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.
Then there was Emerson and later in New York the dismaying debacle of a connection with a man named James Nathan.
Emerson. Emerson and Margaret Fuller—a complicated alliance and one of the most interesting friendships between a man and a woman in American literature. Before their meeting and while Emerson was still a clergyman, she was somewhat doubtful of fame in the pulpit. “It is so easy for a cultivated mind to excite itself with that tone.” On the other hand, she was eager to show him her translation of Goethe’s drama Tasso. They met in 1835 and she first visited Emerson in Concord in 1836. “His influence has been more beneficial to me than that of any American, and from him I first learned what is meant by an inward light.”
Emerson found her, at the age of twenty-six, well read in French, Italian, and German literature, but needy in the matter of English literature. He pressed upon her the works of Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Herbert, Sir Thomas Browne, and others. The absence of English fiction represents Emerson’s indifference to the form as perhaps too much shackled to event and casual life. Of Dickens he wrote: “London tracts…local and temporary in his tints and style, and local in his aims.”
Margaret Fuller “adored” Mme. de Staël and was often called the “American Corinne” because of her dramatic and romantic presentation of herself. She came to forgive George Sand for the laxness of her life and greatly admired her and her work. But what would she have thought of the refined obscenities of Clarissa? Of Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy? Or Emma? The mixed and complex English fictional tradition cannot be what Emerson meant when, in “The American Scholar,” he called for “the meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and gait of the body,” but where was one to find the expression of “the common and the low” if not in English fiction? It is the development of Margaret Fuller’s style—not to be laid at the door of Emerson—that suffered from an absence of dogs and cats and rude particulars, and the greatest lack of all, a vocabulary for the humorous. She did not have Emerson’s wit, his rapid concentration of the winds in his head into an image, a quick short sentence. She told him that he used too many aphorisms and he said that if he used too many, she used too few.
Her letters are a heat of energy, warmth of friendship, family love and family duty, a blazing need to communicate, no matter the aching head and midnight coming on. In the New England period there is also a wrenching struggle with nature, the woods, sunsets, moonlights. “The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.” Emerson. And “What is a farm but a mute gospel?”
The sweetness of the Massachusetts countryside, the little villages, the fields and woods and streams. This is what they had—literary genius, some, in a sort of retirement, rustication, snowy nights and early flowers. The great writer Thoreau redeemed the nature-writing workshop and perhaps the notebooks and letters of the rest, the apprentices, were somehow necessary for the creation of his grandeur, the way he sprang out from the landscape.
Hawthorne in his notebooks fought with the whortleberry bush and the gleam from the lighthouse at Marblehead. “And its light looked very singularly, mingling with the growing daylight. It was not light, the moonshine, brightening as the evening twilight deepens; for now it threw its radiance over the landscape, the green and other tints of which were displayed by daylight, whereas at evening all those tints are obscured.” And so on, with here and there a hit: the neighbor’s ox who looked very much like Daniel Webster.
Margaret Fuller, early, attempted a composition on the passionflower and sometimes would advise one to see a certain sunset at exactly a quarter to six. And a great deal of moonlight occupies her pen. Emerson, in his memoir, is rather contemptuous of her naturing, even though he himself may be said to have led the charge for these confrontations.
Margaret’s love of beauty made her, of course, a votary of nature, but rather for pleasurable excitement than with a deep poetic feeling. Her imperfect vision and her bad health were serious impediments to intimacy with woods and rivers. She never paid—and it is a little remarkable—any attention to natural sciences. She neither botanized, nor geologized, nor dissected.
What was not known then, and certainly not known to herself, was that her nature was profoundly urban and her talent, in the end, was for sightseeing, meeting people, for issues; and her gifts as a writer were for a superior journalism. Everything that happened, in her head, in her reading, in her travels, was there to be used. In 1843 she made a journey to the western part of the country and the next year her first original book was published, Summer on the Lakes. She sees a lot, thinks about the Indians, the settlers, Chicago, immigrants, and forswears a descriptive account of Niagara Falls. “Yet I, like others, have little to say, where the spectacle is for once great enough to fill the whole life and supersede thought, giving us only its presence…. We have been here eight days, and I am quite willing to depart. So great a sight soon satisfies, making us content with itself, and with what is less than itself.”
In Concord, visiting in the Emerson house, the second Mrs. Emerson, not a beauty like Ellen, who died young of tuberculosis, experiences the discomforts arising from the presence of a husband-adorer and disciple in the house, waiting for Him to be free to inspire, to read his poems aloud, to take a nature walk. Hurt feelings, tears; Mrs. E. asks Margaret to take a walk with her one evening and M. answers that she cannot because she is going to walk with Mr. E. That sort of thing.
