Transcendental Women


I was amazed–it sounds so innocent and silly–to find that most of American Literature was written in three houses over a period of five years.

Susan Cheever

The handsomest author and the most adoring wife in the annals of American literature are together again.

You may have heard the news that the remains of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (whose diamond-etched love lyrics are still readable in the window panes of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family Manse in Concord, Massachusetts) have finally been returned from England and re-interred alongside the immortal Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery down the road.

But the real story might have been headlined: Sex among the Sages! And it would have dwelt on the feminist mystique and feminine intrigues that thrived among those Unitarian wisemen of Concord: in the network of Margaret Fuller, the Peabody Sisters — Sophia, Elizabeth and Mary, who married Horace Mann, the father of public schooling in America; also Lydian Emerson and a little later Louisa May Alcott.

window_etchingSophia’s etchings in an Old Manse window pane: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes” [Courtesy of Bonnie McGrath]

We will pick up the drama with Megan Marshall, whose account of the brilliant Peabody Sisters was nominated last year for a Pulitzer; and with Susan Cheever, whose forthcoming American Bloomsbury brings an intense and sometimes speculative imagination to rounding out the triangles here, and many other mysterious oblique angles. It was well known that Henry David Thoreau had an attachment to the sometimes depressive Lydian Emerson. And that Margaret Fuller had designs on Emerson, with whom she edited a sort of group-blog, The Dial magazine. It’s Susan Cheever’s version that Emerson, the landlord, threw Hawthorne out of The Manse for his for his overzealous interest in Margaret Fuller, who may well have been a model for The Scarlet Letter‘s Hester Prynne. Louisa May Alcott thickens the plot what she thought was her best book: Moods about a woman in love with an earth god like Thoreau and a sky god like Emerson — a woman who dies in a fictional shipwreck, as Margaret Fuller did in a real one.

What we knew about the Transcendentalists — like Emerson, Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott and their circle — was that they were men who, before and after Margaret Fuller’s appearance, never met a woman they could really talk with. But the women were talking with and about each other. Are we ready to deal with what they were saying?

Megan Marshall

Author, The Peabody Sisters

Susan Cheever

Author of the forthcoming American Bloomsbury

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  • mynocturama

    Definitely looking forward to this one. Please find time to talk about Emerson’s attitude towards the novel and narrative in general, and maybe relate it to social arrangements, relationships between men and women. After all, it’s very difficult to imagine Emerson sitting down to write a love story, or a sustained narrative of any kind. Emerson’s supposed indifference or antipathy to narrative, as opposed to aphoristic insight, is the subject of some reservations about him, for instance in Irving Howe’s The American Newness, in which he negotiates an ambivalence towards Emerson and his influence, specifically with respect to the tendency to neglect history, this narrative we’re all part of, in this country.

    My sense of things is, any coldness between Emerson and Hawthorne, especially professionally, had mainly to do with deep differences aesthetically and philosophically, in compositional style and in point of view on life itself, its possibilities and limitations. Any tension having to do with Fuller may be interesting to consider, but would have to end in speculation, it seems to me.

    Anyway, I would love to hear about Fuller and her shaking things up in the transcendental scene, and more on Emerson as “landlord,” the picture of him as patriarch, benevolent and open, but nevertheless in need of some loosening up. I can go on and on about this. Oh, one more thing – maybe invite Stanley Cavell for a few comments?

  • One thing that made the novel March by Geraldine Brooks so fun to read besides it being a grown-up take on the parents of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is that it is based on Alcott’s father, transcendentalist, educator and abolitionist Bronson Alcott. Henry David Thoreau and the Emersons show up as characters.

    In consideration of the above question regarding women, “Are we ready to deal with what they were saying?� I offer an excerpt, an early scene before the marriage of Mr. March to Marmee. They are both at a dinner party when Marmee, then Miss Day, an avid abolitionist, unbraids Mr. Emerson for his lack of leadership in the anti-slavery cause.

    from March by Geraldine Brooks….

    “Not in your power!� She seemed unaware that she had raised her voice. Henry and Lidian broke off their intense tete-a-tete and looked across the room. Sophia and Cynthia had each drawn close to Miss Day. Standing on either side, they half patted, half held her, as one would both sooth and restrain a lunging, growling dog,

    “Not in your power! You, who command great crowds at the Lyceum, who may write for any of a dozen eminent journals… to say that you can do no more is a sham! It is a disgrace! Worse, it is a lie!�

    The intemperance of her attack left me breathless. Angry women generally cannot be said to show to advantage, and to see that lovely face so distorted by such a scowl as it now wore was immensely shocking to me. Who could have imagined this gently bred young woman to be so entirely breft of the powers of self-government? I had never seen such an outburst, not even from a market wife.

