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Transcendental Woman

1.

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 a major writer, and if so what kind. According to her contemporaries, her books never captured her coruscating voice anyway—“the crackling of thorns under a pot,” as Emerson described it.2

Under the circumstances, what is most needed is a fresh marshaling of the evidence, some of which has only recently come to light, in order to pose the question anew: Who was Margaret Fuller and what exactly did she achieve? This is the challenge undertaken by Charles Capper, an intellectual historian based in Boston, in the two volumes of his superb biography, the first of which was published in 1992.3

2.

In the affecting Autobiographical Romance that Fuller wrote when she was thirty, she adopted the tone of Goethe’s self-pitying Werther or Chateaubriand’s René. “I look back on these glooms and terrors,” she wrote in a typical passage, “and perceive that I had no natural childhood!” It testifies to Capper’s careful work that his well-paced narrative and sympathetic sense of Fuller’s intellectual and emotional growth, what she called her “unfolding,” do not seem to deflate her life in any way.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810, the eldest of nine children, in a charmless neighborhood on the outskirts of Cambridge, which hopeful developers called “American Venice” because of the nearby Charles River. The Fuller family lived in an ugly house with a view of a soap factory across the street. Fuller’s father, Timothy, was a lawyer elected four times to Congress before he fell out with Andrew Jackson in 1825 and retired to Cambridge to practice law and to write. Fuller’s earliest memory was the death of a younger sister in 1813: “Thus my first experience of life was one of death.” She was never close to her grieving mother as a child.

Timothy Fuller recognized the intellectual promise of his daughter and taught her languages, literature, history, music, and philosophy. One is reminded of Emily Dickinson’s words about her own father, like Fuller a congressman and lawyer proud of his precocious daughter: “Father, too busy with his briefs—to notice what we do—He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.” Timothy Fuller insisted that Margaret read the books, often keeping her up quite late, when his legal work was done, in order to examine her on what she had learned. She began to read Latin when she was six. “By ten,” Capper reports, “she had read through most of the standard Virgil, Caesar, and Cicero, and, within another couple of years, a good deal of Horace, Livy, Tacitus….” She drew from this reading a lifelong admiration for Roman will and resolve:

Who, that has lived with those men, but admires the plain force of fact, of thought passed into action? They take up things with their naked hands. There is just the man, and the block he casts before you,—no divinity, no demon, no unfulfilled aim, but just the man and Rome, and what he did for Rome. Everything turns your attention to what a man can become, not by yielding himself freely to impressions, not by letting nature play freely through him, but by a single thought, an earnest purpose, an indomitable will, by hardihood, self-command, and force of expression.

Some observers have seen something sinister in Timothy Fuller’s strenuous regime, and have found support in Margaret’s own account of childhood hallucinations, nightmares, somnambulism, and “attacks of delirium.” Perry Miller, the distinguished historian of American Puritanism, wrote that Timothy Fuller “dominated the family with a tyrannical masculinity that he thought was affection, but that actually amounted to what must be called persecution, or even sadism.”

Meg McGavran Murray goes farther in her new psychoanalytic biography, calling Fuller “a sentimental yet sadistic man with a hot temper and a compulsive need to charm and control women.” Murray is particularly disturbed by “Timothy’s routine at night of entering the room where his children slept ‘and pressing a kiss upon their unconscious lips.’” Margaret’s childhood dreams of horses trampling her body and trees dripping blood are, according to Murray, “like those experienced by people who have survived severe trauma.” They are also like those experienced by people who have read Virgil.

Actually, the only unusual aspect of Margaret’s educational regimen was that she was a girl. As Capper points out, precocious boys bound for Harvard were on a similar and sometimes faster track. James Russell Lowell “was an avid reader of French literature at the age of seven,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson “read Latin by eight and entered Harvard at thirteen,” while Josiah Quincy, son of the Harvard president, “was reading Virgil by six.” Capper rejects the melodramatic interpretation that Perry Miller and others, including Fuller herself, have given to her home schooling. He finds in Timothy Fuller’s letters, “largely ignored by her biographers,” ample evidence that he was “consistently liberal-minded in his intellectual treatment of Margaret.”

