Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 26: Thurday, April 20: Transcending (?) Emotion
Margaret Fuller, "The Great Lawsuit:
Man versus Men; Woman versus Women" (
The Dial, 1843)

Course Evals
Reminder re: Huck Finn papers,
due Sat, 4/29 (for seniors) and Sat, 5/6 (for everyone else)
Reminder also to sign up for final writing conference w/ me,
before portfolios are due (5 p.m.. Sat. 5/6 (for seniors)
12:30 p.m., Friday, 5/12 (for everyone else)

"I must depend on myself as the only constant friend...
the position I early was enabled to take, was one of self-reliance....
each wishes to be lord in a little world, to be superior at least over one."

(Thanks, Jorge.)

I. What I thought about while "fibbing" Emerson:
  • that games involve constraints (challenges which make them worth the doing)
  • that "fibbing" (or lying--"he told the truth mainly," as Huck says of Mark Twain) is, like comedy more generally, a genre of possibility, a way of re-imagining and upending the world
  • (this from talking afterwards with Catherine) that mathematics is (like literature) a way of interpreting the world, of putting it into the language of patterns, and not (this is deep, and controversial), as Emerson thought, "a description of a natural/spiritual fact."
    Each new square has a side
    which is as long as the sum of
    the latest two square's sides.
  • what other forms might Emersonian poems take?
    a spiral, as above?
    beat, as per Anna ("emmmmmmerson...")
II. What I thought about while "playing" Emerson: the class dimensions of "transcendentalism"--
how useful is this philosophy to those (like slaves, like women)
who do not have the choice of free association available to free white men?

the wilful/blind (?) optimism of transcendentalism--
how does it respond to experiences, such as those of Pip, praying to "thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear!"?

the degree to which/ways in which transcendentalism
is a historical revision of Puritanism--

replacing the "regret/expiation/penance" of lives like Dimmesdale's with...

two key ideas we didn't arrive @: "Insist on yourself; never imitate."
"The primary wisdom is Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions."

II. Today we discuss the work of Emerson's "disciple."

Some initial reactions:
Laura O.: Margaret Fuller is the type of reading I envisioned doing at Bryn Mawr College all the time. Ra ra feminism! :) I think she's spot on with so many issues, I can't wait to hear what the rest of the class thinks. One quick note--she mentions other races, a point Emerson missed completely and his forgetfulness was questioned in class...hmmm, I'd like to say it's her 'feminine' awareness of relations that causes her to incorporate others (shocker, I know) in her theory, but that's just my bias.

Catherine: I think Laura and I have the same notion. As soon as I started reading, all I could think was, "God! This is soooo Bryn Mawr." I especially loved the dialogue she wrote at the beginning that pointed out that it is a woman's choice, not her husband's to decide her duty is outside of the kitchen. I feel Fuller is the answer to every anti-woman joke I've ever heard..... and I've been looking for a good comeback for a long time.

??: I'm surprised that we didn't read Fuller earlier in this class. I can see how she could relate to some of the earlier texts we read (Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom's Cabin, possibly Turn of the Screw), but I'm not sure I see how her essay relates to that of Emerson's. I enjoyed reading this essay and agree with Laura that this essay seems very "Bryn Mawr", but I'm kind of disappointed that this is where we ended....Fuller seemed very typical to me. And by typical I mean I didn't feel like she said anything new or anything that particularly touched me. I would be hard pressed, I think, to find a sentence in this essay to turn into a Fibonacci poem....I will be interested to hear what everyone else thinks of Fuller and if they found her to be more impressive than I did.

Marina: I didn't like reading Fuller. She seemed like a major feminist and that made me crazy! I don't get very riled up when anti-women references and I think that is probably because women also make anti-men comments. I know that Fuller was trying to show the oppression of women, but I think it was just too much for me. In the writing they likened the oppression of women to that of slaves and I agree that Fuller made it seem like that, but I don't think it was that bad for women. It almost seemed like an insult to slaves. I enjoyed reading the parts about fathers bringing their daughters up encouraging gaining knowledge and it was hard to read about the father who wanted to keep education from his daughter. On the other hand, that was part of the times and he was looking out for her in a way that he thought would be best for her future so as she would be safe and taken care of when he was gone, unfortunately most women don't see that side of the argument, they just get angry and think he was trying to keep her down.
From Christina Zwarg's
Feminist Conversations; Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading (1995):
  • Fuller expressed herself in conversation (vs. Emerson: in sermons)
  • her public speaking was conducted largely behind closed doors in "Conversations" (1841-1844):
  • participatory lectures in which she would inspire her audience, by discoursing on a selected topic, then try to engage them in dialogue
  • Emerson: "Her powers of speech throw her writing into the shade....
  • Margaret, whenever she came, fused people into society, & a glowing company was the result.
  • When I think how few persons can do that feat for the intellectual class, I feel our squalid poverty."
  • When Fuller died (@ 40), Emerson wrote, "I have lost in her my audience."

