Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Forty Years with Margaret Fuller

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Forty Years with Margaret Fuller

Article excerpt

Mutual interpretation--one of Margaret Fuller's signature values has marked the history of her reception ever since her revival in the 1970s. In these forty years, Fuller scholarship has kept pace with--or led--emerging trends in feminism, literary theory, and ways of delineating fields of study.

Privately I sometimes fancy that she and I are a double helix spiraling around these lively years. This period has dynamically altered the figure Fuller cuts and has changed my political and intellectual life as well. My forty-years' love affair with Margaret Fuller has often been broken off, but it fires up again as she reappears--or I seek her--in new guise.

At Wellesley College in the mid-fifties, a thirsting provincial from Staten Island, I excelled at close reading, the reigning pedagogical approach of the time. Of course, the New Criticism did not require that we know political or social history or biography. Even curiosity about these contexts was not encouraged. My meager preparation in these areas was no handicap. Now some of us believe that this detachment from context was a prudent and clever response to the McCarthy period. Ambiguity, ambivalence, and irony suited an intellectual temper fearful of social criticism and left-leaning commitments. (1)

In a Yale graduate seminar in 1958--during the prehistory of my generation's feminism--I first ran across Fuller; more accurately, I backed into her. It was an inauspicious beginning. Preparing a lecture on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance for the seminar, I read that two of Hawthorne's female characters had been in some way influenced by Margaret Fuller who some critics characterized as a slightly ridiculous blue stocking or a self-deceived sex-starved spinster. In the narrow New Critical spirit, I took no interest in biography or social issues but explored the generic tension between realism and romance, the ambivalence of the unreliable narrator, and the ambiguous imagery. I considered the female figures, Zenobia and Priscilla, only as they served these themes. My lecture was an unqualified success.

New York city, where twenty months have presented me with a richer and more varied exercise for thought and life, than twenty years could in any other part of these United States. (Fuller, New-York Tribune, WM 348)

As soon as I settled in New York and began teaching at Queens College in 1961, my political education began. My Queens students and some friends in Manhattan taught me the politics of opposition. We marched against bomb-shelters and nuclear testing.

The murder of four children in Birmingham thrust me overnight into the civil rights movement--first doing community organizing with Downtown CORE, then with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's voter registration drive in Mississippi. My life shifted course. But there seemed no way to integrate my new passion with my work. Even teaching my most exciting class on European modernism, I felt divided. Then, after leaving Queens for Sarah Lawrence, I began teaching ex-felons, mostly black, at night. Later still, my classes in both an experimental ghetto college and the Westchester County Penitentiary were gratifying, and they taught me how much I had to learn about black history and literature. Despite my training chiefly in British literature, I reinvented myself as an Americanist. My own crash course bore fruit in my Sarah Lawrence course, Racism and the American Imagination. Meanwhile I published pieces in the Village Voice on civil rights, anti-war activists, and imprisoned students.

In the late sixties, friends began to ask why, with the women's movement emerging, I was so preoccupied with race. What about women, they asked, women like yourself? You can only fight for others? I was dismayed by friends who thought sexism was more fundamental than racism. I still resist that judgment. But I formed a women's consciousness-raising group with friends. …

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