References are to Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (University of Illinois Press, 1991).
Paul de Man once wrote one of his tidy little deconstructions on the impossibility of demarcating autobiography from fiction, arguing, roughly, that autobiography wants to efface its writtenness, but can never ultimately do that. Every time we go about theorizing what it is, the fact that it is written and full of tropes and poetic devices of our own invention always reasserts itself.
Thankfully, great writers have never much cared about the theorizing happening around them and have gone on writing whatever the hell it is they want to write without caring what it exactly is. Fuller’s example is a good one in this regard, being more self-conscious then most. Unlike Emerson’s exhortations, Thoreau and Fuller sought to set themselves in the narrative of life, carefully crafting sections of their lives for designs of their choosing, much as we craft our career arcs and much else. Indeed, Fuller announces the analogy between book and life so appropriate to the memoirist: “Since you are to share with me such foot-notes as may be made on the pages of my life….” (3) She occasionally makes gestures that recall us to this story’s writtenness throughout the book (e.g., “…if I had not been guilty of rhyme on the very last page” (36)). It’s interesting, though, that she says, “I had no guide-book, kept no diary…. What I got from the journey was the poetic impression of the country at large….” (42)
It’s this impression that’s interesting, though that she is a lesser Transcendentalist makes itself evident insofar as a few comments here and there invite interest, though without a powerful or original design behind them. If there is a design, it is one of harmony and balance, which Chapter two illustrates helpfully. At the top of page 18, Fuller speaks of “times of slower growth,” showing a nostalgia for times in which situations were entered, by woodcutter, shepherd or poet, and drawn from it “in some proportion, its moral and its meaning.” (18) “Proportion” is an important concept here, as she then goes on to describe, distastefully, the environment of “mushroom growth.” Without the “gentle proportions” of slow growing villages, this growth is disproportionate and “broken down.”
Fuller’s reaction to this is fascinating and reminds us of Emerson’s call for a true Americanness.
I have come prepared to see all this, to dislike it, but not with stupid narrowness to distrust or defame. On the contrary, while I will not be so obliging as to confound ugliness with beauty, discord with harmony, and laud and be contented with all I meet, when it conflicts with my best desires and tastes. I trust by reverent faith to woo the mighty meaning of the scene, perhaps to foresee the law by which a new order, a new poetry is to be evoked from this chaos…. (italics mine)Two things should strike us: first, that Fuller is looking for the spirit of America, its new disruptiveness may strike us as simply heretical of tradition, but there just might be a “mighty meaning” behind it. But second, that Fuller is passive to this, unlike Whitman and Emerson who sought to weave America’s fate themselves (though, true, often with tropes of wooing).