Subversion and Narrative Style in Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours

Anne Perrin (University of Houston)

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. 79-84).

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

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

I. Introduction

{79} In her 1859 work, Mount Vernon: A Letter to the Children of America, Susan Fenimore Cooper creates an idyllic, pastoral scene wherein George Washington enjoys the “peaceful work of the farm and the garden” at Mt. Vernon while “pleasantly engaged in transplanting ivy” and “set[ting] out willows and lilacs.” She ends the scene with the former general “twin[ing] honeysuckles around the columns of his piazza.” A similar scene occurs in her essay “A Glance Backward” (1887) wherein she describes her father, James Fenimore Cooper, as “deeply interested in the subject of planning a lawn” and “daring in [his] transplanting” of trees, “often taking part in the work himself.” 1

These scenarios involving a father-figure engaged in land alteration closely resemble a scene Cooper describes in Rural Hours. The setting involves an elderly man who is loaned “a little patch [of land] within a short walk of the village” to farm. An example of the forefather and the common farmer, the old man is “the first man to till” this part of the woods and is capable of “prayer” during his workday. As the old man succumbs to ill health, his field becomes “waste and deserted,” and Cooper embellishes the setting by noting that in place of pristine woods or tilled field, “sweet-briar,” “[t]all mullein-stalks, thistles, and weeds” dominate the area. 2

At first glance, the three scenes appear quite similar not only in the thematic concept of land transformation and their pastoral quality but in the masculine gender associated with such alteration. What separates the scene in Rural Hours from the other texts is what is not said: nothing removes the “weeds.” Once introduced into the new ecosystem initiated by clearing the woods, they remain. This camouflaged ecological message takes on even greater importance when aligned with an earlier discussion in the Summer section of the journal on weeds as a “just curse” for disturbing the soil and then abandoning the effort. 3 As illustrated by the journal scene above, Cooper’s apparent validation of the father image is deceptive. For Cooper, the feminine passivity, the presence of the indirect, rather than a direct environmental statement, works as a narrative technique, a highly choreographed maneuver on Cooper’s part to deliver an environmental message on responsible land alteration without disrupting the sense of community established by the forefathers. Other narratives techniques, such as the plural, first person “we,” contradictions in text, and “disjunction,” all act as avenues of resistance, counterpoints within the text which de- mythicize the notion of unrestrained progress and the boundless quality of nature. 4 This paper posits Rural Hours as a nineteenth century jeremiad in which Cooper points out the glories of the past, but speaks not to the children of America as she did in Mount Vernon, but to their parents, and warns them through a narrative voice speaking as loudly as possible that conservation and land alteration are not separate systems but an interrelated method for social advancement.

II. Environmental Message

One of the main concerns with Cooper’s environmental message is what prevents her from a sustained, outright criticism of the environmental destruction she references in the journal. She is quite explicit at one point in the text when she delineates her message of conservation: “[t]hinning woods and not blasting them; clearing only such ground as is marked for immediate tillage,” and “planting” trees near streams and within fields. 5 Yet, such concise statements are rare. Instead, Cooper’s narrative style often forces the readers to collate information on their own, information which at times occurs at distanced points in the journal. I propose that the reasons for such indirect writing techniques lies within the social and historical context of Cooper’s writing. The reception of Rural Hours by critics contemporary with Cooper illustrates a process James Phelan explains in his work Narrative as Rhetoric: one “recognize[s]” a particular style of voice “because as social beings we have heard that voice” before. 6 Critics contemporary with Cooper, such as those in the Female Prose Writers of America (1855), praised Cooper’s restraint in “colouring” her descriptions and her lack of “ecstasies.” 7 James Fenimore Cooper echoes the same qualities when he praises her “simplicity [yet] elegance and knowledge,” and her large amount of “information.” 8 This is the style the critics were conditioned to see in their day, and, therefore, they recognize it now in the journal. But, as Mary Hiatt notes in her work Style and the “Scribbling Women”, “gender differences in writing styles are simply not reliably accessible or demonstrable”; that is, “it is not possible to associate [style] with the writer’s gender.” 9 Thus, Cooper accommodates the female style of her day, not because it is a gendered imperative, but because it is a gendered expectation, and it is this social anticipation and desire for a preconceived writing style which Cooper uses and distorts to her advantage.