And the inevitable “friendship” discussions with Emerson, heavy with feeling on Margaret Fuller’s side. She wants some sort of exclusiveness, recognition:
“I am like some poor traveller of the desert, who saw, at early morning, a distant palm, and toiled all day to reach it”—followed by a transparent Persian fable, which Emerson pretends not to understand. And, another letter, “I have felt the impossibility of meeting far more than you; so much, that if you ever know me well, you will feel that the fact of my abiding by you thus far, affords a strong proof that we are to be much to one another…. How often have I left you despairing and forlorn. This light will never understand my fire.”
Emerson in his memoir does not avoid analysis of this disconcerting appeal for more, more.
Our moods were very different; and I remember, that, at the very time when I, slow and cold, had come fully to admire her genius, and was congratulating myself on the solid good understanding that subsisted between us, I was surprised at hearing it taxed by her with superficiality and halfness. She stigmatised our friendship as commercial. It seems her magnanimity was not met.
Together they began The Dial in 1840, with Margaret Fuller as the editor for two years. It was to be a Transcendentalist forum, “to lift men to a higher platform.” Criticism, it was felt, would be most useful to the soul of the country and, not to be forgotten, criticism is what the group was able to compose and thus to celebrate Genius and the transcendent calling.
Margaret Fuller offered an essay on Goethe, the supreme genius, a defense against accusations of immorality and egotism. Her essay is intense and rather more parochial than it need be, except for being addressed to an audience alarmed and distrustful. “Pardon him, World, that he was too worldly. Do not wonder, Heart, that he was so heartless. Believe, Soul, that one so true, as far as he went, must yet be initiated into the deeper mysteries of Soul.”
Emerson thought the Goethe essay her best and Professor Perry Miller views it as a moment in history.
Here Margaret brashly defends Werther against the prevailing American opinion that it was a foul corrupter of youth; and she praises The Elective Affinities, which American men regarded as the nadir of sensual depravity…. Viewed in this perspective, Margaret’s essay is a basic document in the history of intellectual freedom in the United States.
The work on The Dial exhausted her and Emerson assumed the editing for the next two of the magazine’s four years. “I remember, after she had been compelled to relinquish the journal into my hands, my grateful wonder at the facility with which she assumed the preparation of laborious articles, that might have daunted the most practised scribe.”
Conversations. These famous gatherings in Boston in which Margaret Fuller led and instructed a number of well-bred women began in the rooms of Miss Elizabeth Peabody on West Street. The object was “to pass in review the departments of thought and knowledge, and endeavor to place them in due relation to one another in our mind.” Since eloquence was the leader’s gift, she had to do a good deal of orating to pinch the minds of her fellow explorers into speech. The account of one conversation that survives is a comedy and perhaps that is why it survives. The topic was “What is Life?” Pushed and prodded, a Miss C. replied, “It is to laugh, or cry, according to our organization.”
“Good,” said Margaret, “but not grave enough.”
Another reply by Mrs. E., perhaps the second Mrs. Emerson, who was an attendant, ” ‘We live by the will of God, and the object of life is to submit,’ and went on into Calvinism.”
When pressed to give her own idea of What is Life, M.F. began with “God as Spirit, Life, so full as to create and love eternally, and yet capable of pause.”
The conversations were said to spread her fame about town. She dressed for them and assumed a sybilline manner quite extraordinary. Some thought she got the idea from Bronson Alcott’s everlasting questioning and his Orphic Sayings. But what seems more likely is that the conversations were a sort of reduced, miniature, and homebound wish for a platform, a platform such as Emerson had in his lectures in this hall and that, in little towns and cities. She too could speak on the great subjects, but Miss Peabody’s parlor, excitable and yearning as it was in the hour before noon, with the wives of the great men, Mrs. Bancroft, Mrs. Child, Mrs. Parker, and various Misses looking on, was the only lyceum available.
The second part of Margaret Fuller’s life was to last only six years, from 1844 until her death in 1850. But Act Two it was and as a structure overcrowded with incident after the pastoral, repetitive Act One, which was just book after book, and the same friends, much talk, terrible labor in letters, reviews, and the management of The Dial. In the spirit, a sort of treadmill of enthusiasms for Goethe, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Raphael, Mythology, the Classics, French socialism—all written down, somewhere. “Her pen was a non-conductor,” Emerson decided in spite of the prodigality of words. Perhaps “non-conductor” merely signified her flat, flat failure as a poet, which of course she had struggled with also. Emerson will continue to think of her as a talker, a parlor orator, or even a monologist “who seldom admitted others upon an equal ground with herself.” She could also gossip, which frightened him. “The crackling of thorns under the pot.”
