Margaret Fuller as Editor:
a European Perspective

by Elvira Osipova

There is one aspect of Margaret Fuller's multifarious activities which needs reassessment ­ from a European perspective. It is her work as editor of the "Dial" in 1840-42.

She held this job for over two years, selecting and editing manuscripts, reading the proofs, and enhancing the proliferation of the ideas of American Transcendentalism, which was in its hey-day in 1836-44.

To present the views of the Transcendentalists on religion, philosophy, art, literature, and criticism was a noble but extremely challenging task, given the multiplicity of voices in their community and the generally hostile reaction to the "Dial" in the American press, the mildest comment being that it was «Transcendentally ridiculous». The most balanced assessment came from Orestes Brownson, who said that «its thought was superior to its expression»1.

Fuller's editorial policy was «to let all kinds of people have freedom to say their say, for better, for worse»2. This enabled her contemporaries and many generations of critics to have a multiple picture of the Transcendental mind as it was reflected in the magazine which became a landmark in American intellectual history. In her capacity as editor Margaret played several roles ­ those of a critic, educator, essayist, and reformer, translator and poet. In all these guises, except the last, she made a notable contribution.

The first volume of the "Dial" opens with Fuller's Short Essay on Critics, in which she expressed her aesthetic views and «set forth [] her editorial policy»3. She spoke of the need for a critic to «seek the divine truths of philosophy»4, and built her own aesthetic hierarchy. On the lowest level she placed «subjective» critics, who write «for the literary mart» only. Then come the «apprehensive» ones, who «just praise or denounce»; and the «comprehensive» critics who go deep into the meaning of a work of art, and, moreover, «perceive the analogies of the universe and how they are regulated by an absolute invariable principle» ("Dial", i, p. 6).

Regarding criticism as a kind of literature, Fuller emphasized the idea that creative work was significant in so far as it could «perceive these analogies». Her essay on Goethe represents comprehensive criticism, to borrow her definition, though from the contemporary perspective it seems extremely biased. Fuller's approach to Goethe's creative work was too biographical, and her censure of his life as «a man of the world and man of affairs» was unnecessarily strict. In Fuller's eyes, Goethe fell short of «divining the deepest truths of being»5. In her aesthetic hierarchy: «Artist ­ Master ­ Seeker», Goethe was not granted the highest position. Her critique, in fact, anticipated Emerson's treatment of Goethe in Representative Men (1850). Such an approach testifies to the fact that Fuller «subjected the aesthetical to the metaphysical»6. This distinguishes her essentially Transcendentalist views of art from those of Edgar Allan Poe.

Fuller's choice of publications for the "Dial" tells us about the ethical values and philosophic beliefs to which she herself subscribed. What, for example, made her accept George Ripley's long critique of Orestes Brownson's Charles Elwood, or Infidel Converted, cited at length in the first number of the "Dial"? It was most certainly not the artistic merits of Brownson's book, but the exposition of Ripley's Transcendental views on religion and spiritual life, his «perception of the analogies of the universe». The influx of spirit into American life was deemed by Ripley to be able to «remodel all our institutions» ("Dial", i, p. 28). The ensuing picture of a new American utopia might have been too sublime for Margaret's taste, but the Transcendental creed of the «sacredness» of both spirit and matter needed to be expressed with utmost clarity.

It should be noted that building a utopia was the essence of all the Transcendental writings. Emerson clothed it in philosophical attire, Thoreau disguised it in the robes of natural philosophy, Brownson and Ripley used the language of religion to erect a lofty utopia of universal love and human brotherhood: «Man will reverence man. Slavery will cease. Wars will fail. Education will destroy the empire of ignorance. Civil freedom will be universal []» ("Dial", i, p. 28).

