Susan Fenimore Cooper Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Susan Fenimore Cooper 1813-1894

American essayist, novelist, and short story writer.

Credited as the first female nature writer in America, Cooper is best known for Rural Hours (1850), a journal based on her observations of nature and community life written over the course of two years in rural Cooperstown, New York. Cooper was a self-effacing woman who rejected notions of equality for women, and as the devoted daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, she was often overshadowed by her more famous father.

Biographical Information

The second child of Susan De Lancey and James Fenimore Cooper, Susan Cooper was born in Scarsdale, New York, on April 17, 1813. Her older sister Elizabeth died soon after Cooper was born, and a few months later the family moved to Cooperstown, the village founded by Cooper's paternal grandfather. It was here that Cooper's two sisters, Caroline and Anne, were born and Cooper's father began his literary career. The family, which grew to include another daughter and two sons, one of whom died at the age of two, moved to New York City in 1822 and Cooper was enrolled in private school. From 1826 to 1833 the Coopers lived abroad, based in Paris, but traveling throughout Europe. During this period Cooper attended a boarding school in France and was privately tutored during the two years that the family spent in Italy. She was educated in both America and European literature, was skilled in languages and the arts, and gained a basic understanding of botany and zoology. The family again took up residence in New York City when they returned from Europe and then permanently settled in Cooperstown three years later.

Cooper and her father were very close; she served as his literary secretary and later as his editor. It is believed that the senior Cooper discouraged his daughter from marrying by finding every potential suitor—the inventor Samuel F. B. Morse among them—unworthy of Susan. Although Cooper wrote a novel and numerous stories, biographical sketches, and essays focused on nature, her own career always took second place to that of her father's. After his death, she took charge of his literary estate and reputation, editing his diaries and unpublished articles and writing introductions to the reprints of his many novels. Cooper also edited and annotated an American edition of nature writer John Leonard Knapp's Country Rambles in England, or Journal of a Naturalist (1853). In addition, she assembled and edited a biography of missionary William West Skiles and the volume of folklore The Rhyme and Reason of Country Life (1854). Despite her literary prowess, Cooper was never given to self-promotion, so she was not as rigorous in securing her own literary reputation as she was in sustaining her father's. As a result, most of her stories and essays were never collected and published beyond their initial appearance in popular magazines.

In addition to her literary pursuits, Cooper devoted herself to a variety of philanthropic causes. Using the skills and social contacts she had acquired while managing her father's literary affairs, Cooper became an effective fund-raiser for a wide variety of community projects. She was instrumental in founding a hospital, a school for under-privileged children, a charity home for poor families, and an orphanage that served as many as one hundred children. Cooper died December 31, 1894, in her sleep.

Major Works

Cooper's first major publication is a domestic novel, Elinor Wyllys; or, The Young Folk of Longbridge (1846), which she published with some assistance from her father. In the tradition of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, Cooper's story involves an unattractive but virtuous country girl as the title character. Elinor is an orphan whose betrothed travels to Europe, falls in love with her more attractive friend, and abandons Elinor, only to be abandoned himself by the friend. He eventually returns, however, and he and Elinor are reconciled. The novel was not as well received as other works of domestic fiction.

Cooper's most famous text is Rural Hours, a seasonal nature journal consisting of a year's worth of observations of the flora and fauna of upstate New York and the community life of the village of Cooperstown. Like Henry David Thoreau's Walden, to which it is frequently compared, Rural Hours was condensed from journal entries that actually covered two years of observations and notes. Although Cooper's book appeared four years earlier than Thoreau's, it has been overshadowed by the later work. The two nature journals differ in their approach to the relationship between humans and the natural world and the degree to which the authors tend to anthropomorphize natural phenomena. According to Rochelle Johnson (see Further Reading), “Thoreau's Walden tends toward exploring nature's symbolic meanings for humans. Nature as it is represented in Rural Hours, however, has more autonomy: its meaning exceeds its reflection of human needs and values.” Johnson cites as evidence of Thoreau's “more anthropocentric imagination” his famous passage on loons—wherein he attributes to the birds his own love of Walden Pond—and compares it to Cooper's passage on loons, which consists of a description of their behavior and patterns with no human-centered explanation offered. Vera Norwood, however, suggests that Cooper also tended to anthropomorphize wild creatures, particularly birds, with which she felt an especially strong affinity. According to Norwood, “she gave the birds' home a domestic arrangement similar to her own,” and often used the exemplary behavior of mother birds as models for human mothers.

Critical Reception

Although her novel was poorly received, Cooper's Rural Hours was well known in its time and is still considered by many critics to be her masterpiece and only noteworthy work. Several scholars, among them Anna K. Cunningham, have lamented the fact that, despite her considerable talent and extensive literary background, Cooper was apparently unable to produce anything of equal merit throughout the remainder of her long career. Cunningham lists the other texts in Cooper's bibliography, but dismisses them all as “mere word-chopping, in no way comparable to the freshness, grace and originality of Rural Hours.” Lucy B. Maddox has also considered Cooper's failed potential, suggesting that the young author was fearful of competing with her father. Maddox notes that although Cooper published her own work anonymously or under a pseudonym, she signed her full name to the introductions she wrote for her father's works. Nonetheless, Rural Hours was enormously popular at the time of its publication, and had gone through six printings before the more famous Walden reached its second. It fell out of favor later in the nineteenth century and throughout most of the twentieth. However, interest in environmental writing in general and in Rural Hours in particular has increased dramatically in recent years. A new edition of the work appeared in 1998 along with a number of critical essays, most praising Cooper as one of the first American environmentalists and the first American woman to write essays on nature. Richard M. Magee credits Cooper with combining the sentimental elements of her domestic fiction with the environmental and community concerns of her nature writing to create a new subgenre he calls “sentimental ecology.” Magee suggests that the enduring value of Cooper's work may be found in the way “she uses her domestic voice to convince us of the intellectual and moral value of the landscape and the responsibility we have to perpetuate this value.”