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The Woman Who Dreamed Too Much

The Posthumous Triumph of a Genius of Conversation, a Fisher of Men, a Hero of Love and Contemplation

MY HEART IS A LARGE KINGDOM Selected Letters of Margaret Fuller; Edited by Robert N. Hudspeth; Cornell University Press: 336 pp., $29.95

April 15, 2001|CRISTINA NEHRING | Cristina Nehring teaches literature at UCLA and Universite de Paris XIII. Her essays have appeared in Harper's, Michigan Quarterly Review and The American Scholar

Striking similarities exist between the two: Both were translators, prolific critics and reformers; both were skeptical of marriage and wrote important tracts on the rights of women. Both loved deeply, painfully and, often, unrequitedly (Wollstonecraft threw herself into the Thames River in a failed suicide attempt after the artsy opportunist she loved, Gilbert Imlay, took another mistress; Fuller was dumped by Imlay's double, James Nathan, when the latter fled to Europe with an "English maiden'). Both wrote astonishing love letters. Both had children out of marriage. Both had no sooner met men who loved them properly than they died-Wollstonecraft in childbirth, Fuller in shipwreck. Both were treated, when they died, as sinners; both had memoirs penned about them by philosophers-William Godwin (Wollstonecraft's husband) wrote Wollstonecraft's; Ralph Waldo Emerson joined with William Channing and James Freeman Clarke to write Fuller's. Both these memoirs have been variously damned-Godwin's for saying too much (he was accused of having destroyed his wife's posthumous reputation by detailing her affair with Imlay) and Emerson's, ironically, for saying too little (he has been thrashed by contemporary scholars for amending or eliminating texts that he thought would sink Fuller in public scandal). Both tried valiantly to live their principles of equality and honesty and both were roundly punished for it by their contemporaries.

One would think that contemporary feminism had by now long righted these wrongs. One would be mistaken. To be sure, both Wollstonecraft and Fuller-particularly Fuller-have inspired increasing critical attention in the last century. There are Fuller societies in the United States, Fuller conferences, many (uneven) Fuller biographies, a couple of one-woman shows based on her life and various recent editions of her dispatches and letters-among them Robert N. Hudspeth's "Collected Letters," the last volume of which appeared in 1994. It is Hudspeth, too, who has now assembled the "Selected Letters." 'We have too long thought of 'history' only as what men said," he declares in his introduction. Hudspeth has the best of feminist intentions. The problem with his new selection, alas, is the problem with much contemporary feminist reaction to Fuller: It stunts as it raises her.

Concretely: It hides her heart to hallow her head. It operates on the assumption that a female intellectual such as Fuller must not be caught feeling anything. Hudspeth happily gives us Fuller's letters to the greatest or second-greatest love of her life, Sam Ward-but only after she had fallen out of love with him and he is securely married to someone else. Similarly, he gives us large numbers of letters to her aunt Mary Rotch, to her publishers and younger siblings, at a time when her correspondence to these people was severely curtailed because her life, as Hudspeth admits, was "dominated" by her affair with James Nathan, the journalist who won her heart only to take a mistress and abandon her when she became too "intense." She was writing him one, often two, letters a day during this period. Only three of these captivating letters make the selection-the same number as appear to a publisher with whom she had chilly relations. Are they the most interesting ones? Take a guess: They are the calmest. They show only one side of her.

And Fuller, more than Walt Whitman, was "large and contained multitudes." She was a one-woman comedy of humors. By turns grave and proud, childlike and lyrical, she could also be passionately sad and intensely self-dramatizing, even pitiful, but always in eloquent, honest, contagiously human ways. She could be coy or commanding, arrogant, selfless or foot-stamping; playful or soulful. Her correspondence, unabridged, is a course in human nature-its highest ideals, its tenacious realities and the occasional electric union of the two. And nowhere is Fuller as vivid and various as in her love letters. It is no exaggeration to say that they are among her best writing. Unfortunately, in this selection, not many of them make the cut.

Witness this passage to Nathan: "My mind," she writes at the beginning of their acquaintance, "is enfolded in your thought as a branch with flame." Half sensing, perhaps, the pain he would cause her, she adds that "it is great sin even to dream of wishing for less ... feeling than one has. The violet cannot wish to be again imprisoned in the sod, because she may be trampled on by some rude foot." Early in their encounters, Nathan made a lighthearted attempt to seduce her, which she, ever a votary of soul-matedom and still, as far as one knows, a virgin, rebuffed. As time went on, however, he convinced her that her reluctance was "artificial," that she inhabited a fairy world and needed desperately to come down to earth and become "human."

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