In The Dial she published “The Great Lawsuit—Man versus Men; Woman versus Women.” This was much expanded and elaborated into Woman in the Nineteenth Century. And then she left Boston for New York, thought at the time to be an outpost in the intellectual life. “The high priestess of Transcendentalism cut her ties with the provincial homeland,” Perry Miller wrote.
“Let them [women] be sea-captains if they like.” This offhand swat to seafaring Massachusetts, the China trade, the widow’s walk at the top of the house, the codfish cake for breakfast, remains the best-known statement in Margaret Fuller’s long, prolix defense of women. The work was completed in less than two months, during a vacation in a Hudson River town, and probably written without a library, except for the one in her head. It is a compendium of custom relating to women, ancient and modern opinion buried in poetry, literary allusion, and common observation. The index lists Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dante, Desdemona, Petrarch, Plato, Spinoza, Swedenborg, Xenophon, and many others. The author herself appears in the disguise of a certain Miranda, well-educated, taught honorable self-reliance from the cradle, privileged in learning and preparation for independence of thought; and not hindered by beauty from the development of talents and sense of self. “She was fortunate in a total absence of those charms which might have drawn to her bewildering flatteries, and in a strong electric nature, which repelled those who did not belong to her, and attracted those who did.”
It is a bookish book, a fundamental document in the history of feminist thought. An intense, pleading tone, immensely elevated, careful not to give offense, but determined. The strong and dignified women of literature and history—Iphigenia, Antigone, Britomart, the French Revolution’s Madame Roland (“O Liberty, what crimes have been committed in thy name!”) appeal to her more greatly than the powerful, devious Queen Elizabeth, “without magnanimity of any kind.”
Margaret Fuller certainly knew Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. Here she makes an unaccountable mistake, seeing Mary Wollstonecraft’s marriage to the prodigious nitwit, William Godwin, as her best claim upon our attention: “a woman whose existence better proved the need for some new interpretation of woman’s rights, than anything she wrote.”
Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is much more homely and practical, less rhetorical and less respectful—and more cynical about the world. She despises women brought together in boarding schools; too much giggling and lounging about in dirty undergarments. “Parental affection is, perhaps, the blindest modification of perverse self-love,” and she asserts that the habit of overlooking the faults of one’s parents inclines the child to overlook his own. “The two sexes mutually corrupt and improve each other.”
The worldliness may have offended Margaret Fuller. She does not mention the Vindication, but points instead to Godwin’s book in support of his wife. The omission indicates a distaste, just as distaste, conscious or not, may explain why Emerson in his cramped and complicated essay on Margaret Fuller, thought by some to be patronizing but in fact the most alive and brilliant words written about her, never mentions Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the work that established her fame in America and abroad.
In Fuller’s book, we notice again and again the belief in the “electrical” and “magnetic” element in women’s nature. “Women who combine this organization with genius are very commonly unhappy at the present time.” What makes Woman in the Nineteenth Century affecting beyond its arguments for education, independence, and so on, is that the pathos of autobiography is hidden in the text. Even the often lamented diversions into higher learning and allusion show the will to transcendence. She herself, in the wide sweep of her being, is the best American woman the nineteenth century had to offer; and she is, for all that, merely a phenomenon, an abandoned orphan. That is part of what the book means to say.
“A complacency that seemed the most assured since the days of Scaliger.” Emerson on Margaret Fuller. Also, “the presence of a rather mountainous ME.” Who can doubt it? But what the whole span of her life shows is that she got all from being around Boston at the transfiguring moment, and would have lost all had she not escaped. She was a sort of stepchild, formed and deformed by Concord, by the universalism and the provincialism. Emerson notes this so willing adaptation to the best of the intellectual landscape; also its gradual unsuitability, not only to the fact that she was a woman who had to earn her living, but to her nature. Among other things, she was not a solitary, not a gardener.
I think most of her friends will remember to have felt, at one time or another, some uneasiness, as if this athletic soul craved a larger atmosphere than it found; as if she were ill-timed and mis-mated, and felt in herself a tide of life, which compared with the slow circulation of others as a torrent with a rill.
She was altogether too familiar in the minds of the New Englanders. They loved her—the word is not too strong even for Emerson’s feelings. Noble, truthful, faithful, brave, honest: the words appear again and again in what was written and said about her. Yet it is the fate of an eccentric to be repetitive in the home town. There is no intermission. Each appears in his hat and coat and tics day after day and exhibits his character. The first thing to be noticed about her life as she moves to New York and then to Europe is that she is no longer quite so noticeable, so fixed and peculiar, perhaps because being one of many, even if Poe, a New York acquaintance, divided the world into men, women, and Margaret Fuller. Above all, Transcendentalism—“going to heaven in a swing” as one mocker put it—nearly turned her into a fool.
In December 1844, she moved to New York, invited by Horace Greeley to be a professional book reviewer for the New York Tribune and also to contribute general articles; and invited by Mrs. Greeley to stay with them in their house in the Turtle Bay section of the city. For the paper she wrote reviews and “pieces” on just about everything: the theater, concerts, prisons, asylums, poor women, institutions. Her reviews were, for the most part, short and quickly written. She gives too much space to the novels of Charles Brockden Brown and too little to Cooper and the stories of Hawthorne, although generally favoring in her glances. She made a striking attack on Longfellow as “artificial and imitative.” As a critic she does not have the mind for the details of a work, but rather for its general effect, and so there is a sameness in the language throughout and a tendency, strong, to moral description of literature. “The atmosphere of his verse refreshes,” and again, “a lively though almost sensuous delight in the beautiful,” “the richness and freshness of his materials,” and so on. She has little notion of the power of Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico. The most interesting of the critical pieces in the Tribune is a cool and sly rebuke to Emerson’s Essays: Second Series.
A maddening part of the review is taken up with a description of a populace too busy and too shallow to grasp the fineness in its midst. This is followed by an interesting, but again generalized and exhorting, picture of Emerson on the platform. “One who could see man in his original grandeur…raising to the heavens the brow and the eyes of a poet.” Yes, Emerson is a father of the country. But then in an indirection, as if some disembodied critic, and not herself, were speaking: “The essays have also been obnoxious to many charges…. The human heart complains of inadequacy, either in the nature or experience of the writer, to represent its full vocation and its deeper needs…. These essays, it has been justly said, tire like a string of mosaics or a house built of medals.”
A string of mosaics or a house built of medals—one of her best prose moments. At the expense of the master, and still a friend to whom she will be writing letters up to the end.
Then the entrance of James Nathan, 1845, both about thirty-five years old, he being six months or so younger, both unmarried, but he certainly more experienced. Nathan was born in Holstein, Germany, came to New York as a young man, worked in the “commission business,” but, in common with many another, liked to wonder if he had not sold the soul of a poet for, well, what?—“commissions” perhaps. He had blue eyes, played the guitar, and after a meeting at the Greeleys’, took her to see a plaster model of the city of Jerusalem.
Alas, she is quite soon set off, on the road again. A large group of letters begins, partly because the Greeleys didn’t much like Nathan and the two had to meet here and there, miss each other at planned meetings; and as a writer she has the natural inclination, highly developed, to put every turn of feeling on paper.
When they went to see the model of Jerusalem, she learned that Nathan was a Jew and although at times Margaret Fuller had shown the inclination of the period to Jewish stereotyping she takes a quick leap. “I have long had a presentiment, that I should meet—nearly—one of your race, who would show me how the sun of today shines on the ancient Temple—but I did not expect so gentle and civilized an apparition and with blue eyes!”
A lot is to be discovered. Nathan was in the process of rehabilitating a “maiden” and when the maiden turns out to be his mistress so far as we can tell from M.F.’s letters, that too, his explanation, has to be taken in. “I only wished to be satisfied, and when you told me how you viewed the incident I really was so. Do not think of it ever again.”
Then Nathan makes an “assault upon her person” as it was spoken of at the time. She rebuffs him, but here it is possible to think of more complication of feeling, during and after, than most commentators might find evident. She writes him, of course, and quickly about this “sadder day than I had in all my life.” Yes, she had been exposed to “what was to every worthy and womanly feeling so humiliating.” And, “I know you could not help it. But why had fate drawn me so near you?…You have said that there is in yourself both a lower and a higher than I was aware of. Since you said this, I suppose I have seen the lower!…Will you not come with me before God and promise me severe truth, and patient tenderness, that will never, if it can be avoided, misinterpret the impulses of my soul?”
Nathan sends her a little dog, a burdensome gift for one moving here and there in the city and working day and night and writing to him day and night. The letters become quite frenzied with that pitiful wonder of the injured person of what she, in this case, might have done wrong. Nathan is given to confessions of weakness that interest her, being new, no doubt. “Your hand removes at last the veil from my eyes. It is indeed myself who have caused all ill.” What is unbalancing in this episode is that she is still writing in the transcendental mode of friendship and beauty and perfect trust and higher understanding—and yet there was the “assault”—unthinkable in Boston among the familiars, confusing but quite a new circumstance, knowledge, to think about.
