Turning Over a New Leaf: The Literary Ecologies of Susan Fenimore Cooper and Catharine Parr Traill

Klay Dyer (Brock University)

Presented at the 13ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2001.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2001 Cooper Seminar (No. 13), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 36-40).

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifference with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names. 1

{36} Recognizing Lawrence Buell’s argument that “the historical record shows that [such] women literary naturists” as Susan Fenimore Cooper, “were a strong presence almost from the dawn of American literary emergence,” 2 I would like to begin with a story of another literary tradition (English-Canadian), of another writer (Catharine Parr Traill), and of other naturalist writings, perhaps less familiar to some than Cooper’s Rural Hours (1850); I would like to begin, in other words, with a kind of Cooper-esque stroll through the literary woods of nineteenth-century English Canada by way of returning naturally to the woods of Cooper’s upstate New York. Like Cooper, the hero of my story was from an established and celebrated literary family: her eldest sister, Agnes Strickland, had produced a series of popular royalist biographies, and her younger sibling, Susanna Moodie, was a respected colonial author and editor. Like her sisters, Catharine had, by the time my story begins, established herself as a writer of juvenile and adult fiction, of handbooks for recent emigrants, and, particularly, of the epistolary settler’s “novel” The Backwoods of Canada (1836).

My story begins, though, some two decades after these successes, at a point when, despite the benefits of a recognized literary pedigree and the steady prominence of her own name on both sides of the Atlantic, Catharine found herself repeatedly disappointed in her search for a publisher willing to take a chance on what she considered her most important work to date: a richly allusive and detailed study of the plant life of Canada that she referred to lovingly as her “Fern” book. Completed in manuscript form in the early 1850s — contemporary, coincidentally, with the first edition of Cooper’s Rural Hours — Fern book had already survived a serious fire in the family home and numerous relocations but since mid-decade seemed doomed to languish in the offices of publishers and booksellers. In a letter to her daughter Kate from February of 1865, Catharine lamented the barely cordial responses her submission was garnering: “It is a sore thing this Hope deferred. I fear it is doomed to end in nothing.” 3 With her Fern book apparently destined to wither in the dead-letter pile, Traill was feeling a distinct “want of encouragement” for what she saw as her most valuable literary venture, this despite the fact, as she pointed out in a March letter to Kate, that “Sir W[illiam] Hooker,” the director of London’s Kew Gardens, had recently observed “that Canada was behind every one of the British Colonies and all civilized nations in Scientific literary effort especially in Botany — the only country,” she noted, “that had not responded to his appeals. I think,” she concluded with just a touch of bitterness, “the Great Man was right.” 4

But Catharine’s frustrations were short-lived, for it was in early 1865, too, that her favorite niece, Agnes Fitzgibbon, suffered the loss of her husband, the prominent barrister Charles Thomas. His sudden death shook the close-knit family, but Agnes, a talented amateur still-life painter who, like her mother Susanna, had a particular fondness for sketching flowers, channeled her grief into a flurry of artistic and fiscal collaborations with her aunt. Seizing the initiative on the “Fern” book, she enlisted a prominent printer, 5 launched a subscription campaign with the goal of compiling a list of five hundred names, and undertook a series of detailed flower drawings that would complement and supplement her aunt’s prose; this latter task ultimately meant that Agnes would not only teach herself lithography but would oversee and add her touch to the hand-coloring of the ten high-quality plates that would be included in the volume.

The book produced by this familial collaboration was not the “Fern” book as Catharine had originally imagined it, but an intensely abridged version bearing the title Canadian Wild Flowers. Published finally in 1869 and designed to appeal to readers with the requisite combination of “patriotic pride” and disposable income (it carried the steep price of $5) Wild Flowers proved sufficiently popular to go through four editions in the next four decades. Despite its success, Catharine fretted constantly about the need for corrections and about what she saw, unfairly, as the reduced role she played in the book’s ultimate shape: “I was much disappointed in my share of the work which I feel is open to criticism,” she writes to a friend shortly after it appeared. “[F]ortunately the plates will redeem it in the eyes of a great many persons who would hardly care for the reading part of the work.” 6

In her preface, Catharine expands in significant ways upon what she sees as the problematic position she found herself in during the process of revising the book for publication:

{37} It was to supply a deficiency that has long been felt in this country, that the Authoress first conceived the idea of writing a little volume descriptive of the most remarkable of the Wild Flowers, Shrubs and Forest Trees of Canada.

