Essays, entitled critical, are epistles addressed to the public, through which the mind of the recluse relieves itself of its impressions. Of these the only law is, "Speak the best word that is in thee."--Margaret Fuller (1840) "A Short Essay on Critics" The Dial, I, July.
The only true criticism of these or any good books may be gained by making them the companions of our lives. Does every accession of knowledge or a juster sense of beauty make us prize them more? Then they are good, indeed, and more immortal than mortal. Let that test be applied to these Essays which will lead to great and complete poems--somewhere.--Margaret Fuller (1844) "Review of Emerson's Essays."
I 'disovered' Fuller by chance yesterday; well not wholly by chance--I have Anca Gheaus to thank. While ruminating on the role of Emersonian ideas in Butcher's Crossing, I decided to teach my 2015 Spring seminar on 'natural philosophy,' -- a course I inherited and, by the absolute rules of Belgian bureaucracy, whose title I can't change -- on Emerson's On Nature (and a few other essays), Thoreau's Walden (recall) and, perhaps, if there's time, Cavell's The Senses of Walden. All books I have been meaning to re-read in part in light of each other. But before I set this all-male syllabus in stone, it dawned upon me that especially with such works of, permit the expression, male anxiety, a feminist voice could be illuminating. I asked around and that's how I encountered Fuller. After spending my first day with her, I note with surprise that at the origin of true American philosophy -- who could invent this? -- we find a distinctive feminist; more about that in the future. (In defense of my teachers, I could say that they left me to find Fuller by way of their oversights and silences.)
Fuller measures Emerson with the most exacting standards and, and after nobly refuting the charge that he is unclear and not logical, finds him, nevertheless, wanting: "We miss what we expect in the work of the great poet, or the great philosopher-- the liberal air of all the zones; the glow, uniform yet various in tint, which is given to a body by free circulation of the heart's blood from the hour of birth."* Despite Nietzsche's well-known admiration of Emerson, it is likely that Fuller's point will have to be conceded. (But I withhold judgment until after my seminar.) Yet, even falling short of greatness, Fuller insists there is plenty to strive for, and in the passage quoted above she gives us a method to develop the standard of judgment of all good books ("the only true criticism of these or any good books may be gained"). The method is:
- make them the companions of our lives.
I read this as meaning that such books are not so much a mirror to our lives, but themselves are true friends (recall Seneca, and here), in part, exemplar, in part, running commentary on our experiences, and, in part, means by which we make others, ourselves, and the world intelligible. Undoubtedly, some will flinch at this because it so obviously is meant to have some books displace the Bible in the seasons of New England (and Homer in Athens, etc.). Perhaps, 'displace' is the wrong word because (part of) the Bible is one of the many good books.* I am unsure if Fuller meant this method to be necessary or sufficient, but I am inclined to think she thought it necessary.
The standard itself is an enduringly positive answer to the following question: