This novel, published in 1835, was written by a Frenchman, Gustave De Beaumont, travel companion of Alexis De Tocqueville, author of the still essential study of American history, Democracy in America, also published in 1835. The two of them co-authored "On the Penitentiary system in the United States." Between May 11, 1831 and February 20, 1832, they covered 7,000 miles, suffering all the travel conditions of hazard and hardship of that time in all the various regions, making a complete circuit of all the former colonies and into Canada. De Beaumont focused his work on the manners and mores and cultural life of the new nation, while de Tocqueville focused on the political institutions. Both men remained political progressives and reformers, fast friends throughout their shared journeys, and for the rest of their lives.
Maria begins in Baltimore. It is framed conventionally with a French narrator who then meets the pov narrator of the events of the novel, who also is French. It is conventionally sentimental in style and sensibility -- which was not exactly the same attitude of style and sensibility that we think of them now: back in the nineteenth century these traits in a novel exhibited the characters' level of education and understanding, whether attained by formal education or by native capacity. and even both.
For contemporary readers this reads hardly as a novel at all, but more like a work of sociology, with copious notes amplifying the statements of behaviors of the various characters as types of contemporary actors on the stage of that brave new world, the United States. Most of all, it is an investigation into the entwined tragedies of the native peoples and the descendants of the slaves brought here from Africa. For me the interest in the book is centered in that, as seen and interpreted by a well-educated (both he and his companion spoke excellent English English -- they had even lived in England for some years), well-informed, European outsider, who very much hopes that the United States is a wholly new and good thing to come into the historically evil world of power, rank and wealth exploiting all others.
The other center of interest is that they traveled the U.S. at the very start of the Jacksonian Triumph of Democracy, and tell us what they see. Outside of the sublime vistas of the still surviving wildernesses, what they see is pretty unattractive. It is energetic beyond comprehension in the getting of and making of wealth. Many are achieving prosperity such as never known by so many, but even more are being crushed by this achievement. Most of all, it is the Native Peoples and the slaves who suffer and are crushed by this accelerated pace of wealth getting, the very peoples -- via the theft of their lands, and in the case of the slaves the very theft of every part of their selves and labor. For women, particularly after their marriages, which are the point of their earlier years, they are immured in home, hardly less imprisoned (prison reform, as noticed above, is of large concern to them) than members of a harem, but unlike in the harem, they have no companions other than their children and their servants -- or as in Baltimore, their slaves. Education and the refinements of life are left to them, whereas their husbands are uneducated bores who can think or speak of nothing but business. However, what good are the education and refinements to these wives who are domestic prisoners?
Worst of all is the condition of the white women who are legally slaves for they have a black/slave ancestor who was raped by her white owner, and her progeny then are generationally raped by their white owners ... thus, Maria, in which we travel from the South to the wilderness of northern Michigan. Though a sentimental novel, this is not a melodrama, nor is it a sensational novel. It is a sober and somber examination of how slavery and theft of lands is the terrible stain upon the grand experiment in perfect liberty and democracy that the men of the country thunder at all times and all places into the ears of everyone that the United States is. In other words, here already we have in a novel of 1835, a distillation of what were the Jacksonian principles of the U.S. -- particularly its exceptionalism in the world. In contrast it shows us as well the blinkers and blinders worn by those who are running the great machinery of that Jacksonian democracy the refusal to see the miseries of inquality they've already enshrined as as the doctrine of the country.
The greatest lesson we are taking away from this academic year of intensive study is how early, how deeply, how extensively the non-progressive ideals of the extreme right got rooted in the the national philosophy.