The First American Novel


WHO wrote the first American novel? Who launched the first of the innumerable and various craft of that fleet of fiction which American novelists have sent forth into the world?

The book was well named for such a venture: The Emigrants, or the History of an Expatriated FamilyBeing a Delineation of English manners, drawn from Real Characters, written in America by G. Imlay. Though Captain Gilbert Imlay, the author of this tale in three volumes published in England in 1793, has been destined to be known to the world rather as the recipient of Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous love letters than as a writer of fiction, there is no doubt that he was our first American novelist.

The rarity1 of The Emigrants must account for its omission from our histories of American literature. The book is of remarkable historical interest for every reader who chances to have been fascinated by the great and picaresque story of the struggle of the Kentucky, Ohio, and Mississippi River border for the Western land of North America, after the American Revolution.

In his preface Imlay says: ‘In this history I have scrupulously attended to natural circumstances and the manners of the day; and in every particular I have had a real character for my model. The principal part of the story is founded upon facts, and I was only induced to give the work in the style of a novel, from believing it would prove more acceptable to the generality of readers.’

While these words concerning the reality of the narrative must not be taken too literally, still everyone who has read the wild and heterogeneous tales of the Western border settlement, commerce, and warfare of the day will recognize in the social picture presented by The Emigrants many familiar outlines and traces of some of the most vivid figures of the period — Boone, Richard Henderson, Sinclair, General Wilkinson, Crèvecœur, George Rogers Clark.

Aside from its historical interest, this novel may claim the distinction of being our first piece of fiction consciously concerned with a social problem. The author’s intent, as stated in his preface, is no less than that of exposing the evils of the state of the marriage laws of England.

Though Imlay’s views of marriage laws and of the position of women are progressive and enlightened, again his social picture must not be taken too literally. For the picture is subdued to the dye of the eighteenth-century novel. It belongs to the age of ‘sensibility,’ and of Jane Austen’s acute mockery of sensibility; and one observes with amusement and curiosity that Captain Imlay, obviously familiar with all the roughness and rawness of border settlement and Indian warfare, revels in the excessive ‘delicacy and refinement’ of the literary fashion of the day.

One has not read far in his eloquent pages before discovering that this mixture of lively imbecility and shrewd common sense, The Emigrants, is buoyed up by what may be called the greater silliness — the silliness floating hundreds of novels of to-day and of the last hundred years, and perhaps of a thousand years to come.

The novel tells the story of the fortunes of the T—n family of London—Mr. and Mrs. T—n, with their unlovely son, the torpid George, and their two lovely daughters, Mary and Caroline, the heroine, with ’long blue eyes,’ ‘fair complexion,’ ‘a peculiar elegance of manners,’ and ’a blandishment which accompanies every word she utters that goes directly to the heart.’ Mrs. T—n has ruined the character of George by her snobbishness in obtaining a commission for him in the Horse Guards. ‘The idea of trade shocked her delicacy.’

They come to Philadelphia to repair their fortunes, leaving the remnant of their money in a bank, and start out on a pack trip across Pennsylvania to their friends Major and Mrs. W—in

Pittsburgh. And after this the novel is all pack trips and mountains and rocks and laurel, and streams with umbrageous chestnut and ‘sugar’ trees, and Indians and Indian prisoners, and squirrels and quail and camping and cooking outdoors, and ‘chasing the antelope over the plains.’

The story is told in the form of letters, the correspondence of the T—n family and of their friends— many of the letters from Caroline. Most of the letters, however, pass between a Mr. Il—ray and a Captain Arl—ton, both natives of the neighborhood of Baltimore, constantly journeying about on horseback or on river rafts in different directions in North America.

Il—ray and Arl—ton are both

smart, upstanding men made of ‘sensibility’ and public spirit, and in the very van of progress; haters of superstition, contemners of dueling; consumedly literary; quoters of Voltaire, Tasso, Montesquieu, La Rochefoucauld, and Pope; and evincing a strong familiarity with the writings and ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Tom Paine.

