Fuller, Margaret: Title Commentary
MARGARET FULLER: TITLE COMMENTARYSummer on the Lakes
MICHAELA BRUCKNER COOPER (ESSAY DATE 2000)
SOURCE: Cooper, Michaela Bruckner. "Textual Wandering and Anxiety in Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes. "In Margaret Fuller's Cultural Critique: Her Age and Legacy, edited by Fritz Fleischmann, pp. 171-87. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
In the following excerpt, Cooper contends that Fuller's writing in Summer on the Lakes demonstrates anxiety and a lack of confidence in herself as a writer.
The history of female reading and writing is a continuous effort to overcome the anxiety attendant upon the limitations of gender roles and narrative forms; but female readers and writers are working to alter history, first by articulating the sources of ambivalence.
In "Female Language, Body, and Self," a chapter in the anthology Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, Carol Singley examines women's ambiguous relationship with language, one that is often fraught with anxiety. If language gives expression to a distinct self, Singley argues, women have developed an ambivalent relationship with it because of their predominantly complementary or contingent positions as wives, mothers, or daughters (7). When I first read Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, I was struck not only by the self-consciousness in her writing, but especially by the ways in which Fuller subverts the stance of the controlling and self-confident reader and writer by giving voice repeatedly to the kind of anxiety Singley alludes to.
In the summer of 1843, Margaret Fuller and her friend Sarah Clarke took off together on a tour to the Midwest. During the trip, Fuller kept an extensive journal, which she later began to organize into what was to become her "first original book (her previous books having been translations from the works of German authors)" (Kolodny 113). In the record of her trip to Niagara Falls, the Great Lakes, and finally the Wisconsin Territory, Fuller skillfully interweaves her observations and impressions of the landscape and its inhabitants with associations that such impressions evoke.
Within the context of her journey and her later work on the journal she kept during the trip, Fuller works out ideas about America's past and future, the plight of Native Americans, and the role of women settlers. She creates a text that integrates various narratives, poetry, and dialogues into the flow of her observations about the West. The resulting text, Summer on the Lakes, however, is much more than an accumulation of recollections and interpretations of what Fuller saw and heard during her trip. In it, she practices a kind of cultural critique that is driven by a need to examine culture contextually and investigate self-consciously the locations from which the cultural critic speaks, a strategy that is aided by Fuller's ambivalent stance toward her own role as a woman writer. Such an approach implicitly invites the reader, as cultural critic, to follow Fuller's example.
The revision process of Summer on the Lakes was time-consuming since Fuller was occupied with teaching and her Conversations, and she had also decided to do some more research about the Great Lakes region before finishing her book (Blanchard 196). Locating adequate sources was a tricky enterprise. Fuller convinced the authorities to allow her access to the Harvard University library, which served also "as a kind of private club to which a gentleman could retreat after dinner" (Blanchard 197). Paula Blanchard reveals to some degree the ambiguous status (both outsider and socially connected) that Fuller had to cope with both as a woman and as a writer within the predominantly male Transcendentalist establishment. It was, however, this status that provided her with unique insights into the lives and conditions of the settler women and Native Americans she encounters during her trip.
Throughout her life, Fuller was aware that the unique circumstances of her education had endowed her with qualities that set her apart from most of the women of her time. In a passage included in Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Fuller writes,
from a very early age I have felt that I was not born to the common womanly lot. I knew I should never find a being who could keep the key to my character; that there would be none on whom I could always lean, from whom I could always learn; that I should be a pilgrim and sojourner on earth, and that the birds and foxes would be surer of a place to lay the head than I.
Fuller relates her outsider status to that of the traveler who is nowhere at home, the woman who has escaped the confinements of her assigned role as wife and mother and thus ends up, metaphorically and literally, without a home. Because she does not fit into a preexisting model of womanhood, it will be hard, if not impossible, for her female friends and her fellow Transcendentalists, to understand or "keep the key to [her] character."
While Fuller stresses her difference from others, she does not always do so confidently. Frequently, anxiety about her status as a woman and writer surfaces. A possible source is the conflicted nature of her early education brought about by the radical shift it underwent when Fuller was ten years old: "The first phase of her education was over, and from now on the emphasis would increasingly shift from the intellectual sphere to the social … As she approached her teens, the intellectual momentum of her early years was not only slowed but deliberately deflected" (Blanchard 35). While up to that point Timothy Fuller had instructed his daughter in English and Latin, subjects usually only taught to boys, he decided to enroll her in Dr. Park's school for girls where "she would … be told to make herself less conspicuous, not to compete, not to speak her mind boldly, and to pay more attention to the practical details of everyday life" (35).
The lessons learned at Dr. Park's school would shape Fuller's life and work. Blanchard points out that because of Fuller's extensive domestic responsibilities, particularly after her father's death, "her own work would have to give way to the higher priority accorded to household duties" (77). Although Fuller was aware of the limitations her training for traditional womanhood and incessant domestic duties imposed on her intellectual work, she also, Margaret Vanderhaar Allen argues, "partially accepted the conventions of women's and men's distinct roles. To the extent that she did so, her friends and family praised her as a 'true' woman" (137). Fuller wasn't immune to the dictates of female good looks and proper attire. In Margaret Fuller: A Psychological Biography, Katherine Susan Anthony speculates that Fuller envied and sought to imitate the beautiful Anna Barker, who later married Samuel Gray Ward, the man whom many thought Fuller was in love with, by "struggl[ing] with curl-papers night after night when French and metaphysics had had their due" (35).
Fuller's awareness about her double role as writer and woman often surfaces in her writing as self-questioning. Various critics, such as Jeffrey Steele,1 Christina Zwarg,2 Nicole Tonkovich,3 Stephen Adams,4 and Julie Ellison5 have paid attention to Fuller's self-conscious stance as an author, and in some of these critical discussions the emergence of a resistant subjectivity in Fuller's text is treated as strong and confident. I would argue, however, that the particular strength of Fuller's text lies in its author's willingness to draw anxious speculations about her own tenuous position into the realm of legitimate representation. In Summer on the Lakes, this position is embodied in the person of the writer as traveler. Thus traveling becomes a trope for both physical and textual wandering. While Fuller moves her body across the Midwest, seeing new places, encountering settler families and Native Americans, she also embarks on a textual journey among various and often mutually contesting or overlapping discourses that shape her response to the landscape and the people she encounters on her trip. Through her shifting position, she can speak both from within the patriarchal culture and from outside it. Teresa De Lauretis calls such a fluid position the "space-off" (26), a helpful term for an examination of Summer on the Lakes. The space-off, in classical cinema, is "the space not visible in the frame, but inferable from what the frame makes visible," and in avant-garde cinema, the space-off exists "alongside the represented space" (26). By occupying the space-off, women can look at the world from a point that is always elsewhere, that simultaneously affirms the existence of the dominant culture, and comments upon it and resists it from an outside position. In Summer on the Lakes, Fuller can thus, for example, employ and subvert familiar styles of writing, as she does in the case of landscape writing about the sublime, which inscribes experience within a rigid vocabulary. Furthermore, by focusing on the space-off as the field of legitimate representation in her description of the western landscape, and white as well as Native American women, Fuller expands the margins of her discourse, while at the same time foregrounding the limitations of traditional male narratives of westward expansion and progress.
De Lauretis' theory of the space-off is particularly helpful in an examination of Fuller's narrator and observer because of its consideration of the shifting positionality of the spectator. This theory includes "the spectator (the point where the image is received, reconstructed and reproduced in/as subjectivity)" (26). Thus, the image does not exist autonomously but is always dependent on its connection to a spectator who brings an interpretive frame of reference to it that will shape her reading. By showing that the spectator, as interpreter, participates in the representation, De Lauretis points to the kind of self-conscious examination of the observer's position that Fuller engages in.
In the beginning of Summer, Fuller describes her life as a text to be read: "Since you are to share with me such foot-notes as may be made on the pages of my life during this summer's wandering, I should not be quite silent as to this magnificent prologue to the, as yet, unknown, drama" (71). Fuller's subsequent efforts at opening up the borders of the patriarchal text are already contained and foreshadowed here. Her choice of metaphor is interesting insofar as footnotes are the marginal sites for explanations seen as distracting from the main text. By making those footnotes central to her text, Fuller breaks down the barriers between the "main text" and that which is seen as subordinate or marginal.
Fuller voices some unease about the potential reception of Summer on the Lakes : "And now you have the little all I have to write. Can it interest you? To one who has enjoyed the full life of any scene, of any hour, what thoughts can be recorded about it, seem like the commas and semicolons in the paragraphs, mere stops. Yet I suppose it is not so to the absent" (75). She questions the significance of her contribution—"Can it interest you?"—and then proceeds to divide her audience into two categories. She seems to refer here to the male privilege of mobility and access to wider realms of experience, which she also represents, the person "who has enjoyed the full life of any scene." For such a person, Fuller's text will be inadequate as representation. Instead, by directing her text to those who did not have the freedom or privilege to share her travels, Fuller already sets her readers up for one of the major issues of her text, her narrative of the lives and hardships of women, who occupy the place of the absent other because they were not traditionally included in representations of the American West.
