In a letter to James Freeman Clarke in 1833 Margaret Fuller declared, “All biographies…make me sick at heart and make it hard to realize that there is a Heaven.” Our age shows no such distaste. We clamor for biographies, believing that the lives of our thinkers, statesmen, artists, and scientists hold the secret to their contributions to culture. In this we are deluded. The aspirations that lie behind a person’s achievements transcend the sum of days that makes up a life. Judged by its inner incentive, every life is a failure.
Ever since Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Channing, and James Freeman Clarke published Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli—an instant best seller when it came out in 1852—Fuller’s life and personality have received far more attention than her work. The two books under review come on the heels of several other biographies of Fuller published in the past two decades, among them the two-volume opus by Charles Capper (1992, 2007), as well as the sterling biographies of Meg McGavran Murray, Joan von Mehren, Bell Gale Chevigny, and numerous earlier ones as well. Add to this mix the recent semi-biographical novel by April Bernard, Miss Fuller (2012), and we now have a huge surplus of riches to choose from if we want to make ourselves sick at heart over Margaret Fuller’s fate.
In The Lives of Margaret Fuller—a worthy successor to his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father—John Matteson speaks for most of her biographers when he declares that “Margaret Fuller’s life was her most remarkable creation.” Megan Marshall, author of the lively triple biography The Peabody Sisters (2005), writes that Fuller’s published books “were hybrids of personal observation, extracts from letters and diaries, confessional poetry.” The absence of a clear line of demarcation between Fuller’s private and public life inspired Marshall “to write the full story—operatic in its emotional pitch, global in its dimensions.” Whether or not one shares the view that Fuller’s life and work are inseparable, it’s hard to imagine someone beginning a book or a course on her the way Martin Heidegger reportedly began a seminar on Aristotle: “Aristotle was born, he worked, and he died. Now let’s move on to his thought.”
With the same baritone eloquence that informs the rest of his excellent book, John Matteson opens his prologue with a synopsis of Fuller’s major achievements and the role her death played in our nation’s memory of her. It is worth quoting at length:
Margaret Fuller was, in her time, the best-read woman in America and the one most renowned for her intelligence. She was the leading female figure in the New England movement known as transcendentalism. She edited the first avant-garde intellectual magazine in America [The Dial]. She was the first regular foreign correspondent, male or female, for an American newspaper. As a literary critic, she was rivaled in her era only by Edgar Allan Poe. Three years before the convention that is usually regarded as the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States, she wrote a groundbreaking book demanding legal equality for women [Woman in the Nineteenth Century]. And yet, if the ordinary person today knows only one thing about Margaret Fuller, that particle of knowledge is likely not to concern any of her achievements, but how her life came to an end.
At the age of forty, having spent almost three and a half years in Europe as a foreign correspondent for the New-York Tribune, Fuller sailed back to America to begin a new life with the husband she had met in Rome, Marchese Giovanni Ossoli, and their young son, Angelino. That new life never began. On July 19, 1850, within sight of land, the ship on which the Ossolis were traveling struck a sandbar off the coast of Fire Island, New York, and, in the midst of a fierce and unseasonable hurricane, broke apart and sank. Though most of the people on board managed to reach the shore alive, none of the Ossolis survived.
This was how Margaret Fuller became ingrained in our history: not as the sparkling conversationalist enlivening Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study or the bookstores of Boston with her wit and erudition; not as the impromptu military nurse giving aid and encouragement to freedom fighters who had fallen in the streets of Rome defending their new republic; not even as the accomplished and dedicated scholar churning out a stunning body of literary criticism and social commentary; but as a forlorn and exhausted figure beside a broken mast, her hands on her knees, clad only in a soaked-through nightgown, soon to feel the wave that would thrust her overboard and into eternity.
Fuller’s sudden death brought to an end the ongoing evolution of her female persona, for which there existed no blueprints at the time. Fuller single-handedly expanded the frontiers of American female identity in the nineteenth century and succeeded, against enormous odds, in becoming a new kind of woman in a world that had precious little room for women in the public sphere. The twentieth century never caught up with her vision.
