Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations” as 19th Century Podcasts
The Best is Lost
If the ante-bellum nineteenth century journalist, Transcendentalist, and feminist Margaret Fuller were alive today, she would have a podcast.
Before Fuller’s premature death in 1850, female intellectuals had few outlets for expressing their ideas. Hers was conversation, written and spoken. In conversation with others — Horace Greeley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Transcendentalist colony at Brook Farm — she reached for the intellectual life she would never quite be permitted to have as a woman. Fuller grappled all her life with the relationship between mind and body, intellect and gender, thought and love, carving out a space for women’s ideas in an American culture that by and large did not see the need for such spaces. She had to make them for herself, eventually becoming an expatriate to participate in the intellectual ferment of a Europe in political transformation. Returning to the United States as a mature author with her lover-husband, her child, and her book manuscript, she hoped to find room in her life for all three.
But shortly before Fuller’s arrival in New York, the ship ran aground: she and her family were killed, and the manuscript lost. As Fuller was denied the chance to struggle and triumph, or denied the (perhaps more likely) chance to struggle and succumb to the weight of convention, so we all are denied the chance to know what Margaret Fuller would have made of the rest of her life as a sensual, Romantic, maternal American intellectual.
If only we knew how her story might have ended.
Perhaps this is a selfish and deeply unhistorical thought. Human lives are not novels, nor are people obliged to carry some plot line to its conclusion or some conception to its fulfillment. Trajectories of development, ideas that shape lives, lives that advance ideas — these are how we frame and demarcate and resize our historical subjects so that they fit within the pages of a book. But even the most self-consciously literary lives are not so amenable to neat narration, nor can narrative encompass all that someone was or is. In the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “A formula, a phrase remains — but the best is lost.”
In some ways, to say that “the best is lost” would be particularly true of Fuller — and not just in the sense of lost potential, a lost future. One of the motifs that emerges in both volumes of Charles Capper’s magisterial biography of Margaret Fuller is the image of her as a brilliant conversationalist. Her most admiring friends and most astute intellectual companions found that her writing, as acute as it often was, rarely matched the virtuosity, range, exquisite perspicuity, and pleasingly profound (or profoundly pleasing) beauty of insight and expression that characterized her conversation. She was a remarkable thinker, and she did her best thinking, it seems, off the cuff and on the fly, provoking others with her observations and responding to their provocations in turn.
Fuller “institutionalized” this talent through her famous “Conversations,” a series of seminars — perhaps somewhat like graduate seminars in German universities at the time — that she offered for women (and, as an experiment once, to a mixed audience of women and men) on various topics. Here’s how Capper sets up his discussion of the “Conversations”:
Of course these were not “conversations” in the ordinary sense. The ideal of a conversation as a critical intellectual method derived from Plato, whose Socratic dialogues Fuller read and reread and came more than ever to admire in the months before she began her meetings. (“I have been reading Plato all the week,” she would write to Emerson before one meeting, “hop[ing] to be tuned up thereby.”) The Romantic Age was itself the age of the conversation, and de Staël, Coleridge, Goethe, and many other great Romantic talkers must have given Fuller further stimulus for developing intellectual conversations among her women. Finally, Transcendentalism’s own great Platonic-Romantic talker Bronson Alcott not only had promulgated the idea of the conversation as a revolutionary educational tool, which Fuller had put into practice in her Greene Street classes, but more recently had begun to tout the conversation as a potentially powerful popular cultural force. For Alcott, as for many European devotees of the form, that power resided in its capacity for revealing profoundly subjective truths. If to outsiders these “conversations” sounded more like collective monologues than traditional intellectual discourse, this was precisely the point. American Transcendentalists like Alcott also admired these kinds of conversations for specific intellectual reasons — because their spontaneity and fluidity seemed to them to mimic the deeper spiritual truths that written or “frozen” language could never capture, and because, unlike the passive medium of the popular lecture, they promoted originality and intellectual self-reliance. Personal and practical factors undoubtedly also played a part in attracting Fuller to the conversation form. These included her lack of opportunity, as a woman, to lecture; her talent for informal talk; and probably, too, the example of Alcott, who, while preparing the previous fall to give up the last of his schools, had launched a series of moderately successful traveling conversations in various towns in eastern Massachusetts.
Capper’s description could just as well apply to the conversations that are currently being distributed as podcasts. As I read about the epistemological underpinnings and pedagogical rationales of “the conversation” as a genre of intellectual discourse, it occurred to me that our current cultural moment seems to feature a renewed appetite for this Romantic form, or a modern version of it: everybody and his brother, everybody and her sister, is either making a podcast or listening to one.
