Sentimental Enough?: The Literary Context of Elinor Wyllys
Presented at the 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2003.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2003 Cooper Seminar (No. 14), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 61-64).
Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Susan Fenimore Cooper’s novel, Elinor Wyllys (1845-6), entered the literary marketplace at an auspicious moment for sentimental and domestic fiction. In 1850, Susan Warner published The Wide, Wide World under the pseudonym Elizabeth Wetherell, and that book became the century’s bestseller (the first American novel to sell more than one million copies), only to be eclipsed by the phenomenal sales of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin several years later. Numerous other novels in the same sentimental/domestic mode found wide audiences, yet Cooper’s book soon vanished into obscurity, its authorship questioned. Elinor Wyllys is absent from Fred Lewis Pattee’s The Feminine Fifties, which was one of the early studies of mid-century domestic fiction; since it was often highly critical of the works in question, Pattee’s disregard of Cooper’s novel was probably based on its lack of popularity. What is the reason for the failure to find an audience, especially given the cultural climate in which similar novels flourished? Like any question worth asking about literature, the answer is complex, involving the vagaries of marketing, the unusually wide scope of Cooper’s story, and the ambitious (and perhaps unclear) vision of American life her novel seeks to present. Since Warner’s novel did so much better than Cooper’s, and because there are some parallels between the two, it may be enlightening to compare their sentimental structures to determine how Elinor Wyllys fit — or did not fit — the mold that would sell copies of books, and doing so will also reveal the difficult task Cooper had set for herself in outlining her opinions on American society.
Sentimental and domestic novels catered to a growing audience of girls and young women eager to read stories that spoke to their concerns and presented real, believable heroines involved in everyday life’s worries. Many of the novels also sought, either implicitly or explicitly, to counteract the bad reputation that novels and novel reading had developed by presenting a rigorously moral story where virtue is rewarded and vice never intrudes very far. Keeping in line with the religious moods of the times and the growing popularity of various evangelical awakenings, a devoutly Christian attitude permeates most of the novels. The Christian attitude informs the novels’ didactic facets, and many pages are devoted to correcting a character’s errors and teaching the proper path to follow, which invariably involves pursuing a proper domestic role and standing as an example for other young Christian women to follow. The most common tropes found in the sentimental novels are motherhood, home and hearth, the innocence of childhood, and, above all, the emotional interconnection of community members.
The plots of the sentimental novels, though varied, follow a broad pattern that may be best described as a bildungsroman. As Nina Baym and others have pointed out, the heroine of a sentimental novel is very often a young girl not yet in her teens who must face a serious crisis and survive by exhibiting the proper humility, piety, respect, and intelligence. ¹ Often the girl is an orphan or is separated from her mother. The absent mother provides tension by calling into question the girl’s upbringing and leading the readers to wonder if the lack of maternal guidance will allow the protagonist to choose steps that will create her own downfall. The absent mother may be replaced by another female role model or models. As the girl grows up, she learns her place in society, and eventually fulfills her destiny as a wife and mother to the next generation.
Warner’s novel fits the sentimental pattern very well. In the beginning of the novel, young Ellen’s mother must send the girl away because of her own illness; her father is a businessman more intent on his own affairs than those of his family. Ellen moves to upstate New York to live with her Aunt Fortune Emerson, a fierce and frightening woman who makes the girl earn her keep and takes unkindly to sniveling. Ellen is befriended by John and Alice, the son and daughter of a local minister, and this friendship provides the arena for much of the book’s religious teaching. When Aunt Fortune hides a letter to Ellen from her mother, Ellen becomes very angry and shouts at her aunt; her new friends tell her she should not be so easily angered but should practice humility and docility at all times. Lessons of this type come more and more frequently after Ellen’s mother dies. In the face of all adversity, Ellen weepingly urges herself to maintain her docile cheerfulness and think of Jesus, as her friend Alice advised. By the end of the novel, Ellen marries John, having proved that she is perfectly suited to be a Christian wife and mother.
