Sunday, July 29, 2007

Transcendental Women

To get me in the mood for my recent trip to Concord, MA, I listened to another set of The Teaching Company's lectures, Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendental Movement, taught by Ashton Nichols of the University of Virginia. As I said, I have been to Concord many times before and had viewed the Emerson house, Orchard House where the Alcott's finally settled, The Old Manse where Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife lived briefly, and had been to see Walden Pond which is only a mile away from town. But in listening to the lectures, I was pleasantly surprised to learn many new things regarding the influence the Transcendentalists had and are still having on American life and the kind of democracy we have become. According to Nichols, we would not be the people or the country we are today without them. Everyone acknowledges Thoreau's contribution to the environmental movement, but I also learned that the Transcendental Club included several women and that the ideas and ideals of the remarkable group of people gathered at Concord led not only to the abolition of slavery, but the emancipation of women as well.

Among the women who belonged to this circle of friends was Margaret Fuller. Fuller died young (drowned in a shipwreck) at age 40, but before she died she had been a teacher; editor of The Dial, a quarterly journal which published the Transcendentalists papers; and was hired by Horace Greeley to work for the New York Tribune, both as a reviewer and later as a foreign correspondent, an unheard of job for a woman at the time (1844). She gave "conversations" because women were not allowed to do public speaking for pay. Her groundbreaking publications included "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women," which was revised as Woman in the Nineteenth Century (see also here), the major work in which she argued unequivocally for equal rights for women. Her ideas hearken back to Mary Wollstonecraft and the English feminists, but with an American twist, female liberty and democracy for all. Nichols quotes Fuller and comments on her effect on the women's movement.
"I think women need, especially at this juncture, a much greater range of occupation than they have, to rouse their latent powers." Her book is now considered a classic of feminist thought in America. Its influence was powerfully felt as early as the gathering of women’s rights advocates in Seneca Falls, New York, only three years after its publication.

She certainly was a woman ahead of her time. In Susan Cheever's book, American Bloomsbury, she is described as a forceful woman whose intellect and beauty captured not only the minds but also the hearts of Emerson and Hawthorne. While working in Europe as a correspondent, she fell in love with the Italian cause and with an Italian, the Marquis Giovanni Angelo d’Ossoli, and bore his son at the age of 39. It is still unknown whether or not they actually got married. Cheever describes her ambivalence at returning to work after the birth of her child, a situation that many young women can identify with. All three were drowned when the ship returning Fuller to the U.S. ran onto a sand bar off of Fire Island, NY. Emerson dispatched Thoreau to look for her remains and for the manuscript she was working on at the time. He found neither.

Hawthorne based at least one of his characters on Fuller, Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, his satirical novel about Brook Farm, another utopian community outside of Boston. But Cheever seems to think that almost all of his lead female characters resemble her in some way incuding Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, a story of a strong woman who defies Puritan Boston and has a child out of wedlock.

One last comment before I leave the subject of Fuller. When Margaret decided she ought to be paid for her work as editor of The Dial, $200 per year had been promised, Emerson refused and Fuller moved on.

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