In the tale of the Seeress of Prevorst, an account Fuller inserted in her chapter on Wisconsin, she works out the kind of displacement that is a precondition to the self-conscious cultural critique she envisions. Drawing from the account of the German physician Justinus Kerner, Die Seherin von Prevorst (1829), she describes events in the life of Friederike Hauffe, a somnambulist and clairvoyant "immersed in the inward state" and "free from bodily bonds, and the hindrances of space and time" (Fuller 157). Although Fuller emphasizes the contrast that this story provides between the "vision of an exalted and sensitive existence, which seemed to invade the next sphere" and "the spontaneous, instinctive life" among the rough settlers of the Midwest she observes during her trip, there are also significant connections between the narrative of the seeress and her accounts of life on the frontier (144-45). These are already signified in the seeress's volatile position at the border between the material and the spiritual world and in turn reflect Fuller's own anxiety about her volatile position as the author of a text that constantly questions itself. The mystic Hauffe, who "saw herself often out of the body; saw herself double," thus signifies women's displacement and the kind of outlook that is made possible by such a displacement (158). For the seeress, it is a displacement from the physical world to a realm beyond. For Fuller, it seems to designate a position that is on the boundary looking either way and that exemplifies the anxiety about being taken over by either one; but, more importantly, anxiety in the text seems to arise from her efforts at writing the space-off into her discourse. Thus, the narration of the tale and the enunciation of a relationship between different histories present a strategy of textual wandering that shapes Fuller's text.
Fuller justifies the inclusion of the tale of Friederike Hauffe by placing it into the context of her watching the many new immigrants getting off the boat in Wisconsin. "[S]oon [the immigrants'] tales … will be so mingled with those of the Indian, that the very oak trees will not know them apart" (170). The history that these immigrants bring with them will become part of their newly gained cultural knowledge and of the history of their new home. Their reading of new experiences and environments, and her reading of them in turn, will be partially shaped by their past. At the same time, an unsettling sense of loss is inherent in the concept of acculturation, as Fuller envisions it, that reflects her ambivalent treatment of the plight of Native Americans in Summer on the Lakes. However, while here she seems to suggest that acculturation is an almost organic process that occurs naturally and harmoniously, at other places in her text she also undercuts this point by lamenting and resisting the extinction of Native Americans and the loss of their rich cultural heritage.
Observing the immigrants who get off the boat, Fuller laments the limitations imposed on her own search for new stories and new experiences: "Could I but have flown at night through such mental experiences, instead of being shut up in my little bedroom at the Milwaukee boarding house, this chapter would have been worth reading" (170). It is notable that Fuller connects her limited access to those experiences and tales that she thinks would interest her reader to the need for economic independence and thus ties her situation indirectly to gender. "Had I been rich in money, I might have built a house, or set up in business," Fuller speculates during her stay in Milwaukee (170). Instead, she is "obliged to walk the streets and pick up what I could in casual intercourse" in order to find out more about the city (170). Fuller's physical journey across the Great Lakes and the prairie is thus significantly defined by the traveler's, and particularly the female traveler's, loss of control. Traveling as a woman, Fuller has to depend on others, usually men, to accompany her on her journey, and even to make such a journey financially possible. Her trip to the Midwest became affordable only after Fuller "reluctantly accepted a gift of fifty dollars from her friend, the liberal Universalist minister, James Freeman Clarke" (Kolodny 113). Fuller was accompanied by Clarke and his sister Sarah, and, upon Clarke's return to the East, by his brother William Hull Clarke, who took the two women on a trip through the prairie in a horse-drawn covered wagon (113). Near the end of Summer, disappointed because she might not see the Pictured Rocks, Fuller laments her lack of control over her situation and the ways in which her access to new experiences depends on others: "It did not depend on me; it never has, whether such things shall be done or not" (216).
Fuller's anxiety is caused both by physical confinement related to gender and by discursive confinements; thus she is concerned that her limited access to experience will prevent her from writing those stories that are sanctioned and deemed interesting. Through the practice of textual wandering, Fuller tries self-consciously to allay, if not escape, the anxieties arising both from her literal place in time and space and from her position within the discourses about the West. Through textual wandering, the inclusion of multiple, seemingly irrelevant narratives, Fuller inscribes the displacement brought about by the out-of-body experience she describes in the narrative about the Seeress. Textual wandering in this sense signifies an out-of-body experience of sorts, not, as in the case of Friederike Hauffe, into the beyond of death, but into the unrepresented margins of representations of life on the western frontier.
