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A New Kind of Woman

In a letter to James Freeman Clarke in 1833 Margaret Fuller declared, “All biographies…make me sick at heart and make it hard to realize that there is a Heaven.” Our age shows no such distaste. We clamor for biographies, believing that the lives of our thinkers, statesmen, artists, and scientists hold the secret to their contributions to culture. In this we are deluded. The aspirations that lie behind a person’s achievements transcend the sum of days that makes up a life. Judged by its inner incentive, every life is a failure.

Ever since Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Channing, and James Freeman Clarke published Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli—an instant best seller when it came out in 1852—Fuller’s life and personality have received far more attention than her work. The two books under review come on the heels of several other biographies of Fuller published in the past two decades, among them the two-volume opus by Charles Capper (1992, 2007), as well as the sterling biographies of Meg McGavran Murray, Joan von Mehren, Bell Gale Chevigny, and numerous earlier ones as well. Add to this mix the recent semi-biographical novel by April Bernard, Miss Fuller (2012), and we now have a huge surplus of riches to choose from if we want to make ourselves sick at heart over Margaret Fuller’s fate.

In The Lives of Margaret Fuller—a worthy successor to his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father—John Matteson speaks for most of her biographers when he declares that “Margaret Fuller’s life was her most remarkable creation.” Megan Marshall, author of the lively triple biography The Peabody Sisters (2005), writes that Fuller’s published books “were hybrids of personal observation, extracts from letters and diaries, confessional poetry.” The absence of a clear line of demarcation between Fuller’s private and public life inspired Marshall “to write the full story—operatic in its emotional pitch, global in its dimensions.” Whether or not one shares the view that Fuller’s life and work are inseparable, it’s hard to imagine someone beginning a book or a course on her the way Martin Heidegger reportedly began a seminar on Aristotle: “Aristotle was born, he worked, and he died. Now let’s move on to his thought.”

With the same baritone eloquence that informs the rest of his excellent book, John Matteson opens his prologue with a synopsis of Fuller’s major achievements and the role her death played in our nation’s memory of her. It is worth quoting at length:

Margaret Fuller was, in her time, the best-read woman in America and the one most renowned for her intelligence. She was the leading female figure in the New England movement known as transcendentalism. She edited the first avant-garde intellectual magazine in America [The Dial]. She was the first regular foreign correspondent, male or female, for an American newspaper. As a literary critic, she was rivaled in her era only by Edgar Allan Poe. Three years before the convention that is usually regarded as the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States, she wrote a groundbreaking book demanding legal equality for women [Woman in the Nineteenth Century]. And yet, if the ordinary person today knows only one thing about Margaret Fuller, that particle of knowledge is likely not to concern any of her achievements, but how her life came to an end.
At the age of forty, having spent almost three and a half years in Europe as a foreign correspondent for the New-York Tribune, Fuller sailed back to America to begin a new life with the husband she had met in Rome, Marchese Giovanni Ossoli, and their young son, Angelino. That new life never began. On July 19, 1850, within sight of land, the ship on which the Ossolis were traveling struck a sandbar off the coast of Fire Island, New York, and, in the midst of a fierce and unseasonable hurricane, broke apart and sank. Though most of the people on board managed to reach the shore alive, none of the Ossolis survived.
This was how Margaret Fuller became ingrained in our history: not as the sparkling conversationalist enlivening Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study or the bookstores of Boston with her wit and erudition; not as the impromptu military nurse giving aid and encouragement to freedom fighters who had fallen in the streets of Rome defending their new republic; not even as the accomplished and dedicated scholar churning out a stunning body of literary criticism and social commentary; but as a forlorn and exhausted figure beside a broken mast, her hands on her knees, clad only in a soaked-through nightgown, soon to feel the wave that would thrust her overboard and into eternity.

Fuller’s sudden death brought to an end the ongoing evolution of her female persona, for which there existed no blueprints at the time. Fuller single-handedly expanded the frontiers of American female identity in the nineteenth century and succeeded, against enormous odds, in becoming a new kind of woman in a world that had precious little room for women in the public sphere. The twentieth century never caught up with her vision.

Margaret Fuller became the best-read woman in America thanks in part to the exacting tutelage of her father Timothy Fuller, who taught his daughter to read and write in her fourth year and began training her in Latin shortly thereafter. Throughout her youth she remained fiercely committed to improving her education, teaching herself French, German, and Italian, and immersing herself in the classics, which provided the basis for all her future thought. She later came to feel that her precocious studies robbed her of a good deal of what she called life:

I do wish that I had read no books at all till later,—that I had lived with toys, and played in the open air. Children should not cull the fruits of reflection and observation early, but expand in the sun, and let thoughts come to them. They should not through books antedate their actual experiences, but should take them gradually, as sympathy and interpretation are needed. With me, much of life was devoured in the bud.