But the weighty letters, the difficulty of a man like Nathan reading them to say nothing of responding; this made its mark and he took flight, to Europe, with the “maiden” along, and promising to return. She wrote and no answer from him. Did the letter arrive? Had his letter gone astray? When he does write it is to ask for a favor and then months pass without a word.
In 1846, she left the Tribune and sailed at last for Europe, where she still hoped to unite once more with Nathan. In Edinburgh he wrote that he was being married, but he refused to return her letters, refused even a second request, saying, “I shall do nothing with them but what is right, manly, and honorable.” He promised to destroy the letters, but did not do so. His son tried to sell them. The end of it was that Nathan left a stipulation in his will that they should be published. Published they were, in 1903, a half century after Margaret Fuller’s death, The Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller. A fatuous, unnecessary introduction by Julia Ward Howe. A swinish “reminiscence” by Nathan, written in 1873 and apparently left with the letters for posterity. “I cannot suffer their [the letters’] exquisite naturalness and sweetness to sink into the grave…. I can wreathe no fresher laurels around the cherished memory of ‘Margaret’ than by showing, through these letters, that great and gifted as she was as a writer, she was no less so in the soft and tender emotions of a true woman’s heart.”
“Had I only come ten years earlier! Now my life must be a failure, so much strength has been wasted on abstractions, which only came because I grew not in the right soil.” Letter by Margaret Fuller, written in Italy, to Emerson.
At last she was to go abroad, first to England and Scotland, with letters from Emerson to Carlyle and others; useful, but she was herself known. Woman had been published in England, The Dial was admired, and her reviews in the Tribune, along with the fact that she was in the same journal to support herself abroad by interviews with “personalities” and descriptions of the scene, did not hinder any more then than now.
She met everyone, even the aged Wordsworth at Grasmere, De Quincey, and picked up gossip. “It seems the cause of Coleridge’s separation from his family was wholly with himself; because his opium and his indolence prevented his making any exertions to support them.”
Travels, scenery, the horror of the London poor amid the luxury, all of that. But the most important meetings of her later life were with two vivid, spectacular, radical intellectuals: Mazzini, fabulous throughout Europe, and Adam Mickiewicz, the great Polish poet and patriot. And another meeting, in spades, with the young Italian, the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, by whom she had, at the age of thirty-eight, a son out of wedlock, and later—married or did not marry.
Most of the admiring commentaries on Margaret Fuller are eager for her to “find herself as a woman” and also to become a radical in social reform, a down-looking replacement of the starry skies of New England thought. It is not possible to know if she found herself as a woman, but she did love and was loved by Ossoli, although careful, knowing by now reality, not to claim apotheosis.
She became a radical by way of her passionate response to the European upheavals of 1848. (Emerson was in Europe in 1848 and she writes him from Rome: “Why did you not try to be in Paris at the opening of the Assembly? There were elements worth scanning.”) There was social reform and then some around Concord, but as an aesthete she was bored by Brook Farm and the Boston Abolitionists were “so tedious, often so narrow, always so rabid and exaggerated in their tone.” Her thoughts about political agitation changed when she began to connect the antislavery movement with the liberation of Italy for which she hoped in her Tribune dispatches to arouse American sympathies.
It was at the Carlyles’ that she met Mazzini.2 He was in exile, raising money for Italian refugees, planning a campaign of return, writing in all the leading English journals not only on politics but on art and literature; and charming almost everyone in the nation by his great personal beauty and the purity of his idealism and self-sacrifice. “The most beautiful man I ever saw,” was the comment of men and women alike. The cause of Italian liberation and the character of Mazzini, and later that of Garibaldi, electrified the English literary imagination and found its way into countless poems, novels, and plays. In 1879, almost thirty years after Margaret Fuller’s death, there appeared an imaginary conversation in verse, written by the radical journalist, W.J. Linton. The title was “Mazzini and the Countess Ossoli.” At the end of this curious bit of versifying, Mazzini has left the stage and “the Countess, alone, prays for him.”3
The friendship with Mazzini was genuine in England and even closer when they were together in Rome. “They held many important things in common,” Mazzini had written to his mother, whom Margaret Fuller visited when her boat landed in Genoa. Before leaving England for Paris, there had been a plan to smuggle Mazzini into Italy, in disguise and with a false American passport. More than one thing went wrong, and just as well.
In Paris, Fuller met Mickiewicz at George Sand’s apartment. “Their encounter,” he said, “was one which consoles and fortifies.” She was “a true person” and “the only woman to whom it has been given to touch what is decisive in the present world and to have a presentiment of the world of the future.”