{80} Cooper’s hesitation to critique the settlement process outright also reflects what Harold Bloom terms an “anxiety of influence,” a set of “relationships — imagistic, temporal, spiritual, [and/or] psychological” which impress upon a writer, thereby impacting upon the work and generating a hybrid text where author and “influence” intersect. 10 Besides the feminine writing style of her day, the historical presence of her grandfather, William Cooper, in the settlement of the Cooperstown area, and the more immediate presence of her father, James Fenimore Cooper, to whom she dedicated the work, continually overshadow the text. Cooper translates this influence of the father/grandfather image into text when she praises “the advanced state of civilization in the present age.” When applied to the land itself, this influential aspect of the father image transforms into tributes for a landscape which contains “no barren tracts ... no deserts which defy cultivation” and “mountains” which can be cultivated “to their very summits.” 11

Such lauding of dominance over nature, to the benefit of society, would seem to foster Cooper as a herald for unrestrained social progression. But, artificiality and/or distortions in natural order are unacceptable to Cooper. In the epigraph to Rural Hours referencing Christopher Marlow’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” Cooper links “’pleasures’” with nature but reserves such joys only “to those who are content to await the natural order of things,” an order which Cooper sees as neither static nor random, but progressing at a providential pace. 12 For Cooper, the area between village and wilderness is a threshold where the pulling tensions of society and wildness interplay. To preserve this boundary, this rural area, Cooper proposes a theory of conservation, not preservation of both systems, thereby allowing society and nature to function simultaneously. Woven within this rural concept is a multidimensional view of nature containing moral and spiritual threads illustrated by her metaphoric description of the “Great Meadow,” a place where the “younger growth” meets the “calm of the forest” and by an earlier reference to nature as “the ever-present expression of love, and mercy” from the divine. 13

The intersection of these “influences” acting upon Cooper, ranging from familial and communal ties to the providential, balances out in a message of conservation which relegates “utilitarian” practicality to a secondary position. 14 Cooper’s dilemma involves reconciling how she can praise both the father image who “felled the forest” yet maintain her own message which calls for “preserving the wood on the hill-tops.” 15 What becomes for Cooper a tour de force in terms of environmental critique is the distanced manner in which she criticizes the villagers and forefathers and how she attempts to protect the border space she finds so necessary to maintain the rural quality of life.

III. Narrative Techniques

In Narrative as Rhetoric, James Phelan notes that the “[v]oice” of a text “is as much a social phenomenon as it is an individual one.” 16 As a genre form, the journal, by its very nature, incorporates within the text an element of the personal, however artificial or constructed, which the author wishes to share with the reader. This social quality of voice is evident in Rural Hours through Cooper’s use of the first person plural, the “we” construct, which Cooper uses to lure the reader into an active interaction with the text and with her philosophy as well. Scenes, such as the one in the Summer section where Cooper notes, “Walked on Hannah’s Heights; gathered azaleas ... we have known them ... to blossom three weeks earlier” easily draws the reader into both a shared experience and a pool of knowledge about the flowers. However, Cooper extends a historical context to this social/textual union when she remarks that “the meadows about us [were] cleared by our fathers”. 17 Through such textualization Cooper easily links the reader to the historical progression of the area as well.

Cooper succeeds in blending the historical relationship now held by the reader with her environmental concern when she first attributes “the axe and the saw, the forge and the wheel” as the historic tools of progress then contradicts this progression by noting that the “axe” is the instrument used in destroying the border space between old growth and the village, the metaphoric “Great Meadow”. 18 Through this “inconsistency,” this self-contradiction regarding the axe, Cooper now links historic progression to environmental destruction. By employing a gap or narrative distance between the two discordant ideas, Cooper forces the readers to form the “connection” themselves. 19

