March 22, 2010

Goethe's death inspires Fuller

The German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died on March 22, 1832 at the age of 82. One of his major American admirers, Margaret Fuller, was 21 years old at the time. Soon, she came to believe that Goethe's work was important enough that it needed to be represented in the United States. Her friend Harriet Martineau suggested that Fuller turn her passion for Goethe into a full-length book. Calling him "one of the Master Spirits of this world," Fuller set out to write his first American biography.

"It is a great work," she wrote, "I hope nobody will steal it from me." By March 1836, she reported that "If it does not kill me, something will come of it." Though she gathered many of his works, translating and publishing a few of them, she lacked sufficient material and wanted to contact people who knew Goethe firsthand. She decided she could only write the book if she traveled to Europe.

But Fuller's responsibilities were in the United States. Her father died in 1835 and she was the main breadwinner for her mother and siblings. Soon, she wast working with Bronson Alcott at his experimental Temple School in Boston. Her plans for Goethe were never completed.

When she finally made it to Europe eleven years after Goethe's death, the idea of writing his biography was abandoned. The major culmination of her research, however, was a long essay published in The Dial while she served as its editor. The essay emphasized Goethe's intellectual side. "It seems to me as if the mind of Goethe had embraced the universe," Fuller wrote in a letter. Her translation of Goethe's Tasso was published posthumously, further adding to Fuller's role in bringing Goethe across the Atlantic. As most scholars agree, no one did as much as Fuller to introduce the work of Goethe in the United States and German Romantic literature in general, both of which had a major impact on Transcendentalists (including Fuller) in particular.

*The image of Goethe dates to 1814, painted by Josef Raabe. The daguerreotype image of Fuller is seen courtesy of the Houghton Library at Harvard University from their exhibit Margaret Fuller: Woman of the Nineteenth Century (for which I served as guest curator). It is free and open to the public, on display only through March 28, 2010.

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