This post was written by Contributing Author and MFS Past President Phyllis Cole. The Margaret Fuller Society contributed a panel with the title “Where in the World is Margaret Fuller?” to the Annual Gathering of… More
This post was written by contributing author Dr. Christina Katopodis, who also presided on the panel.
On Sunday, January 9, 2022, the Margaret Fuller Society’s Ad Hoc Committee on Racial Justice hosted a virtual session at MLA 2022 on “Mattering in the Nineteenth Century and Beyond: Transcendentalisms, Racism, and Repair in the United States.” It was such a pleasure to moderate this round table discussion and to listen to exciting and even groundbreaking scholarship in the field. Read the paper abstracts and full bios for the panelists here.
Delivering a paper on “Transcendentalists and the Black Atlantic,” Dr. Katie Simon started us off with her discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson and whiteness studies. Dr. Simon focused especially on how Gilroy’s work on the Black Atlantic shakes up geographical stuckness in New England, pointing to the mass genocide of the transatlantic slave trade fueling national and global commerce, and goods sold in the “free” states made and grown by enslaved people.
Doctoral candidate Jessica Elkaim addressed Walt Whitman’s unreconciled racism, his problematic blindness to bodily difference and the corpsification of bodies in his writings in her presentation on “Whitman and the Republic of the Dead,” developed from a chapter in her dissertation at the University of Toronto in which she analyzes representations of corpses in nineteenth-century American writings.
Next, Andrea Walton of Illinois Central College traced the long genealogy of the Mammy stereotype from black face minstrelsy, Billy Kersand’s “Old Aunt Jemima,” Drysdale’s “Old Chloe” in Scenes in Georgia (1827) and more, to transvestite Mammy and asexual Mammy stereotypes. Her presentation on “Aunt Jemima: A Mascot for African American Femininity” tied this racist history to white complacency and tolerance and the systemic racism embedded in corporate America which continues to capitalize on racist stereotypes to sell products like pancake syrup.
Dr. Ben Bascom in “Empire of Smell: Douglass, Thoreau, and Queer Fungibility” called to our senses the smell of the Fitchburg railroad and the body of the author — Henry David Thoreau — who recalls readers to their own bodies through olfactory description. Dr. Bascom reminds us that when we smell we are taken over by otherness — the nose is an aperture that doesn’t close, much like the ears. His attention to the body reminded us of the humanity of these historical authors as well as how smell was racialized in the nineteenth century.
In “Miss Peabody’s Racism,” Dr. Mark Gallagher underlined the point that nineteenth-century antislavery efforts were not equivalent to actually calling for racial equality; in fact, some antislavery writings reinforced white superiority. His presentation illuminated the white supremacy embedded in Elizabeth Peabody’s writings (she was, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, late to abolitionism), particularly in her conception of the spiritual body. Dr. Gallagher argued that Transcendentalism can reinforce racism by not acknowledging the spiritual nature of nonwhite bodies.
PhD candidate Jacob Walters concluded the panel with his presentation on “Dark Vistas: Circles, Sketches, and The Penumbra of the Future in the Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois.” In his discussion of Du Bois’s megascope, his talk brought to center stage the “constellation of tensions” in the lives of all the authors and figures discussed in the session. In thinking of Du Bois’s double consciousness, unknowing, reorienting one’s viewing, and trying to find humanist universality through the fragments and glimpses of real lives, we all were reminded of the humanity of these authors, their uncertainties, their sometimes contradictory traits juxtaposed, and how they recall us to our own humanity as scholars and people in the world.
These authors were not perfect. They had bodies that smelled, opinions that changed, some ideas worth keeping and others worth critically reevaluating and problematizing. If we’re willing to treat them as complex and changing, they can help us to reflect on our common struggles, fight for equality, and resistance to injustice today.
Chair: Eagan S. Dean
Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, 1843 is remembered for its comparative approach to women’s gender roles across American regions and attention to scholarly process in its accounts of the Midwestern American “frontier;” at the same time, it performs crucial justificatory work for the “Manifest Destiny” model of Indigenous displacement and frames land as a resource to be mined for white feminist visions of vigor and economic independence–a vision which depends on the exclusion of Indigenous women from narratives of teleological progress. In light of this complex, fascinating, troubling legacy, the Margaret Fuller Society assembled papers for a special session engaging with the relationships among race, ecology, and feminism, in Fuller’s time and beyond.
Chip Badley and Kathleen Lawrence look to Fuller’s history and aesthetics to explain the intertwined philosophical and personal tensions which inform Fuller’s work as a woman philosopher and travel writer, and to reckon with the opportunities and burdens of that history, particularly in terms of the white gaze on Indigenous subjects. Lawrence Lorrain Mullen works to rethink white relationships to American land through a trans studies lens, reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” as an extension of Fuller’s regionalization/geologization of American gender, one with decreasing space for queerness, produced in part through the narrative disappearance of Indigenous nations. Reaching beyond the 19th century to address these very disappeared narratives, Chadha Brahem reads Leslie Marmon Silko’s late-20th century novels for the historical and contemporary workings of indigenous womanhood, ultimately arguing that an understanding of Pueblo gender categories reveals Silko’s route for the “reclamation of land, power, heritage and identity” through “female emancipation and sexual liberation.” Ultimately, this panel aims to stimulate conversation about the influences, impacts, and legacies of feminist understandings of the relationships between gender, race, and American land, especially in the Midwest and West.
