Writing Writers’ Lives: Writing the American Renaissance

– I’m Gary Giddins, I’m
the executive director of the Leon Levy Center and
we’re delighted to have you here for our fifth annual conference. We were founded in 2007
with a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, and always want to thank Shelby White, the administer of the foundation
for her generous support. She couldn’t be here, but the indispensable
Judith Dubrinsky is here from the Leon Levy
Center and we thank her. I wanted to thank president
Kelly who could not be here and provost Chase Robinson who
will be here a little later for the incredible support
that they’ve given us at the Graduate Center. And I especially want to
thank all the participants who are going to be on the stage. It’s really an astonishing lineup and we’re very proud to have them. One of the traditions of this event is to introduce you to the fellows. Now for those of you who are not aware, we have a fellowship program
that we’re very proud of where we give grants to
four emerging biographers and two dissertation students. And they come to New York and
they have offices upstairs and they work and before long they produce biographies and we feel there’s nothing like
when a new book comes in you feel the organization
is somewhat responsible so I want to introduce you, I don’t know if they’re all here,
but I’m going to ask you to stand up as I mention your names and hold your applause. Susan Bernofsky is writing a
biography of Robert Walser. Langdon Hammer is writing a
biography of James Merrill. Siobhan Roberts is writing a biography of the mathematician John Horton Conway. Damion Searls is writing a
biography of Hermann Rorschach and our dissertation students
are Peter-Christian Aigner who’s writing Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the Reconstruction of Liberalism. And Lauren Kaplan, Crossing the Atlantic Italians in Argentina, please. (applause) I also am not sure if she’s here, but I want to acknowledge
and thank my predecessor Nancy Milford, one of the
originators of this center. And David Nasila who is here, and we really probably
wouldn’t exist without them. In fact I’m certain of it. Each spring the conference explores different avenues of biography. What is a biography? What purpose does it serve? How do we go about pursuing
the art and the craft? One could hardly ask for
a more inspiriting answer than that given by Catherine Drinker Bowen when explaining why she wrote her famous 1944 biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Yankee from Olympus. I’m just gonna read this few sentences. “The more I learned about
Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the more insupportable
it became to think of him “as dead, cold, and motionless “beneath the stone at Arlington. “I found myself possessed
by a witch’s frenzy “to ungrave this man, stand him upright, “see him walk, jump, dance,
tell jokes, make love, “display his vanity, or his
courage as the case might be. “National encomium, the
laying on of laurels “had only buried him deeper. “The difficulty was to uncover material “that gave proof of life,
not noble, public posture “but characteristic brief turns of phrase, “small oddities and manners “that belong to Holmes,
and to Holmes alone.” She makes it sound so easy. Today’s conference
explores the perhaps ironic but indisputable fact that
so many of the very greatest biographies ever written
are about not politicians and the military leaders
that Plutarch wrote about when he originated the
form, but about writers and indeed some of the
most celebrated biographies of all time are about other biographers. And with that, I’m going to introduce, I’m only going to introduce
the moderators today and they will introduce the panelists and our moderator for the first program, first panel is our own deputy,
oh I failed to identify the small group that we
are at the Leon Levy Center and I especially want to
acknowledge Michael Gately without whom, he runs the organization. He’s our events programmer,
Michael please stand up. There he is. (applause) He got all these flags
and the incredible flowers and if you ever contact us or make arrangement to be here
at any of our events, all of which are free, you’ll
probably speak to Michael. Our deputy director is the
distinguished biographer John Madison whom I’m
going to introduce now. He’s a distinguished professor of English at the John Jay College
of Criminal Justice who worked as a litigator
before turning to literature. He has a history degree from Princeton, a law degree from Harvard,
and a PhD in English from Columbia where he
wrote his dissertation. He’s currently teaching
a seminar on biography as genre at the graduate center. A history of biography as
a literary form since 1791. His first biography, Eden’s Outcasts the Story of Louisa May
Alcott and her Father won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for biography and his most recent biography The Lives of Margaret
Fuller which is in paperback as of this week and it’s for sale outside, published by Norton now in paperback, won the 2012 Ann Sperber
Prize as the year’s outstanding biography of journalist or other figure in media. He will also be here, make a note in your calendars, on April
16 to interview John Bryant on biography and Herman Melville. So please welcome John Madison. (applause) – Gary thank you so much
and my thanks to all of you for being in attendance here today. Gary deserves a few words as well. The director of our center. A man who has made the Leon Levy Center more active, more relevant
than it ever has been before. A man who I consider to
be an ideal ambassador not only for the humanities
but for humanity in general. I admire your scholarship very much, but not quite so much as I
prize and praise your kindness. For the benefits that you
confer upon our fellows, for our splendid public programs
and for so very much more, you may be deeply, deeply proud. So thank you. (applause) Ralph Waldo Emerson, that
greatest of transcendental sages posited that there is no
final limit to our knowledge. He wrote in his essay Circles quote “every ultimate fact is only
the first of a new series. “Every general law is
only a particular fact “of some more general law
presently to disclose itself. “There is no outside, no enclosing wall, “no circumference to us. “The man finishes his
story, how good, how final, “how it puts a new face on all things. “He fills the sky lo, on the
other hand, on the other side, “rises also a man and draws
a circle around the circle “we had just pronounced
the outline of the sphere.” For this panel on writing
the American Renaissance we are privileged today to have with us three extraordinary scholars
