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Introduction

(1924) [MARC] Author: Fredrika Bremer
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INTRODUCTION

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
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were glimpses of dozens of homes, visits to the New England poets, and interviews with senators in Washington. Farmers, slave-holders, Abolitionists, prison officials, and preachers passed in review; pale brides alternated with chivalrous men; the funeral cortege of John C. Calhoun moved gravely along between mourning Southerners, and in the White House park strode a general, now president of the United States.

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,
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ten; and in 1851 Maine adopted prohibition—some striking parallelisms to the United States of 1924. Material development in some parts of the land was so rapid that it was difficult to follow the character of the growth. Cincinnati was known simultaneously either as "The Queen of the West" or as "The City of Hogs," depending upon the observer and the circumstances of the observation. And yet esthetic, spiritual, and educational matters were also given more attention than ever before. Professor Longfellow was at this time writing good poetry in Cambridge; Fanny Kemble was giving readings in Shakespeare; Boston was listening to some remarkable Unitarians; and while adventurers were rushing to the gold fields of California, New York installed its first public school system. By 1850—and this is perhaps the most important condition to note here—slavery had been wholly abandoned in the Northern States, which meant a distinct North and South with all the consequences arising from this cleavage. The foremost statesmen of the day, like Clay and Webster, spent their energy vehemently debating the Fugitive Slave Bill and the Compromise of 1850.

To this America came in 1849 a frail, middle-aged Swedish spinster, Fredrika Bremer, whose interests embraced the whole universe, and who
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more than any other foreign visitor to our shores expected to find here the real land of promise, where visions were bright and dreams came true. She came with an open mind for study and inspiration. Though anxious to know all phases of our national life, she was especially intent on studying the position of women. She had heard of the high regard in which American women were held by men, and desired an intimate acquaintance with conditions in American homes, that she might use her knowledge for the betterment of women's lot in Sweden.

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
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could imagine," "a withered brier rose, still retaining the freshness of morning," and "worthy of being the maiden aunt of the whole human race." She came here by invitation, her reputation having preceded her by several years. In the early forties American magazines had devoted scores of pages to the reviews of her books, and the American charg' d'affaires in Stockholm had sent home the report of an interview with the modest Swede, who, contrary to his expectations, had preferred to talk on political economy, morality, and philosophy. Moreover, a New England pathfinder, in discussing Miss Bremer's works, had discovered that Vikings and Yankees had certain fundamental traits in common, though with the odds in favor of the latter; that her literary characters were "as much at home in Boston as in Stockholm," and were "not simply Swedes and Norwegians, but men and women." One of these, Susanna, "would have found herself quite at home in a Massachusetts farmhouse."

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
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of having once called her "plain," and believed her clearer in mind and thought than the misty Transcendentalists, for she had a rock foundation of good, common sense. What was the history of this quiet, clear-headed little woman who had been given so much space in our press?

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
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accomplished lady of good birth — music, painting, composition, and modern languages — but the requirements of young ladyhood at the time, the intolerable restrictions, the meaningless polite necessities, and the confined sedentary life, had been from early years extremely distasteful to her, and she longed for active usefulness. As a child she had found a partial outlet for her surplus energy and budding indignation against the wrongs of the world in a mania for destroying her playthings and otherwise annoying her governess and relatives. At twelve she dreamed of disguising herself as a page and joining the military forces of the Crown Prince, Bernadotte, and seeking adventures in war. Home was a prison to her restless spirit. She yearned for fame; she wanted to become a nurse; even a prolonged study tour through Germany, Holland, and Switzerland failed to satisfy her intense thirst for freedom and knowledge; and her feeling of revolt was only partially assuaged, later, when she had the opportunity of practising charity among the tenants of the home estate.

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
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become familiar with such different writers as Richardson, Rousseau, and Madame de Sta'l, and they had broadened her horizon and stimulated her mind. Her talents had early been the pride of her family, often exhibited on private occasions, and now she decided to employ them for philanthropic purposes. She made and sold miniature portraits and gave the proceeds to the poor. The inception of her authorship had the same motive.

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.
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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
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literary artistry decreased as her interest in social reforms increased, and henceforth her narratives were to serve mainly as vehicles for her teachings. Hertha is a novel with a purpose, advocating the emancipation of woman, and has but little literary value. Yet her first stories continued to be translated and circulated all over the civilized world; she became very popular in England; and in America her books were household treasures. At the close of the decade, the ambitious novelist and sociologist courageously set out, alone, for the Western Continent, and remained with us for two years, recording her impressions. After her return to Sweden, she became there the inaugurator and leader of the woman's movement, embodying her feministic ideas in the novel just mentioned, which was much criticised in consequence. She was also active in several other reform measures and philanthropic endeavors. In 1856 Miss Bremer set out again for an extended tour of the principal European countries, visiting the Pope (whom she subjected to a cross-examination on Christian dogmas), penetrating ultimately as far as Jerusalem, and only returning after an absence of five years. Later she published a description of these travels. Fredrika Bremer's untiring labors came to an end on the last day of the year 1865.
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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
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as they existed in 1850. Occasionally her kind heart, generosity, and optimism obscure her critical judgment, and in the United States the ardent welcome she received may well have colored her observations. But, after all, there was much sunshine and promise in the America of Emerson and Webster, and it is to Fredrika Bremer's credit that she emphasizes these features rather than finding fault with everything. On the whole, she is a keen student, ever sincere and courageous, and if justified, according to the best of her belief, never hesitates to criticise unfavorably, though always in a friendly spirit.

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
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Mississippi valley. And people wondered at the stranger — reports a native writer — who talked to the darkies as civilly as to the whites, and with a Swedish accent so strong that, despite the purity of her English, Hawthorne could understand only a fraction of what she said. So when her letters on America came out in Mary Hewitt's translation they were eagerly read by all who "possessed the slightest curiosity to know the impressions made on the Swedish novelist by the universal Yankee nation." Miss Bremer "lays no claim to the character of a political philosophress or strong-minded woman," writes a contemporary, "but with active, perceptive powers and heart-warm sympathies contemplates the living phenomena around her, and faithfully sketches such features as most readily appeal to her interest and curiosity. Her impressions are given with the most transparent candor, and if she sometimes unnecessarily draws aside the veil of private life, it is certainly not in the spirit of gossip or scandal, but from excess of love."

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,
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and they were given to the public essentially "as they had been inspired by the moment." The selections here reproduced as America of the Fifties have been revised and normalized from the original. They are believed to be representative of the Letters as a whole.

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.

A. B. B.


The above contents can be inspected in scanned images: vii, viii, ix, x, xi, xii, xiii, xiv, xv, xvi, xvii, xviii, xix, xx

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