George Sand and Margaret Fuller: "Expansive Fellowship"
Transatlanticism in American Literature
Rothermere American Institute
University of Oxford, UK
University of Idaho
This study has become much larger than I expected it would—56 pages to date—and so obviously what I can present today is only a description of the work rather than the substance of it. The handout offers bare-essentials quotations to help orient you to discussion of several 1830s texts that I imagine are unfamiliar to most.
I begin with an overview of studies of American reactions to George Sand, which has been a subject of periodic scholarly inquiry for at least seventy-five years. The high points are two essays by C.M. Lombard in the 1960s; book-length studies by Patricia Thomson and Paul Blount in the late 1970s (though these focus on British reaction); and, recently and best, Catherine Masson’s 2003 "George Sand, le ‘génie devenu fou’ et sa conquête de l’Amérique." Masson notes that most American intellectuals—"malgré des réticences"—considered Sand a great, even a very great writer. The full account of these "réticences" remains to be told, although segments of the story exist piecemeal in studies of individual writers—Carolyn Karcher’s biography of Lydia Maria Child, for example, and Helen R. Deese’s edition of the diaries of Caroline Healey Dall.
I then describe the interaction beginning in 1839 between Julia Ward Howe’s older brother Samuel and his friend Henry Longfellow about George Sand’s writing. The exchange reveals important information about Sand’s presence—or, more accurately, her absence—in serious American discussion of fiction. Ward thought that George Sand was superior to Balzac.
It is inconceivable how the free genius of that woman gives birth to ideas of the highest order of masculine beauty clothed in a language worthy of Rousseau. I believe that she and La Mennais are the two first writers in France of the present day—and that France numbers now the best writers and most accomplished critics in the world.
Yet Ward also recognized the impossibility of her receiving astute critical response in America: "a Reviewer would be forced to endure a censorious and moral [grimace?] and she is excessively heterodox." Longfellow did, at Ward’s prompting, read Sand, and I trace the differences in Longfellow’s and Ward’s responses. The first note on the handout [reproduced at the bottom of this page] is Ward’s delighted offer of help when Longfellow asked him to arrange a meeting with Sand in 1842. [Note Ward’s insistence on her androgyny; read first sentence.] I position Ward’s enthusiasm against the first major review of Sand to be published in America, written by Francis Bowen for the North American Review in July 1841. In this essay, Sand’s imagination is "morbid," her spirit "gloomy," her mind and heart "thoroughly diseased"; she is an instance of "a noble nature . . . gone astray."
My paper then moves to consideration of, first, the probable impetus for Margaret Fuller’s reading of Sand, and second, the texts that preserve her complex response. Fuller’s reaction to Sand has been a focus of scholarly attention on several (but surprisingly few) occasions, beginning with a 1918 master’s thesis at Columbia. By far the most useful overview to date is Charles Capper’s, which offers an extensive commentary on Fuller’s 1839 reading notes on la jeune France as prologue to her published comments in The Dial and the Tribune.
I posit that Fuller was prompted to read Sand systematically by two reviews appearing in British periodicals in April and July of 1839. The first, by H.F. Chorley, intends partly to modify the cartoonish image promulgated by the British press in earlier articles. Chorley invokes a widely-reproduced drawing of Sand by Luigi Calamatta [handout], depicting her "half-sibylline, half-animal countenance," in order to suggest that readers need to look beyond this mask: "To any one who derives from the study of contemporary imaginative literature some aids to his knowledge of the progress of belief and intelligence, a certain acquaintance with the works of Madame Dudevant is almost essential." The other review was by a person later to play a major role in Fuller’s life: Giuseppe Mazzini. Mazzini’s defense of Sand is rational and rhetorically sophisticated. It rests on a sense of shared political sympathies and is indirectly an expression of his own--sentiments to which Fuller would also have resonated. It finds evidence of discrimination on the basis of gender, both in the vitriol critics had spewed regarding her life circumstances and in the differential treatment her characters and plots had received in comparisons with those of Sue, Janin, Balzac, and Goethe. Most notably, it is suffused with a spirit of great sympathy and admiration for Sand’s achievement—and, it would seem, for her plurally-gendered persona, as in this climactic paragraph [handout].
