Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)
Contributing Editor: Joel Myerson
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students have problems with Fuller's organization of her material and with nineteenth-century prose style in general. The best exercise I have found is for them to rewrite Fuller's work in their own words. My most successful exercises involve rewriting parts of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Students are amazed at the roles given to women in the nineteenth century and wonder how these women endured what was expected of them.
I ask students to reorganize the argument of Fuller's work as they think best makes its points. This process forces them to grapple with her ideas as they attempt to recast them.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Transcendentalism, women's rights, critical theory, gender roles, profession of authorship, all are important themes in Fuller's writing.
I give a background lecture on the legal and social history of women during the period so students can see what existing institutions and laws Fuller was arguing against.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Woman in the Nineteenth Century: Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Thoreau's Walden for the emphasis on individual thought in the face of a society that demands conformity; Child's novels for depictions of gender roles; Sarah Grimké's Letters on the Equality of the Sexes; Frederick Douglass' Narrative for the way in which another outsider speaks to a mass audience. Summer on the Lakes: Emerson's "The American Scholar" for a discussion of literary and cultural nationalism.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
The topics I've received the best responses to are:
1. Compare "Self-Reliance" or Walden to Woman in the Nineteenth Century as regards the responsibilities of the individual within a conformist society.
2. Discuss whether Zenobia in Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance is a portrayal of Fuller, as some critics suggest.
3. Compare or contrast Fuller's ideas on critical theory to Poe's.
5. Compare the ways in which Fuller and Douglass attempt to create a voice or authority for themselves in their narratives.
Read Robert N. Hudspeth's chapter on Fuller in The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism, ed. Joel Myerson (NY: MLA, 1984) and see Myerson's bibliographies of writings by and about Fuller; also read in Hudspeth's edition of Fuller's letters.