The Home-Book of the Picturesque: Father and Daughter

Jessie A. Ravage (Independent Scholar, Cooperstown)

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. 85-87).

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

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

{85} In 1852, George Putnam published a folio volume called The Home-Book of the Picturesque: or American Scenery, Art, and Literature. Within its gold-stamped, royal blue linen covers were essays by notable American writers like Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant and steel engravings of paintings by artists like Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, Jasper Cropsey, and Asher B. Durand. In the introductory publisher’s notice Putnam wrote, “Believing that ample material ... exists for illustrating the picturesque beauties of American landscape, the publisher has ventured to undertake this volume as an experiment, to ascertain how far the taste of our people may warrant the production of home-manufactured presentation-books, and how far we can successfully compete with those from abroad.”

From the formation of the republic through the ante-bellum period, American artists writers struggled to define a specifically American artistic and intellectual voice. Many issues came into play with this question of American-ness. The differences between American and European scenery was a potentially troublesome one: American scenery lacked what westerners understood as a sense of past, or historic depth, in both its landscape and architecture. Defining what was picturesque, and thus meriting artistic notice and elaboration, was an important issue in American art and belles-lettres, and became a central focus of this artistic discussion. Putnam’s Home-Book of the Picturesque is but one representative effort in that discourse at the mid-century.

In addition to essays by writers still easily recognized today, the Home-Book included essays by writers whose literary reputations were less enduring, including Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the novelist. * She was fresh from her first literary success with Rural Hours. At the time the essays for the Home-Book were written, Susan Fenimore Cooper had been her father’s amanuensis for nearly two decades. She had grown up within his far reaching and diverse intellectual circle. Father and daughter were constant companions, both in work and family pleasures, she both admired and shared his opinions on many things.

Not surprisingly, their essays — “American and European Scenery Compared” by James and “A Dissolving View” by Susan share much common intellectual ground. Unlike the other essays in the book, theirs juxtapose American and European scenery that was potentially picturesque. Their essays share basic ideas gained from centuries of western thought: that the earth was made for people’s use and enjoyment and that landscape can be improved by human agency. They also share the Romantic notion that the landscape is inextricably linked to the historical record. While discussing Holland’s sub-sea level regions, James Fenimore Cooper notes that “it is scarcely possible to gaze upon a Dutch landscape without seeing, at the same time, ample pages from the history of the country and character of the people.” Likewise, Susan Fenimore Cooper remarks, “The vast extent of the regions over which these ancient monuments are scattered, the different series of them on the same soil — Druidical, Roman, Gothic, renaissance, and modern — give one a clearer idea than figures can, of the innumerable throngs of human beings which have preceded the present tenants of the ground, and so fully stamped the impression of man on the face of the old world.”

Because their discussions differ considerably in structure and tone, the father and daughter essays in The Home-Book of the Picturesque provide a useful and clear window from which to examine the shifts in emphasis in discourse on the picturesque in America through the work of two generations of a leading American literary family. James Fenimore Cooper’s essay, “American and European Scenery Compared” appeals to the mind: “Every intellectual being has a longing to see distant lands.” He continues in a didactic vein, saying, “We understand it to be the design of this work to aid in imparting a portion of the intelligence, necessary to appease these cravings of our nature, and to equalize, as it might be, the knowledge of men and things.” From this beginning, he discusses the relative merits of American and European scenery, ranging over Europe and North America, alighting briefly on acknowledged sites of significance like Lake Como and Niagara Falls. He dissects landscape, breaking them down to their components such as water features, woodlands, open land, terrain, and human habitations. He touches quickly upon the developing science of geology, saying, “It has often been said by scientific writers, that this country affords many signs of an origin more recent than the surface of Europe. The proofs cited are the greater depths of the ravines, wrought by the action of the waters following the courses of the torrents, and the greater and general aspect of antiquity that is impressed on natural objects in the other hemisphere. This theory, however, has met with a distinguished opponent in our own time [Louis Agassiz of {86} Harvard University]. Without entering at all into the merits of this controversy, we shall admit that to the ordinary eye America generally is impressed with an air of freshness, youthfulness, and in many instances, to use a coarse but expressive term, rawness, that are seldom, if ever, met with in Europe.”

