Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Margaret Fuller and "The Best Living Prose Writer," George Sand: A Revisionist Account

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Margaret Fuller and "The Best Living Prose Writer," George Sand: A Revisionist Account

Article excerpt

On reading the works of George Sand, Margaret Fuller wrote she was "tempted" to take her own writing in a new direction, which critical tradition assumes meant fiction-writing--a direction that Fuller did not take. Analysis of Fuller's sometimes enigmatic comments on Sand, along with readings of the two writers in tandem, shows Fuller most engaged rather by the French author's experiments with generic forms, her impassioned prose style, and her progressive social thought. The texts of the woman that Fuller judged to be in some ways the "best living prose writer" offered models of prose "painting" in the forms of visionary fragment, travelogue, and literary journalism that stimulated Fuller as she shaped her own form and style in her Dial fragments, Summer on the Lakes, and her Tribune journalism. Yet Fuller responded with more ambivalence than is usually acknowledged to Sand's progressivism and emancipation from convention.

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Does it claim too much to say that George Sand galvanized Fuller's mature literary aspirations? Fuller first read Sand in the late 1830s when, frustrated by the lack of social positions and literary forms sanctioned for women, she was casting about for a career or public role. Having entered the public forum a half-decade before with newspaper correspondence that debated George Bancroft's history and politics and with a seduction tale, (1) Fuller had published book reviews and just brought out her first book--a translation of Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe, a project related to her projected biography of Goethe. But circumstances increasingly discouraged that larger study. Her journal registers her excitement upon discovering new inspiration for writing in Sand:

These books have made me for the first time think I might write into such shapes what I know of human nature. I have always thought that I would not, that I would keep all that behind the curtain, that I would not write, like a woman, of love and hope and disappointment, but like a man of the world of intellect and action. But now I am tempted, and if I can but do well my present work and show that I can write like a man, [...] I think I will try whether I have the hand to paint, as well as the eye to see (qtd. Higginson, Margaret Fuller Ossoli 188).

Longstanding assumptions about the two women, combined with nationalist paradigms of literary study, obscure the ways that Fuller engaged Sand's writing in her own. As the New England friends who edited Fuller's personal writings for her Memoirs (1852) shaped a version of Fuller's career to conform with their own literary, moral, and ideological propensities (see Chevigny, "Edges of Ideology" 194-98), they simply excised her expression of her ambition to write like Sand. The Fuller they present is a discriminating reader of Sand, "disgusted" at "the sophistry of passion" in some of Sand's fiction, yet appreciative of her idealism and moral rehabilitation; this Fuller confesses to "lov[ing]" Sand on meeting her in Paris and finding her character "so really good" in "contrast to the vulgar caricature" of her. But this is hardly a writer who would think of emulating Sand (Memoirs 1:248; 2:195). The persisting influence of the Memoirs image of Fuller makes it hard to see the ways that Sand inspired Fuller's writing, and it is complicated by a narrow critical image of Sand as a novelist limited to one genre, as well as by critical approaches that largely segregate nineteenth-century American and French literature as independent fields. The scant modern criticism that does acknowledge Fuller's engagement with Sand as a writer follows her more sympathetic biographer, Thomas Wentworth Fligginson, who first published the journal passage, in assuming that Fuller's inspiration to "write, like a woman," indicates her intent to emulate the French writer by producing "romances" in a "project of fiction" (Fligginson, Margaret Fuller Ossoli 187-88), (2) a temptation she largely resisted as she turned to a career in journalism. …

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