Homecoming: Susan Fenimore Cooper Views America’s Coming of Age in Elinor Wyllys (1846)

Luise van Keuren (California University of Pennsylvania)

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. 101-104).

Copyright © 2005, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

Homecoming and the Plot of Elinor Wyllys

Homecoming is the unifying theme of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s 1846 novel Elinor Wyllys. Wandering and travel are abundant in a pattern that ultimately leads to homecoming. This motif begins at the very outset. As a recently-orphaned youngster, Elinor arrives at her new home to join the household of her grandfather, Mr.Wyllys, and his unmarried daughter Agnes, Elinor’s new surrogate mother. Her installment at Wyllys-Roof marks her own homecoming.

While she engages in some minor travel in the novel — to the West Indies, Philadelphia, and Saratoga Springs — Elinor is the most homebound of the novel’s major characters. In fact, once arrived at Wyllys-Roof , Elinor becomes the emblem of home. She represents the merits and values to which other characters return. She is also of the community that serves as others’ ultimate geographic destination, apparently in New Jersey. Wyllys-Roof lies outside the village of Longbridge — the place where characters take the “long” “bridge” home.

The wanderers who return to Elinor and her world stray in outlook and judgment until they gain the maturity to return home to appreciate formerly overlooked worth. Chief among them is her suitor Harry Hazlehurst. Harry postpones his law studies to accompany his brother on a two-year recuperative journey to Europe and the Near East. Before his departure Harry becomes engaged to Elinor, but during his journey he strays in another sense, falling in love with Elinor’s beautiful cousin Jane Graham. This event ends his engagement, though he is soon spurned by Jane. Harry then extends his wandering by accepting a diplomatic post. He travels through Latin America; furthermore, his employment promises to lead him to future travel to Russia. The beautiful woman who initiated Harry’s path also becomes a wanderer, again both geographically and ethically. In addition to her European trip, Jane spends time in New Orleans, the Carolinas, New York and Saratoga. Her guide in waywardness is the superficial butterfly Adeline Taylor. Jane acquires fashionable, materialistic views, and marries Adeline’s social climbing brother T. Tallman Taylor, an unfortunate match.

Another sense of the homecoming theme is lent by the aspiring painter Charlie Hubbard, who begins his life’s journey in Elinor’s community, as do all the major characters. With Elinor’s help, Charlie pursues his calling-significantly as a landscape painter — and goes to Europe to develop his talents. There he paints breathtaking European scenery and becomes a professional artist. Charlie, a sweet and talented boy, is less corrupted in the moral sense than in the artistic. He is swept away by the artistic customs of the time that deemed Europe the proper domain and subject for a painter.

The homecoming motif also includes a false pretender to this pattern. The supposed William Stanley is the most vagrant of all the wanderers, a sailor who appears, after years of travel, to claim his late father’s fortune — a fortune that otherwise would go to Elinor’s suitor Harry. Stanley’s lawsuit and its entanglements form the heart of the novel’s original second volume. This pretender is the most corrupted of travelers. He has succumbed to vices, including drink, stealing and fraud; he has lost all sense of home, so much so that he claims one that is not his own, solely for monetary gain.

All of these characters return to Elinor, to Wyllys-Roof specifically or to its surrounding community. They return to embrace the values of home, as Elinor exemplifies them: simplicity, sincerity, honesty, loyalty and kindness. They cast aside superficiality, fashionability and pretension. Harry finds no solace in his diplomatic career and returns to recognize Elinor’s true inner beauty. His role in the exposure of the false William Stanley, represents his defense of home. Concluding this successfully, by unexpected means, Harry asks for her forgiveness and love. The chastened beauty Jane Graham, grieving for her deceased husband and child, and left destitute by that husband’s extravagance, comes to Wyllys-Roof to Elinor’s sympathetic care. The young painter Charlie Hubbard returns, now awakened to American scenery and begins to fill commissions for scenes of the Adirondacks, rather than the Alps. He is struck both by the simple gray cottage that was his home and by the local scenery: “It is a pleasing scene, a happy moment; it is the first landscape he ever painted, and it is home” (251).

