Susan Fenimore Cooper — in the Shadow
Presented at the 20ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, June, 2015.
Copyright © 2015, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
Who is Susan Fenimore Cooper? Most likely the initial response to the question posed herein, “she is the daughter of the well renowned author James Fenimore Cooper.” There is an embedded caveat tethered to this query; that is when the response is affirmatively stated, it is in all probability confidently proclaimed only by an individual with a working knowledge of history and/or a demonstrated interest in nineteenth century American literature. For certain, there are those amongst us who would indeed be baffled by the question and unable to provide any response, but for those of us who know that Susan Fenimore Cooper is in fact the daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, what else do we really know? Therein lies the tragedy, any and all factual reference to the life and times of Susan Fenimore Cooper is deeply buried within our historical and literary annals.
Quite sadly, the pages of our books are rather scantily endowed with regard to the significant contributions and accomplishments achieved by this remarkable woman. At first blush, she appears to be overshadowed by her father’s success; indeed she is, but the shadow cast upon her is far and wide, for her well-deserved status as a literary figure — specifically as a female writer, a naturalist and philanthropist — are at certain junctures subject to a total eclipse. Susan Fenimore Cooper can undoubtedly be characterized as a pioneer, who dons many hats, but one most dig rather deep to unearth pertinent information about her life and her many successes.
Why? If we specifically focus this inquiry with an in-depth examination of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s publication, Rural Hours, evidence of her life-long shadowed existence emerges. Her astounding knowledge of botany, her detailed and precise explanation of the ecosystem, her demonstrated knowledge of ornithology are collectively and individually very impressive. Moreover, her intuitive foresight with respect to the importance of caring for the environment poetically waltz upon the pages of Rural Hours, for she eloquently advocates embracing our natural landscape, protecting it from human exploitation, preserving and sustaining it for future generations.
Certainly noteworthy, the year is 1850 and here we find Susan Fenimore Cooper as she adamantly addresses environmental issues, specifically discusses the devastating consequences from conscious land abuse by the human species, but yet centuries elapse before we as a society adopt her progressive thinking, heed her advice and seriously consider her well composed rhetorical warnings. We have all witnessed and participated to some extent in the prevailing “green “advocacy movement but only now in the 21ˢᵗ century do we actually acknowledge, respect and endeavor to proactively care for our natural landscape. Most pertinent to the above stated, as this particular “green” movement has gained in momentum, awareness and global support, any reference to Susan Fenimore Cooper’s initial wisdom, concern and clairvoyant advice is non-existent.
Yet, academic discussions concerning the preservation of nature when tethered to a literary anchor consistently yield an engaged emphasis and ensuing conversation about Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Rural Hours is indeed overshadowed, completely left in the dark, ousted by Walden. Moreover, consistently absent from the archives, reference to Rural Hours as indeed an impetus for the said “green” movement. Walden has been praised as an American classic, a required reading for most high school and college curriculums throughout the country. Walden, was published in 1854, a mere four years after Rural Hours, as a reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, it records the interaction between man and nature throughout the course of a year, specifically through the passage of each season.
Thoreau’s underlying concept is glaringly familiar to Rural Hours. Albeit Thoreau’s discussion of man and his intimate relationship to his natural landscape may be inherently different, nevertheless one can arguably assume the position that cradled within the pages of Walden, the cooing of Fenimore Cooper’s basic idea. When Rural Hours is first published it appears to be well received and is printed numerous times following its inaugural publication. However, the last unabridged printing abruptly occurs in 1876 and consequently Susan Fenimore Cooper’s masterpiece tumbles, experiences a downward spiral, lands in a dark literary abyss and thus vanishes from the bookshelves, until 1998 when Rural Hours is resurrected, the well-deserved recipient of an academic revival, truly attributed to Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson.
Quite conversely, Walden’s literary path is laden with countless publications, strewn with jeweled accolades, crowned a classic. In modern days Walden still sits prominently on a throne shelf in every bookstore and local library. The suggested insinuation — did Thoreau in fact pilfer Susan Fenimore Cooper’s fundamental concept — leads one to speculate and ruminate, what if Rural Hours had been written by a male author; perhaps the son of James Fenimore Cooper rather than the daughter? Would a well versed discussion of Thoreau and the possibility of plagiarism appear in the archives? Would Thoreau have been forced to defend his work, the pages subject to a scrutiny under quite a different lens? Does the fact that a female wrote Rural Hours bear any significance? When the Rural Hours is published in 1850, Susan Fenimore Cooper’s famous father writes:
“I have written to Sue to say how much I am pleased with her book. — It is not strong, perhaps, but is so pure, and so elegant, so very feminine and charming that I do not doubt, now, of its ... eventual success — I say eventual, for, at first, the world will not know what to make of it. ... Let her be at ease, I shall do all I can for her. She has struggled nobly, and deserves success. At any rate, she has pleased us, and that is a great deal for so dear a child.” 1
James Fenimore Cooper’s statement is indeed dubious. His words reverberate with an echo of utter reluctance, an apparent reticence. What could be the reason? Is he disappointed in his daughter? Is he envious? Is he attempting to protect her from the anticipated wave of harsh criticism that he believes awaits her, only to be followed, as he predicts, by a certain public acceptance for her work at an unknown juncture? Does his statement inhibit her success as an author and thus contribute to her said shadowed existence?
