Other Animals

Meet Susan Fenimore Cooper, America’s First Recognized Female Nature Writer

Susan Fenimore Cooper circa 1855. Photo: W.G. Smith/Public Domain

Henry David Thoreau, who famously penned Walden and other works, is considered the father of American nature writing. Yet most people have never heard of Rural Hours, a nature book written by Susan Fenimore Cooper that Thoreau mentioned in his journals. Cooper’s book was published in 1850—four years before Walden.

As America’s first recognized female nature writer, Cooper broke new ground with a book about her observations of plant and animal life in Cooperstown, New York, which her family founded. Published anonymously “by a lady” in 1850, Rural Hours was praised by contemporaries such as Charles Darwin, and by reviewers in popular magazines. Nine editions were printed up until 1887.

Scholars are uncertain whether Rural Hours influenced Thoreau’s decision to write Walden. But Michael P. Branch, a writer and professor at University of Nevada, thinks that some connection is likely. “We know Thoreau was familiar with Cooper’s work and while I don’t think anyone can quite prove it, it is hard to imagine that he wasn’t influenced by her writing in some way,” Branch says. “It’s really solid natural science, exactly the kind of stuff he loved.” 

Despite Cooper’s initial success with Rural Hours and its nine-edition run during her lifetime, she is little-known today. By publishing anonymously, she “was following a tradition of female authors being modest and not claiming authorship,” says College of Idaho professor Rochelle Johnson, who co-edited a 1998 edition of Rural Hours and is now writing a biography of Cooper.

Cooper was also overshadowed by her more famous father: James Fenimore Cooper was a writer known for his historical novels about the Western frontier, The Leatherstocking Tales. Cooper was close to her father and worked as his secretary for most of her life. When he died in 1851, she managed his literary estate—a time-consuming task that helped her father’s writing legacy rather than her own.

But more than a century before Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book Silent Spring put a spotlight on how human pollution damages the environment, Cooper had warned of the consequences that come with the overexploitation of natural resources. Indeed, she was one of the first American writers to do so.

As she wrote in Rural Hours:

It is not surprising, perhaps, that a man whose chief object in life is to make money should turn his timber into bank-notes with all possible speed; but it is remarkable that any one at all aware of the value of wood, should act so wastefully as most men do in this part of the world. Mature trees, young saplings, and last year’s seedlings, are all destroyed at one blow by the axe or by fire; the spot where they have stood is left, perhaps, for a lifetime without any attempt at cultivation, or any endeavor to foster new wood.

Cooper also made insightful observations on dwindling bird species, who suffered the consequences of overzealous hunting and the destruction of their forest habitat. In Rural Hours, she expresses concern about seeing fewer Passenger Pigeons than she had a few years ago. “At that time they passed over the valley in its length, large unbroken flocks several miles in extent succeeding each other,” she wrote. “There have not been so many here since that season.”  The species, famously, soon went extinct—by 1900, Passenger Pigeons had disappeared from the wild. (Cooper mourns the loss of birds again in her 1893 essay, A Lament for the Birds, writing that birds “never failed in years past to bring joy with them to our lawns and meadows” but at the time of writing had become “rare visitors.”)

While Thoreau is known for philosophizing about humans and nature, Cooper’s writing focused on natural history, inviting readers to take part in what she saw happening around her. Her factual and observant approach made Rural Hours accessible to readers at the time by helping people better understand nature—which in turn deepened their appreciation of what it had to offer. By contrast, Thoreau’s embrace of individualism and rejection of authority was radical for the 1850s, and Walden did not sell very well when it was first published. But its theme of retreating from society to find oneself in nature resonated with elite scholars in the early twentieth century. It was during that era that Walden earned its enduring place in the American literary canon, while Rural Hours was forgotten.

“Critics of the time praised Rural Hours for its ‘simple,’ quiet, direct portrayals of nature and community,” Johnson says, “but these are likely the aspects that led to its temporary neglect.”

Rural Hours fell off the radar in the first half of the twentieth century. After a heavily abridged version appeared in 1887—which omitted Cooper’s writings about forest conservation—the book was not released again until 1968. That edition, which featured the abridged text, also suffered from a condescending return to the literary world: In the introduction to the 1968 text, the critic David Jones commented that though Rural Hours displayed “careful observations” of plant and animal life, it was not “multi-level” nor was it “one of the truly great journals of the nineteenth century.”

He continued that Thoreau might have appreciated her writing. “If he found little trace of his own brand of transcendental insight, he must nevertheless have approved of Susan’s careful eye and her attention to raw natural detail,” wrote Jones, who clearly considered Walden to be “multi-level.”

More than a century earlier, Cooper’s father had described Rural Hours in similar terms that read as inadvertently belittling. In a letter he wrote to his wife on March 3, 1850, he said that Rural Hours was “not strong, perhaps, but so pure, so elegant, so very feminine and charming that I do not doubt, now, of its…eventual success—I say eventual, for at first, the world will not know what to make of it…”

Watercolor from Rural Hours. Illustration: Susan Fenimore Cooper/Public Domain

Cooper’s work started gaining recognition again in recent decades. The 1998 edition of Rural Hours, co-edited by Johnson, was unabridged, including a full version of Cooper’s writing on forest preservation.

Though Rural Hours was her most celebrated literary work, Cooper continued to write essays and short stories for popular magazines such as Harper’s New MonthlyThe Atlantic Monthly, and The Freeman’s Journal while also editing anthologies of her father’s work. She also successfully edited five books, including renowned British naturalist John Leonard Knapp’s 1853 Journal of a Naturalist.  Cooper was also a philanthropist, devoting her time to raising money to help the underprivileged. In 1873, she founded the Orphan House of the Holy Savior in Cooperstown, which she considered to be her “life work.”

Today, as more species become threatened and climate change imperils the planet, modern readers are turning to environmental literature of the past and present. Though Rural Hours never achieved as much fame as Walden, there’s no denying that Cooper’s work brought greater awareness to nature and conservation. 

In spite of all her achievements, Cooper never liked drawing much attention to herself. She lived a quiet life until she passed away on December 31, 1894. 

This story is part of an ongoing series that will highlight trailblazers in birding, conservation, and environmental history whose contributions were overlooked or underrecognized because of their identities or backgrounds. We welcome readers to submit suggestions or pitches future profiles. Please email them to audubonmagazine@audubon.org, and put “History Series” in the subject line. 

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