From Ahab's Wife, where she serves
as one of the two primary tutors for the title character:
How the mind flies forward and backwards when writing, and forward again to Margaret Fuller's invitation to join her....I had been standing...before the shop of a bookseller...when a strange woman stopped beside me, also to page the books. "You're reading Montaigne's Essays," she noted. I replied, "I like the reality he assigns to thought." The sentence just slipped out; I hadn't known I thought it till I looked into her asking eyes. "Thus epic journeys are made," she answered, "in the mind." I nodded. "But we need to see new things," she went on, "to have new thoughts....I invite you." (106)

The stitching on a quilt can diverge wildly from the track of the color pattern; to a quilter, the essential form is that made by the stitching. This, too, will be Margaret Fuller's insight:
Margaret defended the gray engravings as yet allowing the form of those distant masterpieces to be available to us...."perhaps form is the more essential element," she suggested. I thought, though, of the clouds in the sky, and how they moved me, whether or not they assumed form, and I advanced the notion that art had both emotional and intellectual force. "Emotion may be embodied more readily in colors," I said, "while ideas might reside in the relationships of the forms to each other." (377)

At the end of the novel, Una asks Margaret Fuller, "to what extent we model our lives from our reading?" (417). What roles do stories such as those we've read together play in your evolution as a human being? As mirrors onto which you project--or from which you incorporate--various (possible) aspects of self? (If so, what stories have shaped who you have become? I'll start: Gone with the Wind. Jane Eyre. The Scarlet Letter. Moby Dick. Ahab's Wife. Beloved. Paradise etc. etc. etc.--the pattern's pretty obvious here!)

Other topics for further (small group) discussion:
  1. Who are the parties in the lawsuit ("Man versus Men; Woman versus Women").
    And how is it decided?

  2. "Edgar Allen Poe divided humanity into three classes: 'men, women, and Margaret Fuller'....The Great Lawsuit is an act of textual transvestitism." "transvestism in narrative signals a category crisis, 'a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, permitting border crossing from one apparently distinct category to another'" (Marjorie Garber)
  3. What do you think of this claim? "Fuller's Transcendentalist critique took 'Self Reliance' to its logical politically feminist conclusion."

  4. Who might be the "gardener," if the existing order stunted the development of both sexes?

Topics for further (large group) discussion:
  • What role do emotion, intuition and instinct play in Fuller's philosophy?

  • How tiresome (how unecological? impracticable?) do you find her position, that there are no limits to growth!?


My reading/talking notes on Margaret Fuller:
  • the title of "The Great Lawsuit"--"it required thought to see what it means, prepared the reader to meet me on my own ground"
  • "The Great Lawsuit" was not between the sexes, but between the developed individual & accepted group/gender role; between ideal self and actual one
  • Fuller describes a necessary period of celibacy, of self-cultivation, for all thinking women, as preparation for a sibling-like (equal, meaningful) union w/ a man ("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....Woman, self-centred, would never be absorbed by any relation; it would be only an experience to her as to man.")
  • the fully developed soul would possess both sides of the "great radical dualism": be androgynous (Fuller flirts w/ sexual stereotypes--socially conditioned, the result of social roles?)--women's "especial nature" is spiritual, instinctual
  • and then Fuller reverses the usual valuation: those make woman a better Transcendentalist (for whom the highest mode of knowing, higher than rationality, was intuition: the final authority is what we know instinctively)
  • disciple of Emerson, who argues fr. divine law: souls are infinite, minds God-given, energy divine (end of self-culture=development of divine will; "self reliance"=reliance on God/live first for God; character development for sake of divinity at core of identity of each of us)
  • Fuller applies Emerson's apolitical, asocial Idealism to the condition of women, and calls for social equality
    • to fulfill spiritual potential
    • to perfect life of the growing soul/enable free life of the spirit
    • to eliminate social limits, barriers to opportunities for women's development, expansion
    • women need increasing range and power
  • the fully developed soul would be androgynous, possess both sides of the "great radical dualism...perpetually passing into one another....Will there never be a being to combine a man's mind and a woman's heart....'Tis an evil lot to have a man's ambition and a woman's heart.... the woman's soul ...houses both the Muse and the Minerva...her "intuitive powers" coupled with her "placid brow," her "continence."
  • context: response to Jacksonian populism, ideals of democracy, excesses of mob rule and to Puritan teachings on depravity and original sin

Margaret Fuller Bibliography:

Revised Schedule for final performances:
Tuesday, Apr. 25:
Group 1: Angeldeep Kaur, Laci Hutto, Adina Halpern, Emily Feenstra, Catherine Wimberley
Group 2: Steph Herold, Catherine Durante, Alison Reingold, Marina Gallo
The A Team: Margaret Miller, Lauren Sweeney, Laura Sockol, Jorge Rodriguez, Sky Stegall
Thursday, Apr. 27: Group 3: Alice Bryson, Jill Davis, Amy Stern, Anna Mazzariello
Group 4: Jackie O'Mara, Laine Edwards, Jessica Rosenberg, Chris Haagen
Group 5: Marie Sager, Erin Bagus, Laura Otten, Allie Eiselen

Final take-away thought, from Marina (thanks!):
"none of us have to be very good to be considered good at what we do."

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