Margaret Fuller

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Fritz Fleischmann (Essay Date 1987)

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SOURCE: Fleischmann, Fritz. "Margaret Fuller, the Eternal Feminine, and the 'Liberties of the Republic'." In Women's Studies and Literature, edited by Fritz Fleischmann and Deborah Lucas Schneider, pp. 39-57. Erlangen, Germany: Palm & Enke, 1987.1

In the following excerpt, Fleischmann discusses some of the problems with Fuller's work that have frustrated literary scholars from Fuller's time to the present.


Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) is one of the most fascinating, but also one of the most frustrating texts in the literature of feminist thought, as generation after generation of critics has demonstrated. The reasons for this frustration are not clear. Is it the lack of feminist bravado, or moral uplift? (Fuller's friend Caroline Sturgis thought that it was "not a book to take to heart, and that is what a book upon woman should be" (Houghton MS, quoted from Chevigny 233). Is it Fuller's intellectuality, her erudition, that readers have found forbidding? Lydia Maria Child wrote in response to another Fuller book, Summer on the Lakes, "your house is too full; there is too much furniture for your rooms" (Houghton MS, quoted ibid.). Is it that the book misses the political point by not demanding the vote for women vociferously enough, as John Neal argued: "You might as well educate slaves—and still keep them in bondage"? (Houghton MS, quoted in Chevigny 235) Is it that, as Emerson remarked, Fuller's "pen was a non-conductor" and that, as V. L. Parrington and others in the 20th century have found, she was "in no sense an artist, scarcely a craftsman" (quoted in Robinson 84)?

While most of these charges can be refuted or explained, they represent a body of reaction to Fuller's book that points at a deeper irritation. A prominent school of Fuller criticism holds that Fuller's real vocation lay in abandoning "literature" for "history," self-centered pedantry for political action. Perhaps the best-known recent source is The Feminization of American Culture, in which Ann Douglas speaks of "the crippling narcissism of [Fuller's] transcendental years" (Douglas 340), albeit a narcissism that was "born of utter necessity and … that was somewhere intended to self-destruct, if only through its own excesses" (328). Douglas argues that Fuller's achievement lay precisely in shedding that narcissism for her "essential vision" that "was not literary, not metaphorical, but historical" (337).

A century before Douglas, in a text published posthumously in 1877, Harriet Martineau2 had put the matter even more drastically. Here is her well-know dictum about the "Conversations":

While Margaret Fuller and her adult pupils sat "gorgeously dressed," talking about Mars and Venus, Plato and Goethe, and fancying themselves the elect of the earth in intellect and refinement, the liberties of the republic were running out as fast as they could go, at a breach which another sort of elect persons were devoting themselves to repair: and my complaint against the "gorgeous" pedants was that they regarded their preservers as hewers of wood and drawers of water, and their work as a less vital one than the pedantic orations which were spoiling a set of well-meaning women in a pitiable way.

(Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, ed. Maria Weston Chapman [Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1877] 2: 381-82. Quoted from Chevigny 229.)

Unfortunately, the alleged opposition between a "literary" and a "historical" side or phase distorts both the complexity and the consistency of Fuller's development. What, for instance, are we to make of her remark to her students at the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, recorded in her student Evelina Metcalf's journal for December 18, 1838, that history "was a study peculiarly...

(This entire section contains 6470 words.)

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adapted to females"—that while "it was not to be expected that women would be good Astronomers or Geologists or Metaphysicians … they could and are expected to be good historians"? (Shuffelton 42) The fact is that while Fuller's involvement with social and political issues became increasingly overt, even dominant, towards the end of her life, her interest in history and politics was already fed by her childhood readings in Greek and Roman history, continued during her collaboration with her father on a history of the early American Republic, and infused her major works. Just as Fuller often frustrated contemporary reformers like Martineau for lack of fervor to adopt their cause, she has often frustrated modern feminists who feared that, as Christina Zwarg has phrased it, "her feminism was far too 'textual' in origin" and who therefore tended to focus "on her 'late' revolutionary career in Italy, because there at last she began to write 'history' and this made it possible to reclaim her as our proper 'feminist' foremother" (Zwarg 7).

In this paper, I intend to look at how Fuller approaches the notions of gender and history in a way that may account for the trouble she has always given certain readers, but that also shows her to be deeply concerned about the social and political issues that dominated the public discourse of her time. Choosing as my central text Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), the genesis of which spans the "transcendental" period in Fuller's life,3 I will endeavor to demonstrate how Fuller spins her mythological and romantic notion of the "eternal feminine" into a transcendental and political yarn which ties her securely to the "liberties of the republic."

The collective irritation of so many readers has to do with the method and the challenge of Woman. Fuller irritates because she challenges her friends and her American audience to think certain cherished premises through to their conclusions and to act on these conclusions. This double challenge has been splendidly laid out by David M. Robinson in a 1982 PMLA article. Woman, Robinson argues,

uses the central intellectual commitment of the transcendental movement, the belief in the possibility of "self-culture," or the continual spiritual growth of the soul, to diagnose, and prescribe a remedy for, the condition of women. The work thus stands as a translation of transcendental idealism into the social and political realm and as an exemplary bridge between romantic philosophy and social reform.

(Robinson 84)

If "the development of a divine will or self," the end of self-culture, is denied to women, the "social sources of the denial" have to be addressed, and "transcendental moral idealism" finds itself challenged to engage in a "political commitment to feminism" to uphold its ideals. At the same time, however, the whole nation is challenged to live up to its "democratic heritage reinforced by the transcendental revolution" (Robinson 85, 86, 94, 96), a heritage endangered by slavery, imperialism, and other forms of self-betrayal. In the part of Woman added to "The Great Lawsuit" during its revision, Fuller writes:

last week brought news which threatens that a cause identical with the enfranchisement of Jews, Irish, women, ay, and of Americans in general, too, is in danger, for the choice of the people threatens to rivet the chains of slavery and the leprosy of sin permanently on this country, through the annexation of Texas!

Ah! if this should take place, who will dare again to feel the throb of heavenly hope, as to the destiny of this country?

(Woman 198)

While Robinson does an excellent job outlining the development of Fuller's "historical consciousness, growing out of her need to put self-culture into practice" (90), even he has problems with Fuller's method. By "method" I mean her approach to writing as discovery, as a way to isolate her ideas, place and test them in different contexts—historical, mythological, religious, pragmatic—, to resist closure as long as possible, to take back and qualify as soon as introduced, to emphasize the process of thinking rather than the completed thought, the process of growth rather than the finished product. Some critics have tried to describe this method as arising out of an oral tradition, or an example of the "potential angelic artistry implicit in Fuller's idea of Woman." "Put most positively," William J. Scheick writes, "Woman shares with other Transcendental works an acknowledgement of its oral heritage when it celebrates spontaneity, continuous inspiration, perpetual discovery, and improvisation" (Scheick 293). Most recently, Christina Zwarg has characterized Fuller's work "as a kind of object lesson in reading," marked by a "relentless effort to disrupt what might be called the tidy binary and hence hierarchizing structures of meaning with a disorderly third term" (Zwarg 12, 13).

All of this makes it hard to come to grips with this text, to pin it down; this is why paradoxes, contradictions, vague descriptions seem to remain and irritate. For instance, when Fuller defines the most successful form of marriage as a "pilgrimage towards a common shrine," even the patient Robinson wonders "[w]hether or not Fuller herself was entirely sure of what she meant here" (Robinson 92). But that isn't the point. Fuller writes to find out "what she means," rather than to expound what she means; and her method of writing is in full consonance with her purpose and her message. The message is transcendental: it is the destiny of Man" (by which she means "both man and woman") "to ascertain and fulfil the law of his being" (Woman 83); the purpose of Woman is then to deconstruct the metaphor of gender in this transcendental framework.

In the discussion to follow, I use the term "eternal feminine" not so much because of Fuller's Goethe scholarship (which figures prominently in her book), but because she uses that notion to launch a radical inquiry into the constitution of gender and gendered discourse, to ask in what degree the "feminine" or "masculine" is indeed eternal, constant, and how much of it is contingent, historical, changing, and changeable.


That Fuller's original interest in the question was autobiographical is well-documented. For much of her life, she thought of her gender as a problem. Just one famous journal entry from the Memoirs will have to suffice as an exemplary statement: "I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too straitly-bounded to give me scope" (Memoirs 1: 297). More revealing for our present purpose are the semantic struggles with gender regularly undergone when her friends, or Fuller herself, attempt to describe her. Here is Frederic Henry Hedge's reminiscence of Fuller at the age of thirteen: her mind

was what in woman is generally called a masculine mind; that is, its action was determined by ideas rather than sentiments. And yet, with this masculine trait, she combined a woman's appreciation of the beautiful in sentiment and the beautiful in action. Her intellect was rather solid than graceful, yet no one was more alive to grace.

(Memoirs 1: 95)

Emerson writes, "She had a feeling that she ought to have been a man, and said of herself, 'A man's ambition with a woman's heart, is an evil lot.'" He quotes from a poem of hers, "To the Moon":

"But if I steadfast gaze upon thy face,
A human secret, like my own, I trace;
For, through the woman's smile looks the male eye." (Memoirs 1: 229)

In response to George Sand's writing, Fuller confided to her journal in 1835, "I have always thought … that I would not write, like a woman, of love and hope and disappointment, but like a man, of the world of intellect and action. But now I am tempted …" (Higginson 188). In an un-dated statement on Sand, she writes, "I am astonished at her insight into the life of thought. She must know it through some man" (Memoirs 1: 247). In 1839, she remarks about the same writer, "She has genius, and a manly grasp of mind, but not a manly heart! Will there never be a being to combine a man's mind and woman's heart, and who yet finds life too rich to weep over?" (Houghton MS, quoted from Chevigny 58)

But half a decade later, in Woman, the personal has become the general, the political and the semantic question. Opening up a dialogue with Miranda, her thinly disguised self, Fuller introduces her as raised by a father "who cherished no sentimental reverence for woman, but a firm belief in the equality of the sexes" (101). Her inheritance was self-reliance. "A dignified sense of self-dependence was given as all her portion, and she found it a secure anchor. Herself securely anchored, her relations with others were established with equal security.…The world was free to her, and she lived freely in it" (102). Is it praise or condemnation, Miranda is asked, to call an exceptional woman "manly"? Miranda objects to the term: heroic qualities, she says, are always described as "manly," but "persistence and courage are the most womanly no less than the most manly qualities.…Let it not be said, wherever there is energy or creative genius, "She has a masculine mind""' (104).

Then what kind of mind does she have? Who makes up these categories?

The present definition of womanhood, says Fuller, comes from the male authors of "little treatises, intended to mark out with precision the limits of woman's sphere, and woman's mission, to prevent other than the rightful shepherd from climbing the wall, or the flock from using any chance to go astray" (96). If women are not sheep, what are they? Clearly, their relations to men cannot define them. In a series of passages dealing with the arguments for a traditional "woman's sphere," Fuller examines the allegation that men are "representing women fairly at present" (100). That argument is familiar: although women have no public voice, they are protected by the "virtual representation" of their menfolk, who will not treat them unfairly. As Fuller's contemporary John Neal had already pointed out, "virtual representation" of the American colonies in Parliament had been alleged by the English government to justify taxation without representation (Fleischmann 156); the absurdity of that claim was now acknowledged. Fuller, however, plays on the double meaning of "representation": Can men represent women fairly in their own minds, can they take a just view? No, she says, because their view is in turn limited by their relations with women: "the sentiment will vary according to the relations in which [they are] placed. The lover, the poet, the artist are likely to view her nobly. The father and the philosopher have some chance of liberality; the man of the world, the legislator for expediency, none" (100).

Men's perceptions are affected by the "relations" in which they stand. Women's whole identity, however, has been grounded in their "relations," and this notion Fuller sets out to dismantle in her book: "a being of infinite scope," she writes, "must not be treated with an exclusive view to any one relation" (146). Women must be allowed to develop fully; "they should not be considered complete, if beings of affection and habit alone" (146). In one of her excursions into Greek and Roman mythology, Fuller remarks that Diana, Minerva, and Vesta were "alike in this,—that each was self-sufficing" (111). She praises Goethe because he "aims at a pure self-subsistence" for women. All of his women characters, "though we see them in relations, we can think of as unrelated" (171). In her summary at the end of the book, Fuller divides "self-subsistence" into two subcategories: "self-reliance" and "self-impulse"; she predicts that "Woman, self-centred, would never be absorbed by any one relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man" (206). All of these terms—"self-centered," "self-reliant"—posit an identity for women that is marked by internal growth rather than external rule, an identity that is located in a self that only relies on God and may therefore approximate what Emerson in his essay "Self-Reliance" (1841) called "the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded" (Emerson 268). This identity, of course, is never complete, never closed, never static, but always growing, dynamic, in flux. In "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," the title of the original Dial essay which later became Woman, Fuller had located the conflict not between men and women, but between men, women, and their potential selves. In lamenting the loss of the original title due to certain "objections," she restated her intentions in her "Preface" to Woman:

I meant, by that title, to intimate the fact that, while it is the destiny of Man, in the course of the Ages, to ascertain and fulfil the law of his being, so that his life shall be seen, as a whole, to be that of an angel or messenger, the action of prejudices and passions, which attend, in the day, the growth of the individual, is continually obstructing the holy work that is to make the earth a part of heaven. By Man I mean both man and women: these are the two halves of one thought. I lay no especial stress on the welfare of either. I believe that the development of the one cannot be effected without that of the other. My highest wish is that this truth should be distinctly and rationally apprehended, and the conditions of life and freedom recognized as the same for the daughters and the sons of time; twin exponents of a divine thought.

… I solicit of women that they will lay it to heart to ascertain what is for them the liberty of law. It is for this, and not for any, the largest, extension of partial privileges that I seek.