For both Coopers, this “freshness” is a significant feature of American landscape. James suggests that when combined with the “greater natural freedom” of the American scene, landscapes in the northeastern United States may be the more picturesque and of “a higher cast than most scenery of the old world.” Throughout his essay, the familiar structure of the compare-contrast essay underlies his contribution to Putnam’s Home-Book. His tendency to rank various landscapes and to dissect them in an academic way into their component parts suggests that James Fenimore Cooper approached the picturesque, an essentially subjective topic, in an objective and hierarchical way.

His daughter’s essay, “A Dissolving View,” though built on similar intellectual premises, differs entirely in focus and tone. She begins dreamily: “Autumn is the season for day-dreams. Wherever, at least, an American landscape shows its wooded heights dyed with the glory of October, its lawns and meadows decked with colored groves, its broad and limpid waters reflecting the same bright hues, there the brilliant novelty of the scene, that strange beauty to which the eye never becomes wholly accustomed, would seem to arouse the fancy to unusual activity. Images, quaint and strange, rise unbidden and fill the mind, until we pause at length to make sure that, amid the novel aspect of the country, its inhabitants are still the same; we look again to convince ourselves that the pillared cottages, the wooden churches, the brick trading-houses, the long and many- windowed taverns, are still what they were a month earlier.” Thus, she prepares her reader for her musings on the picturesque, to be viewed through the lens of an undeniably American, even upstate New York, scene. Acknowledging her literary and visionary family members, grandfather William and father James, she takes her view from the top of Mount Vision overlooking Otsego Lake. From the same height, William claimed to have had his vision of a small town where the commercial activity of his large land holdings in Otsego County might be concentrated. Indeed, Cooperstown rapidly materialized at the foot of Mount Vision in the years following its initial settlement in 1786, and in The Pioneers, James first presented the village, renamed Templeton, from the same height. By choosing the same vantage point, Susan at once acknowledges America’s history, however short and commonplace if compared with that of the eastern hemisphere, and her personal connection with that history.

Her choice of autumn honors the American landscape painters of the Hudson River School, who established the natural American landscape as the repository of America’s history — especially its theological, geological, and natural history-and particularly emphasized the brilliance of the American fall. Its reds and oranges, purples and yellows, contrasted sharply with the dull duns and pallid golds of the European autumn. Miss Cooper pleads for people’s place in this landscape, saying, “it strikes me that the quiet fields of man, and his cheerful dwellings, should also have a place in the gay picture. Yes; we feel convinced that an autumn view of the valley at our feet must be finer in its present varied aspect, than in ages when wholly covered with wood.”

From her perch on Mount Vision, Susan Fenimore Cooper broadens her discussion to examine a variety of sites built in times past in both America and Europe. Unlike her father’s essay, which skips quickly from site to site, Miss Cooper’s discussion is chronological, and she begins on the North American continent with the tumuli of the Mound Builders found in the Midwest. She notes, “that although they produce no very striking effect on the aspect of a country, yet they have an important place in the long array of works which give a peculiar character to the lands which man has once held as his own.”

From America, she moves to ancient India, Egypt, and then to the antiquities of the classical world. She asks, “What architectural labors have we which for excellence and beauty will compare with them? For thousands of years they have stood, noble, distinctive features of the lands to which they belong. ... The architectural remains of those old works still give to the seven hills, and the broad plain about them, a positive beauty, which their modern works, imposing as they are, cannot equal.” She discusses medieval ruins, commenting that visiting Americans have an interest in these as the buildings may have been built or used by their forebears. This returns her to American architecture. In a similar vein to her father’s conclusion that American buildings lack picturesque appearances, but are well-endowed with comfort and convenience, she says, “The chief merit of our masonry and carpentry, especially when taken in the mass, where the details are not critically examined, is a pleasing character of cheerfulness. It is not the airy elegance of French or Italian art; it is not the gayety of the Moorish or Arabesque; it is yet too unformed, too undecided to claim a character of its own, but the general air of comfort and thrift which shows itself most in our dwellings, whether on a large or a small scale, gives satisfaction in its way.”