Image credit: Sarah Freeman Clarke, “Arched Rock from the Water,” illustration #6 from Summer on the Lakes
A Message from MFS Past President Phyllis Cole:
It’s a great pleasure to let Fuller Society members know that on July 9 we presented our triennial Award for Social Service to pioneering journalist and educator Christina Asquith. The setting was our society dinner party at the American Literature Association meeting, with thirteen of us, including Christina and her ten-year-old daughter Marianna, gathered around a conversational table at Piattini in Boston’s Back Bay.
The Social Service Award recognizes ”extraordinary achievement in extending the social ideals advanced by Margaret Fuller,” and the award committee realized immediately that this year’s honoree had to be Christina Asquith. You may remember that in 2018 Megan Marshall offered an interview with Christina in Conversations, which you could access here. But now we have caught up with her more recent career as well.
Through the interview we heard about Christina’s amazing work in establishing the Fuller Project for International Reporting, designed to support the investigation of women’s issues around the world. Christina had personally experienced the difficulty of getting such issues recognized by major press outlets as a freelance reporter in Baghdad and Istanbul in the years after 2003. A decade later, reading Megan Marshall’s biography of Fuller as she organized this collaborative project was like ”gasoline poured on a simmering fire,” she said, and as a result the project honored Fuller in its official name. Christina Asquith served as editor-in-chief of the Fuller Project from 2014 to 2020, during which time the organization raised $5 million for its work—with more in the pipeline—and grew incrementally in scale and visibility. Some of their early stories concerned a Syrian girl who lost her violin and music career in the war, a tragically large number of Russian women murdered through domestic violence, and a Turkish woman with an MBA inheriting her father’s confectionary business. But Christina also landed a cover story in Time magazine (9-2-2019) about women living less far away, in the “Left Behind Economy” of waitress work for minimum wages in this country. By 2020 the Fuller Project had become an established part of the international press, and you can see its range of current publications here.
At this point, however, Christina was ready for a new initiative. The burgeoning of the Fuller Project, she felt, owed a lot not just to its unfolding in times of #MeToo, Mideast war, and Hillary’s well-publicized campaign. In addition, a new generation of women around the world was getting educated to use Twitter and the internet and do their own coding. And so she took on direction of the new Hack Club, an educational initiative to accelerate such literacy, through an alliance of school-based clubs around the world with the most advanced women in tech spaces, from bitcoin to artificial intelligence and space technology. “I wanted to be part of something radical,” she wrote to me about this in one email. We live in an internet-driven world; collectively we create a new kind of journalism, with many people rising with skill to tell their own stories. And yes, she assured me, this social justice campaign was equally in the spirit of Margaret Fuller. Our committee agreed right away! “Learning to code,” declares the club’s website, “is uniquely like gaining a superpower—turning you from a consumer of technology into a creator.”
And so the Social Service award recognizes Christina Asquith as both a journalist and an educator. At the dinner in Boston she was given a carved wooden plaque, as well as a modest donation to the Hack Club and lifetime membership in the Margaret Fuller Society. To Marianna we gave a book sack with the motto “Let them be sea captains,” courtesy of the website for Peter Reilly’s Fuller documentary. Christina warmly embraces her membership and hopes to stay in touch as we move forward toward an international conference on “Journaling for Justice.”
Three years ago the Social Service award was given to me (indeed given my name), recognizing work simply to further the society’s connection with the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House in Cambridge. As I hope you know, this was her birth home, not far from Central Square; but since the early twentieth century it has also been a service center for the working, often immigrant and economically struggling, people in its area. I’ve been happy to increase the contact between this place and Fuller’s legacy, including her own calls for justice to the poor. But this year, heading the search for the next recipient of the “Phyllis Cole Award for Social Service,” I have welcomed the opportunity to flip the picture and recognize communications about women around the world. Both are authentic Fuller. Writing to the Tribune from Rome in 1848, she described violence against women in the very midst of revolution as a subject she would take up again “if I live.” Instead, she had to rely on the efforts of others, among whom we’re happy to recognize Christina Asquith and her expanding network.
Please join me in welcoming Christina to the Margaret Fuller Society.
Past President, Margaret Fuller Society
On Sunday, January 9, 2022, at 1:45 PM-3:00 PM the Margaret Fuller Society will be hosting a roundtable at the 2022 Modern Language Association conference in Washington, DC about “Mattering in the Nineteenth Century and Beyond: Transcendentalisms, Racism, and Repair in the United States.”
This roundtable was organized by the MFS Ad Hoc Committee on Racial Justice, with Jana Argersinger taking the lead on liaising with MLA to organize the panel. Christina Katopodis (City University of New York) will be presiding.
We hope you will join us for what will surely be an exciting roundtable featuring new and relevant scholarship in the field. Below is a list of paper titles and abstracts, our presenters, and their bios. Topics include the Mammy stereotype, smell and queer fungibility in Douglass and Thoreau, Whitman’s corpses, transcendental racialism in E. P. Peabody, Black collectivist subjectivity in Malcolm X and Biggie, transcendentalists and the Black Atlantic, and democratic praxis in Du Bois’s “sketches.”