In a letter to W. H. Channing, Fuller confessed her skepticism about building utopias: «Utopia, it is impossible to build up. At least, my hopes for our race on this one planet are more limited than those of most of my friends. I accept the limitedness of human nature, and believe a wise acknowledgment of them is one of the best conditions of progress». And still, she conceded that «every noble scheme, every poetic manifestation prophesies to man his eventual destiny»7. This is why she published lofty utopian schemes and descriptions of practical Transcendentalist utopias (Plan of the West Roxbury Community by E. Peabody).

The "Dial" editors committed themselves in the Foreword to fight religious conventions whose rigor «is turning us to stone» ("Dial", i, p. 1), and they were true to their commitment. Fuller's religious views were so unorthodox that they verged on heresy8. She was deeply interested in mystical teachings, such as those of Andrey Towiansky9, or the activities of Christian religious sects, among them the Russian "Khlysty" and "Skoptsy"10. She supported Theodore Parker, the «Transcendentalist Savonarola», in his fighting against Unitarian orthodoxy, and defended George Ripley's arguments in his 'pamphlet war' with Andrews Norton.

Being advocates of a "natural religion", which did not recognize intermediaries between man and God, the Transcendentalists could not but clash with the established Unitarian orthodoxy whose main spokesman was Andrew Norton. After The Divinity School Address (1838), in which Emerson spoke about religious self-reliance, Norton published his treatise On the Latest Form of Infidelity (1839). Echoes of this battle were audible in James F. Clarke's review of Andrew Wylie's book Sectarianism is Heresy. Clarke speculated on the theme of revealed and natural religion (or, «rational» and «vital» religion, in Margaret's words). Self-reliance in religious matters caused the Transcendentalists to reject the church as an institution which «has always thwarted his [Jesus's] purpose, and insisted upon a creed. It has always and does now everywhere demand what a man believes, not how he lives» ("Dial", i, p. 172). This was a daring statement by one who, like Emerson, «took God out of the churches and all but unfrocked the ministerial profession»11.

Parker continued his war with Norton in the essay Primitive Christianity published in the January 1842 "Dial". Comparing the early years of Christianity with contemporary religious practices, Parker did not mince words. He spoke about «that pale-faced pietism which hangs its head on Sundays, and does nothing but whine out its sentimental cant on week-days, in hopes to make this drivelling pass current for real manly excellence» ("Dial", ii, p. 311). «Superstition came into the Church», he adds, «superstition» being one of the worst vices in his scale of moral values.

A weighty argument in the religious controversy waged on the pages of the "Dial" can be found in William H. Channing's Ernest the Seeker. Chapters from this "religious novelette"12 contain a discourse between Ernest (a fictional portrait of Channing himself) and the Bishop, on free-thinking, skepticism and religious dogmatism. The author questions the dogma of the infallibility of the Church. The words of the Bishop that the Church cannot «allow the poor lambs to wander astray in the fogs of speculation, or be lost in the drifting snows of skepticism» sound as sheer hypocrisy. Ernest chooses the freedom of thought and the luxury of doubt when he replies: «I must examine fresh suggestions, that come to my tent-door. They may be lepers to blast me with disease, but they may be also angels in disguise» ("Dial", i, p. 242).

Free-thinking and self-reliance in religious matters were hallmarks of the Transcendentalists. It is no wonder that their magazine was devoted to religion and philosophy, as well as literature. Contributors interpreted the ideas of German philosophy, noted new trends in French Romantic historiography (Michelet's History of France), and analysed Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History, which Emerson later took as a model for his Representative Men.

European philosophic ideas were used by Fuller and her friends to substantiate their romantic views and their concepts of progress, in particular. The struggle of the past and the present was seen as a never-ending ascent of humanity to higher attainment and more perfect freedom. In the essay Prophecy ­ Transcendentalism ­ Progress, Jonathan Saxton describes a steady pace of progress: «In this Humanity may be sometimes overthrown for a season. But it rises again, strengthened by its defeats; a revolution, with [...] the building of new, more finished, and beautiful monuments, commemorates its triumph» ("Dial", ii, p. 107). The Carbonary and Chartist rebellions were cited as examples of this forward march.