{87} The final part of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s essay is the dissolving view of its title. With a sprig of a native tree, the witch hazel, she invokes a vision of Otsego Lake and its surrounding hills before Cooperstown was built: “The wooden bridge at the entrance of the village fell into the stream and disappeared; the court-house vanished; the seven taverns were gone; the dozen stores had felt the spell; the churches were not spared; the hundred dwelling houses shared the same fate, and vanished like the smoke from their own chimneys.” But she recognizes the place: “We soon convinced ourselves, however, that all the natural features of the landscape remained precisely as we had always known them; not a curve in the outline of the lake was changed, not a knoll was misplaced.” Here is the underlying natural structure of the landscape, the sketch over which trees and water and buildings are lain in a composition both picturesque and instructive as in a nineteenth century landscape painting. A final wave of the hazel causes a second vision: this time a European hamlet of stone buildings occupies the bluff now held by Cooperstown, and “no less than nine different hamlets were in sight from our position on the cliff.” This mimics the Norman landscapes her father describes in his essay. “In Normandy and near Paris,” he notes, “It often occurs in that country that the traveller finds himself on a height that commands a view of great extent, which is literally covered with bourgs or small towns and villages. ... In such places it is not an unusual thing for the eye to embrace, as it might be in a single view, some forty or fifty cold, grave-looking chiselled bourgs and villages, almost invariably erected in stone. The effect is not unpleasant for the subdued color of the buildings has a tendency to soften the landscape and to render the whole solemn and imposing.”

Imposing, but ephemeral. A bee’s sting brings Miss Cooper back to the everyday view from the Vision, as it was often called in the nineteenth century. While her father concludes his essay with a proclamation on the relative picturesque merits of European and American scenery, she returns home to Otsego Lake and Cooperstown, the home of her father and grandfather, and the source of her inspiration and theirs. Her father’s essay is distant and intellectualized; hers is immediate and tied to her everyday existence. While she covers much of the same ground and shares many of his opinions concerning the significance of history, the form of architecture, the relationship between humankind and the deity, she expresses her views in light of her own experience. In these ways, father and daughter express the shifting tastes in American letters of the mid-1800s. James’s reasoned and distant piece with its kaleidoscope of places is in the mold of the academic essay of the early nineteenth century. Susan’s work ties her observations to a specific place of personal importance, and brings forward peculiarly American places and things for examination. By choosing lesser known places and noticing the minutiae of nature — tiny pink-leafed maple saplings, chattering jays and squirrels — she makes the every day full of meaning. In this she prefigures the development of American realism, which had its origins in the regional sketch and regional fiction where place defined both character and action.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna. New York: Charles Wiley, 1823. Reprinted, New York: Penguin Books, 1964.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Rural Hours. New York: George Putnam, 1850. Reprinted, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  • Cooper, William, A Guide in the Wilderness. Dublin: Gilbert and Hedges, 1810. Reprinted, Cooperstown: Paul Fenimore Cooper, Jr., 1986.
  • The Home-Book of the Picturesque; or, American Scenery, Art, and Literature. New York: George Putnam, 1852. Reprinted, Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1967.
  • Willis, Nathaniel P., American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River. Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature. Published in two volumes. London: George Virtue, 1840.


* The Home-Book of the Picturesque included essays by several writers who are nearly unknown today. These include George Washington Bethune (1805-1862), Elias Lyman Magoon (1810-1886), Alfred B. Street (1811-1881), Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), Henry Theodore Tuckerman (1813-1871), Nathaniel P. Willis (1806-1867), and a woman, Mary E. Field. With the exception of the Coopers’ essays and Magoon’s entitled “Scenery and the Mind,” the essays focused on particular geographical locations in the United States.