In July 1850, at the request of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau traveled to New York’s Fire Island to investigate a tragedy that had shaken literary New England. Margaret Fuller, the 40-year-old writer, editor, war correspondent, and feminist then at the apex of her career, had drowned with her husband and child just 300 yards offshore, as the ship carrying them back from Italy went down in a storm.
In May, Harvard acquired Thoreau’s notes about what he found: the pencil-scrawled account of a young writer who sounds alternately sad and angry over what he learned of his colleague’s death.
The acquisition is rare and important, according to historians and those at Harvard’s Houghton Library, because it unites three of New England’s leading intellectuals and Transcendentalists. “That these original pages have surfaced is a great relief to scholars who have been relying on a second- or thirdhand account for years,” said Megan Marshall, whose biography, “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014.
“Also, at this greater distance in time, we learn just how much greater impact the raw in-the-moment record has,” Marshall said. “It bleeds pathos.” Thoreau’s fruitless search for any signs of Fuller and the war manuscript she had written haunted him long after his journey to New York.
Fuller, who had been covering the Italian revolution for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, had fallen in love with a young officer in the Roman Guard and gotten pregnant, scandalizing her literary circle back home. But the couple married and in May 1850 set sail for America with their 2-year-old son, Nino, and her manuscript.
Lacking the money for steamship passage, they took a smaller cargo ship, which wrecked in the storm. Nino is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, but his parents’ bodies were never found.
When word of the tragedy reached Concord, Emerson dispatched Thoreau, who interviewed as many survivors and witnesses as he could. Fuller had edited “The Dial,” the Transcendentalists’ main publication, and Emerson was particularly concerned about recovering her account of the revolution.
“She had been right in the thick of it,” said Leslie Morris, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Houghton Library. But all that was found on the island were miscellaneous belongings, including some clothes.
Some of the more striking passages of Thoreau’s notes deal with the boy’s body. “The child had nothing but its night gown on at first it never cried at all When found it was quite naked. Mr Oakes brought it up in his buffalo. Mrs Oakes who laid it out in a little blue dress found in the trunk — says it was a quite long stout & fleshy child with a large head . . . Mrs Hasty told her it had just begun to talk Ital & English.”
Thoreau’s notes were highly critical of the “wreckers on shore who were more concerned with recovering belongings than actually saving people from the ship,” said Morris. Though some passengers and crew swam to safety, Fuller could not swim and waited for help from those on the shore. None came.
Of the wreckers, Thoreau wrote: “I found the young men playing at dominoes with their hats decked out with the spoils of the drowned.”
He added: “Almost every family on the neighboring main land owns a large oyster boat and such as did not chance to be on the ground at the time of the wreck — instantly repaired thither at the time even some women & children taking their [provision] — for the purpose of plunder. This they do not pretend to deny. There are some proper pirates among them but most do not deserve this name — they are rather low thieves & pilferers without the spirit of pirates — A Thorough investigation would implicate many apparently respectable people. . . .”
The 165-year-old notes had been lost to scholars through an unusual quirk of publishing history: As a bonus to buyers of a limited 20-volume edition of Thoreau’s work in 1906, publisher Houghton Mifflin had bound various original pages of his work into the printed volumes.
In one volume was tucked Thoreau’s 18 handwritten pages on the Fuller shipwreck. “They’re very substantial and complete,” Morris said. “They appear to be all the notes he took on this trip.”
Acquired by Harvard from a rare book dealer at a price the university will not divulge, the notes had been placed in paper frames inside the volume, which caused the pages to tear and buckle. So Houghton’s conservators painstakingly removed the frames and made another discovery: Thoreau’s marginalia, which had been hidden behind the frames.
“Thoreau’s handwriting is difficult to read, in the best of times,” Morris said. Harvard partnered with a Thoreau scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Beth Witherell, who deciphered the scribblings. The pages, along with the transcriptions, can be seen at thoreau.library.