In her description of Niagara Falls, Fuller sets the tone for her subsequent efforts at anxiously employing and questioning traditional modes of representation. While staying at the Falls, she frequently expresses frustration at not being able to look upon Niagara with "feelings … entirely [her] own" (77). Her impression of the Falls is always tied to previous texts known to her which are hard to escape. She thus apologizes to her readers for the insignificance of her own description and then proceeds to insert "a brief narrative of the experience of another, as being much better than anything I could write" (75). The unnamed author, from whose description of Niagara Falls Fuller quotes, is also concerned about the predictability of one's response: "'I expected to be overwhelmed … but, somehow or other, I thought only of comparing the effect on my mind with what I had read and heard … And, provoked with my stupidity in feeling most moved in the wrong place, I turned away'" (76). Upon returning at night, however, this visitor is finally moved when seeing the Falls a second time in moonlight. The included description seems to attest on the one hand to Fuller's own anxiety about this experience. Feeling most moved in the wrong place herself, she is aware that her text parts with traditional ways of seeing, in this case a master narrative that predicts and shapes the viewer's response to the Falls.6 Unlike Fuller, the author of the inserted text occasionally comes around to the conventional way of seeing. Thus, Fuller's inclusion of this particular excerpt might be explained through its simultaneous addressing and masking of Fuller's own anxieties—addressing because it serves to question the legitimacy of her own reading, and masking because it replaces an unconventional or resistant reading with a conventional one.
Anxiety about reading and writing also plays a significant role in Fuller's discussion of the lives of women and Native Americans. In such descriptions, Fuller simultaneously writes the position of the space-off into her text and foregrounds the precariousness of a position that is always in danger of being taken over by dominant discourses. Taking a closer look at such a description, I have found it helpful to draw on some conventions of nineteenth-century landscape painting since there are similarities between the visual and textual representation or lack of representation of white settler women and Native American women.
Fuller both reinvokes and transcends the idea of the West as adventurous and free by describing men's existence there as relatively unburdened by excessive hardship: "The men can find assistance in field labor, and recreation with the gun and fishing-rod" (106). For the women, however, the new life is much more difficult and, literally and metaphorically, unsettling. Having unwillingly followed their husbands into the wilderness, these women are often unfit for their lot (106). By describing the lives of women and Native Americans in the West, Fuller textually represents a space that was usually not "visible in the frame" of visual art for in spite of women's participation "in all stages of western development," their appearance in western art is infrequent and contradictory to historical fact (Schoelwer 135).
In her essay "The Absent Other: Women in the Land and Art of Mountain Men," Susan Prendergast Schoelwer focuses primarily on women's role on the fur trade frontier. However, her discussion of women and Native Americans provides some helpful insights into the context that Fuller was responding to in Summer on the Lakes. Schoelwer argues that "the legendary absence of women" from paintings of the fur trade frontier "really means the absence of white women" (143). Written texts depict trapper life as "one of manly self-indulgence, of continual hunting and fishing, of absolute freedom from the demands and constraints of civilization—taxes, mortgages, wives, the law" (143). In order to fulfill their sexual desires, however, trappers often "took Indian wives or, at least, companions" (143). In her description of pioneer women, Fuller entered into territory that had been excluded in the representations of male artists. The presence of women in these representations, although not explicit, was often inferable. Thus, for example, in George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, the role of the absent woman is suggested. In this painting, a fur trader and his son "paddle downriver to deliver their catch to Saint Louis" (160). Although no woman is depicted in this scene, she is nevertheless inscribed into the composition by providing "the biological link" between father and son, as Schoelwer succinctly argues (161). Also "[h]er economic production, manifest in the buffalo skin-covered pack that rests between … [father and son]" suggests a significant role for the mother which "[the painting's] content explicitly denies" (161). The trapper's son, "not yet fully independent, leans heavily on this tangible reminder of the mother" (161). It is in her exploration of women's sphere as the locus of hard labor and "economic production" on the western frontier that Fuller transcends the frames of traditional representation.
At the same time, however, as Fuller confidently writes into her text the lives of women who had been mostly absent from earlier representations, she gives voice to an anxiety about her own shortcomings and the dangers involved when competing texts call for her attention: "I have fixed my attention almost exclusively on the picturesque beauty of this region; it was so new, so inspiring. But I ought to have been more interested in the housekeeping of this magnificent state, in the education she is giving her children, in their prospects" (132). In passages such as this one, Fuller evokes the split between two texts that are at odds with each other. On the one hand, there is the world of the picturesque which represents dominant ways of seeing, such as those she explores in her description of Niagara Falls, and on the other hand, there is the world of suffering and hardship, a world in the space-off of traditional representations of the West. She reprimands herself for having been swayed too much in one direction. Her focus on the picturesque has sidetracked her examination of some of the harsher aspects in the lives of women settlers, lives that revolve around domestic tasks such as housekeeping and education of the young. While Fuller is interested in describing the sublimity of the landscape, she also voices the fear that dominant representations, such as those generated by conventions of the picturesque, crowd out stories about the lives of women and Native Americans.
