Playing the Eclectic: Margaret Fuller's Creative Appropriation of Goethe

by Joseph C. Schöpp

«No author», remarks Octavius Brooks Frothingham in the first significant study of American Transcendentalism, «occupied the cultivated New England mind as much as [Goethe] did»1. Although of all German authors Goethe ranked first in number of magazine articles and books in translation, New England was, however, deeply divided over Goethe's literary standing. If there was one German author, argues Charles Capper, «who was almost universally excoriated in all the American journals, it was Goethe. Political liberals disliked him because of his political conservatism; religious conservatives, both Unitarian and orthodox, abhorred him because of his supposed pantheism; and virtually all denounced him for the supposed libertinism of his personal life and the unashamed sensuality of some of his writing»2. While for George Bancroft he held «perhaps the lowest place» in everything that related «to firmness of principle, to love for truth itself, to humanity, to holiness, to love of freedom»3, the verdict of writers like Emerson, Parker or Longfellow was somewhat more balanced and qualified. Among the very few American champions of Goethe were James F. Clarke and Margaret Fuller whose early correspondence abounds with their enthusiasm and admiration. Fuller regarded Goethe as «one of the master-spirits of this world»4 who would lead New England ­ «this naked, unatmospheric land of ours», as Emerson had characterized it in a letter to Fuller5 ­ out of its provincial narrowness and moral illiberalism so that it could one day perhaps play its part in the orchestra of what Goethe called Weltliteratur. When Fuller made her first acquaintance with Goethe's uvre in 1832 ­ a few months after the poet's death ­ his effect on her, according to Emerson, was complete: «She found her moods met, her topics treated, the liberty of thought she loved, the same climate of mind»6. Fuller's initial enthusiasm assumes almost Carlylean proportions. She worshipped Goethe as her hero; he was her «Master», a «genius»7, a «great sage» of such an «immense superiority» that she found him overwhelming, as she confessed in an early letter to Clarke:

To me, our destinies seem flower and fruit

Born of an ever-generating root.

Margaret Fuller, The One in All

It seems to me as if the mind of Goethe had embraced the universe. I have felt this lately, in reading his lyric poems. I am enchanted while I read. He comprehends every feeling I have ever had so perfectly, expresses it so beautifully; but when I shut the book, it seems as if I had lost my personal identity; all my feelings linked with such an immense variety that belong to beings I had thought so different. What can I bring? There is no answer in my mind, except «It is so», or «It will be so», or «No doubt such and such feel so». (L, i, p. 177)

Fuller, however, could hardly bear such an overpowering mastery for any length of time since her mental disposition was of a different kind. She would not be content with just answering Amen: «It is so» or «It will be so». The question «What can I bring?» was too challenging and would sooner or later require an answer. Thus her initial submissiveness ­ one of the four cardinal virtues of a true nineteenth-century woman8 ­ gradually turned into a more egalitarian relationship. Her serious occupation with the poet's life ­ a project which she had begun yet left unfinished ­ gradually exposed «all the scandal about Goethe ­ about his marriage and so forth» which puzzled and disturbed her (L, i, p. 293). That «his son was illegitimate, that he lived out of wedlock with the mother for twenty years and only married her on acc[oun]t of the son» greatly pained and troubled her, as she admitted in a letter to Clark in 1836. She had no idea, she continued, «that the mighty "Indifferentist" went so far with his experimentalizing in real life. [She] had not supposed he "was"all he had "writ"» (L, vi, p. 287). Why Fuller eventually abandoned her plan of writing The Life of Goethe and devoted herself instead to the translation of Johann Peter Eckermann's Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens9, can only in part be explained by a lack of time and biographical material as she repeatedly claimed in her correspondence. What I consider to be at least as important is that her work on Eckermann's Conversations began to supersede the projected Life of Goethe because through Eckermann Fuller learned to know her real Goethe, the mature artist, critic, and thinker who should largely determine the future course of her literary career. «Let us not in surveying his works and life», she concluded her "Dial" essay on Goethe, «abide with him too much in the suburbs and outskirts of himself. Let us enter into his higher tendency»10. To Clarke she wrote that she had been «too hasty» in her inferences and her conclusions drawn from the poet's life (L, i, p. 248) and to Emerson she confessed that she did not go to Goethe «as a guide or friend but as a great thinker, who makes me think, a wonderful artist who gratifies my tastes» (L, i, p. 288). Goethe as a thinker who made her think is, as it were, responsible for her very own independent stance. Active partnership rather than mere passive discipleship is what characterizes Fuller's later, more mature relation to the great sage. The term appropriation, as used in the title, implies nothing less than her creative agency of absorbing, extending and transforming those Goethean ideas which she found conducive to her own writing. By appropriating a new cultural territory, Fuller aimed at the fundamental renewal of a New England culture that, in the eyes of most of her fellow-Transcendentalists, was largely stagnant, parochial and provincial, and the motto chosen for her translation of Eckermann's Gespräche ­ a quote from Milton's History of Britain ­ underlines her great cultural renewal project:

As wine and oil are imported to us from abroad, so must ripe understanding, and many civil virtues, be imported into our minds from foreign writings; ­ we shall else miscarry still, and come short in the attempts of any great enterprise.

