“Across the Channel”: Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Use of France in Rural Hours

Sarah Poulette (Boston College)

Presented at the 17ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2009.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2009 Cooper Seminar (No. 17), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 37-40).

Copyright © 2011, 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 Rural Hours is a record and celebration of rural life and landscape in and around her home in Cooperstown, New York. She faithfully documents botany, wildlife and weather changes throughout the seasons and takes an anthropological and personal interest in the people she meets. Yet for a work so much about rural upstate New York, Cooper’s book contains many references to France. French language, landscape and culture appear throughout the text, and France becomes a touchstone for culture and sophistication as Cooper examines American life and wildlife.

In this paper, I investigate the ways in which Cooper uses France and French culture to write about American landscape and living. I propose that Cooper’s use of France serves several purposes: to give her more authority as a writer, to give American rural practices equal standing with those of Europe, and in many places, to prove where and how American rural life is superior to European living.

Cooper spent several years in Europe with her family, serving as her father’s copyist there and finishing her formal education at a school in France. She also accompanied her family on trips to Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and England, and while she is familiar with these countries and refers to their cultural practices and literatures throughout the text, France plays a more significant role in Rural Hours than any other European country — even England, which perhaps appears more. I discount England’s significance in comparison to France’s in Rural Hours mainly because while France and French culture lend an air of sophistication and worldliness to Cooper’s near-daily entries, these entries treat England and English culture as commonplace. This may be due in part to the fact that Cooper’s audience was both English and American — Rural Hours was first published simultaneously in New York and in London. Many of the best-known naturalist and travel writings in Cooper’s time were by British authors, and many of the texts Cooper consulted while writing Rural Hours were English. 1 Even the early American texts she consulted were written for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Accustomed to reading an authorial voice that lumped together American and British audiences, Cooper wrote in one as well. Whereas she has to introduce French writers and poets with explanations of their work (Millevoye’s ‘touching lament,’ St. Lambert’s ‘sing-song verses’ [219]), quotes from English authors Cooper mentions — Milton, Spenser, Keats, etc. — receive no introduction other than their author’s name. Cooper describes animals and plants in relation to their British counterparts, as if her audience would know (or have read about) the flora and fauna of England. Cooper’s discussions of language and nomenclature lump American and British English together, contrasting it with the language from ‘across the channel.’ When she compares English and French words, the latter comes out as the more beautiful and interesting. For example, her distaste for the English word ‘dragonfly’ is evident when she compares it to the French demoiselle dorée: ‘strange, that what is a young lady in France should become a dragon across the channel!’ (214).

While English culture and wildlife are the norm for Cooper and her readers, France has an elevated status in the text. Cooper’s familiarity with French culture allows her to use it liberally throughout her entries, lending her authorial voice a worldly, educated tone. Rural Hours was an unprecedented text, and female authors were rare in America when Cooper wrote Rural Hours, especially in naturalist writing. She compensates for any perceived lack of authority by demonstrating her expertise as a writer through several means: her near eradication of any authorial ‘I’ helps to mitigate reminders of her gender; her frequent citations of botanical, zoological and historical texts show education and a scientific mind and, most relevant to my argument, her references to European (mostly French) culture imply a worldly, sophisticated author. Cooper’s intimate knowledge of another country and its language gives her more clout as a scholar: she uses France to emphasize her education. Cooper peppers Rural Hours with French words and phrases, even when they are not necessary. One example occurs during Cooper’s extensive discussion of wildflower nomenclature. She argues against Latinate names, claiming that famous poets, including Shakespeare, would spurn any mention of flowers if they didn’t have pretty common names. Cooper cannot imagine that Ophelia or ‘Miranda, with her très douce regarder’ would bother with the ‘douce Marguerite’ if it went by a Latin name (93-94). Cooper herself seems reluctant to use the English word ‘daisy.’ Cooper’s lapses into French while discussing Shakespeare display her erudition. Another area in which using French highlights Cooper’s intelligence is when she expostulates on the etymology of ‘le bouquet de vin’ and of the flower name ‘sops-in-wine’: ‘l’Abbé Barthelemi tells us that [ancient Greeks] threw roses and violets into their wine-casks’ (92). Cooper’s use of French language and citation of a French work occurs again in the same entry: she quotes a traditional troubadour’s chanson to emphasize the mellifluous French word for daisy. Later, in an entry comparing European and American autumns, Cooper draws heavily from French language and literature, quoting the poets Millevoye, Delille, St. Lambert and LaMartine (219). She takes a moment from quoting poetry here to analyze and critique French poetic grammar, bemoaning the poetic license that few writers take with the loose grammar rules around the word ‘automne;’ suggesting that this lack of ‘freedom’ in verse is what prevents French literature from having ‘more than one LaFontaine to delight us’ (220). Cooper’s scholarly reading of French poetry and grammar, as well as her frequent use of French shows hers to be an educated, culturally aware author, which in turn helps keep her book from appearing frivolous or sentimental.

