Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Overcoming Fragmentation in Summer on the Lakes

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Overcoming Fragmentation in Summer on the Lakes

Article excerpt

In narrating her journey westward in Summer on the Lakes, Margaret Fuller confronted fragmentation on a variety of levels, from the anxiety of writing to the unstable nature of individual consciousness to shattering effects that Anglo-American settlers were producing upon the native societies on the frontier. Fuller responded to these disjunctives, not by trying to impose an artificial unity, but by weaving the theme of fragmentation and incompleteness into her book. In Summer on the Lakes, Fuller deliberately resists the expectations of form, presenting self, society, and the text itself as fragments and thus confirming that consciousness, country, and narrated experience can be accurately understood only in terms of their innate contradictions.

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After Margaret Fuller's untimely death in 1850, her brother Arthur took upon himself the daunting task of editing her works, both those that had previously been issued and others that had never before appeared in book form. Although Arthur possessed the abundant good will required for the task, his sense of literary form was perhaps more subject to question. In 1856, when prospective purchasers thumbed the pages of At Home and Abroad, a collection of Fuller's travel writings from Europe and the American Midwest, they may at first have been pleased to observe the title page's assertion that the volume represented a "new and complete edition" of the anthologized material. Their pleasure would likely have sagged somewhat, however, if they had taken the time to read the editor's preface. In order to keep the volume to a "reasonable size," Arthur had consented to the omission of several passages from his sister's first book, Summer on the Lakes--a decision to which he had come after "much reluctance," but which he felt did not "materially [... ] diminish" the value of the collection. Arthur's excisions included both the original romantic tale "Mariana," and his sister's lengthy discourse on the Seeress of Prevorst--two episodes that, taken together, account for about a quarter of Fuller's original text. Arthur excused himself on the grounds that the episodic nature of his sister's narrative "enabled the Editor to make omissions without in any way marring its unity." Indeed, if cohesiveness and flow were the sole or even the first criteria for judging Summer on the Lakes, one would be tempted not only to accept Arthur's apology but to agree with his further assertion that he had improved upon his late sister's text, to wit, that "the volume even gain[s] [...] by the omission of extracts [...] not connected in any regard with Western life." (1) One might well suppose that Arthur felt that he had done his late sister a favor.

And therein lies the problem. Anyone who has read the full text of Summer on the Lakes (and, to a lesser extent, even Arthur Fuller's abridgement) is no stranger to its many quirks and, indeed, frustrations. Its multitude of disjunctures and digressions are at first surprising. Of all literary genres, one might naively expect few to have a more inherent arc and pace than travel narratives. The inescapable trajectory of departure, journey, arrival, and return would seem to provide a foolproof structure for even the most wayward of literary stylists. Yet both of the most celebrated travel narratives of the American transcendental era, Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Summer on the Lakes, gloriously defeat such expectations. In the latter, Fuller constructs a monument to the nonlinear and the anti-cohesive. Multitudes of genres--epistolary narrative, gothic tale, lyric poetry, book review, and informal dialogue, to give only a partial list--improbably crowd against one another. The evident raison d'etre of Fuller's book, the description of sights seen while traveling to and through the Midwestern frontier, is continually pushed aside to make room for snippets of conversation, fictionalized personal recollections, and speculations on the spirit world. …

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