Following Fuller's advice that she would rather «stand in a sceptical attitude» and «play the Eclectic» than uncritically and wholeheartedly accept «the Goetherian [sic] philosophy» (L, i, p. 198), I will also act as an eclectic and mainly concentrate on Goethe's artistic and philosophical ideas which I see as central and recurrently at work in both his and Fuller's own literary uvre. I hope to show that she did not pick these ideas haphazardly but that they constitute a stringent inner coherence which informs her entire work. I also want to demonstrate that through the creative appropriation of these ideas she helped transcend the narrow cultural boundaries of her time and place so that «fresh currents of life [could] call into life fresh thoughts» along the New England shores, as she would later put it in her essay American Literature; Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future11.

The recurrent Goethean ideas which I will discuss in the following revolve around the notion of the self, the self as daimon, as woman and as artist. That it is the self which figures so prominently in Fuller's writing should not come as a surprise since her «aim, from first to last, was self-culture», as James Clarke put it in the Memoirs. Self-culture was a key-word in both Unitarian and Transcendentalist circles and Fuller, from early on, «knew that the only object in life was to grow». And Clarke continued: «This aim of life, originally self-chosen, was made much more clear to her mind by the study of Goethe, the great master of this school, in whose unequalled eloquence this doctrine acquires an almost irresistible beauty and charm»12. In Woman in the Nineteenth Century she would later call Goethe «the great apostle of individual culture»13. Fuller's idea of growth as the only object in life unmistakably resonates with Goethean connotations. Growth evokes Goethe's lifelong concern for the Urpflanze that for him encapsulated the law of all life, which is the law of metamorphosis, as he said in his Conversations with Eckermann. Searching «to find out what all plants without exception had in common»14, he would ultimately discover the metamorphic law as applicable to life in general as a process which exfoliates itself into ever new forms15. It closely resembled the Emersonian notion of nature in flux, that is, in a ceaseless process of transformation and permutation. Since everything was in motion, everything was also provisional, nothing permanent. The self, therefore, had to be seen as fluid, in flux, transforming itself into shape after shape as Fuller would transform herself into figure after figure ­ from Mariana in Summer on the Lakes to Miranda in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, from Minerva to the Muse, without ever exhausting the meaning of herself or reaching a fixed point of perfection.

Therefore it does not come as a surprise that for both Goethe and Fuller the journey represented one of the central tropes for this metamorphic process since the traveling self is the one that passes through various transformative stages; it is, as it were, a self that is constantly in transit. For both it was Italy, the perpetually exhilarating Italy, which they were seeking and which became the site of their newly emerging selves. Goethe's remarks in Italienische Reise that between Weimar and Palermo he had experienced many a change and that in Rome he had been born again and could, as it were, celebrate his second birthday16 would likewise apply to Fuller who between Scotland and Italy experienced similar transformations and at her arrival in Rome could exclaim: «Ah! how joyful to see once more this Rome, instead of the pitiful, peddling, Anglicized Rome» as described so frequently by the Anglo-American travelers of the time17. For both Fuller and Goethe the ruins of Rome suddenly became alive and began to speak18. While Goethe gained an ever increasing self-assurance in Italy as both artist and naturalist in search of the Urpflanze, Fuller, who almost got lost on Ben Lomond, found a new self, both private and political, in the streets of Rome. During this metamorphic process nothing is essentially lost; the former self is merely transformed and thereby re-formed. Metamorphosis, for Goethe as for Fuller, always implied that the previous, more primitive forms were never repudiated by the later, higher ones, that the earlier state was always aufgehoben in the later one, that is, «transcended» and at the same time «preserved» in the Hegelian sense of the word. The self passing through various forms thus never lost its identity. In the light of what I just said, it is not difficult to understand why Fuller and her Transcendentalist friends were so much intrigued by the metamorphic idea. As reformers in search of better, higher formations, they undoubtedly recognized the inherent dynamic, if not the explosive potential of metamorphosis. The cultural stagnation of New England could thus perhaps be arrested, if not overcome, since it could now be subjected to a continuous process of change.