who have made careers drawing circles, or
should I say running rings around what we previously thought and knew about American culture in the
decades before the Civil War, and whom it’s my pleasure
to introduce to you today. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden quote “we are made to exaggerate “the importance of what
work we do” unquote. True enough for most
of us, but nonetheless exaggeration is all but impossible when one discusses the contributions of our first guest, Jeffrey Cramer, to our understanding of Thoreau. The curator of collections
at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods he is the
editor of the award winning Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition as well as The Maine Woods:
A Fully Annotated Edition and I to Myself, an annotated selection from the journal of Henry David Thoreau. His current project is Solid Seasons a biography of the friendship
of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, welcome Jeffrey. When one reads a book on
a subject which one’s self has also recently addressed, two emotions tend to emerge
in jarring alteration, alternation rather. The fact that every new, sorry, every fact in the new work
is either known to you, and this is an occasion for boredom, or the fact is something you did not know in which case the regnant
emotion is mounting terror. It is thus perhaps the highest compliment that I can pay our second
guest, Megan Marshall, that I have at times found
her recently published book an extraordinary study, Margaret
Fuller a New American Life as more personally horrifying
than a Stephen King novel. (audience laughs) Miss Marshall is an assistant
professor at Emerson College. Her previous contribution
to the literature on the American Renaissance,
The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited
American Romanticism was awarded the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Linton History Prize, and the Massachusetts Book Award. The Peabody Sisters was
also a named finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography. Professor Marshall has
gracious joined us today on the day after a reading
in Concord, Massachusetts and three days before an
appearance at the Boston Athenaeum. We acknowledge both her
generosity and her stamina. I would also like to mention
that there are copies of the recently released Margaret
Fuller A New Romantic Life available in the lobby. Finally, David S. Reynolds is
a man truly for all seasons. A distinguished professor of English here at the CUNY Graduate
Center and a man whose work has truly helped to
revolutionize our understanding of the pre-Civil War era. The recipient of accolades
too many to mention, he has among other things
received the Christian Gauss Award for his book Beneath
the American Renaissance the Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville also available in the lobby. And the Bancroft Prize
for Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. He has reaped more recent
renown for his works Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America
and John Brown Abolitionist: the Man who Killed Slavery
Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights. My sincerest thanks to all of you for joining us here today. (applause) I’d like to begin with
a general observation which is that each of us here on the stage has devoted quite a bit of time and effort to the proposition that some people take to be controversial, namely
that external circumstances and the social and political
world that surround an author have significant bearing on the art that the author produces. For decades now textual
critics have argued that works of literature
are autonomous and that the life of the author is not an apt or important subject for critical study. It’s pretty clear to me
that all of us disagree, so let me pose the question to everyone. What do we have to gain
as students of literature by restoring historical context and telling the story of authors? Any of you are free to respond first. – Well I have been thinking coming here how Margaret Fuller is
perhaps the least known of some of the subjects
that we have to discuss and she herself wrote an interesting observation of Mary Wollstonecraft. She said that she was
a woman whose existence better proved the need of
some new interpretation of women’s rights than anything she wrote. I think you know why are
we interested in the lives of these people as much as the writings? And I think in the case of
the transcendentalists anyway, maybe all these writers in
the American Renaissance their lives and their
works, their writings are so well matched that
you can’t help but want to explore the life of the
person who wrote these words that are telling us how to live our lives. – Yep. – Certainly for someone like
Thoreau who’s tied so closely to the things going on
in his time politically, the thing that makes him
so interesting to people today still is that he
went beyond his time, so something like Civil Disobedience comes from his night in
jail protesting slavery. What we get out of it is
something greater than that and something more universal. – Yeah, David? – Yeah Emerson wrote that
the ideas of the time are in the air and in
fact all who breathe it, we learn of our
contemporaries what they know without effort almost
through the pores of our skin and it seems to me one of the
tasks of the biographer then is to explore those signifiers
and images and themes and ideas that are current in the culture and become absorbed for example in someone like Walt Whitman who said
I’m absorbing all of America. I’m surrounded by America as with vast oceanic tides that flow into me, so it seems to me that part of my role as a Whitman biographer is
to see what those tides are, those currents flowing into him. – Yeah, I don’t have the
quotation in front of me but I do recall that Emerson,
I had something to say about the fact that young
men in libraries study Cicero and Bacon and want to imitate
them without realizing that Cicero and Bacon
were once young people in libraries writing
those books themselves. And I think it’s very true of all of the figures we’ve just mentioned. Thoreau, Fuller, and Whitman
that life mattered to them. It wasn’t just what they were writing, but for Margaret Fuller one
of her greatest projects was her own self-culture, to become the most perfect person she could be. Thoreau wanted to live in
a way such that deathbed he would feel that he had lived, and Whitman of course is an avatar of life not only of the person
but of an entire nation. I have another question
which is to what extent, if at all, have all of you found writing the American Renaissance as a means toward introspection. I’m curious about the ways