For women to "ascertain what is for them the liberty of the law" requires certain consequences:

  1. a new regard for "the class contemptuously designated as old maids" (146). Fuller throws in old bachelors for good measure and remarks of the whole category of Aunts and Uncles that they, more than others, "are thrown upon themselves," where they must "find peace and incessant life" (147) or despair. But their task remains the same as everyone else's: "as the breaking of no bond ought to destroy a man, so ought the missing of none to hinder him from growing" (148). (In this phrase, "bond" plays a role analogous to "wealth" in Thoreau's famous sentence in the "Conclusion" to Walden: "We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same" [Thoreau 218].)
  2. A second consequence is that women, not men, must discover what is good for them; hence, they must lead themselves:

    … I would have woman lay aside all thought … of being taught and led by men.…I would have her free from compromise, from complaisance, from helplessness, because I would have her good enough and strong enough to love one and all beings, from the fulness, not the poverty of being. Men, as at present instructed, will not help this work, because they are also under the slavery of habit. (164)

  3. A third consequence follows from the previous two, and it applies equally to women and men: "We must have units before we can have union," an Emersonian phrase (150) which Fuller paraphrases as follows: "Give the soul free course, let the organization, both of body and mind, be freely developed, and the being will be fit for any and every relation to which it may be called" (146).

"Units before union"—how can this self-centered unity, this wholeness, be achieved without reducing female identity to biological gender, or to the "functions"—mother, wife, cook, nurse, etc.—commonly associated with women? And how can one describe such an identity without constantly borrowing from a gendered vocabulary that has marked off the "non-feminine" as "masculine," and vice versa, in which the "masculine" functions as the norm and the "feminine" as the other? How can woman expand a restricted notion of femininity without constantly borrowing from masculine attributes, without encroaching on male territory, without using a masculine vocabulary?


In a paper published last year in Amerikastudien/American Studies, Jane Flax told us that "[t]he single most important advance in feminist theory is that the existence of gender has been problematized. Gender can no longer be treated as a simple 'natural fact'" (Flax 198). Defining gender as "relational" (both "a social relation and a relational category of analysis" [202], Flax describes the workings of gender in these terms:

Through gender relations two types of persons are created: males and females. Male and female are posited as exclusionary categories. One can be only one gender, never the other or both. The actual content of being a male or female and the rigidity of the categories themselves are highly variable across cultures and times. Nevertheless, gender relations as far as we have been able to understand them have been (more or less) relations of domination. That is, the totality of gender has been (more) defined and (imperfectly) controlled by one of its interrelated aspects—the male.


In a survey of contemporary feminist theory, Flax finds that when

feminist discourse defines its problematic as "woman," it too ironically privileges the man as unproblematic or exempted from determination by gender relations. From the perspective of social relations, men and women are both prisoners of gender, although in highly differentiated but interrelated ways.


Feminist theory that intends to study gender as "a practical social relation" must undertake "a close examination of the meanings of male and female and the consequences of being assigned to one or the other gender within concrete social practices" (203).

This program, then, is twofold: (1) to examine "the meanings of male and female," and (2), to find out what being assigned a "male" or "female" label entails in actual practice.

Let us look at how Fuller handles this assignment in Women. We have already seen her critique of social practice: women are assigned a male-defined "sphere" that limits their growth. Early in the book, Fuller defines "male" and "female" as metaphorical principles that are somehow interdependent. In the already-quoted passage from the "Preface," she refers to "man and woman" as "the two halves of one thought" (83). A few pages later, the same metaphor occurs when we are told "that the idea of Man, however imperfectly brought out, has been far more so than that of Woman, that she, the other half of the same thought, the other chamber of the heart of life, needs now to take her turn in the full pulsation, and that improvement in the daughters will best aid in the reformation of the sons of this age" (90). It is worth noting that "improvement in the daughters" is to have a redemptive function. But what improvement is being sought, and what is the idea of Woman that must be more clearly "brought out?" Civil liberties for women, while important, cannot be the primary goal: "Here, as elsewhere, the gain of creation consists always in the growth of individual minds" (91). Women's minds, then, but not only they, should be "improved": "we welcome everything that tends to strengthen the fibre and develop the nature on more sides" (153). But what women want and need is not power, money, fame; their need "is for that which is the birthright of every being capable to receive it,—the freedom … of the universe, to use its means" (120). The only reason women ever aspire to what men have is because men "prevent them from finding out what is fit for themselves. Were they free, were they wise fully to develop the strength and beauty of woman; they would never wish to be men, or man-like" (120).

To discover what the idea of woman/Woman is, Fuller embarks on that extended series of excursions into history, literature, mythology, and religion that has made Woman famous and notorious, a "house full of furniture." She rejects the idea that woman is the victim of history, although she acknowledges the victimization of women as individuals. She discusses women as artists, rulers, divinities, or characters in literature not so much to create a female track record, a history of role models, as to look at them as manifestations of the idea of Woman in its many varieties. The idea transcends and survives actual social practices ("Whatever may have been the domestic manners of the ancients, the idea of woman was nobly manifested in their mythologies and poems" [111]), and it transcends national and individual differences (119). But this idea must necessarily have many different manifestations. Nature's variety is the model: "we must admit the same varieties that she admits" (135).

It is necessary to "bring out" the idea of Woman more fully because of the transcendental creed that "the highest ideal man can form of his own powers, is that which he is destined to attain. Whatever the soul knows how to seek, it cannot fail to obtain" (87). Therefore, if women are to approximate Universal Womanhood, they must listen to the poets and prophets of all ages who have obtained glimpses of that ideal. A second reason is the posited redemptive function. Taking her cue from the prominent role of women in the abolition movement, Fuller writes that

woman, if, by a sympathy as to outward condition she is led to aid the enfranchisement of the slave, must be no less so, by inward tendency, to favor measures which promise to bring the world more thoroughly and deeply into harmony with her nature.


This brings us back to our starting point: what is the "idea," the "nature," the "genius" of woman? Fuller's conventional language belies the intensity of her struggle to break up the boundaries of restrictive gender definition, a struggle which eventually leads her to separate what I have called the Eternal Feminine from actual women.

The growth of man is two-fold, masculine and feminine.
As far as these two methods can be distinguished they are so as
Energy and Harmony,
Intellect and Love.
Or by some such rude classification, for we have not language primitive and pure enough to express such ideas with precision. (201)

Fuller's language, in fact, sounds often enough like stereotyping:

The especial genius of woman I believe to be electrical in movement, intuitive in function, spiritual in tendency. She excels not so easily in classification, or re-creation, as in an instinctive seizure of causes, and a simple breathing out of what she receives that has the singleness of life, rather than the selecting and energizing of art.


By contrast, "the intellect, cold, is ever more masculine than feminine" and needs to be "warmed by emotion" (151-52). In a transcendental value system which privileges the "magnetic and intuitive" as the more fully human than the purely intellectual (Robinson 93), this seemingly restrictive and conventional categorization is reversed: "The electrical, the magnetic element in woman has not been fully brought out at any period. Every thing might be expected from it; she has far more of it than man" (Woman 152). Robinson puts Fuller's shift of emphasis in context:

While Emerson and his followers glorified reason over understanding and poetic intuition over calculating intellect, Fuller simply extended this argument by identifying exactly those more valued qualities as predominant in woman.… The culture of woman, therefore, fulfills perfectly the transcendental hopes for the progressive glorification of the race.


At this point, however, I part ways with Robinson, who argues that Fuller reverses her line of reasoning to stress the need for women's increased intellectual development. What I see instead is a consistent attempt to identify a program, a category (Keitel's terms) conventionally labelled as "feminine" but immediately removed to a level of abstraction that prevents its attribution to real women:4

… it is no more the order of nature that it should be incarnated pure in any form, than that the masculine energy should exist unmingled with it in any form.

Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.


Between the category of the Eternal Feminine, at the highest remove, and the real women of the book's audience lies the level of mythology which allows Fuller to differentiate without being unduly restrictive. Robert D. Richardson has shown that Margaret Fuller's use of myth creates a point of leverage, a distant perspective from which she can approach the American scene with a nobler idea of woman (Richardson 178). In the Greek Pantheon, held up as a counter model to Jewish or Christian mythology, Fuller finds that, in Richardson's words, "the female principle had equal dignity with the male; it was not a secondary, male-derived, or fallen nature" (179). Sarah Sherman, who has studied the "resuscitation" of Greek goddesses in New England, finds a "highly self-conscious literary, even religious tradition" (63) that gave woman writers like Sarah Orne Jewett a vocabulary to talk about women. Sherman speculates that some of this interest may have been "kindled by Margaret Fuller's 1841 'Conversations on Mythology'" (64). Other connections with Fuller surface here, such as an 1869 Atlantic Monthly article on "The Greek Goddesses" by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who also happens to be the best 19th century biographer of Fuller. Higginson writes, "'In [Greek] temples the sexes stood equal, goddess was as sublime as god, priestess the peer of priest.…In Protestant Christian Churches, on the other hand, nothing feminine is left but the worshippers, and they indeed are feminine, three to one'" (quoted in Sherman 65).

In Woman, as I have said, myth gives Fuller a non-restrictive way to differentiate: "There are two aspects of woman's nature, represented by the ancients as Muse and Minerva" (160). By the Muse she means "the unimpeded clearness of the intuitive powers which a perfectly truthful adherence to every admonition of the higher instincts would bring to a finely organized human being" (162). In "the present crisis" of American women, the preference must be given "to the Minerva side" (defined as a more intellectual form of womanhood in which woman "partakes" of the masculine [162]).

On the third, most specific ("lowest," if you like) level of discourse, Fuller talks about real women and men. Having identified an "eternal" idea of woman and having compared various manifestations in literature and mythology, Fuller creates a vision of social harmony in which gender as a rigid dividing line, as a ground for self-definition, has disappeared. "Relations" between men and women have lost their limiting function; the prison of gender is open. As for the social "functions," each is useful and good as long as it is not the sole ground for the self: "Penelope is no more meant for a baker or weaver solely, than Ulysses for a cattle-herd" (105).

If Fuller reconceptualizes gender as a relation, to use Jane Flax's terminology, it is a relation not of mutual blindness and imprisonment, but of recognition and emancipation. This enables her to disconnect gender from power or domination. For, as Flax reminds us, "In order to sustain domination, the interrelation and interdependence of one group upon another must be denied" (211).

Fuller puts these two "quotations" at the head of Woman (82).

"Frailty, they name is WOMAN."
"The Earth waits for her Queen."—then changes them to
Frailty, they name is MAN.
The Earth waits for its King.

She saw clearly that woman, kept in a position of weakness, could never become a queen, only a servant, her mate no king, only a master: "he could never reach his true proportions, while she remained in any wise shorn of hers" (202).


For Americans, the liberation of the Eternal Feminine from the prison of gender has far-reaching political implications. In the United States, that "spot, where humanity was, at last, to have a fair chance to know itself" (198), a time is approaching "[when] man and woman may regard one another as brother and sister" (203). David M. Robinson has characterized Fuller's perspective in Woman as "millenial," in line with some of the evangelical tendencies of her age. But, as he points out, "the thrust of [her] rhetoric is motivation for political change" (Robinson 95).

That Fuller cared very much about the "liberties of the republic" is amply evident in her book. One example is her growing sympathy with the anti-slavery struggle, which reflects not only the abolitionists' "appeal in behalf of woman," but also "a natural following out of principles" on Fuller's part (Woman 94). Another is her careful and poignant discussion of how political reforms are to be brought about. She contrasts Fourier's emphasis on institutional changes with Goethe's call for individual self-culture:

Fourier says, As the institutions, so the men! All follies are excusable and natural under bad institutions.

Goethe thinks, As the man, so the institutions! There is no excuse for ignorance and folly. A man can grow in any place, if he will.

Ay! but Goethe, bad institutions are prison walls and impure air that make him stupid, so that he does not will.

And thou, Fourier, do not expect to change mankind at once, or even in three generations.…If these attempts are made by unready men, they will fail.

Yet we prize the theory of Fourier no less than the profound suggestion of Goethe. Both are educating the age to a clearer consciousness of what man needs, what man can be, and better life must ensue.


The "better life" to "ensue," Fuller maintains, has now its best chance on the shores of the New World. Her faith in her country's destiny "to elucidate a great moral law, as Europe was to promote the mental culture of man" (92) pulls her disparate impulses together, affirming her conviction that both self-culture and political involvement are needed to promote the growth of the individual and the nation. The promise of that "better life" carries an obligation; it will only be fulfilled "if this land carry out the principles from which sprang our national life" (203).


  1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 34th Annual Convention of the German Association for American Studies, University of Bremen, June 10, 1987.
  2. On the Martineau-Fuller relationship and on Fuller's views on abolitionism, see Chevigny 210-223 and 228-230, and Kearns. Fuller's letter criticizing Society in America, which caused Martineau's lifelong displeasure, is now reprinted in Hudspeth 1: 307-310.
  3. Woman has three main sources: Fuller's earlier work on Goethe and German literature, her "Conversations" about mythology and art, and her involvement with Emerson and the Dial. Tracing those sources back enables us to see that the book's genesis stretches over a period of thirteen years. In 1832, Fuller began an intensive study of German with her friend James Freeman Clarke. Mastering the language in three months, she read Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Tieck, Koerner, Richter, and other writers of the German romantic movement. Over the next decade, she became an acknowledged authority on German literature; her work from that period includes translations of Goethe's Tasso and numerous shorter pieces, Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe (publ. 1839), the Correspondence of Fraeulein Guenderode with Bettina von Arnim (publ. 1842), three major essays on Goethe, numerous articles on other German writers, and a projected (but never finished) biography of Goethe. Her "Conversations" in Boston and Cambridge began in the winter of 1839 and continued until 1844. Her friendship with Emerson started in 1836; her editor-ship of the Dial lasted from July, 1840 to July, 1842. It was there that her first version of Woman in the Nineteenth Century appeared in July, 1843 under the title "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women." The revision of this text into Woman adds material but retains most of the original version. The Margaret Fuller of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, therefore, is still essentially the transcendental Fuller of 1843, Douglas's desperate narcissist and Martineau's "gorgeous pedant."
  4. I am paraphrasing the following passage from Evelyne Keitel's 1983 essay, "Frauen, Texte, Theorie": "If one posits a specifically feminine not as an empty category or as a program but attributes it to real women, it appears objectified, attainable, and deprived of its revolutionary character. If, in the discussion about a female aesthetic, the feminine were made into an absolute, these discussions could no longer fulfill their function as the instrument of a comprehensive cultural criticism" (Keitel 840; translation mine).