But Cooper’s familiarity with French culture does not stop at its language and literature; she proves her worldliness through her familiarity with French customs and places. She informs her readers that ‘at this very day ... you may see’ young French girls pluck the petals of daisies to ‘measur[e] the love of their swains’ (92). Cooper’s later quotation from a French child at a party shows that she knows French people and culture well, and her description of nightingales singing ‘in the noble gardens’ of Paris at dawn suggest a deep familiarity with and appreciation for a foreign land (156). Cooper’s careful construction of herself as an authority on French language, literature and culture gives Rural Hours — and therefore its author — a level of sophistication and worldliness.

France’s elevated status throughout Rural Hours does more than just establish Cooper’s authorial presence: several of her discussions of France suggest that rural life and landscape in Cooper’s country are at least as beautiful and interesting, if not more so, than France’s. Though the text details small, common daily events in the American countryside, Cooper reminds her readers that the quaint quiet of rural life in the United States is no less sophisticated than life in Europe. When she reports that the village mill grinds buckwheat all summer to make flour for rural families’ daily winter breakfast of buckwheat cakes, she immediately follows with citations of French use of the grain. She places a simple rural meal on a level with French galettes and contends that ‘Montesquieu speaks of these French buckwheat cakes as a very good thing’ (255). Even the simplest of American meals contends with the food of great French literary figures. When talking about rural people, Cooper follows moments that risk caricature with a defense in the form of comparison to European culture. An example of this comes when Cooper describes a local square dance. After depicting the enthusiastic participants, she ends the scene recounting the shrill ‘half screaming, half singing’ voice that calls the dance with poor pronunciation of originally French words (112). The next entry details Fourth of July celebrations, where Cooper meets ‘some country people.’ As if to make up for the humorous, almost condescending portrayal of the square dancers and revelers, Cooper compares them to a French child she once overheard at a party. Comparing this moment to one from a sophisticated event (a party at which people speak French) and using French in the entry helps to elevate the anecdote. While maintaining a certain degree of American quaintness and uniqueness in the entry, especially through the comparison of country people with an innocent child, Cooper’s use of French culture puts American rural residents on equal footing with refined, Old World Europeans.

A subject about which Cooper writes well and enthusiastically throughout Rural Hours is the study and observation of birds, and in this area she continues to link France and the United States. Her comparisons of the two countries’ bird populations show that America has as many interesting and beautiful birds as Europe — and Cooper is quick to emphasize when and where American birds are more exciting than their European counterparts. She triumphs in her descriptions of golden-winged woodpeckers: ‘they have no bird in Europe like ours,’ she brags (202). She mentions many birds that are different from their European counterparts: the barn-swallow, for example, is unlike swallows on the other side of the Atlantic. It is ‘entirely American ... , busy, cheerful, happy tempered.’ Its cousin the chimney-swallow is also unlike European swallows, and Cooper describes in depth its life and living habits, as if she is proud of her ‘wholly American’ bird. She also writes extremely detailed descriptions of the cliff-swallow: again, she seems proud to have a bird that is unique to the United States, and she discusses its migration habits as thoroughly as if she were a female Audubon. ‘They are entirely unknown in Europe, or any part of the Old World,’ she stresses (30’32). Similar to birds, for Cooper, are trees: our hickories and maples are different — and, she implies, better here, as both trees are lovelier and more vibrant in America. In depicting its unique, broad variety of flora and fauna, Cooper paints the United States as a fascinating and rich landscape worthy of literary and scientific attention and exploration.

Another area in which Cooper uses France to prove that American landscape and life are beautiful and culturally significant is in the October entry in which she describes American autumns. ‘Autumn would appear to have received generally a dull character from the poets of the Old World,’ she says; when poets from Europe — most notably France and England — mention the fall, their references are ‘of a very grave nature’ and ‘full of sad images applied to the season, and often more particularly to the foliage’ (218). At first she cites primarily British poets, but goes on to say that ‘[t]he writers of France tell much the same tale of autumn, across the Channel’ (219). Cooper quotes four French poets who refer soberly to autumn and compares their ‘pale automne’ to her American landscape. Cooper describes the ‘brilliant display’ and ‘general gayety’ of upstate New York’s ‘gorgeous autumnal drapery’ (233). Her descriptions contrast with the ‘feuille morte drapery’ in which French poets decks autumn (220). She recognizes and states the reason for the discrepancy in American and European depictions of autumn: the season is simply more beautiful in her homeland. Readers can see evidence of this in the very landscape Cooper walks: ‘Imported trees, transplanted originally from the Old World, preserve, as a rule, the more sober habits of their ancestral woods,’ she reports (233). ‘Where else on earth shall the human eye behold coloring so magnificent and so varied, spread over a field so vast, within one noble view?’ (234). The unique, beautiful scenery is one aspect in which America is superior to Europe. But Cooper suggests that Americans’ attention to their landscape can inspire Europeans to appreciate what little beauty is in their season. Initiated into the idea of depicting the fall as beautiful, Europeans poets can look at their own landscape with new eyes. Cooper remarks that she has already noticed a more positive spin on the season in European writers’ work: ‘The American autumn has helped to set the fashion for the sister season of the Old World ... ; the attention which the season commands in this country, has opened the eyes of Europeans to any similar graces of the same months in their own climates’ (228). Europeans many not have the colorful fall of the United States, but ‘our native writers’’ depictions can help people in France and England change the way they see their surroundings. In this instance, Cooper suggests that America is not only superior to Europe, but that this new country can set an example for her Old-World counterparts.

