1. Amy Milsovic
  2. English 341
  3. April 25, 1997
  4. Box 1187 Reed College


Fuller's "Leila" as

an alternative conceptualization of Nineteenth Century Gender Norms

A new historical criticism


Methodological Introduction

New historicism is premised upon an ideological attempt to wed the practice of history and literary criticism. In this type of textual analysis, the literary work is juxtaposed with historical events (characteristic of the time period in which the work was produced) in an effort to understand the implications within the text. This line of inquiry serves to recover a "historical consciousness" which may be utilized in the rendering of literary theory. "Poems and novels came to be seen in isolation, as urnlike objects of precious beauty. The new historicists, whatever their differences and however defined, want us to see that even the most unlike poems are caught in a web of historical conditions, relationships, and influences."[1] Such an introspective framework ultimately contributes to a wide variety of conceptualizations in literary analysis; such as Marxism, Feminist criticism, and post-structuralism. This attempt to contextualize literary works in a historical manner is also supplemental to more conventional types of literary analysis such as deconstructionism. New historicism, however, tends to be representative of a postmodern project which inevitably leads scholars to question the application of historical concepts as an ideological tool in literary analysis. The attempt to establish a connection between a literary text and historical event is often reflective of the paradigms characteristic to the practice of writing history. These paradigms foster a notion of exclusivity which may actually hinder a literary analysis. Such an introspective framework ultimately contributes to a wide variety of conceptualizations in literary analysis; such as Marxism, Feminist criticism, and post-structuralism. Therefore new historicism should be utilized with a sense of theoretical caution.


An analysis of Margaret Fuller's "Leila"

utilizing new historicism


I will use new historicism to analyze Margaret Fuller's work, "Leila," in an effort to describe the textual manifestation of this author's conceptualization of nineteenth century gender-roles. Fuller's role as a nineteenth century intellectual, influential to American society, and her conceptualization of gender norms, as conveyed in "Leila" may be studied in an effort to historicize alternative forms of the gender construct, which emerged during this era. Literary deconstructive techniques provide a methodology in order to access the contradictions and tension present within Fuller's gender conceptualization and perception of intellectual roles. However, such techniques are not reflective of an adequate historical analysis, in that the assumption of some degree of universality and application of a framework which is contingent upon a methodology contextualized to the present seems to produce an analysis which is reflective of an intrinsic bias. The examination of Margaret Fuller's biography in the context of her specific gender conceptualization ultimately lends to the analysis of the manifestation of this ideology within her work.

In order to discuss the historical context which surrounded Fuller's "Leila", it is important to situate Fuller within the collective notion of Transcendentalism. Fuller's alternative conceptualization of the gender norm cannot be separated from her history as an intellectual. For Fuller, a large part of her intellectual life was centered upon Transcendentalism. Although, New England Transcendentalism, as both historical and literary conceptualizations, is highly dependent upon individual specificity, the identification of a theoretical convergence within this notion of thought serves to emphasize historical connections and influences upon Fuller's writing. This notion of Transcendentalism has often been derived historically from the active resistance to Unitarian intellectual thought. Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott, acknowledged the existence of an alternative state of reasoning, which replaced the empirically-based Lockean counterpart. This state of reasoning, often termed the "Spirit" or "Soul" enabled an individual to directly experience the divinity of God, and replaced the Unitarian notion of empirical validation of God through miracles and other external means.[2] Following from this, most Transcendentalists, dissatisfied with institutional forms of religion, rejected conventional religion in place of a secular medium in which to develop their philosophical premise. This development centered upon the cultivation of the individual within ante-bellum American romantic society, an individual who embraced social and cultural issues, and was not necessarily political (although certain historical characters who identified as Transcendentalist did participate in the anti-slavery movement). Emerson's notion of the poet-priest, an individual who defined literary pursuits in terms of a spiritual purpose, is such an example of this secular medium.[3] Historically, Margaret Fuller, as an author and literary critic, may be associated with a spiritual purpose which ultimately serves to reinforce the notion of "transcendental truth."

