2014 Summer Conversational Series: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius

john matteson1The Conversational series welcomed back a perennial favorite in John Matteson whose Pulitzer-prize winning book Eden’s Outcasts is a standard in Alcott scholarship. He has also written a fine book on Margaret Fuller called The Lives of Margaret Fuller; she was the focus of his presentation entitled “ ‘The Mind in the Full Glow of Power’: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius.”

Was Fuller a genius?

Fuller tackled an age-old problem: was genius for men alone? Although Fuller was probably the best-educated woman in America, she denied herself the mantle of genius. It was a source of great consternation to her; more on that a little later.

The evolving definition of genius

Matteson gave a brief history of the definition of “genius” and how it has evolved over the centuries. It was originally associated with pagan belief (coming from a more magic realm) and was considered contrary to the scriptures. It was generally believed that Genius was a personal god, directing the individual, a belief that endured in Fuller’s time. The meaning then morphed into what was considered a “good” genius versus an evil genius. Some felt genius was influenced by the stars.

The root of genius

Matteson pointed out that Genius and Genesis have the same root; Genesis only allows for one genius, God. Genius is polytheistic, each person having it. Therefore, Genius was considered a heresy since it was perceived to be against God.

Influence of Romanticism

samuel taylor coleridgeThe Romantic Movement influenced the change in the definition of genius. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a major influence in the Transcendental Movement, had a lot to say about genius, following up on Kant. Coleridge connected genius to the spiritual and the artistic. Talent was appropriating the knowledge of others whereas genius was original.

Genius and Transcendentalism

Genius to the Transcendentalist was divine in origin. Coleridge felt that genius needed be controlled whereas Emerson saw no need for genius to be hindered. Coleridge felt that genius was for men only but there were feminine traits. Genius is meant to inspire awe and the sublime; thus the results of genius were large and by nature, public, which placed it out of reach of women who never meant to be in the public sphere.

Unfulfilled potential

Fuller’s father was responsible for her incredible education but then felt he had created a “monster” and set her off to finishing school. Although she edited The Dial for Emerson’s Transcendental community, she was never paid for her work. Once she reached New York she was hired by a major newspaper as a correspondent. It was there that her gifts were finally appreciated and compensated.

Was there a genius to be found in America?

margaret fullerFuller felt that America had yet to produce a poetic genius. American literature and knowledge was yet to be respected. She felt that America’s diversity hindered its growth (moral and intellectual) with regards to talent and the higher pursuits. She did not find her criteria of genius being met in any American woman.

Fertile ground for genius

Transcendentalism felt that genius was the ultimate goal; Affiliated with this movement, Fuller used her conversation classes to cultivate and seek out genius in women. She discussed the meaning of gender thoroughly along with the question of genius. She also took up the quest of education for women. She did not see a lot of difference between what girls learned versus what boys learned but as Matteson pointed out, her training was unique. In general the education of girls was broader and shallower. Men were expected to “reproduce” what they learned; this is neglected for women. Fuller took up conversations to cultivate and grow education for women so that they too could “reproduce.”

Fear of genius

Female education led in the opposite direction from genius; male education cultivated talent but not genius. Creating something original was not encouraged, perhaps a leftover bias from the religious culture due to fear of the intellect.

Was genius moral?

Fuller maintained that genius demanded two forces – mad passion and ordered consistency. Genius was not merely to be held in awe but to be feared. While Channing held that genius was the highest order of good, Fuller believed there was a moral indifference with genius sometimes delighting in evil. It occurred to me that if genius was considered amoral, even evil, it would make sense why society would not associate it with women who were commissioned to tame their men and make them adhere to moral values. How could a woman do that and be a genius?

No women geniuses?

the lives of margaret fullerFuller believed that a woman should cultivate her talents and intellect. A female genius was possible but she never was able to identify any woman as such. As an example, Fuller was well versed with music but could not name a woman composer.

Genius out of reach?