In his discussion of narrative techniques, Colin Manlove notes that “disjunction is a part of all literature.” This method of juxtaposing or aligning thoughts which are unrelated or pose opposite viewpoints, thereby creating a “sudden shock” in the reader which requires a pause, a “question[ing]” as to “Why?” this textual issue is raised, and hopefully leads the reader into a process of “’making connections’” with the author’s viewpoints. 21 For Cooper, disjunction becomes the main narrative technique with which she successfully negotiates through the expected, gendered style of writing, and the coalition of material becomes the reader’s burden. Her critics and readers do not see this technique possibly because they do not recognize a female voice that would use it; in essence, disjunction becomes an invisible strategy through which Cooper manipulates the reader. The sites where such disjunctions occur are the specific textual points where Cooper is {81} able to overcome the “influence” Bloom describes, and her journal becomes her own environmental text, not the “anxiety” to which Bloom alludes. Cooper’s use of the disjunctive techniques occurs not only within brief descriptive passages, but also with passages at distanced sites within the journal. For Cooper, the closer her conservation message gets to a critique of the forefather and settlement, the further the gap between counterpoints occurs in the text.

In her use of disjunction within short passages, Cooper characteristically tends to place her counterpoint or textual “shock” near her closing remarks. In what could be the journal’s most striking example of disjunction within a short passage, Cooper discusses the various trees in the region, preferring to concentrate on the “hemlock spruce,” noting not only its size and how a grove of these trees “form[s] a beautiful shrubbery,” but going to great length to commodify the spruce’s timber in “utilitarian” terms, noting the tree’s application in making “joists,” “plank roads,” and “side-walks” and its commercial value of $1 per tree in relation to the pine which “sell[s] for five dollars” per tree. Cooper ends this discussion on commodification with the totally unrelated notation that “[t]he porcupine is said to have been very partial to the leaves and bark of the hemlock for food.” 21 Such an abrupt departure from either the theme of beauty or commodification forces the reader to consider how simple aesthetics and/or economic theories do not consider the other natural systems, such as the porcupine’s, which operate in this border space which Cooper wishes to retain.

In a more distanced, but related set of passages, Cooper describes in the Summer section how a “large flock of wild pigeons” moved through Cooperstown during the early dawn hours, but was unseen by the village. Cooper notes that it was “a pity to have missed so unusual a sight!” The event can be seen as a simple anecdote about the quickly disappearing wildlife in the area. But, the event takes on a spiritual quality when placed against Cooper’s discussion in the Autumn section of William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Water-fowl” [sic] where she notes that “one never sees the wild fowl traveling through the air ... without thinking of those fine verses.” By incorporating Bryant’s poem into her text, Cooper also integrates his concept of nature as an exemplum of divine order. The illusory quality of Cooper’s wild pigeons adds greater urgency to her spiritual message since not only does the village miss seeing the flock because they were asleep, but the flock’s appearance is so “unusual.” 22 Because the pairing of these two interrelated passages is so critical of both the process of settlement which almost eradicates the wild pigeon and the gradual spiritual deterioration in the community’s values represented by their failure even to notice the migration, Cooper places the two passages in separate sections to avoid posing too great a “shock” to the reader.

This reliance on narrative spacing as an agent of distancing her environmental message from outside pressures is also demonstrated when Cooper addresses the issue of the character of the community, represented by the hunter image, in relation to the historic past. In her discussion of the “Ibis,” Cooper notes that in ancient Egypt the bird was “sacred” and the form which the “gods” would take if made physical. She discusses the various sub-species of the bird, then places a counter thought at the end. In the case of the Ibis, Cooper notes that “[t]he first observed on our coast was shot at Great Egg harbor, in May, 1817.” While such a remark illustrates, once again, Cooper’s use of an immediate counterbalance in thought within a passage, this time in reference to wanton destruction in relation to the hunter’s irreverence for spiritual qualities in nature, the scene is actually another example of the issue Cooper takes with the “sportsman’s gun” at the journal’s opening. 23 She becomes even more forceful in her critique of the character of the hunter in her discussion of “claw of a lion” design in furniture which “carries one far back into the forest of primeval ages” and the struggle “between the fiercest of savage animals and some local Hercules,” a classical allusion which Cooper first introduces in the Summer section where reference is made to the use of local lumber for “bows and arrows” similar to the weapon which killed “Achilles.” For Cooper, the local hunter who shoots an Ibis is neither heroic nor primeval, an ironic viewpoint which Cooper magnifies, indirectly, by including within her statistical analysis of Otsego County the fact that it ranks third in the state in “Small Arms mnft’d” (sic). 24

