`Meddling with the West'
LIKE many New Englanders, Margaret Fuller was more interested in what lay across the Atlantic than what lay to the west of Boston. Since early childhood, when her father had taught her the classics, she was determined to see the civilizations that had produced them. Each time the chance to go to Europe came, she had to give it up -- first when her father died suddenly, then because the entire burden for her large family became hers. When young men she'd grown up with began to follow Horace Greeley's advice and head west, she stayed on, teaching in Providence, translating the German authors, and making a place for herself in Boston's intellectual circles.
But in 1838, unhappy with her teaching job and seeking a school where she could carry out her own ideas for the education of women, she wrote to William Henry Channing in Cincinnati, where he had gone as a minister, asking him about an offer she'd received from there: ``I have always had some desire to be meddling with the West and have only been checked in my tendencies thitherward by the modest fancy that the East was not at a sufficiently advanced step of culture for my plans, how then should her you nger sister be!'' Would Cincinnati be a good ``starting point'' for her brothers, she wanted to know, and would it suit her mother?
She didn't go, and continued with the struggle to get her five younger brothers educated and established, piecing together a modest living by tutoring, holding her ``Conversations'' for women, and becoming editor of The Dial, a journal started by the Transcendentalists. Margaret's first articles had been published in The Western Messenger, by James Freeman Clarke, another minister friend, who had gone to Kentucky to preach. Writing for The Dial -- she often had to provide more than half the contents of an entire issue -- now gave Margaret those journalistic skills that would eventually take her out of New England into a larger world.
Her interest in the state of her country was growing and with it her concern for the direction she saw it taking. Two years later, again in a letter probably written to Channing, she expressed her dissatisfaction: ``Since the Revolution, there has been little in the circumstances of this country to call out the higher sentiments. The effect of continued prosperity is the same on nations as on individuals -- it leaves the nobler faculties undeveloped. . . . In a word, the tendency of circumstances has be en to make our people superficial, irreverent, and more anxious to get a living than to live mentally and morally.''
Margaret Fuller's determination to lead her country back to the original goals set by its Revolution was growing -- even if it meant turning away from Europe. In another letter to Channing she said: ``How much those of us who have been much formed by the European mind have to unlearn and lay aside, if we would act here. I would fain do something worthily that belonged to the country where I was born, but most times I fear it may not be so.''
Three years later, Margaret traveled west with James Clarke and his sister, Sarah, a talented painter. At 33, Margaret at last felt free enough of family responsibilities to go. She had turned over the burdensome job (for which she had never received the promised salary) of editing The Dial to Emerson and was ready for new horizons. With characteristic wholeheartedness, Margaret plunged into the journey and was soon writing that ``Europe lost its interest as I looked upon these dawnings of a vast future .'' She was, she told Emerson, ``prepared for the distaste I must experience'' at the West's ``mushroom growth'' but welcomed the chance to see how the United States would create ``a new order, a new poetry,'' from ``this chaos.''
Traveling by train to Niagara with James Clarke, they spent a week there before Margaret and Sarah went on from Buffalo to Chicago by steamboat. There another Clarke brother, William, an engineer, met them and took them through northern Illinois in a covered wagon. Going on as far as Milwaukee and the territory of Wisconsin on their own, Margaret and Sarah were seeing what was still actual frontier and, like most observers at that time, they delighted in its unspoiled beauty: ``Much is my life enriched by the images of the great Niagara, of the vast lakes, the heavenly sweetness of the prairies scenes, and above all by the lovely region where I would so gladly have lived [northern Illinois],'' she wrote a brother. And to Emerson she described walking along the shore at ``Milwaukie . . . to watch the color on the lake various as the prism with the varying depths lying in strata, an immense palette, emerald, sapphire, amethyst.''
It was not the region but its inhabitants that caused problems. While contemplating the majesty of Niagara, Margaret saw a man approach, walk closer, ``and after looking at it a moment, with an air of how he could best appropriate it for his own use, he spat in it''-- an appropriate symbol for the ``love of utility'' she deplored as a dominating trait of the settlers. On the boat to Chicago, the people ``were almost all New Englanders, seeking their fortunes. . . . It grieved me to hear these 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. It was to them a prospect, not of unfolding nobler energies, but of more ease and larger accumulation.'' So much for the ``new poetry,'' but still Margaret searched for positive factors, writing to Emerson from Chicago: ``The dissipation of thought and feeling is less painful than in the eastern cities in this that it is at least for ma terial realities. The men are all at work for money and to develop the resources of the soil, the women belong to the men. . . . Their energy is real, though its objects are not invested with poetic dignity.''
As she traveled to remoter areas, her criticisms grew more precise. The outdoor life benefited Margaret's usually poor health: She rode, hiked, canoed, slept one night on a barroom table. But she didn't find the health or spirits of the settler's wives to be correspondingly good. The poorer women had even more work than before and became ``slatterns''; the well-to-do women, conditioned to be ``the ornaments of society,'' were totally unsuited for adaptation to their new lives. The immigrant women fared best, having been brought up to work in the open air, ``but all the Eastern women say `oh, it is well for the men who enjoy their hunting and fishing, but for us we have everything to bear and no time or health to enjoy or learn.' ''
The other victims of the frontier Margaret encountered were, of course, the Indians. Everywhere she was seeing the choice land from which the original inhabitants had been driven and the callousness of those who had replaced them. In Wisconsin, she heard a landowner complain that the Indians couldn't be kept from ``straggling back to their old haunts'' and driving away ``our game.'' ``OUR game,'' Margaret repeated scornfully. At Mackinaw Island, Margaret spent part of every day for over a week mingling with and observing the hundreds of Indians who were camped there to collect annual payments from the government. Like others before and since, she mourned the respect for nature the Indians had possessed and the Americans had so little of. She saw that there was no hope for the Indians -- they would continue to be unjustly persecuted, victims of their own demoralization and of what she termed ``the aversion of the injurer for him he has degraded.''
The trip left her confused -- neither the East nor the West seemed to want what she had to give. She wrote Emerson: ``Truly there is no place for me to live, I mean as regards being with men. I like not the petty intellectualities, cant, and bloodless theory there at home, but this merely instinctive existence, to those who live it so `first rate,' `off hand,' and `go ahead,' pleases me no better.'' Shouldn't men be concerned with something besides bringing ``the riches out of the earth?'' she asked.
Ironically, for Margaret Fuller, the trip was to be of great value -- both artistically and financially. She returned to Boston after almost three months and began putting her journals and experiences into a book. Needing more historical background on the regions she had visited, she talked her way into the Harvard Library, becoming the first woman ever to do so -- possibly a greater challenge than any she had encountered in the West. Exactly one year from the time she had started on the journey, ``The 23rd of May, my birth-day, about one o'clock, I wrote the last line of my little book; then I went to Mount Auburn, and walked gently among the graves.'' ``Summer on the Lakes'' received favorable reviews, earning her a minuscule $100 but drawing the attention of the same Horace Greeley who advised young men to go west. He invited her to come to New York and write for his newspaper, the Tribune.
For the first time, Margaret was well paid for doing what she liked to do. She could describe the rapidly changing American intellectual, artistic, and social scene to an audience of thousands. The journey that would take her to Europe as the first woman newspaper correspondent had begun. She would find the principles of her own country's revolution embodied in Italy's struggle to become a free and united country and would stay in Rome to take an active part in that revolution. It was many more years be fore Americans began to explore and appreciate the truths she had begun telling them with that first journey to the West in ``Summer on the Lakes.''