ONE day in the early fifties a New York publisher put on the market a series of letters bearing the double title, Homes of the New World; Impressions of America. It was a voluminous work of about thirteen hundred octavo pages, yet one that required five printings within a month. Most Americans liked the volumes, reviewers lauded and criticised, and everybody read them. They were dedicated to "my American friends"; dated in May, 1853, in Stockholm; and signed, Fredrika Bremer.
On opening the books one found revealed a curiously wide range of reading matter. Here was a conversation with Emerson, there a criticism of a girls' school; here was an account of a negro camp-meeting, and there of a Norwegian settlement in Wisconsin. Amos Bronson Alcott was being advised to drink milk instead of water to make his Transcendentalism less foggy, or the author was watching the women smoke on a Mississippi boat. A description of an Indian chief led to a comparison of his wigwam with the Laplander's hut or of the heathen Chippewas with the Christianized Choctaws, and one noted the remark in passing that dyspepsia was the worst possible evil in any country next to civil war. Here
A thrilling, crucial period of America was mirrored in these letters. It was a period of post-bellum adjustment, transition, and expansion, during which American progress and versatility were definitely established, and yet one whose boundless possibilities were surcharged with apprehensions for the future. During the forties the telegraph had been invented; the reaper had revolutionized agriculture in the Middle West; the sewing-machine had lightened the burden of the housewife. Largely through the pioneer work of Scandinavian settlers, Wisconsin had been admitted to the Union the same year that gold was discovered in California; and manufactures flourished in the East. Immigrants flocked to both East and West in such numbers that native Americans worried about preserving the cherished American ideals; in 1849 carpenters were paid sixteen dollars a day on the West coast, and common laborers,
To this America came in 1849 a frail, middle-aged Swedish spinster, Fredrika Bremer, whose interests embraced the whole universe, and who
Charles Dickens had been here a short time before, had gone home disappointed and written disagreeable things about us. What would be the attitude and judgment of a woman who was the author of half a score of books, knew Europe from one end to the other, but who came from such a far distant country? Here was a female writer, from a terra incognita—borrowing an English reference to Sweden—whose pictures of domestic life had agreeably surprised England itself a few years before; a peculiar Christian soul whose broad sympathies for heathen antiquity had been interpreted by one British critic as a heaven-defying heresy.
Here—to use Hawthorne's description of her—was "the funniest little fairy person whom one
This augured well. Anne Lynch believed Miss Bremer a salutary antidote to George Sand. Catherine Sedgwick found her "a slightly old-fashioned lady, simple and sincere, dressed in sombre colors, with a florid but not coarse complexion, and a mouth like Longfellow's." She liked her better the more she saw of her, was ashamed
In 1828 there appeared in Swedish prose a collection of Sketches from Everyday Life by an anonymous beginner, who in a modest introductory note solicited the indulgence of the public for herself and her work. The unassuming newcomer became Sweden's first prominent novelist, rivalled Tegn'r, if indeed she did not far surpass him, in attracting foreign attention, and was the first writer to establish universal respect for Swedish prose literature. This pioneer was Fredrika Bremer, the author of these letters on America.
Miss Bremer was born in Finland, 1801, of cultured, prosperous parents. Her family, perhaps foreseeing the pending political changes in their land, moved three years later to Sweden, and Fredrika's youth was spent either in Stockholm or, in summer, at 'rsta, an old historical estate outside of the capital, which in its day had seen Gustavus Adolphus mustering his troops on its premises. This was bought by her father for a permanent residence. Fredrika received a finished education in all branches that marked an
In the interim, however, the gifted girl had read a vast number of foreign tales and novels. Her imagination had been aroused, and she had learned to use mental pictures of forced elopements and other stirring adventures as a kind of antidote to her own inactive existence. She had
Miss Bremer's Sketches had been so well received that they were soon followed by others, including a novel, The H — Family. This established her reputation, her name was revealed, and she was officially recognized by the Swedish Academy. The delightful simplicity of her descriptions from Swedish family life, and especially the picture of an unselfish and resigned housewife, appealed to the generation of 1830. Many characters were really drawn in a masterly manner. Though sometimes sentimental and overdone, they proved humorous and entertaining. The President's Daughters, Nina, The Neighbors, and The Home are of the same order, though more pretentious; all appeared during the thirties, and were forthwith translated into foreign tongues. Of these The Neighbors is still readable and is generally considered Miss Bremer's most perfect production from an artistic point of view.