The period in which Fuller composed "Leila" is characteristic of a peak in her association with the Transcendental movement. As she gained exposure to Transcendentalism, primarily through Emerson in the mid 1830s, European Romanticism, which had influenced Fuller's early intellectual world view, provided the historical backdrop of Margaret's later inclusion within the Transcendentalist circle. Goethe's notion of "the progressive evolution of personal character through the natural unfolding of one's inner self, and his quasi-paganistic religious views" were reflective of such a world view[4]

This resonated with the subjective religious experience perpetuated by Transcendentalism, and also served Fuller's denial of sole Unitarian rationalism. However, as Margaret Fuller was encompassed within Transcendentalist thought, she maintained an intellectual distance from that of her peers. Fuller's reluctance to recognize Transcendentalism as a strict philosophy limited her perception of the movement to that of a mere cultural awakening, as opposed to a theological entity with immediate social implications.[5 ] Although she was extremely frustrated with the social fragmentation and materialistic impulses of nineteenth century society, perhaps this reluctance is connected with Fuller's specific development as an intellectual. Complementing Fuller's definitive dilemma of Transcendentalism, were premises she specifically utilized within the ideology. In contradiction with Emerson's notion of biological determinism, which was reflective of many intellectuals labeled as Transcendentalists, and implied a sex-based exclusiveness to the notion of self-culture, Fuller explored the "creative power of women" within the context of the Transcendental ideology.[6] Following from this, was Fuller's vision of an androgynous deity. Fuller further divided the notion of the individual into two components: the intellectual, associated with the masculine, and the spiritual or empathetic, labeled feminine. This notion served to undermine the gender norms of the time period.[7

]This historical critique of "Leila" attempts to answer the question: to what extent does this text offer a criticism of nineteenth century gender norms? Such a criticism would undermine the notion of viewing this work as solely a hypothetical situation, created by Fuller's romantic play upon words and unreflective of nineteenth century reality. Margaret Fuller published Woman in the Nineteenth Century four years after composing "Leila." This article, which did offer concrete solutions to the existing gender norms, is demonstrative of the influence of Fuller's life history upon her work. It does not seem unreasonable to make such an assumption about "Leila."

The Transcendentalist ideological influence upon Fuller's subjective role as a female intellectual is very apparent in "Leila." "Leila" seems to mirror Fuller's notion of obtaining individual actualization of spirituality through the characterization of a spiritual component: a distinctly nineteenth century feminine entity entitled Leila. This spiritual component, provides access to a form of spirituality which is characterized by Fuller as "boundless," "infinite," and "the chain of nature." Such a form is reflective of the Transcendental notion of divinity which is attributed to the existence of nature in the absence of empiricism. While it is unclear whether Fuller implicitly intended either an androgynous or gender-based notion of the "Spirit" or "Oversoul", "Leila" provides insight into her notion the nineteenth century gender conceptualization and her attempt to undermine such a social norm. These notions are confirmed by Fuller's development as both a Transcendental thinker and female intellectual.

Using the methodology of historical criticism in an attempt to tease out Fuller's gender conceptualization and criticism in "Leila", it is beneficial to discuss the characterization and social implications of Leila, as a concrete ideological practice. Leila is primarily characterized as an unrealized subjective component of the narrator, reflective of the Transcendental quest to obtain spirituality. The narrator, seems to exhibit qualities associated with the nineteenth century feminine subject. The plot of the poem is centered upon the narrator's desire in achieving the actual manifestation of "Leila." Traces of Leila's presence appear throughout the poem, but are never manifested.


  1. I have seen her among the Sylph's faint florescent forms that hang in the edges of
  2. life's rainbows. She is very fair, thus, Leila; and I catch, though edgewise, and
  3. sharp-gleaming as a sword, that bears down my sight, the peculiar light which
  4. she will be when she finds the haven of herself. ...Ever she passes sudden
  5. again from these hasty glories and tendernesses into the back-ground of being, and
  6. should she ever be detected it will be in the central secret of law.[8]

The invocation of Leila is inspired by Fuller's dissatisfaction with traditional religious institutions and is demonstrative of Fuller's association with the Transcendental movement.


  1. I have often but vainly attempted to record what I know of Leila. It is because
  2. she is a mystery, which can only be indicated by being reproduced. Had a Poet
  3. or Artist met her, each glance of her's would have suggested some form of
  4. beauty, for she is one of those rare beings who seem a key to all nature. Mostly
  5. those we know seem struggling for individual existence. As the procession passes
  6. an observer like me, one seems a herald, another a basket-bearer, another swings
  7. a censer, and oft-times even priest and priestess suggest the ritual rather than the
  8. Divinity.[9]


The notion of Leila's recognition by the Poet or Artist, also conforms to the influence of the Transcendentalist concentration upon the individual's secularized access to God. The association of Leila with the element of intellectual cultivation further reflects this conformity and may be connected to Margaret Fuller's person conceptualization of the role of the intellectual. As discussed by Capper, Fuller's subjection to a severe education in the traditional canon by her father, Timothy Fuller, formulated an intellectual identity which failed to include the traditional conceptualization of gender.[10] Such an identity enabled Fuller, as a female, to emphasize the significance of knowledge in her conceptualization of the Divine. Such significance is demonstrated in her continual association of Leila with "Saint of Knowledge" and "Genius."

