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Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 and the Condition of America [1]

  • Lance Newman

…plus d’informations

  • Lance Newman
    California State University, San Marcos

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Corps de l’article

I. The Strange Beauty of Rock River

In the spring of 1842, Margaret Fuller declared that she was financially exhausted, and turned over the editorship of the Dial to Ralph Waldo Emerson. She spent the following year running a series of the “conversations” in which she helped define the mainstream of Transcendentalism, demonstrating the movement’s “commitment to changing people's lives by changing their minds" (Capper 509). At the same time, she wrote the ground-breaking feminist manifesto, “The Great Lawsuit, or Man vs. Men, Woman vs. Women.” In it she argued that women should be given the freedom to develop to their fullest potential, to approach the ideal, Woman. The result, she hoped, would be wholesale transformation of a society deformed by an imbalance between masculine and feminine principles. In May 1843, after finishing her essay, she embarked with her friends Sarah Ann and James Freeman Clarke on a summer-long tour, by steamboat, wagon, and canoe, of what was then the West: the Great Lakes and the territories of Illinois and Wisconsin. She wrote Emerson that her “time was chiefly passed in the neighborhood of a chain of lakes, fine pieces of water, with the wide sloping park-like banks, so common in this country.” The region fulfilled her expectations of conventional picturesque beauty, but she was not satisfied. She also hoped “to see some emigrant with worthy aims, using all his gifts and knowledge to some purpose honorable to the land, instead of lowering themselves to the requisitions of the moment, as so many of them do” (Higginson 193-94, 197). Fuller euphemistically differentiates here between materialistic or utilitarian motivations, on one hand, and spiritual or aesthetic aims on the other. Her emphasis is no accident. Her trip occurred during the depths of the severe economic crisis of 1837 to 1844, a period of widespread questioning of the historical progressiveness of capitalism. Many among Fuller’s layer of radical bourgeois Bostonians felt that the world had been badly deformed by the rise to dominance of what they called “the spirit of commerce.” Their romantic assessment of the social pathologies they observed around them focused on the idea that a materialist, instrumentalist, and rationalist civilization had lost touch with the organic “laws of nature.” Their response was to try individually to reconnect with those laws in the geographical “nature” embodied by rural and wild landscapes. They envisioned nature as definitively non-commercial space wherein spiritual truths were embodied in physical facts and scenes. The activities appropriate to that space extracted aesthetic or moral value, as opposed to use or exchange value. And the way to experience nature most immediately was by achieving a moment of self-transcendence in response to a sublime landscape. This characteristic opposition of a self-consciously idealized nature to the world of commerce pervades Fuller’s narrative of her trip, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. Margaret Allen notes that Fuller “observed America in the making and reflected on the disparity between promise and fulfillment." (Achievement 126). Summer on the Lakes is structured by the tension between a vision of a just society rooted in nature and the stark reality of America’s westward expansion, between an abiding faith in the human potential to live up to the beauty of picturesque landscapes and a clear understanding of the cold social calculus of immediate profit.

Thus Summer on the Lakes presents a strangely contradictory picture of the physical setting of the western settlements, a picture by turns disparaging and idealizing. Through much of the narrative, the frontier is a ravaged landscape, a place “where the clash of material interests is so noisy” that religion and spirituality are almost forgotten (12). The conventional elements of the picturesque have been destroyed by the advance guard of capitalist expansion: “the old landmarks are broken down, and the land, for a season, bears none, except of the rudeness of conquest and the needs of the day, whose bivouac fires blacken the sweetest forest glades” (18). Alongside this ecological damage, Summer on the Lakes details the social destruction the settlers left in their wake, displacing and impoverishing whole native tribes. More, the text focuses closely on the isolation and alienation, especially for women, bred by the societies the emigrants build. As Annette Kolodny argues, Summer on the Lakes offers a corrective to a variety of contemporary promotional tracts that peddled a deceptive “domestic fantasy,” depicting the west as a place where “a societal Eden and the individualized home at last became one on a landscape that had always been christened Paradise” (129, 111). Unlike the authors of these tracts, Fuller reported that women were confined to an “exclusively domestic role” even on the frontier, and that their “new home constituted not any flowering garden but only a rude cabin, sometimes without even windows from which to gaze out on the surrounding beauty” (128-29).

While much of Summer on the Lakes is sharply dystopian, there are also sustained passages of rhapsodic landscape description, such as those concentrated in Fuller’s account of the Rock River country, west of Chicago. This Illinois material is a kind of gauzy vignette inserted into what is elsewhere sharply focused on the harshness of the capitalist frontier. Fuller describes the region as superlatively picturesque; it is “Haunted by paths like those that Poussin knew, / When after his all gazers' eyes he drew….” Moreover, it is a restorative retreat the equal of which she feels she may never see:

Farewell, ye soft and sumptuous solitudes!
Ye fairy distances, ye lordly woods….
I go,—and if never more may steep
An eager heart in your enchantments deep,
Yet ever to itself that heart may say,
Be not exacting; thou hast lived one day;
Hast looked on that which matches thy mood….
A tender blessing lingers o’er the scene,
Like some young mother’s thought, fond, yet serene,
And through its life new-born our lives have been.