Cooper continues to criticize the traditional, heroic hunter motif with the introduction of the panther, a symbol, which for Cooper subsumes the predatory class and both the dangers and romanticized allusions such predators carry. First brought into the journal in the Summer section, the panther is quickly associated with such predators as “the bear, [and] the wolf.” Later, in the Autumn section, Cooper reintroduces the panther image and establishes the animal as dangerous for having “hissed” at a woman in the woods. Cooper continues to establish man “with his gun” as the hunter, but an ineffectual one, for when he shoots at the animal, it “disappear[s],” and later, the hunters of the community prove as inept as before in their skills, for they lose track of the animal in “a swamp.” In one of the few first person statements in the journal, Cooper demythologizes the animals’ terr noting that “Bad as their reputation is, they seldom, I believe, attack human beings unless exasperated. ... ” 25

When “a panther is actually killed,” the incident occurs away from Cooperstown, a fact which Cooper uses to critique the hunters of the community when she notes that “our sportsmen were too much afraid of being hoaxed” to hunt for the animal. By designing her treatment of the hunter as fearful of looking foolish and by removing the main element of danger which myth attaches to the panther, Cooper in fact highly criticizes the hunter status and the destruction process as well. For Cooper, a hunter fearful “of being hoaxed,” romanticized into myth, or left without restraint is outside the natural order established by providence. 26 Left as the dominant predator, man thus becomes the main force threatening the delicate boundary which Cooper wishes to conserve between the wild and the civilized.

IV. Conclusion

The “[j]eremiad” is “a work that foretells destruction because of the evil of a group or a nation.” 27 The term derives from the biblical prophet Jeremiah who spoke of providential destruction: “’Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land ... who have forsaken me ... and worshipped the works of their own hands’” (Jer. 1:14, 16). Cooper never claims to be a prophet, but her warnings take on a prophetic quality through her continual references to declining wildlife and altered landscape. For her, the “’other gods’” of Jeremiah (1:16) translate into commodification, and the “evil” descending upon the land is the loss of plants and animals which Cooper has taken such meticulous care to point out in the journal. Restrained by “influences” from family, society, and history, Cooper resorts to various narrative strategies to circumvent these influences and to establish her own goal of conservation. By including the reader in the narrative voice through the social “we” construct, Cooper adds her audience’s voices to hers in proclaiming her warning, represented by the “just curse” of the weeds, that such providential destruction is already upon the land. 28

In the journal’s metaphoric ending, Cooper blends sky and sunset and includes references to the “tints of the heavens ... rose, lilac, and warm gold” blended “with delicate green light.” This metaphoric rainbow reminds the reader of the divine promise in Genesis which was made to Noah: “’I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (Gen. 9:1213). This covenant not only gave man “power” (Gen. 9:2) over nature, but “demand[ed] an accounting” (Gen. 9:5) as to how nature would be dealt with. Cooper’s jeremiad warns that such power has become abusive and that the divine “accounting” (Gen. 9:5) was at hand. Her image of the sun sinking “sweetly and imperceptibly” gives the hope of a divine providence who still looks favorably on man, but her last words describing “shadows of night gather[ed] upon the snow” reflect a final counterpoint in the journal, the outcome of which the reader is now left to determine. 29

Works Cited

  • Allibone, S. Austin, “Cooper, Miss Susan Fenimore.” A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1874.
  • Bloom, Harold, Introduction to The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2ⁿᵈ ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Bryant, William Cullen, “To a Waterfowl.” American Literature. Vol. 1. Edited by Emery Elliott, et al., 1850-51. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1991.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, Letter to Susan Fenimore Cooper. 28 February 1850. In The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Vol. 6. Edited by James Franklin Beard, no. 1050. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1968.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, “A Glance Backward.” Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1887, 199-206.
  • ------. “A Lament for the Birds.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Aug. 1893, 472-474.
  • ------. Mount Vernon: A Letter to the Children of America. New York: D. Appleton, 1859.
  • ------. Rural Hours [1850]. Edited by Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  • Hiatt, Mary P., Style and the “Scribbling Women”: An Empirical Analysis of Nineteenth-Century American Fiction . Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
  • Holman, C. Hugh, “Jeremiad.” A Handbook to Literature. 3ʳᵈ ed. Indianapolis: Odyssey-Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1972, 281.
  • Johnson, Rochelle and Daniel Patterson, eds., Introduction to Rural Hours, by Susan Fenimore Cooper. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  • Manlove, Colin, Critical Thinking: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Texts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
  • Phelan, James, Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996.


