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
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