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Literary Criticism

"Margaret Fuller: Performing Civic Equality

Rebecca Rix, Reed College, 1998

I. Methodological Introduction

Margaret Fuller had in mind that the title of her essay "The Great Lawsuit: MAN versus MEN. WOMAN versus WOMEN" (which she would later expand and re-name "Woman in the Nineteenth Century") should prepare the reader to suspend habitual thinking in order to "meet [her] on [her] own ground." To honor Fuller's desire to be met on her own ground (or perhaps, given the turn this paper has taken, her stage), I have worked to reconstruct what her ground/stage might have been, and to understand her ideas/performance in that light. My approach engages feminist performance theory as articulated by Judith Butler and Marjorie Garber, with historical and intertextual context. Butler's examination of the relationship between phenomenology and performance of gender offers a cogent model of the process by which cultural constructs of gender become naturalized without quashing the agency of the historical actors. Garber's examination of transvestitism in narrative as a signal of a society under conceptual stress also works particularly well with Fuller, since her writing activity was very much part of Transcendentalism and the American Renaissance, and responded to historical changes, sectional crisis, slavery, the decline of women's rights, and especially political reform. Viewing Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit" as a act of textual transvestitism became more persuasive as I grappled with her complex and sometimes opaque arguments, and certainly was supported by Edgar Allen Poe's view of her as a gender maverick (he divided humanity into three classes: "men, women and Margaret Fuller" ).

I began this essay with the intention of using feminist and new historicist literary theory, but found it impossible to reconcile the egalitarian and androgynous philosophy of "The Great Lawsuit" with the essentialism of feminist literary theory. For example, Elaine Showalter's "gynocritics" assumes sexual difference in the psychodynamics of creativity, the "problem of a female language," and the assumption of a distinct and progressive "female tradition" of writing. While Monique Wittig stands against essentialism, she argues that nineteenth century feminists universally viewed woman as "unique," and that they ignored the historicity of the construction of that view, not to be rescued until women social scientists worked to prove the intellectual equality of the sexes at the end of the century. While these descriptions may apply to the majority of women's literary production, I would argue that Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit" worked to stimulate thinking on the possibilities of Woman by demonstrating that a woman could perform key cultural "scripts" such as a lawsuit and a jeremiad, that women had furthered Western civilization and were crucial to the realization of its zenith in American political culture, and that femality was not only an androgynous aspect of humanity but was also in fact the agent of genius. Fuller hardly wanted to bolster "separate spheres" ideology by emphasizing women's differences. She saw in the absence of women from the public sphere not only great inequality, but also an American body politic kept artificially immature by utilizing only one half of the "Great Radical Dualism." Fuller's key assertions-- the centrality of self-reliant spiritual regeneration, the sexlessness of the soul, and an un-gendered "femality" -- thus contradict the categories which Showalter, Wittig and other feminists have ascribed to mid-nineteenth century women's literary production.

Thus, my attempt to "meet her on her own ground" led me to a non-essentialist approach that analyzed the way in which she invoked the jeremiad and Revolutionary referents to legitimize her voice, and then deployed that legitimacy to argue for a new conception of Woman and femality. Accordingly, Butler's theory of gender-as-performance seemed particularly fitting: Fuller learned male cultural scripts by receiving a "male" education (eventually gaining the reputation as the best-read person-- man or woman-- in New England), she rehearsed them with men and women alike as she sought to hone her intellectual skills, and when she turned to a gender critique, her mastery allowed her to perform a powerful revision of these forms. Far from simply "imitating," Fuller was performing traditionally male scripts with mastery and innovation. In Butler's essay, it is unclear what aspect of an individual chooses to repeat or alter the gendered "scripts" as they conduct their performance. Ultimately, Butler hopes that we might achieve a state in which gender scripts have no particular cultural meaning. For Fuller, there was no question of the choice of guidance; femality's self-reliant Minerva aspect must translate the inspiration of its Muse aspect into self-reliant action. And on the question of prescription, where Butler apparently desires either uniformity or an absence of signifying meanings, Fuller affirms that a great variety of male and female expressions will demonstrate the fullness of femality unfolding. Fuller's Transcendentalist critique took "Self Reliance" to its logical -- and for many, seemingly Jacobin -- politically feminist conclusion. The question of how to support a revolution of American political culture that focused on the immorality of falling short of a national covenant suggested a revitalizing jeremiad, while she could translate concerns about Jacobinism into a sense of a revitalizing of American Revolutionary ideals in an era very much concerned with the legacy of that Revolution. In claiming the intellectual realm (and its language) as her own, she does textually what she would later work to do politically and socially: she claims the institutions of America for women as well as men by affirming important national ideals.