“Transcendentalists and the Black Atlantic“
Transcendentalists are often considered in relation to one another, and the lines of influence and descent hover close. This project recovers the generative cross-pollination of ideas across racial lines that actually took place. Paul Gilroy’s pivotal formulation of the black Atlantic offers a crucial theoretical starting place, though it’s rarely been considered in relation to Transcendentalism. Gilroy’s work helps us address the constitutive exclusions that underwrite a construction of nature as Transcendent and wild, one that Paul Outka suggests is a recoil from plantation pastoral, but others might argue emanates from the wider global capitalist system, one that would see both nature and black bodies as outside of culture, in zones of nonbeing. Christina Sharpe and Ian Baucom, following from Gilroy, both offer models for the kind of “wake work” that engages with contemporary reverberations of violence, erasure, and systemic exclusions within canon formation and scholarship itself. Using formulations of the black Atlantic, this presentation sketches lines of affiliation between worthies such as Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet E. Wilson, and William Wells Brown.
Katie Simon is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Georgia College, where she teaches courses in American literature and critical theory. She is also an Affiliated Faculty in the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at Georgia College. Her work on Thoreau and the black Atlantic appears in ESQ. Other publications appear in Women’s Studies and Bad Subjects.
“Aunt Jemima: A Mascot for African American Femininity”
While Mammy is a mascot for black women, she also helped answer the question that Deborah Gray White examines in her book, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, when she asks “What did it mean for black women to share some identity and disability of both black men and white women and yet be very different from both?” (White 5). Sojourner Truth’s much earlier “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention, she aids in answering this question. As a result, black women’s identities are a bit more defined. After Truth’s speech, black and white women unite in the common struggle for equality yet it simultaneously makes the dehumanization of the black woman slightly less palatable. This discussion will focus not only on the depictions of 19th Century Aunt Jemima in literary texts and minstrel shows, the ways that she connects to white women and black men, and how the tolerance of this image is a direct correlation to the consequences of the Mammy stereotype.
Andrea Walton has been an Illinois Central College instructor for eight years. While she is a Peoria, IL native, she spent most of her childhood in Wichita Falls, Tx. She earned her Associates Degree from Illinois Central College. She went on to attain both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Since earning her Graduate degree in 19th Century Gothic Women Writers, Andrea’s research, now, focuses more on Womanism.
“Miss Peabody’s Racism”
Some of the central figures of the Transcendentalist movement were known to have held some of the common racial prejudices of their time. Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a number of comments about race and racial development in his journals, while Theodore Parker assumes a white racial superiority in some of his writings. And it would appear that another of the coterie expressed, on at least one occasion, an opinion strongly influenced by the Romantic racialism of her day.
Not long before she was embroiled in the controversy surrounding Bronson Alcott’s Conversations with Children on the Gospels, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody created a controversy of her own in the pages of the Boston Observer and Religious Intelligencer (1835). In a “Sunday School Lesson,” Peabody tells several young children a shocking anecdote about the “badness” of enslaved people in Cuba who, according to Peabody, commit infanticide because their conscience is “so little and weak.” After a letter to editor George Ripley objects to her lack of sympathy, Peabody defends herself by saying her comments were not “said in scorn of the race,” but “stated as facts” that attest to the “appalling moral result” of slavery’s “denaturalization.”
While it is clear that ideas on racial equality do not always square with the Transcendentalists’ antislavery commitments, it may be worth considering how racist assumptions might inform more generalized constructions of race, especially as they serve the perfectionism of Transcendentalism’s moral vision. In her early devotional “The Life of Christ in the Soul of Man,” for example, Peabody states that Jesus undertook “a moral renovation of the race.” Moral transformation reflects a change in “the race” rather than in individuals, a view that would be indicative of Peabody’s Transcendentalism.
Mark Gallagher is a lecturer in the UCLA English Department, where he received his Ph.D. in English in 2021. He also teaches in the Rhetorical Arts program at Loyola Marymount University. His primary research interests are in nineteenth-century American literature, with a focus on Transcendentalism, religion and literature, and book history and print culture. His current book project examines the “affective transcendentalisms” of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.
Empire of Smell: Douglass, Thoreau, and Queer Fungibility
In his “Sounds” chapter in Walden, Thoreau rhapsodizes the commodities of global market capitalism through the smells of the Fitchburg Railroad. Thoreau writes: “I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe.” This bucolic representation of smell contrasts with two important moments from Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom: when he enters New York City only to feel a “sense of loneliness” and later when he describes the “Keen . . . scent of the slaveholder” who pursues fugitive slaves for profit. As a roundtable participant, I propose to frame the spatial and sensorial organization of smell as it constrains the movements of these two nineteenth-century figures. Their contrast highlights how particular affects make visible nineteenth-century racial structures of feeling. Thoreau configures smell as emitted from commodities on a global capitalist network whereas Douglass emphasizes how his own personhood is surveilled as an object in that market, one that marks a queer fungibility that elaborates insights from scholars Thomas Roach and Shannon Winnubst about neoliberal racism.
