Nature Writing, and the Problem of Canonical Elision Essay
Nature Writing, and the Problem of Canonical Elision
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The struggle now being waged in the professoriate over which writers deserve canonical status is not just a struggle over the relative merits of literary geniuses; it is a struggle among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself. (Tompkins 201) In 1850, with the help of her well-known father, James Fenimore Cooper, Susan Fenimore Cooper publishedRural Hours, a natural historical account of one year in the Otsego Lake area of New York state. I mention her father’s name in order to situate Susan Fenimore Cooper in literary history, or, more accurately, to position her book in relation to our understandings of literary history.
For truthfully, if literary history were faithful to the developments of, and reactions to, literature of the past, Susan Fenimore Cooper’s name would be well-known to all scholars of nineteenth-century American literature. Her book was immensely popular both in America and abroad; it went through six printings by 1854, the publication year of Thoreau’s Walden. Rural Hours was reissued with a new chapter in 1868, reprinted again in 1876, and then abridged by 199 pages and reissued in 1887. When critics praised Rural Hours1 and the volume sold well, Susan Fenimore Cooper achieved literary fame as a writer of natural history. However, while many of her contemporaries knew her name, most scholars in the 1990s know only of her father. Why this oversight in the construction of literary history?2
In 1968, David Jones, a visitor to the Otsego Lake region in New York, reissued the 1887 edition of Cooper’s book. In his introduction he compares Rural Hours to the canonically established Walden and claims, “Rural Hours is not, like Walden, a multi-level book” (xxxvii). Instead Cooper’s text, Jones asserts, “tells us as [well] as a book can…how a representative part of the rural northeastern United States looked, sounded, smelled, and even felt in the middle of the nineteenth century” (xxxvii-viii). Admittedly, portraying a location so fully is no small task, and although Jones intimates that Rural Hours provides enjoyable light reading, he clearly believes that Thoreau’s text far surpasses Cooper’s in its complexity and depth. I want to suggest that Jones’s evaluation of Rural Hours overlooks subtle but important textual intricacies, that Cooper’s text is multi-levelled, and is, in fact, concerned with much more than the local flora and fauna of the Otsego Lake region.
One problem in determining the literary value of Rural Hours lies in our inability to classify its genre. The book takes the form of a nonfictional journal, but Rural Hours cannot be classified as autobiography in the traditional sense of one writer imparting the story of his or her life experiences. Cooper portrays her outside world as much as her personal experiences, and she relates her writings to her community more than to her own life. One is tempted to call Rural Hours “nature writing” and, in fact, her contemporary supporters do classify her text as such, but Cooper’s text does not meet the typical criteria for this genre, either. This is in part because of the imprecision of definitions of nature writing itself.
Critics generally agree that nature writing is non-fictional prose in which the writer functions as an observer of the outside world, attempts to represent that outside world in language, and typically, reflects on the process of giving language to the natural world. It is commonly agreed that nature writing also evinces the author’s reflections of his or her individual spiritual growth. Sharon Cameron, in writing about Thoreau, suggests that “to write about nature is to write about how the mind sees nature, and sometimes about how the mind sees itself” (44).
In his recent study of several nature writers, Scott Slovic echoes and expands Cameron’s definition: “[Nature writers] are not merely, or even primarily, analysts of nature or appreciators of nature–rather, they are students of the human mind” (3). We find, then, that according to our current definitions, “nature writers” write about their environment, but they also consider their personal relationship to it. Therefore, a writer like Cooper, who concerns herself more directly with her surroundings and less with her personal reactions to them, somehow does not quite fit the criteria for the genre. How can a book such asRural Hours, rich with observations on the botany, ornithology, and natural history of an area, not be considered nature writing?
I submit that we have been trained to read books about the natural world and the human relationship to it in ways that affect our abilities to find value in texts that deviate from the canonical Thoreauvian form–a form based on personal reflections regarding one’s relationship with nature, one’s connection to the community, the difficulties of conveying perceptions through language, and, most importantly, perhaps, the process of forming identity. When contemporary readers realize and examine the expectations that they bring to Rural Hours, and willingly suspend those expectations, thereby allowing the text to reveal its own agenda and voice its own concerns, they will discover that Cooper’s work is rich with insights regarding nineteenth-century America’s social, natural, and historical politics.
Rural Hours is not so directly involved in exploring “how the mind sees nature” or “how the mind sees itself.” Instead, Cooper concerns herself with the ominous task of giving words to each aspect of her natural surroundings and to exploring the implications of this environment not for herself as an individual, but for her larger community, and ultimately, for the entire nation. We must ask, then, not only if Rural Hours has literary value, but also if we as critics can consider expanding our current conceptions of nature writing to accommodate a book such as Rural Hours.
In his attempt to summarize what he considers to be the weaknesses of Cooper’s book, Jones quotes a description of autumn in Rural Hours and uses Cooper’s words to create an analogy concerning her prose: autumn, like Cooper’s prose, is “variable, changeable, not alike twice in succession, gay and brilliant yesterday, more languid and pale today” (xxxvii). “As literature,” Jones further explains, “Rural Hours varies from ‘brilliant’ in one passage to ‘languid and pale’ in another” (xxxvii).