3.

After Timothy Fuller’s sudden death from cholera in 1835, Margaret Fuller was forced at age twenty-five to support her large family. She taught at Bronson Alcott’s progressive school in Boston and then at a school in Providence. Her father’s death and the demands of teaching forced her to give up two long-cherished projects. One was a trip to Europe; the other was a life of Goethe. Inspired by Carlyle’s admiration of Goethe, she had taught herself German—as Emerson noted, she seemed “to have learned all languages, Heaven knows when or how.”

Fuller first met Emerson during the summer of 1836, after what he called “a little diplomatizing in billets by the ladies,” especially the English writer and abolitionist Harriet Martineau, who had been impressed by her “excelling genius and conversation.” Emerson was initially put off by Fuller’s “extreme plainness,” the “nasal tone of her voice,” and a nervous tic of “incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids.” He was braced for bad manners, having heard accounts of Fuller’s scornful arrogance. “The men thought she carried too many guns,” he wrote, “and the women did not like one who despised them.”

Emerson was struggling with the unfinished manuscript of his first book, Nature, and still finding his voice as a writer. He found that Fuller’s presence elicited the best in him, as he wrote in the handsome tribute included in Fuller in Her Own Time:

She disarmed the suspicion of recluse scholars by the absence of bookishness. The ease with which she entered into conversation made them forget all they had heard of her; and she was infinitely less interested in literature than in life. They saw she valued earnest persons, and Dante, Petrarch, and Goethe, because they thought as she did, and gratified her with high portraits, which she was everywhere seeking. She drew her companions to surprising confessions. She was the wedding-guest, to whom the long-pent story must be told….

She was also the houseguest who stayed too long; her flirtatious monopolizing of Emerson’s attentions left his wife in tears.4

Fuller put her skills to use in her “Conversations,” her distinctive contribution to the education of American women. Beginning during the winter of 1839, and continuing for five years, twenty-five women paid a high price to spend two hours with Fuller and talk on such subjects as Greek mythology, the arts, and education. She had published a translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe earlier that year, and “tuned up” for her conversations by reading Plato’s dialogues. The aim, she wrote, was to pose “the great questions. What were we born to do? How shall we do it?” Her pupils included the Peabody sisters Sophia and Mary, who married Hawthorne and the educational reformer Horace Mann, respectively; Emerson’s stately and mystically inclined wife, Lidian; and the tough-minded abolitionist writer Lydia Maria Child.

At Emerson’s invitation, Fuller began editing the Dial, whose first issue was published during the summer of 1840. The aim of the journal was to spread the views of the writers and thinkers who called themselves Transcendentalists, for their conviction that “transcendent” ideas could change people’s lives and the society in which they lived. It was in the Dial, in 1843, that Fuller, the lawyer’s daughter, published her controversial essay on women’s rights, titled “The Great Lawsuit,” later incorporated into her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, her best-known work today.

  1. 1

    See “A Heroine of Revolution,” a review of J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford University Press, 1966), The New York Review, October 6, 1966. A revised version of the article, from which this passage is quoted, is included in Arendt’s Men in Dark Times (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968).

  2. 2

    The phrase, from Ecclesiastes, recurs in Robert Lowell’s “To Margaret Fuller Drowned”: “Your voice was like thorns crackling under a pot.” See Lowell’s Notebook (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), p. 90.

  3. 3

    Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life: The Private Years (Oxford University Press).

  4. 4

    Fuller figures prominently in Susan Cheever’s racy American Bloomsbury (Simon and Schuster, 2006), in which Cheever, like others before her, suspects that there was more than intellectual exchange in Fuller’s friendship with Emerson. She is particularly intrigued by moonlit walks in and around Concord, and believes that Emerson was suspicious (as is she) that there was also something afoot between Fuller and Hawthorne. Cheever’s lively and well-written book, which fans fires where few have found smoke, is perhaps best treated as a historical novel.

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