Given her intense literary activity during the preceding few years, it may seem unsurprising that Fuller experienced individual renovation on the prairies and forests of the west. But the Rock River country is more; it is a social utopia rendered in the idiom of the picturesque:

[It] bears the character of a country which has been inhabited by a nation skilled like the English in all the ornamental arts of life, especially in landscape gardening. That the villas and castles seem to have been burnt, the enclosures taken down, but the velvet lawns, the flower gardens, the stately parks, scattered at graceful intervals by the decorous hand of art, the frequent deer, and the peaceful herd of cattle that make picture of the plain, all suggest more of the masterly mind of man, than the prodigal, but careless, motherly love of nature. Especially is this true of the Rock River country.


This enchanted landscape is markedly empty of both architectural monuments to the old-world ruling class and the hedges that were the main mechanism of early capitalist agricultural rationalization in England. What remains are the stylized pastoral settings of the neo-classical country estate, settings that were dedicated exclusively to leisure activities. In this countryside where both social hierarchies and labor are invisible, Fuller finds what she told Emerson she was looking for: “There was a peculiar charm in coming here, where the choice of location, and the unobtrusive good taste of all the arrangements, showed such intelligent appreciation of the scene, after seeing so many dwellings of the new settlers, which showed plainly that they had no thought beyond satisfying the grossest material wants” (29). Here in the Rock River Country, Fuller and her friends felt “free to imagine themselves in Elysium [and] the three days passed here were days of unalloyed, spotless happiness” (29). Again, this concentrated utopian fantasy contrasts quite sharply with what is otherwise a self-consciously skeptical travel narrative, one in which Fuller promises to avoid the hyperbole of so many of her contemporaries, promises not to “confound ugliness with beauty, discord with harmony, and laud and be contented with all I meet, when it conflicts with my best desires and tastes” (18).

One influential explanation of this apparent anomaly in Summer on the Lakes is Annette Kolodny’s assertion that the Illinois chapter represents an “adult reversion to childhood raptures” and offers “less an impression of physical topography than an immersion in the fantasies that topography seemed to invite” (120, 114-15). Kolodny points to Fuller’s relationship with her father and argues that the chapter records her unwitting resolution of childhood emotional trauma. Timothy Fuller was a prominent Massachusetts lawyer and politician, who gave his daughter a famously rigorous education, delivered with perhaps too stern discipline; he had her reciting Latin to him nightly at age six. According to an autobiographical fragment, she considered the best hours of her childhood those in which she retreated to her mother’s garden, where it was possible to relax and play at will, if only for a time. Kolodny concludes that, in Illinois, Fuller was able to relive her childhood dream of rural retreat: “what Fuller was able to repossess on the parklike and flowered prairies of the middle west was her unmediated pleasure in ‘the dear little garden’ remembered from childhood” (119). In other words, despite her professions of balance and fairness, Fuller “wanted to see settlement without despoliation” (116, Kolodny’s emphasis). The Rock River country came close and “because she was so eager to recapture the garden of her childhood…the habitually tough-minded Fuller allowed herself to overlook contradictions and inconsistencies” that would have destroyed her fantasy (120).

Such an interpretation requires her readers to believe that while she was working in the Harvard College library, constantly reminded by cold stares that she was the first woman allowed the privilege (Tonkovich 79-83), the “habitually tough-minded” Fuller suffered a lapse of writerly self-consciousness. More, that lapse lasted just long enough for her to produce an internally consistent chapter that contrasts unmistakably with the rest of her book. A more recent reading that relies on a similar judgment maintains that when Fuller, describing Illinois, mobilizes the picturesque convention of the “commanding view,” she participates unwittingly in an American nationalism that she rejects elsewhere in the narrative (A. Baker 67-73). Such a reading surrenders to the kind of logic that drove Perry Miller to dismiss Summer on the Lakes as an “intolerable monstrosity” (116) and Orestes Brownson to deliver the exaggerated condemnation of his 1844 review: “Her writings…are sent out in a slipshod style, and have a certain toss of the head about them which offends us. Miss Fuller seems to us to be wholly deficient in a pure, correct taste, and especially in that tidiness we always look for in woman” (546). There is a short distance between such outright contempt and the stolid constructivism that can lead an otherwise sympathetic observer to claim that "with its surfeit of quotations, Summer on the Lakes enacts the process of cultural inscription, while it embodies the desire to regain control of experience. Unable to escape the discourses of others, Fuller can revise them—by drawing attention to their ideological effects" (Steele xxv). In the end, to interpret Fuller’s apparent incongruities as lapses of intellectual self-control is to recycle the kind of thinking that had kept women out of libraries like the one she homesteaded, that motivated Emerson and his co-conspirators to bowdlerize her memoirs (Chevigny "Censorship"), and that kept Summer on the Lakes unavailable except in expurgated versions for more than a century (D. Baker).