    Mr. Emerson, too, seemed stunned. He had blanched whiter than the table linen. He answered her unseemly shouting with a voice so low it was almost a whisper. “I am deeply sorry to find myself sunk so low in your esteem, Miss Day. I regret that I spoke in question of your judgment. I will consider what you have said.�

    In an era when women were working for abolition of slavery and yet could not vote themselves, when every married woman’s property was entirely forfeit to her husband and women’s opinions were regularly either dismissed or considered “unseemly� my question is: How aware/connected were the women in this circle of transcendentalists to the greater women’s suffrage movement of that time?

  • What Margaret Fuller had to say about Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of Vindication of the Rights of Women,â€? published in London 1790….

    “Mary Wollstonecraft – a woman whose existence proved the need of some new interpretation of woman’s rights, belonging to that class who by birth find themselves in places so narrow that, by breaking bonds, they become outlaws.�

  • correction: Miss Day upbraids Mr. Emerson she does not unbraid him.

  • I, for one, am ready to deal with what they were saying 🙂 The canon has only recently accepted Fuller’s contributions. I think it would be great to get them all around a tea set to discuss life, society, poetry, essays, and, yes, men!

  • forgive me, another correction: In my above post I intended to set the entire excerpt from March in bold from “Not in your power! She seemed unaware… all the way to I will consider what you have said.” as a way to separate the exerpt from my own comments.

    I thought I’d done that… (alas)

    Meanwhile, I just picked up The Peabody Sistersat the bookstore today and am looking forward to hearing Megan Marshall on the show.

  • fiddlesticks

    “Mr. Emerson, too, seemed stunned. He had blanched whiter than the table linen. He answered her unseemly shouting with a voice so low it was almost a whisper. “I am deeply sorry to find myself sunk so low in your esteem, Miss Day. I regret that I spoke in question of your judgment. I will consider what you have said.â€?

    The joys of novel writing is that you can make up your own realilty. LOL

    Carry on ladies of the blogosphere.

  • re: fiddlestix

    I whole heartedly agree. A sentence like…

    Mr. Emerson, too, seemed stunned. He had blanched whiter than the table linen.

    is too good not to want to write it again… and again…

    (and how mysterious.. that lost bold text returned)

  • Potter

    According the Geraldine Brooks own website she did a lot of research for the book. I think it is entirely plausible even realistic (though still fiction of course) that enlightened men, men who “talk the talk” as they say, would still be somewhat paleo in real life. Such evidence is all around and present even now, subtle and not so subtle.

  • Thanks Potter

    While I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments please let me point out that the paleolithic era may have in fact been a period during which female humans were treated with greater respect by male humans than we have garnered since. What term then to best use for arrogant knuckledragging patriarchial chauvanism?

    Unfortunatly I’m late for work and must run before I can contemplate this question further.

  • I’d like to suggest an excellent book apropos this topic:

    Farm to Factory: Women’s Letters, 1830-1860

    Edited by Thomas Dublin

    It is a book of letters written by the women who worked at the Lowell mills in the early days of American industrialization. These women came from the farms in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and the mill work exposed them to city life and dangerous new ideas.

    Many of the transcendentalists were involved in the communal experiments of those days and one of the women actually left the mills to live on a commune in New Jersey and we see her letters about that.

  • Old Nick

    For a tangential riff off peggysue’s 11:30 AM, July 11th, click here for the full story from the following:

    The Make-Love, Not War Species

    “Bonobos, members of the great ape family, have very elaborate, and unique, social and sexual behaviors. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. Amy Parish, scientific advisor for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, about this peace-loving and female-dominated species.”

    The Living On Earth segment points out that we share a common ancestor with bonobos — our genetically closest non-human species (co-equal with chimps) — who are far from male-dominated.

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    Old Nick: I heard that program too. I thought what was most telling was that even in this “enlightened” age the male scientists could not bring themselves to admit that the male Bonobos were “submissive” but had to say the males used “selective deference”. The female scientist being interviewed was able to gently point this out with ironic humor.

    At least now we are looking back into history for what we may have missed by ignoring the contributions of women. I am very appreciative of shows like this.

  • nother

    In his essay “The Transcendentalist� Emerson seems to write that there is a sad paradox to the idealism the transcendentalist strives for; there is loneliness to this realm of lofty ideas. Most men and woman could simply never measure up, so the transcendentalist chooses a kind of solitude, even when they are lonely.

    He writes “if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial – they are not stockish or brute – but joyous, susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. Like the young Mozart, they are rather ready to cry ten times a day, “But are you sure you love me?� Nay, if they tell you their whole thought, they will owe that love seems to them the last and highest gift of nature�

    Is the Transcendental love story inevitably a tragedy? Could the love lives of these people ever live up to the ideals of Transcendentalism?

  • Peggy Sue @ work

    Nother: Hey, nice to see you again!

  • nother

    Peggy Sue: Very nice to see you as well! Hope things are well at the bookstore; a chance to talk to someone like you at the local bookstore is the best reason ever not to buy a book on Amazon. Looking forward to the conversations ahead.

  • fiddlesticks

    Well, another PC program.