in which your self knowledge may have benefited from your writing about these other people. – Well for me the amount of
time I spent with Thoreau certainly has increased my self-awareness. One of the things I find most
fascinating about Thoreau is how much he questions those concepts that we think of as Thoreauvian and he’s constantly revising
his own life through them, and so the questions that
he is asking himself, the questions that I feel as a human being I need to ask myself and therefore it creates a lot of introspection. – Mhmm, yeah. – I maybe some of you
know that I spent 20 years working on my Peabody Sisters book and it was a process. I felt you know in a way I was
growing up along with them, and I learned some, I
remember certain moments where things in their
lives really spoke to me. I think in those 20 years,
most of the time I thought maybe I’ll never finish this book and if I never do, what
is the value of my life? And this is the kind of question I think the transcendentalists were asking and in particular Sophia
Peabody who was a painter, a talented painter but
she was given to illness and she was conflicted
about actually pursuing a profession as a painter and this was I think she ultimately decided
yes her life was of value even if she didn’t produce
these great works of art that people expected of her, so I came to that conclusion about myself. I’ll just keep doing it, I’ll keep doing it even if I don’t finish. But another very meaningful moment was coming across a time
when Elizabeth Peabody was running conversations in a way for women she didn’t call
them that, but classes like the ones that Fuller later began and she said you know we began to think well what is a woman’s character and women should be contemplative she said but we also must act, and in her letter she says
I must be myself and act and I thought you know,
I’ll finish this book. (laughing) – Yeah the way the American
Renaissance figures inspire me is that the importance of self education and autodidacticism, Walt
Whitman didn’t go beyond the age of 11 in school. Of course Lincoln only had
about one year of school too, and yet Lincoln could
recite Shakespeare at length and Walt Whitman used, was
second only to Shakespeare in the amount of different words, vocabulary words he uses in his poetry. And yet he barely went to school and it shows you the
importance of education, but also inspiring your
students to educate themselves over time and not just to be satisfied with what they learned in classes. That’s part of it, but then
that has to be a springboard and to me all these Ameri,
Melville said a whaling ship was my Yale and my Harvard. Emily Dickinson went to
one year at Mount Holyoke but then she became the
greatest female poet, so it seems to me that this is really important to
inspire in our students. Self education, learning,
curiosity, curiosity. – [John] And David I’m so
glad that you’ve actually focused your comments so far on Whitman because your book on
Whitman is one of the, one of your many great
works but it’s the one that most interests me at the moment. Because it’s a book in
which you consciously blur the distinctions that we presume to exist among biography, history,
and cultural criticism. Can you explain to me
some of your theories, some of your thought behind synthesizing these scholarly genres in
Whitman a Cultural Biography. – Well Walt Whitman was
influenced by orators, by preachers, by scientists. His curiosity was so
omnivorous it was incredible, so it was my task as
a biographer to go out and actually read the sermons
and read the science works and read all the elements
and study the city life and all these things that he acknowledged were very very direct and
powerful influences on him and that left their deep
imprint on this poetry, on this great, great poetry
which is really all absorbed. So my task was then to
go out and read and learn about all those contexts that
directly stream into him. – Yeah, it seems to be
a particularly apt way of approaching Whitman whose self is so polymorphous and at the
same time so enigmatic. ‘Cause on the one hand, his
great poem Song of Myself purports to tell us who he is, but then when we read the
poem we don’t really find a single comprehensible individual. We find instead the cosmos, right? The character who contains multitudes, and sometimes you come away asking will the real Walt Whitman stand up? Who is your Walt Whitman? Who is this guy behind all of these masks? – He’s says I’m turbulent,
fleshy, drinking, breeding. He was actually very few of those things. He was not turbulent, he was quite calm. At a party he’d be
retiring over in the corner kinda chatting to somebody. Wasn’t much of a drinker. Was not a breeder, did
not have any children. He invents this persona that’s very much like a cosmic version
of the working class boy or rough of the streets that
he tried the democratic self, that he tried to project
himself as in his poetry. – Yeah. You wrote that book with the goal, as you later said, to
find out what Whitman’s own standpoint was and do you think that you succeeded, and how do you know? – I think his standpoint was really really to try to bring together his nation that was on the verge of falling
apart before the Civil War. And this is one reason
why he creates this. He says I am of Vermont,
of New Hampshire, of Maine, of Texas, of Alabama. He really tries to create a
geography of inclusiveness and a persona of inclusiveness. Now when it falls apart
during the Civil War, he becomes the great champion
of both not only the north, but actually of the south
and of Abraham Lincoln. Again he’s always trying
to unify his nation and prevent it from
collapsing and fragmenting. – Yeah, Megan you write in the prologue to your biography of Margaret Fuller that essentially the
subject changed for you during the course of your writing it. You said that you first
wanted to write a book that would turn away from quote “the intrigues of her private life “and that spoke of public
events only” unquote. But you eventually found
that you really couldn’t, or didn’t want to approach it that way. Why did you initially want to give us a purely political Fuller and what led you to transform the project? – Well, as I explained in
the opening of the book as I was staring my research
I went to the Houghton Library which has most all of Fuller’s papers and the first thing I asked to see was this astonishing journal
that she’d kept in Rome that survived the shipwreck
in which she drowned, and I wanted just to hold it in my hands. It had been, its contents much of them have been printed in a scholarly article, but so here’s this kind
