The Flower Garden of Susan Fenimore Cooper
Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 95-98).
Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
I. The Dawn of the Flowering of James Fenimore Cooper
It is needless to say in this Society that J. F. Cooper was one of the greatest writers in 19ᵗʰ century America. To examine this, we have only to open the valuable guidebook to his publications, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, which was compiled by Robert E. Spiller and Philip C. Blackburn (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1934; reprinted New York: Burt Franklin, 1968). Just a glance through this book would be enough to impress on us the versatility of the author. We can learn how Cooper was read and accepted not only in the United States of America but in European countries in his day. Of course his many books were printed mainly in America, but they came into the world through several publishing companies in England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Spain and elsewhere.
His first novel, Precaution  was printed first in New York, and then in the following year by Henry Colburn, an English publishing company. His next novel, The Spy  was published by several American publishing companies, followed by English publishing companies, and publishing firms in some countries of Europe. It is certain that Cooper was soon a very popular novelist all over the world. Then he began to publish a novel or two, or other works every year, until his last years, writing more than 40 literary works.
It is said that, while reading a novel to his wife Susan, he exclaimed that:, “I can write you a better book than that myself.” Mrs. Cooper laughed at him, saying that he should try writing a novel. ¹ This is said to have been the beginning of the birth of a great 19ᵗʰ century American novelist. That happened by chance in his rural life with his wife. It seemed only an ordinary incident of everyday life in the countryside. But it turned out to be the opening of the great flowering of literary products of the United States.
It must have been a miracle to the American people to have found James Fenimore Cooper in the literary history of the nation. But it was only natural that Cooper should have followed literary pioneers such as Irving, Halleck, Bryant, Percival, Brown, and Sprague, who were then twinkling like diamonds in American literature.
It is no wonder that Cooper became a good novelist of the frontier in his time. His father, Judge William Cooper, was very much in earnest that his son get a good education. Adding to it, James had the undeveloped forests around him. Reading and thinking cultivated his intellect among the trees. The classes of Classical Latin at Yale University must have developed and prompted his later vision about American literary surroundings. In his later days, Cooper proclaimed in Notions of the Americans that “the second obstacle against which American literature has to contend, is in the poverty of materials. There is scarcely an ore which contributes to the wealth of the author, that is found, here, in veins as rich as in Europe. ... ” ²
Thus, Cooper was to be a writer who bore the destiny of the later American literature on his shoulders.
II. The Scent of the Flower of the Cooper Family
In this section, I want to discuss Susan F. Cooper as a literary botanist in her own abundant flower garden. Susan was born on 17 April 1813 at Heathcote Hill in Scarsdale, New York. Her father and mother took Susan into the wilds of upstate New York. They lived in the small village of Cooperstown, founded by her grandfather, William Cooper, a quarter of a century earlier. Susan’s life was exposed to nature, as we see in reading Rural Hours.
James Fenimore Cooper went to Europe, arriving in England with his family on 2 July 1826. They stayed in Europe for about seven years and five months. As to the education of his children while their staying these long years, it was a point to be specially considered. Cooper had had such an earnest idea to get his children educated in French in those days.
His writing some letters in French makes him conspicuous. Cooper sometimes wrote letters in French during his stay in Europe. It was a clear sign of his liking the language. It is no wonder that he wanted to have his daughter Susan educated in French. His letters show Cooper was always interested in his daughter’s education even while he was away from his family during their long stay in Europe.
So Susan Fenimore Cooper began to distinguish herself in writing and editing books, as she grew up to be a young lady. When the Coopers arrived in Europe in 1826, Susan was thirteen years old. From thirteen to twenty, she stayed in some countries in Europe with her family. During her childhood, Susan cultivated her talent in Europe, and in her later years in her rural life at Cooperstown. Her Rural Hours was written in this way. It was published in 1850 when she was 37 years old.
Just before it was published, her father, Fenimore Cooper sent her a letter, after reading the manuscript, saying that the new book was filled with the interest of a tale. In the letter, Fenimore Cooper expressed his great satisfaction after reading the sheets. According to his words, “the purity of mind, the simplicity, elegance, and knowledge produced a strong feeling with all the pure and good.” He goes on to say: “Adieu, my beloved child — the success of your book is much nearer my heart than that of my own, and I own I am not without hopes for you, while I have little or none for myself.” ³
In a word, it’s very clear that her father was overjoyed at his daughter’s new book.
