Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Reconfiguring "Public Attention": Margaret Fuller in New York City

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Reconfiguring "Public Attention": Margaret Fuller in New York City

Article excerpt

While many urban essayists focused upon descriptions of city streets, Fuller--following in the footsteps of her friend Lydia Maria Child--was interested less in recording the sights of the city than in measuring the limits of urban vision. Dedicated to social change, she supplemented vision with multiple organs of perception--the heart, the soul, and the imagination. Resisting the obvious temptation to focus only on visible spaces of the city, Fuller reveals that the image of the "urban panorama" as a continuous spatial field is a fiction that sutures the social and political divisions. As she confronted the discontinuous spaces of the modem metropolis, Fuller moved far beyond spectatorial observation--which objectified the persons and places visible in an urban panorama--to include aspects of urban experience that were discontinuous or invisible. Focusing on the links between public awareness and social change, Fuller began adapting to urban life Transcendentalist models of individual self-reliance. In place of the self-reliant individual tapping into and utilizing the unconscious energies of the Oversoul, she dramatized herself as the journalist whose public reflections brought to the surface unseen political energies located in the communal psyche of the body politic. This process of political investment depended upon Fuller's keen understanding of what she termed "public attention"--the field of communal interest generated through texts focusing shared concern onto specific cultural issues and problems. Molding public attention, Fuller's New-York Tribune essays doubled vision, lifting readers above the sights of the city, by supplementing the immediacy of experience with parallel planes of reflection. She models for her readers processes of compassionate witnessing that bring the poor and institutionalized into the perceptual field of middle-class urban consciousness. In the process, she breaks down barriers that relegated the disabled, insane, and criminalized to preserves cut off from the city's collective gaze, creating a modified form of Transcendentalist idealism that I term "sentimental Transcendentalism." This mode of writing surpasses merely visual modes of representation by measuring the distance between visible urban realities and invisible standards of response. It creates a 'stereoscopic' overlay by pairing visible scenes with imagined analogues--whether models of sympathy, imaginary vistas, or historical echoes. The resulting double exposure places Fuller's readers in two places at the same time--in the immediate, visible city and in a 'virtual city' available to the mind's eye.

In this essay I focus on an obscure New-York Daily Tribune column written by Margaret Fuller and published roughly two weeks before her well-known review of Frederick Douglass. Fuller's review of Lucy Duff Gordon's translation shows not only her range in topic (in this case, a consideration of French colonial practice) but also how she writes through the moment when Walter Benjamin's famous "aura" was losing ground against modern modes of production. The extended quotations juxtaposed in Fuller's review have about them a visual or dramatic quality, as if Fuller reaches forward toward the inclusion of photographs in newspaper reports. Yet the odd resemblance she establishes between the passages reaches backward toward the narrative disruptions of the epic simile. A great deal is at stake in these associations, both for our understanding of Fuller and for our thinking about the critical tools of Walter Benjamin, whose reading habits blend nicely with Fuller's. Both took an interest in the utopian theories of Charles Fourier, both found efficacy in the task of the translator, and each geared their social critique to the seismic shifts shaping the cultural productions of their day. Fuller's citations from The French in Algiers target those attributes for which Benjamin will later fault the newspaper itself: the reduction of life's collective texture and experience to mere "information" for shallow consumption. …

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