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Margaret Fuller, lost Transcendentalist

One of 19th-century America’s greatest female intellectuals is finally getting her due

Margaret Fuller drowned with her young son and his father in a shipwreck in 1950.

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Margaret Fuller drowned with her young son and his father in a shipwreck in 1950.

When the intellectual, critic, and journalist Margaret Fuller boarded a cargo ship named Elizabeth in the summer of 1850, she did so with a “dark feeling.” American friends had written letters begging her to stay in Rome. Rumors, including that she had conceived her 20-month-old son out of wedlock (true) or purchased him from baby-traffickers (false), were swirling at home in the United States. But Fuller persisted: She was coming, she announced, and bringing not only her family, but also the manuscript of a book she had written about the failed Italian revolution.

Two months later, the Elizabeth was finally nearing New York, when an unusual July hurricane struck the Eastern seaboard. The ship ran aground on a sandbar off the coast of Fire Island. Fuller, her young son, and his father drowned within sight of land. Fuller was 40 years old.

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The shipwreck that killed Fuller temporarily sanctified her. Almost immediately, her longtime friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and two others began work on “Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli,” a worshipful but fragmented biographical project. The first 1,000 copies sold out within a day, and for four years it remained the best-selling biography in America. Fuller’s own works were republished frequently over the next several decades, and her renown was widespread. Susan B. Anthony wrote that Fuller “possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time.” Emerson believed that her “radiant genius and fiery heart” made her “the real center” of the Transcendentalist movement.

No one could have foreseen what would happen to Fuller in the next century: She sank into total obscurity. Today, high school students study the writing of Transcendentalism’s major male figures; tourists visit their homes. But Fuller, every bit their equal as an intellectual and an influencer, has been largely forgotten. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John Matteson, whose first book was a joint biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father, says it’s been difficult to interest nonacademics in his new biography, “The Lives of Margaret Fuller.” “I had an easier time with the first book, because everyone knows Louisa May Alcott,” he says. “With this one people say, hmm, is that Margaret Sanger?”

That may be about to change: Fuller is in the midst of a revival. The last five years have brought several biographies from university presses, including the second volume of Boston University intellectual historian Charles Capper’s definitive biography. Special issues of several journals and a collection by top Fuller scholars, “Margaret Fuller and Her Circles,” are forthcoming, and prize-winning biographer Megan Marshall’s “The Passion of Margaret Fuller” will appear early next year.

What is being unearthed is a portrait of one of the most powerful intellects of the 19th century. Born on Cherry Street in Cambridge, in a three-story house that still stands, Fuller became the most educated American woman of her day. Armed with that education, she styled herself into an influential feminist, a pioneering journalist and editor, and both an intellectual and a revolutionary.

Her long period of obscurity suggests the double-edged sword of leading a life almost as interesting as your work, and of dying young and dramatically. And it also proves, when it comes to building a lasting reputation, that it can be perilous to be a more fluid conversationalist than a writer — and that the most dangerous thing of all can be to have famous friends.

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Photo by MidnightDreary

The Margaret Fuller house, on Cherry Street in Cambridge.

MARGARET FULLER WAS born in 1810 to a father with unusually high expectations for his daughter. When Margaret was 3, Timothy Fuller wrote a letter instructing his wife to tell their daughter, “I love her if she is a good girl and learns to read.” Timothy taught his eldest child Latin at age 6, and then moved on to Greek and French. Young Margaret read political histories and biographies, Milton and Fielding; she particularly loved Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Molière. At 21, she taught herself German and fell in love with the works of Goethe, setting out on an ambitious translation and biographical project. Later, she would become the first woman allowed to access the book collection and reading room at Harvard.

Fuller entered adulthood at a moment when an extraordinary group of thinkers, based around Boston, was beginning to expand the young nation’s intellectual horizons. Led by Emerson, the Transcendentalists were critics of conformity and believers in the power of individuals to mold and elevate themselves. They revered nature and intuition, dabbled in experiments with Utopian living, and rejected traditional hierarchies of authority.

Fuller met Emerson in 1835, falling into a deep friendship with him that would last the rest of her life. Dazzled by her eloquence, he introduced her to his circle of educators, writers, and ministers; the next year, several of them formed the Transcendental Club, to discuss new ideas in theology, literature, education, and beyond. Fuller soon accepted a position assisting Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) at his doomed Temple School, but he apparently never paid her, and she chafed at having little time for her own work. She rose to greater prominence in 1839, when Emerson asked her to edit The Dial, the all-but-official journal of the movement. The first to publish Henry David Thoreau, it also gathered poetry, essays, and anything else that Emerson classified as “an antidote to all narrowness.” It lasted four years, but the number of its subscribers never matched its influence. Again, Fuller was never paid her promised wages.