Il—ray chances to meet the T—n family on their arrival in Philadelphia, and commends them to the good offices of Arl—ton, who is riding up from

Baltimore to Pittsburgh and manages to overtake them on the road and to walk most of the way with Caroline. The novel is pervaded by the meditative presence of an elderly philosopher who ‘ possesses so much the manner of a gentleman you would immediately conclude he had been a man of fashion, though he dresses in the plain garb of the country.’ Caroline and Arl—ton meet him on their walk: Mr. P—

P—, the recluse of ‘Laurel Mount.’

Among the many incidents of Mr. P— P—’s life, one of startling activity for a recluse, is the episode of his military service in Braddock’s Defeat many years before, when he had been left for dead. It is very soon seen that he is a long-lost brother of Mrs. T—n. Caroline instantly becomes his favorite niece, and his wide knowledge of the world and of philosophy are the means of finally thwarting the machinations of her ambitious sister Mary, who contrives to part Caroline and Arl—ton and to keep them in a miserable state of despondency through most of the story.

Indeed, in spite of the exhilarating nature of their occupations, all the finer natures of the novel are saddened by the low motives they frequently observe in others. Perhaps this high mood among them may be best indicated by a letter to Arl—ton from

Il—ray in Philadelphia concerning the debased George, who had been sent back to procure and convey to his family the remnant of their fortune left in the bank.

‘ I wish that it was in my power to alleviate the suffering of those charming girls . . . for at this moment, I blush at the depravity to which the human heart may be reduced and feel the utmost indignation at the baseness of their unworthy brother. . . . Wicked and atrocious as it may appear, it is however certain, he has left the place with a phaeton and pair and a servant mounted upon a third horse, for New York; and is thus wantonly dissipating that small pittance which was the only prop to his reduced family,— and whose destruction his former dissipation had been one of the material causes.

‘This is one of those circumstances that requires no exaggeration to confound the imagination, or to be related with embellishment and pathos, to shock every sentiment of humanity, gratitude, generosity and honor.’

Yet at the close, by the mysterious processes of ‘perfectability,’ even George is awakened to better things under the refining influence of the scenes at ‘the falls of the Ohio’ at Louisville, and the helpful proximity of Caroline and Arl—ton, now united after Caroline’s exciting captivity among the Indians of ‘the country of the Illinois.’

But what has all this to do with English divorce laws? Nothing. The Emigrants, like Puff’s play in The Critic, has an underplot — indeed, many underplots, all about exquisite young women with disagreeable husbands. Much the most desperate of these underplots is the affair of the quiet, impressive Mr. P— P—.

On his return to England after Braddock’s Defeat, he fell in with a designing and coarsened Lord B—, who wished to obtain a divorce from his refined wife. Lady B—’s literary tastes and Mr. P— P—’s were congenial, and Lord B—, a violent enemy of all the literary, sets a footman to spy upon them. The unsuspecting Mr. P— P— reads Othello aloud to his imaginative hostess.

‘She became so absorbed in the story, that when Othello said “put out the light” and “then—put out the light” she fainted as compleatly as though the circumstance had been real and present to her view. ... I had caught her in my arms when a footman started upon us, and said that my Lord had sent his compliments to me, and wished I would take an airing with him in his curricle. I desired him in answer to tell his Lordship that I was reading with Lady B— and begged that he would excuse me; for it would not only have been a breach of politeness to have broken a prior engagement, but it would have been inhuman to have left her even when she had recovered.’

I quote this delightful passage as an instance of Imlay’s skill and flow both in the lesser silliness peculiar to his day and in the greater silliness. The reader will hardly be surprised to learn that, through the evidence secured by the suborned footman, Lord

B—gets all Lady B—’s fortune; and drives her and Mr. P— P— into the direst poverty; and hounds them out of England to the neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where we will not follow their striking and picturesque fortunes — a little like those of Crèvecœur’s family, a little like Sinclair’s history.