Whether these essays were influential in increasing Fuller’s interest in Sand, I can’t prove. What is known is that she had read her first Sand work, Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre, as well as Spiridion, twice, by July 31, 1839, when she traveled to Bristol, R.I., for a ten-day stay with the DeWolfe family. For various reasons, this was a charged moment in Fuller’s life, in which matters of head and heart concentrated. [Reference Crain’s American Sympathy.] I argue that the moment was a fertile field into which the seed of George Sand dropped. Incipient fertility is certainly the dominant motif in the opening lines of Fuller’s Bristol journal [handout]. This passage was written just after she finished Spiridion a second time; the last four lines refer to its main character, Father Alexis.
At this point I need to offer you at least a brief sense of these two Sand works. Spiridion is a series of embedded narratives contained by a young monk’s efforts to articulate his own beliefs. It has trappings of the Gothic novel, but like an earlier Sand work, Lélia, it is what Sand described as a "non-visible novel"—not intended to "amuse and entertain readers with an idle imagination . . . appeal[ing] little to the eye and constantly to the soul." The texture of the work is that of a philosophical dialogue. Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre, Sand’s response to Goethe’s Faust, is a philosophical drama that additionally reflects her involvement with Chopin and Liszt. The complicated plot is structured around the relationship between Albertus, a philosophy teacher, and his ward Hélène, who is the inheritor of a magic lyre. As the work’s 20th-century translator notes, Sand attempted a difficult task: "to cast into words the effect of music and to give dramatic interest to philosophical abstractions." When Hélène first makes the lyre sing, Sand’s stage directions indicate that the Spirit’s words "are not heard by men, and only the melody of the lyre, of which the words are the expression, strikes their ears." Sand’s efforts to render the Spirit’s discourse produced rapturous, mystical "speeches" such as the one on the handout, probably what Fuller had in mind in describing the work as "divine." [That’s it: really brief.]
My essay then offers a detailed reading of Fuller’s comments about these and several other Sand works that are part of her notes on la jeune France. The notes are not dated, and they include discussion of Béranger, Lamennais, Vigny, and Balzac, as well as Sand. The first section (of three concerning Sand), written just before or very soon after her ten days in Bristol, is headed "Thursday evening." Here there is reference only to Les Sept Cordes and Spiridion. Another section dated "1839," written later in the fall, discusses Les Sept Cordes, André, Jacques, Lettres d’un Voyageur, and Leone Léoni. These two are substantially reproduced in the first volume of Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. A third section headed "Wednesday" returns to the letters exchanged between Jacques and Sylvia in Jacques. This section has never fully appeared in print, although Capper transcribes some segments of it.
One of the characteristics of Sand’s writing that absorbed Fuller was the technique of incorporating religious and philosophical speculation within a narrative frame. Capper suggests that Fuller’s admiration in general was aroused rather by the works’ "unabashed intellectuality" than by their aesthetics; I argue through close reading of her notes that she admired both the thought and the art. The next entry on the handout is a section of her comments on the literary qualities of Spiridion. The one following is part of her response to Les Sept Cordes, particularly to its heroine Hélène. Just before this passage (not reproduced) is a comparison of this book with Bettina von Arnim’s 1835 Goethes Breifwechsel mit einem Kinde, and a running sub-theme of my paper is the way in which the epistolary conversation about Sand between Emerson and Fuller continually juxtaposes von Arnim and Sand. Fuller says here (before the reproduced passage):
When I first knew George Sand, I thought I found tried the experiment I wanted. I did not value Bettine so much; she had not pride enough for me; only now when I am sure of myself, would I pour out my soul at the feet of another. In the assured soul it is kingly prodigality; in one which cannot forbear, it is mere babyhood. I love abandon only when natures are capable of the extreme reverse. I knew Bettine would end in nothing, when I read her book. I knew she could not outlive her love.
In the passage on the handout, Fuller does not distinguish between the fictional Hélène and the real Bettina in their impact on her—which I read as a testament to Sand’s success in embodying Hélène. The character of Hélène manifests what Fuller sees as Sand’s own experiential achievement: "the knowledge of the passions, and of social institutions, with the celestial choice which rose above them."
