Monday, October 22, 2012

Countdown to Halloween: Susan Fenimore Cooper's Rural Hours (1850); or, more pumpkins...

"October" - harvesting pumpkins - from Appletons' Journal, 1869
"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, and were commenced two years since, in the spring of 1848, for the writer's amusement." So begins Susan Fenimore Cooper's delightful Rural Hours (1850).

If that description of her aims and intentions evoked Thoreau for you, well, you're not alone. It was what jumped into my mind, certainly. And as Michael P. Branch points out in this collection of essays on Susan Fenimore Cooper, edited by Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson, there's good reason for that: "Like Henry Thoreau's Walden (1854), which it preceded by four years, Rural Hours is structured according to the seasonal cycle [...] Indeed, a reference in his Journal confirms that Thoreau read at least part of Rural Hours, and circumstantial evidence hints that some of the most memorable passages in Walden may have been suggested by several of Cooper's own passages." That's not to suggest that Rural Hours is only interesting because of that association. I think it's food for thought, though, that Cooper still languishes in almost-obscurity while Thoreau goes from strength to strength.

Which brings us to the pumpkins: Cooper's diary entry for September 16th provides a typically charming taster of both the tone and content of Rural Hours. "The buckwheat fields are turning red, and will soon be cut," Cooper tells us. "The maize-stalks are drying and withering as the ears ripen [...] The great pumpkins, always grown with maize [see the illustration above], are also lying ripening in the sun." And this sight of ripening pumpkins leads Cooper to a wider disquisition about the place of these squash in the lives of the "men, women, and children [...] in this part of the world", particularly in the shape of pumpkin pie. So, no references to Halloween or Jack o'Lanterns; but still I can't think of any nicer autumnal reading. Make sure to check it out.

Anyone looking for yet more pumpkin pleasures can check out these pumpkin pie recipes by two other doyennes of antebellum letters: Lydia Maria Child's, from the American Frugal Housewife (c.1832), is available here; Sarah Josepha Hale's, from Mrs Hale's Receipts for the Million (c.1857), is available here.

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