Cooper’s novel differs from the model in several respects. Instead of a single plot that follows the heroine through her life, there are several plots involving various characters from the community at large. While many of the plots serve to fuel the main plot’s job of tracing Elinor’s growth to maturity, some are more self-contained and seem to be illustrating Cooper’s favorite points from different perspectives. The type of plot that fascinates Cooper is removed from the traditional sentimental sphere and placed in a more complex, and perhaps more uncomfortable, community context. Charley’s dilemma about his career path, for example, is important to Elinor personally, but whether or not he becomes a painter has little impact on her growth as a potential wife and mother. However, as I will discuss later, this side plot, and the others as well, crucially informs the larger sentimental agenda Cooper seems to be aiming for.
The most interesting, and perhaps most egregious, secondary plot concerns Harry Hazlehurst’s inheritance. Elinor’s fate is inextricably wound up in this plot, since most feeling readers will be eagerly hoping for some sort of reconciliation between the two lovers, and a wealthy and independent suitor is preferable to a penniless and discredited one. In this sense, then, the secondary plot is important to the sentimental mission: in order for the pair to marry in the end, the inheritance issue must be resolved. However, the manner in which Cooper handles this plot is revealing. She quite dexterously frames it as a mystery, with the shadowy figure of the drunken sailor passing through in the first chapter, only to reappear later in the guise of the long-lost son and heir. She then delves into the arcane aspects of the legal proceedings, with lawyers deposing witnesses, poring over evidence, and plotting legal strategies. For a modern audience weaned on John Grisham these details are unexceptional, but to the sentimental audience of the 1840s, most of whom were not allowed to be on juries or figure in most legal cases, the story here becomes strange.
Equally important in this case is the manner in which the plot is resolved. The court case ends not with Harry’s victory and vindication but with his defeat. The unsavory impostor and his sleazy lawyer have won the case, and the readers are led to question whether or not Harry has been as honorable as he should have been; he did, apparently, keep a rightful heir from his fortune. Not until the dramatic boat disaster scene is the plot unraveled, when a sailor gives in to his guilty conscience and confesses that he helped the impostor deceive the court and swindle Harry. The court system does not prevail. Instead, justice comes from a man who cannot abide the knowledge that he helped perpetuate a falsehood. Personal connections trump the courts.
The courtroom drama brings up another important difference between what is expected in a sentimental novel and what actually happens in Cooper’s story. Throughout many of the scenes leading up to the trial — the questioning of witnesses, the investigation into the sailor’s background, the discussion of legal strategy — Elinor all but disappears from the narrative. In The Wide, Wide World (which apparently belies its title), Ellen appears in every scene, and every incident in the plot more or less directly involves her. ² By giving almost equal attention to her book’s American ³ subtitle — the Young Folk of Longbridge — Cooper on the other hand emphasizes the theme that underlies all sentimental fiction, that of the interconnection of human relationships. Other subplots also focus attention away from Elinor and on her friends and neighbors in order to place the heroine more firmly within the web of community ties. Elinor, unlike Ellen in Warner’s novel, does seem to be part of a fully functioning community with a range of character types and events.
As I pointed out a moment ago, the community into which the sentimental novel traditionally seeks to enter presents a powerfully evangelical Christian voice. The astounding growth in the popularity of sentimental novels coincided with a several waves of evangelical fervor that swept across the country during the nineteenth century. Because a novel such as The Wide, Wide World reinforced and perpetuated this religious trend with homey, heartfelt, and emotion-laden appeals both to the characters within the novel and to the readers, the receptive audience was neither put off as a modern audience might be, nor surprised by the book’s piety. Readers expected to find heart-wrenching accounts of dying mothers exhorting their daughters to follow the teachings of the Bible and to love Jesus even more than they loved their mothers. The Wide, Wide World contains several scenes such as this.