Jones offers very little support for this critical assessment of the book and, therefore, I cannot help but wonder why he truly found the narrative to be “languid and pale.” As we will see, Jones’s explanation for the “weakness of Miss Cooper’s work” is circular and underdeveloped, and supports the conventional notion that quality nature writing portrays less of nature, and more of the author’s engagement with the natural world. Further examination of his criticisms will help to explain the exclusion of Rural Hours from most records of literary history.
Jones explains, “[Cooper] brought realism and vitality to her portrait of rural life by revealing its ‘variable’ and ‘changeable’ nature, to be sure, but the very act produced a major flaw in the book” (xxxvii). Jones here suggests that Cooper’s realistic portrayal of the natural world is the very downfall of her book. However, her narrative dedication to the natural world, to its vitality and constancy, necessitates that portions of the text be purely descriptive. Jones thus seems to contradict himself: the “one level” at which Cooper’s text is “unsurpassed,” he asserts, is in its ability to so accurately and faithfully describe the natural world. This strength, however, is also the weakness of the book. Finally, Jones does not define this “flaw” at all; instead, he proceeds to discuss Thoreau’s Walden.
Jones assumes throughout his introduction that Thoreau’s book is far superior to Cooper’s, that readers ofRural Hours will agree with this assessment, and that, therefore, his assessment requires no justification. This method of reasoning also presupposes that Walden and Rural Hours afford the same criteria for judgement, or, that they exhibit similar attempts at representing nature.3 If Cooper and Thoreau actually engage similar projects, this assessment is valid. If, however, these writers differ in their purposes, or represent–and react to–the natural world in distinct ways, then we need to examine these criteria of evaluation. How do we approach a text that attempts to represent the natural world on its own terms? Have we been taught to read texts whose straightforward depiction of the natural world is, seemingly, their main goal?4
If, as Jones suggests, Cooper’s prose remains so loyal to her subject that it is too realistic, and therefore borders on boring, we need to ask how we expect Cooper to represent nature so as to hold our attentions and why her contemporaries were not also bored by her book. Many questions arise: what are contemporary readers’ expectations of writing that engages the natural world? How do our expectations differ from those of readers in the nineteenth century?
Assuming that readers bought and consumed Cooper’s text because they found interest in both its subject matter and its perspective, how does Cooper’s direct conveyance of the natural world reflect her culture’s interests and concerns?5 What is the role of nature in such a text, as opposed to the role of people? How often do we require that a “realistic” portrayal of nature be replaced by metaphor or symbolism, thereby preventing “languid and pale” prose? How often do we want to read specifically about nature, and how often are we more interested in exploring the human presence in nature? Finally, is Rural Hours actually poorly written, or boring?
Such questions, originating from an attempt to understand the immense success and warm reception of Rural Hours in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, cause us to examine our conceptions of how writers should relate to nature, how their relations should be represented through language, and how we–as readers–should read such texts. Read within our common understandings of nature writing, a conception that stresses writings influenced by the Romantics, Cooper’s prose may seem languid and pale, but if we approach Cooper’s text in other ways, as I will demonstrate, we will discern the richness of Rural Hours.
Interest in writing that depicts the environment has increased in recent years. Clearly, texts such as Emerson’s “Nature” and Thoreau’s Walden have dominated our reading lists, but studies such as Cecelia Tichi’sNew World, New Earth and Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land and The Land Before Her investigate the history of American interest in the environment and invite us to consider a variety of literary forms as important in understanding how Americans have related to their natural environment through the centuries.
Tichi states, “Consistently since the seventeenth century [environmental reform] has formed an integral and important part of our cultural and literary history” (x). American interest in the land infiltrates our earliest documents, as Tichi proves in her study. In early America, “the American spirit and the American continent were bonded ideologically,” and arguably continue to be bonded ideologically, albeit in different ways (Tichi ix).
Another important study of Americans’ conceptions of the wilderness as reflected in literature is Bernard Rosenthal’s City of Nature. Rosenthal’s study focuses on Cooper’s predecessors and contemporaries, and concludes that two ideas of nature emerge in the writings of the American Romantics. He locates one idea of nature in the conception of wilderness as the space to be assumed by the emerging American city. The second idea of nature concerns the “new religious myth,” an individual journey into nature for the purpose of establishing what Rosenthal terms “the city of the self” (27).
Put another way, “two irreconcilable connotations emerged as the most important definitions of the word nature”: one in which “nature represented commodity being transformed into civilization,” and one in which “nature became the metaphor for a new spiritual mythology” for the nineteenth-century individual (Rosenthal 31).6 Rosenthal suggests that, during the nineteenth century, the majority of Americans conceived of nature in this first way, and that most of the American Romantic writers worked within the second understanding of nature (71).7
These two conceptions of nature largely inform our readings of nineteenth-century texts that center, in some way, around the natural world. We have been taught not only to conceive of the natural world as a metaphor for our own society, but also to read texts that depict the natural world in terms of what they impart regarding the individual human spirit.8 We therefore approach texts that describe the natural world and that share personal reflections regarding the landscape with the expectation that they will either consider “the transformation of nature into its purest form, civilization,” or that they will explore nature “as spiritual place,” as the site of “an interior journey to a private place” in the spirit (Rosenthal 18), or that the author will attempt both visions of nature.