Works Cited

Chevigny, Bell Gale. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1976.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Avon, 1978.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.

Flax, Jane. "Gender as a Problem: In and For Feminist Theory." Amerikastudien/American Studies 31 (Fall 1986): 193-213.

Fleischmann, Fritz. A Right View of the Subject: Feminism in the Works of Charles Brockden Brown and John Neal. Erlanger Studien 47. Erlangen: Palm & Enke, 1983.

Fuller, Margaret. Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. [Ed. R. W. Emerson, W. H. Channing, and J. F. Clarke.] 2 vols. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1852.

——. Margaret Fuller: Essays on Life and Letters. Ed. Joel Myerson. New Haven, Ct.: College and University Press, 1978. [All citations from Woman in the Nineteenth Century refer to this edition.]

——. The Letters of Margaret Fuller. Ed. Robert Hudspeth. Vol. I: 1839-41. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Margaret Fuller Ossoli. American Men and Women of Letters Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1981.

Kearns, Francis E. "Margaret Fuller and the Abolition Movement." Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 120-127.

Keitel, Evelyne. "Frauen, Texte, Theorie. Aspekte eines problematischen Verhaeltnisses." Das Argument 142 (1983): 830-841.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. "Margaret Fuller and Myth." Prospects 4 (1979): 168-84.

Robinson, David M. "Margaret Fuller and the Transcendental Ethos: Woman in the Nineteenth Century." PMLA 97 (1982): 83-98.

Scheick, William J. "The Angelic Ministry of Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century." Essays in Literature 11.2 (Fall 1984): 293-98.

Sherman, Sarah W. "Victorians and the Matriarchal Mythology: A Source for Mrs. Todd." Colby Library Quarterly 22.1 (March 1986): 63-74.

Shuffelton, Frank. "Margaret Fuller at the Greene Street School: The Journal of Evelina Metcalf." Studies in the American Renaissance 1985: 29-46.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Ed. Owen Thomas. New York: Norton, 1966.

Zwarg, Christina L. "The Impact of Post-Modernist Criticism on American Literature." 20 pp. Presented at the 1987 NEMLA Spring Conference. I wish to thank Professor Zwarg for sending me a copy of her paper and for permission to quote from it.

Margaret Fuller (Essay Date 1843)

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SOURCE: Fuller, Margaret. "The Great Lawsuit." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 187-90. Madison, Wisc.: Madison House, 1997.

In the following excerpt, from an essay which first appeared in The Dial in July, 1843, Fuller compares the status of women with the status of slaves and urges women to avoid letting love and marriage constitute their entire existence.

… Of all its banners, none has been more steadily upheld, and under none has more valor and willingness for real sacrifices been shown, than that of the champions of the enslaved African. And this band it is, which, partly in consequence of a natural following out of principles, partly because many women have been prominent in that cause, makes, just now, the warmest appeal in behalf of woman.

Though there has been a growing liberality on this point, yet society at large is not so prepared for the demands of this party, but that they are, and will be for some time, coldly regarded as the Jacobins of their day.

"Is it not enough," cries the sorrowful trader, "that you have done all you could to break up the national Union, and thus destroy the prosperity of our country, but now you must be trying to break up family union, to take my wife away from the cradle, and the kitchen hearth, to vote at polls, and preach from a pulpit? Of course, if she does such things, she cannot attend to those of her own sphere. She is happy enough as she is. She has more leisure than I have, every means of improvement, every indulgence."

"Have you asked her whether she was satisfied with these indulgences?"

"No, but I know she is. She is too amiable to wish what would make me unhappy, and too judicious to wish to step beyond the sphere of her sex. I will never consent to have our peace disturbed by any such discussions."

"'Consent'—you? it is not consent from you that is in question, it is assent from your wife."

"Am I not the head of my house?"

"You are not the head of your wife. God has given her a mind of her own."

"I am the head and she the heart."

"God grant you play true to one another then. If the head represses no natural pulse of the heart, there can be no question as to your giving your consent. Both will be of one accord, and there needs but to present any question to get a full and true answer. There is no need of precaution, of indulgence, or consent. But our doubt is whether the heart consents with the head, or only acquiesces in its decree; and it is to ascertain the truth on this point, that we propose some liberating measures."

Thus vaguely are these questions proposed and discussed at present. But their being proposed at all implies much thought, and suggests more. Many women are considering within themselves what they need that they have not, and what they can have, if they find they need it. Many men are considering whether women are capable of being and having more than they are and have, and whether, if they are, it will be best to consent to improvement of their condition.

The numerous party, whose opinions are already labelled and adjusted too much to their mind to admit of any new light, strive, by lectures on some model-woman of bridal-like beauty and gentleness, by writing or lending little treatises, to mark out with due precision the limits of woman's sphere, and woman's mission, and to prevent other than the rightful shepherd from climbing the wall, or the flock from using any chance gap to run astray.

Without enrolling ourselves at once on either side, let us look upon the subject from that point of view which to-day offers. No better, it is to be feared, than a high house-top. A high hill-top, or at least a cathedral spire, would be desirable.

It is not surprising that it should be the Anti-Slavery party that pleads for woman, when we consider merely that she does not hold property on equal terms with men; so that, if a husband dies without a will, the wife, instead of stepping at once into his place as head of the family, inherits only a part of his fortune, as if she were a child, or ward only, not an equal partner.

We will not speak of the innumerable instances, in which profligate or idle men live upon the earnings of industrious wives; or if the wives leave them and take with them the children, to perform the double duty of mother and father, follow from place to place, and threaten to rob them of the children, if deprived of the rights of a husband, as they call them, planting themselves in their poor lodgings, frightening them into paying tribute by taking from them the children, running into debt at the expense of these otherwise so overtasked helots. Though such instances abound, the public opinion of his own sex is against the man, and when cases of extreme tyranny are made known, there is private action in the wife's favor. But if woman be, indeed, the weaker party, she ought to have legal protection, which would make such oppression impossible.

And knowing that there exists, in the world of men, a tone of feeling towards women as towards slaves, such as is expressed in the common phrase, "Tell that to women and children;" that the infinite soul can only work through them in already ascertained limits; that the prerogative of reason, man's highest portion, is allotted to them in a much lower degree; that it is better for them to be engaged in active labor, which is to be furnished and directed by those better able to think, & c. & c.; we need not go further, for who can review the experience of last week, without recalling words which imply, whether in jest or earnest, these views, and views like these? Knowing this, can we wonder that many reformers think that measures are not likely to be taken in behalf of women, unless their wishes could be publicly represented by women?

That can never be necessary, cry the other side. All men are privately influenced by women; each has his wife, sister, or female friends, and is too much biassed by these relations to fail of representing their interests. And if this is not enough, let them propose and enforce their wishes with the pen. The beauty of home would be destroyed, the delicacy of the sex be violated, the dignity of halls of legislation destroyed, by an attempt to introduce them there. Such duties are inconsistent with those of a mother; and then we have ludicrous pictures of ladies in hysterics at the polls, and senate chambers filled with cradles.

But if, in reply, we admit as truth that woman seems destined by nature rather to the inner circle, we must add that the arrangements of civilized life have not been as yet such as to secure it to her. Her circle, if the duller, is not the quieter. If kept from excitement, she is not from drudgery. Not only the Indian carries the burdens of the camp, but the favorites of Louis the Fourteenth accompany him in his journeys, and the washer-woman stands at her tub and carries home her work at all seasons, and in all states of health.…

Under these circumstances, without attaching importance in themselves to the changes demanded by the champions of woman, we hail them as signs of the times. We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we believe that the Divine would ascend into nature to a height unknown in the history of past ages, and nature, thus instructed, would regulate the spheres not only so as to avoid collision, but to bring forth ravishing harmony.…

A writer in a late number of the New York Pathfinder, in two articles headed "Femality," has uttered a still more pregnant word than any we have named. He views woman truly from the soul, and not from society, and the depth and leading of his thoughts is proportionably remarkable. He views the feminine nature as a harmonizer of the vehement elements, and this has often been hinted elsewhere; but what he expresses most forcibly is the lyrical, the inspiring and inspired apprehensiveness of her being.

Had I room to dwell upon this topic, I could not say anything so precise, so near the heart of the matter, as may be found in that article; but, as it is, I can only indicate, not declare, my view.

There are two aspects of woman's nature, expressed by the ancients as Muse and Minerva. It is the former to which the writer in the Pathfinder looks. It is the latter which Wordsworth has in mind, when he says,

"With a placid brow,
Which woman ne'er should forfeit, keep thy vow."

The especial genius of woman I believe to be electrical in movement, intuitive in function, spiritual in tendency. She is great not so easily in classification, or re-creation, as in an instinctive seizure of causes, and a simple breathing out of what she receives that has the singleness of life, rather than the selecting or energizing of art.

More native to her is it to be the living model of the artist, than to set apart from herself any one form in objective reality; more native to inspire and receive the poem than to create it. In so far as soul is in her completely developed, all soul is the same; but as far as it is modified in her as woman, it flows, it breathes, it sings, rather than deposits soil, or finishes work, and that which is especially feminine flushes in blossom the face of earth, and pervades like air and water all this seeming solid globe, daily renewing and purifying its life. Such may be the especially feminine element, spoken of as Femality. But it is no more the order of nature that it should be incarnated pure in any form, than that the masculine energy should exist unmingled with it in any form.

Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.

History jeers at the attempts of physiologists to bind great original laws by the forms which flow from them. They make a rule; they say from observation what can and cannot be. In vain! Nature provides exceptions to every rule. She sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother. Of late she plays still gayer pranks. Not only she deprives organizations, but organs, of a necessary end. She enables people to read with the top of the head, and see with the pit of the stomach. Presently she will make a female Newton, and a male Syren.

Man partakes of the feminine in the Apollo, woman of the Masculine as Minerva.

Let us be wise and not impede the soul. Let her work as she will. Let us have one creative energy, one incessant revelation. Let it take what form it will, and let us not bind it by the past to man or woman, black or white. Jove sprang from Rhea, Pallas from Jove. So let it be.

If it has been the tendency of the past remarks to call woman rather to the Minerva side,—if I, unlike the more generous writer, have spoken from society no less than the soul,—let it be pardoned. It is love that has caused this, love for many incarcerated souls, that might be freed could the idea of religious self-dependence be established in them, could the weakening habit of dependence on others be broken up.

Every relation, every gradation of nature, is incalculably precious, but only to the soul which is poised upon itself, and to whom no loss, no change, can bring dull discord, for it is in harmony with the central soul.

If any individual live too much in relations, so that he becomes a stranger to the resources of his own nature, he falls after a while into a distraction, or imbecility, from which he can only be cured by a time of isolation, which gives the renovating fountains time to rise up. With a society it is the same. Many minds, deprived of the traditionary or instinctive means of passing a cheerful existence, must find help in self-impulse or perish. It is therefore that while any elevation, in the view of union, is to be hailed with joy, we shall not decline celibacy as the great fact of the time. It is one from which no vow, no arrangement, can at present save a thinking mind. For now the rowers are pausing on their oars, they wait a change before they can pull together. All tends to illustrate the thought of a wise contemporary. Union is only possible to those who are units. To be fit for relations in time, souls, whether of man or woman, must be able to do without them in the spirit.

It is therefore that I would have woman lay aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men. I would have her, like the Indian girl, dedicate herself to the Sun, the Sun of Truth, and go no where if his beams did not make clear the path. I would have her free from compromise, from complaisance, from helplessness, because I would have her good enough and strong enough to love one and all beings, from the fullness, not the poverty of being.…

But men do not look at both sides, and women must leave off asking them and being influenced by them, but retire within themselves, and explore the groundwork of being till they find their peculiar secret. Then when they come forth again, renovated and baptized, they will know how to turn all dross to gold, and will be rich and free though they live in a hut, tranquil, if in a crowd. Then their sweet singing shall not be from passionate impulse, but the lyrical overflow of a divine rapture, and a new music shall be elucidated from this many-chorded world.

Grant her then for a while the armor and the javelin. Let her put from her the press of other minds and meditate in virgin loneliness.…

A profound thinker has said "no married woman can represent the female world, for she belongs to her husband. The idea of woman must be represented by a virgin."

But that is the very fault of marriage, and of the present relation between the sexes, that the woman does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him. Were it otherwise there would be no such limitation to the thought.

Woman, self-centered, would never be absorbed by any relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man. It is a vulgar error that love, a love to woman is her whole existence; she also is born for Truth and Love in their universal energy. Would she but assume her inheritance, Mary would not be the only Virgin Mother. Not Manzoni alone would celebrate in his wife the virgin mind with the maternal wisdom and conjugal affections. The soul is ever young, ever virgin.

And will not she soon appear? The woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain? Shall not her name be for her era Victoria, for her country and her life Virginia? Yet predictions are rash; she herself must teach us to give her the fitting name.


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A pioneer of nineteenth-century feminism, Margaret Fuller was a well-respected social and literary critic. She is best known as the founding editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, and as the author of the feminist treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845).


Sarah Margaret Fuller was born May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. She was the eldest of seven surviving children of Margaret Crane and Timothy Fuller, a Harvard graduate and attorney who served in the Massachusetts State Senate, the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and the United States House of Representatives. Fuller displayed superior intellectual skills at an early age and her father decided to personally oversee her education, which included rigorous study of classical languages and literature. She began studying Latin grammar at the age of five and progressed to Greek, French, Italian, and German. However, the demands of her father's strict educational program took its toll on her health as a child, causing Fuller to later regret having "no natural childhood." In 1821, recognizing that she had little social interaction with other children outside the family, the Fullers sent their daughter to Dr. John Park's school in Boston, which she attended for little more than a year. Her only other formal schooling was at Susan Prescott's school in Groton, which she attended from 1824 to 1826.

