When Margaret Fuller moved to New York in 1844, she was an unlikely candidate for celebrity. Although she dressed neatly, she was plain. Thirty-four years old, still a virgin, she squinted and blinked excessively, and had “a fashion of moving her neck, and of looking at her shoulders as if she admired them.”1 The neck-twisting may have been a nervous response to scoliosis. Her spine was curved so sharply that she wore a horsehair shoulder pad to make her shoulders look even.
Margaret’s father had not raised her to be a beauty, however. As a congressman, Timothy Fuller had been both an abolitionist and a Jeffersonian Democrat—a difficult combination—and he had refused to compromise his principles even though they isolated him politically and prematurely ended his career. With his daughter, he was no less demanding and idealistic. “He hoped to make me the heir of all he knew,” she recalled in a fragmentary memoir of her Massachusetts childhood. He trained her to be intellectually confident, forbidding her to use the words and phrases but, if, I am mistaken, and it may be so.2 She began reading Latin daily at age six. Sent away to boarding school, where more ladylike girls teased her, a teenage Margaret compensated for her plainness by showing off her wits. “I… made up my mind to be bright and ugly,” she later wrote.3
Critics are not always popular. As Ralph Waldo Emerson later reported, after their first dose of Fuller “most persons…did not wish to be in the same room with her…. The men thought she carried too many guns, and the women did not like one who despised them.”4 And so at a young age Fuller made a second compensation: she directed her intellect to the problem of emotions. When she grew up, she became a professional student of Romanticism. She translated Goethe’s verse drama Torquato Tasso and Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, and she wrote review-essays that tried to bring the literary movement home to Americans, daring to praise even Byron (his “moral perversion never paralyzed or obscured his intellectual powers,” she insisted5).
She studied Romanticism privately as well. She learned to charm by soliciting confidences and sharing them. She put her critical skills—honesty, insight, willingness to give offense—in the service of affection. “Though she spoke rudely searching words, and told you startling truths, though she broke down your little shams and defenses,” her friend Sarah Freeman Clarke recalled, “you felt exhilarated by the compliment of being found out, and even that she had cared to find you out.”6 Few men or women were able to resist her campaigns of attention. Her letters from the 1830s, written while she was in her twenties and supporting herself as a schoolteacher, show her wooing, bullying, and cultivating a growing network of New England intellectuals. “She was, indeed, The Friend,” the radical socialist and Unitarian minister William Henry Channing wrote in his memoir of her. “This was her vocation.”7
Formidably learned, seemingly fearless in intellectual combat, and a voluptuary of interpersonal relationships, Fuller set out in 1836 to attach herself to the boldest thinker of her day, Emerson. In the end she became not only Emerson’s confidante but the secret spur to greatness for the dozen or so ambitious but doubt-plagued reformers, poets, aesthetes, and preachers who surrounded him. She became the “chieftainess” of the New England Transcendentalists, according to Orestes A. Brownson, a fellow traveler. From 1840 to 1842 she edited The Dial, a quarterly that strived, in Emerson’s words, to be “poetic; unpredictable; superseding…all foregone thought”8 and that managed to be as unintentionally clannish and intermittently brilliant as the circle of Transcendentalists who wrote for it. In addition to editing The Dial, she contributed to it reviews of books and art, mysti-cal prose-poems about the spirits hidden in magnolias and yuccas, and a provocative essay about the need for women to become more independent. Meanwhile, to earn a living, she taught foreign languages and literature to private students and led seminars for upper-class Bostonian women attracted by the promise of learning to think for themselves.
Yet success in New England did not satisfy her. For one thing, she did not find love there. In 1840, her two closest friends, Samuel Gray Ward and Anna Hazard Barker, married each other. Feeling abandoned, she turned for comfort to Emerson, who coolly defended his emotional borders. At first she protested, then gave up. “I understand matters now,” she wrote him, resignedly, in October 1841, “and always want you to withdraw when you feel like it.”
As she relinquished her emotional claims on Emerson, she began to wonder if she had been wise to take him as an intellectual model. In 1842 she confessed to William Henry Channing that “I sometimes think that my work would have been more simple, and my unfolding to a temporal activity more rapid and easy, if [Emerson and I] had never met.”9 A year later, she tried writing in a more popular genre. The travel book Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 was disjointed, clotted with extracts, and at times unreadably ornate. (For example: “We bought, what hold in regard to the human world, as unmarked, as mysterious, and as important an existence, as the infusoria to the natural, to wit, pins.”10) It owed less to what Fuller had seen and heard on her tour of the Great Lakes than it did to books about the West in the Harvard College library, where Fuller was the first woman ever granted reading privileges. Nonetheless, it caught the eye of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.