9 As readers we are taught that while purely descriptive prose may be poetically beautiful, it is boring, contains no metaphor or symbolism, and therefore lacks importance because it does not pertain to individual spiritual growth. In the words of a colleague, “We skim over the flowers and birds and pretty things and look for what really happens.” However, what “really happens” often happens within the descriptive prose that we overlook. In relying on metaphor for our readings of such texts — either the metaphor of nature as civilization or nature as self — we fail to investigate the implications of capturing nature in language or the process by which a writer envisions elements of nature and transforms that vision into linguistic representation. We fail, finally, to ask how this investigation into the natural world functions not only for the individual or for society, but for the natural world itself.
At this point, some may accuse me of oversimplifying nature writing; some may argue that metaphor and symbolism are the more complicated ways in which authors employ language, and that to dismiss these linguistic forms is to reduce nature writing to the parroting of knowledge of natural history, or the meaningless naming of colors, sounds, and sights. I am not, however, suggesting that nature writing texts not be considered for their metaphorical value, only that we consider the implications of only considering them in this way.
Susan K. Harris makes a similar point in her study of nineteenth-century women’s sentimental novels written between 1840 and 1870: There appears to be an unspoken agreement not to submit nineteenth-century American women’s novels to extended analytical evaluation, largely… because the evaluative modes most of us were taught devalue this literature a priori. (44) While Harris’s study focuses on fictional writings, the implications of her study for the study of nature writing and Susan Fenimore Cooper’s text are multiple and deserving of some attention. Harris finds that the criteria upon which scholars often scrutinize texts in order to determine their literary merit and the methods they employ in “analyzing” texts disregard important alternative aspects of texts.
Harris suggests reading texts through a method she calls “process analysis,” a method of reading and interpreting a text that “foregrounds the relationship of the literary critical task to the critic’s stance in her own time” (145) and that considers the public, political and social context from which the text emerged.10 Harris explains her belief that it is “important to establish the terms of the debate(s) in which the text participates the positions it takes, and how these positions are embodied in its textual structure” (46).11 Thus, as the language of the text is foregrounded, we look at the text as “both reactive and creative,” and disregard the traditional concern that the text “self-consciously embody ‘timeless truths'” (45).
A text such as Cooper’s Rural Hours faces many of the obstacles in contemporary criticism that the sentimental novels that interest Harris face, especially when considered as part of the category of writing that has come to be called nature writing. Not only does Cooper’s book adopt a prosaic style that is contrary to those of canonized texts, but her book also forms part of a genre that itself is not very well established in the canon. She is, finally, a woman writing in a denigrated style within in a genre largely ignored by traditional scholarship.
As critics have only recently begun to realize, historical and contemporary writers who represent their relationships to their surrounding environments exemplify differing ways of using language, and the linguistic methods these writers employ to represent and conceive of the natural world reflect, in complicated ways, the ideological implications of our cultural conceptions of nature. An understanding of the content of such writings, the issues they raise, and the methods of linguistic construction they employ will enable us, as literary scholars and historians, to realize how our language reflects our attitudes toward the earth, and more pointedly, how such attitudes have determined, prevented, or justified our actions against, and reactions to, the earth.
The traditional approaches to such texts consider “timeless truths” in the forms of metaphors concerning nature as civilization or journeys to nature as journeys to the self. But these views often neglect to consider the author’s interest in the political and social opinions of the time concerning the proper relationship of society and the earth, and how writers in our society throughout history have coded such opinions in language.12
Studies such as Harris’s often center on cultural conceptions of gender in women’s fiction.13 The recent critical focus on issues of gender differentiation has lead contemporary critics to ask if women “naturally” relate to the outside world differently than men. In keeping with this interest, Annette Kolodny suggested in her 1975 study,The Lay of the Land, “that women’s writings and linguistic usages have all along been offering us alternate means of expression and perception” (ix) and that an examination of women’s writings on the subject of nature could yield better understandings of American conceptions of the wilderness.
Kolodny also states that “a conscious and determined struggle to formulate for themselves the meaning of their landscape characterizes the writings of nineteenth-century Americans” (Lay of the Land 71). Certainly both Cooper and Thoreau’s texts engage in this struggle, although their engagements take different forms. Although I am not aware of any critical investigations as to whether Cooper’s and Thoreau’s alternative narrative styles are based in gender differences,14 most recent critics of Cooper (of which there are few) do seize on the issue of gender when exploring her text. Unlike Jones, they quickly dismiss Thoreau from their studies, and instead suggest that Cooper’s text presents a representative depiction of woman’s relationship to the natural world in nineteenth-century America.15
The most recent study of Rural Hours appears in Vera Norwood’s Made from This Earth, in which the author devotes a chapter to Susan Fenimore Cooper and her arguable influence on the women nature writers subsequent to her.16 Norwood argues that Cooper represented a “literary domestic,”17 a woman writer who wrote to deliver the “scenes and values of middle-class homes to a wide readership” (27). Thus, Norwood suggests, Cooper used the occasion of her book not only to describe her natural surroundings, but also to impart valuable lessons to her readers in a non-threatening manner.
Norwood asserts that Cooper turned to nature to discover what nature teaches about the roles of women in the domestic realm.18 For example, Cooper describes robins and praises the mother robin’s dedication to her young, implicitly suggesting that human mothers should emulate the robin’s self-sacrificing nature (Cooper 39-40/Norwood 37-8). Thus, Norwood sees a conversation in Rural Hours, a dialogue that Cooper creates in her text between the natural and human worlds in which gender roles in nature inform and enlighten gender roles in human society. Finally, Norwood claims that Cooper “was consumed with understanding what nature suggests about female roles and family responsibilities, and how gender definitions and familial arrangements help people comprehend what they see in nature” (37).