Very meaningful in this respect was the mention of Benjamin Constant, who in his essay The Progressive Development of Religious Ideas gave striking examples of the «majestic law of acceleration» ­ from theocracy, to slavery, to feudalism and finally, to the destruction of feudalism. Interestingly, Fuller put similar ideas in a poetic form in her 1846 review of George Sand's Consuelo: «We feel a certainty that the existence which looks at present so marred and fragmentary shall yet end in harmony. The shuttle is at work, and the threads are gradually added that shall bring out the pattern and prove that what seems at present confusion is really the way and means to order and beauty»13.

The ideas of French philosophy were also discussed in connection with W. H. Channing's translation of Theodore Jouffroy's Introduction to Ethics. The reviewer, William D. Wilson, argued with Jouffroy about the value of mysticism. Using Coleridge's distinction between Reason and Understanding, he defended mystics as men who had always been «in advance of their age in spiritual matters» ("Dial", i, p. 106).

In a short review of Carlyle's book On Heroes, Hero worship and the Heroic in History, the critic (presumably Fuller herself), without questioning his stature as a sage, rebuked him for «endless repetition, hammering on a thought till every sense of the reader aches, and an arrogant bitterness of tone» ("Dial", ii, p. 131). And yet she reiterated the importance of Carlyle's creed («to be and not to seem»), as well as his contempt for conventions.

Editing the "Dial" taught Margaret Fuller, among other things, to write review articles and provided a ready outlet for her literary productions, be it fictional pieces, essays, reviews, translations or poems. Later, when writing reviews for the New York "Tribune", she devoted much space to books which, in the words of Madeleine Stern, «brought the Alps and the Rhine, the art of England and the color of Italy to New York»14. The same is true about her work in the "Dial". The Rhine, more than other places in the Old World, was made closer to Boston due to Margaret's penchant for German literature. Her essay on Goethe, translations of Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe (published before her work for the "Dial"), and of extracts from Bettina von Arnim's book Günderode (1840) about her romantic passion for the poet Karoline von Günderode, testify to that. Later, in the "Tribune" she reviewed «more books in German literature than in any other single foreign literature»15.

In the "Dial" ample space was given to reviews. It allowed the contributors to proclaim their religious and aesthetic principles, reflect on European and American scholarship, express their views of literature and art. European cultural life found reflection in critical pieces about writers and poets of Europe, recently published books, in music reviews written by John Dwight and Margaret Fuller herself (her Beethoven, Lives of the Great Composers). The enlightenment of Americans was to include the best intellectual and spiritual products of France and Germany, Poland and England. The names of European composers and titles of their works appear in every issue: Chopin, Lizst, Paisiello, Bellini, Porpora, Bach, Beethoven, Weber, Haydn, Händel, Mozart, along with the obscure Polish composer Henzelt, author of Souvenir de Varsovie.

Some performances got a detailed analysis. Comparing the two oratorios performed in Boston, Haydn's The Messiah and Händel's The Creation, Dwight wrote, «A work of Haydn is a Grecian temple: there it stands complete in itself and fully executed, and suggests no more. A work of Händel's (still more of Beethoven's) is a Gothic cathedral, which seems never finished, but becoming, growing, yearning and striving upwards, the beginning only of a boundless plan, whose consummation is in another world» ("Dial", i, p. 128).

The mission of the "Dial", as seen by the editors, was to «celebrate happiness», «measure no hours but those of sunshine», speak in a cheerful voice «amidst the din of mourners and polemics» ("Dial", i, p. 4). This was Fuller's fundamental principle both in the choice of publications and the angle of criticism.