The newspaperman saw a populist impulse struggling under Fuller’s be-labored style. He offered to hire her as chief literary critic for the Tribune and invited her to expand her Dial essay on women into a book. In November 1844, with a “delightful glow” of accomplishment, Fuller completed Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Though rambling in argument and overornamented with allusions, it would launch a reexamination of gender in American society that continues to this day; Fuller doubted whether marriage was good for women, questioned the association of intellect with masculinity, and demanded to know why forty-year-old women were “always spoken and thought of upholstery-wise.” “I tell you it will make its mark,” Greeley boasted to a colleague. “It is not elegantly written, but every line talks.”
In December 1844, Fuller moved into a country house on New York City’s East River, near today’s Fiftieth Street, where Greeley was living with his wife and their eight-month-old son. Downtown was two miles away, but a stagecoach on Third Avenue made the trip hourly. Fuller set to work at her new job immediately, writing an appreciative, mildly chilly review of Emerson’s latest book of essays. She decided to sign her Tribune articles with an asterisk. In February 1845, Greeley’s publishing house issued Woman in the Nineteenth Century as part of a series titled Cheerful Books for the People. As he had foreseen, the manifesto turned Fuller into a brand-name intellectual.
“You are right in supposing my signature is the Star,” Fuller wrote to an old friend a few months after she arrived in New York. It was the perfect symbol for her: scholarly, celestial, luminous, and watched by many. She was beginning to shine. In New England, The Dial had brought Fuller two or three hundred readers and the promise of a salary, which never materialized. In the end, finances had forced her to hand the editorship over to Emerson. The New York Tribune, by contrast, was thriving. It was one of the metropolis’s top three newspapers, with a combined circulation of more than 28,000.11 Greeley paid her $500 per year, plus room, board, and review copies. As she explained to her brother soon after taking the job, “I do not have to feel anxious whether the bread and beef can possibly be paid for.” This was a new experience for Fuller, as was the opportunity to guide public opinion. “My associates think my pen does not make too fine a mark to be felt,” she wrote happily to her old friend Ward.
New York offered Fuller two adventures. First, buoyed by her financial autonomy and liberated by the mobility of city life, she began to reexamine her attitude toward sexuality. Second, pushed by newspaper deadlines and pulled by the lure of a wider audience, she began to develop a simpler, more direct writing style. Two newly published collections allow modern readers to follow closely her pursuit of these adventures.
In Margaret Fuller, Critic, Judith Mattson Bean and Joel Myerson have printed a generous selection of Fuller’s Tribune articles, with the complete archive on a CD-ROM tucked into the book’s back cover. Although Bean and Myerson have emphasized her literary criticism, Fuller saw her role at the Tribune more broadly. She reported on the wild hair and gambler’s eyes of a violinist playing a tarantella. She put forward ideal standards of conduct for the rich (be honest, live simply, and host artists) and the poor (no whining). She toured the city’s almshouses, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons, spending Valentine’s Day in the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane and Christmas with the female inmates at Sing-Sing. She advocated treating prisoners with compassion and paying for copyright to English books, and she deplored capital punishment, racism, and prejudice against the Irish.
Unfortunately, even the best journalism rarely ages well. Fuller’s literary criticism is probably more enduring than her social commentary, but it is hard to work up an interest today in assessments of writers as thoroughly forgotten as Lydia H. Sigourney or John Critchley Prince. Worse, although her style improved at the Tribune, Fuller was never able to find a fully convincing voice in print. “Her pen,” Emerson famously remarked, “was a non-conductor.”
Fuller’s publications may not be the most enjoyable place to look for her. Fortunately, for the last two decades, Robert N. Hudspeth has been working to present an alternative: her correspondence. In ‘My Heart Is a Large Kingdom’: Selected Letters of Margaret Fuller, Hudspeth has carved an elegant single volume of letters out of the complete and authoritative six that he has already edited. Hudspeth is a scholar’s scholar: meticulous, unobtrusive, indefatigable. And in ‘My Heart Is a Large Kingdom,‘ he reveals that he also has a novelist’s eye.
