Although Margaret Fuller is widely recognized as one of the outstanding literary figures of nineteenth century America, there is still no modern collection of her personal papers. Robert N. Hudspeth’s work, which will eventually include the more than one thousand of her letters that have survived, will make available an important new resource for students of this period. Hudspeth, professor at Pennsylvania State University and biographer of Fuller’s brother-in-law, Ellery Channing, faced a formidable task in undertaking this project, for many of the autograph letters were lost, damaged, or altered by the well-meaning but careless friends and relatives who compiled the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852) shortly after her death. The extensive textual notes testify to the care with which Hudspeth has searched out the most reliable version of each letter.
Hudspeth’s service to his readers goes far beyond meticulous attention to the text. His thirty-page introduction to volume 1 is a superb essay on Fuller’s life and work, as well as an incisive assessment of the letters and what they add to our knowledge of her complex personality. He notes the restlessness that kept her moving from place to place throughout her adult life and deprived her of the roots that sustained her Transcendentalist friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. For Fuller, Hudspeth suggests, “having a home meant having a life that lacked renewal,” and her Romantic spirit kept her constantly questing after new goals. She was committed throughout her adult life to improving education and the arts in her native land. As she matured, she turned her attention to larger social questions as well; she spent the last years of her life working for Giuseppe Mazzini’s republican revolution in Italy.
The 344 letters printed and annotated in these two volumes show the gradual, often painful, development of this remarkable, revolutionary woman. Volume 1 covers the years from 1817 to 1838, showing Fuller first as a child of seven writing dutifully to her father, Timothy Fuller, and concluding with her as a mature woman, the mainstay of her widowed mother and six younger siblings, preparing to embark upon her first major literary project. This volume is both tantalizing and frustrating. Even as a child, Fuller expressed herself well and provided important insights into her thoughts and feelings, but no more than eight or ten letters have survived from any year up to 1834, and consequently one receives only glimpses of the author’s interests and experiences during her early years. Hudspeth’s introduction and copious notes help to put the letters in context, but to be fully appreciated, they should probably be read in conjunction with a full-length biography.
The earliest letters reveal a child of formidable mental ability. At nine, Fuller was reading the fifth book of the Aeneid and translating Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village” into Latin. Four years later, she wrote her father that she was pursuing her study of Greek but thought it might be easier with a teacher. Her literary style was equally precocious. In 1819, not yet ten, she wrote Timothy Fuller, “I enclose you my composition and specimen of writing. I assure you I wrote the former off much better and made almost as many corrections as your critical self would were you at home.”
Fuller’s sometimes pathetic desire to please her father is visible through much of her early correspondence with him. She frequently apologizes for the quality of her penmanship and for remarks he has criticized. Her affection, however, is often expressed, and she keeps him abreast of news of friends and her younger brothers and sister, who were something of a trial to her then and later. As Hudspeth notes, these letters suggest that Fuller’s childhood was happier and better-balanced than she later remembered. She sounds like a typical older sister of any generation in reporting to her mother of her brother Eugene: “He was a good boy till he went to meeting. There he behaved very ill. To punish him I did not let him go to meeting in the afternoon and ever since he has behaved as bad as he possibly can. He says he will spoil this letter if I write how he has behaved.”
While there are enough surviving letters to give a rounded, if fragmentary, picture of Fuller’s childhood and early adolescence, only a half-dozen remain from the period from 1826 to 1830, when she matured from girl of sixteen into woman of twenty. Her formal education ended when she left Susan Prescott’s school in Groton in 1825, but she continued her studies with great intensity. Among the few extant letters are ones to Miss Prescott describing Fuller’s reading in classical philosophy, English, Italian, French, and Spanish poetry, and the works of Madame de Staël. Rhapsodic descriptions of nature in letters from the early 1830’s suggest that she also fell under the influence of the Romantic poets at this time: “The holy moon and merry-toned wind of this night woo to a vigil at the open window; a half-satisfied interest urges me to live, love and perish!” By 1830, she was also familiar with the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the writer who was to dominate her studies for years. She frequently expressed her enthusiasm for his work, writing a clergyman friend, James Clarke, “It seems to me as if the mind of Goethe had embraced the universe. ... I am enchanted while I read.”
The early 1830’s brought emotional distress as well as intellectual development. Fuller sought intense friendships with both men and women, and she was often rebuffed. With Clarke, whom she may have hoped to marry, she was able to maintain a long-distance intellectual companionship when their emotional ties weakened. Her break with another potential husband, George Davis, was more nearly complete, but two letters included show the depth of her feeling for him. She often veiled her distress with men, but she felt free to communicate more openly with women. Their marriages were often hard for her to accept. To one friend she wrote, “Somehow your engagement seems to have changed our relation to one another and we have not been sufficiently together yet for me to feel easy under this change.”
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