No Name for Sweet William: Rural Intimacy and Rural Estrangement in Susan Fenimore Cooper and James Fenimore Cooper

Paul Johnston (State University of New York College at Plattsburgh)

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. 62-65).

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

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

{62} You must help nature — don’t idolize it either positively or negatively. One must accept responsibility for making nature what it should be. It is easier for me to say this, coming from Europe, an area where nature can be seen as friendly and domesticated, unlike the USA, where nature is seen as either to be exploited or to be fled to as a relief from civilization. I am continually shocked by the unhumanized nature of this country. ...

— W. H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare

The passage with which I open is taken from Auden’s remarks on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I like this passage because it says something that I’ve long thought to be true, but that American literary and social critics don’t often feel inclined to say, perhaps because they are so American that they take pride in something Auden finds odd. I’d like to suggest this morning that Susan Cooper also finds the American perception of nature odd and that in doing so she puts herself at odds with her American neighbors in a way more profound than the quarrel her father eventually had with the people of Cooperstown. Her father, I hope to suggest by contrast, presents in his Leatherstocking Tales a much more American view of nature, even when he was critical of what Americans were doing to the natural world. The continuing popularity of the Leatherstocking Tales and the relative obscurity of his daughter’s Rural Hours, I hope to show, is due to this difference in the relative Americanness of the two authors, with the daughter being in some sense the less American of the two.

Rural Hours, no less than Thoreau’s Walden, consists of a number of essays on a variety of topics more or less related to the natural world. Susan Cooper’s essays lack titles and appear only as entries under dates, the same as her notes about the weather and her observations and activities, these latter usually providing the pretexts for the essays themselves. This morning I’ll be focusing on her essay on flower names. On Saturday, June 23d, Cooper goes for a pleasant walk in the evening, when she meets “a party of children coming from the woods with wild flowers.” Such children, Cooper notes, rarely know the names of the flowers they have picked, unless they be such utterly common flowers as roses or violets. Cooper goes on to say that the parents of these children are no different, even when they live in the country and are otherwise learned people. “It is really surprising how little the country people know on such subjects,” she comments. “Farmers, and their wives, who have lived a long life in the fields, can tell you nothing on these matters. The men are even at fault among the trees on their own farms, if they are at all out of the common way; and as for the smaller native plants, they know less of them than Buck and Brindle, their own oxen.”

Not only do her neighbors not know the names of the wildflowers they regularly see and often pick, neither do the native wildflowers themselves have suitable names. There are no American names for native plants such as those of the Old Worldno buttercups, no cowslips, no heart’s-ease or Sweet-Williams. Cooper attributes these names to the “simple country folk” of the Old World. Such names in the Old World are not the possession of country people alone, of course. They were also part of the poet’s stock in what Cooper calls “simpler days” — the days of Spenser, of Shakespeare, and above all, of Chaucer. Cooper lays chief blame for America’s failure to name or even know her native flowers on the advent of science, which has preempted the prerogative of poets and simple country people alike in the naming of New World flowers. The most extended comedy of Rural Hours comes in this essay as Cooper imagines the English poets burdened with Latinate names in their pastoral poetry:

Conceive for a moment some Perdita of the present day, singing in her sweetest tones:

“Here’s flowers for you —

Pyxidanthera, Rudbeckia, Sclerolepis,

Escholatzia that goes to bed with the sun”?


Fancy her calling for fragrant blossoms to bestow on her young maiden friends: “Spargonophorus, Rhododendron, Sabbatia, Schizea, Schollera, Schistidium, Waldsteinia, and the tall Veronia, Noveborences,” &c., &c. Do you suppose that if she had gone on in that style, Florizel would have whispered: “When you speak, sweet, I’d have you do it ever?” No, indeed! he would have stopped his ears and turned to Mopsa and Dorcas. (June 23)

{63] In this comedy, Cooper echoes the fun had at the expense of the man of science in her father’s The Prairie, in which the learned Dr. Battius is frightened by an imposing and probably carnivorous beast of the prairies, the vespertilio horribilis, only to have Ellen point out to him it is his own ass. He doesn’t know his own domestic animal in the dark. That Dr. Battius is estranged from the natural world is repeatedly evident. He is shown to be lacking not only when contrasted with the aged Natty Bumppo, but even when matched against Hector, Natty’s dog.

But Dr. Battius is not alone in his estrangement from nature in The Prairie. The Bush family, though their very name suggests the degree to which they are near to nature in one sense, in that they are a primitive, uncultivated growth, are actively hostile to the natural world they travel through, cutting down every tree within reach of their axes, which identify them even more than their rifles. It is difficult to imagine the brutish Bushes caring much for the names of many flowers — whether buttercup or wake-robin or primrose — much less delighting in their beauty. Yet it is hard to credit the idea that their estrangement is solely the product of the advent of science. They are country-folk, to be sure, yet Susan Cooper’s phrase for those who gave names to flowers of the Old World — simple country-folk — hardly conjures up the Bushes. The Bushes cannot be said to be sophisticated, however; the phrase “simple country-folk” must refer to something other than simplicity.