Susan described rural life, revealing it realistically and vitally to show its varied and changeable nature. It is to be kept in mind that Susan Fenimore Cooper was well educated to see through the beauty of her surroundings. Her curiosity about natural beauty went side by side with her intellect to perceive the beauty in her life. She had always a sharp and watchful eye for natural things. Even a wild flower reflected to her eyes by the side of a lane was to be treasure from which many chapters of the minute description of rural life were described in her later book.
Thomas F. O’Donnell, in his Foreword to Susan’s Rural Hours, writes as follows. “In England, where it was published in later editions as Journal of a Naturalist in the United States, it was especially well received, perhaps because British readers appreciated not only its restrained tone, but its botanical flavor.” O’Donnell evaluates Susan’s talented descriptions in her work, saying that “Susan Cooper did her work without benefit of any American precedent except possibly Emerson’s Nature ... (1836)” ⁴.
III. The Scent of the Flower of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Book
The opening Chapter of her book is filled with the flavor of a country life. Susan seems to know how to depict the essential beauty of Nature. Everything in her rural life seems to give her the chance to have a stylish conversation with her surroundings. Fresh snow turns a gift given from the heaven, and wintry still is the virgin land around Susan. The valleys, every morning, every river, and every little bird becomes the emblem of her literary depiction. Everything around her never failed in catching Susan Fenimore Cooper’s acute attention to portray rural life in her book.
No reader would be able to go ahead without being impressed deeply with the whisper of her Muse. The first line of the book will lead readers to the rural life filled with dews and the voices of virgin land.
Susan sees every aspect of her surroundings throughout the year, from Spring to Winter. Her Muse whispered as a voice of nature. Fresh snow, the ground, the valley, and waterfowls all joined in singing the rural life in the garden of Susan Fenimore Cooper.
Susan’s Rural Hours consists of 334 pages, four seasons from Spring to Winter, about 60 pages for each. Her most impressive way of depicting rural life lies in the feeling of poems. Her words are scattered in every page to add the poetic lines to the readers. All the words are placed to create the tone of the heavenly atmosphere. For example;
Walking near the river saw three large waterfowl moving northward; we believed them to be loons; they were in sight only for a moment, owing to the trees above us, but we heard a loud howling cry as they flew past, like that of those birds. It is early for loons, however, and we may have been deceived. They usually appear about the first of April, remaining with us through the summer and autumn until late in December, when they go to the seashore; many winter about Long Island, many more in the Chesapeake. ... ⁵
These words are quotations from her first pages. The quoted passage shows that Susan has a sharp and observant eye for the natural world. Modern readers can not help being surprised at her minute and deep thought about nature.
We must keep it in mind that she had wide knowledge about the natural environment. The fact that she knew almost every plant, flower, small animal, and the subtle changes of nature will never fail deeply to surprise readers. She must have kept a close watch on many kinds of animals. She seems to have been moved by the floating clouds in the sky, by falling leaves from trees, and by any minute drops of dew on the grasses and branches around her living place.
Monday through Sunday of every week gave her a subtle chance of feeling nature. Walking on the skirts of the village gave her the joy of the whole community. For example, the arrival of the robins there was a big surprise to her. (p. 5) In the season of thawing, the country around her had a dappled look. Broad openings of brown earth was seen everywhere, in the fields and on the hillsides.(p. 6)
Earliest trees, skunk-cabbages, and purple flowers etc. were intimate friends in her yearning for the coming of a new season. High wind, withered leaves of autumn, a flock of wild pigeons were signs of changing from fall to winter. Even in the hot glaring season, the earth was completely decked in delicate verdure of varied shades around her.(p. 65)
In a sense, everything around Susan carried important indication of living things. To her, to think about nature, to look around it, and to feel everything surrounded by it were to get close to the truth of nature. These ways of her observation were due to her literary gifts.
IV. The Secrets of Susan’s Literary Gifts
Some seem to be born writers. Others seem to become great after a long training. The former are sometimes called gifted writers, the latter industrious ones. But this dichotomic viewpoint will for the most part impose on us an illogical conclusion.
Even if some writers seem to be born great, they must almost always be serious in their creative activity. For example, James Fenimore Cooper seems to have written his first literary work, Precaution, all of a sudden in 1820. It was his practice to read passages from a novel to his wife. While he was reading as usual to his wife, he suddenly told his wife, as mentioned above, that he could write such a novel as that. To this, his wife replied that he should write such a novel if he could.