The material, perhaps, called it out. The mere facts of Fuller’s life are strikingly romantic. After her stint in New York, Fuller would leave for England and Europe as the Tribune’s foreign correspondent. She would spend the climactic year 1848 in Rome, where she would find love and serve the brief-lived Roman Republic as nurse, propagandist, and uncredentialed diplomat, all the while continuing to write Greeley what she saw. Strapped for money after the republic failed, Fuller would sail home to the United States in 1850, only to drown—with the Marchese Giovanni Ossoli, their one-and-a-half-year-old son, and a manuscript history of the Roman Republic—in a shipwreck just off Fire Island, within sight of shore.
Fuller’s European journalism, collected in 1991 by Larry J. Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith as ‘These Sad but Glorious Days’: Dispatches from Europe, 1846–1850, is her most fluent and affecting published work. Nonetheless, even the dispatches lack the light touch and fineness of focus that marked her private writing from the start. Consider, for example, her teasing of Emerson when he expressed only qualified joy at the birth of a girl to their mutual friends, Ward and Barker. “Why is not the advent of a daughter as ‘sacred’ a fact as that of a son?” Fuller asked. “I do believe, O Waldo, most unteachable of men, that you are at heart a sinner on this point. I entreat you to seek light in prayer upon it.” As a correspondent, it turns out, Fuller could be funny. She could also be consoling, petulant, commanding, heartbroken, and exalted. After her death, Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing collected many of her letters in Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. The editors wanted to share the Fuller they knew with the world, but as they worked, they tidied up Fuller’s style—a sin that later scholars have found hard to forgive, because the men mutilated and destroyed many of the manuscripts after they had used them. Hudspeth has tried valiantly to undo their damage. In ‘My Heart Is a Large Kingdom,‘ to make sure Fuller’s voice emerges undistorted, he has selected only letters where the originals survive.
Despite its faults, Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli was a hit in the nineteenth century. Emerson, Clarke, and Channing quoted from Fuller’s letters and journals liberally, and the book probably succeeded because it gave earlier generations an opportunity to read Fuller with her guard down—which, even after the gentlemen had filtered the prose, was more affecting than Fuller on her guard. Thanks to Hudspeth’s scrupulous edition, it is easier to meet the private Fuller than ever before.
In Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller famously dismissed conventional limits to women’s work with the grandeur of Marie Antoinette: “Let them be sea-captains.” In light of Fuller’s best-known line, it may sound perverse, if not condescending, to argue that as a writer she was more effective in private.
But the argument’s perversity resonates with the broader challenge that Fuller presented to Emerson and to his notion of the intellectual as self-reliant. She questioned the way the intellectual self was defined, as if she sensed that she would not succeed—and women in America would not be free—until the distinctions between public and private, thought and emotion, and autonomy and connection were better understood. These were the issues that she and Emerson fiercely debated in the early 1840s. Whereas Emerson celebrated the mind uncompromised, she championed the richness of human relationships, even when troubled. “To me it seems that it is madder never to abandon oneself, than often to be infatuated,” she argued in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. “Better to be wounded, a captive, and a slave, than always to walk in armor.”
Paradoxically, Fuller today is most often remembered for her armor. Her modern reputation rests on Woman in the Nineteenth Century, but it somewhat misrepresents her. In that book, she chose to meet antifeminists with the standard weapon of the Victorian intellectual, the learned polemic. Unfortunately, while she bludgeoned the enemy with citations from Plato, Xenophon, and Goethe, she became pedantic, and in the heat of battle, she embraced a masculine ideal that elsewhere she resisted: psychic isolation. “Let [woman] put from her the press of other minds,” Fuller recommended, “and meditate in virgin loneliness.”
Uncomfortably for modern readers, Woman in the Nineteenth Century is a paean to chastity. She asks it of men as well as women. It is a temporary, provisional chastity, and she hopes it will eventually yield to an ability in women to enjoy love as men do, without submerging their identities. “Woman, self-centred,” Fuller explains, “would never be absorbed by any relation; it would be only an experience to her as to a man.” Nonetheless, in the interim, she calls for chastity: “We shall not decline celibacy as the great fact of the time.” In 1840, distraught by the marriage of her friends Ward and Barker, Fuller had written of a desire for “nun like dedication,” in a letter that recalled a vigil she had once kept at the deathbed of a girl who had poisoned herself with abortifacients. And in a similar vein, in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller described a veil-taking wistfully, as a “sorrowful story of a lofty beauty.”