Margaret Fuller became the best-read woman in America thanks in part to the exacting tutelage of her father Timothy Fuller, who taught his daughter to read and write in her fourth year and began training her in Latin shortly thereafter. Throughout her youth she remained fiercely committed to improving her education, teaching herself French, German, and Italian, and immersing herself in the classics, which provided the basis for all her future thought. She later came to feel that her precocious studies robbed her of a good deal of what she called life:
I do wish that I had read no books at all till later,—that I had lived with toys, and played in the open air. Children should not cull the fruits of reflection and observation early, but expand in the sun, and let thoughts come to them. They should not through books antedate their actual experiences, but should take them gradually, as sympathy and interpretation are needed. With me, much of life was devoured in the bud.
Had she been a man, she almost certainly would have attended Harvard (whose library she was the first woman to receive permission to use) and perhaps have improved her writing skills, rather than struggling on her own to put thoughts into words. Emerson overstated the case when he asserted that Fuller’s pen was “a non-conductor”—certain passages in her written work soar as high as any transcendentalist—yet Fuller herself acknowledged in her journal: “I will write well yet; but never, I think, so well as I talk.”
To say that she talked well understates the case. By all reports Fuller’s spoken word was magnetic and inspirational. Emerson wrote in his journals about her “silver eloquence, which inmost Polymnia taught.” In the classroom she enthralled her students. Many of them, both at the Temple School in Boston, where she taught for a year in 1836, and at the Greene Street School in Providence, where she taught from 1837 to 1839, went on to become teachers themselves, inspired by her advocacy of women’s education. From 1839 until 1844 Fuller led a series of famous “Conversations” for women in Boston. Adopting the Socratic method, she electrified the participants, delving freely into literature, mythology, art, history, and philosophy.
Fuller’s biographers provide substantial anecdotal evidence to back up James Freeman Clarke’s claim that Fuller had a singular ability to instill in other people an awareness of the unique potential for growth they harbored within themselves, and to urge them with her words and personal love to bring that inner greatness out into the world. She was midwife to many souls.
Megan Marshall’s “empathetic” biography of Fuller analyzes with special insight the subterranean tensions that marked Fuller’s friendship with Emerson. There is no question that he admired her greatly—he wrote of her that he “could remember no superior women, but thought of Ceres, Minerva, Proserpine, and the august ideal forms of the Foreworld”—just as there is no doubting her personal and intellectual allegiance to him, despite her frustrations with his emotional withholding and inability to give of himself freely. Committed and grateful to Emerson, Fuller worked tirelessly as the editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial, the most original and free-spirited journal of its time. From 1840 to 1843, she contributed some of its most interesting pieces, including an article she later expanded into the book that became the cornerstone of her intellectual legacy, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
There is considerable debate about whether Margaret Fuller was in fact a transcendentalist. Matteson claims that transcendentalism was pertinent to only one stage of her evolution. Marshall is neutral on the issue. This reviewer believes that Margaret Fuller was a sui generis transcendentalist for most of her adult life, and that a distinctly transcendentalist doctrine underlies her lifelong advocacy of self-cultivation as well as her later advocacy of women’s rights, social reform, and the 1848 revolutions in Europe.
Consider the title of the article that subsequently became Woman in the Nineteenth Century: “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women.” In her preface to the published book, Fuller wrote:
I meant, by that title, to intimate the fact that, while it is the destiny of Man, in the course of the Ages, to ascertain and fulfil the law of his being, so that his life shall be seen, as a whole, to be that of an angel or messenger, the action of prejudices and passions…is continually obstructing the holy work that is to make the earth a part of heaven.
“Heaven” here means something along the lines of what Emerson, describing the Over-Soul, called “that Unity…within which every man’s particular being is contained.” Fuller had declared in one of her Conversations that we reach heaven by transcending the “painful sense of the inadequacy of our nature,” to the point “that there would be no above or below…but a sense of the fulness of being.” Elizabeth Peabody, who hosted Fuller’s Conversations in the West Street Bookstore at her home in Boston, noted what Fuller went on to affirm on that occasion:
Miss Fuller said…that in the possibilities of her being was the loss of all imperfection—& [that] the attainment of a divine nature was the faith that reconciled her to this human nature as the pedestal of that divine nature—Only in this view of human nature (as the pedestal of a divine) could she tolerate it all.