Mickiewicz was a bohemian, more forthright and intimately observing than the spiritual Mazzini. To Margaret Fuller he suggested, and apparently without any wishes of his own, that the first step in her deliverance “is to know whether you are permitted to remain a virgin.”
When Mickiewicz came to Rome to recruit among the Poles living in exile, he stayed in her lodgings and when she was suffering from illness brought on by her pregnancy, he was the first to be told the secret. “You are frightened at a very natural, very common ailment, and you exaggerate it in an extravagant manner.” Mickiewicz was to be the child’s godfather, but was not about when Ossoli, determined upon the baptism both for his Catholicism and to legitimate the child, proceeded with the certification.
Ossoli. The meeting took place in St. Peter’s Church, after an Easter service. Somehow Margaret Fuller became separated from her companions, and while wandering about the church was asked by a young Italian if he could be of help. They walked back across the Tiber to the Corso. So, Mickiewicz said when he was told, it was at last to be, “un petit Italien, dans l’église.
Ossoli was twenty-seven, ten years younger. His mother died when he was a boy and he lived in the family palazzo, with his older brothers and sisters, and his ailing father whom he was taking care of. Later much about Ossoli was obscured or questioned, either by malice, the secrecy of his connection with Margaret Fuller, or by his reserve and little English. What seems to be true is that he was from an old family, long attached to the Papacy, not rich and certainly conventional in thought. His father and one older brother were high papal functionaries; two other brothers were in the Pope’s Guardia Nobile. It seems, although it is disputed, that he had Republican sympathies before the meeting with Margaret Fuller, rather than that she swayed him in that direction. In any case, he joined the Civil Guard, put himself in much danger, and with the fall of the Republic would have had to flee Rome in any case.
The marriage: the “underplot,” as Henry James called it. Soon after their first meeting he proposed marriage, whether legal or not. Margaret Fuller drew back. “The connection seemed so every way unfit.” Instead she went off to Florence and Venice, as planned, but after a few months changed her mind and returned to Rome, with almost nothing to live on. It began.
Were they ever actually married? Confusion here. There is no sure date or place for it. The impediments to marriage were many, among them the difficulty of getting a dispensation to marry a Protestant, the confusion of all bureaucratic documentation in the city’s chaos. Also Ossoli did not wish to be disinherited of the little property that was to come to him by his father’s death. His unfriendly brothers, owing to his Republicanism, managed to disinherit him in any case. Then there is the question whether Margaret Fuller cared about the marriage vows. William Henry Channing argued that marriage was against her principles. Emerson thought otherwise: “When it came to be a practical question to herself, she would feel that this was a tie that ought to have the solemnist sanction; that against the theorist was a vast public opinion, too vast to brave.” Some evidence can be made to support an actual marriage between the two, but uncertainy remains.
During 1849, Margaret witnessed the flight of the pope, the announcement of the Constituent Assembly, the declaration of the Republic, Mazzini’s triumphant entrance into Rome. The happiness did not last long; the French troops intervened and the slaughter of the siege of Rome set in. She herself nursed the wounded, along with one of Europe’s most celebrated beauties, the romantic, radical Princess Belgioioso. Margaret Fuller’s conquest of the “radical chic” figures in Italy, and even of her conservative friend, the important, rich, Marchesa Arconati Visconti, seemed to have come about in a natural, unexceptional fashion. She was not seen to be too exalté, aggressive, and learned—after all, they knew their Tasso, Dante, and the divine Raphael also.
There had been a cooling off, winding down, we imagine, achieved by the surrounding acceptance of herself, her learning, her rapturous zeal, and gift for friendship. She was as she was, interesting, unique in many ways, and companionable. Only her writing still suffered from orphic diffusion, from a sentimental femininity of accent. “Hard was the heart, stony and seared the eye, that had no tear for that moment.”
Her dispatches to the Tribune, covering all the great events, were written in the first person and were personal in every sense, filled with pleading, and descriptive passages a bit commonplace. There is also concern for the factual and the diplomatic, military tangle of alliances and events. Her Republican bias is candid, in a manner that would not be thought suitable today. Indeed her reports on disillusionment with the waverings of Pope Pius IX outraged the Catholic diocese in New York. Complaints were made, but Greeley published the accounts uncensored.
Toward the end of her stay in Rome, her writing begins to show a greater control; it becomes more graceful and useful, with fewer “effects” that stress her own emotions. “I entered the French ground, all hollowed and mapped like a honey-comb. A pair of skeleton legs protruded from the bank of one barricade; lower, a dog had scratched away its light covering from the body of a man, and discovered it lying face upward all dressed; the dog stood gazing on it with an air of stupid amazement.”
