Margaret Fuller's First Depiction of Indians and the Limits on Social Protest: An Exercise in Women's Studies Pedagogy

By Kolodny, Annette | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2001 | Go to article overview
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Margaret Fuller's First Depiction of Indians and the Limits on Social Protest: An Exercise in Women's Studies Pedagogy


Kolodny, Annette, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


By July 1842 Margaret Fuller had handed over editorship of the Transcendental Club's journal, the Dial, to her successor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Earlier that year, the two had arranged for Fuller to review two collections of folk ballads, both published in Germany but readily available in the United States. [1] In early June, Fuller promised Emerson "50 or 60" pages in time for publication in the October issue (Emerson, Letters 62). The two books to be reviewed were Rheinsagen aus dem Munde des Volks und deutscher Dichter. Fur Schule, Haus und Wandershaft (1837) [Traditions of the Rhine from the Mouths of the People and German Poets. For School, Home, and Travelling], which Fuller translated simply as "Traditions of the Rhine from the mouths of the people and German poets. By Karl Simrock"; and Neugriechische Volkslieder, gesammelt und herausgegeben von C. Fauriel (1825), which Fuller translated as "Modern Greek popular Songs, collected and published by C. Fauriel" (Fuller, "Romaic" 137, 153). This second volume, s he made clear, had been translated by Wilhelm Muller into German from its original French and was "furnished both with the French editor's explanations and ... [with Muller's] own" (Fuller, "Romaic" 153-54). [2]

The lengthy review essay (forty-three pages in print) appeared under the title "Romaic and Rhine Ballads." Although "Romaic and Rhine Ballads" has received scant notice from Fuller scholars, it nonetheless merits further attention. To begin with, it contributes to the view that Fuller was the preeminent and perhaps the best read Germanist of her generation. The elegance and accuracy of her translations illustrate her ease and fluency in the language (remarkable, at least in part, because Fuller had never visited Germany nor had access to formal training in German language or letters). [3] Even more important, however, is the fact that "Romaic and Rhine Ballads" represents Fuller's first published attempt to respond to what was happening to the Indian. [4] In this review, ostensibly focused on German and modern Greek folk ballads, Fuller inscribed a subtext about "our aborigines" (179).

Not surprisingly, that subtext raises the same questions that most scholars routinely raise about Fuller's first published book, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844). For example, Lucy Maddox finds in Summer on the Lakes unambiguous evidence that, despite Fuller's expressed sympathy for the Indians, she nonetheless never challenged the view that "in the future they face only 'speedy extinction'" (144). Similarly, in her own thoughtful discussion of Summer on the Lakes, Christina Zwarg regrets that Fuller's "witness to the crisis of the Native Americans sometimes caused her to endorse the discourse of the vanishing American which, historians remind us, became a deadly excuse for the aggressive expansion of European culture" (109). In effect, like many others, both Maddox and Zwarg thus chastise Fuller because, in Zwarg's words, she "found it... difficult to refute the fatal construction of the Native American" (109).

What compels attention in "Romaic and Rhine Ballads" is that it raises these questions a full year before Fuller embarked on her tour of the frontier settlements that dotted the prairies of Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory and a full year before she encountered the Indians of Mackinaw Island, whom she sympathetically depicted in the closing chapters of Summer on the Lakes as a people unwillingly torn from their traditional lands and lifeways. Precisely because the 1842 review essay--written before Fuller had had any real firsthand experience of Native Peoples [5]-so perfectly predicts the language and equivocations that trouble readers of Summer on the Lakes, it affronts us with the conundrum that we encounter often with Fuller: what can today's readers reasonably expect, even from a woman described by her contemporaries as "striking" in her "clear, sharp understanding" (Clarke 113-14)?

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