Why, then, did Fuller single out the Rock River country for description as a scene of beauty and promise? James Freeman Clarke suggests, also in an 1844 review, that Fuller “has done wisely in not making a guide book, which...would have become useless in another year; she has not given us a volume of maps, but a portfolio of sketches, some in outline, some filled out and carefully finished” (2). More recently, William Stowe has extended Clarke’s line of thought, arguing that Fuller’s inconsistency is deliberate, that “Summer on the Lakes is in many ways a conventionally eclectic travel book,” one that operates as a vehicle for “multiple voices—male and female, marked and unmarked, real and invented—without establishing a hierarchy among them or a sense of irreversible progress from one to another" (251, 242). Sandra Gustafson maintains that while such decisions may seem merely aesthetic, "Fuller's political engagements were fundamentally linguistic in nature.” She addressed the “social position of woman in the nineteenth century [by turning] her attention to the problems of voice, form, and genre that for two centuries had shaped American women's public expression" (35). Stephen Adams points out Fuller’s repeated calls for new literary forms suitable to demotic and democratic America, and invites comparison of Summer on the Lakes with such eclectic collections of divergent material as Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Melville's Moby Dick. Adams argues that, like these, Summer on the Lakes mobilizes the Romantic convention of the fragment, in which the protagonist narrates a “dramatic, explorative literature of process,” a literature that invites the reader to participate in “generating a valuable work from a flawed text” (250). Summer on the Lakes, he maintains, is a narrative of disappointed hopes, of “great potential that will never be fulfilled” in which "occasional glimpses of an ideal emerge—hints of harmonious junction in the national, social, and personal spheres.” But throughout, “the potential union of human and divine is frustrated, just as the western settlers fail to realize their heaven on earth because of their materialism and failure to fulfill the potential of women” (252, 259). Fuller herself writes that “the poet must describe, as the painter sketches Irish peasant girls and Danish fishwives, adding the beauty and leaving out the dirt” (18). She believes that it is her duty to see the pure, ideal world behind the grubby, material one.

The idea that Fuller’s portrait of the Rock River country offers a heuristic glimpse of an ideal can be combined with a line of inquiry toward which Kolodny gestures briefly. She notes that Fuller “recognized in the fertile and well-watered grasslands a potential economic refuge from the hard scrabble farms of her native New England, where sons fled to the cities or the frontier to seek a livelihood and daughters left home for fourteen-hour days and slave wages in the proliferating textile mills and shoe factories” (Kolodny 115). The rapid development of capitalism in New England in the decades of Fuller’s youth had changed the region from an agrarian colony into a thriving center of industrial production. It had also sharply intensified both the rural poverty and the urban exploitation that Kolodny suggests were in the back of Fuller’s mind. This total transformation of her home is the key to understanding Fuller’s apparent contradictions. For Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 weighs the west as a potential alternative to New England; in so doing, it both faces up to the disappointing reality of the frontier and systematically employs the vocabulary of the picturesque to envision a wholly transformed society, one that transcends the materialism of America as a whole.

II. The Future-of-America Question

As she contemplated New England’s probable future, Fuller had clearly in mind the bad example of England. Susan Belasco Smith reads Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 as a broadside in an early national “paper war”—a series of “lengthy arguments over national superiority fought on the pages of a variety of literary works written by both British and American writers...” ("British" 191). Summer on the Lakes was a polemical rejoinder to negative assessments of the early national U.S. that had been published in the preceding two decades by, among others, Harriet Martineau, Frances Trollope, and Charles Dickens. These Victorian travelers had commented extensively on the crudeness of the frontier, the brutality of slavery, and the provincialism of the Northern cities. Fuller faults them for their focus on the real rather than the ideal. In Summer on the Lakes, she "describes an actual world in terms of its potential, [because, for her] the realist absorption with the present…militates against the exploration of the possible" ("British" 197). But she sets out to do more than defend the American experiment against these ordinary detractors. She also attempts to answer what Thomas Carlyle—in Chartism, his 1840 assessment of social progress under capitalism— called "the Condition-of-England question” (151). Carlyle suggests that the fantastically productive textile mills of England's industrial cities are as sublime as the most famous of American natural scenes: “Hast thou heard…the awakening of a Manchester, on Monday morning, at half-past five by the clock; the rushing off of its thousand mills, like the boom of an Atlantic tide, ten-thousand times ten-thousand spools and spindles all set humming there,—it is perhaps if thou knew it well, sublime as a Niagara, or more so” (211). There is more to justify the energy of this rhetoric than the familiarly awful infinitude of interchangeable parts and workers, for "cotton-spinning is the clothing of the naked in its result [and] the triumph of man over matter in its means" (211). However, Carlyle also recognizes a threat to his vision of the technological sublime, a threat that is the real subject of Chartism. The vast increases in productivity made possible by capitalist industrialization have been matched by shocking concentrations of poverty. Nevertheless, he insists, this is not necessarily so: "Soot and despair are not the essence of [Manchester]; they are divisible from it,—at this hour, are they not crying fiercely to be divided?" (211).

Fuller, like many others in New England, valued Carlyle’s sharp analysis of the class tensions in Old England’s capitalist social order. On the first of June, 1843, she was at Niagara Falls, and she wrote to Emerson about the book she had been reading there, Carlyle's Past and Present. This volume (which Emerson had just arranged to have published in the U.S.) extended Chartism’s diagnosis of “the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad…of the Working Classes of England” (151). Along with his revulsion at the impoverishment of the urban working class, Chartism had also recorded Carlyle’s horror of “the mob”—of, in other words, the working class's efforts at self-emancipation. Heroes and Hero-Worship, a lecture series published the next year, had prescribed an authoritarian cure for the condition of England. Two years later, Past and Present combined diagnosis and cure. Carlyle begins Past and Present by maintaining that

England is full of wealth, of multifarious produce, supply for human want in every kind; yet England is dying of inanition. With unabated bounty the land of England blooms and grows; waving with yellow harvests; thick-studded with workshops, industrial implements, with fifteen millions of workers…and behold, some baleful fiat as of Enchantment has gone forth, saying, 'Touch it not, ye workers…no man of you shall be the better for it; this is enchanted fruit!".


