Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"The Animating Influences of Discord": Margaret Fuller in 1844

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"The Animating Influences of Discord": Margaret Fuller in 1844

Article excerpt

On 20 December 1844, readers of the New York Tribune, engaged by the usual miscellany of a newspaper--an article on prison reform by Lydia Maria Child, news of anti-slavery activities in Kentucky, and notices about lectures and amusements--would have also noticed two items, appearing side by side in columns on page two. In one column appears an indignant letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson protesting what he saw as the Tribune's inadequate coverage of Massachusetts Judge Samuel Hoar's expulsion from South Carolina. Hoar, an emissary sent by the Massachusetts government, had failed in his efforts to lobby the South Carolina legislature to stop the practice of imprisoning free black sailors aboard ships from Massachusetts and then selling them into slavery. Emerson and others from Massachusetts were incensed by Hoar's treatment in South Carolina and unhappy with the initial coverage in the Tribune. In the next column appears Margaret Fuller's enthusiastic review of the New York performance of "Niagara" by the popular Norwegian violinist and composer, Ole Bornemann Bull, then completing a tour of the United States. The juxtaposition of the two columns is a suggestive moment in the histories of the intellectual lives of both Emerson and Fuller and raises important questions about their emerging and differing interests in social reform. Emerson, the scholar writing from his home in Concord, was deeply committed to self-reliance and suspicious of reform movements. Here he publicly supports organized protest and offers a spirited defense of Hoar, whom he perceived as taking heroic action against a slave state. Fuller, in her new position as an editor for the New-York Tribune, was on the verge of embracing the social causes that would become her central concern in both New York and Europe. At this moment, however, she is deeply involved in writing a series of articles on literature and culture. What professional experiences of Fuller's in 1844 shaped the writing of this and other articles? What does her correspondence, especially with Emerson, reveal about her intellectual concerns during the year? In this essay, I argue that Fuller's primary preoccupation during this crucial year in her life was in defining the proper role of the scholar in a society in need of reform. In her journal, her letters to Emerson and others and eventually in her articles for the New-York Tribune, Fuller tests a variety of propositions and positions that pave the way for the sophisticated social critic she would eventually--but not immediately--become. A study of her journal, letters, and articles during this year also reveals new insights into the vexed question of when and how Fuller became interested in the most pressing reform issue of the day: abolition.

THE "ESPECIAL IMPORTANCE" OF 1844

Scholars have increasingly regarded the year of 1844 as a transformative moment for Fuller, often seeing it as an annus mirabilis, a time of spiritual crisis and conversion, as well as a time of deep personal disappointment about the men in her life. (1) Jeffrey Steele, for example, sees the late spring of 1844 as a "crisis" for Fuller in terms of her life as a woman. That three of the important women in her life gave birth, he suggests, reminded her "of the personal expense of the unconventional lifestyle she had chosen for herself" (170). In addition, 1844 marked the end of the most intense years of the friendship between Fuller and Emerson; afterwards, she and Emerson would see one another less and exchange far fewer letters. At the same time, Fuller clearly gloried in many aspects of her life, especially in her freedom as she contemplated the difficulties of a number of the marriages of her friends and especially that of her sister. Fuller herself noted in her journal for 1844 that she felt this time of her life was "one of especial importance" (J 56). (2) In our efforts, however, to mark particular moments in Fuller's life as pivotal and especially to respond to the recent push to convert her swiftly from Transcendentalist to sophisticated social critic, scholars may be smoothing over the complexities and fluctuations of Fuller's intellectual development, especially during this important year. …

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