of faded green thing and it’s a little bit water damaged and it’s from 1848, ’49 and I open it and in this is a little card written by in somebody else’s hand that says private events merely, nothing personal, public events merely and I thought you know this brand
that’s been put upon her, the scandal of her love
affair and her child born out of wedlock or
conceived out of wedlock is preventing people from seeing really the accomplishment of
Fuller, her great writings as a journalist, her feminism. Everybody’s always
looking for the scandal, and I thought you know let’s
put that aside kind of, and it was a naive thought of mine but I was kind of rising
up against whoever it was who had put this judgment on her journal which was you know, who would you, we would not say that about
a man who kept a journal of the public events of the revolution and you know people being assassinated and all sorts of stuff. I mean we’d want to know
about that just as much but because it was a woman
it seemed to me people, and woman with this
particular personal history, people weren’t you know as
excited about this volume as I thought they should have been, but as we were sort of
saying here too generally about these figures of
the American Renaissance, their personal lives and political lives, their public lives and personal lives could hardly be separated and
I think that was particularly true of Fuller and I began
to see that you know it would be foolish to leave out
this personal narrative too. – It is an interesting and
I think very false dichotomy that one does come across time and again that biographies of men
tend to be about action and biographies about women
tend to be about emotion, and it’s I think a failing of
the genre up to this point. The one that we in our
generation have inherited and one that I think some of us are really trying very hard to correct. As Fuller would have
wanted us to do right? She says there’s no purely masculine man, no purely feminine woman and let’s get more of a three
dimensional understanding. I’m interested that you
mentioned the sensation, the feeling of holding
Fuller’s journal in your hands because I would imagine that all of us really delight in those moments of some kind of personal contact with our subject, and it’s something that I’d like to hear both from David and from Jeffrey about. David, you’ve taught in Camden which is sort of Walt
Whitman’s central in some ways. You live on Long Island
and you’re you know teaching here in Manhattan,
so you couldn’t be spending much more time in
Whitmanland, which is great. – Yes well I’ve had the privilege
of living in Whitmanland. I live not far from his birthplace which is right across from
the Walt Whitman Mall. (audience laughs) I think, and his death
place down in Camden is quite interesting as well, and more than that when I wrote my book I tried to get my hands on each of the six major editions of Leaves of Grass so I could read them from cover to cover in their original form, and
to me that was so important just to have them in my
hand and just read them in their original form, it was just really really important to me. – Quick question not on
the subject of biography, but on the subject of Leaves of Grass. Whitman scholars tend to note this, that at the end of this poem
that becomes Song of Myself in the 1855 edition,
there’s no period right? It just, I stopped
somewhere waiting for you and then there’s no punctuation. And people go back and forth
was that a printer’s error or was that Whitman just being open-ended? – There were several printings
of that first edition, and to be sure at least two of them do not have a period there. You know I think there
are you know I forget because there were a couple paper versions and there was a hardbound edition, but I know the period is absent there I think in the hardbound
edition so I think, you know and Whitman was very very
careful about punctuation. He had been a printer,
and he violates grammar so intentionally
throughout Leaves of Grass there seems to me that
that’s probably intentional. – Okay.
– Yeah yeah. – [John] Jeffrey how about your thoughts about personal contact with Henry Thoreau? – Certainly working half
a mile from Walden Pond I am immersed in Thoreau
country which I love. But for me holding or touching things that Thoreau has held or
touched is somewhat inspiring and so the first time I held what’s known as the Maxham daguerreotype Which is one of the only images of Thoreau which he had taken for friends of his so he had these daguerreotypes taken– – Check your microphone. – Sorry. Okay we’re going to start
the program over again. (audience laughs) – Once more from the top, okay. – So the first time I got to
hold the Maxham daguerreotype which was an image that Thoreau had taken because friends wanted a picture of him was truly awe inspiring
because it was an image that he had taken and was handed to him so that he could deliver
it to his friends, so that’s as close as
I could ever get to… – Yeah, if there’s still
technical difficulties in hearing Jeffrey I might suggest that you maybe switch lapels
because you’re naturally going to turn and talk to me and you’ll be talking
away from the microphone. Sorry about that. And of course too, being
so connected with Thoreau you get to luxuriate with
all of the modern day Thoreau enthusiasts and
one of the great pleasures of Concord I think is the annual Thoreau Society gathering in July because it brings in people
really of all stripes. You’ve got the scholars,
you’ve got the treehuggers, you’ve got the rebels who show up on their motorbikes you know? How do you respond to that
sort of interest in Thoreau? – It’s difficult because
everybody finds their own Thoreau and so the reason people come to Thoreau is different for so many people
that as a literary person who’s based in literature,
I love the literary people who go to Thoreau for his writings. The people who come on their motorcycles and come almost to be
rebellious and say I’m not gonna be part of this
organization that I’m a part of, I don’t have as much sympathy for those. – Fair enough. Have you gone on the sort
of, the dawn walk around– – Yeah I’ve done my own dawn
walks but not with a group. – Okay, oh I see, very good yeah. And you know it’s interesting
when one thinks of Thoreau one thinks very clearly
of a place, Walden Pond. When one thinks of Whitman,
it’s a little bit different because there are areas
very consecrated to Whitman but Whitman also was kind
of sort of everywhere. It’s a more interesting
question with Fuller because Fuller is in a sense placeless in that her body was not recovered so there’s no grave to visit. There’s no particular house
that she lived in that’s– – I have to stop you.