Imlay has such rich resources of human history to draw on, and is so extremely resourceful with the larger silliness, that one experiences no wonder in his solution of all the complicated marital difficulties of the underplots — partly by the convenient natural deaths of overbearing husbands, but mainly by the sufferers’ settling on land in Kentucky. A remarkable and bracing feature of the book is that, though the happiness of the final union of Caroline and Arl—ton is mentioned, yet this happiness is entirely secondary to their absorbed interest in what may be called their new subdivision across the river from Louisville.

Here they have possession of one hundred and sixty-six square miles, which they dispense among land-hungry friends, soldiers and officers of the American Revolution, as well as the sufferers from the English divorce laws; and here ‘ perfectability ’ is pursued, and a democratic government is established, and Mr. P— P — in his redoubtable quietude comes to live as a species of perpetual president — recalling the vanished forest-state of Transylvania and Richard Henderson, and the grant allotted to George Rogers Clark and the ‘Officers’ Lands,’ after the Revolution.

Indeed, in spite of the silliness of The Emigrants, the beauty of a genuine love of freedom, the fascination of the air of virgin country, breathe from its pages. Caroline, Il—ray, divorce in England, and all the rest of it, are dominated by the author’s passion for the wild land, its streams, valleys, mountain forests, and wide-spreading high prairies.

The book has the poetry of this passion. It has genuine charm — the charm of spaciousness, of spontaneity.

When Caroline and Il—ray cross the river on the raft, after her captivity in ‘the country of the Illinois,’ the reader lives with them in a fine and novel sense of mankind’s free heritage of the beauty of earth.

One has, too, a feeling which Caroline and Il—ray could not have known — a feeling that one is looking on scenes existing in the past of the great forest and prairie history of this country, but now vanished forever from human experience. No one had ever presented scenes quite like these before. No one can ever present them again from the same consciousness of American life as Imlay’s.


Who was this man who wrote The Emigrants? Our annals of him are scattered and few. ‘Never say you know the last word of any human heart,’ says Henry James in ‘Louisa Pallant’; and the motto is excellent counsel for those who seek to understand Gilbert Imlay.

Our information of him has been enriched in the last six years by two monographs which we owe to the valuable studies of Mr. Ralph Leslie Rusk and Mr. Oliver Farrar Emerson. According to these researches, Imlay was born in Monmouth County, New Jersey, at some time in the 1750’s, probably 1754.

He was the son of Peter Imlay, and belonged to a family of some distinction and importance, according to the minute books of the local court. He appears in the Revolution as wounded at the Battle of Monmouth, which occurred at his birthplace, and as negotiating the release of prisoners in Philadelphia.

Later he is mentioned in England and in France, in French official documents and on the title-pages of his publications, as ‘Captain,’ which we may assume to be his authentic rank.

After the war, in 1783, Imlay purchased land in Kentucky, and in 1784 we find him in that region, where he had been appointed Deputy Surveyor and ‘Commissioner for laying out land in the back settlements.’

Within the following three years he bought more and more Kentucky land. He entered into a project for the establishment of ironworks, and signed no less than three bonds; and was pursued in the courts by three creditors. The ironworks project failed. By the sale of some of his acres he paid a portion of his debts. Others he never paid. But, according to one of the latest American records of him we possess, this fact did not deter him from receiving patents in Virginia for a large tract of land, late in the year 1786; and then he left the country, and we hear nothing more of him for six years.

Imlay had left his tangled legal affairs in the hands of General James Wilkinson — brave, shifty, bombastic, devoted to army intrigue, one of the most curious figures in our history of the West. Like Captain Arl—ton, Wilkinson was a native of the region of Baltimore who had gone up to Philadelphia, and thence to Kentucky in the year of Imlav’s arrival. Like Arl—ton and Il—ray, General

Wilkinson was a lover of the art of letters, and, as his memoirs tell us, had cultivated sensibility and ‘refined enjoyment.’