We must look again at Susan Cooper’s essay on flower names and reconsider its linkage of country people and poetry. Compared to the Bushes, Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare cannot be said to be simple. What the Bushes lack is neither simplicity nor sophistication. They lack poetry. And in this they are perhaps distinctly American. They are kin with Susan Cooper’s no doubt less brutish Cooperstown neighbors in that their view of nature is largely utilitarian. The oxen of the farms around Cooperstown know the flowers of the fields better than do the farmers because they have a utilitarian use for them: they eat them.

The poverty of a utilitarian view of nature is very much a subject of The Prairie, of course, with the old trapper taking on all comers in his view that nature, though it should provide for man, should not be abused. Both Dr. Battius and the Bushes would be the masters of nature, an aspiration that the Trapper finds to be “mortal wickedness.” For Natty, throughout the Leatherstocking Tales, nature is the home of the sacred, which it isn’t for either the Bushes or Dr. Battius, or for Paul Hover for that matter. Much that is poetic in Natty’s speech is the direct expression of this sense of the sacred, and I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge this poetry. At the same time, however, it must be said that the sacred that Natty invokes is remote from human beings. This is most apparent in The Prairie, but it is true in all of the Leatherstocking Tales. Nature is most nature, for Natty Bumppo, when human beings are absent. The forestless prairies present God most directly, the transcendent God overhead.

For Natty Bumppo, nature is, as Auden puts it, a separate place to be fled to as relief from civilization. It is not human, but other. The Prairie sets the venerable trapper forth as the obverse of the Bushes. He has come to the prairie to get away from the axe of civilization; the Bushes carry their axes over their shoulders like rifles. For Auden, though, these are the two sides of the same American coin: for the Bushes, nature is there to be exploited; for Natty it is a refuge from humanity. In either case it is unhuman. It is unhuman for Dr. Battius as well. For him, human reason separates us from nature, making nature an object of study and ultimately an object of mastery. But this is just one way of seeing nature as separate from man. Natty may find the man of science’s point of view a mortal wickedness, but he sees nature as no less alien to man; more exactly, he sees man as alien to nature.

When we return to Rural Hours we see at once how much more intimately it presents the natural world, how much more human. To give a flower the name Sweet-William is to interfuse the human and the natural. The name manifests a feeling of intimacy, of inter-relatedness, absent from the Leatherstocking Tales. When one thinks of the nature found in the Leatherstocking Tales, flowers do not come to mind. Flowers exist on a different scale than the grand sweep of forest and prairie, though both forest and prairie have their share of wildflowers.

Just as Natty predicts at the end of The Pioneers, the forest surrounding Glimmerglass has become mere woods in Rural Hours, and in these woods we find the daughter has a more intimate eye than her father:

The woods lay in calm repose after the grateful shower, and large rain-drops were gathered in clusters on the plants. The leaves of various kinds receive the water very differently: some are completely bathed, showing a smooth surface of varnished green from stem to point — like the lilac of the garden, for instance; — on others, like the syringa, the fluid lies in flattened transparent drops, taking an emerald color from the leaf on which they rest; while the rose and the honeysuckle wear those spherical diamond-like drops, sung by poets, and sipped by fairies. The clover also, rose among the grasses, wears her crystals as prettily as the queen of the garden. (June 28)

The telling trope here are the fairies which sip the raindrops sung by the poets. Fairies in the world of Natty Bumppo are simply unimaginable, as they are in the world of Henry David Thoreau. But the difference is not simply a difference between masculine and feminine writers, as the poets Susan Cooper has in mind in this passage — Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Herrick — are themselves men. Rather, the difference is a difference between America and England, the difference between sensibilities that Auden had in mind when he made the observation I began with in the context of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the woods outside Shakespeare’s Athens are woods in which the human, the natural, and the divine are interfused, an interfusion manifested by the fairies, who are all these at once.

The origin of this difference of sensibilities may indeed be historical, though the historical factor is not, as Susan Cooper suggests, the advent of science. After all, Keats was a medical student, presumably well versed in modern science, yet this did not keep him from writing Endymion. Rather, we can look to the historical landscape that existed at the time American ideas about nature came into being. We remember the young scholar of Templeton, in Ch. 8 of The Pioneers, who recites so uncomprehendingly the entire first eclogue of Virgil — a feat not repeated at the new school, as the schoolmaster quickly turned the curriculum to “the more humble lesson of ‘the more haste, the worse speed,’ in good, plain English.” The Eclogues of Virgil were the product of a land that had been cultivated for untold generations, during which fields and forests had alternately advanced and receded countless times, with all the intimacy between man and nature that process eventually instilled. America, on the other hand, was still in the process of its first clearing, a process that produced much ugliness but little intimacy. Though Cooper represents this clearing as the work of the axe, more often it was done by girdling, as this required much less labor — trees had their bark removed in a strip encircling the trunk, which after a season would kill the trees, producing fields dotted with dead trees and high, broken stumps. This transformation did not produce much rural beauty, and it is little wonder that some would have been merely anxious for the completion of the process, while others would feel nostalgic for the relative beauty of the forest which had stood before.

I have, in fact, probably used the word “rural” unfairly, or at least inaccurately, in my subtitle. It cannot rightly be used to refer to the worlds of the Leatherstocking Tales, any more than “pastoral” can be rightly used to describe them. Only in The Pioneers do we get even a glimpse of a society we might call rural, and even that world is only just coming into being. We glimpse it in the gathering of the evergreens for the decoration of the church in the celebration of Christmas that opens the novel. In this scene Elizabeth Temple, as well as the minister and his daughter, are clearly in the minority, as they wish to worship in a way unfamiliar to their neighbors, though they are unexpectedly joined by the mysterious young man accompanying the old hunter. They are Episcopalians, or more accurately, Anglicans who as a result of the Revolutionary War have been forced to sever the tie with England while retaining the sensibility of England. In this they, like Susan Cooper in writing Rural Hours, clearly possess a sensibility different than their fellow Americans. Partly, the American rejection of the Old World’s poetry of intimacy with nature — the poetry of flowers and fairies — is an aspect of the American rejection of England itself. It is also partly the Puritan rejection of the sensuality of Anglican culture. Herrick, who wrote approvingly of the lasses with their grass-stained gowns on Mayday morning, was after all an Anglican priest, perfectly comfortable not only with flowers and fairies, but with human lovers, human sexuality. It is not a poetry, or a sensibility, Puritans can much abide.

Yet James Fenimore Cooper is not, after all, so Puritanical as Thoreau. Human sexuality may not be his best subject, but he does recognize its existence. His women may all be females, as if they’re members of some exotic species, but at least they’re present. Cooper père recognizes the absurdity of imagining a nature devoid of human sexuality, which Thoreau does not. When in The Pathfinder Natty Bumppo imagines not only himself, but Jasper too married; we are surely meant to smile when he further imagines the two couples setting up housekeeping in the wilderness just ten leagues apart, where they might pop in on one another. And there is genuine poignancy when Natty becomes the companion of Dew of June, her husband in all but the final intimacy. In thinking of nature in the Leatherstocking Tales, we first remember Natty Bumppo in the forest, but Cooper himself saw the future not in the solitude of the forest, but in the marriages of Elizabeth and Oliver, of Mabel and Jasper, of Paul and Ellen and Middleton and Inez, even in the marriage of Duncan and Alice in The Last of The Mohicans, though a greater future lies in the grave with Cora and Uncas. (Only in the darkly pessimistic Deerslayer does Cooper refuse to imagine a future.) And the future these marriages foretell is not the world of Natty Bumppo but the world of Rural Hours, a world of human beings integrated with nature, though Cooper in the Leatherstocking Tales does not have the skill or the inclination to develop a vision of this world.

{65} The father, we’re told, worried that the daughter’s book would not be understood. As well he might, as his own success as a novelist had helped create a sensibility for which the rural pleasures, the intimacy of human beings with nature, would seem foreign. Susan Cooper, in her essay on flower names, thinks it the most natural thing in the world to quote, in French, a troubadour singing of his love, or to recall country girls

measuring the love of their swains by the petals of [la Marguerite, or daisy], pulling them, one after another, and repeating, as each falls, un peu, beaucoup, passionément, pas du tout; the last leaf deciding the all-important question by the word that accompanies it; alas! that it must sometimes prove pas du tout! (June 23)

Such intimacy with nature is easy to point to in English literature, or in the literatures of Europe, but where are we to find it in American literature? The least attentive student will not mistake this for a passage from Walden. We find nothing like it in Whitman or Dickinson or Melville, nor in Hemingway or Faulkner or Robert Frost. Nature is what we make it, and American writers have devoted themselves to making it something else, something other. It is perhaps a distinctly American idea that nature could be a moral force, a transcendental God remote yet overarching. Yet we could, if we choose, follow instead Susan Cooper and make nature our intimate, and in doing so allow it to ennoble us as our intimacies ennoble us, even as we develop in nature all its latent beauties, the intimate beauty we find so abundant not in the Leatherstocking Tales but in Rural Hours.