Cooper does occasionally focus on gender roles and responsibilities in Rural Hours, but to state that she is “consumed” with such issues greatly exaggerates her narrative interests. As Norwood points out, Cooper ruminates on the devoted mother robin, but she also, interestingly, refers to the “voluntary imprisonment” of the mother, and to her “generous, enduring patience” (Cooper 40). While this patience is clearly “a noble attribute of parental affection” for Cooper, the scene leaves her somewhat incredulous and stunned by the mother’s consistent, uncomplaining waiting: Cooper admits this is a “striking instance” of parental devotion (40). While she may advocate human parental devotion, she also recognizes that the natural world is more willingly generous than the human world,19 and that whereas humans can learn from nature, there are also aspects of the natural world beyond human comprehension.20
Interestingly, and perhaps even provocatively, Norwood does not point out that the voluntarily imprisoned mothering robin is accompanied by the “male” of the “little family,” who “occasionally relieves his mate by taking her place awhile” and “exerts himself to bring her food, and to sing for her amusement” (40). Cooper includes his participation in her description of “voluntary imprisonment”; his is also a “striking instance” of parental affection. If Cooper invokes the mother robin as a testament to giving mothering, her invocation of the father bird suggests his necessary assistance around the “nest.”
Ultimately, then, to read Cooper’s text in terms of its interest in gender affords some intriguing insights: Cooper clearly remains within her position as a middle- to upper-class “lady” throughout her narrative and, just as clearly, seeks confirmation of gender divisions and domestic roles from the natural world.21 These instances, though, are rare in Cooper’s text.
The themes and issues that arise more often in Rural Hours concern the establishment of a national identity and history, and while Cooper does not divorce her gender from the concerns that inform her larger agenda, she also does not encompass her interest in nationalism within explorations of domesticity. Certainly one aspect of Cooper’s desire to explore the natural world in order to formulate a national identity concerns the place of women in society, but to read Rural Hours solely in terms of its attempt to explore the implications of gender roles as exemplified in the natural environment greatly simplifies the complexities and layers of Cooper’s book.
I do not wish to suggest that traditional feminist readings of Cooper’s text are unwarranted or unnecessary, nor that such readings will prove unproductive. I do believe, however, that reading Cooper’s book through too narrow a focus is hazardous not only in seeking to establish her in the canon of “serious” and “teachable” writers, but also in that such a reading sidesteps many larger cultural issues that her text engages. A critical reading of Cooper’s text should investigate her representations and explorations of gender roles in mid-nineteenth century America as well as her other complex and overt concerns, such as the creation of an American history, the treatment of American Indians, the problems of deforestation, and the religious connotations of the natural world, all of which fall under the rubric, in Cooper’s text, of the establishment of a national identity.22
As Jones points out, the majority of Cooper’s text contains descriptions of her surroundings. Her reflections are not always couched in metaphor, as Jones also suggests, but this does not detract from the value of Cooper’s text, nor does it indicate that Cooper does not entertain significant issues in her writing. Cooper’s descriptions of her surroundings reflect and embody her larger concern for the development of a national identity based in the land. In her view, the establishment of a national identity is linked to individual conceptions of the land, its flora and fauna, its people, and the relationship of the country’s peoples to the land.
Cooper depicts the landscape of Otsego Lake, relates the history of the land and its peoples, and describes the indigenous plants, animals, and waters of the area in an attempt to create an identity of place. The landscape, and the life the land supports, create the identity of this place. Cooper’s “literature of place”23 serves not only to create a natural identity for the Otsego Lake region, but also to assert the need for a similarly constructed national identity. The creation of a national identity, then, is the “cultural work” of Cooper’s text; she seeks to locate the “natural” identity of her new nation.
Cooper’s development of this theme — a national identity rooted in the landscape — is subtle and calculated, but a scrupulous reading of Rural Hours reveals the careful construction of Cooper’s text. The opening pages ofRural Hours share observations that reflect the intentions of the book as stated in Cooper’s 1850 preface:
The following notes contain, in a journal form, the simple record of those little events which make up the course of the seasons in rural life. In wandering about the fields, . . . one naturally gleans many trifling observations. . . The following pages were written in perfect good faith, all the trifling incidents alluded to having occurred as they are recorded. (Preface) In her first chapter, we read of the coming of spring: snow thaws, buds appear, robins return to the area. These are seemingly “little events,” “trifling” in their lack of worldly significance. One almost immediately notices, however, the pride Cooper takes in plants and animals “peculiar” to her “native land,” those that are uniquely America’s own. In contrast to the European robin, “our robin never builds [a nest] on the ground” (21), and the “pretty” white-bellied swallow, which “has been confounded with the European martin” is, Cooper assures, “peculiar to America” (56).
Cooper also explains the uniqueness of American plants, complaining that the “wild natives of the woods” are often crowded out by European plants that were introduced by the colonists and that “[drive] away the prettier natives” (81).24 In her discussion of autumn in America, Cooper ruminates, “Had the woods of England been as rich as our own” English writers would have praised the season in their writings long ago (336). Instead, “one is led to believe that the American autumn has helped to set the fashions for the sister season of the Old World” (335).