The intrinsic energy that propelled this transformation was often attributed to the Daimon, an ancient Greek concept of energetic force appropriated by Goethe who «in his love of form [...] was a Greek», as Fuller said in her preface to Conversations with Goethe19. The twentieth book of Dichtung und Wahrheit contains the most detailed discussion of the Goethean Daimonic as «something which manifests itself only in contradictions, and which, therefore, could not be comprehended under any idea, still less under one word»20. For Fuller, Emerson, Melville and other American writers of the time the Daimonic represented a true challenge. While Emerson in his lecture "Demonology" saw himself as one who liked «daylight» and therefore rejected «these twilights of thought», while he found it «somewhat wilful, some play at blindman's-buff, when men as wise as Goethe talk mysteriously of the demonological»21, Fuller, more mystery-conscious than Emerson, shows a greater affinity to Goethe's idea. Like Goethe for whom the Daimonic was «not godlike, for it seemed unreasonable; not human, for it had no understanding; nor devilish, for it was beneficent; nor angelic, for it often betrayed a malicious pleasure»22, Fuller regarded it «not necessarily either malignant or the reverse [...] not devilish, only daemonic». It was fashioned as a pre-Christian, pre-rational power, an elemental and pervasive force, «instinctive», spontaneous, incalculable; «it refuses to be analyzed by the understanding, and is most of all inaccessible to the person who possesses it» (L, vi, p. 141)23. Since the daimonic was more effective in the artist, since he differed «from other men only in this, that the voice of the demon within the breast speaks louder»24, Wilhelm Meister, the archetypal artist, for both Goethe and Fuller, represented the daimonic character par excellence. Wilhelm belonged, as Goethe had pointed out to Eckermann, to the most incalculable creations to which even he as his creator lacked a key. Wilhelm had no center; he was conceived as a character beyond good and evil, conforming to his own code of conduct, acting according to an inner necessity rather than external rules25. As a daimonic character he was an amoralist in the sense that he refused to conform with the commonly accepted mores of society.

The mysterious force of the daimonic also had a greater impact on Fuller than it had on Emerson because in her case the visitations of «these twilights of thought» were more frequent and more intense. Suffering from headaches which interrupted her writing process, she often was dejected and felt that «for weeks and months, the daemon work[ed] his will» until, in the midst of «the bad time», an uncontrollable power, now more beneficent and creative, would take possession of her26. James Clarke literally casts her as a daimonic figure, not easy to comprehend, because her «complex & various nature [drew] her in many directions». «What a Sphynx is that girl!» Clarke exclaims, «who shall solve her?»27. And Fuller's own "Credo", as laid down in her journal of 1842, «is thoroughly non-Christian» and abounds with heterodox allusions, transforming the Christian Godhead, as it were, into a Goethean Daimon within which «all manifestation is contained, whether of good (accomplishment) or of evil (obstruction). To itself its depths are unknown»28.

Apart from the more personal appeal of the daimonic, it was, above all, the inherent potential for cultural change that most fascinated Fuller. As a force, incalculable and uncontrollable, it was capable of transgressing the limitations of our routinized, quotidian existence and opening up new, more charismatic possibilities that could no longer be culturally contained. «All that limits us», Goethe had argued, the daimon «seemed to penetrate; it seemed to sport at will with the necessary elements of our existence; it contracted time and expanded space». It would also change the cultural fabric of New England since it was, in Goethe's words, a power «which if it be not opposed to the moral order of the world, nevertheless does often so cross it that one may be regarded as the warp, and the other as the woof»29.

The waywardness of the daimonic also shows a certain affinity to the metamorphic, as her journal of 1842 discloses, in which she sees her heterodox divinity as a force «evolving plants, animals, men, suns, stars, angels, and, it is to be presumed, an infinity of forms not yet visible in the horizon of this being who now writes»30. Metamorphosis for Fuller is characterized by its inherent incalculability rather than a linearly progressive development toward a given telos. «Nature», she argues with Goethe, «seems to delight in varying the arrangements, as if to show that she will be fettered by no rule» and «human nature goes not straight forward, but by excessive action and then reaction in an undulated course»31. Nature's course, in short, is not manifestly destined; it rather meanders and digresses and in its digressions it discloses unexpected views and vistas which the linear-minded progressivist is never able to detect. Thus Fuller delights «in the varying arrangements» of her M-figures who do not develop in a linear sequence but rather in an undulated course and into various directions. As Goethe's plants unfold and exfoliate due to a sprawling enérgeia which is no longer governed by a goal-oriented entelechía, Fuller's self grows without a definite knowledge of the stages through which it will have to pass. The metamorphic permutations are ceaseless and know of no end. Finality would imply petrification which, in turn, implies death.

