Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: A pioneering feminist far ahead of her time, Margaret Fuller was a perceptive literary and social critic, and America’s first woman foreign journalist.
Sarah Margaret Fuller was born on May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, the first of the nine children of Timothy Fuller and Margaret Crane Fuller. Her father, a prominent figure in Massachusetts politics, was a graduate of Harvard College and the absolute authority in his household. Keenly disappointed that his first child was a girl, Timothy Fuller nevertheless determined to educate her according to the classical curriculum of the day—an experience usually afforded only to boys.
Even as a small child, Margaret was directed by her father in a rigorous schedule of study. She learned both English and Latin grammar and, before she was ten years old, read Vergil, Ovid, and Horace as well as William Shakespeare. At age fourteen, Margaret went briefly to Miss Prescott’s School in Groton but soon returned home to immerse herself again in study. Although Margaret was intellectually developed far beyond her years, the girl’s intensity caused trouble in friendships, a pattern that continued throughout her life. Margaret was also uncomfortable with her physical appearance. Therefore, she decided to cultivate her intellect, spending fifteen-hour days reading literature and philosophy in four languages, breaking only for a few hours of music and walking each day.
By the late 1820’s, Margaret was forming strong friendships with Harvard students such as James Freeman Clarke and Frederic Henry Hedge, many of whom would later become involved, as she did, with the Transcendentalist movement. She was becoming known in intellectual society in Cambridge and at Harvard as a formidable conversationalist. The same determination that brought her such success, however, also brought criticism. Margaret tended toward sarcasm, offending even close friends in intellectual discussions, and the great demands that she placed upon herself she also placed upon others.
In 1833, Timothy Fuller moved his family to a farm in Groton. Margaret taught her younger siblings and, when her mother’s health declined, took over the household. She continued to read, particularly German literature and philosophy, but her life at that time was a strain. Early in 1835, Margaret fell seriously ill, then recovered; in October of that year, her father died.
At this turning point, Margaret’s future seemed uncertain and difficult. She had planned a European trip to expand her horizons but had to cancel it in order to support the family. After a three-week visit at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson (a Transcendentalist and a literary figure) in Concord, she decided to take a teaching position at Bronson Alcott’s experimental Temple School in Boston. In 1837, Margaret accepted a teaching position in Hiram Fuller’s (no relation) Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island.
During her two years in Providence, Fuller also continued her scholarly work—often at the expense of her health—translating Johann P. Eckermann’s Conversation with Goethe, for example, and publishing poems and international literature reviews in a liberal, Unitarian journal edited by James Freeman Clarke. In addition, she wrote her first piece of important criticism, which was published a year later in the first issue of the Transcendentalist publication the Dial. Although Margaret was a successful teacher, she missed the intellectual stimulation of Boston, so in 1839 she moved back to Jamaica Plain, a Boston suburb, where she was joined by her mother and younger siblings.
When Margaret Fuller moved back to Boston, her involvement with Transcendentalism (which began when she met Emerson in 1836) increased. As a movement, Transcendentalism focused around a common perspective on religion and philosophy rather than any particular doctrine, and intellectuals met regularly for discussion about the nature of freedom and spirit. In 1840, Fuller became the first editor of the Transcendentalist literary quarterly the Dial. She also wrote much of the copy and kept the periodical alive—almost single-handedly—until she resigned her editorship two years later.
Fuller supported herself during this time by conducting “Conversations,” highly successful weekly discussions attended by the society women of Boston. Fuller believed that women were not taught how to think, and she determined to remedy this with discussions of topics from Greek mythology to ethics to women’s rights. Through these “Conversations,” which continued until she moved to New York in 1844, Fuller became known as a powerful speaker and intellectual critic. During this time, she was also involved with Brook Farm, a Transcendentalist experiment in the nature of ideal community that began in 1841 (she did not actually live there).
Fuller was frequently Emerson’s houseguest in Concord. She said of Emerson, “From him I first learned what is meant by the inward life.” They had a strong friendship, and through their discussions, both were able to develop their knowledge and appreciation of literature. The friendship was complex, however, and Fuller and Emerson were not always comfortable in each other’s presence, much less with each other’s ideas.
During this period, Fuller traveled outside the boundaries of New England. Her journey to the Midwest is recorded in Fuller’s first book, Summer on the Lake (1843), in which she investigated the relationship between nature and society, focusing on people and social manners. While conducting research for this book, Fuller became the first woman to receive permission to enter the library at Harvard University. The book also brought Fuller to the attention of...
(The entire section is 2414 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Margaret Fuller, a critic, essayist, and foreign correspondent associated with the Transcendentalists, is now considered to have been among the most brilliant and important literary figures of her day, though, ironically, not one of the best writers. She was the oldest of six children, who, because her father was disappointed that she was not a boy, was given a rigorous private education. She could read Latin fluently by the age of six and eventually developed a lifelong interest in German, English, and emergent American literature.
After he father died she turned to teaching to help support the family. At first she taught school in Providence while working on a biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1838 she returned to the Boston area, where she gave language lessons and, on the strength of her broad learning, effective conversation, and radical opinions, became a member of the Transcendental Club. In fact, her remarkable gift for discussing literature and ideas enabled her to organize “conversations” for women and men. Her talents for literary criticism became officially recognized when she became editor of the Transcendental journal The Dial from 1840 to 1842. During this period she became friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others, all of whom were impressed with her powerful mind and strong ego.
Following her successful and rigorous editorship of The Dial (she sent rejection notices to Henry David Thoreau, among others), she took a tour of Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York during the summer of 1843. Her experience led to her first book, Summer on the Lake, in 1843, ostensibly a travel book, in which she records her impressions and inner responses to the countryside. She describes the Midwest in idyllic pastoral terms, and sometimes, as when she encounters Niagara Falls, registers moments of sublimity. Her descriptions of forests, lakes, and prairies, usually viewed through the...
(The entire section is 847 words.)
Biography (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
Sarah Margaret Fuller’s intellectual breadth and depth can be traced to the classical education she received at home and the Transcendentalist theory she explored while teaching in Boston. Her writings apply the Transcendentalist emphasis on “self- reliance” and development of the self to discussions of women’s rights.
From 1839 to 1844, Fuller earned a living running intellectual and educational “conversations,” first for women only but later attended by men as well. She also edited The Dial, the first major intellectual...
(The entire section is 858 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Allen, Margaret Vanderhaar. The Achievement of Margaret Fuller. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979. Vanderhaar explores the range of Fuller’s intellectual and professional accomplishments. Also shows the importance of two major influences, in chapters on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Blanchard, Paula. Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution. New York: Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence, 1978. This extensive biography aims to correct the misconceptions about the Fuller “myth” by providing a fair, realistic, and historically factual view of her. Blanchard covers both...
(The entire section is 739 words.)