– Oh okay. – There’s a wonderful,
yeah there’s the monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery. You’re right, her body wasn’t recovered but the monument to Fuller and
her husband, lover, and son was through the 19th Century
the most visited spot in Mount Auburn Cemetery
and the first path that was made and then paved led directly from the entrance of the cemetery to that lovely monument. So I think people felt
they could find her there if they’d find her anywhere. There’s also the birthplace which is in a sort of humble part of Cambridge. I actually went there on last Tuesday, the date of publication of my book just because I wanted to
kind of observe that day and this house is now the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, a settlement house where there’s a food pantry and an afterschool program and Margaret Fuller all
over the place inside and posters and that sort of thing, so I think her spirit is there too but maybe it’s most powerful to me in Rome where I’ve been lucky to go a few times to do some research and track down, it’s known where she
lived and in particular actually surprisingly she’s
quite well known to Italians, better perhaps than to Americans and there’s a plaque on the
house in which she lived in the Piazza Barberini that honors her, so I think you can feel her there too. – [John] Yeah, and
correct me if I’m wrong. Is it still true that
the only street in Rome named after an American is
named after not FDR or JFK or anyone you might expect,
but for Margaret Fuller? – Well there is a path,
it’s not quite a street but I don’t know about the
only, you know only American. That’s, I’ll have to– – [John] I read that, I’ve
never verified it so I’m– – See we’re finding out things. – Right, absolutely. I’d like to come back to something else Megan that you mentioned in your prologue. You allude to Fuller’s
contemporary Hawthorne who was sort of a frenemy of hers. And his observations about
the literary genre of romance. Hawthorne writes that whereas
a novelist is expected to show loyalty to actual experience, the author of a romance
has license to quote “bring out or mellow the lights “and deepen and enrich the
shadows of the picture” unquote. Now you say that when you
were writing your biography you were keeping that
idea of romance in mind and that you pursued as Fuller would say, and as you said, some liberating measures. What did you mean by that and how did they affect the writing of the book? – Well I felt that in comparison
with the Peabody sisters, where I was sort of plowing
new fields archivally, Fuller had been written about a great deal so the challenge to me
was to tell the story in as vivid a way as possible and that’s why I began
sort of to think of fiction and thought of course
of Hawthorne’s preface to the House of Seven Gables which he makes this definition. So what I wanted to do
really was to dwell, slow down the moments that
were most compelling to me and perhaps do a little
speeding up in between, so I really spent a lot of
time over the connection between Emerson, Fuller,
and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A lot of time on her years in Rome and the conflict she felt
over leaving her child, her infant behind with
a wet nurse in Rieti, a town maybe 40 miles from
Rome when she felt also as compelling a need,
more compelling a need to continue her work as a
journalist covering this rise of the republic and the fall of it. So I just really wanted to examine the materials that were there and to dwell in those moments of kind of crisis and build a story. I mean we always are doing that when we’re writing a biography, but I
felt since there had been so much work done on her life before this really freed me up. – Yeah one of the complications
of writing about Fuller is that one is having to work with but also contend against the
first biography of Fuller which is Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli that was assembled by
Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing. One of the limitations,
there are many limitations to that work but one of them
is that none of them knew her after about 1844 because
then she was off to New York and she was off to Rome,
and she transformed I think intensely in those last six years. So they were writing
their memory in some sense of a transcendental Fuller who was by the time of her passing
much more politicized and arguably transcendental no more. – Well Channing knew her
very well in New York so– – Okay fair enough. – There’s that and there
was the correspondence between Emerson and Fuller
while she was in Europe is really just so moving. You’re right, he’s in a
way trying to draw her back to that old Concord but I think that they did their research
and have been somewhat wrongly faulted for presenting
a Margaret that’s erroneous. I guess I began to feel a little bit, you know they were such
close friends of her. They were doing a great work
to keep her memory alive and I think it was that book, I mean that was the book
that George Eliot read and became fascinated
with Margaret Fuller. If that book weren’t there maybe we wouldn’t be writing many biographies. So I actually did borrow
a device from their, from their account. The part headings.
– The section headings yeah. – The section headings which
were mostly geographical. Kind of as an homage to their friendship. But it’s true they did kind of bastardize some of her letters, but we
have those full letters now and we can recover her
from their recovery. – It’s nice, I’m gonna bug
you just for one more question about Fuller in particular
and then we’ll broaden again. Just before Fuller voyages
back to or toward America, she settles for several months
with her putative husband, Giovanni Ossoli and their
son Nino in Florence and it’s a time during
which she writes quote “my heart was too suffocated “without a child of my
own” unquote and quote “what a difference it makes
to come home to a child. “How it fills up the
gaps of life” unquote. Now, as a male biographer
writing about Fuller I found the Florentine
interlude to be kind of tricky because her own writings
at the time seemed to at least superficially support Sophia Hawthorne’s judgment
that all Fuller needed was a family and then she’s pipe down about women’s rights and she wouldn’t be so you know upset with the world. And I’m curious whether you
think it’s politically easier for a woman biographer to speak frankly about that period of domestic contentment. – Well. I did say earlier that that was her era of motherhood was one that particularly fascinated me. I think it really spoke
to me as a working parent, working mother in particular and there’s a moment that I noticed. I found this very moving. She’d written, backing
up a little from Florence when she’s leaving her son
in Rieti and going to Rome to, he’s four months old and she goes, spends a few months away writing about the revolution that’s coming
and then she comes back to see him and she writes to
Giovanni, her husband, lover that he recognized her
and how wonderful that was after the time away. But she writes somewhat
later finally confesses the existence of this lover and child to her friend Carrie Sturgis in a letter and to Carrie Sturgis she admits that the child had sort of
buried his face in her shoulder as if to say how could you have left me? And I was so struck by
the difference between what she had written to her husband and then what she could
