Margaret Fuller's First Conversation Series: A Discovery in the Archives. (from the Archives)

By Ritchie, Amanda | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Margaret Fuller's First Conversation Series: A Discovery in the Archives. (from the Archives)


Ritchie, Amanda, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


One of Margaret Fuller's unpublished manuscripts cataloged by the Houghton Library at Harvard University as a reading journal is not a reading journal at all. Instead, this document presents the fragmentary record of a prototype for the first series of her now-famous Boston conversations. The manuscript proves that Fuller planned and then presided over four meetings on the subject of art in the spring or summer of 1839, several months before her conversations began in earnest. The journal, erroneously called Reading Journal O, is housed in Houghton Library's Fuller archive. (1) It consists of eleven pages written on folded sheets, recognizably in Fuller's hand. Because the manuscript is relatively short, it is transcribed and published here in its entirety. I have sought to reproduce the document as exactly as possible, and for that reason, it will be helpful to explain Fuller's idiosyncratic shorthand and explore some possible explanations for her word choices and her phrasing before proceeding to the docum ent itself.

Fuller made frequent use of slashes (/) in this manuscript and elsewhere in her private writings. These slashes generally do not indicate line breaks but instead seem to have been Fuller's somewhat unusual way to denote the insertion of a related thought, or even the introduction of an entirely new subject. Because Germany was the topic of discussion at this first series of Conversations, Fuller occasionally used the German character "[beta]" instead of the English "ss," even though she was writing in English. In at least two and possibly in three or four cases, Fuller very likely was thinking in German at the same time she was writing in English, and her blending of the two languages produced some rather strange results. In those cases where she was thinking German and writing English, Fuller either inserted a seemingly improper preposition, or she wrote a slightly odd-sounding English phrase. The instances where Fuller probably was thinking in German and simultaneously writing in English have been marked, and the most likely explanations for them have been given in footnotes. Translations of individual German words and phrases in square brackets are my translations. Finally, it should be noted that Fuller left the title of one piece in the original German, and the translation of that title is the preferred English translation. My transcription of the Reading Journal O manuscript follows:

[No date; no title]

1st reading from works of Goethe. (2)

-- In every new thing I undertake I have to serve an apprenticeship before

I can learn to content myself with doing little enough. [up arrow] For [down arrow] To (3) this eve g I did not use a quarter of the materials I had collected.

I gave them a short acct of Goethe's advantages of position for observation on these subjects as also (4) of the way in which nature and education had combined to form him to an observer.--I spoke of the woes of his falsche [false] tending (5) in acquainting him with the technical part. I said that if he ever went astray it was, moi, that he so loved gradation and natural growth that he hated miracles, and showed [up arrow] of [down arrow] what use this had been to him on the other side. (6)

I spoke of his view of the uses of a half-knowledge (7) and mentioned what Mr Alston said on the other side (8)

I showed why people on first knowing him undervalue his profoundest remarks / because he never comes to impose or make a point, and you must see how one thing bears on another in his thought to appreciate him at all, He will not let you stay in your own place but draws you to himself "und fort und fort" [and onward and onward]. But if you are one of any worth you can return from him more easily than from almost any strong man, for the very nature of his genius forbids your mingling in his stream.

I then read a part of the Laocoon, showing what a work of art was in his view, and what his way of viewing it. …

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