Ben Bascom is assistant professor of English at Ball State University where he teaches and writes about early and nineteenth-century American literature and culture and queer studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled “Feeling Singular: Queer Masculinities and the Early United States,” which tells an alternative account of the founding decades of the United States through focusing on the stories and writings of an eccentric and motley set of characters. Departing from the likes of Benjamin Franklin, whom tradition positions as a paragon of self-production, this book offers instead typologies of the failed inventor, the tragic outsider, the flamboyant pretender, the farcical exhorter, and the disaffected exile to make room for queer conceptualizations of early America.
“Whitman and the Republic of the Dead”
Primarily as a result of his radical poetics of inclusion, Walt Whitman has been refashioned into a posthumanist whose work is inclined toward a material monism that transcends racial and gendered differences. Yet the inconsistencies between his poetry and his life present a serious challenge to this view. As a workaround, critics have suggested that the racist views he espouses in his journalism, for example, simply open up new interpretations of his poetry as a complicated attempt to confront his own prejudices. In this paper, I want to take a closer look at these inconsistencies and suggest that his free and unrestricted engagement with the material do not mitigate Whitman’s practices of racialization—they compound them. In fact, I contend that the treatment of base matter in his poetry is precisely where his democratic vision falls apart. I read his poetic treatment of corpses in particular as an assimilationist move to neutralize the threats of gendered and racialized difference. The corpse appears, in Whitman, as a type of othered body that puts his abilities and ideals of kinship to the test. Despite sharing in the view that death is the great equalizer, where “we lie beyond the difference,” his limited gaze when it comes to corpses ends up disrupting his egalitarian fantasies and, by extension, his literary legacy.
Jess Elkaim is a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Toronto. Her paper is a modified version of the first chapter of her dissertation, which analyzes representations of corpses in nineteenth-century American writings. Her research interests include critical theory, necropolitics, narratology, and media studies.
“Dark Vistas: Circles, Sketches, and The Penumbra of the Future in the Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois”
This paper considers “the sketch” for W.E.B. Du Bois as a Romantic-Tragic mode of vision that engages the conflicting temporal and spatial scales of democratic engagement. Exploring the implications of Du Bois’ recurrent and consistent attempts to self-identify his writing as “sketches”, Walters reads Du Bois with and against Ralph Emerson’s Romantic “circle,” his metaphor for enlarged/idealist vision in the poem “Circles”, as well as William James’ critical, post-transcendentalist turn away from enlarged/idealist vision (what James calls the flattened “pictures” produced via idealism and illusions of imaginative transcendence). Rejecting either a Romantic vision of natural harmony and visual-enlargement or the Tragic focus on the irreducible difference between small-scale particulars, Du Bois offers a visual grammar for democratic praxis that is tragically-utopian. A democratic vision of transcendence, here, suggests not the final achievement of a transparent plane of knowledge but, rather, an opaque engagement with the pleasurableness of difference, where the critical self is sketched and re-sketched actively through engagements with perceiving and sensing others. Sketchiness, in turn, invests people and images with potential energy that signals no guarantees but offers critical resources for kinetic pictures of possible futures.
Jake Walters is a 5th year PhD student at Cornell University focusing on African-American intellectual and cultural history. He is currently writing a dissertation, tentatively titled “Strange Twistings of Soul: Emancipatory Experimentalism, Interdisciplinary Incalculability, and the Revolutionary Unknown in the Writings of W.E.B. Du Bois”, focusing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ theories of experimentation and experimentalism in their scientific, literary, and political guises at the turn of the 20th century. His dissertation examines connections and tensions between American and black diasporic engagements with the fluctuating border of scientific truth at the turn of the century, especially its implications for thinking about democratic praxis and metaphysical notions of human togetherness that emphasize affective energies over philosophical principles. He also explores connections between ideas of experimentalism and traditions of African-American cultural and intellectual production, particularly focused on the role of narrative emplotments – Romance, Tragedy, and Comedy – in the way experimental, speculative, and/or “risky” activity is framed and understood by African-American writers.
“Until Somebody Kills You: Transgressing Black Transcendentalism in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Life After Death”
Malcolm X and The Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie) produced seminally revered textual artifacts that were published after their tragic assassinations thirty-two years apart: Malcolm, his autobiography co-authored by Alex Haley (1965) and Biggie, his final studio album Life After Death (1997). As the legacies of both Malcolm and Biggie’s public and cultural work reflect a social impulse to periodize Black cultural history into binary conflicts (East Coast hip-hop versus West; Malcolm’s self-determination versus Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violence), scholars have adamantly worked to disrupt these binaries by assessing areas of collaboration and overlap. I read both The Autobiography and Life After Death in the Black transcendentalist tradition by highlighting how these cultural products emphasize the unity of the divine and human; these texts underscore the importance of subjectivity in the configuration of Black material experience. By transgressing aesthetic and temporal boundaries to place these two texts in conversation with each other, I demonstrate American transcendentalism’s failure to accommodate the parallel subjectivities of Black American experience. I suggest that the threat of retaliatory violence in The Autobiography and inner-city violence in Life After Death frame these texts’ unique rhetorical anxieties while conterminously organizing their exploration of the interstices of justice and personal redemption as purely subjective notions. I propose that Malcolm and Biggie’s respective expressions of Black American subjectivity that manifest from the mid-1960s to the present demonstrate the need to regard the repair and reclamation of Black identity and freedom as an ongoing and incomplete process whose revision and refashioning are constantly under review by these disparate cultural modes of Black expression.