My methodology is an attempt to hold in tension concerns of both new historical and cultural studies theories (in this case, performance theory). I wanted to contextualize Fuller's project to demonstate how it varied from (and was more interesting than) what many feminists argue was an imitative and relatively unsophisticated period for women's literary production by engaging new historicism. Yet, Fuller was interested in many of the same issues that concern cultural theorists: the naturalization of cultural constructs, historical change, and the power of language. In combining the two approaches, I hope to give performance theory a historically grounded stage and audience on which to operate. To complicate the analytical, ostensibly objective form of the standard essay, I have provided links to other web sites that give further information about the context in which Fuller wrote and acted.

II. The Performance of Civic Equality: Margaret Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit

In July 1843, Margaret Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men; Woman versus Women" appeared in The Dial, the journal of the Transcendentalists. In "The Great Lawsuit," Fuller argued that America had failed its destined mission to elucidate a "great moral law." Once the truth "all men are created equal" was articulated, it became a divine mandate as well as a law, which Americans violated in their oppressive treatment of women as well as slaves. In "The Great Lawsuit," Fuller argued that Woman's redress to natural law must come from education and unobstructed access to the public sphere of employment and politics. Unlike "separate spheres" theorists like Catherine Beecher, Fuller argued that there were no essential differences between men and women, that promoting self-reliance for both sexes would bring about needed change in public ideas and institutions, and that once what she called "femality" -- possessed by both sexes, and varying by individual -- was unleashed into a democratized public sphere, America might finally mature and bring forth an unprecedented fusion of spirit, nature and civic harmony. America was, she argued, immature, not yet the pride of Man. The solution was to refresh American political culture with its own egalitarian and spiritual founding ideals through androgynous self-reliance, thereby simultaneously remedying the violation of natural law and developing the special genius of America, the "great moral law." The "Great Lawsuit," then, sought the redress of injuries done to Man and Woman by social and political institutions which obstructed their liberty and equality as promised by American political culture.

"The Great Lawsuit" allowed Fuller to perform in text what she could not in reality: a sermon and a quasi-legal "case" in which she prophesied an androgynous civic identity of Transcendentalism and enlightened democracy. By textually "performing" traditionally male forms of civic discourse such as a lawsuit and a jeremiad, and by drawing on a plethora of familiar referents (such as Plato and John Winthrop), Fuller demonstrated her fitness for the male public sphere. Her performance of male discursive forms legitimized her authority, while her pantheon of historical women and her analysis of marriage and celibacy worked to subvert the male-dominated traditions from which those forms emerged. Rendering America a "wilderness" of selfishness, its institutions tyrannous and its citizens children, rather than men and women, she made the realization of women's rights vital to the Puritan errand, the legacy of the American Revolution, and crucial to the formation of American cultural identity.

The title "The Great Lawsuit" was important both for its epistemological and its performative qualities. Her argument contrasted the ideal of equality against social reality, leading the reader to act as an impartial judge and to be transformed by the process of considering both sides of the argument. She later wrote about the title:

[I]t requires some thought to see what it means, and might thus prepare the reader to meet me on my own ground. Besides, it offers a larger scope, and is, in that way, more just to my desire. I meant by that title to indicate the fact that, while it is the destiny of Man, in the course of the ages, to ascertain and fulfill the law of his being, so that his life shall be seen, as a whole, to be that of an angel or messenger, the action of prejudices and passions which attend, in the day, the growth of the individual, is continually obstructing the holy work that is to make the earth a part of heaven. By Man I mean both man and woman; these are the two halves of one thought. I lay no especial stress on the welfare of either. I believe that the development of the one cannot be effected without that of the other. My highest wish is that this truth should be distinctly and rationally apprehended, and the conditions of life and freedom recognized as the same for the daughters and the sons of time; twin exponents of a divine thought.