For both Goethe and Fuller, metamorphosis is finally to be seen in close relation to their notion of Woman and Art. In his Conversations with Eckermann, Goethe refers to the enigmatic scene of Faust's descent into the innermost center of the earth and explains it as a descensus ad inferos, a return to the realm of the Mothers, who are the principle of the unceasing process of creation and growth, destruction and reconstruction. They are, in Eckermann's words, the central creative forces from which the various earthly phenomena emanate, evolve and receive their unmistakable form32. For Fuller Goethe was a poet who always represented «the highest principle in the feminine form»33 and she illustrates it with reference to Wilhelm Meister and his various female encounters in the course of his Lehr- und Wanderjahre. In Woman in the Nineteenth-Century her discussion of the Goethean «feminine form» takes its most extensive shape. From Goethe's «poetic soul», she argues, «grew up forms new and more admirable than life has yet produced, for whom his clear eye marked out paths in the future». Wilhelm is described as ascending from such «common forms of feminine character» as Mariana and Philina to Mignon, «the electrical, inspired, lyrical nature», advancing «into the region of thought» where he encounters Natalia before he finally reaches «the house of Macaria, the soul of a star, i.e. a pure and perfected intelligence embodied in feminine form, and the center of a world whose members revolve harmoniously round her». What Goethe had called das ewig Weibliche (the eternally feminine) may be seen as the magnet attracting Wilhelm and guiding him on his «upward path» from «the hours passed by the side of Mariana to these with Macaria», indeed, «a wide distance for human feet to traverse»34.

While this distance traversed, on the one hand, may be seen as representing a soul's progress «through the various forms of existence»35 on its way to personal selfhood, it, on the other hand, symbolizes the stages of Wilhelm's process as an artist-figure. While Mariana, in this context, would represent the world of the quotidian in which a work of art should always be grounded, Mignon, «electrical, inspired, lyrical», takes on the part of the muse, «over-flowed with thought», whose «eye is over-full of expression, dilated and lustrous», and Macaria with her «pure and perfected intelligence» assumes the role of Minerva who had once sprung from Jupiter's head and now functions as "regulator" checking and channelling the ecstasies and phrenzies of such over-inspired figures as Justinus Kerner's Seherin von Prevorst as discussed in chapter v of Summer on the Lakes36. Here again Fuller is indebted to Goethe who saw art as far beyond a merely subjective mode of expression. Art, in his opinion, was experience dargestellt, that is, formed, transformed, elevated to a universal, i.e. symbolic level. Goethe's Darstellungsgabe (L, ii, p. 49), a term which Fuller obviously regarded as so essentially Goethean that she did not even bother to translate it, may be seen as the site where Mariana, Mignon and Macaria finally meet and, as it were, begin to cooperate, a cooperation which clearly shows that Wilhelm's earlier feminine encounters are not rejected but transformed. The artistic process as a metamorphic one raises the common world of Mariana, by virtue of Mignon's electric and inspired nature, to the level of a true work of art asrepresented by Macaria. Only minor poets, Fuller argued, would write «verses merely as vents for the overflowing of a personal experience» while poets like Goethe had a gift to objectify their experiences and thus make their feelings universal (L, ii, p. 33). Of her own verses, she confessed in a letter to Caroline Sturgis, she felt ashamed when she thought that there was «scarce a line of poetry in them», that they were all «"rhetorical and impassioned" as Goethe said of Me de Staël» (L, ii, p. 49).

Unlike the older Goethe ­ the accomplished artist and serene aristocrat, a man of «pure and perfected intelligence» ­ Fuller never denied that she was an impassioned, rhetorically eloquent republican, a magnetic, electric, daimonic woman, overflowing with thought, with an eye over-full of expression, dilated and lustrous, in short, an inspiring Muse whose creative spirit was to breathe new life into her parochial and provincial native land. Goethe, in whose work «she found her moods met, her topics treated, the liberty of thought she loved, the same climate of mind», became her major source of inspiration, a man thinking who made her think. Absorbing and appropriating his major ideas she, together with her Transcendentalist friends, could dilate and expand the literature of her country whose voice would from then on be distinctly heard in the chorus of Weltliteratur.


1. O. Brooks Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England, Putnam's, New York 1876, p. 57.

2. C. Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, i, The Private Years, Oxford University Press, New York 1992, p. 129.

