Transcendental Woman


Granger Collection
Margaret Fuller; tinted daguerreotype, 1846
Margaret Fuller, whose two hundredth birthday will be celebrated in 2010, would seem to be a promising candidate for what Hannah Arendt called the “definitive biography, English style” in which historical time would be “refracted by the prism of a great character.”1 Fuller’s eventful life extended from the early years of the Republic, when American political institutions were in their infancy and her father served in Congress, until sectional tensions arising from the Fugitive Slave Act and numerous failed attempts at reconciliation threatened to divide it in two. Her professional life as a teacher, translator, editor, critic, polemicist, and hardworking journalist played out in two successive centers of American intellectual life, Boston and New York, before she shifted her base of operations to Europe.

With impediments in her way—she did not attend college, she wasn’t rich or conventionally beautiful, she was prone to physical and psychological ailments—Fuller continually sought a wider scope for her ambitious undertakings, as if, as her intimate friend Emerson remarked, “this athletic soul craved a larger atmosphere than it found.” Fuller’s extensive network of friends included Hawthorne and Thoreau, Horace Greeley and Edgar Allan Poe, along with assorted Harvard professors, Unitarian ministers, social reformers, and their far-flung sons and daughters. “I now know all the people worth knowing in America,” she once announced, “and I find no intellect comparable to my own.”

Fuller’s field widened again during the 1840s when she achieved her long-cherished dream of traveling abroad, and met Thomas Carlyle, George Sand, the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, and the Italian leader-in-exile Giuseppe Mazzini. She became personally involved in the doomed Italian movement for independence of 1848–1849, secretly marrying a participant in that struggle and having a child with him. She remained in Rome as French, Austrian, and Neapolitan armies converged to “liberate” the city, and she worked heroically in a Roman hospital caring for the wounded.

During her sometimes improbable and ultimately tragic life—a life that George Eliot might have imagined—Margaret Fuller became, as her biographer Charles Capper points out, the first of many things:

America’s first female highbrow journal editor, first intellectual surveyor of the new West, author of the first philosophical American book on the woman question, first literary editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, first important foreign correspondent, and first famous American European revolutionist since Thomas Paine.

She died at the age of forty, under heartbreakingly dramatic circumstances, in a shipwreck off Fire Island in July 1850, as she was returning with her fledgling family to the United States.

And yet Fuller’s personal temperament and her literary legacy remain elusive. Those who knew her best left conflicting testimony about her. They cannot agree on what she looked like, or whether her late marriage (if indeed she really was married) was a triumph or a joke, or whether she was…

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