The rupture between these competing texts is reiterated over and over again in Summer on the Lakes, and in her description of the antagonism that the settlers feel toward Native Americans, Fuller foregrounds it again vividly. She focuses her attention on a man who "though in other respects of most kindly and liberal heart, showed the aversion that the white man soon learns to feel for the Indian on whom he encroaches, the aversion of the injurer for him he has degraded" (138-39). She juxtaposes this description with the settler's own account of the killing of a deer, "the most graceful I ever beheld [as he says]—there was something so soft and beseeching in his look, I chose him at once; took aim and shot him dead" (139). Fuller shows here the split between a typical sublime narrative on the one hand and a buried or suppressed narrative of suffering on the other. The description of the deer becomes emblematic of both the settlers' treatment of Native Americans and Fuller's anxiety about the narratives that compete for her attention. It is significant that her exploration of this ambiguity occurs in the same chapter in which she includes the narrative of the Seeress of Prevorst with its emphasis on the dangers of the threshold experience. The graceful deer, like the Native Americans, is doomed to death. At the same time, however, in the settler's description of the hunt, the reality of this dooming is sidetracked, suppressed through an exclusive emphasis on the deer's graceful beauty as measured in terms of its value to the hunter. Fuller seems to retell through this account a different version of the dangers of a sublime narrative that obscures suffering while it asserts at the same time the hunter's control and agency—"'I chose him at once.'" In the context of Fuller's anxiety about reading and writing, the patriarchal text seems to be always a text about death, and a text that, through its exclusionary practices and the setting of textual boundaries, writes death and thus inscribes and reaffirms its control. Suffering occurs outside the boundaries of that patriarchal text and, like footnotes, does not have a place in it.
More generally, Fuller replicates the kind of displacement reflected in the story of the seeress and her description of the hunter in an ongoing exploration of her own discursive positionality. Throughout Summer on the Lakes, she foregrounds her often precarious negotiation between some of the discourses that shape her responses to the landscape and to the people she encounters. In these negotiations, Fuller is anxious about the dangers of having her experiences usurped by a discourse that will prevent her from writing about the suffering she sees. When writing about the Native Americans who have gathered at Mackinaw to receive their annual payment from the American government, Fuller shows her struggle with other discourses. She is intrigued by the romanticism of the scene she witnesses, its "gipsy charm," even to the point of invoking one of its well-known representatives: "Continually I wanted Sir Walter Scott to have been there. If such romantic sketches were suggested to him, by the sight of a few gipsies, not a group near one of these fires but would have furnished him material for a separate canvass" (175). Fuller, however, quickly checks herself and shifts the focus of her attention: "I was so taken up with the spirit of the scene, that I could not follow out the stories suggested by these weatherbeaten, sullen, but eloquent figures" (175). Again, as during her trip to Niagara Falls, a narrative that privileges traditional ways of seeing (in this case conventions of the picturesque) threatens to crowd out a narrative of suffering and poverty, and traces of such a struggle persistently remain, as for example in Fuller's evocation of the "sullen, but eloquent figures" who still display their noble qualities even in the face of adversity. Such traces show the complexity and ambivalence of Fuller's stance by placing her both within the dominant culture and at its margins.
While acknowledging the suffering of various of her subjects, Fuller also frequently tries to keep at bay a narrative of pain by invoking romantic or classical connotations. At one point during her travels, she describes the site of an ancient Native American village in terms of "a Greek splendor, a Greek sweetness" (100). In praise of the site's natural splendor, Fuller expresses the belief that "Rome and Florence are suburbs compared to this capital of nature's art" (101). However, her depiction of the Edenic character of Native Americans does not describe their present situation, but refers to an invented past. She has little hope that their situation will change for the better.
I have no hope of liberalizing the missionary, of humanizing the sharks of the trade, of infusing the conscientious drop into the flinty bosom of policy, of saving the Indian from immediate degradation, and speedy death. The whole sermon may be preached from the text, "Needs be that offenses must come, yet wo them by whom they come." Yet, ere they depart, I wish there might be some masterly attempt to reproduce, in art or literature, what is proper to them, a kind of beauty and grandeur, which few of the every-day crowd have hearts to feel, yet which ought to leave in the world its monuments, to inspire the thought of genius through all ages.