By the time Fuller reached Rome, her thinking about celibacy had changed dramatically. When she actually witnessed a veil-taking, her impression was much less romantic. Here is the description in her Tribune dispatch dated December 30, 1847:
Poor thing!… She was…taken behind a grating, her hair cut, and her clothes exchanged for the nun’s vestments; the black-robed sisters who worked upon her, looking like crows or ravens at their ominous feasts. All the while the music played, first sweet and thoughtful, then triumphant strains. …A more terrible responsibility [cannot] be incurred than by him who has persuaded a novice that the snares of the world are less dangerous than the demons of solitude.
In revolutionary Rome, furthermore, Fuller gave herself to love without reservation. Giovanni Angelo Ossoli was a handsome, almost illiterate nobleman ten years her junior. Though he bore the title of marchese, he was a youngest son, with no inheritance to speak of. Fuller and he had a child together in 1848, and in her letters she left it ambiguous when (or whether) she had ever married him. “With Ossoli I liked when no one knew of our relation,” she wrote an English friend in 1850, “and we passed our days together in the mountains, or walked beautiful nights amid the ruins of Rome. But for the child I should have wished to remain as we were, and feared we should lose much by entering on the jog-trot of domestic life.” The equanimity of the phrase “but for the child” is arresting. Fuller is all but declaring that pregnancy interrupted her guiltless enjoyment of a sexual romance. How did the woman who had declared celibacy to be the “great fact of the time” come so far?
There is a strange non sequitur in the middle of Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, the book she wrote after visiting the West. In his biography of Fuller, Thomas Wentworth Higginson blamed it on her tendency to wander away from the subject: “To insert boldly, in the middle of her book of travels, forty pages about Kerner’s ‘Seeress of Prevorst,’ which she had read in Milwaukee,—this showed the waywardness of a student and talker, rather than the good judgment which she ought to have gained in editing even the most ideal of magazines.”
It was somewhat more wayward than that. The Seeress of Prevorst was a book about Friederike Hauffe, a German girl who became depressed after an arranged marriage at age nineteen and spent the next seven years drifting in and out of a trancelike state, during which she prophesied, left her body, uttered poetry, saw dead people (in particular a local preacher she had known), and was exquisitely sensitive to the “magnetic influences” radiating from humans, gems, plants, and written words. Fuller presented Hauffe’s case with a mix of credulity and insight. She approved of the behavior of Hauffe’s doctor, who colluded with his patient so deeply that when Hauffe designed a machine that administered magnetic infusions, he built it and treated her with it. But Fuller found psychological explanations for many of the young woman’s supernatural symptoms. She believed that the ghosts Hauffe saw were “projections of herself into objective reality” and represented “opportunities for better life” that the young woman had not taken.
To Fuller, the force that paralyzed unhappy German girls like Hauffe seemed related to the suspicion of hidden strength that drove restless ordinary people to the frontier. She believed in animal magnetism—she believed, that is, that human beings could share a kind of energy, associated with the soul, that conventional medical science did not take into account. She would never convince Emerson, but it would have been un-Transcendental for her to mistrust her intuition. She kept her judgment suspended, therefore, while signaling, in footnotes and asides, that the phenomena of animal magnetism might well turn out to be spiritual facts rather than empirical ones.
Half a century before Freud collaborated with Breuer, Fuller knew she did not fully understand magnetism. But in New York, she went for daily treatments nonetheless. In his downtown office, the mesmerist Theodore Leger pointed his trembling fingers at the base of her spine and moved up to her neck. Each session lasted twenty minutes. “Nothing wonderful happens to me,” Fuller reported. “I have no sleep, no trance, but seem to receive daily accessions of strength from this insouciant robust Frenchman, and his local action on the distended bones is obvious.” To call it “nothing wonderful” was understatement. According to a friend, the treatment straightened Fuller’s spine. She grew three inches, became able to walk long distances, and threw away her horsehair shoulder pad.
In any event, in New York, new energies were flowing through her, and new attentions playing over her. Maybe, she thought, magnetism was the name for the force inside that had long tortured her with headaches and exhaustion and was now, at last, emerging. “The electrical, the magnetic element in woman has not been fairly brought out at any period,” she explained in Woman in the Nineteenth Century. “Every thing might be expected from it.” Today we would probably say that Fuller was describing sexual energy. She might have found the label too limiting, but it was while she was undergoing magnetic treatments that Fuller began to reconsider the virtue of chastity in her own case. In February, the same month Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published, a blue-eyed, Jewish businessman named James Nathan began to court her.
