Snark, the Early Days

The latest issue of the New York Review of Books features a piece (subscribers only) by Christopher Benfey on the work of Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller, who was among the first well-known and well-respected female literary critics in the country. Not respected enough, Benfey argues. He gets a few jabs in toward writers who tried to present Fuller as a weak flower suffering her father’s abuses because he made her read Virgil as a child (something a lot of smarty-pants boys were compelled to do); and he zings Susan Cheever‘s book on New England intellectuals, American Bloomsbury, for openly speculating about a romance between Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Cheever’s lively and well-written book, which fans fires where few have found smoke, is perhaps best treated as a historical novel,” he writes.

If that seems a little snarky, Benfey is just calling up some of the same spirit that Fuller brought to her book reviewing, particularly for Horace Greeley‘s New York Tribune. He writes:

Fuller’s book reviews have never received the attention they deserve. Amid the chaos and contention of American publishing . . . Fuller was able to identify the most vigorous and promising writers of her time: Emerson, Hawthorne, Poe, Frederick Douglass, and Melville. . . . She was reading their books at an early stage in their careers, and did not live long enough to read Hawthorne’s novels or to find the promise of Typee—in which she relished the savage irony directed at missionaries in Hawaii and the South Seas—fulfilled in Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

About those missionaries—Fuller’s review of Typee for the Tribune in 1846 tries to rattle the high-minded women who sponsor missionary work in the hopes of taming the savages:

[I]t would be well if the sewing societies, now engaged in providing funds for such enterprises would read the particulars, they will find in this book…and make inquiries in consequence, before going on with their efforts. Generally, the sewing societies of the country villages will find this the very book they wish to have read while assembled at their work. Othello’s hairbreadth ‘scapes were nothing to those by this hero in the descent of the cataracts, and many a Desdemona might seriously incline her ear to the descriptions of the lovely Fay-a-way.

Not exactly Dorothy Parker, but as a skewering of old-fashioned sensibilities, I imagine it did the job.

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