Cooper, Susan Fenimore (1813–1894)

views updated

Cooper, Susan Fenimore (1813–1894)

American naturalist, author, philanthropist, and biographer of her father, James Fenimore Cooper. Name variations: (pseudonym) Amabel Penfeather. Born Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper on April 17, 1813, in Mamaroneck, New York; died of possible stroke in Cooperstown, New York, on December 31, 1894; daughter of Susan Augusta (De Lancey) Cooper and James Fenimore Cooper (a writer); educated privately at home in Cooperstown, New York, until 1817, when the family moved to New York City; attended private schools in the City, 1817–26; attended a French boarding school; never married; no children.

Family moved from Mamaroneck, New York, to Cooperstown, New York (1813); moved with family to New York City (1817); lived with family in Europe (1826–33); lived with parents, working as her father's amanuensis until his death (1851); death of mother (1854); devoted much time to charitable work including work with the Christ Church Charity House for destitute families; organized the Christ Church Sewing School (1860); helped establish Thanksgiving Hospital in Cooperstown (1868) and Orphan House of the Holy Savior, also in Cooperstown (1871).

Selected publications:

(novel) Elinor Wyllys; or, the Young Folk of Longbridge (published in America under pseudonym Amabel Penfeather and edited by her father, 1845); Rural Hours. By a Lady (1850); "The Lumley Autograph," in Graham's Magazine (1851); "A Dissolving View," in The Home Book of the Picturesque: or, American Scenery, Art, and Literature (Putnam, 1852); (edited) John Leonard Knapp's Country Rambles in England; or Journal of a Naturalist (1853); The Rhyme and Reason of Country Life: or, Selections from Fields Old and New (Putnam, 1854); Rural Rambles, or, Some Chapters on Flowers, Birds, and Insects: By a Lady (Willis P. Hazard, 1854); Mount Vernon: A Letter to the Children of America (D. Appleton, 1859); "Sally Lewis and Her Lovers," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1859); (edited) Pages and Pictures, from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (W. A. Townsend, 1861); "Fragments from a Diary of James Fenimore Cooper," in Putnam's Magazine (1868); "Passages from a Diary by James Fenimore Cooper," in Putnam's Magazine (1868); "Bits," in Putnam's Magazine (1868); (edited) "The Battle of Plattsburgh Bay: An Unpublished Manuscript of J. Fenimore Cooper," in Putnam's Magazine (1869); (edited) "The Eclipse: From an Unpublished MS. of James Fenimore Cooper," in Putnam's Magazine (1869); "Village Improvement Societies," in Putnam's Magazine (1869); (edited) Appletons' Illustrated Almanac for 1870 (D. Appleton, 1869); "The Magic Palace," in Putnam's Magazine (1870); "The Chanting Cherubs," in Putnam's Magazine (1870); "Insect-Life in Winter," in Putnam's Magazine (1870); "Madame Lafayette and Her Mother," in Putnam's Magazine (1870); "Female Suffrage: A Letter to the Christian Women of America," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1871); "Two of My Lady-Loves," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1872); "Rear Admiral William Branford Shubrick," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1876); introduction to Household Edition of 15 of James Fenimore Cooper's novels (Houghton-Mifflin, 1876–84); "Mrs. Philip Schuyler: A Sketch," in Worthy Women of Our First Century (J.B. Lippincott, 1877); "The Wonderful Cookie: A True Story," in Wide Awake Pleasure Book (D. Lothrop, 1879); "The Hudson River and Its Early Names," in Magazine of American History (1880); "The Adventures of Cocquelicot," in St. Nicholas (1881); "Small Family Memories (1883)," in Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper (Yale University Press, 1922); "Orphan House of the Holy Savior," in A Centennial Offering: Being a Brief History of Cooperstown, with a Biographical Sketch of James Fenimore Cooper (Freeman's Journal Office, 1886); "The Thanksgiving Hospital," A Centennial Offering (Freeman's Journal Office, 1886); a chief contributor to Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography (D. Appleton, 1886–1889); "A Glance Backward," Atlantic Monthly (1887); "A Second Glance Backward," Atlantic Monthly (1887); (edited) "Financial Condition of New York in 1833," Magazine of American History (1889); (edited) William West Skiles: A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina, 1842–1862 (James Pott, 1890); "A Lament for the Birds," Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1893); "An Outing on Lake Otsego," The Freeman's Journal (1894); "The Cherry-Colored Purse (A True Story)," St. Nicholas (1895).

For American Romantics and Transcendentalists, nature played a central role in the way they looked at themselves, God, and their place in the grand scheme of things. The American 19th-century "nature" writers who have achieved prominence in university curricula are Ralph Waldo Emerson ("Nature," 1836) and Henry David Thoreau (Walden, 1854). Women, too, expressed a keen interest in nature, wrote about it at great length, and turned a fine observational eye to describing the particulars of their locale. Not only did these women record the minutiae of the place they observed, but they also demonstrated the same acuity of perception in drawing correlations between the natural routine and order and ways of humankind. Susan Fenimore Cooper, along with her English counterpart Dorothy Wordsworth , was such a woman.