In other words, England is suffering a classic crisis of capitalism, a crisis of overproduction brought on by the competition between individual capitals. Driving down wages in order to maintain their profit margins, those capitals have impoverished the vast majority of workers and therefore have created both economic stagnation and political unrest. As a solution to this crisis, Carlyle holds up a twelfth-century cleric, Abbot Samson of St. Edmundsbury: a model leader who overcomes social instability through hard-nosed practicality and determination. Fuller, again, valued Carlyle’s forecast of danger, but she was not so enthusiastic about the solutions he offered. In her letter to Emerson, she writes:

There is no valuable doctrine in [Carlyle's] book…. His proposed measures say nothing. Educate the people. That cannot be done by books, or voluntary effort, under these paralyzing circumstances. Emigration! According to his own estimate of the increases of population, relief that way can have very slight effect. He ends as he began; as he did in Chartism. Everything is very bad. You are fools and hypocrites, or you would make it better.

Letters 128

Beneath her sarcastic dismissal there is a silent and grave recognition of the developmental parallel between England and America. For New Englanders, there was an inevitable extension of “the Condition-of-England question." Phyllis Cole identifies it especially clearly with special reference to Emerson:

Witnessing the mechanized landscape of industrial England, the limited mental scope of the people who dwelt within it, and their largely unsuccessful attempts to alleviate the suffering that the social machinery had produced, Emerson realized how delimiting and in the end blighting modern society could be…. “Birminghamization” became universalized as “Fate” [and] was not finally limited to England; it became a part of Emerson's vision of America as well.


By 1843, then, many had begun to wonder whether the northern US was traveling Old England’s path into the industrial future. If so, what was the future of America? Could the young republic modernize without generating the same kind of class war that was shaking England so deeply?

Already there had been ominous signs that the answer was negative. As early as 1831, New York witnessed its first labor demonstrations when stonecutters protested the use of prison-cut stone in the construction of public buildings. The same year the Workingmen’s Party formed by far the largest contingent in Boston’s Independence Day parade. The following years were marked by increasingly resolute working class organization. By 1834, New York City’s General Trades Union created a National Trades Union and celebrated with a march that stretched a mile and a half. During the same year, the women of Lowell’s mills struck against wage reductions. Sailors, shipwrights, riggers, and stevedores struck in New York. And bloody battles broke out between secretly organized Irish workers on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and a group of scabs, prompting Jackson to send in federal troops. All this ended abruptly with the financial panic of 1837 and the ensuing depression, which lasted at least until 1843. The effects of this crisis on the working poor were shattering. The winter of 1836-37 had been bad enough, with anger boiling over into bread riots in New York City, including the famous assault on Hart’s Flour Store. By summer, a third of manual laborers were unemployed. Ninety percent of New England’s factories simply closed their doors, throwing thousands more out of work. The hard-won unions collapsed as they lost the majority of the jobs they had organized either to closures or to scabs. By all accounts, the levels of dislocation and misery exceeded those of the Great Depression a century later. Given this context, the Future-of-America question was far from merely academic or transcendental. It was an urgent inquiry into the probable fate of the still incomplete American revolution.

III. “Adding The Beauty And Leaving Out The Dirt”

Summer on the Lakes, Fuller’s answer to the Future-of-America question, begins with a chapter that describes an eight-day visit to Niagara Falls, and that operates as a parable about aestheticist and utilitarian ways of seeing and valuing nature. Upon arriving at the Falls, she finds that her appreciation of the scene is blocked by the mediation of reproduced images and the touristic conventions that governed such encounters: “When I first came here I felt nothing but a quiet satisfaction. I found that the drawings, the panorama, &c. had given me a clear notion of the position and proportions of all objects here; I knew where to look for everything, and everything looked as I thought it would” (4). She captures the flatness of this moment by comparing herself to “a little cowboy” she once saw looking at “one of the finest sunsets that ever enriched this world” and saying gruffly “that sun looks well enough” (4). In order to uncover a satisfying meaning in the prospect of the Falls, Fuller experiments with various customary modes of perception:

All great expression which, on a superficial survey, seems so easy as well as so simple, furnishes after a while, to the faithful observer its own standard by which to appreciate it. Daily these proportions widened and towered more and more upon my sight, and I got at last a proper foreground for these sublime distances. Before coming away I think I really saw the full wonder of the scene. After awhile it so drew me into itself as to inspire an undefined dread, such as I never knew before, such as may be felt when death is about to usher us into a new existence.


After abandoning the picturesque, with its painterly conventions of “position and proportions,” Fuller here tries the alternative tradition of the Burkean sublime, in which natural scenes trigger intense emotional responses. Finally, on “Table Rock, close to the great fall” she experiences a fulfilling moment of sublime immediacy: there “all power of observing details, all separate consciousness, was quite lost” (5). In order to come to grips with the scene at Niagara, Fuller must observe it closely and experiment with alternative modes of interpreting it. She must take her time and get to know it intimately before she is rewarded with an experience of intense aesthesis.