The most significant note in these reflections, from my point of view, is a passage from the third section of notes on Sand, what Capper designates "one extraordinarily important idea," the last passage on the handout. "These books have made me for the first time think I might write into such shapes what I know of human nature." The writing Fuller imagined would cross a gender divide: she would write "like a man[,] of the world of intellect and action," and not "like a woman, of love and hope and disappointment." But this writing would also integrate the perspective of both genders. I believe Fuller’s language here is both extremely precise and susceptible to misreading. She does not seem to bar inclusion of the usual female themes—she seems willing to pull aside the "curtain" behind which she had vowed to keep such emotions—but in taking up these topics she will do it in the way a man would address them, as she sees George Sand to have brilliantly done.
Fuller clearly wanted Emerson to share her enthusiasm for Sand and carefully instructed him on how to approach her—advice Emerson disregarded, but this fact did not deter him from pronouncing largely on her value as a writer after having skimmed André and Leone Léoni.
A fervid eloquence certainly this woman has, & makes sometimes authentic revelations of what passes in man & in woman. there are a few wonderful things in the book but she is not superior to her story, I fancy, but is herself sick with the sickness of the French intellect & has not surmounted this taste for the morgue & the hells. . . . With all the manifest strength & steadiness of this woman, I will not compare her to Bettina a moment on such evidence as I have. She is but a Parisian Corinna, Bettina a sublime original.
Emerson modified this judgment somewhat after he read Spiridion in late December, but even in his praise, he remained cool. Fuller, I believe, was severely disappointed, a reaction she alluded to in a letter of December 26, 1839.
I then present a case that the work of Fuller’s that most clearly reflects her complex encounter with Sand’s 1830s oeuvre is "The Magnolia of Lake Pontchartrain," written in October-November 1840 and published in The Dial’s third issue in January 1841. "Leila" and "Yuca Filamentosa" also bear the impress of Fuller’s reading of Sand, but I focus on "Magnolia" because its structure derives from narrative and thus it is generically closest to Sand’s work. I also discuss what Fuller later wrote about Sand for publication. Her comments in the Dial (expanded in Woman in the Nineteenth Century) and in three articles for the New York Tribune span a three year period and bridge the moment when the appearance in English translation of Consuelo and The Countess of Rudolstadt gave prudish readers a reason to "forgive" the earlier radical outlaw. I argue that the various rhetorical positionings Fuller adopts in these four (really, five) pieces are in part the result of her sense of what the public could be induced to listen to, more than straightforward statements to be taken at face value as her opinion.I conclude with a look at the accounts Fuller wrote for Elizabeth Hoar and Emerson of her face-to-face meeting with George Sand in 1847. Although Emerson did not share her degree of enthusiasm for Sand, he seemed genuinely glad to hear that she had met the celebrated lady. "It was high time, dear friend, that you should run out of the coop of our bigoted societies full of fire damp & azote, and find some members of your own expansive fellowship." Fuller felt that she and Sand had "always known one another" and noted that Sand’s position as "an intellectual woman and good friend" was "the same as my own in the circle of my acquaintance." Certain aspects of the mythic Sand persona faded, but the actual Sand was better: "I heartily enjoyed the sense of so rich, so prolific, so ardent a genius. I liked the woman in her, too, very much; I never liked a woman better." In fact, Fuller, continued,
[s]he needs no defence, but only to be understood, for she has bravely acted out her nature, and always with good intentions. . . . she was never coarse, never gross, and I am sure her generous heart has not failed to draw some rich drops from every kind of wine-press.
Fuller’s narrative ends with a retailing of gossip regarding Sand’s relationships with Chopin and Liszt, with admiration for and possibly even envy of this womanly woman who redefined boundaries and provided maps for those interested in staking a claim in this new terrain.