Fuller was exposed at a young age to the intellectual life of Boston and Cambridge; she impressed many of the Harvard students and faculty with her wit and learning, although she earned the disapproval of an equal number by her failure to adhere to contemporary standards of demure femininity. In 1833, Timothy Fuller moved the family to Groton where Fuller, cut off from her friends in Boston, assumed much of the care and education of her siblings. Two years later, her father's sudden death from cholera forced Fuller into the teaching profession as a way to help support her mother and her younger sisters and brothers. Back in Boston, she taught at Bronson Alcott's Temple School in 1836, supplementing her income with night classes in German and Italian poetry for adults. A year later she left Boston to teach in Albert Gorton Greene's school in Providence. By 1839, her family's financial situation had improved and Fuller joined her mother in Boston, where she resumed her friendships with the leading figures of the Transcendentalist movement, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Horace Greeley. That same year, she started the first of her annual "Conversations," a lecture and discussion series for adult women—some of them her former students—and began editing the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, serving without pay for the first two years. She resigned from the position in 1842 and the magazine ended publication two years later under Emerson's editorship. In 1844, Fuller moved to New York and took over as literary editor of Greeley's New York Daily Tribune. She became one of America's first foreign correspondents when she traveled to Europe in 1846 and sent dispatches back to the Tribune. In 1847 Fuller traveled to Italy where she met Giovanni Ossoli with whom she had a son the following year; it is unclear whether or not the couple married. They were returning to America in 1850 when their ship ran aground and sank off Fire Island on July 19. Fuller's body was never recovered, nor was the manuscript of her final book.


Fuller's professional writing career began with her work on The Dial, the first issue of which appeared in July, 1840. Since she had some difficulty convincing other writers to contribute to the magazine, Fuller wrote a great deal of the material featured in the first several issues herself. In 1844, she published Summer on the Lakes, a collection of travel essays written after her 1843 tour of the Great Lakes with her friend Sarah Clarke. Two years later, Papers on Literature and Art, consisting of essays previously published in periodicals, was published. The work covered a wide variety of subjects, from reviews of current books and exhibitions to an essay on her own critical perspective called "A Short Essay on Critics."

Fuller's best-known work is Womaninthe Nineteenth Century, an extended treatise on the status of women. A shorter version had appeared two years earlier in The Dial under the title "The Great Lawsuit." Fuller called for complete equality between males and females, and compared the struggle for women's rights with the abolition movement. She insisted that all professions be opened to women and contended that women should not be forced to submit to the men in their lives: husbands, fathers, or brothers. The book was highly controversial in its time; critics believed Fuller's notions would destroy the stability and sanctity of the home. Some objections were lodged on religious grounds as her ideas were considered contrary to the divine order.


Aside from the controversial nature of Fuller's theories, early criticism of her writings focused on her literary style, which was modeled on that of the classics, but was considered far too ornate and lengthy. Contemporary assessments of her work were also colored by resistance to Fuller's strong personality. In addition, the heavy-handed editing of her papers and diaries after her death—by such famous contemporaries as William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clark, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—suppressed some of the more controversial aspects of her life and work. As a result, succeeding generations of critics, given such a distorted view of the woman and her writings, have underestimated her contributions to the nineteenth-century struggle for women's equality. While Woman in the Nineteenth Century was considered the inspiration for the 1848 women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, the work virtually disappeared after the publication of a second edition in 1855. Since the 1970s, Fuller's work has been reexamined and her critical reputation restored primarily through the efforts of feminist scholars.

Suggesting that Fuller's unusual writing method has been misunderstood by critics, Fritz Fleischmann explains that, for her, writing was a process of discovery: "Fuller writes to find out 'what she means,' rather than to expound on what she means; and her method of writing is in full consonance with her purpose and her message." Annette Kolodny (see Further Reading) also contends that Fuller's style, so thoroughly dismissed by her contemporaries, was actually ahead of its time; Kolodny praises the revolutionary nature of Fuller's theories and the "even greater daring of her rhetorical strategies." Cynthia J. Davis acknowledged that Fuller was searching for a "degendered rhetorical form," but more importantly, according to Davis, was the fact that "Fuller not only degendered rhetoric, she degendered bodies, and this was a radical thing to do, even within a feminist tradition." But the radical nature of her work and her failure to conform to conventional standards of femininity made Fuller a self-proclaimed outsider in nineteenth-century culture, according to Michaela Bruckner Cooper. "While Fuller stressed her difference from others," Cooper reports, "she does not always do so confidently. Frequently, anxiety about her status as a woman and writer surfaces." Nonetheless, many critics today praise Fuller as a pioneer feminist whose writings, in some cases, anticipate the work of scholars today.

Cynthia J. Davis (Essay Date 2000)

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SOURCE: Davis, Cynthia J. "What 'Speaks in Us': Margaret Fuller, Woman's Rights, and Human Nature." In Margaret Fuller's Cultural Critique: Her Age and Legacy, edited by Fritz Fleischmann, pp. 43-54. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

In the following excerpt, Davis explores Fuller's relationship to the organized women's suffrage movement.

Speaking at a Woman's Rights Conference held in Worcester, Massachusetts, only weeks after Margaret Fuller Ossoli drowned off Fire Island, suffragist Paulina Wright Davis invoked this tragedy as more than mere personal loss. As Davis shared with the women there gathered, "To [Fuller] I, at least, had hoped to confide the leadership of this movement. It can never be known if she would have accepted it; the desire had been expressed to her by letter" (qtd. in Flexner 346). Yet another letter, this one dated some seventeen years later, provides additional evidence of Fuller's importance to the first wave of feminist movement: in 1867, a young suffragist named Mary Livermore confided to Susan B. Anthony that "I have always believed in the ballot for woman at some future time—always, since reading Margaret Fuller's 'Woman in the Nineteenth Century,' which set me to thinking a quarter of a century ago" (Stanton et al. 2: 921). Livermore's debt to Fuller was so great that she would base her suffrage lecture, "What shall we do with our Daughters?" on ideas culled from Woman in the Nineteenth Century. And in perhaps the most indelible tribute, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Cage dedicated their monumental History of Woman Suffrage to nineteen women, among them Margaret Fuller, "Whose Earnest Lives and Fearless Words, in Demanding Political Rights for Women, have been, in the Preparation of these Pages, a Constant Inspiration to The Editors."

The genealogical connection between Fuller and the woman's rights movement is both extensive and underexplored. Bell Gale Chevigny maintains,

In a sense, it is remarkable that Fuller became a feminist at all. Certainly identification with other women did not come easily to her. In the absence of a movement, criticism of other women was the natural recourse of a woman seeking to break out of the limited world her sisters seemed to accept, and this was accentuated in Fuller's case by her goals of unlimited self-development. To defend herself from discouragement, Fuller cultivated in private her sense of exceptionality and presented herself publicly as a woman of singular destiny. Her feminism never eradicated these habits.


But as Chevigny also acknowledges, Fuller would gradually hearken the call to uplift not only herself but women as a group, perhaps nowhere more evidenced than in the "Conversations" she held for women beginning in November 1839 and continuing for roughly five winters. While these loosely structured discussions, mostly centered around the nature of women's inherent destiny and how best to fulfill it, bolstered Fuller's own confidence in her powers of expression and intellect, their benefit to the women attendees seems to have been the more profound (cf. Chevigny 210-15). For instance, among the some forty or so women who eventually attended these "Conversations" was the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would go on to future prominence as one of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement. Stanton's one winter with Fuller was enough to compel her to deem these Cambridge Conversations in retrospect "A Vindication of Woman's Right to think" (Stanton et al. 1: 801).

Our dating of the nineteenth-century suffrage movement from the now-famous conference in Seneca Falls in 1848 often obscures the fact that Margaret Fuller (whose major works were all published by 1845) was clearly considered by many nineteenth-century women as the sine qua non of the woman's rights movement. Had she lived beyond 1850, might Fuller have directed women's struggle for equality in directions other than those it traveled without her guidance? And for all the early suffragists' acknowledged indebtedness to Fuller, is this a debt that was ever honorably paid? Did the suffrage movement of the nineteenth century, not to mention its resurgence as a second wave of feminist movement in the latter half of the twentieth, define its terms and strategies in ways that truly honor Fuller's legacy? These two questions provide the impetus behind the ensuing assessment of Fuller's vision of "woman in the nineteenth century" and her contributions to the feminist movement.

In our own day, divergent critical views have tended either to strengthen or unravel the ties that bind Fuller and the organized suffrage campaign inaugurated while Fuller was in Italy. On the one hand, Ann Douglas, in The Feminization of American Culture, divorces Fuller from the women around her and their Declaration of Sentiments, whether these be fictional or nonfictional manifestoes. On the other, Sandra M. Gustafson, in an article in American Quarterly, argues for a continuity between these sentiments and Fuller's own rhetoric. Fuller's concern with sincerity and lack of artifice in both spoken and written word—a concern that is central to a sentimental tradition—impelled her, in Gustafson's words, to use "sentimental ideals to justify antisentimental forms" (50).

Gustafson focuses on Fuller's search for an appropriate degendered rhetorical form. It is beyond the scope of her project to consider what I believe to be Fuller's more radical aim: her attempt in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) to displace a more traditional emphasis on deeply gendered corporeal forms. In other words, in Woman Fuller not only degendered rhetoric, she degendered bodies, and this was a radical thing to do, even within a feminist tradition. Thus when Gustafson claims that Fuller is dedicated "to an integral female self and its adequate expression" (39), I believe she wrongly and retroactively genders Fuller's famously neuter "sovereign self." But neither would I agree with Ann Douglas when she argues that "Fuller's life can be viewed as an effort to find what she called her 'sovereign self' by disavowing … the realm of 'feminine' fantasy for the realm of 'masculine' reality" (262). Instead I would suggest, contra both Douglas and Gustafson, that in the final analysis Fuller dis-avowed both femininity and masculinity for an identity that transcended or at least incorporated both. Thus when Gustafson claims that for Fuller, "women and men, writing and speech are all invested with material forms" (54), she assigns Fuller's understandings of masculinity and femininity a materiality that I believe is nowhere evidenced in Woman.

It is, precisely, this resistance to materiality—the abstract nature of Fuller's representations of masculinity and particularly femininity—that intrigues me here. Up against a culture that was increasingly medicalizing and essentializing woman's nature and even against an emergent woman's rights movement that would ultimately ground woman's rights in natural rights and in woman's special nature, Fuller's failure precisely to locate gender identity within the body renders unstable and unnatural a gendered dichotomy that would, alas, become increasingly stable and natural after her death. In fact, in Fuller's Woman, an abstract generic "soul" displaces concrete gendered essences as that which is contained within bodies, whether male or female. The net effect of this is that in Woman, Fuller unites far more than she divides men and women. While Fuller's emphasis on soul may be directly attributed to Transcendentalism rather than to some radical feminism, the fact that it is after all a woman arguing for the disembodied, transparent I(ball?) pushes Transcendentalism's potential radicalism into territories where no beard nor bard had gone before.

Indeed, it is possible that, since woman more closely approximates what Fuller deems the "singleness of life" (115), woman more closely approximates the "I." Herein may lie the explanation for why Fuller, herself a woman, resists splitting that I into its gendered pronouns—into he/she, or even into those other objectifying dichotomies me/you, or us/them. Illustrating this is the essay upon which Woman is based, "The Great Lawsuit" (1843), wherein the opposing sides are not Man v. Woman, but Man v. Men, Woman v. Women—with Fuller arguing on behalf of the former "abstraction" (that is, on behalf of "Man" and "Woman"). She thus disavows not only the specific and flawed bodies implicit in terms like "men" and "women," but also the ideology that assigns such divisions weight and substance. Fuller's understanding of the category "Man" as an abstraction is made clearer in her preface to Woman, where she writes, "By Man I mean both man and woman, the two halves of one thought" (xiii). Some fifty years after Fuller wrote Woman, Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier—an avid reader of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" as was Fuller—would graphically demonstrate the limits of Transcendentalism when its proponent found herself constrained by a desired and desiring female body. Writing at midcentury, Fuller did not see that body as necessarily constraining in part because she refused to see it as necessarily female. Ideally, this unwillingness to specify a distinctly "female" body should have paved the way for other women in the nineteenth century to posit transcendence as a collective goal. That is, if Fuller's arguments had meant as much to them as the suffragists whom I quoted at the beginning of this paper suggest, these women would have sought a transcendence that comes not from seeking, à la the Transcendentalists, a unity of the soul with Nature, but rather, à la Fuller, a liberating of the soul from nature—in the sense of biology, corporeality, the too, too sullied female flesh.

Fuller, in fact, explicitly distinguishes a woman's gender from her nature at a time when the two were fast becoming synonymous: hence in Woman she contends that "what woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded …" (38, emphasis added). Here, the freedom and lack of impediments she believes to be guaranteed any soul are conferred upon woman precisely by identifying her as soul versus the traditional identification of woman with (or as) body. Fuller's treatise provides women with a loophole of retreat from the increasingly essentialized and pathologized woman's nature (even, rightly or wrongly, from their sexual nature—hence Fuller's emphasis on celibacy contra Edna Pontellier). It thus provides them with a means of escape from their confinement in woman's sphere, in a "woman's place" where and when that confinement is based on the penalty of biology.

This is not to say that Fuller didn't often subscribe to rather conservative notions of masculine and feminine traits and capabilities: many of her arguments for ending women's oppression are grounded in traditional views of women as the gentler, purer, more spiritual sex. Not infrequently, she laments her own "femality"—especially to the extent it proved a hindrance to her writing—and endows men with more daring, genius, and resolve. For instance, in the reading notes she took about George Sand, Fuller exclaimed:

I am astonished at her insight into the life of thought. She must know it through some man. Women, under any circumstances, can scarce do more than dip the foot in this broad and deep river; they have not strength to contend with the current … when it comes to interrogating God, the universe, the soul, and, above all, trying to live above their own hearts, they dart down to their own nests like so many larks.

(M Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli 1: 295)

When Fuller did confront the limitations of the female body, it was typically to acknowledge their status as encumbrance, as delineating the very difference that she strove to eradicate or at least transcend. In her less hopeful moments, she seems inclined to reinscribe the male-mind/female-body split: "the very outline [sic, CJD] of the feminine form were yielding," she laments, "and we could not associate them with a prominent self-conscious state of the faculties" (qtd. in Russell 43). There were even times when she grew despondent about the consequences of extant gender differences. As she remarked bitterly in Life Without and Life Within, "Woman is the flower, man the bee. She sighs out melodious fragrance, and invites the winged laborer. He drains her cup, and carries off the honey. She dies on the stalk; he returns to the hive, well fed, and praised as an active member of the community" (Chevigny 279).