But just when she has at last discovered a satisfying perspective on the falls, she is interrupted in the rudest way possible. A “man came to take his first look. He walked close up to the fall, and, after looking at it a moment, with an air as if thinking how he could best appropriate it to his own use, he spat into it” (5). This interruption, she writes, “seemed worthy of an age whose love of utility is such that [it would be no surprise to see] men coming to put the bodies of their dead parents in the fields to fertilize them…” (5). For Fuller, one of the earliest importers of Romantic epistemological ideas, looking implies a “subjective observer in two senses: as an active agent rather than an object acted upon by sensations; and as the observer, or creator, of an individual perception rather than an objective, or universal, vision” (Haronian 38). The spitter’s rushed, homogenizing way of seeing is directly linked to what he sees: a nature whose sole purpose is appropriation for personal profit; his crude realism and his utilitarianism are two sides of the same coin. Disgusted, Fuller tries to drown out the image of this utilitarian by losing herself again in an awe-inspiring whirlpool at the base of the falls. There, the “river cannot look more imperturbable [and seems] to whisper mysteries the thundering voice above could not proclaim…” (5). She even goes so far as to imagine an appropriate death for the spitter, noting that “whatever has been swallowed by the cataract, is likely to rise to sudden light here, whether an uprooted tree, or body of man or bird” (5). Fuller’s reaction is so strong because she has come to Niagara Falls precisely to escape a New England ruled by utility, by the “the spirit of commerce.” Now, that spirit has followed her and confronted her at this long-awaited moment of self-transcendence in the face of the premier icon of the American sublime. Her disappointment is so sharp that, in the end, she can do no more than voice a forlorn hope that such events may not “be seen on the historic page to be truly the age or truly the America” (5).

Fuller’s first reaction to the prairies is similar to her response to Niagara, but requires a more complex act of perceptual experimentation than locating her body close to the noise and mist of the falls. “At first, the prairie seemed to speak of the very desolation of dullness.... It is always thus with the new form of life; we must learn to look at it by its own standard” (22). Nevertheless, she comes to love prairies by traveling through them in a fashion which was at the limits of permissible exposure for a single woman of the Boston elite. She goes camping and deliberately courts the feeling of being lost in the wilderness:

We set forth in a strong wagon, almost as large, and with the look of those used elsewhere for transporting caravans of wild beasts, loaded with every thing we might want, in case nobody would give it to us—for buying and selling were no longer to be counted on—with a pair of strong horses, able and willing to force their way through mud holes and amid stumps, and a guide equally admirable as marshal and companion, who knew by heart the country and its history, both natural and artificial, and whose clear hunter’s eye needed neither road nor goal to guide it to all the spots where beauty best loves to dwell.


Fuller represents this land where “buying and selling were no longer to be counted on” as Eden before the fall, as a place where nature “did not say, Fight or starve; nor even, work or cease to exist; but merely showing that the apple was a finer fruit than the wild crab, gave both room to grow in the garden” (38). In this land of natural plenty, there is neither property nor commerce: “there was neither wall nor road in Eden [and] those who walked there lost and found their way just as we did” (40). Fuller is traveling through the American imperial frontier at the moment of its most breakneck settlement and development. But she sees the land as a poet, “adding the beauty and leaving out the dirt” (18). She makes believe that she is lost in order to experience nature’s beauty and blind herself to the ever-present reminders of the degraded commercial world she has left behind.

Such reminders, after all, are irritatingly common. On the boat to Chicago, she hears “immigrants who were to be the fathers of a new race, all, from the old man down to the little girl, talking not of what they should do, but of what they should get in the new scene” (12). Buffalo and Chicago are mere shipping depots full of “business people” (19). She complains of “mushroom growth,” observing that “where ‘go ahead’ is the only motto, the village cannot grow into the gentle proportions that successive lives, and the gradations of experience involuntarily give…” (18). Everywhere, it seems, crass utilitarianism shapes human social relations as well as human relations with nature. Fuller interprets this reality in straightforwardly Transcendentalist fashion. The settlers suffer from an ideological illness; they can not slough off “habits of thought” learned in the East (39). More specifically, they are given over entirely to “habits of calculation”—habits that make emigration seem to offer “a prospect, not of the unfolding nobler energies, but of more ease, and larger accumulation” (12). But the longer she spends in the West, the more experience challenges this idealist explanation of the society that she finds there.

IV. “To Woo the Mighty Meaning of the Scene”

Fuller’s initial disappointment and poetizing response are only the beginning of the story. What is unique about Summer on the Lakes is that, just as her journey takes her for the first time beyond the physical bounds of New England, she also crosses ideological borders in search of a mode of optimism built out of these disappointing materials, a mode of optimism that overcomes the limits of the transcendental idealism she has brought from home. She attempts “to woo the mighty meaning of the scene” by using her perspectival experiments to clear the foundation for a carefully built hope (18). Susan Belasco Smith notes that “the closest Fuller comes to defining such a worldview [is in a] long meditation on the character of the medieval Flemish nobleman Philip Van Artevelde” ("British" 202). Fuller describes him as “no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens while his feet step firmly on the ground” (64). Fuller’s Van Artevelde is a direct counter-image to Carlyle’s crude realist, Abbot Samson of St. Edmundsbury. He is also clearly not Emerson, the idealist sage of Concord. For just as Fuller was not satisfied with Carlyle’s authoritarianism, so she had begun to outgrow Emerson’s contemplative democracy (Smith, "Introduction" xix). What does her hybrid perspective reveal? What alternative does Fuller see to a future America dominated by the “spirit of commerce” and suffering from the “Condition-of-England?” She sees a spectacle of organic community in the Rock River Country.