Had she been a man, she almost certainly would have attended Harvard (whose library she was the first woman to receive permission to use) and perhaps have improved her writing skills, rather than struggling on her own to put thoughts into words. Emerson overstated the case when he asserted that Fuller’s pen was “a non-conductor”—certain passages in her written work soar as high as any transcendentalist—yet Fuller herself acknowledged in her journal: “I will write well yet; but never, I think, so well as I talk.”

To say that she talked well understates the case. By all reports Fuller’s spoken word was magnetic and inspirational. Emerson wrote in his journals about her “silver eloquence, which inmost Polymnia taught.” In the classroom she enthralled her students. Many of them, both at the Temple School in Boston, where she taught for a year in 1836, and at the Greene Street School in Providence, where she taught from 1837 to 1839, went on to become teachers themselves, inspired by her advocacy of women’s education. From 1839 until 1844 Fuller led a series of famous “Conversations” for women in Boston. Adopting the Socratic method, she electrified the participants, delving freely into literature, mythology, art, history, and philosophy.

Fuller’s biographers provide substantial anecdotal evidence to back up James Freeman Clarke’s claim that Fuller had a singular ability to instill in other people an awareness of the unique potential for growth they harbored within themselves, and to urge them with her words and personal love to bring that inner greatness out into the world. She was midwife to many souls.

Megan Marshall’s “empathetic” biography of Fuller analyzes with special insight the subterranean tensions that marked Fuller’s friendship with Emerson. There is no question that he admired her greatly—he wrote of her that he “could remember no superior women, but thought of Ceres, Minerva, Proserpine, and the august ideal forms of the Foreworld”—just as there is no doubting her personal and intellectual allegiance to him, despite her frustrations with his emotional withholding and inability to give of himself freely. Committed and grateful to Emerson, Fuller worked tirelessly as the editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial, the most original and free-spirited journal of its time. From 1840 to 1843, she contributed some of its most interesting pieces, including an article she later expanded into the book that became the cornerstone of her intellectual legacy, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

There is considerable debate about whether Margaret Fuller was in fact a transcendentalist. Matteson claims that transcendentalism was pertinent to only one stage of her evolution. Marshall is neutral on the issue. This reviewer believes that Margaret Fuller was a sui generis transcendentalist for most of her adult life, and that a distinctly transcendentalist doctrine underlies her lifelong advocacy of self-cultivation as well as her later advocacy of women’s rights, social reform, and the 1848 revolutions in Europe.

Consider the title of the article that subsequently became Woman in the Nineteenth Century: “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.” In her preface to the published book, Fuller wrote:

I meant, by that title, to intimate the fact that, while it is the destiny of Man, in the course of the Ages, to ascertain and fulfil the law of his being, so that his life shall be seen, as a whole, to be that of an angel or messenger, the action of prejudices and passions…is continually obstructing the holy work that is to make the earth a part of heaven.

“Heaven” here means something along the lines of what Emerson, describing the Over-Soul, called “that Unity…within which every man’s particular being is contained.” Fuller had declared in one of her Conversations that we reach heaven by transcending the “painful sense of the inadequacy of our nature,” to the point “that there would be no above or below…but a sense of the fulness of being.” Elizabeth Peabody, who hosted Fuller’s Conversations in the West Street Bookstore at her home in Boston, noted what Fuller went on to affirm on that occasion:

Miss Fuller said…that in the possibilities of her being was the loss of all imperfection—& [that] the attainment of a divine nature was the faith that reconciled her to this human nature as the pedestal of that divine nature—Only in this view of human nature (as the pedestal of a divine) could she tolerate it all.

Virtually all of the New England transcendentalists bought into William Ellery Channing’s gospel of “self-culture.” Channing preached that if an individual “does what he can to unfold all his powers and capacities, especially his nobler ones…[he] practices self-culture.” Fuller was no exception. As her friend James Freeman Clarke observed, her lifelong “aim, from first to last, was SELF-CULTURE.” Yet while most other transcendentalists kept their focus on individual spiritual growth, Fuller came to understand self-culture more expansively, as the gradual self-perfection and divinization of all humanity. For Fuller, the “self” in self-culture was at once individual and collective, spiritual and social, historical and transcendental.

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