American writers’ reflections on the landscape have encouraged English writers to do the same, Cooper suggests. These “trifling” observations begin to speak together, and we find Cooper asserting the importance of knowing the natural forms indigenous to one’s place. Thus, for Cooper, determining which birds, animals, and plants are native to America, as well as which of these are unknown to Europeans, helps to define the American landscape, and therefore helps to establish a national identity. She takes pride in her land and in its natural wealth.
Cooper also mourns the losses that her land incurs, suggesting that any depletion of the natural aspects of a place drastically alter its identity. Like her seemingly innocent cataloging of natural plants and animals indigenous to America, which emerges as a plea for national pride and definition based on the natural world, her repeated lamentings of disappearing or decreasing portions of the natural world emerge as a plea for the preservation of the wilderness. Like Cooper’s gently emerging concern for identifying indigenous plants and animals, Cooper gradually develops this theme of loss throughout her text. “Little events,” when taken cumulatively, have large implications.
Cooper observes wild pigeons in early March, for instance, and recalls a previous season when “they passed over the valley in… large unbroken flocks several miles in extent succeeding each other.” Then she remarks, “There have not been so many here since that season” (18). The reader might dismiss this observation due to its early position in her book, but as one progresses through the text and continually comes across this motif of longing for previous times when–somehow–nature was more complete, one realizes that Cooper is truly concerned about the changes taking place in her surroundings.
Her concern becomes much more overt, but not until much later in the book.25 Cooper’s seemingly minor concern for the losses of groups of birds or plants culminates in her consideration of the rapid deforestation occurring in the country.26 She returns to the subject many times throughout the course of Rural Hours and, further along in the book, strongly criticizes people for their careless use of timber: One would think that by this time, when the forest has fallen in all the valleys — when the hills are becoming more bare every day–when timber and fuel are rising in prices, and new uses are found for even indifferent woods–some forethought and care in this respect would be natural in people laying claim to common sense.
(213-14) Clearly, Cooper is warning her contemporaries by suggesting that they discontinue the destruction of trees for purposes of fueling their homes. The continual destruction of the forests so radically alters the landscape that Cooper cannot conceive of continued deforestation. She not only seeks to educate her audience regarding the benefits of preservation; she also makes the preservation of the American landscape a moral imperative.
This moral duty for national preservation becomes linked to Cooper’s feelings regarding the “red man,” or Native Americans (93). Again, Cooper subtly portrays this sense of the loss of the indigenous peoples early in Rural Hours. When standing beside a clear running spring, she states, “one seems naturally to remember the red man; recollections of his vanished race linger there in a more definite form than elsewhere” (93).
The rolling, clear water somehow evokes the “vanished” race: “yesterday they were here, to-day scarce a vestige of their existence can be pointed out among us” (94). However, later in Rural Hours, Cooper more overtly conveys her feelings regarding the colonists’ treatment of the indigenous peoples, which she finds integral to the colonists’ treatment of the landscape. While viewing a forest grove, she laments: “It needs but a few short minutes to bring one of these trees to the ground” (193). She reminds her readers that entire generations will come and go in the time that it takes for one of these mature trees to reach such magnificent heights:
The stout arm so ready to raise the axe to-day, must grow weak with age, it must drop into the grave; its bone and sinew must crumble into dust long before another tree, tall and great as those, shall have grown from the cone in our hand (193-94). In the same paragraph, Cooper calls for a reinstitution of wilderness, claiming that the wild deer, the wolf and the bear “must return from beyond the great lakes,” and then, significantly, that “the bones of the savage men buried under our feet must arise and move again. . . ere trees like those” ever appear again, so large, so wild (194).27
The mistreatment of Native Americans emerges as a large theme in Cooper’s text. She advocates retaining the names they gave to places and portions of the natural world, partly because of the beauty in “Indian words,” which “[unite] both sound and meaning” (484). In the creation of a national identity, Cooper intimates, the power of names is very suggestive: names reveal history and meaning, and the Indians words capture both elements. She argues against re-naming places not only due to the beauty of the Native American’s languages, however, but also because she believes that somehow European-Americans owe the indigenous peoples something. The refrain of loss that resonates throughout Cooper’s text reaches its climax in the following passage. I quote at length to impart Cooper’s passion:
There are many reasons for preserving every Indian name which can be accurately placed; generally, they are recommended by their beauty; but even when harsh in sound, they still have a claim to be kept up on account of their historical interest, and their connection with the dialects of the different tribes. A name is all we leave them, let us at least preserve that monument to their memory; as we travel through the country, and pass river after river, lake after lake, we may thus learn how many were the tribes who have melted away before us, whose very existence would have been utterly forgotten but for the word which recalls the name they once bore. (485)
As these words suggest, Cooper’s concerns in Rural Hours are far-reaching. Cooper finds little distinction between the establishment of a national identity based in the uniqueness of the land, the preservation of the wilderness, and the maintenance of the influence of indigenous cultures.28 The “natural” history of this place and its people provide its meaning.