Cooper's most important book, Rural Hours (1850), a chronicle of one year's natural cycle at her home near Lake Otsego in central New York, remained in print for almost 40 years, even issued in a color-plate illustrated edition in 1851. The book was originally published anonymously "by a Lady," but in later editions Cooper took credit for her popular work. Rural Hours predates its now well-known counterpart, Thoreau's Walden (1854), by four years—a book considered by scholars as the measuring stick for natural chronicles. Ironically, Rural Hours outsold Walden and Thoreau's other chronicle, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849); Cooper's book was also better known and in print longer than Walden, appearing in its final revised edition in 1887. Thoreau's own journal entry for October 8, 1852, indicates that he had read Rural Hours, at least in part. The book received favorable reviews from William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving and was published in England as Journal of a Naturalist in the United States (1855). Cooper served as the editor of renowned British naturalist John Leonard Knapp's Journal of a Naturalist; with Notes and Additions, by the Author of "Rural Rambles" (1853), principally because of the enthusiastic public regard for her own book.

We admire the strange and brilliant plant of the green-house, but we love most the simple flowers we have loved of old, which have bloomed many a spring, through rain and sunshine, on our native soil.

—Susan Fenimore Cooper

Susan Cooper also edited The Rhyme and Reason of Country Life: or, Selections from Fields Old and New (1854), an anthology of poetry and some prose on the subject drawn from American, European, and Asian sources. The customs, history, and plant and animal life of rural New York form the basis for much of what she wrote, including "Village Improvement Societies" (1869), "The Magic Place" (1870), "Insect-Life in Winter" (1870), "The Hudson River and Its Early Names," (1880), "A Lament for the Birds" (1893), and "An Outing on Lake Otsego" (1894); she also contributed to Appletons' Illustrated Almanac for 1870 (1869).

Susan Fenimore Cooper's life was that of a traditional woman born into an established New York family: her grandfather, William Cooper, had founded Cooperstown, New York; her father James Fenimore Cooper became a prolific writer of popular novels, including the "Leatherstocking" series—The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). Her mother Susan Augusta Cooper 's family, the De Lanceys, were well-to-do landholders descended from French Huguenots. As a young girl, Susan Fenimore Cooper and her family lived near Cooperstown, eventually moving to their fine country house, Angevine, near Scarsdale, in 1818. Cooper claimed that her original inspiration for Rural Hours came from the country buggy rides she took as a young child with her grandfather De Lancey on which he taught her forest and meadow lore.

In 1822, James Fenimore Cooper relocated his family to New York City—in part due to friction with his in-laws, but also so that he could be closer to his publisher and the children could attend good schools. In 1823, with James in debt and in poor health and longing for a change, Susan learned French with her father in preparation for a move to Europe. Three years later, the family set sail on the Hudson; they would remain in Europe for the next seven years. Settling in Paris, the Coopers moved in the highest social circles that included Sir Walter Scott and the Marquis de Lafayette. James served as U.S. Consul for the city of Lyon, France, a position secured for him by DeWitt Clinton. While living with their parents, Susan and her two sisters—Anne Charlotte Cooper and Caroline Martha Cooper —attended an exclusive boarding school run by Madames Trigant de la Tour and Kautz where they studied geography, history, arithmetic, music, drawing, and dancing. In other words, the Cooper daughters were schooled to be fine Victorian ladies. Besides residing in France, the family traveled to Switzerland, lived in Florence, Naples, Rome, Dresden, and England for short periods of time; in each instance, the Cooper children continued their education with private tutors.

No evidence exists to indicate that Susan was actively interested in securing a husband; it is clear, however, that the young girl was courted by several men while the family lived in Europe, including Samuel F.B. Morse, the American inventor of the telegraph, Dr. Ashbel Smith of North Carolina (1805–1886), then a medical student in Paris, and a European noble. In all instances, Cooper's father rejected their proposals, claiming that he did not want her marrying until she was at least 20 and that he did not want any of his family marrying a European. Susan, like her younger sister, Anne Charlotte, remained single her entire life. Although James Cooper was a possessive father, her other sister, Caroline Martha, defied her parents' wishes—and her father's anger—to marry her longtime sweetheart, Henry Phinney.

In 1833, the family returned to New York City, settling in Cooperstown, New York, in 1836. Susan remained a devoted daughter. At age 18, she had become her father's copyist-secretary. When her cousin William, James' amanuensis, died of tuberculosis in 1831, Susan had also filled this position and would remain her father's secretary until his death in 1851, becoming then his literary executor. That year, she moved to Byberry Cottage in Cooperstown, where she lived with her sister Anne Charlotte, and where she resided until the end of her life. Cooper began her long writing career in earnest after her father's death, in part to supplement a meager inheritance.

