The Letters of Margaret Fuller
Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, Volume I: The Private Years
These Sad But Glorious Days: Dispatches from Europe, 1846-1850
On July 19, 1850, the freighter Elizabeth, having sailed from Leghorn, was wrecked in a storm on a sandbar off Fire Island, and Margaret Fuller, returning to America after an absence of four years, was drowned along with her Italian husband, Giovanni Ossoli, and their infant child. Watchers on the beach, mostly looters waiting for bits of salvage to be washed up, had seen her on the foundering vessel’s deck before it broke up—they were only some 400 yards away. But she and Ossoli vanished under the waves and only the baby’s body was ever recovered. Thoreau, sent to the scene the next day by Fuller’s great friend Emerson, rummaged in the looters’ collections and found Ossoli’s coat, and tore off a button as though he, too, wanted some token from the sea. He wrote in his journal,
I have in my pocket a button which I ripped off the coat of the Marquis of Ossoli, on the seashore, the other day. Held up, it intercepts the light,—an actual button,—and yet all the life it is connected with is less substantial to me, and interests me less, than my faintest dream. Our thoughts are the epochs in our lives; all else is but as a journal of the winds that blew while we were here.
The arbitrary intervention of Nature, cutting off Fuller’s life at the age of forty, seemed strangely appropriate to some of her friends. As they grimly recognized, her reentry into American life on her own terms was hard to imagine. “To the last her country proves inhospitable to her; brave, eloquent, subtle, accomplished, devoted, constant soul!” observed Emerson. Another friend, the liberal Unitarian magazine editor James Freeman Clarke, wrote, “[I]t was manifest that she was not to come back to struggle against poverty, misrepresentation, & perhaps alienated friendship and chilled affections.”
Within a week of the disaster, however, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, who had launched her career in newspaper reporting and social comment and sent her to Italy as a correspondent, proposed a biographical book—certain to sell well in the wake of this dramatic ending. It would be made up out of a combination of the recollections of others with selections from Fuller’s private letters and journals. He invited Emerson to take charge together with two other old friends of hers, the socialist/Transcendentalist minister William Henry Channing and the aesthete banker Samuel Gray Ward. Ward protested, “How can you describe a Force? How can you write the life of Margaret?” though Emerson answered, “The question itself is some description of her.” Ward’s place in the project was taken by Clarke, with whom, as with Ward and perhaps also with Emerson, she had once been in love.
Emerson, Channing, and Clarke found themselves engaged in a labor of both love and fear. The Fuller they presented in the mistitled Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852) spoke largely in her own voice but with elisions and occasional modifications that…
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