Such angle is obvious even in her sketchy reviews of events in the cultural life of Boston. Thus, writing about an exhibition in the Boston Atheneum, she expressed her judgment about Thorvaldsen's sculptures of Byron and Napoleon. Her seemingly chance remarks about «the grand failure of the scheme of his [Byron's] existence» ("Dial", i, p. 260) anticipated her later criticism of the poet's works. What in 1846 she called «the misanthropy of Byron» caused her to assess him as a poet «far beneath» Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth, for «their tendencies are towards immortality»16. She stressed that both Byron and Napoleon represented «the tendency of their time». In other words, they were Representative Men, as Emerson would later term the heroes of his essays in his famous book.

In the bust of Napoleon Fuller saw the artistic representation of ruthlessness, which characterized the man who was «the instrument of fate to serve a purpose not his own». «Russia's snows, and mountains of the slain, seem tragedy that must naturally follow the appearance of such an actor»("Dial", i, p. 262).

Though only hinted at, her knowledge of this heroic page of Russian history is obvious, as well as her sympathies to peoples fighting against foreign aggression.

Among her fictional pieces published in the "Dial", were the tales The Magnolia of Lake Pontchartrain and Meta, reminiscent of Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen (she welcomed the translation of the novel in the "Dial"). We see the romantic symbolism of flowers which signify purity, radiance, beauty, as well as spiritual ascension through reincarnation. The episodes of metaphysical union of perfect lovers who overcome death (Meta and Klopstock, like Novalis's Matilda and Heinrich) are clothed in the lofty language of a romantic narration. Meta finds herself in Paradise in the company of Petrarch's Laura, who reveals her mission. Meta must revive «the belief in virtue and nobleness, without which life is an odious, disconnected dream» ("Dial", i, p. 297).

It is significant that in their Memoirs Clarke, Emerson and Channing all but ignored Fuller's work for the "Dial"17. A perspective of time enables us to pass a more balanced judgment.

The effect this work must have had on her was prodigious. It strengthened her Transcendental faith, so that she could contribute much to the development of Transcendentalist ideas, applying them to new realms of life, i.e. the specific plight of women and their new role in public and private lives18.

Her differences with the Transcendentalists concerned mostly questions of artistic form, scope of depiction, the view of human nature, as well as some personal sensibilities. Fuller looked to Transcendentalism mainly, claims Charles Capper, «to help stimulate a cultural awakening», and supported the movement «because she saw in it an opportunity to revolutionize American cultural taste»19. This does not mean, though, that she did not support their philosophic beliefs.

Her distaste with the style of some of the Transcendental output is seen, for example, in her caustic review of Jones Very's Essays and Poems. As if sharing Edgar Poe's exasperation with the lack of finesse in the Transcendentalists' works, she gave an extremely ironic assessment of the style and literary merit of Very's book. His sonnets «have the torpidity» she writes, «which reminds one of church hymns». The concession that they have «the sublime unity of [] the Code of Menu» ("Dial", ii, pp. 130-1) is an attempt at unbiased criticism by emphasizing rather the content than the form.

Equally negative was her reaction to Bronson Alcott's Days from a Diary, published in the fourth number of Volume Two, the last one she edited. Alcott's opus is an assortment of entries whose artistic merit is dubious, but whose Transcendental pitch is rather high. Though Fuller was evidently reluctant to publish it, she had to yield to Alcott's remonstrances. In his contribution he discussed at length the theosophical doctrine of Jacob Boehme, criticized the political views of Coleridge, quoted Neoplatonists Jamblichus and Porphyry, reviewed Emerson's essays. Fuller must have had some reservations about the aesthetic value of Days from a Diary; she could not but agree, though, with the main points of Alcott's discourse. When Emerson took up the editorial work after this April number of the "Dial", he was faced with the problem of «reviving interest in the magazine while at the same time avoiding the more disastrous sort of reaction that could be brought down by a writer such as Alcott»20.

