Margaret Fuller's Sublime Sounds

Yesterday the Pulitzer committee announced their annual prizes, and while literary Twitter was freaking out over Kushner vs. Tartt, I noticed that the biography winner is a book about Margaret Fuller.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a huge fan of Fuller for several years, especially for her accounts of listening in landscapes that have historically been considered sublime. Upon her arrival at Niagara Falls in 1843, she finds the visual experience satisfying, if underwhelming, from the way Niagara imagery has already circulated so promiscuously in popular culture. She writes, “When I first came I felt nothing but a quiet satisfaction. I found that drawings, the panorama &c. had given me a clear notion of the position of all objects here; I knew where to look for everything, and everything looked as I thought it would.”

It was through sound that the experience became sublime—in the old sense of being terrifying: “The perpetual trampling of the waters seized my senses. I felt that no other sound, however near, could be heard, and would start and look behind me for a foe.” Eventually, though, Fuller came to appreciate the sound of the falls, and of sound itself, in a classically transcendentalist way: “The cataract seems to seize it’s own rhythm and sing it over again, so that the ear and the soul are roused by a double vibration. It is very sublime, giving the effect of a spiritual repetition through all of the spheres.”

I’m hoping to start working through some of these ideas while reading this new Fuller biography as well as the new(ish) books by David Grubbs and Douglas Kahn.



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