Fuller describes the artist as a helpless onlooker, who can at best employ her creative efforts in order to preserve visually or textually a larger sense of vanishing cultures. Stressing the special obligation of the artist who might have a strong perception of the iniquities perpetrated against Native Americans, Fuller renounces all earthly responsibility for their gradual removal. Retributions, if they come, will be the acts of God rather than interventions by human beings. She seems to draw here on the idea of the artist developed by Emerson in "The Poet," which was written at about the same time Fuller was working on Summer.
In "The Poet," Emerson describes poets as "liberating gods" who "are free and … make free" (319). Through their imagination, they help a reader "to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed" (317). The dissolution of such bonds, however, comes at a price and raises questions about the ethics of the artist's detached stance. The artist, rather than becoming an agent of change, becomes a silent if unwilling accomplice in the maintenance of the status quo. In journal entries he made during the fall and winter of 1843, Emerson writes that his audience misunderstands him when it expects him to turn into action what he writes about in his essays: "They mistook me. I am and always was a painter" (Whicher 216). In another entry during the same year he writes, "[m]y genius loudly calls me to stay where I am, even with the degradation of owning bank-stock and seeing poor men suffer, whilst the Universal Genius apprises me of this disgrace and beckons me to the martyr's and redeemer's office" (217). Even though he is aware of inequities among people, Emerson remains detached from them. In her description of the artist and her disbelief in the possibility of any change coming from within the ranks of "the sharks of the trade," Fuller follows Emerson's sympathetic but detached artist. Hers is not an agent of political change in the name of greater justice for all, but an observer and preserver of historical facts, a painter of portraits or collector of skulls (Fuller 211).
For Fuller, the artist thus always stays at a remove from her subject, freed from "the jail-yard of individual relations." At the same time, and unlike Emerson, she reassigns the artist the role of historiographer, for, unable to affect the course of historical events, the artist records them after the fact in order to secure them a lasting place in history. In such a role, however, the artist also becomes a silent if unwilling accomplice in the systematic extinction of Native Americans because representations reflect and revalidate oppressive colonial discourses through their textual usurpation and objectification of native peoples.7
Fuller's discussion at times also bears out the threat of such usurpation since, despite her efforts at self-consciousness, she frequently employs elements that resemble those used in nineteenth-century colonial writing. In The Rhetoric of Empire, David Spurr describes colonial discourse as that discourse which "designate[s] a space within language that exists both as a series of historical instances and as a series of rhetorical functions" (7). Colonial discourse, Spurr argues, always originates within a colonial situation. Quoting from George Balandier's 1963 definition, Spurr writes, "the colonial situation is characterized by the domination imposed by a foreign minority, 'racially' and culturally different, over a weaker indigenous majority in the name of racial (or ethnic) superiority" (5-6). The two cultures are separated by technological advancement and economic power on the one hand, and the lack thereof on the other (6). Spurr discusses how the spectator's position is determined by colonial discourses. In her description of Native Americans in Summer on the Lakes, Fuller frequently occupies the position of the colonial observer.
When she writes about the camp at Mackinaw, Fuller draws comparisons between Native American ways of life and ancient traditions. While affirming the close relationship between the Native Americans and nature, she simultaneously distances each individual from such a primal relationship by inserting a model of Roman nobility between him or her and nature. While in Milwaukee, Fuller sees a Native American chief who reminds her of "a real Roman, more than six feet in height, erect, and of a sullen, but grand gait and gesture. He wore a deep red blanket, which fell in large folds from his shoulders to his feet, did not join in the dance, but slowly strode about through the streets, a fine sight" (142). By ascribing to Native Americans the attributes of ancient nobility, Fuller tries to evoke in her audience sympathy for their plight, and shows, as Lucy Maddox convincingly argues, that they are the "more appropriate claimants to the American Wilderness" (143). However, by representing them as aesthetic objects, Fuller simultaneously denies the subjectivity of these same Native Americans for her audience.