As she narrates her approach to Rock River by wagon, Fuller offers several glimpses of what is to come. First, she again finds that she must experiment in order to learn how to appreciate the landscape properly. She begins by attempting to see the immense prairies as sublimely monotonous, but in the end finds that they are no more than infinitely dull. After a time, though, she begins “to love because [she] began to know the scene, and shrank no longer from ‘the encircling vastness’” (Fuller 21). Intimacy with a place, particular knowledge of the material world, she suggests, engages her more than do the responses generated by homogenizing conventions. However, as if to suggest that such knowledge must be subordinated to proper ends, she next tells of how, at the town of Geneva on the Fox River, she took encouragement from a group of “New Englanders of an excellent stamp, generous, intelligent, discreet, and seeking to win from life its true values.” They “seemed like points of light among the swarms of settlers, whose aims are sordid, whose habits thoughtless and slovenly" (23). After leaving this uplifting town (having listened to a fine sermon by its Unitarian clergyman), she comes upon an English immigrant’s home in the forest: “This habitation of man seemed like a nest in the grass, so thoroughly were the buildings and all the objects of human care harmonized with what was natural. The tall trees bent and whispered all around, as if to hail with sheltering love the men who had come to dwell among them” (24). At this gentlemanly home, high-thinking combines with careful attention to the specific character of a given spot in the material world to produce a harmonious mutualism between humans and physical nature. A few paragraphs later, Fuller follows through on the hint that such harmony can be both admonitory and sustaining. At “Ross’s grove…the trees…were large enough to form with their clear stems pillars for grand cathedral aisles. There was space enough for crimson light to stream through upon the floor of water which the shower had left. As we slowly plashed through, I thought I was never in a better place for vespers” (25). Fuller’s nature is both a concrete material world and immanently divine. And if there is any hope of transcending the crude utilitarianism of the present America, she intimates, western settlers would do well to harmonize themselves with nature’s simultaneously physical and moral truths. Fuller finishes this preliminary essay by driving home her point with a negative example, a comic anecdote about “a young lady who showed herself to have been bathed in the Britannic fluid…by the impossibility she experienced of accommodating herself to the indecorums” of a roadhouse. Because she refuses to adjust to the world around her, “England sat up all night…shuddering and listening” (26).

In the description of the Rock River country that follows, Fuller gives a picture of the kind of society that might be built by a community of people who have learned to harmonize themselves with nature. She begins with a visit to the “large and commodious dwelling” of an “Irish gentleman,” where she establishes a series of complex distinctions between those who can and cannot make such adjustments: “There was a peculiar charm in coming here, where the choice of location, and the unobtrusive good taste of all the arrangements, showed such intelligent appreciation of the spirit of the scene, after seeing so many dwellings of the new settlers, which showed plainly that they had no thought beyond satisfying the grossest material wants” (29). Old World aristocrats like this absent gentleman are sensitive enough to fit their dwellings into “the natural architecture of the country,” whereas the vast majority of settlers “do not see it at all” and build slovenly “little brown houses” (29). However, both aristocrats and commoners occupy land that once belonged to others: “Seeing the traces of the Indians, who chose the most beautiful sites for their dwellings, and whose habits do not break in on that aspect of nature under which they were born, we feel as if they were the rightful lords of a beauty they forbore to deform”(29). The natives are natural aristocrats whose rights have been forcibly extinguished by the democratic mass of settlers, who “do not see” the beauty of nature at all: “it breathes, it speaks in vain to those who are rushing into its sphere” (29). The westward progress of these settlers “is Gothic, not Roman, and their mode of cultivation will, in the course of twenty, perhaps ten, years, obliterate the natural expression of the country…” (29). Imperial expansion, with its displacement of natives and radical transformation of the landscape, may be painful to contemplate, but it “is inevitable, fatal; we must not complain, but look forward to a good result” (29). Just as the aesthetically alert natives must inevitably be displaced by philistine hordes, so too, by implication, must such aristocrats as the builder of this refined estate on the frontier. This passage is a Whiggish eulogy—a wistful lament for history’s erasure of both natural and cultivated nobility, written by one of those "aristocratic democrats who shared the culture of the fortunate classes but longed for the welfare of all" (Brooks 239). But there is more to it than that. By distinguishing between Gothic and Roman modes, between the violence of invading barbaric hordes and orderly settlement by republican citizens, Fuller suggests that there is a more ideal way to accomplish Westward expansion, and that the ability to see nature properly might be learned by the citizens of a future American republic.