No doubt, one can interpret James Fenimore Cooper’s statement as instrumental in keeping the curtains drawn on any possibility of an emerging silhouette being cast upon his daughter as a renowned writer. If we visit the gender issue once more and pose the identical question: what if Susan Fenimore Cooper had been a son, not a daughter, to James Fenimore Cooper? Would his statement be etched in a very different stone? We shall never know.
To a certain extent, the eternal shadow cast upon Susan Fenimore Cooper is in part attributable to the era. It is the mid nineteenth century, a female’s creative abilities, including writing, are not encouraged; such demonstrated talent is not within the defined and admirable parameters of a female’s duties and obligations to the household. Irrespective of the above stated, my research disclosed mid-nineteenth century women writers who are praised and acknowledged for their novels, magazine articles, their editorial capabilities.
My conducted research, with an intentional focus on mid nineteenth century women authors residing and reigning from the state of New York, discloses Catharine Beecher, Elizabeth Oates Smith, Susan Warner, amongst others. Truly these women are the contemporaries to Susan Fenimore Cooper, yet the historical records I perused failed to include her in this noteworthy group; any reference to Susan is consistently tethered to her famous father, yet she wrote children’s stories, novels, essays, magazine articles, and successfully assumed editorial positions. Once more she appears to be overshadowed by her father, unable to achieve recognition for her own talent.
What if Susan Fenimore Cooper had married? Research indicates that when potential suitors endeavored to pursue her, her father interjected and deliberately turned them all away. In a letter to his nephew, James Fenimore Cooper writes:
“You speak of some report as in connexion with Mr. Morse and your eldest cousin. Surely they who speak of such a thing can have no idea of the fitness of things. Mr. Morse is an old friend of mine, but neither of my daughters would dream of making a husband of him. ... I had proposals for Susan, last week, coming from a Frenchman of good fortune, noble family and very fair hopes, but the thing would not do.” 2
It is indeed noteworthy to point out that the Mr. Morse in the above stated quote is the famous Samuel Morse. If Susan Fenimore Cooper had married would she have finally assumed an identity separate and distinct from her father? Would she have been provided with an opportunity to step out of the shadow cast upon her and into a light that would illuminate her abilities, achievements and her own career as a writer? Would she have expended less time and effort preserving her father’s legacy? One can also speculate, what if she had married Samuel Morse? Would she no longer be overshadowed by her father, but instead by another prominent male, her husband Samuel Morse?
With respect to Susan Fenimore Cooper’s said shadowed existence, one has to wonder if she was aware? Had she been a more assertive female, would the history books have recorded a different story? Her actions are a bit elusive, enigmatic, open to interpretation with respect to her father’s death and preserving his identity. We do know that as James Fenimore Cooper lay hours away from his impending death, his grandson James Fenimore Cooper relates the following:
“Shortly before his death, while sitting on a sofa beside his eldest child, Susan Augusta, he said to her that he wished his family not to authorize the publication of any biography. There was even then a difference of opinion in the family as to the extent of the prohibition intended. 3
Research indicates that Fenimore Cooper destroyed some of her father’s material and actually buried some of his works with her. Why? Was she honoring his final request? Was she trying to remain tethered to him for eternity? Or quite conversely, did she experience an epiphany, realize that her talent had indeed been overshadowed by her father’s and thereby destroying and burying his words was her attempt to finally escape a lifetime of darkness? If we shift our focus and re-visit Rural Hours once more, the passages are beautifully written, Susan Fenimore Cooper’s eloquent choice of words, her descriptive vernacular is most impressive.
She writes, “Winter again, the woods are powdered with snow this morning and everything is cased in glittering frost-work. The pines in the churchyard are very beautiful, hung with heavy wreaths of snow. ... ” 4 Another entry, “the young buds are coming out beautifully, the tufts of scarlet flowers on the soft maples are now daintily tipped with the tender green of the leaf-buds in their midst. ... White blossoms are opening in drooping clusters, also, on the naked branches of the June-berry. ... ” 5
Why wasn’t Rural Hours crowned a literary emerald based solely on Susan Fenimore Cooper’s use of language? For centuries her book could have been utilized as a teaching tool exemplifying the power of descriptive writing. Why wasn’t Rural Hours the recipient of acclaim solely from a poetry and prose perspective?
In conclusion, Susan Fenimore Cooper’s life, her writings, were indeed overshadowed by her father. She was never able to break through the darkness and bask in her very own light. Research indicates her inability was due in part to the nature of the relationship with her father. Many questions remain unanswered. Was she afraid to compete with him? Did his career come first? Did she desire to remain tethered to him for a lifetime? Susan Fenimore Cooper died at the age of 81. Her longevity is quite impressive, most especially for the late eighteen hundreds. In her final years, was she angry by her overshadowed existence, her inability to ever escape the dark literary hollows?
Or perhaps she left this earth unaware that she deserved her own page in the history books, separate and distinct from her father’s. We shall never know.
1 Letter from James Fenimore Cooper to his wife, March 3, 1850, in James Franklin Beard, ed., Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 6 volumes, 1961-68, Vol. VI, No. 1051, p. 151.
2. Letter from James Fenimore Cooper to his nephew, Richard Cooper, March 12, 1833, in James Franklin Beard, op. cit., Vol. II, No. 313, p. 375. The letter concludes, “You can contradict the silly report about Mr. Morse, with confidence.”
3 James Fenimore Cooper (grandson), in Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, edited by his grandson James Fenimore Cooper, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922, Vol. 1, Introduction, p. 3.
4 [Susan Fenimore Cooper] A Lady, Rural Hours, New York: George P. Putnam, 1850, March 9, p. 11.
5. ibid, May 5, p. 61.