Elinor Wyllys, however, does not. Perhaps the main reason for the lack of religious fervor is Susan Cooper’s lifelong devotion to the Episcopal Church, an establishment generally not known for its effusive worship style. Furthermore, since she spent many of her formative years living in Europe, far from the tent revivals of America, she was insulated from the Pentecostal fires and Charismatic charms that influenced her sister writers. Instead, her religious statements are more matter-of-fact and more subdued.
We can look at two roughly parallel scenes from the two novels that dramatically illustrate the differences in their religious outlooks. In The Wide, Wide World, Ellen’s mother, knowing that she is ill and possibly dying, seeks to instill as much religious sentiment in her daughter as she can, and several of their scenes together consist of Mrs. Montgomery explaining biblical passages to Ellen. In one scene, Ellen asks what the Bible means by “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me” (38). Mrs. Montgomery explains that Ellen cannot continue to place her mother ahead of Jesus in her heart, saying, “But I know that the Lord Jesus is far, far more worthy of your affection than I am, and if your heart were not hardened by sin you would see him so” (38). We should remember that the hardened sinner at the time is about seven years old.
Elinor’s mother in Elinor Wyllys has died before the action of the novel begins, but we are still able to hear the sacred maternal wisdom through a letter, a maternal heirloom and important sentimental trope. Mrs. Wyllys had written the letter when she knew her death was imminent, and left it with her father and sister-in-law with instructions for Elinor to open it on her 17 th birthday. The long letter contains a serious dissertation on the importance of a Christian education, noting that such an education “has for its foundation the heart-felt conviction of the weakness of human nature.” The religious instructions go on to say that Elinor, like all true Christians will find her strength not in “shutting [her] eyes to the evil, but in restraining it” (208). This is a remarkably different theological point. Instead of emphasizing complete submission to Christ, Mrs. Wyllys advocates a piety of humble strength.
Cooper does not limit her didactic approach to sentimentally pious homilies but extends her critical eye to all aspects of American society. The most notable lesson arrives early in the novel when the pompous financier Pompey Taylor questions Charlie about his paintings and mistakes subject matter for medium. He thinks that because Charlie’s painting is a water scene, he is using water colors. He then goes on to confuse perspective and scale, to which Cooper’s narrator irritably exclaims, “One is sometimes surprised by the excessive ignorance, on all matters concerning the fine arts, betrayed in this country, by men of some education” (56). The narrator goes on for another two or three hundred words bewailing the dismal state of a cultivated understanding of art and ends by recommending that public awards to notables should be in the form of modern American art works. A painting by a Cole (a Cooper family friend) commemorating an honor would be preferable to a mere medal, she insists. Elsewhere in the novel Cooper is equally eager to open the eyes of her country-men and -women to the cultural, social, and aesthetic possibilities of the young country.
With these departures from the expected pattern in mind, we are led to question whether Elinor Wyllys is failed sentimental novel or if it is more accurately a different type of sentimental novel, one that concerns itself with the domestic sphere in another context. Although the book’s poor commercial showing tends to tip the argument in favor of failure, I believe that Cooper was actually trying something more radical, something more along the lines of the century’s largest sentimental blockbuster, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin used the structure and many of the rhetorical tropes common to the sentimental genre, but, unlike, for example, Warner’s novel, its didactic purpose was not primarily to instill proper domestic ideals in the minds of its female readership but to promote abolitionist ideals. Similarly, Elinor Wyllys presents a working community where proper American values receive the respect they deserve, and the perceived threats of a vulgar capitalist consumer culture fail to inflict any lasting harm. The character dichotomies clearly reveal Cooper’s critique of American society at work. The very rich but culturally challenged Pompey Taylor stands as a dramatic contrast to the poor but artistic genius, Charlie Hubbard. Beautiful but fickle Jane marries the recklessly indulgent and eventually bankrupt Tallman Taylor, very much unlike Jane’s plain cousin Elinor, who stays true to Harry, who, despite his faithless infatuation with Jane, represents a steadfast American industriousness. Adeline Taylor, an extremely flighty and foolish young girl, follows Elinor’s model by marrying a “quiet, prudent, unostentatious young man” — Theodore St. Leger (268). Cooper’s narrator assures us that Adeline’s husband is nothing like her father, having an education of “excellent principles.”