3. As quoted by H. A. Pochmann, German Culture in America: Philosophical and Literary Influences 1600-1900, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 1957, pp. 329-32, 679.

4. R. W. Emerson, W. H. Channing, J. F. Clarke (eds.), Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, 2 vols., Roberts Brothers, Boston 1881, i, p. 128.

5. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, R. L. Rusk, E. Tilton eds., 8 vols., Columbia University Press, New York 1960-82, iii, p. 447.

6. Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, cit., i, p. 243.

7. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, R. N. Hudspeth (ed.), 6 vols., Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London 1983-1994, i, pp. 210, 198. All subsequent references to Fuller's letters (L) are in the text.

8. See B. Welter, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Ohio State University Press, Athens 1976.

9. Translated as Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of his Life, the book appeared in George Ripley's series Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature in 1839 in Boston.

10. M. Fuller, Goethe, in "The Dial", 2 (1841), p. 41.

11. M. Fuller, Essays on American Life and Letters, J. Myerson ed., New College and University Press, Albany 1978, p. 381.

12. Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, cit., i, p. 132f.

13. J. Steele (ed.), The Essential Margaret Fuller, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick 1992, p. 315.

14. J. P. Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, E. Beutler hrsg., Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, München 1999, p. 237. (My translation).

15. Goethe referred to the Urpflanze as the quaintest creature in the world and saw in it a model and a key for inventing additional plants practically ad infinitum: «Die Urpflanze wird das wunderlichste Geschöpf von der Welt, um welches mich die Natur selbst beneiden soll. Mit diesem Modell und dem Schlüssel dazu kann man alsdann noch Pflanzen ins Unendliche erfinden [...]. Dasselbe Gesetz wird sich auf alles übrige Lebendige anwenden lassen». See C. Michel (hrsg.), Italienische Reise, Insel, Frankfurt/Main 1976, p. 487.

16. Michel (hrsg.), Italienische Reise, cit., pp. 194, 316. «An diesen Ort [Rom] knüpft sich die ganze Geschichte der Welt an, und ich zähle einen zweiten Geburtstag, eine wahre Wiedergeburt, von dem Tage, da ich Rom betrat».

17. M. Fuller, "These Sad But Glorious Days": Dispatches from Europe, 1846-1850, L. J. Reynolds, S. Belasco Smith eds., Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1991, p. 168. Her critique of the descriptive modes employed in the travelogues of the time is frequent and severe.

18. See Fuller's exhilaration as expressed in a letter to her brother: «I passed the Villa where Goethe lived when in Rome; afterwards the houses of Claude and Poussin. Ah, what human companionship here, how everything speaks! [...] Read also Goethe's Year in Rome and Romish Elegies» (L, v, p. 181). Goethe begins his Römische Elegien by addressing the stones and palaces («Saget, Steine, mir an, o sprecht, ihr hohen Paläste / Straßen, redet ein Wort!») which later begin to speak.

19. Conversations with Goethe, cit., p. xiii.

20. J. W. Goethe, Truth and Poetry: From My Own Life, John Oxenford transl., Bell and Daldy, London 1871, ii, pp. 157-9.

21. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, E. W. Emerson ed., 12 vols., Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1903-4, x, p. 24.

22. Goethe, Truth and Poetry, cit., ii, pp. 157-9.

23. The Daimonic is also discussed in Fuller's "Dial" essay on Goethe, cit., pp. 18f.

24. Fuller, Lives of Great Composers, Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach, Beethoven, in "The Dial", 2 (1841), p. 149.

25. Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe, cit., p. 141.

26. Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, cit., i, p. 224.

27. As quoted by Capper, Margaret Fuller, cit., p. 314.

28. As quoted by D. Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1997, pp. 219f.

29. Goethe, Truth and Poetry, cit., ii, pp. 157-9.

30. As quoted by Howe, Making the American Self, cit., p. 220.

31. The Essential Margaret Fuller, cit., pp. 288, 343.

32. The term «creative» (schaffend) is one of Eckermann's key-words in his discussion of the Mothers. They are «schaffende Wesen», «schaffende Gottheiten», «das schaffende und erhaltende Prinzip, von dem alles ausgeht, was auf der Oberfläche der Erde Gestalt und Leben hat». Gespräche mit Goethe, pp. 384-6.

33. Fuller, Goethe, cit., p. 26.

34. The Essential Margaret Fuller, cit., pp. 316-9.

35. Fuller, Goethe, cit., p. 21.

36. The Essential Margaret Fuller, cit., pp. 150-70, 303, 318.