But intriguingly, this debased and debasing femininity—as her remarks about Sand illustrate—is not for Fuller associated with the "body" per se so much as it is specifically associated with the "heart." While she still identifies masculinity with the "mind," this replacement of "body" with "heart" in the traditional male/female, mind/body dichotomies is significant. For the fact that both organs—mind and heart—can be contained within one body (any body) parallels Fuller's belief—a not uncommon one in the circles in which she traveled—that there were masculine and feminine currents in each woman or man. As Fuller herself put it in a journal entry: "The Woman in me kneels and weeps in tender rapture; the Man in me rushes forth, but only to be baffled.…Yet the time will come, when, from the union of this tragic king and queen, shall be born a radiant sovereign self" (M 2: 136). Or, perhaps more pertinently, as she contends in Woman: "Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact, they are perpetually, passing into one another.…There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman" (115-16); "It is no more the order of nature that [femininity] should be incarnated pure in any form, than that the masculine energy should exist unmingled with it in any form" (115).

Divorcing gendered traits from gendered forms, what Fuller works toward here is not so much androgyny—the blending of masculine and feminine into a sort of third amorphous gender—as simultaneity, not one melded sex but both at once, and more. That this is so is evidenced by the emblem that she chooses to represent her utopian view of a post-dichotomous world: in lieu of gendered binaries, Fuller offers up a "zodiac of the busts of gods and goddesses, arranged in pairs … [where] male and female heads are distinct in expression, but equal in beauty, strength, and calmness.…Could the thought thus expressed be lived out, there would be nothing more to be desired. There would be unison in variety, congeniality in difference" (55). Fuller here turns the boundary line that ideologically divides the genders on its side, transforming it into a continuum on which every body ranges between the masculine and feminine poles. But even this is not entirely correct. For throughout most of Woman, Fuller displaces the conventional gendered poles of male and female, and in their place positions (generic) Man at one end and the Divinity that is the perfect soul in all of us at the other. She thus unites all Men (that is, all people) in their striving toward one common desire and destiny—to shed the body and become soul: "all soul is the same" (115), she claims; "there is but one law for souls" (37).

While according to Fuller all of us can and will eventually become souls, because we are still (abstract) Men and not yet souls, we are still male and female. However, as I have suggested, Fuller believes that we can be both these things at once. Or, at the very least, she believes she can be both male and female at once. She writes: "I have been always wishing to call myself into the arms of some other nature.… This was womanish, I own. I am not yet a man" (qtd. in Russell 29-30). "Not yet a man" implies that she is and can move toward manliness despite her self-proclaimed womanishness—and thus that this possibility may indeed be open to every body, regardless of sex.

Fuller's emphasis on synchronicity, variety, and continuation—on "not yet"—highlights a concept central to Fuller's notion of gender identity: temporality. As Fuller puts it herself in a journal entry: "I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too straitly-bounded to give me scope. At hours, I live truly as a woman; at others, I should stifle" (M 1: 297). Being a woman—what many would presume to be an ontological fact—may be a state she "loves best," but for Fuller in the present moment it is too confining. With her qualifying clause Fuller suggests that she (and perhaps others) can somehow choose to "be" other than a woman—to transcend ontology—at certain moments. This is borne out by her claim in her next sentence that "at hours" she lives as a woman—which would suggest, however implausibly, that at other hours she does not.

In thus emphasizing the constitutive temporality of gender identity—living "as a woman" suggests subversively that womanhood is a metaphorical rather than an ontological state—Fuller anticipates theories of gender popularized in our own day by feminist theorists, most notably by Denise Riley. Riley's "Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History, written some 140 years after Woman, echoes Fuller in contending that no human subject is ever inter-pellated by a single dominant ideology (such as gender) all the time. There are moments, Riley stipulates in accordance with Fuller, when females are not "women," when "women" do not think of themselves nor are hailed as such. As Riley puts it: "anyone's body is—the classifications of anatomy apart—only periodically either lived or treated as sexed, therefore the gendered division of human life into bodily life cannot be adequate or absolute. Only at times will the body impose itself or be arranged as that of a woman or a man" (103). While this may seem a potentially liberating view of gender identity, especially when juxtaposed with those who would fix gender within the body as a timeless essence, it is not without its dangers. For is it not possible that in so stressing temporality both Fuller and Riley underemphasize, even ignore the extent to which "anatomical difference" still figures (it makes a difference) in constructing and even predetermining the subject and social positioning of many women? In other words, while we may want to celebrate this temporality, we must not lose sight of the unfortunately still myriad ways in which particular social configurations and power structures work to narrow the range of our choices of identities at any given moment. The celebration of gender as a temporal construct, as an identity that we do not identify with at all moments, may be premature; it fails to acknowledge that the choice of how we live our lives and bodies is not, in the final analysis, solely up to us, but also depends upon the transformation of the dominant social discourses that still, as often as not, narrate us.

That this is so is, ironically, documented in the narrative distortions and revisions Margaret Fuller herself was subjected to over time. Take, for example, Hawthorne's satiric profile of Fuller as Zenobia in the Blithedale Romance (this from the author who had hoped that Fuller would prove "a very woman after all," no better than "the weakest of her sisters" [qtd. in Douglas 266-67]). Other famous examples include Emerson's, James Freeman Clarke's and W. H. Channing's blacking out and excising of Fuller's papers for their Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Fuller's brother Arthur's attempts to paint a more "womanly" portrait of his sister in the 1855 edition of Woman—paying in his preface "tribute to her domestic virtues and fidelity to all home duties" (v)—, and Horace Greeley's assessment that "great and noble as [Fuller] was, a good husband and two or three bouncing babies would have emancipated her from a great deal of cant and nonsense" (qtd. in Douglas 280).

Finally, there are Henry James's anxious and often condescending musings about the "Margaret-ghost" who haunts him and other writers in his biography of William Whetmore Story and His Friends (1903; cf. Rowe). Intriguingly, in James's formulation, it is not Fuller's actual and imposing presence—"Margaret's mountainous me," as Emerson immortalized her—that looms over these male writers, but a ghost-like apparition. If James is correct, then the most disturbing or haunting thing about Fuller (for these men) is her representing, after death, the disembodied femininity she argued for in life. Although Poe never meant it as such, perhaps we should then read his infamous quip that there are three types of people—"men, women and Margaret Fuller" (Chevigny 19)—as a (backhanded) compliment, pointing not to her "freakishness" (as I am sure Poe intended), but to Fuller's remarkable ability to transcend convincingly—to posit an alternative to—gendered categories.

In Woman, Fuller famously concludes that "It is not woman, but the law of right, the law of growth, that speaks in us, and demands the perfection of each being in its kind" (177). But Fuller's distorted reputation—filtered as it has been through these male writers' manipulations—demonstrates that such questions as "what speaks in us" and "when" may be less important, ultimately, than such questions as "who's listening?" and "how is that which is spoken being heard?"

All of which returns us, in conclusion, to the vexed problem of Fuller's reception, her lasting legacy. At the beginning of this essay, I suggested that early woman's rights figures did indeed listen to Fuller speaking, that they did read and respond to her words. But questions remain: did these women also distort them, filtering Fuller's aspirations through pre-existing ideologies, and taming them of their political punch? In particular, did they defuse Fuller's potentially radical notion that gender identity is not and should not be grounded in two distinct and different anatomies?

Certainly not intentionally, and perhaps not beyond recognition. But even as early as the Declaration of Sentiments (written primarily by Fuller protégée Elizabeth Cady Stanton just three years after Woman was published), we see the first slide down the slippery slope toward gender essentialism that the early woman's rights movement ultimately assumed and that Fuller so assiduously avoided. We might start with the rhetorical discontinuities. While (as I have pointed out) in Woman Fuller works to minimize the differences between men and women, the rhetoric of the Declaration of Sentiments ranges men against women: nearly every sentence begins as follows: "He has never permitted her …," "he has taken from her …," "he has compelled her …," "he has denied her" (Proceedings 6-7). While Fuller strove throughout her career to find a common "I," the suffragists were clearly already willing to see the world as divided into shes and hes, pronouns that they grounded in essential differences. Moreover, it is clearly a "she" declaring her sentiments throughout the 1848 manifesto, while Fuller's 1845 treatise is famously ambiguous about who is speaking. In Woman, Fuller reflects not only in the content but the style and grammar of her prose her willingness to play with gendered categories that remained fixed and oppositional in the Declaration of Sentiments.

Elsewhere, it is true, the Declaration's rhetoric owes a great debt to Fuller, a debt it acknowledges with such Fulleresque proclamations as "… it is time [woman] should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her" (Proceedings 4). But at other moments, the Declaration's attempts to speak for women translates as an essentialized woman "speaking in us" that Fuller largely avoids. In part, this translation is the result of the Declaration's grounding of woman's rights in "natural rights"—a concept borrowed from the liberal humanist and rationalist tradition as handed down from Locke and Jefferson. While the framers of the Declaration of Sentiments emphasize "natural rights" as a means of affording women the rights granted to (then only male) citizens, by grounding those rights in nature they risk encouraging the view of women as having fixed and timeless natures, a view of women Fuller strove throughout her career to obstruct and make abstract.

"Natural rights" are based on that ultimate abstraction "human nature." This is an abstraction, however, that quickly becomes concrete, as the political experiment that is the United States amply demonstrates. Just as the "created-equal" "Man" of the Declaration of Independence quickly materialized as the white propertied man of the Constitution, so too did the "woman" endowed by nature with inalienable rights of the Declaration of Sentiments quickly materialize as the white bourgeois woman of "bleeding Kansas." That Sojourner Truth had later to ask "Ain't I a Woman?" (Stanton et al. 1: 115-17) only confirms the extent to which the framers of the Declaration of Sentiments had a specific body in mind when invoking the apparently inclusive category "Woman" throughout their Declaration.

Paulina Wright Davis was right, then, to rue Fuller's untimely demise, for even as early as Woman Fuller was quick to point out what the suffragists acknowledged too little, too late. As Fuller contends, "Those who think the physical circumstances of Woman would make a part in the affairs of national government unsuitable, are by no means those who think it impossible for negresses to endure field-work, even during pregnancy, or for the sempstresses to go through their killing labors" (35). This sort of recognition would have saved the suffrage movement, and women in the nineteenth century in general, a great deal of divisiveness.

History tends to repeat itself when it is not thoroughly critiqued and revised. It is one of the central ironies for those of us indebted to feminist principles that some one hundred years have made us virtually no wiser than our early fore-mothers. The second wave, after all, has itself been impeded by the snares of essentialism and racism that also slowed the impetus of the earlier wave and which Fuller explicitly warned against. Both of these "isms" have threatened to rupture the modern feminist movement, leading to acrimonious debate about, as well as the formation of splinter groups organized around, differences between women. The feminist movement, like the sex, is decidedly not "one," and this fact yields both positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, unlike our antecedents, modern feminists have learned and learned relatively quickly that these differences are real, important, and informative of not just gender identity but gendered struggle. Experience has taught us that gender, race, class, sexuality, religious affiliation and other modes of classification are not pop-beads on a necklace that can be separated out from one another so that we may speak as a woman in one context, a Caucasian in another, a member of the middle class in a third, and so on. Rarely does a savvy critic use the singular "woman" as an all-inclusive, unqualified noun anymore, and this avoidance should not be taken as reflecting merely superficial motivations or good training. What it indicates, I hope, is a paradigmatic shift in feminist consciousness concerning the multiple and contingent ways in which gender has and might come to matter (quite literally) in the world. On the other hand, who among us is not dismayed that the American media have gotten away with labeling this a "post-feminist age," and who among us is not concerned that our own internal grievances have not in some small or large way facilitated this labeling process?

I should make clear in closing that my lament is not some nostalgic longing for what might have been had Fuller lived. I am not suggesting that Fuller's disembodied, degendered approach to subjectivity (in her published if not her private musings) is ultimately preferable. Fuller's abstractions are at once too general and too individualized, with all the well-documented problems that attend either flaw. Still, Fuller did offer an alternative, a road not taken. Her application of liberal humanistic philosophy to women's rights issues resists or sidesteps the traps of restrictive essentialism and disingenuous universalism that later and even today risk bogging down the feminist movement.

I also recognize that Fuller alone could not have altered this course. Ultimately, what stretched the suffrage struggle out over seven-plus long and hard-fought decades in this country, what continues to make the struggles for gender equity and justice so vital today, was not so much Fuller's or any one inspirational leader's individual death. Instead, responsibility lies with a widespread social, political, and economic opposition to women's advancement. What Emerson concluded about Fuller when he deemed her an "athletic soul, which craved an atmosphere larger than it found" (Chevigny 1, emphasis added) applies as well to other women in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who likewise discovered their atmosphere to be both stultifying and claustrophobic. After all, while Emerson grants Fuller the status of soul, what he could not grant was the transcendence Fuller and other women craved once they found themselves inhibited by the very real pressures of being, not just for a moment, not just at times, but in the last instance, in others' eyes, a woman.1


1. Portions of this text have appeared in an essay entitled "Margaret Fuller, Body and Soul" in the March 1999 issue of American Literature.


CC: Lydia Maria Child. The Collected Correspondence of Lydia Maria Child, 1817-1880. Ed. Patricia G. Holland, Milton Meltzer, and Francine Krasno. Millwood, NY: Kraus Microform, 1980.

EMF: Margaret Fuller. The Essential Margaret Fuller. Ed. Jeffrey Steele. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.

FMW: Fuller Manuscripts and Works, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

FP: Margaret Fuller Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

HCW: The History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations. Vols. 4 and 5 of Ladies' Family Library. Boston: John Allen, 1835.

LMF: Margaret Fuller. The Letters of Margaret Fuller. Ed. Robert N. Hudspeth. 6 vols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1983-94.

LNY: Lydia Maria Child. Letters from New York. 1843. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries P, 1970.

"LNY": "Letters from New-York" (column).