Exploring Native American ways of life on the one hand as representations of a sublime aesthetics, Fuller also resorts to the other extreme in her description of Native American women by employing the stereotype of woman as inferior beast. While earlier she lamented the fact that "the Red man" is either "exalt[ed] … into a Demigod or degrad[ed] … into a beast," she now falls into this same two-dimensional pattern (175). Furthermore, through her focus on the physical bodies of Native American women, Fuller participates in a discourse of colonialism that objectifies the native other as inferior. In colonial writing, Spurr argues, "the body is that which is most proper to the primitive, the sign by which the primitive is represented" (22). In her depiction of Native American women's burdened lives, Fuller makes use of a stereotype current among Western artists, that of Native American women as "beasts of burden" (Schoelwer 165). For European Americans, Native American women "must have appeared antithetical to the presumed natural condition of women" because they carried out what was considered male labor (165). Schoelwer questions whether "the widespread denigration of Indian Women as 'beasts of burden' may have represented not so much a description of their condition as an indicator of cultural anxieties evoked by unfamiliar conceptions of gender" (165). Fuller's description could thus be viewed as a gauge of her absorption within a patriarchal discourse that casts women as delicate objects who live a life of leisure alien to hard physical labor. Although Fuller describes the Native American women at Mackinaw as exhibiting "decorum and delicacy," she also states that "they do occupy a lower place than women among the nations of European civilization" (178). Thus, she casts Native American women as doubly other, twice removed from European civilization through their inferiority both to European American and Native American men and to European American women. By arguing that these women not only "inherit submission," but also "[p]erhaps suffer less than their white sisters, who have more aspiration and refinement," Fuller suppresses a narrative about suffering that she had previously affirmed (178). In doing this, she both affirms traditional ideas of the superiority of Western civilization, and the superiority of European American women in particular, and at the same time usurps the identity of Native American women by objectifying them as brute and senseless victims of oppression. By representing Native Americans through the lens of Western history and denying them a voice in her text, Fuller thus obscures their positions as complex subjects.
Fuller's complex and often conflicted example of cultural critique and the stance of the cultural critic invites in turn a self-conscious exploration of my own position as a reader and critic of women's texts. For me, the significance of her critique lies in its anxious treatment of the writer's involvement in dominant discourses. Another, even more important aspect is its explicit iteration of the precariousness of its own situation, part of what I have previously called the anxiety of writing. For me, as a feminist critic and reader of women's texts, anxiety arises not only from the awareness of my complicity in dominant discourses, but also from my efforts at including within textual speculations the tensions and fears that arise from my attempts at expanding, as Fuller does, the boundaries of my critical text.
It is an anxiety about my involvement, as a cultural critic, in academic discourses that privilege the critic's control over her own text and the texts she reads. But there is also a more deeply seated anxiety about the possibilities and dangers of cultural critique, an anxiety that is intricately connected to issues of nationality. As a German woman living in the U. S. studying American literature, and as a woman within academia practicing cultural criticism, I am forced to think about my own role and responsibilities as an interpreter of languages, discourses, and cultures. This makes me more sensitive to the temptation, as a reader and writer of texts, to usurp and objectify the texts I study, and to the need to interrogate the claims to critical authority inscribed in the discourses I use. In the context of these issues, Fuller's Summer on the Lakes generates questions about the ethics of a cultural critique, about the privileged, detached position of the observer, her position as the subject of the gaze.
I have often had to contend with the critical assumption that interpretive authority is irretrievably tied to one's nationality. My being on the borderline between two languages and two cultures has loosened up such real or imagined connections, and thus has been a constant reminder of the precariousness of the very idea of cultural authority. And my constant wandering between languages and cultural contexts has also been an inevitable reminder of the interpretive possibilities of such a double-stance. Thus, I have come to see the strengths and benefits of a cultural critique not in its closeness to arbitrary standards of authenticity, but in the cultural critic's ongoing efforts at questioning her role and motivations as a participant in and reader of cultural texts. Such questioning becomes possible only when one is willing to temporarily wander between interpretive contexts and the beliefs and assumptions that define them.8
A shift in frames of reference—in my case a physical shift between countries—makes negotiation possible, even necessary. Such shifts are not exclusively contingent on physical wandering; however, it is necessary for the kind of cultural critique Fuller tentatively envisions for the critic to wander among and probe the limits of the discourses that shape her reality. In doing so, Fuller also builds a bridge between the past and the responsibilities of those who live in the present. By including autobiographical experience in my scholarship, I hope to show the relevance of such probings in my reading of texts. And yet I feel an anxiety about voicing these ideas, about including what should be footnotes to my critical enterprise, or suppressed entirely, in the main text, and, like Margaret Fuller, I feel tempted to ask my readers not to "blame me that I have written so much about Germany" (170). But Fuller's own attempts at forging a link between multiple, often contesting voices and her anxieties about reading and writing in ways that stray from convention point out possible routes in my own search for a self-conscious cultural critique. In Summer on the Lakes, we can see that within such a critique an interrogation of the interpreter's contingent, always limited, point of view is indispensable.9
- Jeffrey Steele points out that it was a "sense of personal disjunction [which] helped Fuller interpret the ways in which the victims of racial and sexual oppression had been compartmentalized into categories that isolated them from effective political sympathy" (xiii).