Minor characters also find happiness in their own neighborhoods. Notable among them is Uncle Dozie, a confirmed bachelor who finds love over the garden fence, as well as Adeline Taylor, Jane’s flibberty-gibbet sister-in-law, who finally marries a reliable, unpretentious suitor. Indeed, there are few characters in the novel who do not participate in the homecoming motif.

Thus, the plot, despite its many characters, creates a remarkably unified pattern of wandering and return to a center that represents an ideal concept of home. The author presents this concept as a feminine outlook, and the home is typically guarded by women. Chief among these guardians are Elinor, her Aunt Agnes, and their neighbor, the simple, nurturing Miss Patsy. Patsy, Charlie’s older sister, appropriately keeps a school for small children and is the guardian of her younger orphaned siblings. These women remain the stable center. Others return to them in both a philosophical and geographical sense, embracing the values they have practised and championed. The homecomers finally share a view of the world that these women already possessed.

Homecoming and America’s Coming-of-Age

The homecoming theme has a second, wider meaning in Elinor Wyllys. Permeating the plot, and paired with it, is an exploration of what the author hopes will be the homecoming of American sensibility, returning in a coming-of-age maturation to appreciate the underestimated America. This idea reflects a long-standing national dialogue about America’s worth, particularly in contrast to the European model-and about the need to embrace and appreciate America for its own assets, character and landscape.

In the 18ᵗʰ century, Crevecoeur made the comparison between American decency and European corruption in his Letters from an American Farmer. He, too, celebrates the natural, simple life, rooted in the land, and bemoans the artificiality of urban high society. He looks at Europe as a failed culture, riddled by privilege and immorality. America’s country rural settings he contrasts as a natural source of morality and, thus, freedom.

Royall Tyler’s play The Contrast, first performed in 1787, offers many of the same criticisms as Susan Fenimore Cooper’s novel, through women characters slavishly mimicking European high fashion and through foppish male disciples of Lord Chesterfield. These Tyler contrasts with the honorable and plain-dealing Colonel Manly, his country boy servant Jonathan and the colonel’s sensible, modest sweetheart Maria. Manly asserts that the “probity, virtue, honour” of the “honest American” has no need of “the polish of Europe” (107). “Strange, we should thus our native worth disclaim,” the play’s prologue declares (xxxix).

This theme of national homecoming was also a timely one in Cooper’s own era, and was expressed in works by Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, and others. The year before the publication of Elinor Wyllys, Anna Cora Mowatt’s play Fashion debuted in New York City. This play also targeted pretentious mimicry of European high society manners. Its hero Adam Trueman tells us that nobility in America derives from “nature’s stamp,” not from fashion or class pretension (133).

Susan Fenimore Cooper places her emphasis on the home in her argument for America. She shares with other participants in the national dialogue the view that, properly appreciated and enjoyed, America offers a free and moral environment for family and community. Hers is a gendered view, suggesting that a feminine perspective may be more keenly aware of this potential. These are concepts she continues to explore in Rural Hours (1850) and “A Dissolving View” (1852). Richard Magee notes how in Rural Hours the domestic sphere permeates the portrait of the rural world. The visions of the country “domesticate her word paintings” (57). Yet Cooper, he writes, “firmly plants her easel in the present” (57). Jessie Ravage points out how Cooper “returns home to Otsego Lake and Cooperstown, the home of her father and grandfather” (87) in her 1852 essay “A Dissolving View.” Yet the discussion is “immediate and tied to her everyday existence” (87). “A Dissolving View” makes its effect by evoking the emotions and the imagination. It is rooted in the personal and in people who are strongly connected to place. All of these characteristics of later Cooper works are to be found in the author’s argument for America in Elinor Wyllys.