The scientific reader may possibly expect a more learned description of the Plants, and may notice many defects and omissions; while others who are indifferent to the subject, may on the other hand think that there are too many botanical terms introduced. It is difficult to please two parties. We crave indulgence for all errors, promising that in another volume, should our present book be kindly received, we will endeavour to render it as perfect as our limited knowledge will allow us to do. And so we bid our readers heartily farewell, wishing them much pleasure and contentment, and that its contents, both artistical and literary, may serve to foster a love for the native plants of Canada, and turn their attention to the floral beauty that is destined sooner or later to be swept away, as the onward march of civilization clears away the primeval forestreclaims the swamps and bogs, and turns the waste places into a fruitful field. ... 7

Despite very positive reactions to the Canadian issue of the book, Agnes’s plans for subsequent (and potentially profitable) English and American editions were put aside following her marriage to the Queen’s Printer, Brown Chamberlain, a union that set her firmly at the center of Ottawa’s hectic social circle. Her new prominence did, however, allow her time to continue to forge more contacts that might benefit her aunt, who remained determined to realize publication of her Fern book in its full and original form. Perseverance paid off. Although it was expected to appear before the end of 1884, Studies of Plant Life in Canada appeared in January of 1885, some thirty years after its “completion” and a welcome marker of Catharine’s 83ʳᵈ year. Including a selection of Agnes’s litho plates the book was praised by contemporary reviewers, many of whom celebrated its author as “an authority upon the flora of this country,” 8 a recognition that led to her subsequent positioning within the canon of Canadian literature as “a kind of miniature Thoreau.” 9 Significantly, the reviewer for the prestigious Toronto Globe focused on the same tensions that Traill herself marked in her earlier introduction:

There is in [the book] enough of technicality to make it extremely useful to the student, while there is about it a literary charm that will lead even the reader most ignorant of botany to go through the book from one end to the other. Mrs. Traill by no means hopes without reason when she expresses a wish that her book may become to Canada what Gilbert White’s History of Selborne is to England. 10

Writing out of a naturalist passion and local pride that is at once tenaciously taxonomic, densely allusive, and determinedly anti-provincial, both Catharine Parr Traill and Susan Fenimore Cooper shared in the dilemma of what the former described as pleasing two parties, of bringing their impressive local knowledge to audiences that might begin to hesitate, that would not immediately know what to make of works written from what Buell labels a literary bioregionalist stance. 11 Part travelogue and natural history, part ecological meditation and environmental call-to-arms, and part moral dissertation, both of these books bear witness to a cultural moment during which generic stabilities were very much open to negotiation. Despite the marked contrast between the story of Traill’s Fern book and the relative facility with which Rural Hours found a home — first with Putnam, later with Bentley — and despite the more immediate popularity of Cooper’s book, both women were forced to negotiate a new space, to locate their writing between the well-established authorities of the techno-scientific and the respectable charms of the literary. They were, in short, asked to turn over a new leaf, to (re)think, (re)write, and (re)politicize the parameters of the environmental imagination and, by extension, to test the boundaries of discursive and generic stabilities that critics usually suggest would implode most dramatically with the appearance of Walden. Indeed, much of what can be found in exploring the “variegated character” of Thoreau’s seminal work is equally applicable to the works of Cooper and Traill, works that “positively flaunt [their] diversity, fragmenting into multigeneric collage.” As both publishers and reviewers of Traill’s book iterate through their words and inactions, these works, like Walden, were and remain in many way a generic “puzzlement” that finds its most explicit expression in “the stylistic breaks, which create a world of discursive chunks than can never be welded into a seamless whole.” 12

