MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

March 7, 2012: Celebrating Margaret Fuller

[All this week, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be highlighting some exemplary American women. This is the fourth in the series.]

Remembering one of America’s most talented and brilliant writers and philosophers, and her mercurial and tragically short life.

If Margaret Fuller had written only Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), that book alone would be entirely sufficient to ensure her status as a unique and inspiring American. Building upon her essay “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman Versus Women” (1843), which appeared in the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, Fuller’s book is perhaps without peer in American literary and political history: an argumentative, activist work that is also profoundly philosophical and erudite; a work in which scholarly allusions to Shakespeare, European philosophers, and classical authors mingle with legal arguments, autobiographical reflections, and sophisticated social analyses. Fuller’s book not only makes compelling arguments for women’s equality, it embodies those arguments, exemplifying why Emerson considered Fuller the smartest Transcendentalist.

If Fuller had written only her travel writing and journalism, those publications would certainly signal her unique and crucial national and international literary vision and communal perspective. Summer     on the Lakes (1844), her memoir and philosophical reflection on a trip to the frontier (at that time) and the Great Lakes, stands with contemporary works like Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home; Who’ll Follow? (1839) as constituting a new western American literature, one linked to the east and America’s past and yet carrying those legacies into an evolving regional and national future.     And when she traveled to Europe a few years later, she did so as the foreign correspondent for the New York Tribute and so first and foremost as a writer and journalist, documenting her journeys and, eventually, her powerful connections to the Italian revolutions in pieces that are just as self-reflective and philosophical and yet still stand among the best American travel writing.

If Fuller had written only her literary criticism, that work would on its own terms establish her as a significant voice and influence in the rise of a distinct and valued narrative of American literary and cultural identity. In particular, her Papers on Literature and Art (1846), and specifically her essay “American Literature: Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future,” take American literary production more seriously than virtually any other prominent writer (outside perhaps of Poe) had done; as illustrated by her earlier piece “A Short Essay on Critics” (1840), Fuller envisioned a similarly more meaningful and significant social and cultural role for literary critics, and her Papers, like all of the works I have highlighted here, exemplified and embodied those ideals and helped frame American literature (here and across the Atlantic) as a community of writers and voices with something meaningful to contribute to cultural and artistic conversations.

Yet Fuller wrote in all of those genres, and did so all before she was 40—the age at which, returning to America with her Italian revolutionary husband and their young son, her boat ran aground near New York and all three were drowned. A tragic loss, but one that could not destroy this immensely influential and inspiring American voice and life. Next inspiring woman tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Any nominees?

3/7 Memory Day nominee: Henry Draper, the 19th-century physician and socialite who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a pioneering amateur astronomer and astronomical photographer, receiving a Congressional medal for directing the 1874 expedition to photograph the transit of Venus and obtaining (in 1880) the first recorded photograph of a nebula.

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