PMF: Margaret Fuller. The Portable Margaret Fuller. Ed. Mary Kelley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1994.

SL: Lydia Maria Child. Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letters, 1817-1880. Ed. Milton Meltzer, Patricia G. Holland, and Francine Krasno. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1982.

Works Cited

Chevigny, Bell Gale. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings. New York: Feminist P, 1976.

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. New York: Bantam, 1981.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self Reliance." Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1975.

Fuller, S. Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1845.

——. Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition, and Duties of Woman. Ed. Arthur B. Fuller. 1874. New York: Greenwood, 1968.

Gustafson, Sandra. "Choosing a Medium: Margaret Fuller and the Forms of Sentiment." American Quarterly 47 (1995): 34-65.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. Ed. Seymour Gross and Rosalie Murphy. New York: Norton, 1978.

Myerson, Joel. Margaret Fuller: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Burt Franklin, 1977.

——. Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1978.

Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y. July 19th & 20th, 1848. John Dick: Rochester, 1848.

Riley, Denise. "Am I That Name?": Feminism and the Category of "Women" in History. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Rowe, John Carlos. "Swept Away: Henry James, Margaret Fuller, and 'The Last of the Valerii.'" Readers in History: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Contexts of Response. Ed. James L. Machor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 32-53.

Russell, Roberta Joy. "Margaret Fuller: The Growth of a Woman Writer." Ph.D. diss. U of Connecticut, 1983. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985. 8317725.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage. 2 vols. 1881-1882. Salem, NH: Ayer, 1985.

Margaret Fuller (Essay Date 1845)

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SOURCE: Fuller, Margaret. "Woman in the Nineteenth Century." In Margaret Fuller: A Brief Biography with Documents, Eve Kornfeld, pp. 175-76. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

In the following excerpt, from a text originally published in 1845, Fuller denounces the notion that women should be better educated, not for their own sakes, but so that they might serve as better companions for their husbands and better mothers to their children.

Another sign of the times is furnished by the triumphs of female authorship. These have been great and constantly increasing. Women have taken possession of so many provinces for which men had pronounced them unfit, that though these still declare there are some inaccessible to them, it is difficult to say just where they must stop.

The shining names of famous women have cast light upon the path of the sex, and many obstructions have been removed. When a Montagu could learn better than her brother, and use her lore afterward to such purpose, as an observer, it seemed amiss to hinder women from preparing themselves to see, or from seeing all they could, when prepared. Since Somerville has achieved so much, will any young girl be prevented from seeking a knowledge of the physical sciences, if she wishes it?1

Whether much or little has been done or will be done, whether women will add to the talent of narration, the power of systematizing, whether they will carve marble, as well as draw and paint, is not important. But that it should be acknowledged that they have intellect which needs developing, that they should not be considered complete, if beings of affection and habit alone, is important.

Yet even this acknowledgment, rather conquered by woman than proffered by man, has been sullied by the usual selfishness. So much is said of women being better educated, that they may become better companions and mothers for men. They should be fit for such companionship, and we have mentioned, with satisfaction, instances where it has been established. Earth knows no fairer, holier relation than that of a mother. It is one which, rightly understood, must both promote and require the highest attainments. But a being of infinite scope must not be treated with an exclusive view to any one relation. Give the soul free course, let the organization, both of body and mind, be freely developed, and the being will be fit for any and every relation to which it may be called. The intellect, no more than the sense of hearing, is to be cultivated merely that she may be a more valuable companion to man, but because the Power who gave a power, by its mere existence, signifies that it must be brought out towards perfection.

In this regard of self-dependence, and a greater simplicity and fulness of being, we must hail as a preliminary the increase of the class contemptuously designated as old maids.…


1. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was an English author; Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish mathematician and scientist.

Principal Works

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Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (travel essays) 1844

Woman in the Nineteenth Century (essays) 1845

Papers on Literature and Art (criticism) 1846

Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli 2 vols. (memoirs) 1852

Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Conditions, and Duties of Woman (essays) 1855

At Home and Abroad; or; Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (essays and letters) 1856

Life Without and Life Within (essays, criticism, and poetry) 1860

The Writings of Margaret Fuller (essays, criticism, letters, poetry, and memoirs) 1941

The Letters of Margaret Fuller 6 vols. (letters) 1983-94

Title Commentary

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SOURCE: Cooper, Michaela Bruckner. "Textual Wandering and Anxiety in Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes. "In Margaret Fuller's Cultural Critique: Her Age and Legacy, edited by Fritz Fleischmann, pp. 171-87. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

In the following excerpt, Cooper contends that Fuller's writing in Summer on the Lakes demonstrates anxiety and a lack of confidence in herself as a writer.

The history of female reading and writing is a continuous effort to overcome the anxiety attendant upon the limitations of gender roles and narrative forms; but female readers and writers are working to alter history, first by articulating the sources of ambivalence.

(Singley 8)

In "Female Language, Body, and Self," a chapter in the anthology Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, Carol Singley examines women's ambiguous relationship with language, one that is often fraught with anxiety. If language gives expression to a distinct self, Singley argues, women have developed an ambivalent relationship with it because of their predominantly complementary or contingent positions as wives, mothers, or daughters (7). When I first read Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, I was struck not only by the self-consciousness in her writing, but especially by the ways in which Fuller subverts the stance of the controlling and self-confident reader and writer by giving voice repeatedly to the kind of anxiety Singley alludes to.

In the summer of 1843, Margaret Fuller and her friend Sarah Clarke took off together on a tour to the Midwest. During the trip, Fuller kept an extensive journal, which she later began to organize into what was to become her "first original book (her previous books having been translations from the works of German authors)" (Kolodny 113). In the record of her trip to Niagara Falls, the Great Lakes, and finally the Wisconsin Territory, Fuller skillfully interweaves her observations and impressions of the landscape and its inhabitants with associations that such impressions evoke.

Within the context of her journey and her later work on the journal she kept during the trip, Fuller works out ideas about America's past and future, the plight of Native Americans, and the role of women settlers. She creates a text that integrates various narratives, poetry, and dialogues into the flow of her observations about the West. The resulting text, Summer on the Lakes, however, is much more than an accumulation of recollections and interpretations of what Fuller saw and heard during her trip. In it, she practices a kind of cultural critique that is driven by a need to examine culture contextually and investigate self-consciously the locations from which the cultural critic speaks, a strategy that is aided by Fuller's ambivalent stance toward her own role as a woman writer. Such an approach implicitly invites the reader, as cultural critic, to follow Fuller's example.

The revision process of Summer on the Lakes was time-consuming since Fuller was occupied with teaching and her Conversations, and she had also decided to do some more research about the Great Lakes region before finishing her book (Blanchard 196). Locating adequate sources was a tricky enterprise. Fuller convinced the authorities to allow her access to the Harvard University library, which served also "as a kind of private club to which a gentleman could retreat after dinner" (Blanchard 197). Paula Blanchard reveals to some degree the ambiguous status (both outsider and socially connected) that Fuller had to cope with both as a woman and as a writer within the predominantly male Transcendentalist establishment. It was, however, this status that provided her with unique insights into the lives and conditions of the settler women and Native Americans she encounters during her trip.

Throughout her life, Fuller was aware that the unique circumstances of her education had endowed her with qualities that set her apart from most of the women of her time. In a passage included in Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Fuller writes,

from a very early age I have felt that I was not born to the common womanly lot. I knew I should never find a being who could keep the key to my character; that there would be none on whom I could always lean, from whom I could always learn; that I should be a pilgrim and sojourner on earth, and that the birds and foxes would be surer of a place to lay the head than I.

(M 98-99)

Fuller relates her outsider status to that of the traveler who is nowhere at home, the woman who has escaped the confinements of her assigned role as wife and mother and thus ends up, metaphorically and literally, without a home. Because she does not fit into a preexisting model of womanhood, it will be hard, if not impossible, for her female friends and her fellow Transcendentalists, to understand or "keep the key to [her] character."

While Fuller stresses her difference from others, she does not always do so confidently. Frequently, anxiety about her status as a woman and writer surfaces. A possible source is the conflicted nature of her early education brought about by the radical shift it underwent when Fuller was ten years old: "The first phase of her education was over, and from now on the emphasis would increasingly shift from the intellectual sphere to the social … As she approached her teens, the intellectual momentum of her early years was not only slowed but deliberately deflected" (Blanchard 35). While up to that point Timothy Fuller had instructed his daughter in English and Latin, subjects usually only taught to boys, he decided to enroll her in Dr. Park's school for girls where "she would … be told to make herself less conspicuous, not to compete, not to speak her mind boldly, and to pay more attention to the practical details of everyday life" (35).

The lessons learned at Dr. Park's school would shape Fuller's life and work. Blanchard points out that because of Fuller's extensive domestic responsibilities, particularly after her father's death, "her own work would have to give way to the higher priority accorded to household duties" (77). Although Fuller was aware of the limitations her training for traditional womanhood and incessant domestic duties imposed on her intellectual work, she also, Margaret Vanderhaar Allen argues, "partially accepted the conventions of women's and men's distinct roles. To the extent that she did so, her friends and family praised her as a 'true' woman" (137). Fuller wasn't immune to the dictates of female good looks and proper attire. In Margaret Fuller: A Psychological Biography, Katherine Susan Anthony speculates that Fuller envied and sought to imitate the beautiful Anna Barker, who later married Samuel Gray Ward, the man whom many thought Fuller was in love with, by "struggl[ing] with curl-papers night after night when French and metaphysics had had their due" (35).

Fuller's awareness about her double role as writer and woman often surfaces in her writing as self-questioning. Various critics, such as Jeffrey Steele,1 Christina Zwarg,2 Nicole Tonkovich,3 Stephen Adams,4 and Julie Ellison5 have paid attention to Fuller's self-conscious stance as an author, and in some of these critical discussions the emergence of a resistant subjectivity in Fuller's text is treated as strong and confident. I would argue, however, that the particular strength of Fuller's text lies in its author's willingness to draw anxious speculations about her own tenuous position into the realm of legitimate representation. In Summer on the Lakes, this position is embodied in the person of the writer as traveler. Thus traveling becomes a trope for both physical and textual wandering. While Fuller moves her body across the Midwest, seeing new places, encountering settler families and Native Americans, she also embarks on a textual journey among various and often mutually contesting or overlapping discourses that shape her response to the landscape and the people she encounters on her trip. Through her shifting position, she can speak both from within the patriarchal culture and from outside it. Teresa De Lauretis calls such a fluid position the "space-off" (26), a helpful term for an examination of Summer on the Lakes. The space-off, in classical cinema, is "the space not visible in the frame, but inferable from what the frame makes visible," and in avant-garde cinema, the space-off exists "alongside the represented space" (26). By occupying the space-off, women can look at the world from a point that is always elsewhere, that simultaneously affirms the existence of the dominant culture, and comments upon it and resists it from an outside position. In Summer onthe Lakes, Fuller can thus, for example, employ and subvert familiar styles of writing, as she does in the case of landscape writing about the sublime, which inscribes experience within a rigid vocabulary. Furthermore, by focusing on the space-off as the field of legitimate representation in her description of the western landscape, and white as well as Native American women, Fuller expands the margins of her discourse, while at the same time foregrounding the limitations of traditional male narratives of westward expansion and progress.

De Lauretis' theory of the space-off is particularly helpful in an examination of Fuller's narrator and observer because of its consideration of the shifting positionality of the spectator. This theory includes "the spectator (the point where the image is received, reconstructed and reproduced in/as subjectivity)" (26). Thus, the image does not exist autonomously but is always dependent on its connection to a spectator who brings an interpretive frame of reference to it that will shape her reading. By showing that the spectator, as interpreter, participates in the representation, De Lauretis points to the kind of self-conscious examination of the observer's position that Fuller engages in.

In the beginning of Summer, Fuller describes her life as a text to be read: "Since you are to share with me such foot-notes as may be made on the pages of my life during this summer's wandering, I should not be quite silent as to this magnificent prologue to the, as yet, unknown, drama" (71). Fuller's subsequent efforts at opening up the borders of the patriarchal text are already contained and foreshadowed here. Her choice of metaphor is interesting insofar as footnotes are the marginal sites for explanations seen as distracting from the main text. By making those footnotes central to her text, Fuller breaks down the barriers between the "main text" and that which is seen as subordinate or marginal.

Fuller voices some unease about the potential reception of Summer on the Lakes: "And now you have the little all I have to write. Can it interest you? To one who has enjoyed the full life of any scene, of any hour, what thoughts can be recorded about it, seem like the commas and semicolons in the paragraphs, mere stops. Yet I suppose it is not so to the absent" (75). She questions the significance of her contribution—"Can it interest you?"—and then proceeds to divide her audience into two categories. She seems to refer here to the male privilege of mobility and access to wider realms of experience, which she also represents, the person "who has enjoyed the full life of any scene." For such a person, Fuller's text will be inadequate as representation. Instead, by directing her text to those who did not have the freedom or privilege to share her travels, Fuller already sets her readers up for one of the major issues of her text, her narrative of the lives and hardships of women, who occupy the place of the absent other because they were not traditionally included in representations of the American West.

In the tale of the Seeress of Prevorst, an account Fuller inserted in her chapter on Wisconsin, she works out the kind of displacement that is a precondition to the self-conscious cultural critique she envisions. Drawing from the account of the German physician Justinus Kerner, Die Seherin von Prevorst (1829), she describes events in the life of Friederike Hauffe, a somnambulist and clairvoyant "immersed in the inward state" and "free from bodily bonds, and the hindrances of space and time" (Fuller 157). Although Fuller emphasizes the contrast that this story provides between the "vision of an exalted and sensitive existence, which seemed to invade the next sphere" and "the spontaneous, instinctive life" among the rough settlers of the Midwest she observes during her trip, there are also significant connections between the narrative of the seeress and her accounts of life on the frontier (144-45). These are already signified in the seeress's volatile position at the border between the material and the spiritual world and in turn reflect Fuller's own anxiety about her volatile position as the author of a text that constantly questions itself. The mystic Hauffe, who "saw herself often out of the body; saw herself double," thus signifies women's displacement and the kind of outlook that is made possible by such a displacement (158). For the seeress, it is a displacement from the physical world to a realm beyond. For Fuller, it seems to designate a position that is on the boundary looking either way and that exemplifies the anxiety about being taken over by either one; but, more importantly, anxiety in the text seems to arise from her efforts at writing the space-off into her discourse. Thus, the narration of the tale and the enunciation of a relationship between different histories present a strategy of textual wandering that shapes Fuller's text.