Fuller was an independent woman in Manhattan, but she lived with her employer, and so it was sensible and convenient for her to suggest that Nathan pick her up at Dr. Leger’s some morning. That way they would be able to take a walk together unchaperoned, though safely in public. But her suggestion was somewhat provocative, too. As a point of rendezvous, the modern equivalent for a mesmerist’s office probably lies somewhere between a psychotherapist’s and a chiropractor’s. It was also suggestive, as well as a little fanciful, for Fuller to sign one of her first notes to Nathan with the asterisk she used in the Tribune. It was to the new star, after all, that the man had doubtless been attracted.
While in Chicago, on the visit that she described in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, Fuller rather impudently told Emerson which aspects of Massachusetts she was not homesick for. “I like not the petty intellectualities, cant, and bloodless theory there at home,” she wrote. And the longer she stayed away, the more certain she was that she did not miss it. In her Tribune dispatches from Italy, when she wanted to explain why she disliked Florence, she felt it was sufficient to say that the city reminded her of Boston.
Fuller’s escape was not easy, however. New York newspapers do not run on the same principles that govern New England quarterlies. To succeed in Manhattan, Fuller had to alter or abandon the intellectual ethos of difficulty and thoroughness that she shared with Emerson and that she had learned at her father’s knee. She resisted. Even at the end of her life and newspaper career, she was capable of nearly unparsable English, the kind that only people who were reading Latin at age six can produce. (Even in her European dispatches she could write, “I have not personally received anything from La Mennais, as, born under other circumstances, mental facts to which he, once the pupil of Rome, has passed through such ordeals, are at the basis of all my thoughts.”) In what was for him a charitable mood, the rival critic Edgar A. Poe wrote of her contorted grammar that a generous reader might “be willing to attribute her slovenliness to disregard of the shell in anxiety for the kernel.”
But it was the slowness of her pace that upset her employer. After her death, Horace Greeley attributed his impatience to his own training as an “inveterate hack-horse of the daily press”: “…While I realized that her contributions evinced rare intellectual wealth and force, I did not value them as I should have done had they been written more fluently and promptly.”
Fuller was encumbered—as competitors like Poe, Rufus Griswold, and Lydia Maria Child were not—by a scholarly reputation. Greeley thought she maneuvered her weight rather well, considering; he compared her critical intelligence, in its combination of power and delicacy, to an elephant’s trunk, which could crush a tree or dandle an egg. But Fuller was aware of the risks she ran. In a review of the English poet Thomas Hood, she touched on them: “Hood never became corrupted into a hack writer…. He never wrote when he had nothing to say, he stopped when he had done, and never hashed for a second meal old thoughts which had been drained of their choicest juices.”
Did Fuller herself become corrupted in any serious way? Book reviewing then was lively but not high-principled; backs were scratched or tomahawked, and merit did not always decide which. In 1855, Fuller’s successor at the Tribune, George Ripley, would be exposed as a salaried “publisher’s reader” for Harpers, in a conflict-of-interest scandal that transformed the profession.12 To her credit, Fuller appears to have been studiedly impartial. In her inaugural review, she praised Emerson’s Essays: Second Series, but she also charged him with obscurity, euphuism, and emotional underdevelopment. When she handled a treatise by Dr. Leger, her mesmerist, or a translation by Samuel Gray Ward, whom she had once been in love with, she limited herself to brief announcements rather than full essays. She pleased Poe by agreeing that his enemy Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was derivative (“It is his misfortune that other men’s thoughts are so continually in his head as to overshadow his own”), but then she slighted Poe by omitting him from her canon of great American writers.
Fuller did make compromises. She wrote a dismissive squib of Sylvester Judd’s novel Margaret (“those who have patience to wade in the pond may reach water-lilies”) and apologized later, after she had read the book and liked it, with the excuse that “at the time of that notice we had only looked into it here and there.”