1 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Mount Vernon: A Letter to the Children of America (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859), 54-55; Susan Fenimore Cooper, “A Glance Backward,” Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1887, 202.

2 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours, Edited by Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 200-201.

3 Ibid., 201, 67, 6.

4 For Cooper’s use of first person see Cooper, Rural Hours, 6. For “inconsistency” and “disjunction,” see Colin Manlove, Critical Thinking: A Guide to Interpreting Literary Texts (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 121, 107-08. Inconsistency involves the use of contradictions within the text regarding the same topic. The author deliberately places discrepancies within his or her text, and it becomes the reader’s responsibility both to recognize such contradictions and to determine the author’s intended purpose. Disjunction entails juxtaposing or aligning viewpoints which seem unrelated to the argument. In his discussion of narrative techniques, Manlove notes that “[d]isjunction is a part of all literature.” Manlove, Critical Thinking, 107.

5 Cooper, Rural Hours, 134.

6 James Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996), 45. Phelan notes that the “[v]oice” of a text “is as much a social phenomenon as it is an individual one.” Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric, 44.

7 S. Austin Allibone, “Cooper, Miss Susan Fenimore,” A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors (Philadelphia: T. B. Lippincott and Co., 1874), 1: 427. Allibone cites several reviews contemporary with Cooper, such as the Woman’s Record, Female Prose Writers of America, and the New York Evening Post, and the same vein of critical reception, concentrating on her reserved manner and feminine handling of the journal’s material, runs throughout.

8 James Fenimore Cooper to Susan Fenimore Cooper, 28 February 1850, The Letters and Journals of lames Fenimore Cooper, vol. 6, ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1968), no. 1050. In this letter, written after the journal’s composition, James Fenimore Cooper also notes that “[t]he success of [Cooper’s] book is much nearer my heart than that of my own. ... ” James Fenimore Cooper mirrors the views of critics contemporary with Cooper when he praises the journal for illustrating “a beautiful picture of the changes of the seasons, with the plants, flowers, birds, vegetation, weather &c (sic) — intermingled with a great deal of information. ... ” James Fenimore Cooper to Richard Bentley, 14 March 1850, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, vol. 6, ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1968), no. 1056.

9 Mary P. Hiatt, Style and the “Scribbling Women”: An Empirical Analysis of Nineteenth-Century American Fiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993), 18. As Mary Hiatt notes, “gender differences in writing styles are simply not reliably accessible or demonstrable”; that is, “it is not possible to associate [style] with the writer’s gender.” Hiatt, Style and the “Scribbling Women”, 18.

10 Harold Bloom, introduction to The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 2ⁿᵈ ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), xxiii. While Bloom’s text deals with the poetic genre, not the journal format, the process of influence applies universally because, as Bloom quotes Emerson, “’All history becomes subjective,’” xxvi.

11 Cooper, Rural Hours, 89.

12 Ibid., 1, 13.

13 Ibid., 146, 46.

14 Ibid., Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, xxiii; Cooper, Rural Hours, 135.

15 This description by Alan Taylor is quoted in Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson, introduction to Rural Hours, by Susan Fenimore Cooper (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), xvi; Cooper, Rural Hours, 134.

16 Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric, 44.

17 Cooper, Rural Hours, 67, 93.

18 Ibid., 117, 146.

19 Manlove, Critical Thinking, 121.

20 Ibid., 107-108.

21 Cooper, Rural Hours, 51, 135, 52.

22 Ibid., 68, 219, 68.

23 Ibid., 267-268, 6.

24 Ibid., 317, 146-147, 320.

25 Ibid., 116, 241, 252, 264.

26 Ibid., 282.

27 For purposes of this essay, I consider the jeremiad in relation to the general definition provided in C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 3ʳᵈ ed., (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press-Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1972): “A work that foretells destruction because of the evil of a group or a nation.” 281. A more extensive discussion in terms of the socio/historical applications of the jeremiad in American culture is elaborated in Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad.

28 Cooper, Rural Hours, 67.

29 Ibid., 327.