Virtually all of the New England transcendentalists bought into William Ellery Channing’s gospel of “self-culture.” Channing preached that if an individual “does what he can to unfold all his powers and capacities, especially his nobler ones…[he] practices self-culture.” Fuller was no exception. As her friend James Freeman Clarke observed, her lifelong “aim, from first to last, was SELF-CULTURE.” Yet while most other transcendentalists kept their focus on individual spiritual growth, Fuller came to understand self-culture more expansively, as the gradual self-perfection and divinization of all humanity. For Fuller, the “self” in self-culture was at once individual and collective, spiritual and social, historical and transcendental.
Hence the difference between “Man” and “Men” in her title. “Man” stands for the luminous ideal—that transcendent “fulness of being”—which history, when it heeds its higher calling, strives to realize here on earth through the self-culture of humanity as a whole. This Man is neither male nor female, but a union of the inner essence of both genders: “by Man I mean both man and woman: these are the two halves of one thought…twin exponents of a divine thought.”
Fuller grounds her impassioned plea for social, economic, and legal equality for women on this exalted philosophical premise. Time and again in Woman in the Nineteenth Century she asserts that while men may lord over women in the defective world of empirical reality, Man and Woman figure as equals in their metaphysical essence, precisely because they are two halves of one thought. By subjugating women, men subjugate a part of themselves and thereby obstruct their own personal, as well as humankind’s general, aspiration to God. According to Fuller’s transcendental principle, where women are shackled men cannot be free: “Oh wretched men, your sin is your own punishment! You have lost the world in losing yourselves.”
The fundamental truth about the inner spiritual kinship of the sexes has been long obscured, claimed Fuller, because man “misunderstood and abused his natural advantages,” becoming woman’s “temporal master” rather than her “spiritual sire.” “He educated woman more as a servant than a daughter,” she writes, “and found himself a king without a queen.” (Fuller could easily have authored the Jimi Hendrix verse, “Somewhere a queen is weeping, somewhere a king has no wife.”) Fuller argued that, despite its obfuscation, the deeper unity of the sexes allows itself to be glimpsed both in art and in instances of pure love. Woman in the Nineteenth Century marshals a prodigious quantity of examples—historical, literary, and mythological—to boost Fuller’s claim that men “especially share and need the feminine principle” and that “divine birds need to be brooded into life and song by mothers.”
Women have always been “taught to learn their rule from without,” yet the time has come “to unfold it from within.” Fuller puts it best at the end of her book:
I have urged upon the [female] sex self-subsistence in its two forms of self-reliance and self- impulse, because I believe them to be the needed means of the present juncture.
I have urged on woman independence of man, not that I do not think the sexes mutually needed by one another, but because in woman this fact has led to an excessive devotion, which has cooled love, degraded marriage, and prevented either sex from being what it should be to itself or the other.
I wish woman to live, first for God’s sake. Then she will not make an imperfect man her god, and thus sink to idolatry….
By being more a soul, she will not be less a woman, for nature is perfected through spirit.
Fuller’s metaphysics of the sexes calls for two remarks. First, securing equal rights for women in the domestic, social, and political spheres was not, for Fuller, an end unto itself. The end was spiritual and transcendental. She understood equal rights as merely preconditions for female autonomy, putting women in a position to begin to “unfold from within” their self-cultivation (humanistic education being the main means of such cultivation, for Fuller). She cared less about what they might choose to do with their freedom—“Let them be sea-captains, if you will”—and more about how they might transmute their freedom into spirit. In short, the question of “whether we should live like baboons or like men,” to speak with Thoreau, would not be answered by the attainment of rights. With full rights one can still live like a baboon.
The second remark is that we are woefully deceived if we believe that Woman in the Nineteenth Century has lost its historical pertinence. What Fuller wrote over a century and a half ago about female bondage still holds true today for the vast majority of women around the world. Indeed, there is every reason to expect that the twenty-first century will explode into a series of aggravated wars over women’s servitude to their brothers, husbands, fathers, pimps, and paymasters. The men who would fight to perpetuate such servitude would do well to take stock of Fuller’s admonishment—“Your sin is your own punishment!” Woman in the Nineteenth Century contains a basic truth that continues to get obscured, namely that societies that stifle women’s freedoms make men sick and miserable.
In 1846 Fuller left for Europe as the first foreign correspondent for an American newspaper, traveling to England, France, and Italy. She met many luminaries along the way (Carlyle, Wordsworth, and George Sand, among others), yet none impressed her more than the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, “by far the most beauteous person I have seen…one in whom holiness has purified, but nowhere dwarfed the man.” She would later devote herself wholeheartedly to Mazzini’s cause in Italy.