By the end of June the Republic had fallen to the French troops and the losers were fleeing. The Ossoli family left for Florence and the following summer embarked for America. The last years of Margaret Fuller’s life had been horrible: poverty, overwork, illness, her son nearly starving to death in the town of Rieti where she had left him with a wet nurse in order to return to Rome to make her living. Anguish about the fate of the child, misery trying to get back and forth to Rieti.
All the while she had been preserving documents, taking notes, in addition to her dispatches, for a work to be called History of the Italian Revolution. The loss of the book has been lamented and, on the other hand, its very existence disputed. But it seems to have existed at least in part because she had made inquiries about the possibility of publication in England, which were refused. Part of her reason for returning to America was that she thought it would help in making the arrangements for publication.
She asked Emerson’s advice and the answer shows that he was well aware of her “situation” with a husband, perhaps, and a little boy, certainly. Her family and various others had been informed. (Earlier when she was awaiting the birth of the child, she received a letter from Emerson, in Paris at the time, quite sweetly urging her to come home with him, where he said he would find a pleasant little house for her.) But now the possibility of the return of the irregular family was not so agreeable to imagine. He advised that Italy was an important advantage to her work. “It is certainly an unexpected side for me to support—the advantage of your absenteeism.”
However, return she did, even if in a spirit of gloom about her reception, her devastating poverty, Ossoli’s poor prospects, her ill health and exhaustion. They could not afford a steamer and took a merchant boat, a voyage of over two months. She packed all her documents, her notes, and the letters between herself and Ossoli, as well as others. The manuscript for the book was stored in another box.
The journey was a disaster from the start. The captain took sick of smallpox and died; the child contracted the disease but lived. The ship went on, reaching New Jersey for a landing in New York the following day. Trunks were brought from the hold, child dressed in his best, America to be faced.
A fierce storm came up in the night and the ship began to go down off Fire Island. It started to sink near enough to the shore for some of the passengers to make land by the use of a plank; some drowned in a like attempt. A steward tried to take the child to shore, but was swamped by a wave. Margaret Fuller was last seen in a white nightgown, holding the broken mast. The body of the child was recovered and claimed by the Fuller family. The box of letters and other personal documents survived, but the manuscript box was lost. The bodies of Margaret Fuller and Ossoli were not recovered. Bell Chevigny came upon a note in the Harvard Library which indicated that the bodies were indeed found, put in coffins, and shipped to Greeley, who refused to take any kind of action. The captain of the boat in this account worried about his jurisdiction in the matter and buried the bodies at night on Coney Island.
“I have lost in her my audience,” Emerson said. Thoreau, not the dearest of her friends, paid her the finest tribute—a journey to Fire Island to look for the remains. Margaret Fuller was forty years old when she died.
Epilogue: Perfidious Hawthorne. The background is rather sketchy, although Hawthorne’s dislike is not surprising. An early entry in his journal: “I was invited to dine at Mr. Bancroft’s yesterday with Miss Margaret Fuller; but Providence had given me some business to do, for which I was very grateful.”
Two years later, a more pastoral entry:
After leaving the book at Mr. Emerson’s I returned through the woods, and, entering Sleepy Hollow, I perceived a lady reclining near the path which bends along its verge. It was Margaret herself. She had been there the whole afternoon, meditating or reading…. She said that nobody had broken her solitude, and was just giving utterance to the theory that no inhabitant of Concord ever visited Sleepy Hollow, when we saw a group of people entering its sacred precincts.
Perhaps a bit of irony in the final clause.
Sarah Peabody Hawthorne, the placid, settled wife of the disturbed, settled Hawthorne, on “The Great Lawsuit.”
What do you think of the speech Queen Margaret Fuller has made from the throne? It seems to me that if she were married truly, she would no longer be puzzled about the rights of women. This is the revelation of woman’s true destiny and place, which can never be imagined by those who do not experience the relation.
No doubt Hawthorne would have expressed it differently, as men and women married to those not concerned with the refinements of writing have good reason to know.
The Blithedale Romance, in which the principal character, Zenobia, is often identified with Margaret Fuller, appeared in 1852, two years after her death. The death was a profound shock to the New England countryside, with the grieving family and old friends caught up in the tragedy and faced with the sharp conundrum of the life. While Hawthorne was writing The Blithedale Romance, the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, with an account of the history of the family and personal essays by Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and W.H. Channing, was being composed and arranged. Both books appeared in the same year.