Zachary Johnson is an English PhD Candidate at Southern Methodist University.
This year, the Margaret Fuller Society (MFS) is spending time getting to know its leaders and members who live all over the world. This month we honor the work of Dr. Leslie Eckel, who is Associate Professor and Honors Coordinator of English at Suffolk University.
Dr. Eckel teaches American literature, literatures of travel and migration, utopian and dystopian studies, first-year writing, and women’s and gender studies. She is currently working on two major projects: a monograph on utopianism in the long nineteenth century, and the Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Writings of Margaret Fuller with her co-editors Sonia di Loreto and Andrew Taylor. If you see Eckel on Zoom or at the next in-person conference, you might ask her about Atlantic literary studies, publishing and co-editing books, service-learning pedagogy, parenting, and even yoga.
We asked Dr. Eckel to tell us about what drew her to Margaret Fuller, and here is what she said: “I first discovered Fuller in a graduate seminar on Victorian poetry with the late Linda Peterson, who was a wonderful professor, as we were reading Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Fuller appeared in a footnote to the poem, and I wanted to learn her whole story! As I was starting my dissertation, I traveled to Rome and read Fuller’s dispatches from Europe for the first time while eating lots of Nutella on toast. … I love and appreciate Margaret Fuller’s ability to fuse intellectual pursuits with activism in a wider world. The turn she makes as she leaves Boston for New York is such an important part of this path, and she captures it when she writes in an 1845 letter to her brother Richard, ‘[I] wish to share and impel the general stream of thought.’”
In the next several years, Dr. Eckel would like the MFS to become more inclusive both in its membership and the conversations that our members have with one another. She believes that our current racial justice initiatives and planning for an international conference in 2023 are key steps in this direction.
During the pandemic, Dr. Eckel learned a great deal, including how to support her students more holistically as learners and as people, even via Zoom. The things she looks forward to doing most after the pandemic include: “Visiting faraway family and friends, exploring Legoland in Denmark with my son, and experiencing the next international conference with Fuller Society colleagues.”
We thank Dr. Eckel for her service and leadership and for sharing her time with us. If you would like to learn more about her work, see the resources she has shared with us below.
A documentary film, Margaret Fuller: Transatlantic Revolutionary, Risorgimento Productions, 2021, https://margaretfullermovie.com
An edited volume, The Edinburgh Companion to Atlantic Literary Studies, edited with Clare Frances Elliott, Edinburgh University Press, 2016, https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-the-edinburgh-companion-to-atlantic-literary-studies.html
An article, “Radical Innocence: Margaret Fuller’s Utopian Rome” in Transatlantica, no. 2, 2015, http://transatlantica.revues.org/7754
A chapter on “Fuller’s Conversational Journalism: New York, London, Rome” in my book Atlantic Citizens: Nineteenth-Century American Writers at Work in the World, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-atlantic-citizens.html
This post was written by Contributing Author Jenessa Kenway, a doctoral student at University of Nevada Las Vegas. Her dissertation work explores links between pastoral and botanical imagery and the expression of feminine consciousness.
I was deeply inspired by a 2018 conference organized by the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW). The conference showcased a dazzling array of feminine scholarship and women authors of every rank and file and it was my first time presenting a paper at a conference. SSAWW scholars introduced me to a new realm of the academic world and the interconnected nature of that world. I left with a hurricane of ideas, and two lasting things: friends in the Margaret Fuller Society and the idea for an art exhibit.
I was already interested in Fuller and the visual arts. The essay I presented, “The Visual Genealogy of Margaret Fuller,” explored Fuller’s feminine aesthetics and potential interest in women artists. I owe many thanks to the supportive Fullerites on the panel and in the audience whose friendly presence and support helped calm my nerves.
After my panel, I attended loads of others, one of which–a roundtable on Louisa May Alcott and the humanities–stood out from the rest. The presenters all covered innovative strategies for teaching Alcott that were applicable to literature in general. Last to present was Mark Gallagher, who overviewed the exhibition he put together for the UCLA Library for the 150th anniversary of Little Women. His exhibit displayed artifacts from Alcott’s life and showed Alcott’s continuing influence by featuring the work of women writers and leaders who were inspired by the rebellious protagonists of Little Women.
An art exhibit about literature: I was hooked. At the Friday night mixer, Gallagher generously shared with me more about his exhibit, and I began to plan my own.
My background is in visual art. In a former life, I pursued a career as a visual artist, that is until I discovered that I loved writing about art. I’ve come to realize that writing is as much an art form as the plastic arts. While they have their distinctive qualities, text and image share much in common and complement one another.
A literary art exhibit seemed to be the perfect way to merge my past with my present, the world of art with the world of literature. Soon Fuller’s visionary essay, “The Magnolia of Lake Pontchartrain,” became the narrative inspiration for my own exhibit: A Beauteous Tree: Margaret Fuller’s “Femality,” which was open at the Marjorie Barrick Art Museum from May 28 to July 24, 2021. You can take an informal tour of the exhibit here (opens in new window).