Fuller did not believe she was a genius despite the fact that she felt herself to be one of the greatest minds in the country. This was devastating to her. Her father saw the potential and crammed her head with everything possible. Her sense of self and her emotional well-being depended on the growth of her potential. She did not see herself however as original and this was very hard for her.

Did no one measure up?

Transcendentalism was infused with the binary, such as genius versus talent, finite versus infinite, etc. In Emerson’s mind one had to be a genius to be a part of his circle; therefore he obviously felt that Fuller was a genius. Fuller tasted all the loneliness of being exceptional but never the satisfaction of being exceptional. If she was not a genius, could anyone achieve it? Her own mind was the yardstick, the utmost development of the female mind and yet she did not believe herself to be a genius; thus there were no women she could call a genius.

Promoting genius

If Fuller could not be a genius, she would promote others who were, using her writing skills; she became a critic (he critic is the younger sibling of genius). She believed as a critic that she must be well-versed in all the forms she critiqued. For example, she could not critique a poem if she was unable to write one herself. The critic must be very observant. Fuller was the chief critic for a NY publication.

The ideal for women and men

Like many women, Fuller believed women were imprisoned by being subservient; she also believed that men too were imprisoned because of this concept. Her ideal was that men and women would relate to each other as equal partners so that both could be freed from convention (something Louisa desired, writing about it in Work A Story of Experience through the marriage of Christie and David). Parties would meet mind to mind; mutual trust would be needed. Seeing marriage as an intellectual communion, it would become a pilgrimage. Fuller married later in life (though a legal marriage has never been confirmed) to Giovanni Ossoli, a younger man she met as a foreign correspondent in Italy. One wonders if she found that intellectual communion she sought in a partner and how that marriage would have fared had she lived longer; tragically she, Giovanni and their baby were drowned in a shipwreck.

Can each of us possess a little genius?

As all of us listened, wondering if genius existed in us or perhaps lamenting that it did not, Matteson ended his presentation on a hopeful note: Fuller did not believe one had to be a genius to possess genius. It is entirely possible to cultivate our own genius.

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Thanksgiving memories from one of Abba Alcott’s best friends, and an interesting parallel with Little Men

Lydia_Maria_Child

Lydia Maria Child

One of Abigail Alcott’s best friends was author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. A successful children’s author in the mid 1800s, Child is best known for a poem about Thanksgiving, part of which is set to music:

Here is an image from her three volume book called Flowers for Children, of the first few stanzas:

lydia marie child thanksgiving 1844

You can read the entire poem here.

Didactic tales for children by Lydia Maria Child

juvenile miscellanyUndoubtedly the Alcott children had to have read Child’s works since the families were so friendly with each other. Flowers for Children, a collection of Child’s favorite stories and best known articles from her successful juvenile magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, contain moralistic stories for children. Didactic tales for youngsters were the norm for the day and Louisa was influenced by them in her own writing for children.

Could this story have influenced Little Men?

christ child and the poor childrenIn reading the first story, “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children,” I was struck by the many similarities between this story and Little Men. “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” is the story of a group of very poor and disadvantaged children, some of whom are turning to crime. Heinrich and his little sister Gertrude come from a dysfunctional family where the father is a mean drunk and the mother taken to fits of insanity. Wolfgang is the neighborhood bully. We encounter the Christ-Child at Christmastime when Heinrich and Gertrude receive a rare gift of money; they purchase apples, nuts and green boughs to create a Christmas tree. Gertrude offers thanks to the Christ-Child for providing the means. Unfortunately, Wolfgang spoils everything by stealing the apples and nuts from the children.

The gift of money had been provided by an older man who runs a home for orphans with his wife. Eventually the three children become a part of that home, working at trades to earn their keep and contributing to the family home. Heinrich and Gertrude’s parents eventually join them. Wolfgang struggles with trying to resist his formerly evil ways and falls from grace on numerous occasions, only to be forgiven and taken back by the community. Eventually he reforms his life.

