Yesterday was the 201st birthday of Margaret Fuller (1810-1850). If you’ve never heard of Margaret Fuller, you are not alone. Although she hung out with the likes of Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fuller seems to have slipped through the cracks compared to 19th century feminists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Victoria Woodhull. Yet in her forty years on the planet, Fuller managed to accomplish a lot.
Just take a gander at just a few of her firsts (from the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial Site):
• First American to write a book about equality for women, Woman in the 19th century (1845).
• First woman foreign correspondent and first woman war correspondent to serve under combat conditions, covering the revolutions of 1849.
• First woman journalist for Horace Greeley's New-York Tribune, and first woman literary editor of a major American newspaper
• First editor of the Dial, the Transcendentalist journal, making her the first woman in America to edit an intellectual publication (She was supposed to be paid $200 a year but was never paid.)
• First woman literary critic who also set literary standards for American writers
• First woman to enter the Harvard College library to pursue research
• First translated Goethe in English, championing the author as more than just a depraved European.
You could also make a case that Margaret was America’s first truly liberated female. What Mary Wollstonecraft was to the 18th century, Margaret was to the 19th. There are so many parallels between the two women, it’s uncanny. They were both schoolteachers, journalists; both fell in love with inappropriate men, and both died way too young. They even had their reputations damaged by well-meaning friends who wrote books about them. In Mary’s case, it was her husband William Godwin. In Margaret’s case it was her good friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson who decided while editing her memoirs to turn her into precisely what she was not. Instead of the warm, vibrant personality, he turned her into a snobbish, egotistical, dried up spinster.
Although Margaret loved learning, she paid a high price. Her education set her apart from girls her own age, and scared off the boys. She began walking in her sleep, suffered from migraines, and had nightmares. The doors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton were closed to her and there were no women’s colleges for Margaret to continue her education. She managed to put her education to good use after her father died. Margaret assumed responsibility for her family, going to work as a teacher, first for Bronson Alcott and then for a progressive school in Providence, RI. She soon gave up teaching to lecture, or what she called ‘Conversations.” Margaret intended these meetings to compensate for the lack of education for women. She talked about everything from Greek mythology to the Bible to history, fine arts and literature. Soon she was widely known, not just among women, but also amongst the intelligentsia of New England. Fuller was not only a brilliant talker, but opinionated, witty and erudite. She was declared to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.” She certainly didn’t lack for self-esteem!
Hawthorne, on the other hand, couldn’t stand her, but then he had a problem with strong women. He thought she was too aggressive, overly clever, and improperly frank when it came to sex. Also she was more famous than he was. She wasn’t delicately pretty and wan, the feminine ideal at that time. Margaret wasn’t interested in fashion, she wore her hair severely pulled back in a bun, her nose was too long, her mouth too wide, her chin too firm for real beauty. But looking at the lone photograph of her, she was striking; no doubt the force of her personality overcame whatever defects were thought of about her looks. Still she inspired Hawthorne to immortalize her as Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance. She also managed to tick off not Henry Wadsworth Longfellow but also James Lowell and Emerson when she later reviewed their work in The New York Tribune.
Despite her many friends, Fuller longed for romance, whether it was with a man or a woman didn’t matter. In her journal, she wrote, “It is so true that a woman may be in love with a woman and a man with a man.” That’s a pretty amazing realization, given the times. She had many passionate friendships over the years, but none of them led to marriage, at least not to her. Two of her inamoratas, Samuel Ward and Anna Barker fell in love and were married. She fell madly in love with a German Jewish banker, James Nathan, who she’d met in New York but he fled back to his native country to escape her. She was, too put it bluntly, too passionate, too intense for most people. She seemed not to have an off button, exciting yes, but a tad tiring. Still, she was always magnanimous when a relationship ended.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, Margaret headed off to Europe in 1846, fulfilling a long cherished dream. In Europe, she met many of the literary celebrities of the day, including George Sand, Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle. But it was Italy, in the midst of a revolution, that Margaret finally found her soul-mate. He was not an intellectual like Emerson, although he was well educated, but an impoverished Italian nobleman eleven years her junior named Count Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. Ossoli loved her, adored her, and wanted to marry her. Although she tried to resist him, Margaret soon gave into her feelings, moving in with him in Florence. Before long she was pregnant, giving birth to a son they named Angelo in 1848. While Ossoli fought in the revolution, Margaret volunteered at a nearby hospital. .Despite her pregnancy, she refused to marry him for many reasons, their different religions, the age difference. The news of their liaison shocked everyone in New England literary circles, and caused Greeley to drop her contract with The New YorkTribune. Although Emerson claimed they were married in 1847, no one knows for sure if they were ever any formal ceremony.
Penniless, the little family decided to leave Italy and return to the United States. Unfortunately Margaret’s life was cut short in July of 1850. The ship she was traveling on with her family, The Elizabeth, ran aground near Fire Island off the coast of Long Island. Margaret, her husband, and son were all lost along with her new book on the Italian revolutions. When Margaret had the chance to save herself, she refused to leave her husband and son. Incredibly, people showed up on the beach with carts hoping to find any cargo that washed ashore, but they made no effort to help the passengers or the crew of the ship. Henry David Thoreau traveled to New York, to search for the bodies but neither Fuller's body nor Ossoli's was ever recovered; only their little son Angelino was washed ashore. Nothing was discovered apart from a trunk containing Margaret and Ossoli's love letters.
A memorial to Fuller was erected on the beach at Fire Island in 1901 through the efforts of Julia Ward Howe. A cenotaph to Fuller and Ossoli, under which their little son is buried, is in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The inscription reads, in part:
By birth a child of New England
By adoption a citizen of Rome
By genius belonging to the world
Despite admirers such as Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Emerson and later Henry James, by the end of the 19th century, Margaret Fuller had been all but forgotten. Even the paper she worked for, The Tribune, said in its obituary that her works had few great sentiments. It would take the dawning of the 20th century, and feminist writers discovering her legacy to bring her name back into consciousness. While several biographies have been written about Margaret, most of them have tended to be weighty academic tomes, dealing more with her literary output than her life. Only Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury really gives a sense of Margaret’s life during those heady days in Concord when she edited The Dial for Emerson, and gave her famous ‘Conversations.’