IN the early 1800s, a new generation of New Englanders, freed from the old Calvinistic doctrine of human depravity, believed instead that human nature was capable of almost any good. One of these was 23-year-old James Freeman Clarke, who, in the summer of 1833, began the long, tedious journey from Boston to Louisville to become Kentucky's only Unitarian minister. Recently graduated from the Harvard Divinity School, Clarke could have gone to any number of established Unitarian parishes, but he chose to become a missionary because he wanted to prove himself and his faith among strangers rather than among the already convinced. His greatest fear, he told his friend Margaret Fuller, was that ``if I settled in an old-fashioned Unitarian society, I would gradually subside into routine.''
Clarke's decision was in part due to the many hours he had spent with Fuller, a brilliant woman his own age with whom he had been studying German and translating the liberating works of the German romanticist Goethe. Fuller, unable as a woman to attend college, was a strenuous self-educator as well as tutor to her younger brothers, sister, and several paying students.
Clarke, impatient with his Harvard education, which he said was more concerned with emulation and rank than curiosity and love of knowledge, later claimed that most of what he learned came from his studies outside of the university, and a large part of these extracurricular studies were with Margaret Fuller.
Following Goethe's example, she and Clarke had determined to devote their lives to what Goethe called ``extraordinary, generous seeking,'' and when Clarke left for Kentucky, Fuller gave him a diary in which she had inscribed this quotation.
For the seven years of Clarke's self-imposed exile in Kentucky, Fuller remained his closest confidante. His letters to her are remarkably candid, whereas his letters to others he described as being ``placid as cucumber parings.'' Warning her not to reveal what he told her to anyone else, he confessed his fears ``of the probability of total unsuccess as a preacher in the West.''
Arriving in Louisville after the uncomfortable and often hazardous journey by stagecoach and riverboat, Clarke found the situation as difficult as the most determined missionary could hope for. His anticipation of finding a freer atmosphere on the frontier was wrong. ``I am a hundred times more limited and restrained than before,'' he writes Fuller, adding that he would be forced to make himself over ``body and soul'' to Kentucky tastes.
During his first sermon, half a dozen women out of a total congregation of 30 walked out. Having heard that people in the West would prefer a spontaneous sermon, he had done no preparation and found he had almost nothing to say. Later he learned that the men responsible for hiring him debated sending him back to Boston.
He laughs at himself for how he had talked of the West before he came and how he now thinks continually about New England: ``Oh! my beloved carpeted, curtained, astral-lighted Cambridge home!'' and ``chats with minds of culture and polish and refinement.'' The reality was his bare boardinghouse room in a treeless city of 17,000, too flat to be picturesque, too muddy and dusty for walking.
There was no room for poetry among a populace wholly occupied with raising hogs, felling timber, and surviving fever. Deaths from duels, knifings, beatings, and steamboat accidents resulted in an indifference to human life that would shock New Englanders, and worse, he found that ``the system of slavery colours everything.''
AFTER five months, things have not improved - his preparation in life, he writes Fuller, has not prepared him for effective action. Before preaching what he believed in, he would have to teach the Kentuckians not to interpret the Bible literally. Complaining of becoming like a machine, he seems ``to be destitute of a soul.... I see no review - no books - and plunged in this sea of Western life, I hardly care to keep up my acquaintance with Atlantic ways of thinking.''
After almost a year, Clarke is still unconvinced that he has done any good but he will stay on, he tells Fuller, until he has achieved something tangible. Evidently, Clarke did not see any material gain in the major discovery he did report to Fuller: ``I have made one marvelously strange acquaintance in the Western world - myself.''
His letters tell how that newly discovered self is expanding: He visits the poor, holds evening discussions on philosophical and social topics, and hopes to edit a magazine. Instead of returning to New England in the summer as usual, he plans a horseback journey into southern Kentucky and Tennessee. He continues to chide himself for not fully becoming a Westerner: ``I wish I could shake myself free of New England and give myself heart and hand to the West. I am like a swimmer who dares not yet to let go the rope, and swim alone.''
His magazine, The Western Messenger, came into being, and he solicited Fuller for articles, advising her on how to make her style more direct and readable, while his own writing shows much improvement. Even after three years, however, Clarke is still writing of ``laboring at a Sisyphus task - to excite some religion among my people.'' A year later he complains of having so few contributions for the Messenger that he will have to write the whole issue himself.
He tells Fuller of a greater problem: There is no one for him to be in love with. He sums up his five years as ``Alas! It is all `extraordinary generous seeking' but not any finding.''
IN the remaining two years of Clarke's self-imposed exile, he met his future wife when visiting in Pennsylvania but continued to share with Fuller his deepest thoughts, poems, and hopes for the future. When he married and came back to Boston for good in 1840, Clarke found ``social life in a precious state of fermentation. New ideas are flying high and low. Every man, as Mr. Emerson remarked to me yesterday, carries a revolution in his waistcoat pocket.''
It was an auspicious time to return, but according to one member of his parish, Clarke had been far more successful in Kentucky than he had ever given himself credit for. Noting that there had been little religious interest when Clarke came, this man said, ``Now there is a religion and true spirit in it. You think you have done little in seven years. I do not see how you could possibly do more.''
At 30, with his missionary years behind him, Clarke wasted no time in becoming a major Boston figure. He established the church he had begun dreaming of in Kentucky, a nonhierarchical gathering of individuals he called The Church of the Disciples, where he preached for more than 40 years. He took an active part in the major social issues of the times, especially in opposing slavery, which he had experienced firsthand. He wrote a number of widely read books, including ``Ten Great Religions,'' translated into many languages around the world.
His letters to Margaret Fuller were no longer his lifeline; now, he saw her often. But Fuller was soon to start on her own travels in the pursuit of ``extraordinary generous seeking,'' to New York to write for the Tribune, then to Europe to become the nation's first female foreign correspondent.
The last known letter Clarke wrote Fuller was to Rome, begging her to return. By 1849, the revolutionary spirit seemed to him more alive in Europe than in Boston. Fuller was taking an active part in the doomed struggle to establish a Roman republic. ``Leave revolutions to revolve alone.... We want you here.'' Clarke tells her, ``I cannot say that we have much spiritual or intellectual life among us just now. We have no new religion or even a new philosophy.... Art is also at a low ebb.''
Clarke was undoubtedly exaggerating to Fuller, but he was writing from a United States currently occupied with annexing new territories under the slogan of ``Manifest Destiny,'' expanding slave-holding areas, and hunting for gold in the West. He not only missed his old companion, he missed the days when as his biographer later wrote, they, along with a new generation of New Englanders, had ``rushed into life, certain that the next half century was to see a complete moral revolution.''