SO19 talks with APRIL BERNARD

At the heart of April Bernard’s beautifully written and crafted novel Miss Fuller (Steerforth Press, 2102) is a historical figure well-known in her time but often overlooked today: journalist Margaret Fuller, whose Woman in the Nineteenth Century is often called the first American feminist text. As narratively engaging as it is imagistically rich, Miss Fuller offers vivid glimpses of Fuller, her world and her times in a story built around themes of female visibility and power that are still sadly pertinent today. Bernard, the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship among other awards, is the Director of Creative Writing at Skidmore College. She is the author of one previous novel, Pirate Jenny, and is currently at work on her fifth collection of poems; Society Nineteen reprints one of the poems from her fourth collection, Romanticism, on our Literary page. Visit Bernard’s website for more on the author and Miss Fuller; her November 21 review of works by Elizabeth Gilbert and Andrea Barrett in The New York Review of Books will be of great interest to So19 readers as well.  —SF

SO19: I believe you did some college work and writing on Thoreau, whose family and circle appear vividly in this novel. Could you tell us a little about what draws you to that particular corner of the 19th century?

AB: It was my undergraduate “thesis,” when I was a college student of American History & Literature. It was also about William Carlos Williams, called “The Local as the Universal in Walden and Paterson.” I was proposing a distinctly “American” idea of finding the universal in one’s immediate surroundings—almost as an intellectual counter-action to the American 19th century economic and geographical push to limitless expansion. Also, for Thoreau, for Williams, and for many other American writers, there is an impulse to rewrite the Bible, to create the new Book for mankind. Other writers who come to mind with this impulse are: Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, Whitman... 
I am, always have been, possessed by 19th-century fiction and history. (The Brontës, Dickens, Darwin, the American civil war, etc.) But reading the Transcendentalists in college was what linked my longstanding affection for that century with my own spiritual and aesthetic preoccupations—specifically, the ways that poetry (my central writing genre) can bridge the spiritual and the material. Anyway, Thoreau’s orneriness and habits of solitude also spoke to me, deeply. Even though, like Margaret Fuller, I always wanted to see the world, to travel far beyond the “local.” As I have.

SO19: One of the many things I found moving about your novel was a central paradox: that Margaret Fuller was repudiated by some of her prominent contemporaries despite having so many of the same qualities—energy, idealism, largeness of heart, commitment to change, personal strength, resourcefulness—we admire in them specifically, and in the ethos of the 19th century generally.

AB: She was a woman. That’s been the deal forever: Women are punished for exhibiting the qualities of mind and leadership we have traditionally assigned to men. Even worse back then. So when someone like Fuller was able to persevere in the face of it, her courage astonishes.

SO19: You’ve said you first heard about Margaret Fuller in a college class. When and how did she become the possible focus for a novel, if that transition is possible to identify?

AB: It wasn’t, at first, Fuller who captured me; it was that one strange anecdote of Thoreau—my chief preoccupation at the time—going to Fire Island to find her corpse or manuscript, and finding only a button. (It’s in his journals.) That he, who had never been close to Fuller, kept that button as a talisman, was something very physical and immediate to me—the kind of thing I might do, you might do. I imagined the button as one of those carved jet buttons so common back then; and over the years I have collected those black buttons from junk stores and antique markets and sewn them on my coats and jackets. They always made me think of Thoreau and Fuller’s missing corpse.

Then, about 16 years ago, the story began to haunt me again. I know why: I was pregnant with my first child, and I was 41. I remembered that Fuller had her son very late—she was 38—and somehow the vision of her drowning with her boy, and losing her book manuscript, stirred up all sorts of fears I already had—about whether I could still be a writer once I had a child, about the strange loneliness of having a child out of sync with my friends, about whether or not I could be a loving parent, about whether or not I was just too old, weak, and selfish to be doing this.

I found a biography of Fuller around then, and was shaken to my boots by the terrible details of her death. But I was also amazed by her strength and her courage, having a child in the middle of a war, running a hospital, writing all the time to support her family.

All along, as I had first known when reading Fuller in college, there was this awkward problem of her writing itself. She did not—unlike Emerson, her great mentor, or Thoreau, my longtime hero—write graceful, rhetorically powerful sentences. At least not for the most part. Her writing was stilted, confusing, and often made me wince in embarrassment—and while her contemporaries did not see as many flaws as I did—she was a successful journalist and essayist, so must have been widely read—I felt sad that she was so out of reach for readers today. Her ideas, in her most famous book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, are still radical and deserve attention.

Now back to that old story of the button. What if, instead of finding only a button, Thoreau had found a manuscript, not the “History of the Italian Revolution,” that she was bringing back, but a manuscript in which Fuller expressed herself personally, privately, and eloquently—on her actions and ideas? In some of her private letters, there are flashes of relaxed, intimate writing, in which one can get a glimpse of the brilliant conversationalist and dear friend that she was reputed to be. What if, building on those moments, I could create a new prose style for her? What if I could give her a clearer, more persuasive voice?

