Who was Margaret Fuller?

Portrait of Margaret Fuller Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 in Cambridgeport, MA., the eldest of nine children born to Timothy and Margaret Crane Fuller. From an early age, she was tutored by her demanding father. By the time she was six she was reading in English and Latin. She studied classical literature and Greek mythology, as well as British and European authors. Although she became a prodigy of learning, she regretted the lack of an ordinary childhood. Her schooling continued at the Prescott School in Groton, MA.

In 1824 she was living in Cambridge and became friends with several Harvard students, including Frederick Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing who later became prominent members of the Transcendental Club. Her companionship with these intellectuals was interrupted when her father decided to move the family to a farm in Groton. There she tutored her younger siblings until her father’s untimely death in 1834, when she became the family’s primary breadwinner.

The Temple School

Fuller took up teaching, one of the few professions open to women. On her first visit with Emerson in Concord in 1836, she met Transcendentalist educational reformer, Bronson Alcott, who offered her an opportunity to teach at his Temple School in Boston. When the school closed amid controversy over Alcott’s teaching methods, she took a position at the Greene Street School in Providence, RI, in 1837.

By this time she was deeply immersed in her study of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s writing. She translated Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe in 1839 and began writing a biography of the famous author. She was also eager to get back to the Boston area where she might resume her intellectual companionship with Emerson and the other members of the Transcendental Club who met occasionally over a four year period from 1836 to 1840.

Fuller was a mystic and a religious free-thinker. Like Emerson and the other Transcendentalists she felt that religion cannot be accepted on external grounds, but only by way of spiritual insight. Moreover, it must deal with the realities of this life, and not with hopes for the next one. “What is done here at home in my heart is my religion,” she said.

Boston Conversations

After resettling her family in Jamaica Plain, she began a series of Conversations, mostly with women, in Boston in 1839. These Conversations, held in Elizabeth Peabody’s salon and bookstore, were designed to promote the self-culture of women who had little opportunity to pursue it on their own. These Conversations continued for five years. Drawing on classical mythology and literary themes, they were not so much academic exercises as a means of consciousness raising for women otherwise relegated to limited and constricting domestic roles.

In 1840, at Emerson’s urging, she agreed to edit The Dial magazine, a periodical of the Transcendentalist movement. She was editor for two years. Brook Farm, a cooperative association established on Transcendentalist principles, was started in 1841 not far from her home, and Fuller was a frequent visitor. Her first book, Summer on the Lakes, an account of a Western trip she took with friends, was published in 1844. The book caught the attention of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Daily-Tribune, who invited Fuller to come to New York and write for his paper. Her columns not only featured the arts and culture, but also exposed the conditions of the poor and women in New York’s prisons.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century, America’s first feminist manifesto, appeared in 1845. It was an expanded version of a lengthy article she had written for the Dial magazine entitled “The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men, Woman vs. Women.” In this book Fuller argued that men and women possessed both masculine and feminine traits. “Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism,” she insisted. “But in fact they are perpetually passing into one another. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” The self-fulfillment of women and men depend on achieving a balance in each between the qualities of both.

European travels

Fuller had long dreamed of traveling to Europe and seized an opportunity to do so as the governess of the child of a wealthy couple who were planning such a trip. Greeley offered to pay her for occasional dispatches as America’s first woman foreign correspondent. After visiting England, Scotland and France, they arrived in Rome in 1847, where she met and fell in love with a young Italian nobleman, Giovanni Ossoli. She spent a few months in northern Italy before returning to Rome and resuming her relationship with Ossoli. Discovering that she was pregnant, Fuller left Rome for Rieti, a small town in the Abruzzi, where she gave birth to her son, Angelo. It is not known whether she and Ossoli ever married.

Fuller left her child with a wet nurse while she headed back to Rome to cover the Italian revolution for Greeley’s newspaper. Both she and Ossoli supported the newly declared Republic, with Ossoli fighting in the Republican guard and Fuller volunteering at a hospital. Following the siege of Rome by the French, they went to Florence. The family sailed for American in the summer of 1850 and perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Long Island. Emerson sent Thoreau to search for their remains. The body of the child was found, but nothing of the child’s parents or Fuller’s writing.

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to women as freely as to man. Were this done and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres would ensue. Yet then, and only then, will mankind be ripe for this, when inward and outward freedom for woman as much as for man shall be acknowledged as a right, not yielded as a concession.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century

The Spirit Leads

SUGGESTED READING

Margaret Fuller: An American Life, by Megan Marshall

The Lives of Margaret Fuller, by John Matteson

The Portable Margaret Fuller, edited by Mary Kelley

Portable Margaret Fuller