The fundamental theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “American Scholar” is the need for American intellectualism to break from European influences and create a wholly American culture. Emerson speaks of the duties of the “Man Thinking” and three of what he considers to be the principal influences on the new American scholar: nature, the mind of the past, and action. Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s “Hope Leslie” has many characters that represent this subverting of tradition and old world expectations in the dawn of a new American civilization. The character Magawisca is worth investigating in this light, for although she is not a direct representation of a break from European influence, she does represent two worlds at odds. The growth of her character and her navigation between these worlds is representative of the three influences Emerson cites, as well as his ideas for creating an American culture.
The first influence on the American scholar that Emerson references is nature, claiming that a good scholar must study nature and discover what it means to himself. He states that nature is circular, and “Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, —so entire, so boundless.” (Emerson). Magawisca frequently embodies this commune with nature; it often seems to be a part of herself or even a conjuring of her imagination. It is remarked that “To Magawisca, imagination breathed a living spirit into all the objects of nature, it seemed as if the spirits of the wood had stooped to listen to its sweet music” (Sedgwick 82). According to Emerson, understanding nature helps one to understand how everything can be classified and part of a greater whole. He asserts that a scholar must avoid getting tangled in controversies, and instead focus on uniting and finding the commonalities among all people as well as cultivating individuality. There is evidence Magawisca believes in a central unity of humankind. When she and Hope met at their mothers’ gravesites, Magawisca remarked ‘think ye not that the Great Spirit looks down on these sacred spots where the good and the peaceful rest with an equal eye?” (Sedgwick 189). However, she does not believe in the possibility of unity between the peoples during her lifetime, which ultimately opposes Emerson’s ideal for a new American culture. She refuses to stay with Everell and Hope at the end, stating “you say you have a written rule of forgiveness – it may be better – if ye would be guided by it – it is not for us – the Indian and the white man can no more mingle, and become one, than day and night.’ (Sedgwick 349).” She recognizes that despite her love for them, there is simply too much hostility in the history of their peoples for them to live together harmoniously.
The second influence Emerson lists is the “mind of the past.’ He primarily discusses literature, but frames the argument as the past in any form, be it “of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed” (Emerson). The focal theme of this section is that remembering history and learning from others is necessary, but one must not simply rely on what others have written and fail to produce individual thoughts and ideas. This is where Magawisca shows significant character development throughout the story. She is consistently torn between two worlds: desiring justice for the sins against her own family, as well as mercy for members of a family she has grown to love. From the beginning, she clearly has the framework of her own beliefs, but is yet influenced by others. For example, despite feeling guilty, she does not outright warn the Fletcher family about the attack her father has planned. While the attack is going on, she intervenes, shouting “…take vengeance on your enemies – but spare – spare our friends —our benefactors — I bleed when they are struck.” (Sedgwick 65). While her interference is not enough to save the entire family, it does mark a turning point for Magawisca displaying self-governance. She begins making her own decisions about her individual sense of right, wrong, and allegiance, and truly starts to take her own action.
The final influence Emerson lists is action, stating that “Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind” (Emerson). He suggests that a good scholar needs both to learn and to be active in an “undulation.” Magawisca is eager to learn and to teach with Everell. As the story progresses, she proves that she is not one to stand idly by. The first major example of this is when she loses her arm to a blow meant for Everell’s neck, challenging the superiority of her father and marking a turning point for her making her own judgments and decisions. Emerson touts the duty of a scholar to be self-sacrificing, and Magawisca is willing to sacrifice her life and her freedom in order to help others, resulting in her imprisonment. Even so, she stands up for herself and challenges an unfair ruling, stating “I am your prisoner, and ye may slay me, but I deny your right to judge me” (Sedgwick 302). Emerson believed that “Free should the scholar be—free and brave” (Emerson). There is some irony in this point. Magawisca was infrequently “free” during the story, as she spent much time imprisoned or indentured. Emerson seems to be speaking less literally and instead referencing freedom of mind and thought. Even when she was not physically free, Magawisca learned to bravely hold to her ideals. For example, she refuses to help Philip even in exchange for her freedom, saying she will not make her heart as black as his. By the end of the book, she is arguably the most self-assured character. Hope and Everell beg of her “Teach us to be happy, as you are, without human help or agency” (Sedgwick 264). Magawisca does not need others to live a gratifying life and fulfills what Emerson referred to as the ‘Romantic idea of the individual’ when she chooses to go off on her own in the end.
The character Magawisca from Sedgwick’s “Hope Leslie” does not completely fit Emerson’s ideals for an American scholar. She does represent his three major influences in her unity with nature, her treatment of history, and her dedication to taking action. More importantly, she represents establishing self-governance, the strength of the individual, self-sacrifice, and freedom of the mind. While not a direct representation of a break from Europe, Magawisca represents the contest between an old and new world, and the fight to create a new identity. While she may not have seen much change herself, Magawisca certainly represents the efforts necessary to evoke change. Above all else, this determination marks her as a character truly representative of the new American ideals.
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