"Susan Fenimore Cooper, Nature Writing, and The Problem of Canonical Elision" by Rochelle Johnson
Ph.D., CGU English Department
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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...
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