I wanted to rescue her. And I wanted, as any psychoanalyst could tell you, to rescue myself.

SO19: Language can be tricky when writing fiction about the 19th century (or, for that matter, any historical period); there’s the Scylla of the jarringly anachronistic on the one side, and the Charybdis of quaintness and pastiche on the other. You did such a good job avoiding both and finding a compelling voice for the book. Any thoughts you want to share about the craft of “languaging” this novel, the past in general, the 19th century in particular?

AB: It is the story of the many drafts this novel went through, that it took me forever to find Fuller’s voice for the middle section of the book. I had written and discarded so many pages, over a 10-year period, it would make you weep. It certainly made me weep.

The turning point for me came in the fall of 2008. I can place it exactly, because I was then teaching an undergraduate course, “Austen and the Brontës.” And we were reading Charlotte Brontë’s staggering novel, Villette.  When one reads as a teacher, certain things press harder on the brain—it’s one of the reasons I value teaching so much—and the strange, timeless, immediate voice of Lucy Snowe, Villette’s narrator, began clamoring at me to pay attention to it, not just thematically but technically.  If Brontë, in 1853, could create a female voice that sounded so timeless, I realized, what was to stop me from making Fuller in 1850 sound as intense and real as the women I knew today?

It is certainly not that my Margaret Fuller sounds anything like Lucy Snowe; they are very different characters. I did not abandon Fuller’s American-Brahmin pomposity, nor her twining tendrils of language, nor her extraordinary jaunts over the rapids of sense on the stepping-stones of dependent clauses. I used all of that, although unlike Fuller herself I labored to make her eccentricity of expression charming, and even self-knowingly funny, at times. And—with Brontë’s creation in mind as an inspiration--I think I was able to write “from” the 19th century with an invented voice that had the immediacy of a contemporary speaker.

SO19: Fuller is present as an absence in various ways throughout the book. The opening scene conveys the news of her shipwreck and death; her body as well as her last manuscript is lost, her letter is repudiated or avoided by several prominent men, her books are not checked out by the students at Harvard. That’s interesting both as a historical reality, and as a fictional structure.

AB: I’d argue with you, a little, here.  The novel does point to the ways in which the “world” is trying to make Fuller absent; the novel itself is entirely engaged in the business of making her very, very present: pressing on the life of Anne Thoreau, pressing on the reader in the middle section. Maybe we mean the same thing.

SO19: I think so. Fuller is indeed richly present in the novel; I meant, rather, to point to the tension between her presence and absence as one of the novel’s most powerful elements.

In terms of her presence, could you talk a bit about the creation of this long and intimate letter from Fuller to her onetime confidante Mrs. Hawthorne? How did you go about finding a voice for her from her published writing and/or contemporary descriptions of her conversational style?  

AB: I will say that choosing to have a person (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne) as the particular audience for the letter—instead of Fuller writing in a journal—seemed essential to me. Both because Fuller did so often express herself to her friends, but also because I wanted her voice to be both private (as in intimate, with one other woman, also a mother, in whom she imagined she could confide) and still, somehow, public—a little self-conscious in places, a little aware of her own performance. As Fuller also always was.

Moreover, I have been immersed in the language of the 19th century, including the Transcendentalists, as a reader, for most of my life. It’s almost as if it’s my second language. So I made a sort of “pidgin” between a contemporary idiom and 19th century one, which I hoped would put the reader in the past without it feeling entirely alien. Doubtless it is more successful in some places than others, but mostly readers seem to feel it works.

SO19: In your novel, Anne Thoreau is an everywoman through whose eyes the exceptional Margaret Fuller can be seen. Could you talk about the process of bringing this invented character to life, and choosing the shape of her story and personality?

AB: One of my earlier conceptions for this novel involved a back-and-forth between Henry Thoreau and Margaret Fuller—he being the oddly “domestic” man who stays at home, she the oddly “adventurous” woman who ventures abroad. But it became clear to me that my writing about Thoreau would be immensely burdened by the preconceptions that readers would bring. Thoreau “belongs” to millions of readers already, who have their own understanding of him. Moreover, the tension in the story of this incredible woman, Fuller, began to seem more interesting to me in light of, not how the male establishment saw her—that’s pretty obvious and well-trod ground—but how other women perceived her. So my next choice of a contrasting character was Sophia Thoreau, the youngest sister in that family, who was Henry’s devoted younger sister and, among other things, the guardian of his papers. (She eventually gets called “Sissy,” a common 19th-century nickname for a sister, because I needed to differentiate her from Sophia Peabody Hawthorne.)  But when I tried to write about Sophia Thoreau, the historical facts got in the way. Specifically, she, along with her older sister Helen and their mother, were mavericks in the Abolition movement. They ran a stop on the underground railroad, they participated in violent confrontations with police who kidnapped escaped slaves, etc. They were incredible, incredible, in their own way. But that, it became clear, was a different story.