It should be said that Susan Fenimore Cooper spent substantial time in Europe and recognized its assets. In criticizing American attitudes toward Europe she does not deny the valuable in European culture and landscape; rather she opposes the use of Europe as a model which America must match and copy. America must be appreciated for its own character, she urges. She also deplores the imitation of superficial European high society and its fashions, a subject that earned abundant criticism in Europe, as well. The narrative voice of her novel, while criticizing some European influences, also occasionally apologizes for America’s shortcomings, especially for vulgarity and ignorance among its population.

Elinor Wyllys, however, is prose fiction. It explores the argument for America primarily through the story itself, and only occasionally through narration. In fact, we soon catch on to the fact that the plot is a metaphor of the American national homecoming. Elinor herself represents America’s best values, for she is its emblem. Her beauty is not superficial, a point repeatedly emphasized by her outward plainness. It is especially to the socially pretentious and fashion-hungry that Elinor appears even homely. It is “a pity her face should be so ugly,” one of this party says (18). Yet Elinor’s genuine beauty — a beauty of character — is always defended by those who know her well, the party of simple home values. Like the best of American virtues, she is “warm-hearted and generous in her feelings” and “simple and natural” (32). Elinor has no interest in a social debut into a world of gossip and gaiety. She observes and rejects “the great importance the world attaches to mere beauty” (39).

The duality of city vs. country plays a role in the Europe vs. America argument, as it does in Elinor’s life. Elinor belongs to the life of the country and the village. Her vain urban associates bemoan her situation: “I often pity you,” one woman comments, “for being so far from genteel society” (75). The city is the domain of superficial society. Elinor prefers her country environment and is eager to leave Philadelphia and its “many elegant belles” whose lives are full of “visiting or shopping” and “parties or flirtation” (41).

Elinor’s home, Wyllys-Roof, mirrors America itself: it is a “comfortable, sensible-looking place ... quite superior to all pretension” with its grounds “of the simplest kind. The lawn which surrounded the house was merely a better sort of meadow” (5) In the American country home, gardens contain fruit trees, “a habit which pleasantly reminds us that civilization has made a recent conquest over wilderness in this new world. ... (5-6). Here Elinor has learned to “’give with simplicity’” (43). Life is sincere, personal, close-knit. Another model of this metaphor is the domain of Miss Patsey, another female guardian of the home. Hers is a “grey, wooden cottage, of the smallest size” with “American” architecture of the “comfortable, common sense order” (44). Its homeyness is emphasized by the repeated description of the snowball and sweet briar growing “each side of the humble porch” (250). These country homes are a moral force.

Wyllys-Roof is home; and that is a word of a broader and more varied meaning in the country than in a town. The cares, the sympathies of a country home, embrace a wide circle, and bring with them pleasures of their own. People know enough of all their neighbors to take part in any interesting event that may befall them.” (41)

In the city: “one knows a neighbour’s card, perhaps, but not his face” (42). “Home with its thousand pleasant accessories — home, in its fullest meaning, belongs especially to the country” (42).

City society is immersed in the imitation of Europe — its home furnishings, architecture, fashion, social behaviors, and values. This vanity is represented by Wyllys-Roof’s foil, the home of the Taylors, under renovation as the novel opens. The new house promises to be “something quite grand” with elegant furniture and Brussels carpets. The furnishings, of course, are imported from Europe, and the finished product is to be “a house of some size, and very great pretentions” (97). Mr. Taylor hopes to outdo the mansion of Joseph Hubbard, a man of similar aspirations.

Like their houses, the Longbridge Taylors are juxtaposed to the Wyllys family. The Taylors drive a stylish barouche and display various other signs of wealth. Their patriarch is symbolically named Pompey Taylor; he is a man who believes that the purpose of the nation’s strength is to defend his wealth (107). Daughter Adeline Taylor is a belle at Saratoga where she and her companions wear six new dresses a day, in hopes of outdoing the Baltimore belles (100). Adeline makes a belle out of Jane Graham, and the two are classmates at a fashionable school for young ladies. The Taylor son is sent to Europe to gain polish, learn French and select fine wines. Significantly, he changes his name from Tom Taylor to T. Tallman Taylor and acquires extravagant habits that lay waste his means. Only Mrs. Taylor, a struggling representative of the women guardians of the hearth, holds out for a simpler, more sincere lifestyle. In the end she is recognized as having been right.