Cooper tried to prove that he could be a writer. It is said that Cooper became a writer all of a sudden at this time. Then he began to write novels one after another. This fact makes us believe that Cooper wrote literary works without any literary training. Such a viewpoint sometimes leads our judgment to go the wrong way.
On the other hand, however, Cooper had been developing a plan for a long time before he began to write a novel. He had been an earnest reader of periodicals shipped from England. In addition, he had been a good reader of English literature, especially literary works of the romantic variety. In short, what I want to say is that no writer can be born without years of literary training.
As to Susan Fenimore Cooper, she went to Europe with her family. She lived there for about seven years from 13 to 20 years of age, from 1826 to 1833. Though she was very young then, she was old enough to feel much about literary interest concerned with her father.
If we read The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, we see how the Cooper family were living happy days, traveling together around Europe then: “Mrs. C., Paul, Susan, Fanny and myself each mounted a little Ardennes horse and made what is called, the tour of the fountains. ... ” ⁶
The Cooper family were then breathing in the fresh air of Europe. What is the most important thing for us is that Fenimore Cooper was a father who thought much about bringing up his children. He seemed to have wanted to have his children educated in French schools. According to David Jones, in his Introduction to Rural Hours, “while still in France, Susan became her father’s copyist, a job she performed until the novelist died in 1851.” ⁷
In a word, Susan must have learned much from her educational surroundings. French things, her father, and the literary situation then in Europe might have given her a definitive future course as a writer and an editor. So it can safely be said that it is the proof that an able writer cannot be born without any literary training and a long-term desire to be a writer.
V. The Flower Garden of Susan Fenimore Cooper
After opening her Rural Hours, I was very surprised at the strikingly beautiful names of hundreds of flowers, trees, and plants there. The book begins with a depiction of Spring among the roads, gardens, paths, woods, and counties of New York at that time.
Everything about Susan seems to bring forth her deep impression of the virgin land. If she walks near the river, she can see large waterfowls moving beside her.
Summer there brings to her quite a different aspect of nature. Green forests give her the touching energy of wild birds, flowers and plants. She can tell the difference between the songs of the golden-winged woodpeckers, wood-pewees, and black-poll warblers. If she turns her eyes to the rich soil, her eyes meet the gaze of wild flowers, Canadian violets, white and purple lilacs. Her eyes catch “mosses and flowers blended together in a way which art can never equal.”
In autumn, the moon rises with unusual splendor to her eyes. Everything around her seems quite different. Hearing the full chorus of insects, she feels the whole natural world becoming calm, still, and dreamy. To her eyes, the golden-rod is a plant that is showy. And she knows there are ninety varieties in North America. It’s needless to say that the golden-rod abounds in her neighborhood. Daisies, the blue-bell, yellow geradias, some flowers of the partridge-berry and squaw-vine and so on are also familiar to her.
Even in winter, it’s clear to Susan that numerous kinds of animals are to be found. Deer, catamounts, panthers, are reported to have been killed by hunters. The duck-hawk, the gyrfalcon, the buzzard, wild swans, and the eider-duck are observed by her.
To sum up, the birds, the flowers, the plants, and the animals are something indescribable that dominates the life of New York in her days. Susan Fenimore Cooper is an ardent observer of the natural world around her. It is clear that she was as familiar with nature as if she were a naturalist. She was not only a woman of great learning of natural life but also she was a woman who knew everything about Nature from her experience of life in the country.
And at the same time, she was not only experienced with rural life but also she was well informed about Nature as a nature lover. She must have had a natural garden in her own life. So Susan Fenimore Cooper could have imagined the whole natural world which originates from the real life in the country. From birds around her to almost all animals, plants, woods, and things in deep mountains were, so to speak, a hand glass which reflects her inner life as a naturalist.
Lastly, Susan observed things around her as if they were parts of her life. So every name of wild flowers, trees, plants, and animals surrounding her was given in her book as an intimate one which was circulating in the depth of her own inner life.
1. Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper; Critic of his Times. London: Russell and Russell, 1931, p. 73.
2. James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans , New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1963, Vol. II, p. 108.
3. James F. Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-69, Vol. VI, p. 149.
4. Thomas F. O’Donnell, Foreword to Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours , Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1968, p. viii.
5. Rural Hours, pp. 1-2.
6. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, Vol. II, p. 293.
7. David Jones, Introduction to Rural Hours, p. xiv.