But compared to her peers, Fuller was highly conscientious. The problem with her reviews lies elsewhere. Reading them in Bean and Myerson’s collection, one senses a dammed force, only occasionally sluiced. Within her there was probably enough savagery to fuel a dozen critics. “She had the courage and the skill to cut heads off which were not worn with honor in her presence,” Emerson once remarked. But at the Tribune she usually held herself in check. “We joined the gentle Affirmative School” of criticism, she asserted, to distinguish herself from the acerbic Poe. Now and then, however, she could be sharp. On Carlyle in one of his reactionary moods: “If he has become interested in Oliver [Cromwell] or any other pet hyena, by studying his habits, is that any reason we should admit him to our Pantheon? No!” On a German writer’s slavery-defending survey of the United States: “In conclusion, we confess that we cordially hate this book, as we do all judicious, dull, gentlemanly, un-ideaed, well-informed, kind, cool persons, and all that emanates from them.” One wishes she had loosed her talons more often.
When Fuller became a newspaper reviewer, she became ephemeral, as Emerson never could have. But then her idea of literature had always been less hermetic than his. When her old friend James F. Clarke wrote to congratulate her on her new position, she tried to explain:
I was pleased with your sympathy about The Tribune; I do not find much among my old friends. They think I ought to produce something excellent, while I am well content for the present to aid in the great work of mutual education in this way. I never regarded literature merely as a collection of exquisite products, but as a means of mutual interpretation.
For Fuller, literature was always less a matter of form than of spirit. When people shared a text, she believed, their sympathies became harmonized. She came by the belief naturally. When she was a baby, her father, serving in Congress, proposed that for an hour every Sunday he would read in Washington the same Bible verses that his wife was reading in Massachusetts, in order to synchronize their hearts. As a girl with a crush, Margaret repeated her father’s experiment using an absent friend’s copy of a Sir Walter Scott novel, which she read “with the feeling of continuing our mutual existence by passing my eyes over the same page where hers had been.”
Her faith that spirits met in literature distinguished her from Emerson entrepreneurially as well as philosophically. Both she and he had pioneered new ways for intellectuals to earn a living in America. He had perfected the lyceum speech: a man instructing and impressing an audience, by delivering “not so much lectures as grave didactic poems,” in Fuller’s description. She, on the other hand, had found an income during the 1830s leading seminars for upper-middle-class women in Boston, which she organized by a very different rule: “I do not wish any one to join who does not intend, if possible, to take an active part,” she stipulated. Both were cashing in on a new appetite for self-improvement in America. But Emerson’s lectures were solo performances that led naturally to essays, and Fuller’s “Conversations” were collaborative, and therefore evanescent. Some unrevealing transcripts survive, but their true merit could only have been collected in the memories of her disciples.
“Every kind of power is admirable, and indefinitely useful,” Fuller wrote in an essay on Sir James Mackintosh; “if a man be born to talk, and can be satisfied to bring out his thoughts in conversation only or chiefly, let him.” But if we do let him, what kind of literary legacy will he leave? And if the spirit of literature can also take the form of conversation, might there be a way to experience it even more immediately?
“To wait, to wait, but not to wait too long,” runs a line in one of Fuller’s poems, written in the persona of a lonely Ganymede hoping for the return of Jove’s eagle. The verse brings to mind the warnings over the iron doors in The Faerie Queen: “Be bold, be bold” and “Be not too bold.” When Fuller fell for a man, she had a habit of destroying any polite defenses he tried to mount against her. (“I do not understand why you do not seek me more,” she wrote a young sculptor in Rome. “I can always find time to see any one I wish to; it seems to me it is the same with every one.”)
Her impetuosity had frightened New England men, but it did not frighten James Nathan. He hinted that he had “deep wants” of his own that he feared no woman would be willing to share. She was happy to hear of his discontent, even though it pained him, because she anticipated the pleasure of sharing his confidence. She urged him not to shy away from difficult emotions. “I think it is great sin even to dream of wishing for less thought, less feeling than one has,” she wrote.
Nathan would sorely test Fuller’s faith in that advice. He kept a mistress. When Fuller discovered it, he claimed that he was trying to rehabilitate a fallen woman. When she accepted this unlikely explanation, he made a sexual overture to Fuller herself. Suddenly Fuller faced what New England reserve had insulated her from. Yet where another woman might have fled, Fuller responded with candor and, if anything, deeper feeling. Her letter to Nathan explaining her disappointment is remarkable. She begins by comparing her mental idea of him to a “sweet little garden,” now desecrated. “In that garden must be amaranths flowers ‘not born to die.’ One of these should be a perfect understanding between us, and as ‘spirit identity,’ on which you relied, did not produce this, we will try words.”
