Travels around Lake Otsego: Teaching Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours

Signe O. Wegener (The University of Georgia)

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. 105-108).

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

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

In the spring of 2000, I was asked to teach a senior class in Colonial American Literature in the fall semester. Having already decided that the next time I taught the class, I would focus on American travel narratives and nature texts, I leapt at the chance. Putting together the syllabus — which covered more than seven centuries of such texts, starting with some of the Norse and Spanish explorers — I decided to extend the time frame somewhat and incorporate some nineteenth-century texts into the reading list. Among these were two texts written by women: Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home — Who’ll Follow, and Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours.

As Rural Hours culminated the term’s readings, I asked my students to write a few pages about their experience with and impression of Susan Cooper’s book. My paper today highlights some of their observations. 1 Although the samples are limited in number — my class had 19 students, 9 female, 10 male — they demonstrate the students’ reactions to their encounter with a female nature text. They also demonstrate the challenges of teaching Rural Hours to students rooted in what I have decided to call a “post-Walden” consciousness.

I would have liked to report to the James Fenimore Cooper Seminar of 2001 that incorporating Rural Hours into my syllabus proved an unqualified success. However, this was not exactly the case. In class discussions, most of the students seemed positive, yet somewhat bemused by the text. Their written responses, however, displayed a wider range of opinions — many decidedly negative — and testified, above all, to the students’ prior exposure to mid-nineteenth century texts. Some students sharply rejected the text as literature, others showed a certain appreciation — at times somewhat grudgingly given — of its revelations of American life in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Many obstacles had to be overcome before the class reached even the lowest level of appreciation, the first being how to properly classify the text. In fact, they responded exactly the way James Fenimore Cooper had feared when he confided in his wife upon the publication of Rural Hours: they didn’t “know what to make of it.” 2 Firmly rooted in a geographically restricted location, it clearly represented a very different approach to the topic when juxtaposed to the sweeping vistas of the male-authored travel narratives and nature writings they had explored earlier. The group had early in the term discussed various types of nature writing, among them the so-called “ramble,” and after some verbal wrangling agreed that Rural Hours fit into this category. 3 In this type of text, “[the] author goes forth into nature, usually on a short excursion near home, and records the walk as observer-participant. This characterization seemed tailor-made for Cooper’s text. One important problem proved more difficult to resolve, however: ought Rural Hours be classified as “literature” at all? Regarding this question, the class split according to gender lines: the males virulently rejected its literary merit; the females praised it for its distinctive female voice, seemingly more accepting of its literary value. Ironically, few complaints regarding literary value had been raised against eighteenth-century works by male writers, such as William Bartram, 4 William Byrd II, and Alexander Hamilton, 5 although the contents of all these fall short of the multi-level Walden. Nor had they been raised against Sarah Kemble Knight’s early eighteenth-century 6 journal and Caroline Kirkland’s mid-nineteenth-century account of backwoods living. 7 However, all these writers had, like the earlier explorers, traveled for a specific purpose, be it to collect plant specimens, draw up the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina, or settle a cousin’s estate. Cooper had not. One male student, discussing the literary merits of Rural Hours, wrote, “I would recommend this journal to a friend or give it as a gift, but I do not regard it as a ‘work of literature.’” Curiously, he then added, implicitly giving the text some literary value, that “one could find a place for the work in a creative writing class, where students would benefit from ... examining her patience with writing, and they could be sparked by her imagination.”

Student responses demonstrated a definite gender bias. Especially for male students, it proved exceedingly difficult to consider Rural Hours on its own terms, that is, they refused to see it, as Susan Cooper claims in her preface, a “simple record of those little events that make up the course of the seasons in rural life.” Having studied Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden in other classes, several students saw these works as the paradigm of nineteenth century nature writing. Unable to escape their reverence for the transcendental masters, they applied transcendental principles to their reading. {106} Consequently, they, at least initially, tended to find the work simplistic and superficial because of lacking the transcendental depth they saw as indispensable to works discussing nature. Compared to Emerson’s and Thoreau’s philosophizing and meditation, one student asserted, Cooper’s “book hovers on the surface.” Never mind that Cooper’s objective was different from theirs. And modern readers, the student claimed, “anticipate descriptive entries about her personal feelings.” Rural Hours failed, this student asserted, because “the readers must struggle to interact on a personal level with the author” (emphasis mine). Ironically, the same students had no problems assigning a personal perspective to, for instance, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, despite the fact that it, too, hovers on the surface. Then again, with poetry they expected to struggle to find meaning.

Worse was to come: Rural Hours also, some students found, had little scholarly credibility, especially when compared to Bartram’s Travels. One student found it lacking in this department because the author relied too much on anecdotes, not empirical data to prove her points. Citing Cooper’s story of the New England native Duck-Hawk, one student concludes that “her attention to precision and fact is elementary and decreases her credibility with serious scholars.” Not only did the bird “live to a great age,” but what apparently threw the students was Cooper’s assertions that “A hawk of this kind was caught at the Cape of Good Hope ... it must have been 183 years old” — apparently a rather odd — and unsubstantiated — number to come up with. And to make matters worse, not only could the bird live to an over-ripe old age, it possessed extraordinary speed: “Another [hawk], belonging to Henry II of France, flew away from Fontainebleau one day and was caught at Malta the next morning” (Rural Hours, entry for December 4). Rural Hours, might exude a “shy, feminine charm,” the student commented, but this did not make up for its academic shortcomings. To like-minded students, it apparently mattered little that Cooper’s target audience differed markedly from Bartram’s scholarly one.

The same student claimed that the work “in spite of its girlish charm ... lacks in detail and personal perspective and has no purpose to modern readers other than folklorists, nature lovers, or history buffs. Consequently, the text’s only parallel to modern use is its aptitude for collecting dust.”

Several students commented on the work’s structure, perhaps because the one-year frame brought to mind Thoreau’s Walden. One of them wondered if Thoreau, referring to Susan Cooper in his own text, deliberately compacted his more than two years at Walden Pond into one year in his text, as an oblique critique or homage of hers.

Cooper’s writing style rapidly found its detractors: most complained about her creating distance between writer and audience and writer and subject matter. Cooper initially appears to at least verbally erase herself from the text, unlike Thoreau who bluntly asserts his right to use the first person I in his text. 8 Syntax and style — especially the many sentence fragments — irritated some readers, at least initially, as did her spelling. One student of “formal grammar” found the text to be hard to read. This student claimed, “reading a book ... with so many sentence fragments was a new experience, to be honest ... and reading them could be jarring from time to time.” Ironically, this student also found that Cooper’s style “captivates the reader” because it “breathes life into the words on the page.”

However, several students surmised another purpose for the use of sentence fragments. As one of them put it, “Sometimes it seemed as though she used these fragments only so that she would not have to use the first person in the work.” The idea of Rural Hours being a “journal” when it had not been written in the first person singular, also confounded some, claiming they really didn’t get to know the writer. As one student wrote, the author’s apparent erasure of self “doesn’t give the reader much insight into the mind of Susan Cooper.” Journals, obviously by their very nature, ought to provide such insights.

Yet Cooper’s rambles along Lake Otsego soon exercised a quaint charm, and even hard-line admirers of the American Renaissance appeared to enjoy what the text offered — once they decided it was, indeed, more complex than they had initially thought. Once they approached the text on its own terms, instead of faulting it for not conforming to the Walden paradigm, the conversational tone pulled them in and they, like Cooper, became part of her rural community. One student commented that she enjoyed “the slices of her rural community and life presented through the stories and small histories much better than anything else in the book. I particularly liked reading those parts that I could recognize in modern America, like her description of Christmas.” Another student observed that Cooper’s “description of Christmas and the winter landscape are the most accurate and well-spoken attempts to recreate the scene of the holiday that I have ever read.” A third observed that Rural Hours “can provide many people with a valuable insight into the history of America.”

{107} Several female students discerned a distinctive female voice in the work, especially in her choice of topics and in her detailed descriptions: they saw her as offering “a female perspective in what is largely a male-dominated literary world.” Even the distance they saw between writer and topic was seen as an example of female “delicacy,” and as the writer’s technique of controlling her own emotions. Not only did they find her views “refreshing,” they saw her as critical of her society/culture’s impact on for instance Native American life. Most praised her detailed descriptions of animals, at times fondly recalling their own experiences, and found a distinctive female influence even here, as when a bee “utilizes the flower” much like a housewife decorates her home. Would a male writer, the student asked, use this very female personification:

... she cuts out a bit of the scarlet flower, carries it to the nest, and spreads it on the floor like a carpet ... when the floor is covered with several layers of this sort scarlet carpeting, she proceeds to line the sides throughout in the same way, until the whole is well surrounded with these handsome hangings. (July 26)

Female and male students alike enjoyed her rather humorous attacks on the use of Latin plant names. Having struggled with and finally ignored these in Bartram’s text, 9 they seconded her validation of the use of “American” plant names when discussing wildflowers, especially her poignant question, “What has a dead language to do on every-day occasions with the living blossoms of the hour?” (June 23). They also appreciated her call for “preserving every Indian name that can be accurately placed” because “they are recommended by their beauty; but even when harsh in sound, they have still a claim to be kept up on account of their historical interest, and their connection with the dialects of the different tribes” (February 27).

Moreover, many students soon came to realize that the lack of first person narrative notwithstanding, the text did reveal much about the writer’s personality and insights. Through her discussions, simplistic and objective as they may appear, Cooper’s own character emerges: students came to realize that only an “intelligent,” “well-read,” and exceedingly “observant” woman could have written the book.

They saw how the inclusion of poetry, much of it French, her knowledge of such great naturalists and botanists as Audubon and Linneaus, and explorers like Hakluyt demonstrated her vast knowledge, and how her many comparisons between American and European flora, fauna, and societal conditions showed her sophistication. They also saw her as a woman with a deep love for and knowledge of the physical world — be it nature or her own society. More importantly, one observed, “It is obvious in her text that she is a part of the details she is writing about.” This society she has no qualms about taking to task. For instance, she criticizes the public’s general lack of knowledge of “the common names of our wild flowers” (June 23), and their naming practices in general. 10 The distance she creates by avoiding first person narrative even became a plus: she “absorbs ... her surrounding environment but she does not allow the reader to feel overly saturated by it all.”

More than one student, however, felt the comments on the back cover of the edition I had chosen belittled Cooper’s accomplishment. As one of them explained, “Preparing to read Susan Cooper’s Rural Hours, I turned the book over in my hands and read the review on the back of the cover. The words of the critics promised, ‘hours of pleasant relaxation for all.’ The publisher goes so far as to note that upon its first publication, it was regarded as ‘one of the sweetest books ever printed.’” This statement, the student opined, appeared to “discount Rural Hours as ‘fluff’” and did the work a definite disservice by relegating it to the realm of the trivial.

As can be seen from the above comments, students came away from the reading with a wide range of assessments. However, by the end of our class discussion, most claimed they had, indeed, enjoyed Rural Hours, even if they thought the readings had “exhausted ‘nature’ as a subject of literature.” And, as a fellow student asserted, “The underlying purpose of Cooper’s book is to open the eyes of Americans to the place they live in and to convince them that they have a moral obligation to preserve the environment. Rural Hours ultimately emerges as Cooper’s argument for a much needed balance between human culture and our natural surroundings.”


1 I should like to thank the following students, members of this class, who contributed most to this discussion, and whose thoughtfully expressed reactions to Rural Hours have made this paper possible: Brian Ash, Vincent Barnes, Betsy Brady, Kristin Hutchinson, Jeff Kinton, John Morecraft, Carolyn Treat, LeAnna Vickers, Brian Worley, and William Zant.

2 Quoted in the “Foreword” to the Syracuse University Press’s 1995 edition of Rural Hours, vii.

3 We here followed the guidelines introduced in Thomas J. Lyon’s (ed), This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989). In “A Taxonomy of Nature Writing,” Lyon discusses the whole spectrum of nature writing. He presents the following categories: “Field Guides and Professional Papers,” “Natural History Essays,” “Rambles,” “Solitude and Back Country Living,” “Travel and Adventure,” “Farm Life,” and “Man’s Role in Nature” (Lyon 4).

4 Bartram, William, Travels of William Bartram [1791]. Mark Van Doren, ed. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc. Reprint of the 1928 Macy-Masius edition).

5 In Martin, Wendy, ed., Colonial American Travel Narratives (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), the class read William Byrd II’s satirical The Secret History of the Dividing Line, 77-172, Alexander Hamilton’s The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, 173-327, and Mary Rowlandson’s A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, 1-48.

6 In Martin, 49-76.

7 Kirkland, Caroline Stanstead, A New Home — Who’ll Follow? [1839] Excerpts. In the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, 5ᵗʰ Ed.

8 In Walden [1854] (Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley, with an Introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988)), Thoreau explains, “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking” (3).

9 Bartram consistently uses Latin terms when discussing plants with which his readers are familiar — they are, after all, what his scholarly audience expects. Listing the plants he sees on the Great Ridge, he writes of: “halesia, styrax, aesculus pavia, aesc. sylvatica, robinia hispida, magnolia scuminata, mag. tripetalsa, and some very curious new shrubs and plants, particularly the physic-nut or Indian olive” (59).

10 Cooper is particularly scathing when discussing American naming practices.