Since a young age Fuller had felt a special kinship with Italy, teaching herself Italian so she could read Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso. When she arrived there in 1847, she wrote: “Italy receives me as a long lost child and I feel myself at home here.” She spent the last three years of her life mostly in Rome, which she had idealized in her “Autobiographical Romance,” declaring, “In vain for me are men more, if they are less, than Romans.” Rome did not disappoint her. When she arrived there in person, the city took her in as one of its own. Her memorial plaque in Cambridge, erected after her death, puts it well: “By birth a child of New England; by adoption a citizen of Rome; by genius belonging to the world.”
Matteson and Marshall choose to emphasize different aspects of Fuller’s life in Rome, yet both provide vivid, in-depth accounts of those thrilling and tumultuous years. It was there that Fuller met Giovanni Ossoli, an Italian Marchese ten years her junior, whom she married after giving birth to their child in 1848. It was there that she took charge of an entire hospital, tending the wounds of those who, like her husband, fought in the streets on behalf of the republican cause. It was there that she wrote her finest articles for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. And it was there, as French troops laid siege to Rome, that she saw for herself how mercilessly just causes can be crushed.
In her dispatches from Europe, a full-throated Fuller exhorted her readers back home to support the popular uprisings that swept through much of Europe in 1848. With the same romantic idealism she had brought to her advocacy for women’s rights and prison reform, she enlarged the idea of America, insisting that the United States was but an imperfect approximation of that idea. The great moral law that underlies the founding of the American republic, namely freedom and equality for all, applies to all nations, or so she claimed as she urged her readers to recognize in the events of 1848 an American battle being fought across the Atlantic. As the scholar Bell Gale Chevigny wrote, Fuller hoped to “repatriate the American project” by showing that “the essence of America is to be found in Europe.”1 Few of her countrymen, to say the least, responded to the appeal.
The shipwreck that caused Margaret Fuller and her family to perish a few hundred yards off the shore of Fire Island was a tragic event. Her body was never found, nor was the manuscript of her book on the Italian revolution, which by all reports would have turned into her magnus opus. According to the ship’s cook, Fuller’s final words were: “I see nothing but death before me,—I shall never reach the shore.”
In his Four Quartets T.S. Eliot wrote that “What might have been is an abstraction/Remaining a perpetual possibility/Only in a world of speculation.” While this is true, two things seem fairly certain. Had this absurd misfortune not brought her life to an abrupt end, Fuller’s self-culture would have taken many original new forms. By the same token—and this is the second certainty—she would have seen up-close how provincial, prejudiced, and petty some of her fellow New Englanders could be. Many could not countenance the fact that she had married an Italian Catholic, or that as a woman she had presumed to defy convention, make her voice heard, and hector her countrymen in print. In her novel Miss Fuller, April Bernard gets it exactly right that, at the news of the wreck, “there had been an unspoken shadowy satisfaction” among some of Fuller’s friends back home.2 “It was the feeling that this had ‘served her right.’”
Even Fuller’s bosom friend Sophia Peabody confessed, “I am really glad [Margaret] died,” since she would have found no “peace or rest” back in America, having married a “person so wanting in force and availability.” Sophia confided in her sister Mary, “I hate reform-women…. I think it is designed by GOD that woman should always spiritually wear a veil, & not a coat & hat.” Earlier, when Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published, Sophia remarked that, unless “she were truly married,” Margaret had no business pontificating about marriage.
As for Sophia Peabody’s husband, Nathaniel Hawthorne, he wrote that it was Providence that had put Fuller on that damned ship, to save her from further ridicule. This from the same person who, while Fuller was alive, professed great friendship and admiration for her, but who, after her death, wrote for the record that she had a “strong, heavy, unpliable, and in many respects, defective and evil nature.” It seems that he could not forgive Fuller for not being more like his beloved wife.
Hawthorne will no doubt remain an interesting relic of his age and live on in the provincial gloom of English departments. Yet Margaret Fuller is far more than a relic. It can be said of her today what she herself had said of Giuseppe Mazzini, that he was “a man to whom only the next age can do justice, as it reaps the harvest of the seed he has sown in this.” There is still much harvest to reap from the seeds Margaret Fuller has sown.