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South Central Review 21.1 (2004) 18-21
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Response to Larry J. Reynolds, "Subjective Vision, Romantic History, and the Return of the 'Real':
The Case of Margaret Fuller and the Roman Republic"
Texas A&M University
Of the many sharply focused insights in this paper, one stands out: the notion of Margaret Fuller as a catalyst for "the return of the real." Too often, nineteenth-century American realism has been treated as the exclusive province of postbellum writers, mostly males, standing in rugged contrast to the sentimental idealism and romanticism practiced before the Civil War. By foregrounding Fuller's movement from Emersonian idealism to journalistic realism, Larry Reynolds locates the shift from subjective to objective not only in an earlier figure, but one often considered the most romantic and "transcendental" of the period. Moreover, by embedding Fuller's perceptual development in technology, human psychology, and the experience of international war and revolution, Reynolds forces a reassessment of the period as well as the person. In footnote 32, he compares her (audaciously, some will think) to Johann von Goethe, and declares that her recognition of the effect of prior knowledge on present perception "places her ahead of Goethe in the matter of aesthetics and ideology."1 His example, which demonstrates the cosmopolitan German's embarrassingly parochial racism, makes the case superbly.
The distinction between subject and object (or romanticism and realism, as I am categorizing the opposition here) is not, Reynolds realizes, antipodal but parallel, like alternate lanes on an interstate highway. At different times we can travel in either one. Both objective and subjective perception exist simultaneously, and one or the other may dominate our self-awareness and, notably, our expression of that perception. This would be as true in painting as in poetry, photography as prose. And here the example of Henry David Thoreau makes the same point from a different angle, as Reynolds adroitly shifts lanes for his own argument. Thoreau, another romantic idealist, often strived for particularity and objectivity, even while he knew it was impossible. Seeing what might have been Fuller's bones on the beach, he masked his subjectivity with transcendental distancing, following the Emersonian doctrine [End Page 18] of compensation in which even the greatest evil would be ultimately counterbalanced by good. Such assurance allows the perceiver a supreme diffidence toward the jagged thrusts of experience. Yet Thoreau's journals (like his eventual abolitionism) betray him, and reveal that, as with Goethe, the subjective and emotional slip through even the most practiced objectivity. The example Reynolds cites is effective, with the metaphor of a dead body possessing a shore, and it reminds me of other outbursts of emotion in so many seemingly self-contained writers when they express themselves in letters (Nathaniel Hawthorne's "scribbling women"), reviews (Edgar Allan Poe's notorious calumnies of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell), or journals (Ralph Waldo Emerson's refusal to obey the fugitive slave law). When genre permits, subjectivity surfaces.
One consequence of Reynolds's argument, then, is that we cannot truly know an author until we have read his or her spontaneous writing, particularly in descriptive or reportorial modes. Fuller's Tribune dispatches from Rome offer such an opportunity, and Reynolds uses them tellingly: Who will forget Fuller's account of the young man kissing his amputated arm? Or her stark description of a dog exhuming a hastily buried soldier and finding the corpse lying there—face up? The "Angel in the House," it seems, is fully capable of confronting the demon of the battlefield and absorbing it into her journalistic narratives, even if, traveling in another lane of perception, she might view death with grief-stricken tears. Having edited these dispatches along with Susan Belasco Smith, Reynolds deserves credit for bringing them into the canon and shattering the false dichotomies that not only separate Fuller from, say, Stephen Crane, but antebellum from postbellum literature. Knowing the full range of American Renaissance writing complicates our sense of literary...