To-day these novels, with their slow movement and minimum of action, their superabundance of dialogue and description, and their letter form, appear dull and antiquated. Obviously, the heroes and heroines can no longer make the impression that they did eighty years ago, and it may be difficult to understand the almost phenomenal favor which these household tales enjoyed when they were first published, and continued to enjoy for a long time; but nothing approximating their quality had appeared before, and the readers were familiar with the background. Fortunately, Miss Bremer never lost her mental balance because of either success or failure. She wisely discounted the eulogistic reviews of her initial efforts, strove constantly for improvement, and sought truth and wholesomeness. Her literary achievements were sensible and moral withal, sensationalism was absent, and they possess a marked historical value as pictures of Sweden in her day.
From 1835 to 1840 Fredrika Bremer spent much of her time on a friend's estate in Norway. There she wrote two of her best novels, and there she pursued literary, philosophical, and theological studies. She had been convinced of her own ability and mission, and had decided to remain a spinster, though she had had several offers of marriage. During the forties her interest in purely
It is no exaggeration to say that Fredrika Bremer was one of the most celebrated and influential Swedish women that ever lived. Although as a novelist she had during her lifetime successful rivals among her own sex, none of these could even remotely equal her in creative, intellectual, and spiritual force. She introduced the middle class domestic novel into Swedish literature; she raised Swedish realism to a higher plane than it had previously occupied; she inspired effective, well-needed social reforms, and stimulated an active love for humanity. It was a source of extreme satisfaction to her that she lived to see many of her dreams of betterment come true. Perhaps her greatest source of happiness was the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Returning to the writings which more directly concern us, we may safely assert that Miss Bremer's greatest claim to immortality abroad is based on her letters of travel. These are classics of their kind, as fresh and charming as on the day they were written, and the wealth of their information is enhanced by the sympathetic personality of the recorder as well as by their humorous, compelling style. Her accounts of what she saw have served as reliable guides in innumerable fields of effort, both in Europe and America, and particularly as a mirror of conditions and characters
We have suggested that Miss Bremer traveled the length and breadth of this republic, meeting all kinds of people, visiting all types of public institutions, glancing into the workshops and examining the food both of factory employees in the North and of slaves in the South, and inspecting public buildings from the Tombs to the Capitol. In private homes she made a host of friends, among them the Lowells, Marcus and Rebecca Spring, and the landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing. She was literally overwhelmed by American hospitality and solicitude. Aside from some cold bed-rooms and tiring dinners she was delighted with America. As for the broadening West, she dreamed of a millennium in the
The letters were originally written from America, and most of them "to a beloved sister, who was no longer on earth" when Fredrika returned to Sweden. They were not at first intended for publication; but the subsequent opening and rereading of them by the author "reanimated" her,
Finally, the editor wishes to express his gratitude to Fröken Ellen Kleman of Stockholm, for making valuable suggestions and giving important bibliographical information; to the biographer, Fröken Sigrid Leijonhufvud, and to P. A. Norstedt & Söner, Swedish publishers, for permission to reproduce Miss Bremer's sketches of prominent Americans from their publication, Adlersparre-Leijonhufvud, Fredrika Bremer, Biografisk Studie, 1896; to Mrs. John C. Wyman of Newtonville, Massachusetts, for permission to reproduce an unpublished Bremer drawing of the Spring family, in her possession; and to Harper and Brothers of New York City for their kindly attitude toward the reprinting of a text published by them. Also to Miss Hanna Astrup Larsen and Professor William Witherle Lawrence of the Publication Committee, and to the Secretary of the Foundation, the editor acknowledges a debt of appreciation for invaluable coöperation.