College of Arts and Sciences

Department of English

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance

Phyllis Cole

"The Nineteenth-Century Women's Rights Movement and the Canonization of Margaret Fuller"

This article traces the cultural memory of Margaret Fuller as conveyed by proponents of women's rights in the United States over the half-century following her death in 1850. Early death opened her life and message to symbolic appropriation in the long, internally divided history of women's rights advocacy. The memorialists, whose words are recoverable at least in part from their origins in oral speech and print journalism, found a usable past in Fuller; and in so doing they contested her significance with better-known male mythologizers like Emerson and Hawthorne. If disparagement by the latter contributed to Fuller's exclusion from the literary canon, these activists "canonized" Fuller in another sense, as an ongoing influence and feminist saint.

The antebellum decade of women's rights conventions, lyceum lectures, and journalism (the Una) led most notably to the printed essays of Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Caroline Dall. Dall in particular read Fuller in a vital history of feminist critique originating in Wollstonecraft and leading to the conventions. Following the Civil War, memories of Fuller polarized along the competitive line drawn between newly formed activist groups: the New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, viewed Fuller as a political and social critic, emphasizing her skepticism of marriage; whereas the Boston-based American Woman Suffrage Association, lead by Higginson and Julia Ward Howe, valued her priestly nature and celebration of mystic beauty. Both messages were disseminated throughout the nation by organization media. Even by 1901, as the reunited women's rights movement had taken a more pragmatic turn and Fuller's books had gone out of print, a coalition of leaders again claimed her fresh relevance in a public, media-publicized memorial to Fuller at the site of her death on Fire Island.

Mary-Jo Haronian

"Margaret Fuller's Visions"

Many of the central tropes in Fuller's body of work turn on scientific concepts drawn from Goethe's Theory of Color (1810) and other scientific texts she knew, including Leibniz's Monadology (1714) and Faraday's Experimental Researches in Electricity (volume 1, 1839). Goethe's optical theories, along with a general nineteenth-century fascination with optics, raised for Fuller questions about subjectivity and perception, questions explored in the content and form of her writing.

This essay demonstrates the extent to which concepts from Theory of Color shaped the text of Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, inspiring kaleidoscopic descriptions of the American frontier and the Native American people. Through the multiple viewpoints of these passages, Fuller presents keen assessments of nineteenth-century American gender and racial bias. Goethe's theories, among an array of new developments in optics, challenged subject/object distinctions, helping to generate the proto-modernist multiple perspectives of Fuller's renderings of the western landscape and enabling her anticipation of a pragmatic epistemological mode conducive to a modern feminism.

Anne Baker

"'A Commanding View': Vision and the Problem of Nationality in Fuller's Summer on the Lakes"

In Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, Margaret Fuller uses dramatic visual moments to explore her ambivalence about national identity. Her accounts of the unfamiliar landscape of the West at times reflect a desire for vision unmediated by social and cultural frames, particularly nationality. Yet at other moments in her narrative Fuller hopefully imagines a collective identity emerging through visual encounters with the American landscape. Art historians have explained the enormous popularity of landscape painting in the mid-nineteenth-century United States in terms of the idealized landscape's function as national icon, uniting viewers in the face of increasing sectional tension. In Summer on the Lakes, Fuller clearly participates in this discourse; she complicates it, however, not only by expressing a divided outlook on the effects of national identity on perception, but by using visual moments--her depictions of Native Americans cowed by the gaze of white settlers, for example--to critique American nationalism.

Judith Mattson Bean

"'A Presence among Us': Fuller's Place in Nineteenth-Century Oral Culture"

This essay explores Fuller's significance through the careers of five women who acknowledged her influence and followed her example to become independent thinkers and speakers: Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Caroline Healey Dall, Mary Livermore, Ednah Dow Cheney, and Julia Ward Howe. Fuller's importance becomes clearer with recognition that she created a vibrant legacy through public speaking in the "golden age of oratory," when an eloquent voice rivaled literary production for cultural esteem. This study presents a genealogy of reception in which women writers and lecturers transmit a positive image of Fuller in a variety of speech events, such as lectures, memorials, and public conversations. Women writers who knew her struggled with enduring issues of her reputation: was she, for example, an exceptional "woman of genius" or a representative of the female writer's potential? Furthermore, because these writers contributed not only to building Fuller's reputation but also to writing the history of American transcendentalism, which Fuller with Emerson came to symbolize, their work illuminates intellectual currents and conflicts in postwar American culture more broadly.

The women lecturers described in this essay drew on Fuller's works for fundamental approaches for speaking to their culture, for rhetorical paradigms, for basic reformist arguments, and for memorable epigrams that succinctly argued their positions. They employed her biography to champion greater freedoms for women and to construct female communities aimed at humanistic endeavors. For her successors, Fuller's example and discourse supplied a means of fulfilling their own potential while contributing to social reform and literary culture.

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