I envisioned a hybrid exhibit: text and images nested within a space that is itself a work of art. In the exhibit, a thick green band, like a green scroll or long segments of chalkboard, circumnavigates the entire display space, elevating quotations to the level of paintings. Strategically placed magnolia leaf accents create viewing areas further uniting text and image pairings.
The Magnolia tree of Fuller’s story explores the roots of feminine creativity through one of the oldest flowering trees on the planet. The use of a tree offers a means of expressing feminine identity while avoiding the gender indicators of the human body. The idea that feminine expression could occur without a female body, opens the story—and Fuller’s concept of “femality”–to a host of modern gender readings, of which she had never even dreamt, but nevertheless, renews the relevance of her work in our scholarly climate of diversity. This led me to organize the show around the magnolia story and Fuller’s concept of “femality.”
Like Gallagher’s exhibit, I was committed to showing how the literature of the past carries forward, impacting our lives today. I focused on tracking the appearance of Fuller’s concept of “femality” in other feminist texts and then paired these literary manifestations with works of visual art that enhanced the concept, providing a focal point for theory and story.
Thinking about how literature impacts us now makes me think about the different audiences of literature, from casual readers to university students to academic scholars. The format of an art exhibit was a good way to reach those different audiences and bring together different types of readers and find common interests. I think as scholars we don’t want to just be writing and making things for each other. It is important that the work of academia is accessible and has relevance and value to people outside of institutions.
In the wonderful zoom talk that she gave in conjunction with the exhibit, Dr. Christina Katopodis highlighted the benefits of biodiversity and the social and environmental dangers of allowing monocultures to dominate. People, plants, and insects thrive upon biodiversity that encourages, as Katopodis said, “diverse and vibrant” beings. At the 2018 SSAWW conference, within the Margaret Fuller Society, and in the organization of this exhibit, I experienced this vibrant diversity.
Activities during the zoom lecture demonstrated the diversity Katopodis talked about. She gave us three minutes and we each drew a magnolia flower that resulted in a host of floral interpretations that said as much about the one drawing as the flower they were thinking about. Later, we read passages from Fuller’s letters which included brief descriptions of plants such as amaranths, violets, and rose bushes. With each quote, we attempted to express the feelings and visuals of the plant imagery through the positioning of our hands and arms. In each exercise, we creatively expressed our observations. Watch the full lecture here (opens in new window).
For the exhibit, I held a drawing workshop on a Saturday afternoon, in which I talked about Fuller’s magnolia story, my own self-identification with the willow tree, and asked people to think about what they would look like as a tree. After a little hesitation, everyone began drawing. There was a tree with a fluffy bursting top; a long sinuous limbed tree of the savannah; a tree with ceremonial terracotta figures growing upon it, trees with hearts, lines of small trees representing children in front of big parental trees; trees blown by gusting winds. Each tree was different, and everyone was able to find their own tree self.
The SSAWW conference is, of course, unrivaled feminine diversity. And the smaller circles of SSAWW also demonstrate diversity and interconnection. At a special luncheon, there were tables occupied with an assortment of nineteenth-century literature societies including Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, many of whom also have ties with the Emerson and Thoreau societies. While I’m not a member of all of these groups, I am connected through the cross-sharing of CFPs and the general spirit of cooperation. Talking to one another and allowing members to mingle, encourages rich conversation and an interconnected scholarly community.
My initial hazy goal of putting together an art exhibit inspired by Fuller taught me about myself and the kind of scholar I want to be and the positive effect of sharing ideas. The ideas and people I met through today’s vibrant network of scholarship grew into a beautiful art exhibit.
Jenessa Kenway is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Nevada Las Vegas studying feminine aesthetics and interconnections between art and literature from the 19th century to present. Her essay “Talking with a Magnolia Tree: Margaret Fuller and American Transcendentalism” was published in the 2019 Norton UNLV world literature essay collection, Sing Goddess. Her work tracking beauty and the sublime in Elizabeth Stoddard’s Two Men won the 2020 Brooks-Hudgins award and she was awarded the Dorothy Mae Freischel scholarship for excellence in interdisciplinary scholarship, projects, and classroom instruction methods. Her essay on visual and literary superrealism in the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard was published in 2019 in Penn State’s interdisciplinary journal Soundings. She writes on art and culture for KNPR’s Desert Companion and teaches courses in composition and world literature.Support for the exhibition came from the UNLV Jean Nidetch CARE Center, a Nevada Humanities Project Grant, The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the WESTAF Regional Arts Resilience Fund, a relief grant developed in partnership with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support arts organizations in the 13-state western region during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the Margaret Fuller Society (MFS) is spending time getting to know its leaders and members who live all over the world. This month we honor the work of Dr. Lisa West, who is a professor in the Department of English at Drake University.
We asked Dr. West to tell us a little about herself, and here is what she said: “As an undergrad, I majored in English but also completed an environmental studies concentration, resulting in 3 years’ work (as paralegal then Public Relations) with the EPA. I went back to grad school with the intent of linking my interest in the environment to reading and writing. My most popular course at Drake is on the Salem Witch Trials. Originally designed as a palatable way to teach colonial texts to undergrads, it has become fascinating to them and me as a window into archives, history-telling, and a variety of concepts from “truth” to “trauma.” In my first visiting professor position, I lit the English department of Santa Clara on fire. Literally. I was xeroxing materials for class and the machine was not working well. I removed my originals and went to class in another building – only to see a firetruck outside the department on my return. And it wasn’t even incendiary stuff I was teaching…”
The next time you see her you might ask Dr. West about her work in environmental humanities, including the ecogothic, environmental literature, some basics in environmental history; Catharine Maria Sedgwick; the “mound-builders” site and writings about their ruins; and how she teaches the Salem Witch Trials.