After quietly making this suggestion, Fuller sketches a portrait of the seedbed of that future republic. To begin, she reaches for a rhetorical peak, describing the auspicious natural beauty of the area around the town of Oregon. Again she sees a natural cathedral:

Here swelled the river in its boldest course, interspersed by halcyon isles on which nature had lavished all her prodigality in tree, vine, and flower, banked by noble bluffs, three hundred feet high, their sharp ridges as exquisitely definite as the edge of a shell; their summits adorned with those same beautiful trees, and with buttresses of rich rock…. Lofty natural mounds rose amidst the rest, with the same lovely and sweeping outline, showing everywhere the plastic power of water,—water, mother of beauty, which by its sweet and eager flow, had left such lineaments as human genius never dreamt of….


In this “capital of nature’s art,” there are still many traces of a native village, whose inhabitants had been “driven away” only quite recently: “As usual, they had chosen with the finest taste”(33). Surveying the site, Fuller grieves for the natives as noble predecessors, marked by a “Greek splendor,” to whose spirit their Roman conquerors should turn for guidance. The picturesque beauty and historicity of the place, she believes, bodes well for the community that will grow there. Viewing the area from above, she writes: “I think I had never felt so happy that I was born in America. Woe to all country folks that never saw this spot, never swept an enraptured gaze over the prospect that stretched beneath. I do believe Rome and Florence are suburbs compared to this capital of Nature's art” (33). What seems to be jarring patriotism is part of Fuller’s vision of Nature as the ground of an ideal society. As Anne Baker notes, Fuller hopes to find “a collective identity emerging through encounters with the American landscape" (70). The America she is happy to have been born in is the spiritualized landscape, not the commercial nation. Thus she maintains a serious tone describing an ideal settler: her uncle has settled in Rock River and his “house—a double log cabin—was, to my eye, the model of a Western villa” (36). The word “villa” incorporates this cabin into the discourse of roman republicanism, marking its inhabitant as one of the citizens who will build the ideal future America. But when she joins “the free and independent” townspeople for a celebration of Independence Day, her tone changes. The evening begins with speeches, “the usual puffs of Ameriky.” These are followed “by a plentiful dinner, provided by and for the Sovereign People, to which Hail Columbia served as grace” (37). Fuller’s tone is sardonic, even arch. This mock heroic celebration with its stale rhetoric of Americanism marks the distance between the actual West and a possible utopian republic she has envisioned germinating there (Putz).

It is not just nature’s beauty that is important to the health of this germinal republic. Just as important is its material productivity. First, harmonious inhabitation itself is made possible by the land’s fertility and abundance; here one “need not painfully economise and manage how he may use [all his land]; he can afford to leave some of it wild, and to carry out his plans without obliterating those of nature” (37-38). Just as importantly, the fertility of this region promises to close the class divide by allowing all settlers access to the independence and leisure that make true citizenship possible. Here, “with a very little money, a ducal estate may be purchased, and by a very little more, and moderate labor, a family be maintained upon it with raiment, food and shelter” (37). More, fertility pacifies the domestic quarrels that lead to divisive and destructive factions; here “a man need not take a small slice from the landscape, and fence it in from the obtrusions of an uncongenial neighbor” (37). Finally, individual happiness based on material plenty makes possible a redeemed social order: “A pleasant society is formed of the families who live along the banks of this stream upon farms. They are from various parts of the world, and have much to communicate to one another. Many have cultivated minds and refined manners, all a varied experience, while they have in common the interests of a new country and a new life” (38). Carlyle’s Manchester was an alleyway of soot and despair where the vast majority of workers went hungry in sight of the palaces of the rich. The possible future America of Fuller’s narrative is a spontaneously picturesque garden inhabited by an organic community of equals who support themselves by their own labor on the fertile floodplains of the Rock River country.

Fuller’s answer to Carlyle is no mere agrarian idyll. She remains acutely aware that things will likely not go the way she hopes. So, immediately after envisioning a utopia, she turns the tables and focuses in on the present monotony and crudeness of life for western women: “The men can find assistance in field labor; and recreation with the gun and fishing-rod, (but) the women can rarely find any aid in domestic labor. All its various and careful tasks must often be performed, sick or well, by the mother and daughters, to whom a city education has imparted neither the strength nor skill now demanded” (38). Fuller turns her attention just now to this critical flaw in frontier society, not because, or not simply because, doing so returns her narrative sharply to reality, but because she hopes to identify its cause in order to transform the situation that creates it. Because Fuller understands the oppression of frontier women as the result of an education meant to make them no more than “ornaments of society” (39), she looks “with deep interest” to the rising generation of daughters, who may “grow up with the strength of body, dexterity, simple tastes, and resources that would fit them to enjoy and refine the farmer’s life” (39). The word “refine” here is carefully chosen; Fuller envisions high-thinking women as a potential counterweight to male utilitarianism, but only if women are allowed to develop according to their nature (Rosowski 129). Such a balance between what she sees as male and female principles, between utilitarianism and aestheticism, realism and idealism, might engender an America that was both firmly rooted in the fertile western soil, and yet productive of the kind of refined fruit that only careful culture can produce.

