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  • The Marriage of True Minds:Hawthorne and Fuller at Niagara Falls
  • Monika Elbert (bio)

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller, though not usually wedded in their customs or thoughts, follow a similar trajectory in their search for their place in the universe, at a deep philosophical level. Margaret Fuller, unlike the Transcendentalists with whom she is allied, did not find an idealized home in Nature. She would counter the idea of nature as the key to human understanding, and instead resorted to a type of dark Romantic/spiritual sublime in her musings about human nature and her lack of faith in the progress of humanity/civilization. Hawthorne, as critics have acknowledged, always had a dark view of nature and of human nature; a hopeful relationship between the two realms clearly did not exist. Hawthorne and Fuller would both be very much aware of the shortcomings of nature or the folly of placing man in a symbiotic relationship to nature—in utopian experiments they witnessed first-hand (at Brook Farm) and in larger capitalistic ventures that threatened the landscapes (and souls of the people) they visited in the Great Lakes area. As Lance Newman points out in his study of Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, Fuller's trip took place "during the depths of the severe economic crisis of 1837 to 1844, a period of widespread questioning of the historical progressiveness of capitalism."1 Aesthetically and ecologically too, observers were lamenting the end of nature. Tocqueville, in the 1830s, warns the tourist to visit Niagara Falls sooner rather than later: "If you wish to see this place in its grandeur, hasten. If you delay, your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest round about is being cleared."2

Both Hawthorne and Fuller, with their sensitivities and at-times depressive natures, at least early on in their lives, in the 1830s and early 1840s, before they found a type of soul-mate (Hawthorne in Sophia, and Fuller in Ossoli), sought a way out of the morass of self and out of commercialized New England. They traveled to NY State, the Midwest, and Niagara Falls, and they were briefly attracted to communitarian ways of life—Fuller through frequent visits to the Brook Farm community to hold "Conversations" (in 1842–43) and Hawthorne as a resident of Brook Farm (spring to fall 1841). Hawthorne toured the Great Lakes region at the age of twenty-eight (in 1832), Fuller at the age of thirty-three (in 1843). [End Page 72] Their jaunts into nature were accompanied by, if not serious depression, despondency, and a greater sense of isolation, and their notions about communal living in nature were also rather bleak as both felt they did not belong at Brook Farm. The natural world exacerbated their feeling of loneliness, of not belonging.

It should be recalled that Hawthorne felt depressed in the decade after his graduation from Bowdoin College, and letters from his good friend and classmate Horatio Bridge during the 1830s attest to his despair (Hawthorne's letters to Bridge were destroyed at Hawthorne's request). Bridge describes Hawthorne's depression, in the first decade after graduating from Bowdoin, of feeling compelled to a life in the business world. He had thought of "entering his Uncle Manning's counting-house" but then "his repugnance to commercial life was such that the plan was ultimately abandoned, and he relapsed into the state of partial inaction which so often results from unsettled plans."3 In the mid-1830s, one letter reveals Bridge's concern over Hawthorne's having suicidal leanings: "There is a kind of desperate coolness [about your last letter] that seems dangerous. I fear that you are too good a subject for suicide, and that some day you will end your mortal woes on your own responsibility" (22 October 1836).4 Bridge characterizes Hawthorne's depression in imagery evoking the cascading Niagara Falls: "after relating some of his disappointments, he compared himself to one drifting helplessly toward a cataract, and closed with these despairing words, 'I'm a doomed man, and over must I go.'"5

Fuller, for her part, was also despondent during the mid-1830s to...