admit to this close friend who also had a child,
and it was that moment that I remembered my own experience of leaving my young daughter
and to do some research on the Peabody book and coming back and having her turn
away from me momentarily which you read in the child rearing books is something that they’ll
do, it’s a healthy thing, but then they ultimately turn back. And so it is possible
that those kinds of cues you know exactly, I was
particularly fascinated by how she says that you know Nino is, I mean the observations. He’s clearly bilingual, this is something, I don’t know that, I mean I haven’t read that part of your book but
maybe you didn’t comment on it that you know he’s hearing
the Austrian guards practice in the piazza
outside their window and he’ll say bravo but he’ll also say and I can’t remember what it was he said in English at the same time, so that was something I also picked up on. I don’t think that this was
the solution to her life and she clearly knew it wasn’t, and there’s also this
really astonishing moment that I found empowering
in a way when she starts telling her friends back in the US about her son and the marriage and Rebecca Spring writes back to her and says kind of what you
said Sophia Hawthorne, oh isn’t it wonderful to have a child? So much better than a
book, and she says well, Fuller says well I don’t
necessarily think so. With my book I can know
what result it would have. My son, I’ll have to wait for 20 years. (laughing)
– That’s good. Okay. I would be foolish having
a John Brown expert and a Thoreau expert up here without getting some interplay between the two. Transcendentalism is of
course Emerson in his study and it’s George Ripley at Brook Farm but it’s also thoreau calling John Brown a transcendentalist above all, and I’m curious to hear from both of you why did Thoreau call
Brown a transcendentalist and was he right? – Yeah I mean Thoreau,
actually the reason I wrote about John Brown was originally because I used to teach A Plea
for Captain John Brown by Henry David Thoreau
and he saw John Brown as a man of ideas why? Because when Brown was in prison after he was captured at Harper’s Ferry, and he was held in jail his prison letters were published to the world and Thoreau really saw in
his letters a selflessness and expression of ideas. John Brown was very cheerful
awaiting his execution. He said I want to die for enslaved people. I want to die for them,
and I would be rather accompanied to my gallows
by an enslaved black woman than I would by the greatest
clergyman in America. And this was the kind of
thing that Henry David Thoreau who had met John Brown when
he came to Concord in 1857, this was exactly the kind
of thing that really saw him as standing for principle, principle. So it wasn’t so much Brown’s weapons. His weapons were very weak, said Thoreau. It was his words really
that meant something. – [John] Jeffrey? – Right, for Thoreau Brown
was that transcendental hero partly because he was disappointed
in all the other heroes he had had already. His brother John who had
died young, Emerson himself so he was looking for that
kind of friend, that hero which he found in Brown. I agree it was the words and
the power of Brown’s words that really affected
Thoreau and allowed him to accept the fact that violence
was a way towards an end. That there were other means besides just the pacifist means that we
kind of associate with Thoreau that there is something greater. – I want to just say something. Going back to your question about why biography about these people, and I’ve been struck by Civil Disobedience which you mentioned then you know maybe the greatest essay, most influential essay in all, ever written. But if you look into the story of how that actually got to the
world you find that well, Thoreau gave a lecture about this. You know he was asked by
his community in Concord to talk about why he’d
spent the night in jail and then Elizabeth Peabody, my character, said oh she’d like to publish this in a journal that had only one issue and there it was, Resistance
to Civil Government. Well if she hadn’t had that idea, you know maybe someone would
have published it I guess, but it’s also entirely possible that it never would have come down to us. – And that essay goes on
and has such repercussions to Gandhi, Martin Luther
King, so many other people. Just that Thoreau once
said with a single idea you can float the British
empire like a chip with a single idea, and the idea of Civil Disobedience was just incredible. – Jeffrey your best known work thus far has been as an annotator
of Thoreau’s writings and you’re now branching into biography but is it reasonable to posit that annotation is a form of biography? – Certainly I mean I could just put forth facts in my annotations. I try to make them more of a narrative, more
interesting about his life. But also I talk to a lot
of people for instance at the Thoreau Institute about Thoreau and they don’t come for those little he was born on this date and particularly when
it’s high school students, the only way to keep them
interested is to have a narrative, to have a story you’re going to tell them, to have humor, to have
suspense, to have tragedy and so I’m using those
elements all the time when I’m talking to people so it’s– – Yeah, yeah I was fascinated in your annotation of The Maine Woods there’s Thoreau talks about
a moose breaking through the plate glass window of a store and you actually were
able to find the date, the name of the store, and all of that. It was really amazing. Were there other ahas that were particularly gratifying for you? These things that you tracked down? – There are, for instance
in the book of his essays that’s coming out in the next month, I was talking to Megan before the program that there are questions
that people don’t ever ask, and we’re talking about
150 years since Thoreau spent his night in jail, and no one yet has asked who his cellmate was. It’s written about, he
talks about his cellmate, but nobody actually
asked and I realized that if his cellmate was in jail, he went to court, there were court records and nobody looked up the court records. So now we know who the cellmate was, and what he actually did,
whose barn he burned down, and did he go to jail? Yes he did go to jail
for five years in Boston, so we know a lot more
about who the cellmate was. And those are kind of the aha moments, those things that why haven’t
people asked them before? – Yeah that’s really superb. Now, you’re currently
branching out from annotation. You’re writing a biography,
the Emerson Thoreau friendship. Not necessarily two people who were the easiest persons to be friends with, so how’s that coming along? – It’s coming along, I’m
still in the initial stages. I talked to a lot of people about, when people talk to me
about Thoreau and Emerson they always talk about the sort of breakup of their friendship. They were friends and
then something happened and nobody goes beyond that point. And so I really want to make these two men very human and very real and there’s a story that
is told about Emerson. He’s very old and his mind
is not what it used to be, it’s long after Thoreau had
died, and he has a visitor and he’s looking at a portrait of Thoreau that was hanging in his study,
and he calls to his wife in the other room what was
the name of my best friend? And that has always kind
of tugged on my heart and I think if Emerson