Her argument was so different from her reader's world view that she sought a mechanism to stimulate their thinking beyond the habitual. Like Plato in the Republic, Fuller understood that her reader reasoned from flawed a priori assumptions-- specifically, "separate spheres" ideology and the "scientific" studies that gave credence to theories of sexual inequality. The confident "attempts of physiologists to bind great laws by the forms which flow from them" ignored that these "forms" were a result of human education, laws and cultural imperatives, rather than "nature." (Interestingly, she would engage a kind of historical empiricism to support her view of Woman's role in history.) These forms were neither indicative of innate natural differences, nor predictive of future possibility, for, she argued: "Presently, [Nature] will make a female Newton, and a male syren." Thus, laws upholding sexual inequality in the public sphere were enacted against nature and therefore required revision. First, however, the reader had to be persuaded to weigh the evidence that the "laws of nature" were in fact cultural constructs, or what performance theorist Judith Butler has called "scripts." Such persuasion was (and is) no mean cognitive accomplishment, for as Butler has argued, the repeated "performance" of cultural scripts (for example, "separate spheres") reifies them until a violation of their precepts (in this case, Woman in the public sphere) seems unnatural or impossible.

This idea of the impossibility of Woman in the public sphere illuminates the importance of Fuller's performance of the authoritative civic rhetoric usually used by men. Fuller noted that advocates for Woman were considered modern-day Jacobins, upending institutional structures that enshrined "natural" gender inequality. Invoking powerful male civic traditions, Fuller could gain the legitimacy necessary to assert that Woman is equal to Man, as well as demonstrating it by her performance in the public sphere. She also could promote gender equality as the reconciliation of American ideals and institutions. Fuller distinguished the ideal of American gender equality from the universal enfranchisement of the French Revolution by condemning the violence and upheaval associated with the radically democratic Jacobins. In America, equal citizenship was not "Jacobin" but the natural maturation of American ideals. The means for a peaceful revolution toward equality would be through a spiritually enlightened, androgynous democracy. That this spiritual revolution would lead to the fuller expression of human equality was key to both her affirmation and challenge to existing political culture. She sought to revitalize American culture by illuminating the yawning gap between its mission and its current realization in American life, in the tradition of the New England jeremiad.

Moving deftly between the courtroom and the pulpit, Fuller thus set up the first element of a jeremiad by identifying how Americans had fallen away from their covenant with God. In Fuller's "Great Lawsuit," that covenant (a legal concept in and of itself) was inextricably bound with the natural law sentiments espoused during the Revolution. Once articulated, the truth that all men were created equal became a law, "irrevocable as that of the Medes in their ancient dominion." America was still a cultural wilderness since this law was violated shamelessly, and the "great moral law" had not been elucidated. The lawsuits of the essay's title were therefore between the ideal and reality of Man and men, Woman and women. Man was entitled to equality and freedom, both of which were usurped by men, the "pygmies" who dwell in the wilderness of selfishness and erroneously claim Man's inheritance, but he was "still kept out of his inheritance, still a pleader, still a pilgrim." Despite all manner of self-reliant men and women who sacrificed temporal rewards to purchase "one seed for the future Eden," the errand remained unfulfilled. For America to complete its errand, legal and other institutions needed to be reconciled with the divine law. Fuller quoted St. Martin, whose public philosophy provided the proper ideology:

The ministry of man implies, that he must be filled from the divine fountains which are being engendered through all eternity, so that, at the mere name of his Master, he may be able to cast all his enemies into the abyss; that he may deliver all parts of nature from the barriers that imprison them; that he may purge the terrestrial atmosphere from the poisons that infect it; that he may preserve the bodies of men from the corrupt influences that surround, and the maladies that afflict them; still more, that he may keep their souls pure from the malignant insinuations which pollute, and the gloomy images that obscure them; that we may restore its serenity to the Word, which false words of men fill with mourning and sadness; that he may satisfy the desires of the angels, who await from him the development of the marvels of nature; that, in fine, his world may be filled with God, as eternity is.