What I realized I needed, as a foil to Fuller, was a smart, sensitive, but “ordinary” woman of the time—someone who would find her both attractive and a little frightening. Women who put themselves into the public eye are always alarming to the rest of us—we fear for them, and we also judge them, very harshly. I wanted to explore that dynamic. And so I invented Anne, as an adopted-in youngest sister to the Thoreau household. She would get married, and she like “Sissy” would also have a younger sister’s devotion to Henry. 

SO19: Anne is a young girl when she first encounters Margaret Fuller, a mature and seasoned widow when she engages with the problem—and invitation—that Fuller’s unread letter represents. It seemed to me that her own journey had given Anne the fullness of soul necessary to embrace this “impossible” woman, who was still more alive than anyone else. Fair reading?

AB: Absolutely. But by the 1870s it is not only Anne’s personal experiences that have made her grow; history has changed everyone. The Civil War has come and gone, the railroads and the boom of American industry have taken hold, the seeds of women’s independence, much of it fostered by their participation in the Abolition movement, have started to sprout. So Anne has a different climate around her in which to read this letter, as well.

SO19: Miss Fuller is a novel full of accurate historical detail, but it’s also so rich with imagery—most obviously the pervasive motif of the sea, but also smaller things like that wonderful canary. Where do such images fit in your process? Are they starting points, later additions, or is it impossible to generalize?

AB: This is where I must plead poetry. Like many poets, I think simultaneously in words and images. They move together. The sea was a given—Fuller died there, and to think about water was to think of her death. But since I also love the sea, I allowed its presence to not be only deadly; it is also the source of life, and crossing it, for her, in 1846, gave her the chance at a full life in Europe. The canary—who knows? It just flew in, when I was writing about Anne taking Henry to the train. And the rescue of the bird became embedded in my project; the rescue of a reputation, the rescue of the image of a woman who could do so many things.

SO19: Your first novel, Pirate Jenny, is a contemporary story (though it too makes rich use of texts and writers from the past). Did the choice to set this second novel in the past change your process at all, or your perceptions about writing fiction?

AB: I had no sense of a conscious choice, for either novel. The outline of the story for Pirate Jenny came to me as a whole thing when I was swimming, one day. (I swim as often as I can, and often solve writing problems in the water.) And Fuller’s story, and her “problem,” has been swirling around in my head forever.

If there are writers who say to themselves: “Time to write a historical novel!” or “Time to write a contemporary story about self-invention!” I do not personally know them. And I know a lot of writers. Maybe hacks think that way, but no serious writer I have ever met does. It happens much more deeply than that.

One thing writing Miss Fuller did teach me, though, is that it is the hardest thing in the world to write well in a different historical period, even one you think you already know pretty well. If you have a passion for accuracy—and I do—it almost kills you. When I think of the size and scope of great historical fictions, such as what Hilary Mantel has been doing with Thomas Cromwell, my admiration amounts to awe. So I can say that I do not plan to write another novel set in a historical period any time soon.

SO19: What about your own reading? Are there 19th-century texts you return to over time? Contemporary writers that you feel evoke history or the past especially powerfully?

AB: There are many, many 19th-century texts I return to. As well as the great English novelists (Austen, Dickens, Eliot, the Brontës, Trollope), I also reread Walden at least once a year. I turn to the Romantic poets (especially Keats) often, and to Hopkins. I read Dickinson quite a lot, though like many readers I am convinced she wrote “out of time,” so that is not really a visit to the 19th century. In addition to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, so far) I have enjoyed Julian Barnes’s ventures into the past (especially Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur and George) –and of course, the mother of all historical fictions, War and Peace.

SO19: What are you at work on now? Do you have any new fiction under way or planned?

AB: I have just written a ghost story, “The Nockamixon Road,” out in Little Star #5. It’s mostly set in the recent past—the 1980s.  I am working on my fifth collection of poems. That is a long, slow, internal business that is almost impossible to describe; but I will say that many poems I write do not end up “belonging” in the book, so that is why it’s so slow. As a side note—a poem of mine that was in my last collection, Romanticism, might be of especial interest to Society 19 readers: It’s called “The Heroine in the Novel,” and it’s a five-part poem describing an (entirely fictitious) late-19th century novel, Under the Rose by Langley Boisvert. [Editor’s note: you can read the poem on Society Nineteen here.]
Margaret Fuller, c. 1846.