Despite continuing financial stress, Fuller had embarked on a remarkable decade. In Boston in 1839, she began hosting “Conversations,” at which educated women discussed the big questions: “What were we born to do? How shall we do it?” One enraptured attendee compared Fuller’s leadership to “the sun shining upon plants and causing buds to open into flowers.” By the mid-1840s, she moved to New York to become a critic for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, where she had the foresight to champion Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Greeley sent Fuller abroad in 1846 to become the first foreign correspondent for America’s sole national newspaper. Making her way to Rome, she aided in the revolution and fell in love with a nobleman a decade her junior. She may or may not have married him after giving birth to their son, shortly before the return trip that would prove fatal to all three.

The year before Fuller traveled to Europe, she turned an article written for The Dial into the book she is best known for today. Published three years before the landmark women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., “Woman in the 19th Century” makes a pioneering case for the rights of women to pursue intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. Rather than argue for specific rights, Fuller aims at something higher: that each woman pursue her own “peculiar secret” on her own, “lay[ing] aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men.”

Digressive and impressionistic, the book is almost impenetrably dense with quotes and allusions to Greek mythology and German literature, Spinoza and Shelley, Shakespeare and the Bible. Using arguments borrowed from Romanticism, it anticipates many later feminist themes, including sexual independence, marriage as slavery, and the notion that there is “no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” Its first printing of 1,500 copies sold out quickly. But it didn’t please everyone. Poe, reviewing the book in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, acknowledged that she possessed “high genius,” but griped that she erred in using herself as a stand-in for womankind: “She judges woman by the heart and intellect of Miss Fuller, but there are not more than one or two dozen Miss Fullers on the whole face of the earth.”

Indeed, the book, along with her Conversations in Boston, did establish Fuller as a rare figure: both a foremost activist for women’s role in public life, and a guide and connector for those in the Transcendentalist circle. Fuller was more interested in Romanticism than any of her peers, Capper says, pressing on them the German Romantics, Beethoven, and her adored Goethe. Her moves to New York and Rome, and her increasing engagement with social issues, lit the way for an expanded vision of Transcendentalism’s possibilities. Finally, Fuller provided crucial social glue to a group that prized friendship as a high ideal.

As James Freeman Clarke, a coauthor of her first biography, put it, “Margaret had so many aspects to her soul that she might furnish material for a hundred biographers, and all could not be said even then.” This may have been her curse. She was interested in too much, and had too little time to explore it.

As the years passed and those who had known Fuller disappeared, her memory faded. F.O. Matthiessen’s 1941 book “American Renaissance,” which defined the mid-19th century American canon, virtually ignored her; her own books fell out of print. Her obscurity can be blamed in part on academic fads and sexism, but some of the difficulty lies in her own dense, allusive writing. “You almost feel as if you have to have read everything she read and in the same order to get what she’s driving at,” Matteson says. “Emerson and Thoreau have a much better grasp of what we might call the sound bite.”

Her contemporary biographers can’t seem to resist musing about what would have happened had the Elizabeth docked safely in New York. “She was at a major point in her career, moving toward this fuller sense of political and social commentary and having this life-changing experience in Italy,” says David Robinson, professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who is working on his own book on Fuller. “And that was mostly lost with her death.”

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FULLER’S MODERN REVIVAL has been brewing since the 1970s, when feminist scholars including Paula Blanchard rediscovered her. According to Robinson, she was suddenly of interest to students of feminist theory, women’s literature, 19th-century social culture, and Transcendental philosophy, all “reading her works with different expectations and critical positions.”

Though the feminist scholars of the 1970s “recovered her from the virtual oblivion she sank into in the 20th century,” Capper says, they also held her back from recognition as a major American intellectual. “By putting her mostly in the context of women’s social history and making her largely emblematic of the patriarchal subordination of women, they lost what was unique about her,” he says. Capper embarked on his own study of her in the early 1980s in part to refocus on her intellectual identity— as a Romantic and a cosmopolitan.

The first volume of Capper’s biography came out in 1992. Meanwhile, Robert Hudspeth’s six-volume publication of her letters, which began to appear in the early 1980s, made her accessible to scholars who previously had to pick through boxes of letters that Emerson had cut to pieces for “Memoirs.” Fuller was also increasingly anthologized, permitting professors to teach her work to undergraduates. “There was a time when it was very hard to find, if you wanted to teach Fuller, an acceptable paperback text,” Robinson says. “But suddenly you have your choice of wonderful things.” Now, as Matteson’s new biography arrives, Fuller is poised to become a household name once again.

Still, it says something that none of Fuller’s friends, fans, or biographers can seem to agree on why she matters most. It was a dilemma that plagued Fuller her whole life. One of her earliest memories, she would write later, was of pausing on a staircase in her house in Cambridge and asking herself four things: “How came I here? How is that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?” She spent her brief lifetime giving a dazzling array of answers to those questions.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.
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