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 filed off some of the dangerous edges of her thoughts. They made no mention of some things they knew—like her infatuation with James Nathan, a German-Jewish commission merchant whom she met in New York in 1845. But it was her final chapter, in which she became a participant in the Risorgimento and not just a witness of it, that these apologists did not entirely understand. One difficulty was her relation to Ossoli. She had been evasive about it to her friends, and no one would ever be sure when—or even if—she had married him. The editors preferred to avert their gaze from the question.
They may not have been ready, either, to accept that she had become radical in political matters. They “judged best,” they wrote, “to let [her] tell the story of her travels” in selections from her European letters with no editorial comment of their own and little from those who had known her abroad. Apparently they did not ask for anything from the European intellectuals who became her close friends, the Polish patriot and poet Adam Mickiewicz or the revolutionary Italian aristocrat Costanza Arconati Visconti. Reminiscences offered by Giuseppe Mazzini seem to have been lost, though the leader of the Italian revolution was a friend she helped in his return to Italy from exile and in his escape after the failure of the short-lived Roman Republic.
Nevertheless, the book was immediately successful. Fuller’s own contribution was fascinating just for its account of the different phases of her life, and the elegiac reminiscences by her three friends had a certain charm; Emerson’s, particularly, drew a complex portrait of how her intensity had both attracted and repelled him, revealing something of himself in doing so. There would be thirteen editions before the end of the century. But it was not her own memoir, and not a biography. It tells only part of her history, and it gives prominence to her personality while saying too little about her intellectual accomplishments. As Robert N. Hudspeth observes in his new edition of her letters, “It created a mythic Margaret Fuller.”
The “Margaret ghost,” as Henry James would call her memory at the end of the century, received, moreover, a more grotesque interpretation from Nathaniel Hawthorne. She had counted Hawthorne among her friends, reviewed his works admiringly, and his wife, Sophia, had been an enthusiastic member of the famous discussion group called “Conversations” that she had organized for Boston women. But somewhere along the line her feminism or her self-assurance or her political leftism or her emotional force—it is hard to be sure which—got under Hawthorne’s skin. He may have already had Fuller in mind in depicting Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, finished in the year of her death, for Hester’s argument for women’s progressive liberation reads very much like passages from Fuller’s feminist tract, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance (1852) seemed to many readers a portrait of Fuller at the Utopian colony of Brook Farm, where she had briefly resided—even to a death by drowning. The seductive, guilt-stained Miriam, in The Marble Faun (1860), too, has some affinities with Fuller. But these fictional portraits, if they owe something to the real Margaret Fuller, still allow her a powerful attractiveness.
Eight years after Fuller’s death, however, having arrived with his family in Rome, Hawthorne was listening to the still lingering gossip about Fuller’s love affair with Ossoli. His reaction, committed promptly to his journal, was vehement:
I do not understand what feeling there could have been, except it were purely sensual; as from him towards her, there could hardly have been even this, for she had not the charm of womanhood. But she was a woman anxious to try all things, and fill up her experience in all directions; she had a strong and coarse nature, too, which she had done her utmost to refine, with infinite pains, but which of course could only be superficially changed… She was a great humbug; of course with much talent, and much moral reality, or else she could not have been so great a humbug. But she had stuck herself full of borrowed qualities which she chose to provide herself with, but which had no root in her… It was such an awful joke, that she should have resolved—in all sincerity, no doubt, to be the greatest, wisest, best woman of the age; and, to that end, she set to work on her strong, heavy, unpliable, and, in many respects, defective and evil nature, and adorned it with a mosaic of admirable qualities, such as she chose to possess; putting in here a splendid talent, and there a moral excellence, and polishing each separate piece, and the whole together, till it seemed to shine afar and dazzle all who saw it. She took credit to herself for having been her own Redeemer, if not her own Creator; and, indeed, she was far more a work of art than any of Mr. Mozier’s statues. But she was not working on an inanimate substance, like marble or clay; there was something within her that she could not possibly come at, to recreate and refine it; and, by and by, this rude old potency bestirred itself and undid all her labor in the twinkling of an eye. On the whole, I do not know but I like her the better for it;—the better, because she proved herself a very woman, after all, and fell as the weakest of her sisters might.
Perhaps Hawthorne was feeling particularly threatened just then by his wife’s continued admiration for the gifted woman who had recently lived freely in Rome like the heroine of Madame de Staël’s Corinne, one of Sophia’s favorite books. She, for her part, must have been shocked by the passage when she came to read it after his death, for she omitted it in her edition of her husband’s Italian notebooks. But in 1884, after her death, their son, Julian included it in his book Nathaniel Hawthorne and his Wife. The aging Clarke and others protested, but Hawthorne’s mud stuck. A younger friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Unitarian minister who also encouraged Emily Dickinson, had already done his best to correct the Fuller Memoirs in a biography published shortly before Julian’s revelation. But his book was thought to be a whitewash. The modern reader may feel that Higginson was trying too hard to show that Fuller was a “true woman” who had devoted herself generously to the needs of her younger brothers and sister and who fulfilled herself when she found a husband and had a child. But his biography was the best available until recently.
Early twentieth-century historians and critics mostly remembered Fuller as the token woman in Emerson’s Transcendental Club, and even her contribution to feminine self-consciousness was nearly forgotten until the women’s movement of the 1970s. It was not only her own feminist writings but the interest of feminists in reconstructing female life histories that attracted attention to her; she seemed a striking case of a woman who had been misread by men. But it was difficult to correct the reading until her scattered letters could be studied in their original form.
Robert Hudspeth’s fine scholarly edition, begun in 1983, has now become complete with a sixth volume that includes not only her last letters but a cache of new ones—eight-four to Clarke alone—previously unknown or known only in the heavily edited text of the Memoirs. Her most famous book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, can now be bought in inexpensive reprints and her literary essays in the Dial and her newspaper writing, some of it reprinted shortly after her death, have begun to be available in modern editions. Under the title These Sad But Glorious Days (taken from her own description of her time in Italy), Larry J. Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith have reprinted all her Tribune dispatches from Europe of 1846–1850, including several never before republished. Some of her reporting for the newspaper during her previous two years in New York is included in Catherine C. Mitchell’s Margaret Fuller’s New York Journalism. Finally, two new biographies make use of the recent research: Joan von Mehren’s, just published, and another by Charles Capper, of which we have had the first of two volumes.