Margaret's evolution towards practical involvement and her concern with issues of political and social life are obvious. In Bell Gale Chevigny's words, Fuller «helped to consolidate and strengthen the radical democratic self-consciousness in the emerging and still very fluid middle class, a consciousness that crossed lines of race, class, and eventually, nation»21. But her evolution should not be divorced from that of other Transcendentalists ­ Thoreau, Parker, Ripley, Elizabeth Peabody and William Henry Channing, as well as the first disciple of Marx in America, Orestes Brownson. The opposition of Emerson's «static mode» with Fuller's «dynamic» one22 seems arbitrary. Fuller sought her own methods of practical involvement, but it is not right to say that Emerson, Parker or Thoreau just «transcended» reality. They were active on two planes, speculative and social, working as teachers, lecturers, preachers, editors and journalists; many of them were ardent abolitionists, even without being members of Abolitionist societies.

The 27 months of Fuller's editorship of the "Dial" proved a valuable experience in many respects. She used it later in the "New York Daily Tribune" to which she contributed more than 250 reviews. She built her work in the "Tribune" (1845-6) along the lines successfully practised in the "Dial". But now her readership was much wider, though her task as a literary editor was narrower. She had to fill three columns a week (on the first page, at that) of a very influential paper which had two million readers.

Regarding literature as a means of mutual interpretation of cultures, she acted as a cultural go-between. Reviewing American literature, she familiarized European audiences with it, while European culture found in her a sympathetic interpreter with a mind to educate and uplift the American reader.


1. On the reaction to the "Dial" see J. Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the "Dial". A History of the Magazine and its Contributors, Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, London 1980, pp. 58-76. The most acid criticism was evoked by Alcott's Orphic Sayings about which a Boston paper wrote that they were «a step from the sublime to the ridiculous» (Ivi, p. 62).

2. J. von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse. A Life of Margaret Fuller, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst 1994, p. 146.

3. P. Blanchard, Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading 1987, p. 158.

4. The "Dial". A Magazine for literature, philosophy and religion, Russell and Russell, New York 1961, i, p. 6. (further cited in the text: the number of the volume and the page).

5. P. Miller (ed.), The American Transcendentalists. Their Prose and Poetry, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York 1957, pp. 157, 168.

6. A. Zverev, Margaret Fuller, in "History of the Literature of the United States" (in Russian), Naslediye, Moscow 1999, ii, p. 313.

7. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, R. N. Hudspeth (ed.), 6 vols., Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London 1983-1994, ii, p. 109.

8. B. G. Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth. Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings, Feminist Press, Old Westbury, New York 1976, p. 146.

9. L. Wellisz, The Friendship of Margaret Fuller Ossoli and Adam Mickiewicz, Polish Books Importing Co., Union Square, New York 1947.

10. On these religious sects and the role of Ekaterina Tatarinova, whom Fuller must have alluded to when referring to «the invalid of St. Petersburg» (in both The Great Lawsuit and Woman in the Nineteenth Century), see A. Etkind, Sodom and Psyche (in Russian), ic-Garant, Moscow 1995, ch. 3.

11. Von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse, cit., p. 87.

12. Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the "Dial", cit., p. 119.

13. M. Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Other Writings, D. Dickenson (ed.), Oxford University Press, New York 1994, p. 217.

14. M. Stern, The Life of Margaret Fuller, Dutton and Co., New York 1942, p. 367.

15. R. Durning, Margaret Fuller, Citizen of the World. An Intermediary between European and American Literatures, in "Beihefte zum Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien", Heft 26, 1969, p. 123.

16. Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, cit., p. 201.

17. Ivi, p. 155.

18. On this: D. Schulz, Amerikanischer Transzendentalismus, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1997, p. 182.

19. C. Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, i, The Private Years, Oxford University Press, New York 1992, pp. 313, 314, 350.

20. Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the "Dial", cit., p. 76.

21. Chevigny, "Cheat Me [On] by No Illusion": Margaret Fuller's Cultural Critique and its Legacies, in F. Fleischmann (ed.), Margaret Fuller's Cultural Critique. Her Age and her Legacy, Peter Lang, New York 2000, p. 37.

22. Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, cit. p. 148.