At about the time when Imlay disappeared from the United States, General Wilkinson indulged his taste for refined enjoyment in an original manner. He boldly loaded several flatboats with a contraband freight of tobacco, flour, bacon, and butter, and steered down the Kentucky River to the Ohio, down the Ohio to the Mississippi, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. In The Emigrants, Il—ray makes this voyage; and the novel certainly gives some color to the theory that Imlay may have accompanied Wilkinson.

In New Orleans, although Wilkinson’s goods were contraband, he managed to avoid arrest by seeking an interview with the Spanish authorities, Miro and Navarro. Always an adroit liar, Wilkinson rapidly convinced them that his arrival with his cargo was only a ruse, to mask a larger project of immense benefit to Spanish America. Wilkinson’s larger project was no less than the separation of the region of Kentucky from the United States, and its confederation with Spain.

Till the close of the century and during Wilkinson’s Northwest campaigns as an officer of the United States army, he was receiving a pension of eighteen hundred dollars a year from New Orleans and the Spanish Crown for his alleged industry in fomenting his vast scheme for the revolt of Kentucky to the government of Spain. What was even more advantageous to him was the secret monopoly of trade on the Mississippi, a further privilege he received from New Orleans.

Such was the ‘Spanish Plot.’ In other words, General Wilkinson was the Spanish Plot, through a bold and singular career running now outside our story — a career to which only the gifts of the late Frank R. Stockton could do justice.

How far was Imlay involved in all this? Did he act as Wilkinson’s representative later perhaps in Spain? Did he ship European cargoes for Wilkinson’s Mississippi trade monopoly? It seems significant that in The Emigrants

Il—ray embarks from New Orleans for Spain, and after crossing the Pyrenees visits France and England, where we next find traces of Gilbert Imlay’s presence.


In the year 1792 Imlay published in London A Topographical History of the Western Territory of North America.

For me, as with The Emigrants, this attractive old book has an endless fascination in its power of evoking the past of forest and prairie, with its panoramic tale of the great timber, catalpa, and red-flowering maple, hickory and pine, hemlock and live oak and fir; the flight of wild ducks, mallards, heron and bittern; the full-flowering prairie, columbine and mint and wild rose and rue; the Homeric enumerations of varieties of trees, of wild flowers, of wild game and Indian tribes now tragically vanished.

‘Having been brought up in the interior parts of America, he is the most natural, unaffected creature,’ Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a few years later of Imlay to her sister Everina. And the spontaneity and naturalness of the Topographical History are not the least of its merits.

The book abounds in advanced opinions. But this is too light a dismissal of Imlay’s genuine loathing of snobbishness, his warm-hearted hatred of race prejudice, his wise and humane plan for the abolition of slavery, and his enlightened contempt for superstition.

Two later editions presented to an international public the text of two documents of momentous importance in the Western history of the United States — Washington’s great Treaty with Spain, opening the Mississippi to navigation for the commerce of the border settlers; and the record of the Piankishaw Council and Treaty, which served with increasing effect to free the border of the horror of Indian attack and massacre.

These later editions also give fuller accounts of the Western regions, and of even better ways of making maple sugar; and reprint Filson’s Discovery and Settlement of Kentucky and Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boone — the last a masterpiece.

To digress for a moment: in connection with this capital old piece of Filson’s, we possess, through W. H. Bogart, a tradition of the pleasure of one admirer of Filson’s biography which ought to be true if it is not. Though it is well known that Daniel Boone had an imperfect literary education, and read and wrote at best with difficulty, yet the style of Filson’s Life, written ostensibly from the Long Hunter’s dictation, is highly literary, flowing and ornate, opening with the sentence;—

‘Curiosity is natural to the soul of man, and interesting objects have a powerful influence on our affections.’

