- Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism ed. by Jana L. Argersinger and Phyllis Cole
Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism, edited by Jana L. Argersinger and Phyllis Cole, is a wide-ranging, riveting collection of essays exploring the role women played in the evolution of American transcendentalism. The term genealogy promises a mapping of origins, progeny, and synchronic and cross-generational relationships, and the collection makes good on this promise. What unfolds within and among the book’s seventeen essays is a persuasive history that spans more than one hundred years of women’s formative contributions to American transcendentalism and its legacies, as well as a rich account of how these contributions developed through an intricate nexus of direct and indirect exchanges among women and between women and men. The essayists address a wide variety of understudied texts and newly recovered archival documents written by women (eighteen excerpts from such documents are interspersed between essays throughout the volume). By turning so compellingly to so much new material, the book insists not only that women, too, are part of transcendentalism’s history but also that we need to tell its history very differently than we have. As Argersinger and Cole argue in their introduction, we must redefine the movement “in large enough terms to include all [the] ideas and enactments” of its varied participants (11). This is especially the case because the most crucial participation—for women and men—occurred within friendships, conversations, letters, and journals, and not necessarily in canonized [End Page 198] lectures, sermons, and published texts. This volume makes remarkable strides in collating these enactments and in remapping the social and intellectual terrain of transcendentalism.
The book’s first section lays compelling groundwork for subsequent sections, with essays arguing that women played a “formative, not derivative” role in developing early transcendentalist thought and cultural practices (11). Noelle A. Baker argues persuasively, for example, that Mary Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s aunt and mentor, sowed the seeds for transcendentalist models of reading, dialogue, and friendship well before the 1830s by actively circulating and inviting conversations about extracts from what she called her “Almanacks,” a series of over one thousand pages of reflections on her daily reading. Phyllis Cole argues that Elizabeth Peabody’s Reminiscences of William Ellery Channing is less a biography than an “openly dialogic” text that records Peabody’s active intellectual exchanges with Channing and demonstrates her intellectual leadership among transcendentalists (132). Baker’s and Cole’s essays underscore that any genealogy of transcendentalism must highlight the extensive interactions between the women and men. In fact, while the volume’s title rightly stakes out a focus on women’s contributions, its reference to a specifically “female genealogy” also risks sidelining these contributions (in a way the book itself does not) by signaling a discrete female lineage rather than integral female involvement. Other essays in this section variously incorporate European influences into the book’s genealogy: Carol Strauss Sotiropoulos argues that Fuller’s reading of novels by Goethe and Bettina Brentano von Armin led her to (mis)perceive an idealized German womanhood that empowered her advocacy of female friendship and learnedness, and Gary Williams finds the gender-crossing influence of George Sand in Fuller’s “The Magnolia of Lake Pontchartrain.” Ivonne M. García locates the early feminist transcendentalism of Sophia Peabody’s widely circulated Cuba Journal at the intersection of British romanticism and colonial landscape.
Essays in the book’s second section address the movement’s heyday in the 1830s and 1840s, focusing in various ways on women’s transcendentalist practices. Sarah Ann Wider examines the embrace of provisionality in the perceptual attentiveness of Fuller, Sarah Clarke, and Caroline Sturgis. Sterling F. Delano offers a fascinating gender analysis of labor practices on Brook Farm, and Monika Elbert reads Julia Ward Howe’s novel The Hermaphrodite as a transcendentalist text inspired especially by Fuller’s notion of the soul’s androgynous flux. One of the strongest pieces in this section is Jeffrey Steele...