These enmeshed issues resonate even more strongly when Cooper places them in accordance with her religious ideals. Although her Christianity by no means permeates the text, its presence offers a cohesion between her many areas of interest. Cooper envisions each and every aspect of the natural world as belonging to part of God’s plan for Americans. For example, while admiring a particularly beautiful sky, Cooper says,
At hours like these, the immeasurable goodness, the infinite wisdom of our Heavenly Father, are displayed in so great a degree of condescending tenderness to unworthy, sinful man, as must appear quite incomprehensible- entirely incredible to reason alone–were it not for the recollection of the mercies of past years, the positive proofs of experience….What have the best of us done to merit one such day in a lifetime of follies and failings and sins? (73-74) I do want to stress that these moments are rare in Cooper’s text, that her homilies are short and few, but that they clearly convey her sense of wonder about the natural world.29 She finds value in each aspect of the natural world, and seeks to preserve the world as a testament of her faith in God.
While maintaining the Puritan notion that the “new world” was intended for the colonists to cultivate, and that their duties included imparting Christianity to the Native Americans,30 Cooper also stresses the need to balance the human presence on, and cultivation of, the land with careful preservation of it. She envisions a society that works with the land, not against it, and that creates a national identity based on its intimate knowledge of, and respect for, the natural world.
She suggests this balance between humans and nature lightheartedly, saying “Many birds like a village life; they seem to think man is a very good-natured animal, building chimneys and roofs, planting groves, and digging gardens for their especial benefit” (63). But she also asserts the seriousness of her belief in admiring her village, “rural and unambitious,” and “quite in proportion with surrounding objects” (114).
Cooper further explains her belief in a “rural ideal,”31 a sustainable balance between civilization and nature, in an essay collected in The Home Book of the Picturesque, which was published in 1851:
The hand of man generally improves a landscape. The earth has been given to him, and his presence in Eden is natural; he gives life and spirit to the garden. It is only when he endeavors to rise above his true part of laborer and husbandman, when he assumes the character of creator, and piles you up hills, pumps you a river, scatters stones, or sprinkles cascades, that he is apt to fail. Generally the grassy meadow in the valley, the winding road climbing the hill-side, the cheerful village on the bank of the stream, give a higher additional interest to the view; or where there is something amiss in the scene, it is when there is some evident want of judgement, or good sense, or perhaps some proof of selfish avarice, or wastefulness, as when a country is stripped of its wood to fill the pockets or feed the fires of one generation.
(82) This interest in creating a national identity based upon a balance of civilization, nature, and the preservation of religious ideologies forms the basic underlying motif in Cooper’s text. While her words often convey seemingly simple observations about her surroundings, Cooper’s linking of the natural world and the human treatment of it with the necessity of establishing a national conception of the proper human relationship to nature forms a complex, intricate portrayal of the myriad concerns of nineteenth-century life. Rural Hours also reveals how issues surrounding the formation of national concepts of environmental treatment were intertwined with the establishment of pride in a new country.
Additional readings of Rural Hours will undoubtedly uncover themes and tropes unexplored in the present essay. In order for this to occur, however, we must continually ask ourselves how our preconceptions may prohibit finding value in texts that do not meet established, too often unchallenged, criteria for judgements. One can approach Rural Hours, finally, as a natural history engaged in creating the story of a region and as an attempt to appreciate nature on its own terms: not as a commodity for human use, but as beautiful, powerful, and suggestive of God’s greatness. In writing a balance between humans and nature, Cooper sets an agenda not only for her region, but for the country as a whole. Her text is filled with natural history, but it also expounds upon the concerns of an age in America’s history. As such, it greatly contributes to our understandings of the human presence on the land.
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. Cunningham offers an overview of critical reactions to Rural Hours (339-40) as do Jones (xvii-xxv) and Norwood (27). BACK . The reading of Cooper’s text that follows, as well as my consideration of issues of literary historiography and canon construction owes much to Jane Tompkins’s work, as suggested by my epigraph, but also to Cathy N. Davidson’s study, Revolution and the Word. There Davidson states, “The issue here is not that literature provides an inaccurate reflection of history but that no documents can simply be ‘read’ as if they were objective, scientific data produced or preserved as some pure product of a people and the abiding record of their time. The record always suppresses more than it tells. Why, we must ask, are certain records kept in the first place? Why are they saved? The whole process of historiography, the archive itself, must be subjected to rigorous analysis. Who is keeping the records and for what purpose? Who is writing, to whom, and why?” (Revolution 2).
These are some of the issues and concerns I will address with regard to Susan Fenimore Cooper and Nature Writing. BACK . In her study, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal, Sharon Cameron considers Thoreau’s attempts at representing nature in his journals, and also contrasts this to Walden. BACK . Obviously, I do not think that Cooper’s and Thoreau’s text engage nature similarly. While both writers reflect upon their surroundings and offer descriptions of elements of the natural world, each writer raises his/her own personal areas for concern. Chapters such as Thoreau’s “Where I Lived…” and “Economy” are totally absent from Cooper’s record of days. Sections concerned with environmental peril, such as Cooper’s reflections on the hazards of deforestation, which I will discuss later in this paper, are unparalleled in Thoreau’s text.
