Arguably the marker cultural phenomenon we’ve got going now is American Idol. On any Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, there are 50 or so million TV viewers who watch to see who Simon will trash, whose singing performance is too pitchy or pitch perfect. And then text message in their vote, a kind of balloting I’ve yet to master.
I am not too proud to say I am usually among them, cheering for my favorites, puzzling over those who seem to slip on through by virtue of their smiles or their fashionable pouts. Never voting, mind you, but captivated by the possibility that the bank teller from Detroit or the church choir singer from North Carolina might get picked and go gold.
So I report with more than a smidgen of generational disappointment, even judgment, that last week, when the remaining 20 young men and women were asked to name the person who inspired them and all of them selected family members — slim blond wives who said yes to much less pretty princes, mothers who woke them up and forced them to go down to audition, grandmas and brothers and fiancés, I was both predictably touched and surprisingly disappointed.
I realized the inclination was toward a kind of this-is-dedicated-to-the-one-I-love moment, but the question, as I chose to hear it, was about inspiration. Which for me invoked both the everyday notion of practical encouragement and the loftier notion of prophetic muse.
Who was the man or woman whose vision or deeds shaped them?
Okay, I know that was asking a great deal of contestants in a singing competition, as we are often reminded. But it is my fantasy that if for some reason I was ever in the hootenanny version American Folk Idol, that when my moment came to stand in front of the camera and name my inspiration, to make my dedication, that I would say Joni Mitchell, whose lyrical contributions were, you must agree (or not), often prophetic.
Not the lines about moons and Junes and Ferris wheels, which were pleasant and memorable, but the ones that foretold of paving paradise and putting up parking lots, or her native Canadian indictment of the United States, her adopted country, that had come already to inspire so much terror in others. We have all come, she sang, to fear the beating of your drums. And when she urged us to imagine a cosmic change, with bombers flying shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies across our nation, we knew we were in the imaginative far-seeing presence of someone who was convicted of a better way. The stuff of Elijah and Isaiah.
Her soaring, circular words. Her singular shining prophetic presence.
Biblically speaking, there were only seven women recognized as prophets or prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Chanah, Abigail, Chulda, and Esther. In the most traditional sense, prophets are those who are believed to be speaking on behalf of God or other spirits. Another more expanded but accepted definition is that a prophet informs a religious community about what they are doing wrong, how they are deviating from the path expected from them, urging them to change their ways.
When I think about our Transcendental Unitarian prophetess Margaret Fuller, it in that same sense — a charismatic woman with a bold, brilliant, and critical mind. With, as she wrote, a thirst for truth and good, not love of sect and dogma. A kind of an idol for her own time, not blond and singing, but dark haired and scribbling — hundreds of words in articles, essays, speeches, and journal entries over her tragically brief life.
I will admit I knew very little about Margaret Fuller when I was first asked to serve on the selection committee for the Fuller awards program of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation. I knew she was one of our famous women, who was part of the circle of Concord, Massachusetts, intellectuals who were considered seminal figures in the 19th century philosophical, literary, and political renaissance in New England called the American Bloomsbury. The group that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott.
What I soon learned as I joined the group of lay and ministerial colleagues whose wonderful task was to solicit and select scholarly, creative, and justice-seeking projects by contemporary women, was that she is a significant and under-recognized prophetic voice from our liberal religious heritage. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote of her, she possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time.
With her famous Boston women’s conversations, her editing of the Transcendental journal, The Dial, and later her book Woman of the 19th Century, Fuller urged women to develop their potential to participate equally with men in the world.
Being a curious and diligent funding panel member, I gathered more details about Margaret from the biographical sketches available in collections of Unitarian and Universalist women’s writings like Standing Before Us.
She was born to Unitarian parents in Cambridge in 1810. Her father was a liberal politician and a supporter of equality for women. He educated his already precocious daughter at home for several years, instilling in her principles of independence and moral courage which he derived both from his own progressive beliefs and study of Greek and Latin writers. She knew both languages by the time she was six years old.
It has been written that Margaret reached adulthood as a formidably intelligent, socially eccentric, not conventionally attractive but by many accounts electric and sensual young woman who was either intensely disliked or intensely admired, but who could not be ignored.
One of her contemporaries described her as not beautiful, but more than beautiful. A sort of glow surrounded her and warmed those who listened. She has been called the sexy muse for her male colleagues, and was undoubtedly the model for Nathanial Hawthorne’s adulterous Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
In the 1830s and 1840s, Fuller as editor of the Dial became a member of that famous Transcendentalist circle and club, in fact, the only woman, besides perhaps Elizabeth Peabody, with any regular presence among them.
In fact, if there was a prophet, mentor, and muse for her, it would have been Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose home she stayed in for a length of time on several occasions, staying up at night for intimate bedside talks — more intimate than his wife preferred. She took long walks with Hawthorne by the river banks. With the aging Reverend William Ellery Channing, she read German philosophy and theology.
Theologically, Transcendentalism — a commitment to finding the divine in the human endeavor in concert with nature — was consistent with Fuller’s conviction that religion was in her own heart, writing that, in terms of religious institutions, she belonged nowhere. I have pledged myself, she declared, to nothing… I have my own church where I am by turns priest and layman.
Like other Transcendentalists of what one later critic called the old New England sort, she believed herself to be a child of God, and if a child, then, an heir — a very condensed way of saying as Caroline Dall, a fellow female Transcendentalist wrote, that the spirit within her was the breath of creative spirit and therefore in its reach, its possibilities and its final destiny.
The constitution of the Transcendentalist community, to whose principles Fuller covenanted to adhere, was ethically demanding. They collectively vowed to promote what they saw as the great purposes of human culture — to establish the external relations of life on the basis of wisdom and purity; to apply the principles of love and justice to our social organization; to substitute a system of brotherly co-operation for one of selfish competition; to secure for the young the benefits of the highest physical, intellectual, and moral education possible; to prevent what they saw as the exercise of worldly anxiety by the competent supply of necessary wants.
To diminish the thirst for accumulation — to guarantee physical support and spiritual progress.
As lofty and challenging as these commands for human betterment were for all of the members of this club, the barriers still existing for women around access to formal education and vocations made it even more daunting for Margaret and the few other females in the circle. While the transcendentalists asserted there was “no sex in souls,” the outer world had many boundaries.
In still Puritan Boston, Margaret Fuller was refused admission to Harvard. Only partly daunted by this educational wall, she was able to procure all the books that Harvard Divinity School was assigning. At 28, she set up reading circles for women in her home and in Elizabeth Peabody’s foreign language bookstore, many of them the wives of those transcendental intellectual giants who had gone to colleges through the front gates. Charging substantial tuition to these women, equivalent to Harvard’s in some instances, she achieved an admirable degree of economic independence, at the same time inspiring in them a desire to learn and converse, vs. the customary needlework and idle gossip which Margaret forbad.
Do your minding, not your mending, she demanded, as she lectured (something largely off limits publicly for women of her era) on art, mythology, faith, education, and women’s rights.
It was said of her that her conversation was seldom heard equaled. In fact, Emerson thought her the most entertaining conversationalist of her time.
Some of the money she earned went to pay, as an unmarried woman, to board with a married couple, since living alone was not an acceptable alternative. Some of the rest of it she used to finance her own private anti-slavery campaign and other causes.
While her reading and discussion circles were truly legendary and have been transcribed and used as the model for similar teas and conversations among Unitarian women today, the best documentation for her prophetic social witness comes from the pieces she did, both news and critiques, for the New York Herald Tribune.
She was hired by famous editor Horace Greeley to write literary reviews in 1844, the first American woman to hold such a position. He called her the most remarkable and, in some respects, the greatest woman America had yet known.
Not content to remain a reviewer, she took a trip to what was then the Western frontier, describing in a book called Summer on the Lakes the lives of the settlers in Illinois and Wisconsin and the destitute survivors of the native tribes they had displaced.
Moving from arts and literary critique to social witness and critique, she explored the dark corners of New York, producing stunning reformist exposés of conditions in the prisons, asylums, alms houses, and institutions for the blind .
Among her most radical and far-sighted observations were about the plight of women prisoners when in the 1840s authorities began jailing them for prostitution and public drunkenness. Few women reformers would come to the aid of women in jail because reformers wanted to avoid risking their own status as respectable middle-class ladies.
One woman, our Margaret Fuller, did, noting in print that there was a need to help discharged females, becoming one of the first to argue that economic and social forces brought women into prostitution.
She said she had always felt great interest in these women, who she wrote were trampled in the mud to gratify the appetites of men, and wished she might be brought into direct contact with them.
At the Bellevue Alms House, Fuller found people who received decent physical care but sat staring in what she described as vacant boredom. She called for books and education to help them find jobs. The conditions at Toombs prisons she found barbarous, the air in the upper galleries unendurable. Fuller’s articles on asylum and prison reform all stressed the same theme — kind care begets good results.
Like all prophets, who look at the world through their own humanness no matter how ardently they invoke the divine, Margaret had blind spots — failing to see basic physical conditions beneath the holiday surface of mental wards that cried out for change — and having an attitude toward Irish immigrants who came fleeing the Potato famine that was at best condescending, at worse hate-provoking.
She warned her readers that the Irish were foolishly romantic, extremely ignorant, blindly devoted to the church, lazy, and ungrateful.
Margaret was not yet 35 when she wrote three especially harsh and damning columns on what was deemed the Irish Character, columns defended at the time because at least she called for tolerance and patience in educating them, rather then for violence and deportation.
Intrigued by the Italian revolution, she went there as a foreign correspondent, met and perhaps married a young Italian nobleman and bore his young son. On a visit home to America, their boat shipwrecked off Fire Island, New York, within sight of shore. She was only 40 when she died.
I would like to imagine that a searching and sensitive a soul such as Margaret would have continued to evolve in her understanding of the conditions of new immigrants, of those she saw as Other. That even this blind spot in her prophetic nature would have been opened up to enlightenment.
No matter, Margaret Fuller remains more than a distant historical figure to me — she was, and continues to be, a prophet for a new generation of Unitarians. Through our Women’s Federation and its Margaret Fuller funding program, she has inspired us to do our own work of honoring contemporary female workers for peace and justice: advocating for young women in the sex industry, providing a forum for Transylvanian women to talk about their private lives as wives and mothers, interviewing African American women in our own liberal faith communities.
Her life may have been pitchy in places — off key, off the mark, but for me at least she is still — an American Idol.