Fuller justifies the inclusion of the tale of Friederike Hauffe by placing it into the context of her watching the many new immigrants getting off the boat in Wisconsin. "[S]oon [the immigrants'] tales … will be so mingled with those of the Indian, that the very oak trees will not know them apart" (170). The history that these immigrants bring with them will become part of their newly gained cultural knowledge and of the history of their new home. Their reading of new experiences and environments, and her reading of them in turn, will be partially shaped by their past. At the same time, an unsettling sense of loss is inherent in the concept of acculturation, as Fuller envisions it, that reflects her ambivalent treatment of the plight of Native Americans in Summer on the Lakes. However, while here she seems to suggest that acculturation is an almost organic process that occurs naturally and harmoniously, at other places in her text she also undercuts this point by lamenting and resisting the extinction of Native Americans and the loss of their rich cultural heritage.

Observing the immigrants who get off the boat, Fuller laments the limitations imposed on her own search for new stories and new experiences: "Could I but have flown at night through such mental experiences, instead of being shut up in my little bedroom at the Milwaukee boarding house, this chapter would have been worth reading" (170). It is notable that Fuller connects her limited access to those experiences and tales that she thinks would interest her reader to the need for economic independence and thus ties her situation indirectly to gender. "Had I been rich in money, I might have built a house, or set up in business," Fuller speculates during her stay in Milwaukee (170). Instead, she is "obliged to walk the streets and pick up what I could in casual intercourse" in order to find out more about the city (170). Fuller's physical journey across the Great Lakes and the prairie is thus significantly defined by the traveler's, and particularly the female traveler's, loss of control. Traveling as a woman, Fuller has to depend on others, usually men, to accompany her on her journey, and even to make such a journey financially possible. Her trip to the Midwest became affordable only after Fuller "reluctantly accepted a gift of fifty dollars from her friend, the liberal Universalist minister, James Freeman Clarke" (Kolodny 113). Fuller was accompanied by Clarke and his sister Sarah, and, upon Clarke's return to the East, by his brother William Hull Clarke, who took the two women on a trip through the prairie in a horse-drawn covered wagon (113). Near the end of Summer, disappointed because she might not see the Pictured Rocks, Fuller laments her lack of control over her situation and the ways in which her access to new experiences depends on others: "It did not depend on me; it never has, whether such things shall be done or not" (216).

Fuller's anxiety is caused both by physical confinement related to gender and by discursive confinements; thus she is concerned that her limited access to experience will prevent her from writing those stories that are sanctioned and deemed interesting. Through the practice of textual wandering, Fuller tries self-consciously to allay, if not escape, the anxieties arising both from her literal place in time and space and from her position within the discourses about the West. Through textual wandering, the inclusion of multiple, seemingly irrelevant narratives, Fuller inscribes the displacement brought about by the out-of-body experience she describes in the narrative about the Seeress. Textual wandering in this sense signifies an out-of-body experience of sorts, not, as in the case of Friederike Hauffe, into the beyond of death, but into the unrepresented margins of representations of life on the western frontier.

In her description of Niagara Falls, Fuller sets the tone for her subsequent efforts at anxiously employing and questioning traditional modes of representation. While staying at the Falls, she frequently expresses frustration at not being able to look upon Niagara with "feelings … entirely [her] own" (77). Her impression of the Falls is always tied to previous texts known to her which are hard to escape. She thus apologizes to her readers for the insignificance of her own description and then proceeds to insert "a brief narrative of the experience of another, as being much better than anything I could write" (75). The unnamed author, from whose description of Niagara Falls Fuller quotes, is also concerned about the predictability of one's response: "'I expected to be overwhelmed … but, somehow or other, I thought only of comparing the effect on my mind with what I had read and heard … And, provoked with my stupidity in feeling most moved in the wrong place, I turned away'" (76). Upon returning at night, however, this visitor is finally moved when seeing the Falls a second time in moonlight. The included description seems to attest on the one hand to Fuller's own anxiety about this experience. Feeling most moved in the wrong place herself, she is aware that her text parts with traditional ways of seeing, in this case a master narrative that predicts and shapes the viewer's response to the Falls.6 Unlike Fuller, the author of the inserted text occasionally comes around to the conventional way of seeing. Thus, Fuller's inclusion of this particular excerpt might be explained through its simultaneous addressing and masking of Fuller's own anxieties—addressing because it serves to question the legitimacy of her own reading, and masking because it replaces an unconventional or resistant reading with a conventional one.

Anxiety about reading and writing also plays a significant role in Fuller's discussion of the lives of women and Native Americans. In such descriptions, Fuller simultaneously writes the position of the space-off into her text and foregrounds the precariousness of a position that is always in danger of being taken over by dominant discourses. Taking a closer look at such a description, I have found it helpful to draw on some conventions of nineteenth-century landscape painting since there are similarities between the visual and textual representation or lack of representation of white settler women and Native American women.

Fuller both reinvokes and transcends the idea of the West as adventurous and free by describing men's existence there as relatively unburdened by excessive hardship: "The men can find assistance in field labor, and recreation with the gun and fishing-rod" (106). For the women, however, the new life is much more difficult and, literally and metaphorically, unsettling. Having unwillingly followed their husbands into the wilderness, these women are often unfit for their lot (106). By describing the lives of women and Native Americans in the West, Fuller textually represents a space that was usually not "visible in the frame" of visual art for in spite of women's participation "in all stages of western development," their appearance in western art is infrequent and contradictory to historical fact (Schoelwer 135).

In her essay "The Absent Other: Women in the Land and Art of Mountain Men," Susan Prendergast Schoelwer focuses primarily on women's role on the fur trade frontier. However, her discussion of women and Native Americans provides some helpful insights into the context that Fuller was responding to in Summer on the Lakes. Schoelwer argues that "the legendary absence of women" from paintings of the fur trade frontier "really means the absence of white women" (143). Written texts depict trapper life as "one of manly self-indulgence, of continual hunting and fishing, of absolute freedom from the demands and constraints of civilization—taxes, mortgages, wives, the law" (143). In order to fulfill their sexual desires, however, trappers often "took Indian wives or, at least, companions" (143). In her description of pioneer women, Fuller entered into territory that had been excluded in the representations of male artists. The presence of women in these representations, although not explicit, was often inferable. Thus, for example, in George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, the role of the absent woman is suggested. In this painting, a fur trader and his son "paddle downriver to deliver their catch to Saint Louis" (160). Although no woman is depicted in this scene, she is nevertheless inscribed into the composition by providing "the biological link" between father and son, as Schoelwer succinctly argues (161). Also "[h]er economic production, manifest in the buffalo skin-covered pack that rests between … [father and son]" suggests a significant role for the mother which "[the painting's] content explicitly denies" (161). The trapper's son, "not yet fully independent, leans heavily on this tangible reminder of the mother" (161). It is in her exploration of women's sphere as the locus of hard labor and "economic production" on the western frontier that Fuller transcends the frames of traditional representation.

At the same time, however, as Fuller confidently writes into her text the lives of women who had been mostly absent from earlier representations, she gives voice to an anxiety about her own shortcomings and the dangers involved when competing texts call for her attention: "I have fixed my attention almost exclusively on the picturesque beauty of this region; it was so new, so inspiring. But I ought to have been more interested in the housekeeping of this magnificent state, in the education she is giving her children, in their prospects" (132). In passages such as this one, Fuller evokes the split between two texts that are at odds with each other. On the one hand, there is the world of the picturesque which represents dominant ways of seeing, such as those she explores in her description of Niagara Falls, and on the other hand, there is the world of suffering and hardship, a world in the space-off of traditional representations of the West. She reprimands herself for having been swayed too much in one direction. Her focus on the picturesque has sidetracked her examination of some of the harsher aspects in the lives of women settlers, lives that revolve around domestic tasks such as housekeeping and education of the young. While Fuller is interested in describing the sublimity of the landscape, she also voices the fear that dominant representations, such as those generated by conventions of the picturesque, crowd out stories about the lives of women and Native Americans.

The rupture between these competing texts is reiterated over and over again in Summer on the Lakes, and in her description of the antagonism that the settlers feel toward Native Americans, Fuller foregrounds it again vividly. She focuses her attention on a man who "though in other respects of most kindly and liberal heart, showed the aversion that the white man soon learns to feel for the Indian on whom he encroaches, the aversion of the injurer for him he has degraded" (138-39). She juxtaposes this description with the settler's own account of the killing of a deer, "the most graceful I ever beheld [as he says]—there was something so soft and beseeching in his look, I chose him at once; took aim and shot him dead" (139). Fuller shows here the split between a typical sublime narrative on the one hand and a buried or suppressed narrative of suffering on the other. The description of the deer becomes emblematic of both the settlers' treatment of Native Americans and Fuller's anxiety about the narratives that compete for her attention. It is significant that her exploration of this ambiguity occurs in the same chapter in which she includes the narrative of the Seeress of Prevorst with its emphasis on the dangers of the threshold experience. The graceful deer, like the Native Americans, is doomed to death. At the same time, however, in the settler's description of the hunt, the reality of this dooming is sidetracked, suppressed through an exclusive emphasis on the deer's graceful beauty as measured in terms of its value to the hunter. Fuller seems to retell through this account a different version of the dangers of a sublime narrative that obscures suffering while it asserts at the same time the hunter's control and agency—"'I chose him at once.'" In the context of Fuller's anxiety about reading and writing, the patriarchal text seems to be always a text about death, and a text that, through its exclusionary practices and the setting of textual boundaries, writes death and thus inscribes and reaffirms its control. Suffering occurs outside the boundaries of that patriarchal text and, like footnotes, does not have a place in it.

More generally, Fuller replicates the kind of displacement reflected in the story of the seeress and her description of the hunter in an ongoing exploration of her own discursive positionality. Throughout Summer on the Lakes, she foregrounds her often precarious negotiation between some of the discourses that shape her responses to the landscape and to the people she encounters. In these negotiations, Fuller is anxious about the dangers of having her experiences usurped by a discourse that will prevent her from writing about the suffering she sees. When writing about the Native Americans who have gathered at Mackinaw to receive their annual payment from the American government, Fuller shows her struggle with other discourses. She is intrigued by the romanticism of the scene she witnesses, its "gipsy charm," even to the point of invoking one of its well-known representatives: "Continually I wanted Sir Walter Scott to have been there. If such romantic sketches were suggested to him, by the sight of a few gipsies, not a group near one of these fires but would have furnished him material for a separate canvass" (175). Fuller, however, quickly checks herself and shifts the focus of her attention: "I was so taken up with the spirit of the scene, that I could not follow out the stories suggested by these weatherbeaten, sullen, but eloquent figures" (175). Again, as during her trip to Niagara Falls, a narrative that privileges traditional ways of seeing (in this case conventions of the picturesque) threatens to crowd out a narrative of suffering and poverty, and traces of such a struggle persistently remain, as for example in Fuller's evocation of the "sullen, but eloquent figures" who still display their noble qualities even in the face of adversity. Such traces show the complexity and ambivalence of Fuller's stance by placing her both within the dominant culture and at its margins.

While acknowledging the suffering of various of her subjects, Fuller also frequently tries to keep at bay a narrative of pain by invoking romantic or classical connotations. At one point during her travels, she describes the site of an ancient Native American village in terms of "a Greek splendor, a Greek sweetness" (100). In praise of the site's natural splendor, Fuller expresses the belief that "Rome and Florence are suburbs compared to this capital of nature's art" (101). However, her depiction of the Edenic character of Native Americans does not describe their present situation, but refers to an invented past. She has little hope that their situation will change for the better.

I have no hope of liberalizing the missionary, of humanizing the sharks of the trade, of infusing the conscientious drop into the flinty bosom of policy, of saving the Indian from immediate degradation, and speedy death. The whole sermon may be preached from the text, "Needs be that offenses must come, yet wo them by whom they come." Yet, ere they depart, I wish there might be some masterly attempt to reproduce, in art or literature, what is proper to them, a kind of beauty and grandeur, which few of the every-day crowd have hearts to feel, yet which ought to leave in the world its monuments, to inspire the thought of genius through all ages.


Fuller describes the artist as a helpless onlooker, who can at best employ her creative efforts in order to preserve visually or textually a larger sense of vanishing cultures. Stressing the special obligation of the artist who might have a strong perception of the iniquities perpetrated against Native Americans, Fuller renounces all earthly responsibility for their gradual removal. Retributions, if they come, will be the acts of God rather than interventions by human beings. She seems to draw here on the idea of the artist developed by Emerson in "The Poet," which was written at about the same time Fuller was working on Summer.

In "The Poet," Emerson describes poets as "liberating gods" who "are free and … make free" (319). Through their imagination, they help a reader "to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed" (317). The dissolution of such bonds, however, comes at a price and raises questions about the ethics of the artist's detached stance. The artist, rather than becoming an agent of change, becomes a silent if unwilling accomplice in the maintenance of the status quo. In journal entries he made during the fall and winter of 1843, Emerson writes that his audience misunderstands him when it expects him to turn into action what he writes about in his essays: "They mistook me. I am and always was a painter" (Whicher 216). In another entry during the same year he writes, "[m]y genius loudly calls me to stay where I am, even with the degradation of owning bank-stock and seeing poor men suffer, whilst the Universal Genius apprises me of this disgrace and beckons me to the martyr's and redeemer's office" (217). Even though he is aware of inequities among people, Emerson remains detached from them. In her description of the artist and her disbelief in the possibility of any change coming from within the ranks of "the sharks of the trade," Fuller follows Emerson's sympathetic but detached artist. Hers is not an agent of political change in the name of greater justice for all, but an observer and preserver of historical facts, a painter of portraits or collector of skulls (Fuller 211).

