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Margaret Fuller: Virgin Lands

Margaret Fuller, the seminal female transcendentalist, was also a literary critic, teacher, editor, journalist, and political activist. In Margaret Fuller An American Romantic Life: The Public Years (the previous volume won the 1993 Bancroft Prize), Charles Capper focuses on Fuller’s struggles to establish her identity as an influential intellectual woman in the Romantic Age. The excerpt below details the beginning of Fuller’s trip out west, and paints a complex portrait of one of America’s most influential women.

On May 9, 1843, a week before delivering her “Great Lawsuit” manuscript, Fuller wrote Emerson, “I am trying to write as hard as these odious east winds will let me.” Her geographical allusion was apt. She was trying to get away from the East, and the last thing she wanted, she said, was to drag around manuscripts and proof sheets with her. After toying with taking a trip to the West for nearly a year, she now had an incentive to go right away. “I…am constantly unwell, dull, headaches pulling me back in every thing I undertake,” she complained to Sarah Clarke. “A change of air and scene I surely need.” Mainly, though, she wanted to escape from writing for a while. “I am tired now of books and pens and thought no less,” she wearily told her copy-begging editor, “and shall be glad when I take wing for idle outdoors life, mere sight and emotion.”

In fact, her four-month excursion to the West and the Great Lakes would turn out to be more than a summer idyll. Although she was not taking off for the wild lands of the barely capper-jacket.jpgpioneer-invaded Far West, she was also not going to the half-urbanized Ohio Valley that her family and young ministerial friends had been traipsing to for the past decade for jobs and missions. She was headed for (in the day’s mythic catchword) the “virgin” but rapidly settling upper Mississippi valley. Driven by hard times, cheap land, and the previous decade’s removal of the last of the area’s once numerous Indian tribes, this mass migration was forging America’s now biggest and most kaleidoscopic frontier. Coming from farms and cities stretching from the Ohio Valley, New York, and New England to Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia, its hordes of farmers, peasants, and tradesmen daily pouring into the “Old Northwest” were making up, in the words of one historian, “the largest and most rapid fold migration in modern times.”

Furthermore, books and thought had been preparing her for what she would see. For the past couple of years, her itinerant Concord friend had periodically preached to her that the West was the way into “America.” “If I had a pocketfull of money,” he confessed in one letter, “I think I should go down the Ohio & up & down the Mississippi …to cast out…the passion for Europe by the passion for America.” For her part, Fuller, whose way into America had always lain through Europe, had been craving for months to see a landscape, in telling Romantic words, more “wild” and “sublime” than her New England one. Evidently also hoping to find some hints of folk culture that European Romantics celebrated, she read William Howitt’s Rural and Domestic Life Of Germany and borrowed from Longfellow his copy of Clemens Brentano’s pioneering collection of German folk songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The new American edition of Carlyle’s antimodernist Past and Present, however, which Emerson gave her as a going away present caught her up short. Notwithstanding her earlier grumbling over Providence’s Dorrites, it perversely confirmed that she was headed in the right direction. “I cannot but sympathize with him about hero-worship; for I, too, have had my fits of rage at the pedantic and the worldly,” she wrote Emerson, thanking him for the book. “Yet it is a good sign. Democracy is the way to the new aristocracy, as irreligion to religion. By and by, if there are great men, they will not be brilliant exceptions, redeemers, but favorable samples of their kind.” In “going” West, Fuller was not prepared to look for the Enlightenment’s “Western empire” or the Romantics’ “primitive,” or even, too much a native equivalent of European classical grandeur, to name the three great modern myths of religion. She was ready to encounter the romance of democratic America…

…After a night in Albany and a couple more in Buffalo, the arrived at Niagara, where she got a less romantically promising look at her western prospects. The place was already a booming tourist spot, as well as at once” the ultimate in Romantic landscapes” and an “icon of the American sublime,” a combination she found deadly even before she got there. “Some ladies called on us, who extremely regretted they could not witness our emotions on first seeing Niagara,” she afterward related deadpan to Emerson of one encounter while stopping at Buffalo. “Many,’ they said, ‘burst into tears; but with those of most sensibility, the hands become cold as ice and they would not mind if buckets of cold water were thrown over them!” “Even at the Falls, she fretted. How could she keep out of her mind all the “very correct ” borrowed images that she had gotten from “pictures & other magical changes on the falling water” when the weather was cold and overcast? Still, “the sight of beauty, without the union of the soul therewith,” she decided, had its future reportorial value. “Carried away in memory, it hangs there in the lonely hall, as a picture, & may sometime do its message,” she wrote in her journal. “I trust it may be so in my case, for I saw every object far more clearly than if I had been moved and filled with the presence, and my recollections are equally distinct and vivid.” She would struggle with the rival claims of the real, the Romantic, and the picturesque for the rest of her trip…

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