This association with the Transcendental notion of "Saint of Knowledge," however, is not reflective of a gender-polarized ideology. The duality existent in Fuller's characterization of Leila marks the author's departure from the Emersonian notion of Transcendentalism. This duality is achieved through the secondary manifestation of Leila as a component associated with qualities demonstrative of nineteenth century femininity. Although certain strains of feminist criticism might claim her concentration upon the feminine aspects of Leila as reaffirming the traditional gender norms, Fuller's process of emphasizing the "creative power of women" in the achievement of the Transcendental spiritual actualization is precisely the realm in where she attempts to reconcile this intellectually based secular practice with the gender prescriptions of the time period.


  1. Most men, as they gazed on Leila were pained; they left her at last baffled and well-nigh angry. For most men are bound in sense, time, and thought. They
  2. shrink from the overflow of the infinite; they cannot a moment abide in the
  3. coldness of abstractions; the weight of an idea is too much for their lives.[11]


Leila, as an unrealized feminine component of the narrator's spirituality which is not "bound in sense, time, and thought" signifies the access to the divine absent in traditionally dominant male intellectual process created by social gender norms. In an attempt to ascribe Transcendentalist thought with virtues associated with a female form, Fuller attempts to escape the biological determinism present in nineteenth century spirituality. Spirituality, if achieved through the combination of the intellectual and the feminine, would reconcile the tension between gender roles and Transcendental practices. This tension, as experienced by Fuller, is a result of her social development. An intellectual identity is not an isolated entity which exists within the mind. From her early childhood, Margaret Fuller struggled to reconcile culturally constructed gender norms with her self-awareness as an intellectual. Fuller's unique intellectual identity allowed her an assertiveness that was uncharacteristic of children her sex and age. As this assertiveness produced a backlash among her family which resulted in a the "domestication" of Fuller, she developed a notion of resistance to the gender conceptualization of the era.[12 ]This resistance is evident in the following excerpt from "Leila."


  1. In the days she lives among men; she observes their deeds, and gives them
  2. what they want of her, justice or love. She is unerring in speech or silence, for
  3. she is disinterested, a pure victim, bound to the altar's foot;
  4. God teaches her what to say.
  5. In the night she wanders forth from her human investment, and travels
  6. amid those tribes, freer movers in the game of spirit and matter, to whom
  7. man is a supplement. I know not then whether she is what men call
  8. dreaming, but her life is true, full, and more single than by day.[13]


Margaret Fuller's opposing descriptions of Leila's existence is demonstrative of her inability to achieve intellectual and spiritual satisfaction within a society which satisfies her role as a scholar, while at the same time, negates this role as she must situate herself within the gender-polarized practices of nineteenth century New England.

As demonstrated in "Leila", the inclusion of the female component within an individual's cultivation of spirituality would serve in the reconfiguration of strictly defined sex-based religious and social norms. Leila, representative of the "victim" oppressed by the male exclusiveness of femininity from the spiritual realm, is determined by the social context in which Margaret Fuller lived. This social context is precisely the area in which she developed as a female intellectual, continually subjected to sex-based discrimination as determined by the cult of domesticity. Because of the social implications of Transcendentalist thought, the actualization of Leila in the spiritual realm would serve to redefine nineteenth century gender-based exclusiveness within the social context.





  1. Lawrence Buell. Literary Transcendentalism, Cornell University Press(Ithaca, 1973).
  3. Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life-The
  4. Private Years. Oxford University Press(New York, 1992).
  6. Murfin, Ross. "What is New Historicism?" in The Scarlet Letter.
  7. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Bedford Books of St Martin's Press, 1991.
  9. Kornfeild, Eve. Margaret Fuller: A Brief Biography with Documents.
  10. Bedford Books(New York, 1997).
  12. Steele, Jeffrey, ed. The Essential Margaret Fuller. Rutgers University
  13. Press(New Brunswick, 1992).