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The Genius of Margaret Fuller

The Letters of Margaret Fuller Vol. 1: 1817–1838 Vol. 2: 1839–1841 Vol. 3: 1842–1844

edited by Robert N. Hudspeth
Cornell University Press (two further volumes in preparation), Vol. 3, 269 pp., $25.00 each volume

Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Margaret Fuller
Norton, 212 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings

by Bell Gale Chevigny
The Feminist Press, 500 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller

by Joseph Jay Deiss
Thomas Y. Crowell (1969, out of print)

Margaret Fuller, American Romantic: A Selection From Her Writings and Correspondence

edited with an introduction and notes by Perry Miller
Anchor (1963, out of print)

The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry

edited by Perry Miller
Johns Hopkins University Press, 400 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Margaret Fuller Ossoli

by Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Greenwood Press (originally published by Houghton Mifflin, 1890), 323 pp., $39.95

Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller

with an introduction by Julia Ward Howe
AMS Press (reprint of 1903 edition), 248 pp., $19.45

Italian Nationalism and English Letters

by Harry W. Rudman
AMS Press (originally published by Columbia University Press, 1940), 444 pp., $17.50

So passed away the loftiest, bravest soul that has yet irradiated the form of an American woman: thus wrote the editor, Horace Greeley. Yet before this noble soul, Margaret Fuller, passed away, many would have foregone irradiated in preference to irritated. She was brave and lofty and she did irradiate and also irritate, irritate herself especially with strained nerves, fantastical exertions, discomforts large and small.

Margaret Fuller, a New England creation, commemorated in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge in impressive blocks of stone, was born in the wrong place, the place thought to be the only right one for an American intellectual in the nineteenth century. That is, she was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, around Harvard, Boston, Concord, and all the rest. She sprang out of the head of all the Zeuses about: her father Timothy Fuller, Emerson, Goethe. The head being the protesting organ it is, she suffered lifelong from migraine headaches, and even as a young girl, left on the scene more than a bit of the fatigue and sense of pounding insistence thought to be the dispensation of a learned woman. There were many enlightened and cultivated women about, but she was the only seriously learned one in her circle, perhaps in the country.

As a life, a biography, hers is the most dramatic, the most adventuring of all the “flowerings.” Her life was most strikingly split into two parts by experience and a good thing it was, even if ending in tragedy. Staying at home in Concord and Boston she might have ended as a comedy.

Into an incestuous air she was born, this world that provided as a wife the sister of one’s best friend, as a husband, the son of a family connection. Hawthorne married Sophia Peabody; Emerson married Ellen Tucker; Henry Adams married Marian Hooper, the daughter of Dr. Hooper and a Sturgis on the maternal side. This sexual handiness, as it were, the prudent over-the-fence alliances, narrowed experience in Margaret Fuller’s circle, but seemed to produce around Boston and Concord a domestic placidity that encouraged the high notes of Transcendentalism, a local philosophical blending, an indefinable Idealism of the divinity within man, union with nature, the “eternal One”; in practice the passion for Genius and the hope for the smaller genius of all, for the enlargement of the spiritual life of the nation. Henry Adams, thinking of Emerson and pondering his own non-Boston experience of the nation as a whole, thought all this naif.

(It is almost elevating to learn from a discreet footnote here and there that Clarence King, the distinguished geologist and Adams’s great friend in the Education, was the common-law husband of a New York black woman and the father of a son by her. King himself was from Newport, Rhode Island, and a graduate of Yale rather than Harvard; perhaps this climate slightly to the south had an effect upon this far-flinging, if that is what it was. Allowing for the condescension of “common-law,” King apparently wished to do right and to honor the union. Upon his death, Mrs. King brought a lawsuit to secure for her son the trust fund assured her in King’s letters. She lost, defeated by the WASPs and their mastery of per stirpes.)

Margaret Fuller did not attract the passion for neighborly unions. Indeed one might say her only true American lover was Professor Perry Miller of Harvard, born more than a century later. Margaret Fuller herself was born in 1810 and was thus seven years younger than Emerson. She was the daughter of Timothy Fuller, a scholarly man, graduate of Harvard, representative in Congress from Massachusetts, and later a practicing lawyer. His education of his daughter began early. Like John Stuart Mill she was put in the stocks and one of her finest pieces of writing has to do with the memory of her father’s wish to make her “heir to all he knew.”

Thus I had tasks given me, as many and various as the hours would allow, and on subjects beyond my age; with the disadvantage of reciting to him in the evening, after he returned from his office…. I was often kept up till very late; and as he was a severe teacher, both from his habits of mind and his ambition for me, my feelings were kept on the stretch till the recitations were over. Thus frequently, I was sent to bed several hours too late, with nerves unnaturally stimulated. The consequence was a premature development of the brain, that made me a “youthful prodigy” by day, and by night a victim of spectral illusions, nightmare and somnambulism, which at the time prevented the harmonious development of my bodily powers and checked my growth, while, later, they induced continual headache, weakness, and nervous affections, of all kinds. As these again re-acted on the brain, giving undue force to every thought and every feeling, there was finally produced a state of being both too active and too intense, which wasted my constitution, and will bring me,—even although I have learned to understand and regulate my now morbid temperament,—to a premature grave.