Much of what Susan Cooper produced had to do with her father, including selections from his work (Pages and Pictures, from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, 1861, and "Passages from a Diary of James Fenimore Cooper," 1868), previously unpublished correspondence and manuscript material ("The Battle of Plattsburgh Bay: An Unpublished Manuscript of J. Fenimore Cooper," 1869, and "The Eclipse: From an Unpublished MS. of James Fenimore Cooper," 1869), selections from his journal ("Fragments from a Diary of James Fenimore Cooper," 1868), short articles about her father ("The Chanting Cherubs," 1870, "A Glance Backward," 1887, and "A Second Glance Backward," 1887), and introductory sections to 15 of his novels published as the Household Edition between 1876 and 1884: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie, Afloat and Ashore, The Crater, Jack Tier, Miles Wallingford, The Pilot, The Red Rover, The Sea Lions, The Two Admirals, The Water-Witch, The Wing-and-Wing. As his executor, Cooper also had to wrestle with her father's deathbed prohibition against publishing his biography; by publishing the aforementioned materials, however, Susan Cooper did her best to provide information about her father while at the same time honoring his request. Later in life, she also wrote a reminiscence for her nieces and nephews recounting her earliest years, which was later published by her nephew, James Fenimore Cooper, as "Small Family Memories" in his heavily abridged Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper (1922).

Besides pieces about her father, natural history, and central New York, Susan Cooper also wrote short stories for magazines. These narratives are sentimental and moralistic, like her first published piece, the novel Elinor Wyllys: A Tale (1845), about a homely young woman who suffers a series of disappointments but whose life holds the promise of better things to come at the book's conclusion. Cooper's short stories include "The Lumley Autograph" (1851), "Sally Lewis and Her Lovers" (1859), "Two of My Lady-Loves" (1872), and "The Wonderful Cookie: A True Story" (1879). Several of her stories were written specifically for a children's audience, including "The Adventures of Cocquelicot: A True History" (1881), the tale of her family's orange Angora cat whom they acquired while living in Paris and brought back with them to New York, and "The Cherry-Colored Purse: A True Story" (published posthumously, 1895).

Cooper responded to the American Women's Suffrage Movement in her article, "Female Suffrage: A Letter to the Christian Women of America" (1870). In it, she exhorts women to cease their demands, basing her argument on biblical traditions: "Let men make the laws [and women] promote by all worth means the moral civilization of the country [by exemplary work in their homes]."

Other works by Cooper are principally biographical in nature, and, aside from those dealing with her father, they include Mount Vernon: A Letter to the Children of America (1859), which briefly summarizes the first president's life and seeks financial support for the preservation of his home, "Madame Lafayette and Her Mother" (1870), "Rear-Admiral William Branford Shubrick" (1876), "Mrs. Philip Schuyler: A Sketch" (1877), entries in Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1886–89), and William West Skiles: A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina, 1842–1862 (1890).

Beginning in the 1860s, Susan Cooper actively involved herself in charitable work for her community. In 1860, she organized the Christ Church Sewing School, which, by its second year, had 80 young women enrolled. She was also one of the five trustees of Thanksgiving Hospital, which she helped establish in 1868 to assist the impoverished of Cooperstown. Perhaps one of her greatest accomplishments was establishing The Orphan House of the Holy Savior (1871) which, by 1885, housed over 100 homeless children. Cooper's writing reflects her devotion to these charities, including "Orphan House of the Holy Savior" (1886) and "The Thanksgiving Hospital" (1886).

Susan Fenimore Cooper spent almost her entire adult life living in Cooperstown, New York; for the 15 years prior to her death, she did not leave her hometown except between 1875 and 1881 for trips to care for her mother's ailing sister in Geneva, New York. Susan Fenimore Cooper died in her home, perhaps of a stroke, on December 31, 1894, and is buried in Cooperstown next to her parents in Christ Church where a stained-glass window commemorates her devotion to the poor of that town.


Baym, Max I., and Percy Matenko. "The Odyssey of the Water-Witch and a Susan Fenimore Cooper Letter," in New York History. Vol. 51, 1970, pp. 33–41.

Beard, James Franklin, ed. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Cooper, Susan Fenimore, "Small Family Memories" in Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. by James Fenimore Cooper. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1922, pp. 7–72.

Cunningham, Anna. "Susan Fenimore Cooper—Child of Genius," in New York History. Vol. 25, 1944, pp. 339–350.

Jones, David. "Introduction," in Rural Hours. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968.

Kurth, Rosaly T. "Susan Fenimore Cooper: An Annotated Checklist of Her Writings," in New York History. Vol. 58, 1977. pp. 173–193.

——. "Susan Fenimore Cooper: A Study of Her Life and Works," Dissertation, Fordham University, 1974.

Levin, Susan M. "Romantic Prose and Feminine Romanticism," in Prose Studies: History, Theory, Criticism. Vol. 10, no. 2, 1987, pp. 178–195.

Maddox, Lucy B. "Susan Fenimore Cooper and the Plain Daughters of America," in American Quarterly. Vol. 40, no. 2, 1968, pp. 131–146.


Correspondence and papers located in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, University of Virginia; and the Cooper Collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Melissa E. Barth , Coordinator of the Office of Women's Concerns and Women's Studies and Professor of English, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina

About this article

Cooper, Susan Fenimore (1813–1894)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article