It is said that in his last years Daniel Boone, sitting in his coonskin cap with his rifle across his knees in the grassy yard of the house of his son, Major Nathan Boone, in the Osage region of Missouri, would derive a peculiarly rich enjoyment from listening while a friend read aloud to him the rolling periods attributed to him by the art of John Filson. ‘I now live in peace and safety, enjoying the sweets of liberty and the bounties of Providence with my once fellow-sufferers.’

Though the Topographical History is better known than Imlay’s novel, it is all too little known. For Imlay’s ability as an editor, as well as the charm and historical interest of his own contribution, this book deserves to be reprinted. Both The Emigrants and the Topographical History should be made accessible to a wader circle of readers.


Moncure Conway’s biography of Tom Paine tells us that late in the year 1792 an intimate international group of men and women used to gather in the evenings at the house of the author of Common Sense in the Faubourg Saint-Denis; among these men and women, Roland and Madame Roland, the editor Bonneville, the English merchant Christie and his wife, Madame Brissot, Brissot, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Gilbert Imlay.

Brissot had been active in forming the Genêt project for the French conquest of Spanish territory in North America. Through Brissot at this period, in the winter of 1792-93, Imlay sent two memorials on Louisiana to the Committee of Safety — documents purporting to give authentic information of the trans-Alleghany region, and portraying this sparsely settled and poverty-stricken country as ready to muster forty thousand well-equipped troops and large sums of money for the benefit of France. Certainly in these manifestoes the author seems a mere untrustworthy informant of France, and quite unconcerned in risking the lives and hard-won livelihoods of his countrymen.

If one knew Imlay only by the voice of the Louisiana memorials of his own authorship, one might regard him as hardly better than an unscrupulous land booster. But though a writer, and a writer of importance in his own day, it has been his curious destiny to possess a world-wide fame from the sound of voices not his own — the passionate, lyrical voice of Mary Wollstonecraft, the quiet philosophic voice of William Godwin.

It was in 1793 that he met Mary Wollstonecraft, with the circle of people surrounding Tom Paine. She was writing a history of the French Revolution. But this had not been her purpose in coming to France. She had come in the hope of escaping from a passion of hers which has been thrust too hastily into the background by many of those who have been interested in her life, myself among them. To those following the biographies of Kegan Paul and of Mrs. Pennell this is natural. But a little closer reading of Godwin and the biography of G. R. Stirling Taylor will convince one of one’s error.

A few months before her arrival in France, Mary Wollstonecraft had fallen deeply in love with the painter Fuseli. Though she said to him, ‘If I thought my passion criminal I would conquer it, or die in the attempt,’she was too perturbed to be able to follow the even tenor of her days as a reader, translator, and writer for her friend the publisher Johnson. She was obsessed by her inner vision of Fuseli. She besought his wife to permit her to come to live with them, a request which she says arises ‘from the sincere affection which I have for your husband, for I find that I cannot live without the satisfaction of seeing and conversing with him daily.’

Mrs. Fuseli thought it unwise to grant Mary Wollstonecraft’s candid request, though throughout Mary’s life they remained friends. Before Mary’s feeling for Fuseli had risen to these proportions, the three had planned to go to France together, and now Mary went alone.

‘Her personal and ardent affection,’ Godwin tells us, ‘was a source of perpetual torment to her. She conceived it necessary to snap the chain,’ and in her voyage ‘the single object she had in view was that of an endeavor to heal her distempered mind.’

All the emotion Mary Wollstonecraft had repressed on leaving Fuseli now rose for Imlay. Everyone knows the story: how they loved each other, and lived together in Paris, while the Terror and the might of Robespierre overwhelmed the city, and Paine was imprisoned in the Luxembourg, and Brissot was guillotined; how Imlay came and went on unknown and doubtful business, and her ardent letters, spontaneous, humorous, brave, bewildered, followed him in his comings and goings; how they lived together in Havre from February till autumn, and a child of theirs, Fanny Imlay, was born there in May in 1794, and seven months later Imlay went to London and became fascinated by ‘a young strolling actress’; and how after that, with many changes and eddies, and endless, inconsistent claimings, and two hopeless trials of living with him in London, Mary Wollstonecraft’s passion for him plunged down a final chasm of despair.