Overwork, as she names it. Hysteria and the nightmares, whatever torments remembered, the result was a storehouse of knowledge and certainly an identification, even a vanity. Long after her father subsided as a tutor, she spent her youth in frantic application, reading, as Emerson wrote, “at a rate like Gibbon’s.” At the age of fifteen, Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s biography has her up at five, with the hours laid out. One for the piano, one for Sismondi’s European Literature in French; then Brown’s philosophy, then a lesson in Greek; in the evening two hours reading in Italian, a bit of walking, more piano, and retiring at eleven to write in her diary.

Thus we have the forced bud continually self-forced, nerve-wrung, eccentric, and, as we might expect, proud of her learning, aggressive in conversation, tremendously eager for friends, given to crushes, and with it all a devoted family daughter. Timothy Fuller died suddenly, leaving the family in a bad way. At this moment Margaret had planned to accompany the Farrar family to Europe. But she gave it up and remained at home to help in the support of her brothers and sisters. This meant teaching. First, a spell at The Temple School, Bronson Alcott’s leafy, squirrel-house of learning; and then a real position for two years in Providence, from whence in a letter to Emerson she made one of her many confident pronouncements that were to be long remembered and to decorate her memory in the manner of a bit of local scandal. “I see no divine person; I myself am more divine than any I see—I think that is enough to say about them.” After two years she returned to Boston to make her way as a writer, beginning with a translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe.

From the first she was a figure, a star, a somewhat blinding one; and constantly talked about as a sight to be taken in, like Bronson Alcott’s unworldliness and Thoreau’s recalcitrance. Conversation was her love and even if some were fearful in approach because of the intrepid “truthfulness” of her social exchanges (“Stand from under!” Emerson cautioned himself), she had the trait of all conversationalists, an immense availability. She liked to visit and sometimes stayed too long. One of the saddest periods of her youth was her father’s decision to retire from the Boston scene and to take his family to the smaller village of Groton, thus removing his daughter from the company of the young men and the professors around Harvard with their spiritual and intellectual interests.1

Her mission was Self-Culture, as one memorialist phrased it. And always the wish to uplift others, friends, anyone. She practised a kind of hot Transcendentalism alongside Emerson’s cooler sort. She could be found holding an arm, gazing into eyes, insisting upon inspiration, sublimity, and grow, grow, grow.

She was very noticeable to the men around Harvard, some of whom she had known earlier at a private academy where she, although a female, was yet allowed at fifteen to go for a special study in Greek recitation. There was her mind to startle, and also her appearance, her black cloak, and many odd features of the head, not always easy to describe.

The Transcendentalist Frederic Hedge, her friend from his Harvard days: “No pretension to beauty then or at any time, her face was one that attracted, that awakened a lively interest.”

Emerson: “nothing prepossessing. Her extreme plainness—a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids—the nasal tone of her voice—all repelled; and I said to myself, we shall never get far.”

Poe worried about her upper lip, which, “as if impelled by the action of involuntary muscles, habitually uplifts itself, conveying the impression of a sneer.”

William Henry Channing on the matter of her neck found its curve “swan-like when she was sweet and thoughtful, but when she was scornful or indignant it contracted, and made swift turns, like a bird of prey.”

J.R. Lowell: “a pythoness.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes: “ophidian.”

The concentration upon appearance is somewhat overwrought among those who took beauty if it arrived on the doorstep and did without if a fine and useful character prevailed. Emerson’s first wife, Ellen Tucker, has been described as a “remarkable beauty”; Ellen Fuller, Margaret’s younger sister, was a romantic charmer who married the romantic, quite unsteady, charmer Ellery Channing. Henry Adams, writing about his engagement to “Clover” Hooper, said, “She is certainly not handsome; nor would she be quite called plain, I think.”

So, Margaret Fuller was homely, even distracting in mannerisms, but she charmed by an overwhelming responsiveness and curiosity. Many women friends from whom she received confidences and to whom she gladly gave advice. Emerson, in his essay after her death, wrote that she wore her friends “like a necklace of diamonds around her neck” and that “her friendships, as a girl with girls, as a woman with women, were not unmingled with passion, and had passages of romantic sacrifice and ecstatic fusion.”

Be that as it may, it was her habit throughout her years in America to presume on male friendships, pushing them to intentions that were not forthcoming, with a result very distressing to her spirits. She is so often not quite in touch, confused perhaps by the dramas of friendship; a sort of insufficiency in nuance; missing signals. Soul mates appeared—or so it seemed, but her “soul” was too soon declarative and consuming.

First, her cousin George Davis is said to have “thwarted her.” Then a true falling in love with a member of her circle and a close friend, Samuel Ward. From a letter to Ward: “No, I do not distrust you, so lately have you spoken the words of friendship. You would not be so irreverent as to dare to tamper with a nature like mine, you could not treat so generous a person with levity…if you love me as I deserve to be loved, you cannot dispense with seeing me…. J’attendrai….” Still the nestlike scene, and it turned out that Samuel Ward, a close friend, was going to marry another close friend of his and also a close friend of Margaret Fuller—Anna Barker.

  1. 1

    It was from Bell Gale Chevigny’s book on Margaret Fuller, The Woman and the Myth, with its masterly organization of many then unpublished letters, along with the comments of contemporaries, that I came first to understand the complexity of Margaret Fuller and her situation.

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