Questions of genre, as Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us, are never primarily about convention sets or hierarchies of devices, despite what such critics as Buell and Thomas J. Lyon might suggest though their oft-quoted taxonomies of nature writing 13 or Rochelle Johnson through her well-intentioned defence of Cooper from “anachronistic” post-structuralist fixations on “the pronounced and problematic divisions between self, language, and place [that] pose fundamental challenges to a satisfying union of human perception and physical reality.” 14 Questions of genre are invariably probings of epistemic assumptions, questions about ways of seeing, of evaluating, of interpreting the natural world. Converting what Bakhtin describes as the “congealed” stabilities of the known and the taxonomic into more accessible but nonetheless form-shaping ideologies, generic labels themselves bring pressures to bear, as Johnson suggests, on the {38} language deployed within and against a text. To label a text as technical or literary, for instance, moves it most conspicuously through what Christopher Manes describes as “the idiom of Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism,” a syntax and grammar that reinscribes “the processes of nature with [specific] cultural obsessions, directionalities, and motifs that have no analogues in the natural world.” 15 As such diverse thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Michel Foucault have amply demonstrated, the various confidences underlying such an idiom — in the transparency of language, in the practice of exegesis, in the regime of classification (generic or botanical) — operate as part of much broader regulating structures that limit what can be written and understood about nature within a cultural network of texts, institutions, and discursive practices. As the latter emphasizes in The Order of Things: to think or rethink about nature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “concern[ed] a fundamental arrangement of knowledge, which order[ed] the knowledge of beings so as to make it possible to represent them in a system of names,” 16 a system — Linnean or otherwise — that corresponds, I mean to suggest, to a system of genres. Generic taxonomies, to extend Foucault’s reading, function as one of the “fundamental codes of a culture — those governing its language, its schemas of perception, its exchanges, its techniques, its values, the hierarchy of its practices — establish[ing] for every man, from the very first, the empirical orders with which he will be dealing and within which he will be at home.” 17

Moving through their explorations and writing to free themselves from the methodological and epistemological strictures of party politics, both Cooper and Traill endeavor to re-voice the deep histories embodied in the flora and fauna of their specific localities. In part, very much products of their cultural filiations, both women saw their nature writing as an implicit contract, as Johnson suggests, to “perform the cultural work of educating readers in matters of natural history, piety, and virtue.” 18 “The flowers are becoming rare ... ” Cooper notes on Friday, October 13ᵗʰ, for instance:

still, so long as the green grass grows, they lie scattered about, one here, one there, it may be in the shady woods, or it may be in the flower-border; reminding one of those precious things which sweeten the field of life — kindly feelings, holy thoughts, and just deeds — which may still be gleaned by those who earnestly seek them, even in the latest days of the great pilgrimage.

Traill concurred wholeheartedly, seeing in the “flourish, bloom and decay” of the wilderness flowers undeniable evidence of the “unseen but ... all-seeing eye of Him who adorns the lonely places of the earth, filling them with beauty and fragrance.”

And both women, too, moved through a vigorous and variously stable constellation of positions vis-à-vis their ecological reimagining, from their challenges to the traditions of genteel amateurism that effectively marginalized women from the status and advantages of the professional naturalist through their renegotiations of the domestic sphere through their conservationist rebuttals to what Cooper condemned openly as the “reckless extermination of the game in the United States,” the myopic depletion of fish stocks in Otsego Lake, and the moral and environmental plague accompanying the “California gold mania.”

But as Heidegger and others remind us, too, the heteroglossia within which Cooper and Traill functioned, with its still relatively thorough humanist foundation, was as much a realm of uncertainties and silences, of awful unknowns and “not saids,” as it was of faithfull taxonomies and stable common names. And it is here — in the not knowables, in the unsaids, in the hesitations that punctuate both Rural Hours and Wild Flowers — that readers come to witness not only the difficulties of pleasing two parties but also the possibilities of transcribing the sense of experience analogous to genre, of hybridizing expectation, and of moving toward what Bakhtin called a “Galilean perception of language, one that ... refuses to acknowledge its own language as the sole verbal and semantic center of the ideological world.” 19

A chance now to establish an active space in which to please two parties, to open primary texts, to explore individual experiences, habits, prejudices, and observations.

Entry in Canadian Wild Flowers, painted and lithographed by Agnes Fitzgibbon, for White Trillium, also known as Death Flower, also known as Trillium Grandiflorum:

The old people in this part of the Province call them by the familiar name of Lily. Thus we have Asphodel Lilies, Douro Lilies, &c. In Nova Scotia they are called Moose-flowers, probably from being abundant in the haunts of Moose-deer. In some of the New England States the Trilliums, white and red, are known as the Death-flower, but of the origin of so ominous a name we have no record. We might imagine it to have originated in the use of the flower to deck the coffin or graves of the dead in the olden times.

Entry in Rural Hours for “Autumn”:

We have one fish peculiar to this lake, at least, the variety found here is very clearly marked, and differs from any yet discovered elsewhere. It is a shad-salmon, but it is commonly called “the Otsego Bass,” and is considered one of the finest of the freshwater fish in the world.