is looking in his old age as Thoreau as his best friend, there’s a story there to be told. – I thought Lidian would have
said it’s Amos Bronson Alcott. (laughs)
Oh well. What in your opinion is revealed
by this approach of yours of looking at Emerson and Thoreau together that would be harder to see if
we looked at them separately? – Well I think friendship was an ideal for a lot of the transcendentalists. They all wrote about it, it
was very important to them so they were looking for
something very specific and I think both Thoreau looking for it and Emerson actually
looking for it in Thoreau was very unique and in many
ways they inspired each other. They worked off of each other, and so I think we’re going to
find a better understanding of each of these two men by looking at how they looked at each other. – Just a couple more questions
and we’ll then throw it out for questions from the audience. I think that one of the great
challenges for scholars, and something that the work
that all of you have done does quite convincingly is to show how the literary culture of a period interacts with the broader culture of the time. We know that Emerson and Melville
and Whitman influence us, but how do we know the ways in which they influenced people at the time? Particularly someone like Melville who’s, who was almost effaced
during his lifetime. How can we recapture
that sense of influence? – Well with Melville it’s very tough because he was a bestseller early on, then Moby Dick fell like a lead balloon and Pierre, you know
Herman Melville’s crazy was one of the headlines then it kind of tails off into confidence men. I think he does have a certain
countercultural influence ’cause his name is sort of in the culture but someone like Emerson and Thoreau have a surprisingly large influence. Emerson was a very
important cultural figure and when he spoke, people would listen even though he was not a joiner. Neither of them liked to join movements. The abolitionist movement or
the women’s rights movement or whatever, but when they
spoke people would listen. So when Emerson says John Brown will make the gallows as glorious as the cross, that ricocheted like a
bullet both north and south and really really was repeated everywhere like my god, Ralph Waldo
Emerson actually said this. It’s amazing, and it really became a very controversial kind of statement. And even Thoreau’s John Brown essay was published in the New York Tribune and he gave it in several venues and you know what’s
your feeling about that? – Yeah I mean Thoreau’s getting up in a church in Concord
basically saying that John Brown is equivalent to Jesus Christ. The only living American
had he have been hanged– – And that gets noticed. – Yes it did, and there
are people in Concord who went to hear Thoreau speak
who really went to mock him. Who went to make fun of him and left in support and praising John Brown. He was a very powerful speaker and he could turn things around. – Well and I think also
Fuller’s dispatches from Rome that were describing these, the flower of Italian youth who are giving their lives
and limbs to this cause of liberty and unification in Italy were powerfully influential
on Whitman and Emerson. – Absolutely, yeah yeah. – Another interesting thing
that we have to contend with is the idea of the representative person. In that… A beginning student at
least coming to this period who reads about Thoreau
or Whitman or Fuller is likely to assume they
are typical of their era whereas in fact you know
their great contribution was being atypical. That’s one of the
misconceptions that a person can have about the American Renaissance. This notion of the representative
versus the exceptional but my broader question is for all of you, in what ways do we reflexively
tend to misread this period and what can we do as authors to fix that, but what can we also do as
readers to correct for whatever– – I think we tend to see them as too much alienated from their culture. They’re very much human beings living in their time in their culture and yes we can enjoy their works and their works come alive
for us today right now, but they’re also very very
much part of their environment and too often they’re isolated
from their environment. Not in present company, but
just in general I think so. – Using common language, I mean Thoreau read all the newspapers. He knew exactly what was
going on in his time, so he could speak to people in a way that they would understand, a way that they could appreciate. – I also think it’s a
mistake to consider Fuller a lesser writer than the others. She wrote in different genres. It’s hard to put her into the
American literature curriculum but she was a journalist,
she was a psychologist, and she was a travel writer. – A poet, a short story writer. – Yes, all these things. So I think that’s one way she sort of didn’t quite make it into the canon along with other reasons we can think of, but I think she was a
profoundly insightful writer and a forethinker, and that’s
a mistake that is often made that she sort of apologized for. She’s again the great dramatic life story, but maybe not so great
as a thinker and writer but I would dispute that. – Okay, in closing it bears mention that Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller were all profoundly distrustful of biography. Emerson condemned the writing of biography as the building of sepulchers to the past. Fuller wrote “all biographers
make me sick at heart “and make it hard to realize
that there is a heaven,” and Thoreau wrote “you may
rely on it that you have “the best of me in my books, and that I am “not worth seeing personally, “the stuttering, blundering
clodhopper that I am.” I think that perhaps after this past hour all three of them would
feel a little bit better about the practice of biography, and you’re welcome to ask questions but first let’s have a round of applause. I think this was incredible. (applause) So please, from the audience. And we have microphones up as well. Yes, Miss Eisler. – As a fellow regular
in the biography venue I’m going to say this is
about the best discussion I’ve heard on the
biographical subject period. I learned so much from all of you. But I would like to–
(whispering) – Anita, Anita? Could you use the microphone please? Microphone.
– No it doesn’t reach. Stand up.
– Yeah sorry. Can’t hear you in the back. – The microphone.
– Use the microphone. Thanks. – Sorry about that.
– Sure. – What a moment to have a
pause, the subject of scandal. – [Anita] Scandal yes,
with suspense naturally. But I was very interested in
your remarks about scandal, particularly dogging the
question of women’s biography. And perhaps just to modify that somewhat I think it would largely depend
on the way it is perceived by the subject to a large extent. As a biographer, George Sand I think no more contrasting figure in just to isolate the role of scandal than in Margaret Fuller for example because it seems from
what we know of reading both of your marvelous
books is that it was somewhat anomalous in that she presented at least of those who knew her work and something about her
life of a somewhat austere, cerebral woman, the woman intellectual taking on really a
man’s role in that realm and to have the scandal of
personal and sexual life emerge was something that
seemed anomalous again whereas Sand, ever looking at the market, essentially used the scandal
in her life as subject matter. So I’m wondering if there
isn’t a large degree, a spectrum of diversity that– – The scandal spectrum.