The Joseph Hubbard family is a similar model, with its elegant mansion. The women of the household come in for especially strong reproach. They are women of “desperate elegance,” influenced by a “miserable education“(80) and a fondness for English novels (79). They treat Elinor with condescension, model their dress after the Parisians and their manners after the English (79). The more foolish of the pair is described as “an absurd compound” (79).

European contact does not treat the wanderers well, and this outcome serves to champion the American argument. The wanderers’ lack of profit from this contact is due, in part, to the fact that they use the experience so foolishly. T. Tallman Taylor, for example, indulges in such extravagant tastes that his family is left destitute. Perhaps, more importantly, though, experience abroad keeps characters from seeing clearly the value of their homeland. For the painter Charlie Hubbard, study abroad is a useful background, but it delays the discovery of his true calling as a painter of the American landscape, a landscape that he knows intimately. In this plot element, Susan Fenimore Cooper echoes the viewpoint of painter Thomas Cole, who urged Americans, and especially American artists, to value the beauty, variety, and sublimity of the nation’s landscape. A new way of seeing America is at the heart of both Cooper’s novel and Cole’s views as a founder of the Hudson River School.

Cooper gives her artist an almost metaphorical fate in a fatal mishap at the end of the work. In a boating accident on the New England coast, Charlie fails to see the American landscape clearly — not as a painter here, but as an inexperienced sailor. The text repeats observers’ exclamations that Charlie and his companions ought to see the approaching squall — but do not, with tragic consequences. Although a country boy, Charlie, moreover, cannot swim. He leaves behind, symbolically, an unfinished sketch.

For some of the novel’s characters, it is not too late for a homecoming. Jane puts the whirlwind of fashionable Paris life behind her and finds comfort in Elinor’s arms after the death of her husband and child. Most central to the plot — in both of its thematic threads — Harry returns to Elinor, seeing her by the light of his acquired wisdom. The straying characters, like Americans themselves, must come back to an unappreciated homeland, embracing its simple, home-centered, hard-working character, as well as its landscape. The nation, like the heart of its best individuals, may lack superficial dazzle, yet it is the perfect abode of the home — fresh, honest, comforting, and genuine. All of this requires — for the novel’s characters and for the American reader — a new way of seeing America. America is who we are, the novel argues, and there is much good to find in its honest, trustworthy country families, its plain-dealing citizens, and its sheltering setting. This is an America firmly rooted in its rural landscape. This is, as the narrator tells us of Wyllys-Roof, “home with its thousand pleasant accessories” and “with its fullest meaning,” a home that “belongs especially to the country” (42).

Works Cited

  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, “A Dissolving View.” The Home-Book of the Picturesque; or, American Scenery, Art, and Literature. New York: George Putnam, 1852. Reprinted, Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967.
  • ------. Elinor Wyllys, or the Young Folk at Longbridge (1846). Ed., Richard Magee. New York: Fort Schuyler Press, 2003.
  • ------. Rural Hours (1850). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
  • Crevecoeur, Hector St. John de, Letters from an American Farmer. New York: Doubleday, 1961.
  • Magee, Richard, “Landscape of Loss, Landscape of Promise.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and his Art. Ed. Hugh C. MacDougall. Oneonta: SUNY Oneonta, 2000:57-61.
  • Mowatt, Anna Cora, Fashion (1845). In Representative American Plays, Ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1938: 277-312.
  • Ravage, Jessie A., “The Home-Book of the Picturesque: Father and Daughter.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and his Art. Ed. Hugh C. MacDougall. Oneonta: SUNY Oneonta, 2000: 85-87.
  • Tyler, Royall, The Contrast (1787). New York: Burt Franklin, 1970.