V. “The Leisure to Realize the Pleasure”

Reading Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 as a speculative answer to the Future-of-America question resolves the apparent contradiction of Fuller’s enthusiastic response to the Rock River country. For while it is now a commonplace that the picturesque—with its conventional focus on middle landscapes tamed by the plow—was widely deployed to explain and justify the history of American imperial expansion during the first half of the Nineteenth Century, reconstructing the rhetorical context of Fuller’s narrative allows recovery of the authentically progressive character of her utopian portrait of the west. Rather than a lapse into nostalgic reverie, or an example of interpellation by the visual discourse of U.S. imperialism, this episode uses the idiom of the picturesque to envision an alternative to the steady expansion of capitalism. The most historically important aspect of the text may well be its experimentation with ontological alternatives to the idealism that hobbled Emerson, and most other progressive observers, as they attempted to understand and change the world that capitalism was building around them. For Fuller had begun to think in a new way about the relationships between human communities and the physical, the material world. She had begun to express the complex relationships between environments, social orders, and ideas in terms of a new metaphor of organic systems. Surveying the destruction of the forests on Mackinaw, she refuses to “grieve that all the noble trees are gone already from this island to feed the caldron.” Instead she affirms her belief that “it will…reproduce them in the form of new intellectual growths…” (18). She would develop this insight into a working theory, which she would never systematically express—that the character of a culture’s literary produce depends on the state of development of the social order sustaining it (Noe).

In other words, as she wrote Summer on the Lakes, Fuller had begun to think quite like the person who succeeded her as European correspondent to the New York Tribune, Karl Marx. At just this time, Marx was at work on the other side of the Atlantic developing his theory of dialectical materialism to explain how people make their own history under conditions which are not of their own making, how human ideas are both shaped by the material social environment in which they evolve and can potentially be a material force operating on that environment (Marx 3-78). Emersonian transcendentalism was an impassioned reaction to the steadily increasing class tensions in the antebellum north, but it explained that crisis and imagined solutions to it solely in terms of individual ideological self-transformation. Like Marx, Fuller concluded that such contemplative idealism was moribund, that philosophers like Emerson had only “interpreted the world differently” while “the point [was] to change it” (Marx 199). Doing that required more than contemplative democracy; it required acting on ideas. It was, in part, Fuller’s journey through the west and her narration of that journey in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 that started this process of radicalization (Chevigny, "Ideology" 185). Her attempt to answer the “Future-of-America-question” would force her to confront the reality of America’s developing capitalist social order. And over the next few years she would evolve from "political innocent to dedicated activist” (Allen, "Criticism" 561). Next she would revise “The Great Lawsuit” into Woman in the Nineteenth Century, America’s first book-length argument in favor of equal rights for women. Then she would produce the acute political analysis of the Tribune letters. Finally, she would become a revolutionary, operating a field hospital during the Siege of Rome. We can only speculate about who she would have become had she survived her journey home to America, but it seems more than likely that she would have ended up playing an important role in the abolition movement and the second American revolution that began in 1861.

There is a final scene, in the last chapter of Summer on the Lakes, in which Fuller once more pursues a specific perceptual effect in search of an alternative to the spirit of commerce. She is making her way home to Boston, traveling by steamship between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. During a stop to take on wood for the boilers, she “ordered a canoe to take me down the rapids” at Sault St. Marie. The boat is handled by “two Indian canoe-men in pink calico shirts, moving it about with their long poles, with a grace and dexterity worthy fairy land. Now and then they cast the scoop-net; all looked just as I had fancied, only far prettier” (150). These representatives of a non-commercial culture, performing the unalienated labor of fishing for subsistence, seat her on a mat in the middle of their canoe. “In less than four minutes we had descended the rapids, a distance of more than three quarters of a mile.” Fuller is crestfallen.

I was somewhat disappointed in this being no more of an exploit than I found it. Having heard such expressions used as of “darting,” or, “shooting down,” these rapids, I had fancied there was a wall of rock somewhere, where descent would somehow be accomplished, and that there would come some one gasp of terror and delight, some sensation entirely new to me; but I found myself in smooth water, before I had time to feel anything but the buoyant pleasure of being carried so lightly through this surf amid the breakers.


Fuller complains that even though it is “an act of wonderful dexterity to steer amid these jagged rocks, when one rude touch would tear a hole in the birch canoe,” the boatmen are so practiced that “the silliest person could not feel afraid.” Nevertheless, she insists on desiring that fear: “I should like to have come down twenty times, that I might have had leisure to realize the pleasure” (150). This canoeing scene is one of the earliest accounts, perhaps the earliest account, of recreational white-water boating in American literature. In recounting this exploit as one for which the sole purpose was “pleasure,” Fuller transforms what had been a difficult and risky mode of travel for natives, trappers, and explorers, into a touristic experience, a deliberately non-productive exploit in which she engages as means of achieving self-transcendence and reconnecting with nature. In doing so, she gives us a harbinger of the nature-obsessed future we now inhabit, with its innumerable strategies for producing utopian experiences in the wilderness. At the same time, the passage indexes the extent to which wilderness recreation, like the older art of landscape appreciation, is so frequently an act of forgetting. The tradition of outdoor recreation depends on a conventional geography in which a degraded and oppressive society is opposed to a pure and free wilderness. Witnessing the way in which Fuller actively maps and then erases that border can help us to remember that societies are rooted in the land, and wilderness is not a place outside town, but a monument we have built to desires that capitalism cannot fulfill.

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