Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes

Posted November 30, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 3 Comments

Summer on the LakesIn the summer of 1843, Margaret Fuller went on a tour of the Great Lakes; in the mid-nineteenth century this area was considered the far western frontier. Fuller’s travel route was pretty circular, starting and ending in Buffalo, NY. Summer on the Lakes was Fuller’s first full-length book and it detailed her journey: the physical journey she took that summer, and also the internal journey she ended up taking as a result of what she experienced.

Summer on the Lakes is one of the two full-length books featured in The Essential Margaret Fuller and for the most part, I found it interesting. Again, her verbosity and my non-interest in some of what she wrote about made me do some skimming, but I enjoyed the overall experience of reading about those areas at the time when they were just beginning to be inhabited by European immigrants. I was also interested to read about the Native Americans who still inhabited some of those places and how they interacted with the settlers who were moving onto their land. Fuller went into a good amount of detail about her own interactions with the Native Americans she encountered on her trip, as well as the good and bad ways they were treated by the new settlers. She also wrote quite a bit about the relationship dynamics in Native American families, and compared/contrasted the lives and duties of Native American women with those of white women. This is a place in the book where she refused to write about the scenes as picturesque (as white male writers had written about these scenes before) and instead wrote very honestly about how Native Americans–both men and women–and white woman held “an inferior position to that of man.”

Fuller traveled by just about every different mode of transportation available in 1843, and documented everything she could remember about her surroundings and how those places made her feel. She reviewed other travel guides that had been written previously and discussed whether or not she found them well-written and/or helpful, and why. She was disappointed that with so much already written by others, her descriptions of the scenery and the words she chose would never be wholly original. Words fall short when trying to write about one’s feelings, and Fuller was frustrated that many of the words that were available to her for describing her feelings about what she was experiencing had already been used by others. I can understand that frustration, too: when a group of people share an experience–such as visiting Niagara Falls and the Wisconsin Territory for the first time–each of the individuals in that group will internalize the experience differently and have a range of varying emotions about the experience. Now ask each of those individuals to use different words to describe exactly how they’re feeling about the experience, and tell them that they can’t use a word that has already been used by any of the other individuals in the group. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be to explain how you’re feeling with the limited number of words you have at your disposal?

Fuller’s narrative in Summer on the Lakes reflected her transcendentalist views in many ways. One passage in particular struck me because it immediately reminded me of the ideas set down in Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Fuller was on a small steamer bound for the Sault St. Marie and they had to stop at one point because of fog. The captain of the steamer took her out on an exploring expedition in a smaller boat, and they discovered an old English fort. Speaking of the captain, she writes:

The captain, though he had been on this trip hundreds of times, had never seen this spot, and never would, but for this fog, and his desire to entertain me. He presented a striking instance how men, for the sake of getting a living, forget to live. It is just the same in the most romantic as the most dull and vulgar places. Men get the harness on so fast, that they can never shake it off, unless they guard against this danger from the very first. In Chicago, how many men, who never found time to see the prairies or learn anything unconnected with the business of the day, or about the country they were living in!

Compare that to Thoreau’s reason for going to Walden Pond and his thoughts on the subject of men putting so much emphasis on making a living, and not putting enough emphasis on just living:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.


This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once. “What!” exclaim a million Irishmen starting up from all the shanties in the land, “is not this railroad which we have built a good thing?” Yes, I answer, comparatively good, that is, you might have done worse; but I wish, as you are brothers of mine, that you could have spent your time better than digging in this dirt.

Our society tells us, “Work, work, work!” and we are made to feel that if we don’t work hard all of the time, then we’re slackers. I had this conversation with a friend of mine recently, and we both agreed that there has to be a middle ground between being what our society currently deems “lazy,” and spending our whole lives working so hard that we don’t take the time to really live and enjoy our lives.

There are a lot of other interesting things and good ideas/thoughts in Summer on the Lakes and although some of it got a little wordy and caused me to lose interest, overall it was a decent book. Reading about newly settled places that are now fully populated and developed cities and towns was a thought-provoking experience; it was hard to picture those places as open, undeveloped land and then taking that one step further and trying to picture all the steps in between that made those places what they are today. Some of the thoughts I had about it weren’t happy ones, and other thoughts gave me a feeling of excitement or awe. If you’re interested in reading about Margaret Fuller’s ideas–and what the areas around the Great Lakes were like in 1843–give Summer on the Lakes a shot. Reading the interesting stuff in the book was worth the little bit of skimming I had to do.