The “striking” remarks by Emerson quoted in this essay do not altogether reveal his own and the others’ great swell of reverence for the departed friend. The memorial volume edited, omitted, and even destroyed with a free hand; it also wished to assure that the object of veneration was safely married at the time of the conception of the child. Later scholars have been quick to point out the moral scrubbing of documents and often to see the volume as a reduction of the vitality of the subject. Still, Memoirs, containing many letters and reminiscences of encounters among the group, is extraordinarily interesting and moving; it is possible to view it as the true salvaging of Margaret Fuller’s life and thought, which otherwise might have been greatly shadowed in American literary history.
The setting of The Blithedale Romance is, as Hawthorne said, “based on my experiences and observations at Brook Farm,” the hopeful and not quite practical socialist community established in Roxbury, outside Boston. Hawthorne also insists that the characters are fictional. Nevertheless, Zenobia, “the high-spirited Woman, bruising herself against the narrow limitations of her sex,” was thought by contemporaries to be a reflection of Margaret Fuller.
There are elements that correspond, but Hawthorne knew as a novelist that he could not have as the central figure a heroine he saw as wholly unappetizing. Had he drawn Margaret Fuller as he saw her, the results are not pleasing to anticipate, but the novel might have been less foolish, as in many ways it is; it might have been a strange modern fiction.
So, Zenobia is a great and riveting beauty; she is rich, with a mysterious past. The elements that correspond are that she is a performer and a sort of writer with a “magazine signature.” She is a feminist, who “scorns the petty restraints that take the life and color out of other women’s conversations.” Zenobia, pretentious, nevertheless has no real culture, “her mind is full of weeds,” which Hawthorne may have believed about Margaret Fuller, even though her culture was greater than his and greater than he needed.
In the book, the narrator, close to Hawthorne himself, has a sudden intuition about Zenobia. He divines, by some mannish knowledge: “Zenobia is a wife! Zenobia has lived and loved!” The revelations about Margaret Fuller were, it is easy to believe, distressing not only to morals but to the vanity of the Concord circle. She was an “adulteress” and if married at all the wife of a titled foreigner, all rather exotic and superior, as an experience. The Scarlet Letter was begun the year of the death off Fire Island. No just connection can be made, but in practical reality Margaret Fuller was the big A in the experience of the countryside. In The Blithedale Romance it may be noted that Zenobia, in a gruesome description, drowns herself because of love for an unworthy man.
In 1858, eight years later, Hawthorne made his Italian journey and one of the things he did was to run down, like a detective, the Margaret Fuller and Ossoli affair. Hawthorne left in his notebooks an account of a conversation with Joseph Mozier, an Ohio merchant who had gone to Florence to become a sculptor and who knew Margaret Fuller. These strange unearthings, violent and above all relishing in tone, are contradictory to the facts and to the moral and emotional remembrances of Margaret Fuller in Italy and at home.
Hawthorne is much concerned to remove the title from Ossoli, and if he cannot quite do that, to reduce him to a boy picked up on the street, an idiot, and her to a sort of desperate procuress.
Mozier…then passed to Margaret Fuller, whom he knew well. His developments about poor Margaret were very curious. He says that Ossoli’s family, though technically noble, is of no rank whatever; his elder brother, with the title of Marquis, being at this time a working bricklayer, and the sisters walking the streets without bonnets—that is, being in the station of peasant girls…. Ossoli, himself, to the best of his belief, was Margaret’s servant, or had something to do with the care of her apartments. He was the handsomest man Mozier ever saw, but entirely ignorant even of his own language, scarcely able to read at all, destitute of manners; in short, half an idiot, and without any pretensions to be a gentleman…. As for her towards him, I do not understand what feeling there could have been, except it was purely sexual; as for him towards her, there could hardly have been even this, for she had not the charm of womanhood…. 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…. Margaret has not left in the minds of those who knew her any deep witness to her integrity and purity. She was a great humbug; of course with much talent, and much moral reality, or else she could not have been such a great humbug.
She had no manuscript, Hawthorne insists; it did not exist. And he concludes:
Thus there appears to have been a total collapse in poor Margaret, morally and intellectually, and tragic as her catastrophe was, Providence was, after all, kind in putting her, and her clownish husband, and their child, on board that fated ship…a strange, heavy, unpliable, and in many respects, defective and evil nature…she proved herself a woman after all and fell like the lowest of her sisters. (Italics mine)
April 10, 1986
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. ↩
I am indebted for much about the European period of Margaret Fuller’s life to Joseph J. Deiss, The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller. ↩
Harry W. Rudman, Italian Nationalism and English Letters, p. 167. ↩