{39)From the preface to Studies of Plant Life in Canada, the original Fern book, “completed” in the 1850s, first published in 1885:

[This] is not a book for the learned. The aim of the writer is simply to show the real pleasure that may be obtained from a habit of observing what is offered to the eye of the traveller, — whether by the wayside path, among the trees of the forest, in the fields, or on the shores of lake and river. Even to know the common name of a flower or fern is something added to our stock of knowledge, and inclines us to wish to know something beyond the mere name. Curiosity is awakened, and from this first step we go on to seek for higher knowledge, which may be found in works of a class far above what the writer of the present book can aspire to offer the reader. 21

Entry in Rural Hours for “Winter,” the end:

These calm sunsets are much less fleeting than others: from the moment when the clouds flush into color at the approach of the sun, one may watch them, perhaps, for more than an hour, growing brighter and warmer, as he passes slowly on his way through their midst; still varying in ever-changing beauty, while he sinks slowly to rest; and at last, long after he has dropped beyond the farther hills, fading sweetly and imperceptibly, as the shadows of night gather upon the snow.

What is involved in both the structuring and contents of these selections is important. For in both Rural Hours and Wild Flowers it is not enough merely to test the constrictions of genre, to ask “what does it mean to write about nature, about this place?” Nor is it enough to resist the tyranny of the mere name in order to exaggerate the inadequacies of the common word in the common world, to simply re-name or un-name the already known by way of “allowing” the shad-salmon to be re-signed via a localized oscillation of language as “Otsego Bass” and later through a broader but equally authoritative system as “freshwater fish.” What these books mark is a movement that is in many ways a radical liberation from party pressures, a determining moment from within the too-often disentangled cultures of nineteenth-century America and Canada that relocate both books as densely coded sites of generic contestation, as an intricately inscribed terrain through which these writers engage (and often challenge) the cultural “truths” that had forced ecological writings, along with the writing of women, to the margins and into the ellipses of the charmed classes of literary culture. What these books mark is an under-appreciated, under-recognized articulation of a pre-Thoreauvian sensitivity to that which lies “beyond the mere name,” to what lingers in Cooper’s sweet imperceptibilities, to what lies in the shadows.

Works Cited

  • Anon., The Week, 19 Feb. 1885.
  • ------. “Literary Notes.” The Globe (Toronto). Saturday, 7 Feb. 1885, [3].
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
  • Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1995.
  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Rural Hours [1850]. Eds. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
  • Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1974.
  • Frye, Northrop, Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.
  • Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Harold Fromm, eds., The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
  • Le Guin, Ursula K., Buffalo Gals And Other Animal Presences. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1987.
  • Schneider, Richard J., ed., Thoreau’s Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.
  • Tallmadge, John, and Henry Harrington, eds., Reading under the Sign of Nature: New Essays in Ecocriticism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000.
  • Traill, Catharine Parr, Canadian Wild Flowers. Montreal: Lovell, 1869.
  • ------. I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill. Eds. Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael A. Peterman. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.
  • ------. Studies of Plant Life in Canada; or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain. Ottawa: A.S. Woodburn, 1885.


1 Ursula K. Le Guin, “She Unnames Them,” Buffalo Gals And Other Animal Presences (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1987), 194.

2 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1995), 27.

3 Catharine Parr Traill to Kate Traill, 2 February 1865; cited in I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill, eds. Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael A. Peterman (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 133.

4 Catharine Parr Traill to Kate Traill, 17 March 1865; cited in I Bless You, 159-160.

5 John Lovell, with whom her mother, Susanna, had a longstanding relationship.

6 Catharine Parr Traill to Frances Stewart, 1 March 1869; cited in I Bless You, 176.

7 Catharine Parr Traill, Canadian Wild Flowers (Montreal: Lovell, 1869), 5.

8 Anon., The Week, 19 Feb. 1885.

9 Northrop Frye, Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture (Toronto: Anansi, 1982), 51.

10 Anon., “Literary Notes,” The Globe (Toronto), Saturday, 7 Feb. 1885, [3].

11 Buell, 397.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 397-423; Thomas J. Lyon, “A Taxonomy of Nature Writing,” This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (1989). Rpt. in The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 276-281.

14 Rochelle Johnson, “Walden, Rural Hours, and the Dilemma of Representation,” Thoreau’s Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing, ed. Richard J. Schneider (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), 179.

15 Christopher Manes, “Nature and Silence” The Ecocriticism Reader, 15.

16 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Tavistock/Routledge, 1974), 157.

17 Ibid., xx.

18 Rochelle Johnson, “Placing Rural Hours,” Reading under the Sign of Nature: New Essays in Ecocriticism, eds. John Tallmadge and Henry Harrington (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000), 73.

19 Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 366.

20 Traill, Studies of Plant Life in Canada; or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain (Ottawa: A.S. Woodburn, 1885), i.