We should also consider Cooper’s didactic passages. Instead of presenting her lessons as advice to her female characters, she directly addresses her readers (itself not an unusual tactic in 19 th century literature), urging us to see things in the proper way. She guides our reading carefully, telling us what is important and what lessons we should learn. She doesn’t want us to fall for Taylor’s wealth but to see that his money may buy him Colonnade Manor but it cannot buy him real class, and she tells us how we should think about him. She tells us that nouveau riche strivers are vulgar and poorly educated in finer points, and that they are likely to cause more harm to the community than good. She tells us that art and an appreciation of art is crucial in forming a happy and healthy society. In short, her novel tells us what an ideal society could be like and what threatens that society.
The court case, that subplot that seems so far removed from typical sentimental concerns, illustrates how her ideal American society can be threatened. In this case, American jurisprudence fails: Harry loses his case despite his solid claim to his inheritance. This is a scathing indictment. Harry only gets his estate back when another person, a minor co-conspirator, feels guilty and confesses. He feels guilty. No one has any evidence against him; no one in fact has any reason to suspect the man, yet he listens to his guilty conscience and confesses. In Cooper’s ideal American community, all children would be taught to live up to certain high moral standards, and lies such as the one perpetrated by the false heir and his shady lawyer could not happen. Like her father, she is not sure that she trusts the large structures of American life to do the right thing. Instead, she places her trust in the intimate interpersonal connections that characterize small American communities.
One final comparison will demonstrate the most striking difference between Cooper’s and Warner’s visions of America. Cooper’s Rural Hours contains a scene that stands as a harsh rebuttal to Warner’s model of American capitalist culture. A good portion of the first five chapters of The Wide, Wide World is devoted to the fetishistic listing and description of consumer goods. Ellen’s mother takes her shopping for the things that she will need for her stay with Aunt Fortune Emerson, things such as stationery, a writing desk, and, of course, a bible. In Rural Hours, Susan visits Farmer B — — ‘s farm, an episode she describes at length. The farmer’s daughters’ thrift strikes Cooper most forcibly, and she praises them for making virtually anything they might need. Village girls, she scolds, recklessly buy things, many of which they don’t need, simply because society declares that they must buy. The farm girls are more moral in Cooper’s eyes, and they will make better wives and mothers — in short, a better America. Ultimately, this creation and modeling of a healthy domestic realm is the goal of all of the sentimental literature of Cooper’s time.
Cooper’s austere sentimental vision of America is at odds with the consumer culture that is even more evident today, and it is a vision that, not surprisingly, does not sell.
- Baym, Nina. Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America. 1820-70. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
- Cooper, Susan Fenimore. Elinor Wyllys; or, the Young Folk of Longbridge . Ed. Richard M. Magee. New York: Fort Schuyler Press, 2003.
- ------. Rural Hours . Eds. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
- Pattee, Fred Lewis. The Feminine Fifties. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1940.
- Warner, Susan. The Wide, Wide World . Ed. Jane Tomkins. New York: Feminist Press, 1987.
1. Nina Baym’s Women’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America. 1820-70 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993) analyzes the plot, characterization, and thematic concerns of the sentimental novels while placing them in their historical and social context. Baym’s book acts partly as a corrective to Pattee’s often dismissive tone, especially as his analysis downplays and belittles the emotional force of the sentimental. Pattee, for example, in his critique of Warner’s novel, counts “245 tear-flows in the 574 pages of the novel” (57).
2. The Wide, Wide World, interestingly, begins with the mention of a lawsuit that Ellen’s father had recently lost. This lawsuit, however, acts as a precipitating event rather than as a crucial pivotal moment in the narrative. Because of the lost suit, Ellen must be sent to live with her aunt.
3. The English version of the novel, published a year earlier than the American, is simply subtitled ” A Tale.”