- Transatlantic Subjects
Transnationalism is for very good reasons a keyword of our times. As individuals and groups move from place to place, whether as workers or businesspeople, refugees or migrants, tourists, retirees, students, humanitarians, even terrorists, national identities become fluid. We are familiar, sometimes to our outrage and sorrow, with the globalization of markets, and we are becoming familiar, too, with global or hybrid subjects, individuals born, perhaps, to parents of different races and nations, educated, perhaps, far from their place of birth, residing elsewhere still, boasting more than one passport if they are lucky and legal, or none if they are neither. We tend to think of all this as peculiarly contemporary, the product, on the negative side, of genocidal conflicts, economic imperialism, late capitalism and, on the positive side, of a new and enlightened sense of world citizenship, a growing sense of common responsibility for the planet.
But if our age is producing new generations of transnational subjects (without, it must sadly be said, abolishing or even diminishing the incidence and virulence of conflict based on national, ethnic, and religious identities), how do we think about nation and identity in earlier times, and how, particularly, do we think about American-born female transatlantic subjects in the first part of the nineteenth century? Two recently published collections of essays give us the opportunity to undertake this task in relation to two women who are—surprisingly, when you come to think about it—rarely discussed together. Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher were born in 1810 and 1811, respectively, less than a hundred miles apart, to prominent fathers, men, each in his way, of the Enlightenment, and mothers who made their lives in the domestic sphere. Their own lives took very different courses, but both were active participants in intellectual and cultural exchange. Beecher [End Page 159] married Reverend Calvin Stowe and became Harriet Beecher Stowe, the mistress of his parlor, a kind of domestic salon, in her biographer Joan Hedrick's vivid account, as well as the author of a geography book for children and a series of stories and sketches, published in popular religious and women's periodicals. Fuller became a teacher, a free-lance leader of conversazioni, an editor, a writer, and perhaps above all, at least before she left for Europe, a charismatic talker. In the course of time, both published important books and acquired international reputations as pioneering professional woman writers and strong advocates of radical political positions. Both traveled to Europe, where they met and exchanged ideas with prominent writers and public figures, and both wrote about their European travels, Stowe in a book, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854), and Fuller in a series of letters to the New-York Tribune, published posthumously, first as part of a volume called At Home and Abroad, or Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (1856), edited by her brother, Arthur, and more recently (and more completely) as a free-standing volume called "These Sad But Glorious Days": Dispatches from Europe, 1846–1850 (1991), edited by Larry J. Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith. Both produced themselves, in other words, as female transatlantic subjects on the literary, social, and political scene.
Their written reports on their European experiences took the familiar shape of letters from abroad, a popular and eclectic form of travel writing that allowed for digressions and meditations as well as narrative and description and was quite commonly practiced by women in the period. Fuller had made her debut as a travel writer with Summer on the Lakes in 1843, in which she appropriated the relaxed and popular form of the "summer book" to comment on, among other things, the role of women on the frontier and the condition of Native Americans, again particularly women, in the contact zone with European settlers. Her long-dreamed-of trip to Europe was financed in part by an advance from Horace Greeley for...