When it comes to Margaret Fuller, Dr. West says she is inspired by Fuller’s “sheer love of learning and her avid reading habits.” She continues, “I am humbled by how she paired that voracious appetite with dedication to SHARING knowledge through conversations, translations, journalism, activism.”
In her role as Financial Officer, Dr. West keeps track of new and returning members and the society’s accounts. In addition to retaining the society’s current members, she “would like to see MFS focus on diversity of membership. I also would like to see a flexible and multi-faceted connection with the MF Neighborhood House.”
Finally, we asked Dr. West to tell us about one thing she did or learned during the pandemic that she is proud of. She responded, “My siblings and I started weekly family Zooms with each other, my Mom, and sometimes our kids. We all live in different cities, so this has been a lovely way to feel more connected to each other. I think is a Sunday night tradition we will keep.”
We thank Dr. West for her service and leadership and for sharing her time with us. If you would like to read her work, see the citations below.
“Six Lessons in Teaching Susanna Rowson’s Sincerity through the Just Teach One Project.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 34.1. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. 2017.
“The Nature of ‘The Flourishing Village’ in America: Prospects in Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie.” Literature in the Early American Republic. Volume 2. Brooklyn, NY: AMS Press, Inc. 2010.
“Toward a Political Ecology in Lydia Maria Child’s ‘Chocorua’s Curse.’” Gendered Ecologies: New Materialist Interpretations of Women Writers in the Long Nineteenth Century. Eds. Dewey Hall and Jillmarie Murphy. Intro. by Stacy Alaimo. Afterward by Jane Bennett. Clemson University Press, 2020.
“Susan Fenimore Cooper’s ‘Home Book of the Revolution’: Mount Vernon: A Letter to the Children of America, Patriotism, and Sentiment.” Susan Fenimore Cooper: New Essays on Rural Hours and Other Works. Eds. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Foreword by Lawrence Buell. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001, pp 39-60.
“Fragments, Ruins, and Artifacts of the Past: The Reconstruction of Reading in The Deerslayer.” Nineteenth Century Literary Criticism. Columbia, SC: Layman Poupard. Library Database. NCLC is part of the survey of criticism and world literature that is contained in Gale’s Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC), Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism (TCLC), Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 (LC), Shakespearean Criticism (SC), and Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism (CMLC). www.lpppub.com/nineteenth-century-criticism.
“Onlookers, Rescuers, and a ‘Melancholy Witness,’” Just Teach One, Common-Place: An Interactive Journal of Early American Life, American Antiquarian Society, 2019. http://www.jto.common-place.org/justteachone/
“Sentimental Fragments, Absence, and “Writing” Issues,”Just Teach One, Common-Place: An Interactive Journal of Early American Life, American Antiquarian Society, 2018. http://www.jto.common-place.org/justteachone/
“‘The Afric-American Picture Gallery’ Reflection,” Just Teach One African-American Literature, Common-Place: An Interactive Journal of Early American Life, American Antiquarian Society, 2015. http://www.jtoaa.common-place.org
Join the Margaret Fuller Society at this year’s American Literature Association hybrid conference, hosting partially in person and partially online. Read the full conference program (last updated on May 19, 2021) here, and register for the conference here. The Margaret Fuller Society has organized panels on “Women in the Nineteenth Century–Traveling, Writing, Speaking,” chaired by MFS Communications Director Leslie Eckel, and “Teaching and Practicing Feminism(s) in 2021,” chaired by MFS First Vice President Jana Argersinger.