The candor of the Letters to Imlay has fascinated the world. Their free movement is so strong that one is carried away by the tide of their emotion. It is hard to look at Mary Wollstonecraft’s or at Imlay’s life before or after the striking episodes the Letters narrate; and though people have known of Mary’s feeling for Fuseli, they have been slow in realizing fully that she had been deeply in love only a few months before she knew Imlay, and that she was involved in a third passionate attachment — to Godwin— only a few months after her last parting from Imlay in the spring of 1796, three years after their first meeting.

In the Letters we see Imlay as coldhearted and trivial, and preoccupied with business undertakings of which she knows little, though she mistrusts and disapproves of them. After their parting she wrote of the American settlers of the West in a reference which may well point to Imlay:—

‘The resolution that led them in pursuit of independence to search for unknown shores, and to sleep under the hovering mists of endless forests, whose baleful damps agued their limbs, was now turned into commercial speculations, till the national character exhibited a phenomenon in the history of the human mind — a head enthusiastically enterprising, with cold selfishness of heart.’

At the time of their union she writes to him with contempt of ‘this crooked business.’ Was it his offices for Wilkinson in the Spanish Plot for the Western Territory? Was it his offices against Spain in the French Plot for the Western Territory? Was it something connected with the well-known New Orleans talent of the time for privateering? Whatever she knew, or Godwin knew later, they were rather careful not to tell. Even when Mary goes to Norway and Sweden to collect Imlay’s monies for him, she gives no hint of the nature of his commercial transactions in the north.

He seems not to have been poor in Europe or in England. He obtains and furnishes a house for Mary in London. He desires to continue to send her money, and to support his daughter. Or at least he says he desires to, but perhaps his profession is no more to be credited than his memorial on Louisiana.

Whatever he professed, throughout the tragedy of her short life and long after her mother’s death Fanny Imlay was cared for and protected by her stepfather Godwin. In his account of Imlay which prefaces the Letters and the Memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin speaks with generous deference of his predecessor. He says, too, that his wife would never permit anything despiteful to be spoken of Imlay in her presence.

Paradoxically enough, both he and Mary Wollstonecraft, the very persons who have presented Imlay to posterity as a mere light-o’-love and craven deserter, have also magnanimously said for him about all that can be said from their knowledge of him.


Theirs was for many years the last word about Imlay. Nothing more was known of him until 1903, when Mr. Richard Garnett in the London Athenœum published an article mentioning that he had recently learned that in 1828 a Gilbert Imlay had been buried in St. Brelade’s Parish in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. The inscription has disappeared from the churchyard, but Mr. Emerson has obtained a copy of the entry in the parish register: —

M. Gilbert Imlay fut enterré, le vingt quatrième jour de Novembre mil huit cent vingt huit, âgé de 74 ans.

This may have been a different individual from the captain in the American Revolution. But no other person of this Christian name appears in the records of the Imlays. There is no further record of him in Jersey of the Channel Islands.