While certainly some similar criteria exist for comparison, Thoreau’s Walden is finally a philosophical investigation of individual man’s “economy” and “wakefulness,” in Thoreau’s sense of those words, and Rural Hours does not concern the individual so much as the nation, or the community. Together, these texts offer interesting insights into different conceptions of the natural world in relation of humankind in mid-nineteenth century America. BACK . Jane Tompkins writes, “The text that becomes exceptional in the sense of reaching an exceptionally large audience does so not because of its departure from the ordinary and conventional, but through its embrace of what is most widely shared” (xvi). Like Tompkins, I assume that when many readers buy and read a book, they find value in that book, and that when a book’s success is marked by many reprintings and re-issuings, this reflects a cultural interest in the subject matter and in the implicit concerns of the book. BACK . In both conceptions of nature, there is a religious ideology informing notions of meaning and direction.
As Tichi so aptly explores in her New World, New Earth, the colonists conceived of the land as God’s gift to them, and their taming of the wilderness as therefore ordained by God. BACK . Rosenthal states, “In America, the abstractions called nature came to be defined as the civilization that emerged from the wilderness; for the Romantics, who found their vocabulary in the country they inhabited, nature came to be equated with the civilization of the self, the world of inner vision” (71). He divides European and American Romantic writers in this way, but then admits the difficulty of such a radical division, especially when considering Thoreau’s Walden. Ultimately, Rosenthal suggests, American writers conceived of nature in both ways, as their texts reveal. BACK . It interests me that the books of Cooper’s contemporary writers whom we do read in literature classes — Emerson, Thoreau, and, in a particularly daring syllabus, Margaret Fuller — were not nearly as successful during their lifetimes as Cooper’s. Furthermore, as many recent critics of nature writing note, the writings of these three authors more often concerned the human world than the natural world.
What does it mean that readers in the nineteenth century were more interested in Cooper’s more focused portrayal of the natural world than in Thoreau’s symbolic and metaphorical vision of nature? BACK . I do not mean to criticize Rosenthal for instituting these methods of reading texts that portray nature. Most readings of the canonical texts that engage nature maintain his model of two alternative ways of seeing the importance of nature, and I appreciate his clear delineation of these versions. BACK . Another important context in which to examine such a text is in its relation to the literary heritage from which it originates. This seems especially crucial when considering a text such as Cooper’s, because she was so clearly influenced by the place of literature in American society.
Her father concerned himself with establishing a literary history in the country; Susan Cooper was extremely well-read (as her text evidences: see pgs. 220, 226-7, and her numerous references to writers), and the theme of the construction of a written history of America surfaces in Rural Hours. An analysis of Cooper’s thoughts regarding literature and the contribution her text will make to an emerging literary tradition in her country would certainly prove valuable in understanding the cultural interest in creating an American literary heritage. BACK . Jane Tompkins raises very similar questions in her 1985 study, Sensational Designs. Tompkins asserts that contemporary critics often read our modern-day concerns into older texts — “questions about the self, the body, the possibilities of knowledge, the limits of language” — instead of heeding the text’s own concerns, such as the “religious beliefs, social practices, and economic and political circumstances” that may have influenced the author and her contemporaries. BACK . Harris delineates the critical implications for such an approach; although, again, her focus is nineteenth-century women’s sentimental novels: “Structure and language, then, are the dual focuses of process analysis.
Each demands three levels of study: the first, contextual, places the text within its own time; the second, rhetorical, examines narrator/narratee contracts and the ways in which the text may play with cultural significances; the third, retrospective, searches for traces of changing consciousness, building blocks for an ideologically self-conscious literary history. Together, they offer a paradigm that produces evaluative as well as investigate questions” (59). BACK . Such studies, in addition to Harris’s, include Cathy N. Davidson’s Introduction to her edition of Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and Jane Tompkins’s study of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her book, Sensational Designs. Much contemporary feminist criticism similarly engages issues of cultural definitions and determinations of gender roles. BACK .
Critics inevitably mention Thoreau in their analyses of Rural Hours, but they mention his text as a benchmark, as a starting-off point (see Cunningham 341, Jones xxxvii, Norwood 26, and Patterson 2). It is very interesting that Thoreau’s text is used to describe Cooper’s when Cooper’s text preceded his, and her text sold well, whereas his did not. BACK . For such examinations, see Cunningham and Maddox. Cunningham’s essay is the older of these two (published in 1944), and celebrates Cooper’s prominence in Cooperstown while expressing frustration with Cooper’s “failure to face the obligations of her talent” (348). Cunningham speculates on reasons why Cooper’s Rural Hours was not followed up with more book-length writings, and suggests that “neither her immediate family circle nor the century into which she was born gave a woman freedom to develop creative talents” (349-50).
Cooper’s family kept a very strict hold on both her personal and business affairs, and family duties perhaps curtailed her writing. Maddox’s study, which appeared in 1988, states that the strongest theme in Cooper’s writing is the American woman’s duty as inheritor and guardian of a legacy left by pioneering males. Woman is keeper of nature, maintainer of harmony and balance between nature and culture, and it is woman’s responsibility to ensure the harmony between the domestic and external realms. BACK . Norwood bases her reading largely on Lucy B. Maddox’s study and focuses on similar motifs in her reading of Cooper’s text. BACK . Norwood credits Mary Kelley with this phrase (Norwood 27). BACK . Norwood’s tone and overall reading of Cooper’s text perplex me, as will become clear in this paper.