Women in the Nineteenth Century—Traveling, Writing, Speaking, Saturday, July 10 @ 2:00-3:20 PM EST
Organized by the Margaret Fuller Society
Chair: Leslie Eckel, Suffolk University
“‘More Radical, Than Ever’: Fuller’s Voyage to Italy and the Transformative Experience of Love,” Alice de Galzain, University of Edinburgh
“’The shortest way of learning’: Knowledge, Class, and Audience in Maria Graham’s Journal of a Residence in Chile During the Year 1822,” Patricia Frick, Otterbein University
“‘Abilities and Disabilities’: Visions of Mission in Rebecca Cox Jackson’s and Caroline Crane Marsh’s Writings,” Etta Madden, Missouri State University
Teaching and Practicing Feminism(s) in 2021, Saturday, July 10 at 3:30-4:50 PM EST
Organized by the Margaret Fuller Society
Chair: Jana Argersinger, Independent scholar
“Feminist Genealogies, Feminist Pedagogies: How Fuller Teaches Us to Imagine Public Humanities in 2021,” Mollie Barnes, University of South Carolina–Beaufort
“Fourth Wave Feminism and Fuller’s ‘The Great Lawsuit,'” Amy Branam Armiento, Frostburg State University
“Silent Blight, Deadly Night: A Perfect Storm of Abuse, Neglect, and Accusation in the Works of Susan Glaspell,” Victoria Neff, Independent Scholar–Beaufort, SC
“Teaching Margaret Fuller’s Feminist Archive,” Jess Libow, Emory University
Margaret Fuller Society Business Meeting, Saturday, July 10 at 5:00-6:20 PM EST
You might also be interested in attending this panel, a pre-recorded virtual session, featuring a paper about Margaret Fuller:
Teaching Alcott: Alcott in Proximity to Other American Realists, Regionalists, Romantics, Prerecorded Session
The Louisa May Alcott Society
Moderator: Gregory Eiselein, Kansas State University
“Women in the Nineteenth Century: Revising Moods and Revisiting Margaret Fuller,” John J. Kucich, Bridgewater State University
“Teaching Alcott and Stowe: The Literary Activism of Regional Writing,” Elif Armbruster, Suffolk University
“The Possibilities of War and Death: Liminal Space in Alcott and Dickinson,” Gaynor Blandford, Berklee College of Music
“Alcott’s Proximate Circus: Class, Gender, and Race Under the Lilacs,” David Carlyon, Independent Scholar
“Sentimental Realism: Little Women, The Red Badge of Courage, and Postbellum Contexts,” Kristen Proehl, SUNY-The College at Brockport
Image via margaretfullerhouse.org
In keeping with the overall theme, “Thoreau and Diversity: People, Principles, Politics,” this year at the 2021 Virtual Thoreau Society Annual Gathering, the Margaret Fuller Society will sponsor the first of two sessions on “Woman Questions” on Thursday evening, July 8, to be followed by the second panel in the series sponsored by the Louisa May Alcott Society the next morning.
The lineup of papers for both sessions is exciting, and we hope you’ll join us by registering for the conference.
Woman Questions 1, Thursday, July 8 at 7 PM EST
Moderated by Megan Marshall
“Margaret Fuller’s Civil Disobedience: A Comparison with Thoreau,” Phyllis Cole
“Margaret Fuller: Woman As Fluid—and As Solid,” Jessica Lipnack
“The Future Leader in the Movement: Mourning Margaret Fuller at the First National Women’s Rights Convention, Worcester, 1850,” Tiffany Wayne
Woman Questions 2, Friday, July 9 at 11:30 AM EST
Moderated by Wes Mott
“Louisa May Alcott’s Literary Activism: A Contemporary Reading of Hospital Sketches,” Elif Armbruster
“Evolving Concepts of Talent and Genius in the work of Louisa May Alcott,” Lauren Hehmeyer
“Coming Out of the Slough of Despond: Depression and Recovery in Work,” Karyn Valerius
This year, the Margaret Fuller Society (MFS) is spending time getting to know its leaders and members who live all over the world. This month we honor the work of Dr. Mollie Barnes, who is Associate Professor of Nineteenth Century U.S. Literature at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, a teaching-intensive university committed to serving students and their families in lowcountry communities.
We asked Dr. Barnes to tell us a little about herself and she joyfully responded: “I love having my dream job and living in my dream part of the country. Half of my teaching is to students in first-year composition. Half is to English Studies majors and minors. I’m grateful for long summertime mornings and evenings to dive into writing projects that matter to me. The work that I’m most grateful to do—at my university and in our field—is supporting conversations and actions that center diversity, equity, and inclusion. I love gardening, cross-stitching, and being a cat-mom to my sweet tortie-girl named Frida.” [Frida is pictured below]
What is one thing about Fuller that you admire or find inspiring—why you gravitate to her in your scholarship or life?
Dr. Barnes: “I realize when I read Fuller with my students how surprising she is in the varieties of her passions—and in the ways she changes her mind over time. In my absolute favorite quotation, even Fuller seems surprised at the kaleidoscope qualities of her own mind and existence as she remembers herself in her childhood home: ‘I remembered how, a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?'”
What would you like MFS to accomplish in the next 5 years?
Dr. Barnes: “I’m happy to assist Katie Kornacki with Conversations, the newsletter for the Margaret Fuller Society. I’m also happy—now that this pandemic may be winding down—to firm up the CFP and the date and the location for Journaling for Justice. In both of these efforts, and in partnership with my colleagues who lead this organization, I’m most committed to 1) advocating for teaching and service and scholarship that centers anti-racist work and 2) strengthening Fuller’s place in conversations about innovative pedagogies and sensitive community engagement.”
What is one thing you did or learned during the pandemic that you are proud of?
Dr. Barnes: “I am learning to slow down and to savor ‘small’ things I haven’t made time to appreciate for too long. An old song I forgot I loved. An exquisite bird staring at me in my windowsill or the tree outside my office. Chartreuse embroidery floss. And hugs with friends in my bubble. Some big things too: my first house, my first publication on Fuller in print, and tenure and promotion!”
“Margaret Fuller’s Late Abolitionist Rhetoric: How She Changed Her Mind.” Nineteenth-Century American Activist Rhetorics, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Lisa Zimmerelli, MLA Press, 2021, 64–75.
“Teaching to Resist, Teaching to Recover: Charlotte Forten’s Sea Islands Archives Across Private and Public Forms.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 37, no. 2, fall 2020.