This is nicely dry—a dose of salt applied to the slug that has crawled into her flowerbed. On her own and for herself, she has discovered a limit. Emotions do need to be put into language; intellect must balance magnetism. She does not retreat into convention, however. She makes it clear to Nathan that she will not yield her person, but she neither disavows her own arousal nor stigmatizes his sexual appetite. “When you approached me so nearly, I was exceedingly agitated, partly because your personality has a powerful magnetic effect on me, partly because I had always attached importance to such an act.” Not everyone attached the same importance to it that she did, she was beginning to realize. (A year earlier, she had queried a friend who worked in a women’s prison about prostitutes’ attitudes toward chastity: “Do they see any reality in it; or look on it merely as a circumstance of condition, like the possession of fine clothes?”)
She did not end the relationship and she did not consummate it; she let Nathan break her heart. She wanted someone who saw “‘the dame’ in me” as well as the bluestocking, and she was reluctant to let go of her desire. After Nathan gave her his Newfoundland puppy and a white veil, he left for England with his mistress. In a transatlantic love letter, she confessed to him, “I dont know that any words from your mouth gave me more pleasure, a strange kind of pleasure, than these, ‘You must be a fool, little girl.'” Not until she learned he was engaged to be married did she fall out of love.
It is possible that Fuller’s vulnerability was something she had worked to achieve. After all, in raising the question How can a woman be an intellectual?, Fuller was also asking another one, relevant to either gender: How can an intellectual be true to herself, including her sexual nature, when the unfolding of that nature will invite others to share, alter, and perhaps compromise her life? In New York, confronted with Nathan’s lack of inhibition and her own desire for him, Fuller began to be dissatisfied with her old answer, celibacy. When she reached Paris in 1847, the poet and Polish nationalist Adam Mickiewicz would counsel her bluntly: “The first step in your deliverance…is to know, whether you are permitted to remain a virgin.” Finally, with Ossoli, she decided to risk hurt, to both her feelings and her reputation.
It must have encouraged her that Rome, too, was then liberating itself. Even to a Protestant, it would have been impressive to live in the Holy City after its pope had fled, when history seemed to be ratifying reformers’ prophesies and proving that there could be no worldly authority over spiritual matters, that no sociopolitical order was divine. But the Roman Republic fell. “The next revolution, here and elsewhere, will be radical,” Fuller wrote in the Tribune. In the meantime, however, she felt obliged to return to America to earn a living, hoping to sell her history of the revolution. Unfortunately, rumors of sexual impropriety preceded her across the Atlantic. “For bad or for good I acted out my character,” Fuller warned her sister, before she embarked on the trip home.
What would America have made of a woman who had chosen her husband for his beauty and kindness, rather than for his mind and earning power, and who was not abashed to say it, or to say, unprompted, that if he were to fall out of love with her, she would “do all that this false state of society permits to give him what freedom he may need”? Since she and her new family drowned before reaching New York, it is impossible to say. But if she had survived, she would have lived as a star in a very modern sense of the word: someone whose achievements are only the beginning of our interest in her, who lives her life as a public experiment, with considered disregard for conventions and with raw and unpredictable results, and who represents our interest in a question—like the question of self-reliance versus connection—with no final answer.
May 23, 2002
Charles T. Congdon, Reminiscences of a Journalist, quoted in Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller 1845–1846 (Appleton, 1903), p. 224. ↩
Margaret Fuller, “Autobiographical Romance,” in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Larry J. Reynolds (Norton, 1998), pp. 145–146. ↩
Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), p. 26. ↩
Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1852), Vol. 1, pp. 201–202. ↩
Margaret Fuller, Papers on Literature and Art (London: Wiley and Putnam, 1846), Vol. 1, p. 76. ↩
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Margaret Fuller Ossoli (Houghton Mifflin, 1884), p. 117.Metropolitan Museum of Art/Schlesinger Library, Harvard University ↩
Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Vol. 2, p. 40. ↩
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Editors to the Reader,” in Transcendentalism: A Reader, edited by Joel Myerson (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 293. ↩
The Letters of Margaret Fuller, edited by Robert N. Hudspeth (Cornell University Press, 1984), Vol. 3, p. 92. ↩
Margaret Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (University of Illinois Press, 1991), p. 31. ↩
Catherine C. Mitchell, Margaret Fuller’s New York Journalism (University of Tennessee Press, 1995), p. 9. ↩
William Charvat, The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800–1870 (Ohio State University Press, 1968), p. 183. ↩