Fuller used this quote to link the Chiliastic imperative of the Puritans with Transcendentalist means of anti-institutionalization, and with these to refresh America's experiment of a nation built on divine and natural law. The mistreatment of Indians, Blacks and Woman overshadowed America's especial genius, yet, she argued, "Only seemingly, and whatever seems to the contrary, this country is as surely destined to elucidate a great moral law, as Europe was to promote the mental culture of man." Liberty and equality inhered in the promise of America, yet America failed to produce equality and liberty in its culture, thus obstructing the realization of its own particular genius. Insofar as Americans could negotiate an institutional re-alignment, human souls would be able to express the will of God, making the United States an Eden ruled by natural law. She continued, "though the national independence be blurred by the servility of individuals," though Americans indulged in appetitive and indolent behavior, "still it is not in vain, that the verbal statement has been made, 'All men are born free and equal.'" Here, Fuller refreshed the Puritan and Revolutionary language of her father and grandfathers, fusing Transcendentalism with civic duty.

The combination of an unfulfilled errand with revolutionary rhetoric makes for a powerful jeremiad, and Fuller's was made more powerful by her revisionary gender performance. Fuller was the driving force behind the philosophy of The Dial and its inaugural editor, and it was the policy of the journal to not publish authors' names. This may have been intended to free the contributors of their fame (or lack thereof), making the expression of ideas more central than authorial reputation, but it also had the effect of rendering the authors sexless. In the "Great Lawsuit," this anonymity compounded her performance of male rhetorical forms, rendering her unclassifiable, a recognized crosser of cultural gender boundaries. Insofar as she defined herself by her head rather than her heart, promoted equal education, and was the most active of the Transcendentalists, Fuller's writing can be seen as the intellectual equivalent of transvestitism. As Marjorie Garber argues, transvestitism in narrative signals category crisis, "a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, permitting border crossings from one apparently distinct category to another. What seems like a binary opposition, a clear choice between opposites that define cultural boundaries, is revealed not only to be a construct but also-- more disturbingly-- a construct that no longer works to contain and delimit meaning." Garber notes that such narratives are characteristic of worlds under conceptual stress; certainly, this is consistent with most of the nineteenth century, especially from the vantage point of Transcendentalists. Obvious areas of conceptual stress were the ideals of the Revolution versus the emerging morally complaisant reality, the cultural codification of separate domestic and public spheres, issues of industrialization, urbanization and immigration, republican versus democratic politics, and, perhaps most importantly for women, a period of "backlash"-like reversals of legal and political gains made during the Revolutionary War period when the loyalty of women was critical. This was also the era of the "American Rennaissance," of striving for a characteristic national cultural identity, which Fuller sought to further through her editorship of and writing for The Dial.

During this national identity crisis, Fuller took advantage of "male" intellectual abilities to affirm and transform American political cultural ideas such that Woman's equal citizenship became their logical and necessary development. As Judith Butler has argued, gender is an act to be learned, rehearsed, and then performed-- with the performance rendering social laws explicit. Fuller's performance of civic equality was an explicit re-rendering of social laws: Woman was equal, Woman belonged in the public sphere, and those who blocked Woman's ascent blocked the realization of the City on a Hill and the maturation of Revolutionary ideals. Fuller was Euridice calling for a new Orpheus, to re-make laws according to divine commission. She became Moses-like, although she could only reach the housetop and the church spire, not Pisgah. She invoked Platonic notions of the ideal city to bolster her the importance of the androgynous soul to the ideal city, and again to indict contemporary gender roles with allusions to Plato's cave. In Plato's Republic, ascent from the cave was realized by the soul's awakening through the dialectical process and study of the forms. For Fuller, the watchers in the cave of culture were "incarcerated," to be freed only when the religious self-reliance was established in them. These shadowy wrong ideas and dead institutions stunted the maturation of the polity (compared to a tree by Fuller), which could not "come to flower till its root be freed from the cankering worm, and its whole growth open to air and light." Yet, who might be the gardener, if the existing order stunted the development of both sexes? Men could not be expected to assist in reconciling relations between the sexes, since they were intellectually incapable of conceiving of women as anything other than for man (not Man). Boy-like men desired girl-like women they could dominate, or surrogate mothers to take care of them. Women, meanwhile, were also unable to perceive clearly; Fuller herself warned that she spoke as much from "society" as from the soul, and thus she offered only the next step forward, not a universal vision. Since both sexes had come to view gender inequality as "natural," and because men benefited from the arrangement, change would have to come from women's continuing self-reliant maturation. Rather than being contented with the constricted sphere articulated by an immature "model-woman of bridal like beauty," women needed to become like Emerson's "American Scholar," showing truth amidst appearances and cheering others to reach higher intelligence and accomplishment.

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