George Sand and Margaret Fuller: "Expansive Fellowship"
Gary Williams, University of Idaho
Transatlanticism in American Literature
Oxford, UK, July 2006
Samuel Ward to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1 March 1842:
As for George Sand nothing will be easier than for you to know him should your travels lead you her way. I will furnish you with a warm letter to Janin who will have great pleasure in making you known to him and I candidly think her worth seeking. Besides his genius for writing she has an impulse toward perfectibilitification and is intimate with that fiery apostle Lamennais who sympathises in his efforts to elevate the people and recognises in her a Kindred Spirit. Should it be your fortune to fall in with him do not fall in love with her. He will enchant you more in an evenings interview, if the fit of Psychic inspiration be upon her, than any being you ever knew & is a kind of moral Hermaphrodite.
Luigi Calamata, Portrait of George Sand, 1836:
Giuseppe Mazzini, Monthly Chronicle, July 1839:
Such is George Sand, his life, his labours. She [italics in original] has suffered—she revolted,--she has struggled—she has sought, hoped, found; and she has told us all. The long series of her compositions form a grand confession. Spirits young, pure, and innocent, not worn by unhappiness, whom contact with the world has not yet endowed with the knowledge of evil, may well—perhaps, should—abstain from reading it; but let the rest, numerous as they are, boldly go through the whole; they cannot, we say it with profound conviction, but rise the better.
Margaret Fuller, Bristol journal, August 1839:
I have never been so near the fountain of inspiration, yet I have not attained to drink. The divinity flits before me, a glittering phantom on the mead, her eyes divine look up to me from the depths of still waters, yet I can never lay hold on her robe or dive to the door of her grotto.
. . . It seems as if I drew nearer to my aim, and as if much was accumulating which a moment might cast into a state of crystallization. Cellini may cease to be a goldsmith yet and become a sculptor[.] If not here then yonder—The strong desire I feel must be a prophecy only I must not antedate its fulfillment. One who feels like me must either be or write a poem.
Never was a nobler conception of the lot of the Seeker. The Maker is not so easily portrayed, yet this writer could do it—Many chords vibrated in my bosom, especially where the monk resigned himself at last to the influences of external Nature and was almost reclaimed. This work is less divine than La Lyre, but manly and masterful.
George Sand, Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre:
Daughter of men, purify your heart, fashion it as a jeweler polishes the facet of a crystal gem to make the brightness of the prism play. Make of yourself a surface so limpid that the ray of the universe crosses through you and embraces you. Reduce your being to dust to assimilate yourself to it and to lavish yourself in divine flux within its burning breast, always consuming, always fecund.
Margaret Fuller, La jeune France notes, on Spiridion:
This work is written with great vigor, scarce any faltering on the wing. The horrors are disgusting, as are those of every writer except Dante. Every genius should content itself in dipping the pencil in cloud and mist. The apparitions of Spiridion are managed with great beauty. As in Hélène, as in Novalis, I recognized, with delight, the eye that gazed, the ear that listened, till the specters came, as they do to the highlander on his rocky couch, to the German peasant on his mountain. How different from the vulgar eye which looks, but never sees! Here the beautiful apparition advances from the solar ray, or returns to the fountain of light and truth, as it should, when eagle eyes are gazing.
Margaret Fuller, La jeune France notes, on Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre:
in Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre, which I read first, I saw the knowledge of the passions, and of social institutions, with the celestial choice which rose above them. I loved Hélène, who could so well hear the terrene voices, yet keep her eye fixed on the stars. That would be my wish, also, to know all, then choose; I ever revered her, for I was not sure that I could have resisted the call of the Now, could have left the spirit, and gone to God. And, at a more ambitious age, I could not have refused the philosopher. But I hoped from her steadfastness, and I thought I heard the last tones of a purified life:--Gretchen, in the golden cloud, raised above all past delusions, worthy to redeem and upbear the wise man, who stumbled into the pit of error while searching for truth.
Margaret Fuller, La jeune France notes, on cumulative effect of reading 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, and if but the wild gnomes will keep from me with their shackles of care for bread in all its shapes of factitious life, I think I will try whether I have the hand to paint, as well as the eye to see. For I cannot but feel that I have seen from the mouth of my damp cave, stars as fair, almost as many, as this person from the Flèche of the Cathedral [Hélène in Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre] where she has ascended at such peril. But I dare boast no more, only please fate be just and send me an angel out of this golden cloud that comes after the pelting showers I have borne so long.