In addition to aesthetics, Rural Hours suggests that America is superior to Europe in terms of its economics: its people are more productive, and the country is better to its poor. Cooper’s July 11ᵗʰ entry reports, ‘There are fewer mowers in the hay-fields with us than in the Old World. Four men will often clear a field where, perhaps, a dozen men and women would be employed in France or England’ (115). This passage implies that rural Americans work harder than Europeans: Cooper adds that later she passes a man who almost gathers all of his hay within an hour and a half, which, she implies, is no easy feat. In August, Cooper reports that entire farming families help with plowing, hoeing, and making hay, and while she has seen women and girls in the fields aiding in this work, she ‘never yet met a single gleaner’ (171). Cooper reminds us that gleaning is ‘a sight very common in the fields of the Old World.’ She discusses the French and German practice of delegating particular times for gleaners; ‘There is no country in Europe, I believe, where gleaning is not a general custom,’ she explains (173). America, however, is different from the Old World in this respect. While Cooper admits that America has beggars, she can think of two reasons for the lack of gleaners in this nation: ‘we keep our paupers well fed, and those who ask for food are freely supplied by public charity,’ and ‘the full demand for labor,’ especially in the early years of the country, prevented the need for the establishment of a custom of gleaning (172). The American work ethic and the country’s ability to feed its poor when countries like France must allow peasants to comb their fields for leftovers suggest that the fledgling nation is better than European countries in economic terms as well as in aesthetics.

While Cooper uses comparisons between America and France to show that the former comes out on equal, if not better footing than European countries, France does come out above the United States in some respects. Cooper’s comparisons of French flower and place names with American ones leave her home country at a disadvantage. Whereas new American flowers take ‘dead’ Latinate names, Cooper gives la marguerite an entry unto itself (89); and whereas the United States is ‘afflicted with ill-judged names,’ ‘the French have generally given respectable names’. It may also be doubted if the French have placed one really ridiculous name on the map’ (299-302). We have seen with the example of the dragonfly that Cooper finds French names and language superior to English, particularly American English. But at these rare moments of European superiority in Rural Hours, our proud narrator offers solutions. She warns that for American poets to ‘sing our native flowers as sweetly’ as the likes of European poets, Americans ‘must look to it that they have natural, pleasing names’ in addition to their scientific ones (94). Cooper also laments that our places are often poorly named — New York, for example, with its British-based name, is ‘in this respect, the most afflicted part of the country’ — but Cooper offers solutions to this as well (300). Future place names, she urges, should come from native languages, not only because Native American words ‘are recommended by their beauty,’ but out of ‘historical interest’: ‘a name is all we leave them, let us at least preserve that monument to their memory,’ she suggests (305). If native names are not available, Cooper has another way to put American place names on a level with French ones: ‘combinations from different natural objects have been hitherto very little used in this country, and yet they are always pleasing.’ She suggests compound place names like Brookdale, Clearwater, and Newbridge. Though her narrative does not often find America lacking when compared to French or other European cultures, when it does, Cooper can offer solutions to make her country and landscape as aesthetically pleasing as any across the ocean.

France and the French landscape play a vital role in Rural Hours. After Cooper establishes her authority as a narrator through references to French culture, she shows how her own country can be as sophisticated as older European nations. After she proves America’s superiority in most categories by comparing it to French landscape and life, she is able to point out her country’s flaws without seeming disloyal. When Cooper points out these flaws, she holds France as an exemplar and makes suggestions that would allow America not only to equal it, but to improve on its examples. With a mind on aesthetics and ideas for cultural enrichment, such as the potential for use of native wildflowers or of beautiful place names in future American poems, Cooper’s writing not only calls for and paves the way for a better country, but for a national literature that embraces and represents the United States with all its virtues as well as flaws, much as Cooper herself does throughout Rural Hours.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Rural Hours [1850]. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, NY, 1968.


1 In their 1998 edition of Rural Hours, Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson include a list of the authors and works Cooper cites throughout her text; of the (at least) thirty-one works, more than a third are British (at least eight). (Six are French.)