abraham] Hart [publisher of Elinor Wyllys] told me that Pocket Handkerchief was ascribed to one of my daughters, and this book to the same person. I gave the prescribed answer, and carried matters off well.” Ibid., November 30, 1845: “Elinor will be published in a few days. I have given the quietus to the Pocket Handkerchief story, by saying firmly that I wrote the tale myself, and would not have allowed my name to be affixed to any thing I had not written.” Letters, Vol. V, pp. 99, 102. This, of course, begged the question of Elinor Wyllys’s authorship, but the rumor reported by Abraham Hart does not seem to have flourished.

37 Southern Quarterly Review, Vol. II, p. 538 (November 1850).

38 Sue Leslie Kimball, “Susan Fenimore Cooper,” in American National Biography, Vol. 5, p. 460 (Oxford University Press, 1999).

39 The Knickerbocker, Vol. XXVII, p. 94 (January 1846); The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Vol. XVIII (new series), No. XCI, p. 78 (January 1846); Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, Vol. XXXII, p. 96 (February 1846).

40 Freeman’s Journal, December 27, 1845, p. 2: “The papers announce that J. Fenimore Cooper has in the English Press a new work in three vol’s, entitled “Elinor Wyllys, a tale of American Life” — Mr. C. being mentioned as its editor only. His ‘Chain-Bearer’ is also in the press of Bentley.”

41 E.g., Homeward Bound (1838); The Crater (1847); Jack Tier (1848).

42 See, e.g., Samuel Austin Allibon, ed., A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1900), p. 427; Henry Walcott Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Century Co., 1931), p. 380; Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, eds., American Authors, 1600-1900 (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1938), p. 179; James D. Hart, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Literature (Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 160.

43 James Fenimore Cooper [grandson], ed., Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper (Yale University Press, 1922), pp. 561, 563, 763.

44 Robert E. Spiller and Philip C. Blackburn, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1934) [facsimile reprint: New York: Burt Franklin, 1968], p. 209.

45 Rosaly Torna Kurth, Susan Fenimore Cooper: A Study of her Life and Works. Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English at Fordham University, New York 1974. Dr. Kurth has also published the very useful, if not totally complete, “Susan Fenimore Cooper: An Annotated Checklist of Her Writings,” New York History, Vol. LVIII, (1977) pp. 173-193. To her list should be added, “Otsego Leaves,” Appleton’s Journal, Vol. IV, No. 6 (June 1878); Vol. V, Nos. 2, 3, 6 (August, September, December 1878). No doubt other writings remain to be discovered.

46 Ibid., pp. 104-125: “Amateur Domestic Sentimentalist, 1845”.

47 Ibid., p. 432.

48 Ibid., p. 112

49 Lucy B. Maddox, “Susan Fenimore Cooper and the Plain Daughters of America,” American Quarterly, Vol. 40, pp.131-46 (June 1988).

50 Ibid., p. 145.

51 Ibid., p. 140.

52 Ibid., p. 141.

53 James Fenimore Cooper, Precaution (New York: A.T. Goodrich, 1820), and [Jane Morgan], Tales for Fifteen; or, Imagination and Heart (New York: C. Wiley, 1823).

54 Harriet Douglas as a model for Mary Monson was first suggested by James Franklin Beard. Her story is told in Angus Davidson, Miss Douglas of New York: A Biography (New York: Viking Press, 1953).

55 On James Fenimore Cooper Society website at: Volume I, and Volume II. Also available in a Gutenberg Project text version at: Volume I, and Volume II. Both versions have been extensively annotated by Hugh C. MacDougall. A printed text (the first since 1846) is expected to appear about the end of 2001, published by Fort Schuyler Press in New York and edited by Richard Magee.

56 Advertising insert in Memorial of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: George P. Putnam, 1852). The announcement described the novel as “Miss Cooper’s new work.”