American Prophetess


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?

Ok, 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 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 prophetesse :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 l9th
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
intensively 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 1830’s and 1840’s, 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 l844, 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 exposes 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 1840’s 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 avid risk 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 human-ness
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.