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Susan Fenimore Cooper: The First American Woman to Publish Nature Writing

This post was authored by Stephanie Marcus, Science Reference & Research Specialist, in the Science, Technology, and Business Division of the Library of Congress. She is also author of the blog posts “Kebabs, Kabobs, Shish Kebabs, Shashlyk, and: Chislic” and “The Potato Transformed.”

From Rural Hours. By a lady. (6th ed, 1854) //lccn.loc.gov/04031547

Years ago, I was wandering in the book stacks of the Library of Congress, when I came upon some wonderful old books on nature writing and nature study.  I decided to compile a bibliography using some of these books, along with some newer ones, and called it Nature Study, Nature Writing: Past and Present.

One of the books I featured was Rural Hours By A Lady, written by Susan Fenimore Cooper.  If her name sounds familiar, it is because her father was James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans. Susan Cooper’s book sprang from journals of her observations on weather, fauna and flora, and the general rural life around her hometown of Cooperstown, New York, founded by her grandfather William Cooper in 1786. There isn’t an entry for each day in her journals of 1848 and 1849, which were the basis for the book, but some entries go on for pages.  For example, April 1st is seven pages long and is all about the early arrival of maple sugar, how it is made and how much was produced in the county and in the state.  Many long passages were written in winter and delve into ancient and modern history, geography, literature, poetry and the Bible. She even remarks on the traditional dietary habits of the local country folk—worrying that eating so many smoked and salted meats is unhealthy.  It is a fascinating read for more than her seasonal observations.

From Rural Hours. By a lady. (6th ed, 1854) //lccn.loc.gov/04031547

Sue, as her father called her, was born April 17, 1813, and died December 31, 1894.  She spent most of her life in Cooperstown, although the family lived in New York City for a few years after they returned from France in 1833. Her father had moved them abroad in 1826 to provide his five children with a better education.  Susan was schooled in languages and literature in Switzerland, Italy, England, and France.  She attended a private boarding school in Paris, where she especially enjoyed botany and zoology. Her love and knowledge of these subjects is evident in her writing.

James Fenimore Cooper negotiated with publishers in New York and London on his daughter’s behalf, resulting in the publication of Rural Hours in 1850 by G.P. Putnam in New York City (four years ahead of Thoreau’s Walden!).  Although her father died in 1851, his urging helped get it published in two volumes by R. Bentley in London in 1855 under the title Journal of a Naturalist in the United States by Miss Cooper.  This actually wasn’t the first time her father had gone to bat for her.  He had helped her get a novel, Elinor Wyllys, published in 1846 under a pseudonym, Amabel Penfeather, and he appeared on it as her editor.

From Rural hours. By a lady. (6th ed, 1854) //lccn.loc.gov/04031547

Altogether, there were nine editions of Rural Hours, and in 1868, Cooper added a new preface and an additional chapter called “Later Hours”.  There was also an abridged edition, which was drastically cut from the original 500 pages.  The book was re-published in 1968 by Syracuse University Press with a wonderful 26-page introduction by David Jones, and in 1998, editors Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson brought Rural Hours back once again at a time when Cooper was gaining stature as an early environmentalist and author of nature essays. They point out in their introduction that Cooper’s interest in nature writing came from time spent with her maternal grandfather De Lancey, who taught her all about the trees they saw around his farms and woods. Johnson and Patterson reproduced the full text of the first edition of Cooper’s book with some corrections and adjustments for consistency in spelling and hyphenation. These revisions were listed in columns with page numbers, the original text, and their changes.  Additionally, they added a glossary, a list of many of the authors and works cited in the original, and a new index.

There are also several links to read the book online—this 1887 printing with the additional chapter is from the University of Pennsylvania: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/cooper/hours/hours.html. A link from the Hathi Trust to the 1850 original can be found on the Library of Congress record for the 1850 first edition, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library offers the third edition: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/25543277#page/9/mode/1up

The copy of the book I took with me from the stacks was the 1854 printing of the sixth edition.  I think it is the most special, because it displays yet another talent of the author–lithographs of her watercolors of birds and plants. (Correction: I had first assumed the images in the book were by the author, but since no explicit attribution was given that may not be correct)  The other editions I have seen are not graced with these exquisite drawings, which really enliven the book.  I was so taken with this edition that I bought a copy from an online bookseller.  I could only locate two copies for sale, so I was glad I was able to find one.  It was hard to imagine that the library whose label was inside my book would think of giving up such a treasure!

Susan Cooper did not just write about nature and comment on the people around her, she was beginning to notice the decline of forests and wildlife.  On April 27th she remarks: “All kinds of black-birds are rare here; they are said to have been very numerous indeed at the settlement of the country, but have very much diminished in numbers of late years.”  Although she heartily endorsed the development of the wilderness, just as her grandfather and father did, she wrote that a sustainable approach to the environment needed to be found and that people have a moral obligation to preserve it.  She sought to educate her readers about the natural world and hoped this would encourage them to value and protect it.

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