Interesting parallels

littlemen03I’m sure already you can see the similarities between this story and Little Men. For me,

  • Heinrich reminded me of Nat. Both are sensitive boys.
  • Gertrude resembled Bess in appearance but reminded me more of Daisy because of her eternal optimism and innocence.
  • I instantly thought of both Dan and Jack when introduced to Wolfgang: Dan because of Wolfgang’s physical build and willfulness and Jack because of what he did (he stole Tommy’s money and let Dan lie about it to protect Nat) and because of his contrition.
  • “Father” and “Mother” in the story instantly brought to mind Professor Bhaer and Mrs. Jo. The god-like quality of “Father” made me think of Bronson. Plumfield was not unlike this home for orphans.
  • The camaraderie of the poor children smacked of all the boys at Plumfield along with Daisy and Nan.

Undoubtedly, stories like “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” were a common part of the reading diet of the Alcott children. It just struck me as amusing that the very first story I pick up mirrors Little Men in so many ways.

Many of you are far more knowledgeable than I am about the
didactic literature of Louisa’s time, and the influences on and origins
of Little Men –
What other stories might have influenced Louisa May Alcott in her writing of juvenile tales (besides her own)?

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Questions, questions … (part one)

Before I begin, thank you for your part in the extraordinarily successful launch of my new blog, Be As One: A Single Flow … The stats were encouraging and that’s a massive understatement! Thank you.

Involvement in my new blog dampened my passion for Louisa but only temporarily. It only takes reading a page or two in a biography to fuel the fire back up again.

A question

I am so enjoying reading Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography slowly, just a few pages at a time because of the amount of information within. Reading between the lines, I always come up with questions. After reading only six pages yesterday (pages 164-170), I came up with a couple that I hope you can answer.

Women authors and how they approached writing

Here’s the first question: Did other famous women authors such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton approach writing the way Louisa did, as a business?

From potboilers to children’s stories

Stern suggests the thought process Louisa went through before accepting the job as editor of a children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum. She had little or no experience writing literature for children (with the exception of Flower Fables and The Rose Family). How could “A. M. Barnard,” the potboiler author edit a magazine for children?

The build-up

The owner of Merry’s Museum in rolling out the new and improved version of the magazine touted his new editor as “the brilliant author of Hospital Sketches, who had hardly an equal and who had no superior as a writer for youth in the country.”

He had high expectations and Louisa would live up to them.

What was Louisa thinking?

Stern writes,

Perhaps the editorial work would extend her skill in writing and selecting material. It would at least give her a public that, with the exception of Flower Fables, her stories had never known. Children might prove fruitful critics, and possibly she might be able to combine her editorial responsibilities with writing for Mr. Niles [of Robert Brothers – she had already received his request to write a book for girls]. Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at the Orchard House. Besides, Louisa would have the opportunity of living in Boston to be nearer Mr. Fuller’s office on Washington Street [he is the owner of Merry’s Museum]. Washington Street had marked many a milestone in her varied literary career as “A. M. Barnard” and L. M. Alcott. Perhaps another milestone would be reached. (pg. 164, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Learning her trade

Her work on Merry’s Museum showed Louisa that she could learn to write for children and mastered the formula. It gave her the confidence to embark on Little Women.

All business

Stern presents Louisa as a hard-headed business woman with mercenary designs. Many have lamented how she did not want to write Little Women but she did, for the money. And that’s not all bad.

Great instincts

Louisa had an instinct for business even though she had no experience in the business world, nor did she actually known many in that world. Yet she made very smart decisions with regards to writing, trying any genre she could, hoping she would find the one she’d eventually master.

Mastery

Little Women proved that she could; she became The Children’s Friend.

I find it quite interesting that she seemed to know all the right decisions to make in order to make her “business” of writing successful.

And that’s why I posed the question of whether or not other successful women authors of that time and before, had approached writing in this way.

I admit that I am not well-read beyond Louisa May Alcott so I’d love to know, from you, about these other women and how they made a go of their writing.

In the next post, I’m going to pose the second question question regarding younger sister May, prompted by a single line in Madeleine Stern’s book.

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