The fairly recent ubiquity of the podcast as a genre of intellectual expression cannot be explained by technological determinism. It is not simply the case that “the technology” has now made the podcast — or the blog, tweet, or any other form of digital exchange — possible, so now people are doing it. Podcasts have been around for at least a decade, maybe fifteen years, and anybody with the ability to record an audio file on a computer and upload it to the Internet could have been making podcasts all this time. Some people — or media organizations — have been making podcasts all this time. But, as I stand on the sidelines and observe this phenomenon, it seems to me — and this could just be my limited perspective — that we are witnessing a veritable podcasting movement.
Why? Why now? What is it about the orality and aurality of podcasting that particularly appeals to the people who produce podcasts and to those who listen to the podcasts? Is it the aspect of embodiment, the tactile reach of the human voice? Is it the contagious conviviality of a podcast crew, the pleasure of listening to conversationalists who know how to bring out the best or worst in one another? Is it the price and privilege of time — the time invested in production, the time invested in listening, as expenditures signaling conspicuous consumption?
Is there perhaps a more general aspect of temporality at play here? For podcasts are very different from other genres that have moved words from the page to the screen. Informal writing is still writing, “stillborn and complete,” as Faulkner said of words on the page, and one can skim or skip to the end. A podcast, as a spoken form, is a text that unfolds in real time, one that resists partial digestion. (Of course one could fast-forward or sample, and perhaps that’s how a lot of people engage with podcasts — but my sense is that people generally play them from beginning to end, whether they listen attentively throughout the entire episode or not.)
Some of the appeal of podcasts may be very similar to the appeal that the Conversations had for Fuller and her participants. Fuller was a true scholar and critic and, it seems, a gifted teacher, yet there was no place for her within established structures and organizations where a scholar-teacher might find fulfilling work. She was not going to be leading a discussion section at Harvard or giving a lecture as part of her duties as a professor in an endowed chair. And she wanted her ideas to be thoroughly seen, as men’s intellectual work was.
Conversations allowed Fuller to be a kind of professor, and allowed her subscribers to participate in a kind of university course, without vetting by those who were determined to marginalize female intellectual work. Similarly, podcasts can, without any gate keeping, make available to their producers and their listeners the conversational practices of the seminar room. The difference, I think, is that the listeners to a podcast are in a primarily spectatorial mode — though, as Capper explains, that was also the case many times for the subscribers to Fuller’s Conversations. Sometimes she drew them forth in discussion, but sometimes she simply held forth.
Many academics, male and female, find themselves in Fuller’s position today: thousands of Ph.D. — trained intellectuals, relegated to the backstage of adjunct teaching or no teaching at all. Is the current profusion and multiplication of podcasts inversely related to a corresponding paucity and reduction of academic positions? Is podcasting partly a response to the casualization of academic labor? If so, are podcasts a way of countering — or exacerbating — the marginalization of scholars who go unheard?
Maybe — maybe not. I expect a lot of podcasters would say that they’re not particularly interested in being part of the formal university world to begin with, and I believe them. At the same time, a lot of people who produce podcasts and listen to them are very much plugged in to academe. For both groups, podcasting isn’t some compensatory alternative to engagement with university life. On the other hand, if lots of people who are plugged in to university life find it important to invest their time in podcasting, as either participants or listeners, then it seems that podcasting is providing something that other forms of intellectual engagement are not offering. Fun? Camaraderie? Are they an end-run around gatekeeping? A respite from metrics of productivity? An opportunity to engage with a broader audience?
As many of you know, these are some of the “compensatory” pleasures of writing for a group blog. So perhaps podcasting is simply a manifestation of that same “group blogging sensibility” via a different medium, a new means for some old ways of meaning-making. But if podcasts are all the rage right now — and I think they are, at least in my little corner of the Internet — then there must be a whole host of factors contributing to that phenomenon. And I wonder if one of those factors may be that podcasting speaks to the yearnings of a Romantic age that has never entirely left us, and that we have never entirely left.
“The best that we receive from any thing,” Fuller wrote in her journal, “can never be written. For it is not the positive amount of thought we have received, but the virtue that has flowed into us, and is now us, that is precious. If we can tell no one thought, yet are higher, larger, wiser, the work is done. The best part of life is too spiritual to bear recording.”
Maybe so. Still, unlike the lost Conversations, Fuller wrote that thought down. Perhaps podcasting holds out the promise of enjoying “the best part of life” — the wildness and freedom of ideation in the moment, in the round, in community with others — while also being recorded.
L.D. Burnett is the 2017-2018 Teaching Fellow in History at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her book, “Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education,” is under contract with University of North Carolina Press. This essay has been republished by permission of the Society for United States Intellectual History blog, where the original version of it first appeared.
 Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, vol. 1, The Private Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 296