- New Girls and Bandit Brides: Female Narcissism and Lesbian Desire in Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes
In July 1843, Margaret Fuller published her essay “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women” in the Dial, the major transcendentalist magazine, of which she was one of the editors; she later expanded it for publication in book form in 1845 with its title changed to Woman in the Nineteenth Century. During the period between publishing “The Great Lawsuit” and Woman, Fuller traveled to Niagara and the Great Lakes. The work that emerged from this trip, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, published in 1844, has been regarded as one of this author’s most significant. In this essay, I argue that what makes the book particularly interesting to studies of gender and sexuality in the period is the light it sheds on her awareness of same-sex desire and its relationship to antebellum gender politics. In Summer’s Mariana narrative, Fuller links her critique of constrictive gender roles and their dynamics to the experience and implications of same-sex desire within a female homosocial environment; the play between collective gender identity and singular queerness provides the central drama of this narrative.
From the prevailing critical perspective shaped by the theories of the French social historian Michel Foucault in his influential History of Sexuality, there has been a long-standing view, only recently challenged, that modern sexual identities such as lesbian and homosexual are a late-nineteenth-century invention, the result of the creation of new taxonomies of sexual identity that date from the 1860s and the subsequent rise of sexological and related legal discourses (43, 15–51). Writing in the wake of Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s early study of intensely passionate female friendships, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” many scholars have disputed or at least deemphasized, as Smith-Rosenberg did, the erotic nature of these female friendships in early America, [End Page 37] arguing that what appears to contemporary readers as erotic passion was the conventional language of nineteenth-century friendship and other forms of platonic love. New waves of scholars, however, have been challenging such positions. Of specific relevance to this essay, several scholars have argued for the presence of eroticism between women and even for the legitimacy of using the term lesbian in texts prior to the late-nineteenth-century era.1
Within the growing field of Fuller scholarship, the question of same-sex desire has drawn increasing attention in the past two decades. Mary E. Wood writes persuasively about Fuller’s specifically lesbian themes: “By looking for lesbian positionality in the writings of Margaret Fuller in the light of the discourse on sexuality of a specific historical period and social context,” she argues, “we can begin to see that notions of lesbian ‘identity’ were already being constructed . . . well before sexologists named lesbianism as medically deviant in the 1880s” (4). Claudia Card discusses the lesbian significance of Fuller’s work as one that lies in its thematic and textual diversity (60–61), and Jeffrey Steele argues, as well, that Fuller explored homoerotic feelings in her work (66). In her essay “Essential, Portable, Mythical Margaret Fuller,” Mary Loeffelholz argues for the as yet unimagined possibilities that recognizing Fuller as a lesbian writer might mean for periodizing and anthologizing nineteenth-century women writers. Nicole Tonkovich also analyzes lesbian themes in the Mariana episode in Domesticity with a Difference (175–77, 185, 199–200). Given the important work from several critics on the subject of Fuller’s lesbian themes, then, it is surprising that Summer on the Lakes has not been reexamined in this light.
As Meg McGavran Murray describes in her biography of the author, Fuller underwent a crisis of gender and sexual identity in 1839 and 1840, a period in which she was besieged by conflicting feelings toward other women (31). Summer is a crucial text for the question of same-sex desire in Fuller’s work, reflective of her personal struggles but also of her dynamic attempts to make sense of them. Because Summer is so resonant in these terms, it is also relevant to the contested issue of same-sex desire in...