Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Margaret Fuller's Conversations: Speaking as Revision and Feminist Resistance

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Margaret Fuller's Conversations: Speaking as Revision and Feminist Resistance

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Conversation as a means to social, intellectual, and spiritual self-culture was advocated during the American Romantic period by members of the Transcendental movement. Margaret Fuller was a transcendental conversationalist who challenged the theoretical setting and practice of self-culture, remedied the gap in it about concepts of womanhood that were imposed by the culture of the time and that attempted to determine women's place in the symbolic order, and placed an emphasis on self-knowledge, whatever the subject matter. She came to represent a rhetoric whose aim was to foster community, moral truths, ethical actions, and feminist resistance. Fuller fully subscribed to the idea of the revelatory power in conversation and provided women with an opportunity to develop the intellectual rigor necessary to establish their own identities in the world: public or private. Through her weekly conversations for Boston women, held from 1839 through 1844, she used conversation or speaking as revision to explore philosophical, aesthetic, and sociocultural questions and supplied access to education from which women were excluded.

Women who speak in public, if they have a moral power ... that is if they speak for conscience' sake, to serve a cause which they hold sacred ... subdue the prejudices of their hearers (Margaret Fuller, Woman in the nineteenth century, 110).

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A newborn baby begins his metamorphosis from hungry neonate to human child as he hears voices speaking. First, he responds with actions: his eyes look to the sound, his face turns to the speaking face, his hands gesture toward the speaker. Later, he coos and gurgles and exclaims; he acquires language. In all cultures and with all peoples, the child's humanity begins with the spoken word--spoken in conversation. Conversation, the dialogic exchange of information between individuals, is the first way we learn language and begin to understand ourselves and the world. Later, the spoken word provides the primary way by which we create, furthering or hindering, our personal and professional relationships. And if we are lucky, conversation also provides us with continuing intellectual and spiritual inspiration for this earthly life.

Conversation as a means to social, intellectual, and spiritual self-culture was advocated during the American Romantic period by members of the Transcendental Movement. From his early days as a peddler of wares in the South to his later years as a peddler of truths in the West, Amos Bronson Alcott thought of himself as a wandering talker. He also used dialogue in his classrooms as a technique to elicit truths from the mouths and minds of children. As he wrote his mother in 1839: "But I am living rather by Talking now, than by school: and shall be able, by and by, I think to live in this way entirely" (Alcott 1969: 41).

Alcott was not the only transcendentalist to live by Talking. Three years before she met Emerson or worked for Alcott, Margaret Fuller--more formally, Sarah Margaret Fuller, the Marchesa Ossoli--was talking and writing about the value of talking. In a letter to Frederick H. Hedge, she said: "Nobody can be more sensible than myself that the pen is a much less agreeable instrument for communication than the voice, but all our wishes will not bring back the dear talking times of Greece and Rome" (Fuller 1983, 1: 189). After serving as a recorder for some of Alcott's dialogues with children at the Temple School, Fuller tried to resurrect those "dear talking times of Greece and Rome" in weekly conversations for Boston women, held from 1839 through 1844.

While Alcott and Fuller were talking, Ralph Waldo Emerson analyzed the nature and power of conversation in his essays, lectures, and journals. Although Emerson's journals showed his ambivalence about participation in group conversations, his essays and lectures promoted the values of spontaneous, one-on-one dialogue, or liberal conversation, between friends. …

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