    Treating 19c writers as if they were 20th and 21st century people doesn’t work for me.

  • Potter

    Great Show! I ran across this wonderful piece by Geraldine Brooks in the Guardian about Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May. In many ways we have not caught up to these people yet, but one could say they were easily 100 years ahead of their time.

    Brave New Worlds”

  • fiddlesticks

    The show dealt in nothing more than ad-hominem and gossip.

  • 1850muse

    I enjoyed the discussion on the show tonight, but I had to speak up about what I felt were unsatisfactory answers at the end of the program about the relationship between Transcendentalism and the women’s rights movement. We have to remember that Margaret Fuller died in 1850, three months before the first National Women’s Rights Convention even took place (and just two years after the famed Seneca Falls meeting). American feminism as a separate movement was barely getting started although, as Susan Cheever mentioned, women anti-slavery activists had begun to question the limitations on their own lives.

    Transcendentalist ideas and Margaret Fuller herself had an *enormous* impact on the emerging women’s rights movement. That connection is the explicit subject of my own book, _Woman Thinking: Feminism and Transcendentalism in 19th-Century America_ (Lexington Books, 2005).

    I’m glad I wrote the book now because I can see that this piece of the story still needs to be incorporated into our understanding of women and Transcendentalism!

    T. Wayne

  • brynbarnard

    It’s ironic, but throughout the period these Trancendentalist women lived, women in Islam, now seen as so downtrodden, had far more legal rights then their Western sisters. Muslim women kept their own property in marriage and took it with them upon divorce. Nineteenth century Western women could dream of such treatment. To call them slaves, as these guests suggested, was not such a stretch.

  • fiddlesticks

    “To call them slaves, as these guests suggested, was not such a stretch.”

    Ha, ha, ha, they now envy women who wear burkas!

  • bft

    In every country in the world there is something a woman (or a man) can do to violate clothing rules. The fact that what you have to do to get arrested for it is different in different places is not a difference in principle. Keeping your property is a more substantial matter.

  • fiddlesticks

    “In every country in the world there is something a woman (or a man) can do to violate clothing rules.”

    Except that in some countries you get a ticket and in others you lose your head.

    Also bft, where are men are required to wear burkas?

  • “Transcendentalist ideas and Margaret Fuller herself had an *enormous* impact on the emerging women’s rights movement. That connection is the explicit subject of my own book, _Woman Thinking: Feminism and Transcendentalism in 19th-Century America_ (Lexington Books, 2005). ”

    This seems like an interesting topic. I tried Googling for a review and the only one I could find was on a history site that you had to subscribe to to read the review.

    Could you point me (us) to some reviews of your book?

  • “To call them slaves, as these guests suggested, was not such a stretch. ”

    I think calling them slaves is hyperbole. Calling Muslim women slaves, even in places like Saudi Arabia, is also hyperbole. Slavery and political or social oppression are both nasty and brutish but they are still two different phenomena. It’s like calling malaria “yellow fever” because it’s bad and spread by mosquitos.

    This is a off topic, but I’ve sometimes thought that given women’s natural advantages – better health, lower incidence of autism, ADD and other more serious mental problems, less prone to violence, and better at forming/sustaining social networks and cooperation, oppression of females developed in most societies because the men recognized that if they DIDN’T keep them in their place they would take over!

    Having largely lifted oppression of women in the west we’re starting to see it – more women than men are now entering college, while FAR more men than women are ending up in jail. Men only retain power in settings where dog-eat-dog aggression rules – government and corporations.

  • hurley

    Nice to hear Chris truffling in his favorite fields, even if the show did make Concord sound a bit like Peyton Place. I repeat my earlier recommendation of William Bronk’s The Brother In Elysium, later collected with Bronk’s other wonderful essays in his Vectors and Smoothable Curves. If you like Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, you’ll find much of interest in Bronk. No relation to me, by the way…Any book suggestions, anyone?

  • babu

    I’m fascinated by hurley’s recommendation of Bronk’s ‘The Brother in the Elysium’.

    Peggy Sue: Could you order this one for me without going to a lot of trouble?

    And does anyone else want to read and discuss it? Hope so!

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  • 1850muse

    thanks for asking plnelson. So far, the history journal reviews are available only through subscription or library access, but there are some blurbs from reviewers here at the publisher website:^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0739107593

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  • marylaure

    I podcasted this show so this is a very belated contribution, but I badly wanted to mention a great book, Hawthorne’s

    Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa

    with a preface by Paul Auster.

    (From Publishers Weekly

    This charming extract from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Notebooks is, as described by Paul Auster in his introduction, “something that no writer had ever attempted before Hawthorne: a meticulous, blow-by-blow account of a man taking care of a young child by himself.” When his wife and daughters went away on a three-week visit, Hawthorne stayed home with five-year-old Julian. )

    It’s REALLY worth reading Hawthorne’s beautiful writing applied to the daily concerns of parenthood and his exquisite communication with his wife.