For Fuller, the artist thus always stays at a remove from her subject, freed from "the jail-yard of individual relations." At the same time, and unlike Emerson, she reassigns the artist the role of historiographer, for, unable to affect the course of historical events, the artist records them after the fact in order to secure them a lasting place in history. In such a role, however, the artist also becomes a silent if unwilling accomplice in the systematic extinction of Native Americans because representations reflect and revalidate oppressive colonial discourses through their textual usurpation and objectification of native peoples.7

Fuller's discussion at times also bears out the threat of such usurpation since, despite her efforts at self-consciousness, she frequently employs elements that resemble those used in nineteenth-century colonial writing. In The Rhetoric of Empire, David Spurr describes colonial discourse as that discourse which "designate[s] a space within language that exists both as a series of historical instances and as a series of rhetorical functions" (7). Colonial discourse, Spurr argues, always originates within a colonial situation. Quoting from George Balandier's 1963 definition, Spurr writes, "the colonial situation is characterized by the domination imposed by a foreign minority, 'racially' and culturally different, over a weaker indigenous majority in the name of racial (or ethnic) superiority" (5-6). The two cultures are separated by technological advancement and economic power on the one hand, and the lack thereof on the other (6). Spurr discusses how the spectator's position is determined by colonial discourses. In her description of Native Americans in Summer on the Lakes, Fuller frequently occupies the position of the colonial observer.

When she writes about the camp at Mackinaw, Fuller draws comparisons between Native American ways of life and ancient traditions. While affirming the close relationship between the Native Americans and nature, she simultaneously distances each individual from such a primal relationship by inserting a model of Roman nobility between him or her and nature. While in Milwaukee, Fuller sees a Native American chief who reminds her of "a real Roman, more than six feet in height, erect, and of a sullen, but grand gait and gesture. He wore a deep red blanket, which fell in large folds from his shoulders to his feet, did not join in the dance, but slowly strode about through the streets, a fine sight" (142). By ascribing to Native Americans the attributes of ancient nobility, Fuller tries to evoke in her audience sympathy for their plight, and shows, as Lucy Maddox convincingly argues, that they are the "more appropriate claimants to the American Wilderness" (143). However, by representing them as aesthetic objects, Fuller simultaneously denies the subjectivity of these same Native Americans for her audience.

Exploring Native American ways of life on the one hand as representations of a sublime aesthetics, Fuller also resorts to the other extreme in her description of Native American women by employing the stereotype of woman as inferior beast. While earlier she lamented the fact that "the Red man" is either "exalt[ed] … into a Demigod or degrad[ed] … into a beast," she now falls into this same two-dimensional pattern (175). Furthermore, through her focus on the physical bodies of Native American women, Fuller participates in a discourse of colonialism that objectifies the native other as inferior. In colonial writing, Spurr argues, "the body is that which is most proper to the primitive, the sign by which the primitive is represented" (22). In her depiction of Native American women's burdened lives, Fuller makes use of a stereotype current among Western artists, that of Native American women as "beasts of burden" (Schoelwer 165). For European Americans, Native American women "must have appeared antithetical to the presumed natural condition of women" because they carried out what was considered male labor (165). Schoelwer questions whether "the widespread denigration of Indian Women as 'beasts of burden' may have represented not so much a description of their condition as an indicator of cultural anxieties evoked by unfamiliar conceptions of gender" (165). Fuller's description could thus be viewed as a gauge of her absorption within a patriarchal discourse that casts women as delicate objects who live a life of leisure alien to hard physical labor. Although Fuller describes the Native American women at Mackinaw as exhibiting "decorum and delicacy," she also states that "they do occupy a lower place than women among the nations of European civilization" (178). Thus, she casts Native American women as doubly other, twice removed from European civilization through their inferiority both to European American and Native American men and to European American women. By arguing that these women not only "inherit submission," but also "[p]erhaps suffer less than their white sisters, who have more aspiration and refinement," Fuller suppresses a narrative about suffering that she had previously affirmed (178). In doing this, she both affirms traditional ideas of the superiority of Western civilization, and the superiority of European American women in particular, and at the same time usurps the identity of Native American women by objectifying them as brute and senseless victims of oppression. By representing Native Americans through the lens of Western history and denying them a voice in her text, Fuller thus obscures their positions as complex subjects.

Fuller's complex and often conflicted example of cultural critique and the stance of the cultural critic invites in turn a self-conscious exploration of my own position as a reader and critic of women's texts. For me, the significance of her critique lies in its anxious treatment of the writer's involvement in dominant discourses. Another, even more important aspect is its explicit iteration of the precariousness of its own situation, part of what I have previously called the anxiety of writing. For me, as a feminist critic and reader of women's texts, anxiety arises not only from the awareness of my complicity in dominant discourses, but also from my efforts at including within textual speculations the tensions and fears that arise from my attempts at expanding, as Fuller does, the boundaries of my critical text.

It is an anxiety about my involvement, as a cultural critic, in academic discourses that privilege the critic's control over her own text and the texts she reads. But there is also a more deeply seated anxiety about the possibilities and dangers of cultural critique, an anxiety that is intricately connected to issues of nationality. As a German woman living in the U. S. studying American literature, and as a woman within academia practicing cultural criticism, I am forced to think about my own role and responsibilities as an interpreter of languages, discourses, and cultures. This makes me more sensitive to the temptation, as a reader and writer of texts, to usurp and objectify the texts I study, and to the need to interrogate the claims to critical authority inscribed in the discourses I use. In the context of these issues, Fuller's Summer on the Lakes generates questions about the ethics of a cultural critique, about the privileged, detached position of the observer, her position as the subject of the gaze.

I have often had to contend with the critical assumption that interpretive authority is irretrievably tied to one's nationality. My being on the borderline between two languages and two cultures has loosened up such real or imagined connections, and thus has been a constant reminder of the precariousness of the very idea of cultural authority. And my constant wandering between languages and cultural contexts has also been an inevitable reminder of the interpretive possibilities of such a double-stance. Thus, I have come to see the strengths and benefits of a cultural critique not in its closeness to arbitrary standards of authenticity, but in the cultural critic's ongoing efforts at questioning her role and motivations as a participant in and reader of cultural texts. Such questioning becomes possible only when one is willing to temporarily wander between interpretive contexts and the beliefs and assumptions that define them.8

A shift in frames of reference—in my case a physical shift between countries—makes negotiation possible, even necessary. Such shifts are not exclusively contingent on physical wandering; however, it is necessary for the kind of cultural critique Fuller tentatively envisions for the critic to wander among and probe the limits of the discourses that shape her reality. In doing so, Fuller also builds a bridge between the past and the responsibilities of those who live in the present. By including autobiographical experience in my scholarship, I hope to show the relevance of such probings in my reading of texts. And yet I feel an anxiety about voicing these ideas, about including what should be footnotes to my critical enterprise, or suppressed entirely, in the main text, and, like Margaret Fuller, I feel tempted to ask my readers not to "blame me that I have written so much about Germany" (170). But Fuller's own attempts at forging a link between multiple, often contesting voices and her anxieties about reading and writing in ways that stray from convention point out possible routes in my own search for a self-conscious cultural critique. In Summer on the Lakes, we can see that within such a critique an interrogation of the interpreter's contingent, always limited, point of view is indispensable.9


  1. Jeffrey Steele points out that it was a "sense of personal disjunction [which] helped Fuller interpret the ways in which the victims of racial and sexual oppression had been compartmentalized into categories that isolated them from effective political sympathy" (xiii).
  2. Christina Zwarg argues that "[t]he double frame of the translator … [was] lending her [Fuller] something of an anthropologist's sensibility to the dynamic of culture contact" (98). By questioning the treatment of Native Americans, Fuller positions herself at the margins of the dominant culture. At the same time, however, she also speaks from within that culture. Zwarg thus discusses the complex and contradictory involvement of Fuller's feminist discourse in traditional patriarchal discourses. She sees Fuller's successful negotiation among the discourses that constitute her writing as symptomatic of an emergence of "critical agency" (124).
  3. Like Zwarg, Nicole Tonkovich argues that Fuller consciously employs textual strategies that enable her to resist the dominant discourses that inscribe her as a white, educated woman from the East. Tonkovich focuses on Fuller's resistance to the "fictively unified subjectivity upon which traditional nineteenth-century masculine notions of authorship depended" (95). By combining multiple narratives and various fictive selves with "techniques of parody," Fuller subverts such attempts at unity (95).
  4. Stephen Adams makes a case for the strong role of subjective perception in Fuller's writing. He argues that Summer on the Lakes presents Fuller's successful attempt at creating a new heterogeneous form by skillfully weaving together multiple narratives (247-49). However, "beneath the surface disjointedness, digressiveness, and fragmentation" of the text, romantic works such as Fuller's "strive for a deep unity" (251).
  5. Ellison's discussion, although it does not focus primarily on Summer on the Lakes, is nevertheless helpful for an analysis of this text. Like Adams, Ellison emphasizes Fuller's heterogeneous style of writing (283). Rather than focusing, however, as Adams does, on the hidden Romantic unifying tendencies in Fuller's work, Ellison stresses the dynamics that construct a subject's historicity. Heterogeneity, Ellison argues, "refers not to a random mixture of styles, but to a structured movement among certain discourses and the cultural positions associated with them" (283). The self in Fuller's writing is the site at which "the many languages of the mind … and of society" intersect (223). As for Steele, for Ellison the subject does not exist beyond ideology, but is able to move along the various discourses that constitute it.
  6. Elisabeth McKinsey points out that several stock conventions provided guidelines for written representations of the Falls. There was in fact a "vocabulary of the sublime." Writers often were "concerned much more with emotions and psychic responses to the cataract than with its physical description [and thus] they emphasize adjectives more than nouns, and the nouns they do use are particularly value laden and affective." Besides the word "dreadful," which is also a part of Fuller's description, such words as "dazzling stupendous … profound, overwhelming, eternal, wonder, prodigy, abyss, and chasm" are elements of stock descriptions of the Falls (43).
  7. In a study of the works of women travel writers, Sara Mills asks, "[a]re we [feminist critics] going to be critical of some of the positions exemplified in the texts, for example, colonialist or racial statements, and will we be judging these works against some feminist standard? Or are we writing about them as part of a larger project concerned with the construction of an alternative women's history?" (28). In my reading of Fuller's text, these two questions often threaten to cancel each other out. An exclusive focus on Fuller's text in relation to an alternative tradition of women's writing—one that would foreground her resistance to dominant discourses and her affirmation of the hardships in the lives of both white and Native American women—could be in danger of obfuscating her text's simultaneous complicity in those discourses. On the other hand, focusing solely on Fuller's participation in discourses that reinscribe stereotypes about Native Americans, I might diminish the feminist message embedded in her critique. However, in the course of this project I have come to realize that such fears are based on the assumption that a feminist message has to be consistent and in control of its various meanings in order to be meaningful. Thus, I argue that rather than representing mutually exclusive positions, both of the questions Mills raises are intricately tied into the emergence of an anxiety about reading and writing in Fuller's text.
  8. For me the kind of distancing that is necessary for such negotiations was facilitated through my displacement as a foreigner in this country. Ongoing probings and shiftings between different cultural texts and the discourses, as well as national languages, through which they are constructed and which in turn they construct, have forced me to take up various, often conflicting positions that put me at shifting distances both from the cultural texts of my native Germany and from those of North America. In a longer version of this paper, I explore this conflict within the particular context of my reading and rereading of the German Holocaust.
  9. This paper is part of a chapter on Margaret Fuller from my dissertation, which experiments with and explores the uses of personal voice and autobiographical experience in literary criticism. Thus, my reading of Summer on the Lakes and Fuller's role as cultural critic is also a reading of myself, albeit an abbreviated one in this excerpt, caught between cultures as a German woman reading, writing, and teaching in the United States.

Further Reading

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Myerson, Joel. Margaret Fuller: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1983-1995. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998, 160 p.

Annotates studies of Fuller from 1983-1995, and includes an extensive index.


Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, The Public Years. London: Oxford University Press, 2004, 423 p.

Focuses on Fuller's emergence from private into public life. Volume one of a two-volume set.

Howe, Julia Ward. Margaret Fuller (Marchesa Ossoli). Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883, 298 p.

Offers a biography of Fuller from the Famous Women Series.


Adams, Kimberly VanEsveld. "'Would [Woman] But Assume Her Inheritance, Mary Would Not Be the Only Virgin Mother'." In Our Lady of Victorian Feminism: The Madonna in the Work of Anna Jameson, Margaret Fuller, and George Eliot, pp. 118-47. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2001.

Analyzes Fuller's use of the Madonna as a symbol of empowerment for women.

Kolodny, Annette. "Margaret Fuller's First Depiction of Indians and the Limits of Social Protest: An Exercise in Women's Studies Pedagogy." Legacy 18, no. 1 (2001): 1-20.

Asserts that Fuller's review essay "Romaic and Rhine Ballads," sheds light not only on Fuller's skill as a Germanist, but also reveals her first published thoughts on the condition of the American Indian.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "Sarah Margaret Fuller." In Critical Essays on Margaret Fuller, edited by Joel Myerson, pp. 35-39. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980.

Praises Fuller's literary reviews and Womaninthe Nineteenth Century, while finding fault with many elements of her writing style.

Rosowski, Susan J. "Margaret Fuller, an Engendered West, and Summer on the Lakes." Western American Literature (August 1990): 125-44.

Discusses Fuller's autobiographical writing and her connections to the American West—two areas of Fuller scholarship Rosowski contends are largely neglected by critics.

Steele, Jeffrey. "Lunar Flowers: Exploring the Divine Feminine." In Transfiguring America: Myth, Ideology, andMourning in Margaret Fuller's Writing, pp. 65-82. Columbia, Mont.: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

Studies Fuller's mystical essays for the Dial within their historical context.

Zwarg, Christina. "The Work of Trauma: Fuller, Douglass, and Emerson on the Border of Ridicule." Studies in Romanticism 41, no. 1 (spring 2002): 65-88.

Discusses the rhetorical strategies employed in the writings on emancipation by Fuller, Douglass, and Emerson.


Additional coverage of Fuller's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 183, 223, 239; Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1640-1865; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 5, 50; and Something about the Author, Vol. 25.


Fuller, Margaret (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)