– The scandal spectrum. – To use it or to, yeah. Well I think you’re right
that Fuller did think for much of her life
that she could comment on gender issues, as we call them today, much more effectively if
she stood apart from them, or that’s what she told herself. But there was also this
strong element in her that demanded that she experience all and in the end she did. You know that was her
choice, but I think she certainly came from such
a different background that it was hard for her,
although she was dismissed those who would dismiss her and there are some very moving passages in which she says well if they don’t care for me, then I don’t care for them. She could rise above it, but whether she, but exploiting it was not
something she was going to do. – [Anita] This also would be much more dangerous in this country. – With her particular readership. – [Anita] Might have resulted
in her never being published. – And you know there were plenty of people who thought she was better off dead than surviving this wreck and having to face the
scandal and it’s very, you know I read that partly
as a way of these friends consoling themselves for her loss. You have to find a reason
to, that this happened, but it was a different world
that she was returning to. – [Anita] Thank you. – [John] Yes, Miss Reilly. – [Reilly] Cici Reilly, John Jay College. I have a question regarding
I guess the ethics of annotators and biographers. And it has to do with
somehow putting together either staying in the time period of the person you are writing about versus looking at the not just that, but the impact for current times and possibly for the future. There’s a really egregious example of this in an annotated version of Dante’s Inferno that I had occasion to look at last year where one of the
annotations was that Dante knew there was going to be
ice in hell because Pluto, the planet Pluto has ice on it. Now obviously Dante, or
anybody at that time, while they may have been
delving into science had no way to know that to be the case, let alone Dante who wasn’t
doing scientific experiments you know would get to know that. So how do you, what can we expect in terms of the ethics
of this type of thing as a reader of biography and autobiography and memoirs and how we can stay, those of us who write it can make sure that we are ethically correct? – Speaking as an annotator,
when I’ve annotated several of Thoreau’s books,
I use no source that Thoreau could not have used. So there is no definition,
whether it’s a dictionary or an encyclopedia,
there’s nothing in my books that Thoreau could not have read himself. So I always had to trace things
prior to when he actually put the last word in his manuscript for a particular book or work. – Yeah I always go back
to the original sources and biography is a good
cure, writing a biography is a good cure for presentism and anachronism, or it should be. Because you really should try to go back and just concentrate on the
world in which that person lived and the documents in that world. The newspapers and the sermons and this and that and the other and the writings that
surrounded them it seems to me rather than trying to impose
today’s views on the past. – One technique that I’ve come to after all this time or maybe mostly
through the Peabody sisters is there’s I think you’re talking about you know how can we be fair to them but also how can we draw our
reader back into that time? And I’ve found it useful
not to quote at great length from the subjects I’m writing about. I try to avoid block quotations because I think the reader loses track of the narrative thread, but I do quote a great deal nonetheless you know phrases and there are a few paragraphs
in my book that don’t have the language of the subjects in it, so I try to you know
similarly I try not to use anachronistic language or concepts, but I try to keep it there and as a result I hope
that the reader feels they’re kind of experiencing
life as my subjects did. – One can learn all too
quickly as a biographer the truth of the saying that assume makes an ass of you and me. There’s, and I just have to
give an example from my own work that some of you I’ve told about already, but when I was writing Eden’s Outcasts I wanted very much to evoke the atmosphere of Concord, Massachusetts
and it’s wonderful that so much of the old
Concord has been preserved so that it’s remotely possible to do this. You know if you’re writing about Theodore Roosevelt’s
childhood or something it’s very hard to walk around Manhattan and try to recreate what was there. But anyway, so I was walking
along a road in Concord in the springtime and I saw cardinals, beautiful red birds flying in the trees. Thought ah, great detail for the book. I’ll talk about the cardinals of Concord. And so I mentioned them
in one of my chapters and the month after the book came out got a hot email from an
ornithologist who said don’t you realize that cardinals
did not come to Concord until the 20th Century, how dare you? That sort of thing. And so you know the only thing you can do in that circumstance is to write back and say thank you and
we’ll fix it in paperback and you know we try to get
things right as we know. – I had a near miss with the dome of the state house in Boston, which I had you know known most of my life and in the very beginning of that book, the Peabody Sisters, I talked about the gold dome of the state house and it just happened that
there was a little article in the Globe about the transforming design of the state house and sure enough it wasn’t gold in the 1840s, it was copper so I could fix that, but
something that I am worrying I may have to change, I don’t
know, is the very first line of the Peabody Sisters
that summers back then were as hot as they are today. Well, you know because– (audience laughs) It was, did get up into the high nineties, but you know it’s– – Yeah there can be facts quote unquote that are so familiar to you that you just know that they’re right so
you don’t bother to check them and disaster, mild disaster can ensue. But I think– – But then people can sometimes accuse you of getting things wrong even
though you actually are right. Because it’s counterintuitive to them. – Right, okay. Anything else? Okay yes, professor Suggs. – [Suggs] Thank you, this is a question about the relationship I think of biography to literary history. I noticed that there are almost no, or actually there are no biographies of African American writers
of the antebellum period and very few of any African American writers of the 19th Century, generally. Aside from the sort of funny question of who were the African
American transcendentalists? The only way I can think
of of addressing this is to note that the benchmarks
of American literature in the 19th Century are not necessarily the same benchmarks as those for African American literature
in the 19th Century. And I wonder if our, the
way in which our scholarship is embedded in rather
traditional benchmarks keeps us from looking at
antebellum African American writers in their own, in particular
political and social contexts because they don’t pop up at the markers of which we’re
accustomed to looking. – Good point. I mean there are books
on Frederick Douglass and so forth and there’s a lot of writing on African American
writers, but you’re right. In terms of biography they’re
certainly underrepresented and that should be rectified, absolutely it should be rectified. It seems to me I think that too often we allow the slave narratives so to speak as they were called speak for themselves and we don’t enough reconstruct the actual lives of some of these enslaved persons. – I’m afraid we’re going to
have to make that the last word. We just don’t have any more
time, I’m terribly sorry. We will be back in about 10 minutes with Writing Jewish Lives, thank you. (applause)

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