- Christina Zwarg argues that "[t]he double frame of the translator … [was] lending her [Fuller] something of an anthropologist's sensibility to the dynamic of culture contact" (98). By questioning the treatment of Native Americans, Fuller positions herself at the margins of the dominant culture. At the same time, however, she also speaks from within that culture. Zwarg thus discusses the complex and contradictory involvement of Fuller's feminist discourse in traditional patriarchal discourses. She sees Fuller's successful negotiation among the discourses that constitute her writing as symptomatic of an emergence of "critical agency" (124).
- Like Zwarg, Nicole Tonkovich argues that Fuller consciously employs textual strategies that enable her to resist the dominant discourses that inscribe her as a white, educated woman from the East. Tonkovich focuses on Fuller's resistance to the "fictively unified subjectivity upon which traditional nineteenth-century masculine notions of authorship depended" (95). By combining multiple narratives and various fictive selves with "techniques of parody," Fuller subverts such attempts at unity (95).
- Stephen Adams makes a case for the strong role of subjective perception in Fuller's writing. He argues that Summer on the Lakes presents Fuller's successful attempt at creating a new heterogeneous form by skillfully weaving together multiple narratives (247-49). However, "beneath the surface disjointedness, digressiveness, and fragmentation" of the text, romantic works such as Fuller's "strive for a deep unity" (251).
- Ellison's discussion, although it does not focus primarily on Summer on the Lakes, is nevertheless helpful for an analysis of this text. Like Adams, Ellison emphasizes Fuller's heterogeneous style of writing (283). Rather than focusing, however, as Adams does, on the hidden Romantic unifying tendencies in Fuller's work, Ellison stresses the dynamics that construct a subject's historicity. Heterogeneity, Ellison argues, "refers not to a random mixture of styles, but to a structured movement among certain discourses and the cultural positions associated with them" (283). The self in Fuller's writing is the site at which "the many languages of the mind … and of society" intersect (223). As for Steele, for Ellison the subject does not exist beyond ideology, but is able to move along the various discourses that constitute it.
- Elisabeth McKinsey points out that several stock conventions provided guidelines for written representations of the Falls. There was in fact a "vocabulary of the sublime." Writers often were "concerned much more with emotions and psychic responses to the cataract than with its physical description [and thus] they emphasize adjectives more than nouns, and the nouns they do use are particularly value laden and affective." Besides the word "dreadful," which is also a part of Fuller's description, such words as "dazzling stupendous … profound, overwhelming, eternal, wonder, prodigy, abyss, and chasm" are elements of stock descriptions of the Falls (43).
- In a study of the works of women travel writers, Sara Mills asks, "[a]re we [feminist critics] going to be critical of some of the positions exemplified in the texts, for example, colonialist or racial statements, and will we be judging these works against some feminist standard? Or are we writing about them as part of a larger project concerned with the construction of an alternative women's history?" (28). In my reading of Fuller's text, these two questions often threaten to cancel each other out. An exclusive focus on Fuller's text in relation to an alternative tradition of women's writing—one that would foreground her resistance to dominant discourses and her affirmation of the hardships in the lives of both white and Native American women—could be in danger of obfuscating her text's simultaneous complicity in those discourses. On the other hand, focusing solely on Fuller's participation in discourses that reinscribe stereotypes about Native Americans, I might diminish the feminist message embedded in her critique. However, in the course of this project I have come to realize that such fears are based on the assumption that a feminist message has to be consistent and in control of its various meanings in order to be meaningful. Thus, I argue that rather than representing mutually exclusive positions, both of the questions Mills raises are intricately tied into the emergence of an anxiety about reading and writing in Fuller's text.
- For me the kind of distancing that is necessary for such negotiations was facilitated through my displacement as a foreigner in this country. Ongoing probings and shiftings between different cultural texts and the discourses, as well as national languages, through which they are constructed and which in turn they construct, have forced me to take up various, often conflicting positions that put me at shifting distances both from the cultural texts of my native Germany and from those of North America. In a longer version of this paper, I explore this conflict within the particular context of my reading and rereading of the German Holocaust.
- This paper is part of a chapter on Margaret Fuller from my dissertation, which experiments with and explores the uses of personal voice and autobiographical experience in literary criticism. Thus, my reading of Summer on the Lakes and Fuller's role as cultural critic is also a reading of myself, albeit an abbreviated one in this excerpt, caught between cultures as a German woman reading, writing, and teaching in the United States.
"Fuller, Margaret: Title Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fuller-margaret-title-commentary
"Fuller, Margaret: Title Commentary." Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. . Retrieved November 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fuller-margaret-title-commentary
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