This absence of record may show that he was there unoccupied — maybe as a health seeker; or it may show that he engaged in an occupation which avoided record. It is of interest that we hear of Imlay at Hamburg (in the Letters from Norway), that his hero journeys to New Orleans, and that his memorial and the 1797 edition of the Topographical History show a considerable knowledge of the latter city as a port — both New Orleans and Hamburg being harbors for illegitimate international traffic of the time; and that then we learn of the death of a Gilbert Imlay in Jersey, an island which had been, in the period of Captain Gilbert Imlay’s life, a notorious resort of the privateers, pirates, and smugglers of Spain, and a rendezvous for Napoleonic refugees and plotters. The historical background of Imlay’s life after the American Revolution is that of the great struggle of the border for the Western land of North America. Though only a guess, one has a certain large basis for guessing that throughout his life after the Revolution Imlay may have been interested and active in the commercial and political traffic of the international plots and counterplots for the Western Territory. In the many-sided and dramatic story of the struggle for the land of North America west of the Alleghanies in the halfcentury after 1770, he has a vital part in giving us a stirring and authentic picture of the borderland itself.

He was a man of the border. He is always giving his bridle rein a shake and saying adieu forevermore. We find him frequently with people who are lying in ambush. Yet in some respects his is a figure of more familiar and pedestrian outline — that of a person who cares too much about money and not enough about human understanding. But the man we see in our scattered record of Imlay’s life, the man we see in his writings, is not to be dismissed by a formula.

We see him as unscrupulous, independent, courageous, a dodger of debts to the poor, a deserter, a protector of the helpless, a revolutionist, a man of enlightenment beyond his age, a greedy and treacherous land booster. You will hardly have made up your mind that he is a mere border ruffian and shirker of obligation on both continents when he will say something so generously conceived as to charm you out of your opinion.

Though a flare of loyalty to the ideas of those he admires glimmers through his writings, this too, like everything else about him, is flickering and uncertain. He casts a strange passing light on some of the most curious and striking figures about him; and yet one feels that he did not understand them very well himself. Certainly he did not understand Mary Wollstonecraft.

In his associates, his correspondents, and the ideas and principles of his acquaintances which he presents in his books, what an assemblage of human beings appears — Wilkinson, Henderson, the ruler of the border state of Transylvania, Daniel Boone, Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine, Brissot! If you had known them, if you had known Imlay among them, could you have understood them, no matter how often you saw them, no matter what they said in your presence? Probably not.

To understand these people you would have had to know what it meant to fight typhus and the Miamis and to trick Spanish grandees, as Wilkinson did; what it meant to rule in a blockhouse in the wilderness, as Henderson did; to be desperate with the defeat and hunger of a misprized passion and to try to drown yourself in a dark city river, like Mary Wollstonecraft; to go half-naked and cold, as a painted Indian captive alone with the Indians on the open prairie, like Daniel Boone; to sicken to unconsciousness in a filthy prison in Paris, like Tom Paine; to ride in a tumbril to a guillotine for your love of freedom, like Brissot.

Like Gilbert Imlay, the men and women of his acquaintance were all in their several lands people of the border. To appreciate him and them you would have to understand things not dreamed of in the philosophy of Goethe or Shakespeare or of any of the Regulars — nor in the philosophy of the Regulars of the other side, either, like Byron, the Regulars of Sinning and Wild Living in capital letters. Yet, diverse as they are in the scenes and aims of their lives, — these people of the border over the world, associated with Gilbert Imlay, — one is struck with certain qualities standing out clearly enough in them and in him. All have courage. All have speed. All have the love of freedom.

Even as we see him now, with the worst of his faults and feeblenesses on his head, Imlay has the love of freedom. He has speed and courage. We cannot pluck out the heart of his mystery. But we could not, as I hope, if we had lived on earth with him. In the course of learning to know any human being, the curious reader of history, the curious reader of life, wall prefer the experience of a thousand corrected impressions to any formulistic judgment.

To understand Imlay at all, and to enjoy his various narratives, it is necessary not to regard him or them in the hope of obtaining a conclusive and unified impression of his character. It is better to remember that ‘curiosity is natural to the soul of man, and interesting objects have a powerful influence on our affections.’

  1. 1 The five copies of The Emigrants which research has so far discovered are severally owned by Brown University, the University of Illinois, the New York Public Library, the British Museum (only the first of the three volumes), and the University of Chicago. — AUTHOR