On this particular point, for instance, Norwood explains Cooper’s conjoining of home and nature in a disparaging comment: “So, parasol in hand, Susan Cooper sallied forth from her domestic hearth to the gardens and woods of her home to speak to all Americans about their native land, in a voice blending lessons from the woman’s sphere with knowledge garnered from the scientist-naturalists whose company she kept and books she read” (30, emphasis added). Norwood writes to praise Cooper’s text, but moments like this one seem to belittle Cooper’s position and purpose. Furthermore, Cooper did not merely parrot the books she read and the naturalists with whom she spent time; in fact, many of Cooper’s references to other naturalists serve to correct their mistakes and to challenge their previous findings. Finally, Norwood overlooks many of the complexities in Cooper’s text, and perhaps too willingly accepts Lucy B. Maddox’s views of Cooper’s text. BACK . This remarkably “generous” quality of the natural world is, I will argue, a recurring theme in Rural Hours. BACK .
I will return to this theme in Cooper’s text later in this paper. BACK . The publishing business at this time emphasized Cooper’s status as a “lady” in their first editions of the book: Cooper was not named as author, but rather Rural Hours was “By a Lady.” Norwood considers the implications of the author’s anonymity (Norwood 27). BACK . Hans Huth offers an insightful reading of the role of national identity in writings of this period. BACK . Pamela Regis asserts a tradition of works and writers that comprise this “literature of place” genre. See her Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crevecoeur, and the Rhetoric of Natural History (xii). BACK . William Cronon’s study of the ecology of colonial New England confirms many of Cooper’s observations regarding plant life and also supports and provides reasons for some of her concerns regarding deforestation practices in nineteenth-century America.
Cronon’s text is an interesting compliment to Cooper’s first-hand depiction of the imperiled landscape. BACK . I cannot help but believe that Cooper intentionally placed this overt cultural criticism late in the book. Readers became engaged with her text, enticed by her “lady-like” view of Otsego Lake and its community, drawn in by her “trifling” observations and records of “little events,” and then Cooper subtly weaves in her threads of cultural criticism, hidden, as it were, between the plants, birds, and trees. Her society could easily overlook any questionable criticisms Cooper made because they were so buried in Cooper’s text. BACK . Cronon also investigates the rapid deforestation occurring at this time in his Changes in the Land (pp. 108-126). BACK . Cooper experiences a similar desire for a return to an earlier, wilder state of the land in her essay, “A Dissolving View.”
In a fantasy, her view of a rolling, but populated, landscape dissolves into wilderness replete with forests. Finally, though, the “dissolving view” of her title is implicitly, of course, the dissolving wilderness. In a particularly direct passage, Cooper asserts “Indeed it would seem as if man had no sooner mastered the art of architecture, than he aimed at rivalling the dignity and durability of the works of nature which served as his models” (84). BACK . Cooper clearly supports the indigenous cultures; however, she also reinforces the white man’s “duty” in “educating” and “civilizing” them. “This general fertility, this blending of the fields of man and his tillage with the woods, the great husbandry of Providence, gives a fine character to the country, which it could not claim when the lonely savage roamed through wooded valleys. . .” (224).
Later, she states, “The time seems to have come at last when their own eyes are opening to the real good of civilization, the advantages of knowledge, the blessings of Christianity” (181-82). BACK . This devotion to God and his creation also, I believe, helps explain Cooper’s distance from the natural world. She admires the creation, but has no need to participate in the creation of the world. She seeks only to preserve the work of God, to thank him for his giving to her “despite our. . .unworthiness” (72). BACK . See Tichi for an exploration of many documents from early America, including sermons and letters, that share this view of the continent. BACK . This is Patterson’s phrase for Cooper’s conception of a relationship between human culture and the natural world.
BACK Works Cited|
Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. 2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Cameron, Sharon. Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Cooper, Susan Fenimore. “A Dissolving View.” in The Home Book of the Picturesque: Or American Scenery, Art, and Literature. Introduction by Motley F. Deakin. Gainesville: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1967. (Facsimile Reproduction) pp. 79- 94.
– -. Rural Hours. New York: Putnam, 1850.
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. Cunningham, Anna K. “Susan Fenimore Cooper – Child of Genius.” New York History 25 (July 1944): 339-350.
Davidson, Cathy N., ed. Introduction to Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
– -. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford U.P., 1986. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983. Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. With
an Introduction by Bernard Rosenthal. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971. Harris, Susan K. “‘But is it any good?’: Evaluating Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Fiction” American Literature 63:1 (March 1991): 43-61. Huth, Hans. Nature and the American Mind: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. Jones, David. “Introduction” to Rural Hours by Susan Fenimore Cooper. Syracuse: Syracuse U.P., 1968. xi-xxxviii. Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontier, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
– -. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. Maddox, Lucy B. “Susan Fenimore Cooper and the Plain Daughters of America.” American Quarterly 40:2 (1988): 131-146. Norwood, Vera. Made From this Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Patterson, Daniel. “Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours and American Nature Writing.” Delivered at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on American Women Writers, San Antonio, Texas, October 1, 1993. Northern Illinois Press, 1992. Regis, Pamela. Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crevecoeur, and the Rhetoric of Natural History.Dekalb: Northern Illinois Press, 1992. Rosenthal, Bernard. City of Nature: Journeys to Nature in the Age of American Romanticism. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980. Slovic, Scott. Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Addey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden in The Portable Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Tichi, Cecelia. New World, New Earth: Environmental Reform in American Literature from the Puritans through Whitman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
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Date: 11 October 2016
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