Although excellent studies of Margaret Fuller have been published during the past thirty-five years, her name is still likely to call up the image of a slightly absurd, egocentric bluestocking who once announced, “I accept the Universe.” Paula Blanchard’s fine biography ought to do much to restore balance to this distorted portrait of one of the most extraordinary women of nineteenth century America. Blanchard does not ignore the quirks of personality and style that made Fuller vulnerable to the scorn of men such as James Russell Lowell, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Yet she enables her readers to put these flaws into proper perspective as Fuller’s own friends did, and to concentrate instead on her achievements.
In a society that expected women to be passive, dependent, and self-effacing, Margaret Fuller was strong-minded, ambitious, dramatic, and aggressive enough to make a place for herself in the transcendentalist intellectual circles of Boston and Concord; to give both moral and financial support to her family after her father’s death; to explore New York jails and insane asylums as a reporter for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune; and to commit herself to the republican cause in the Roman revolution of 1848-1849. Her most dramatic defiance of convention was her romance with the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, who became her lover, her husband, and the father of her son in a sequence never fully documented.
None of these things came easily. Margaret Fuller’s life as Blanchard presents it has elements of a Greek tragedy. Her successes seem always to have been accompanied by physical and emotional pain.
Both her achievements and her suffering, Blanchard suggests, can be traced to the strong influence of her father, Timothy Fuller. The son of a Massachusetts clergyman and something of a radical in his student days at Harvard, he was a stern patriarch in his relationship with his submissive wife and their eight children. Blanchard describes him as a reserved man, “forever trying to crack his way out of his own shell.” He demonstrated his devotion to his precocious firstborn by teaching her to read at the age of three and setting her soon afterward to translating gory passages from Homer and Virgil that gave her nightmares. She quickly learned that intellectual prowess was the way to win his approval, only recognizing years later the price she paid for neglecting her physical and emotional needs. At nine she squinted from near-sightedness, conversed like a pedantic adult, and lived almost totally isolated from other children.
Had she been a boy she might have gone on to Harvard and become a distinguished professor or clergyman, her pedantry and her lack of charm no great hindrance. But, as her father realized when she approached adolescence, Latin and Greek were useless assets for a woman in the 1820’s, and he set about to transform her into a marriageable young lady. She was sent to dancing classes and finishing school in an effort to polish the curt, forthright, often satirical manner that made her seem rude at times. For the plain, stout, red-faced girl accustomed to winning praise for her intelligence, this change in emphasis apparently created conflicts of tensions that brought about much of her later unhappiness. All of her adult life was in some respect a struggle to reconcile the conflicting demands of her “masculine” side—her intellect—and her “feminine” nature—that part of her that longed for love.
Yet she had gifts that enabled her to move beyond these conflicts and slowly create for herself a place in society. She was a brilliant conversationalist, and she had an empathy with others than enabled her to form close friendships with both men and women all through her life. Her family’s efforts to provide her with womanly accomplishments did not prevent her from continuing to educate herself at an astonishing rate; one of her contemporaries compared her reading with that of the historian Gibbon.
Blanchard traces Margaret’s development through her teens and early twenties as she and her friends, future transcendentalists and abolitionists such as James Freeman Clarke, William Henry Channing, Frederick Henry Hedge, Elizabeth Peabody, and Lydia Maria Child, read and discussed the works of German and English Romantics. These children of New England Puritanism were greatly attracted by the writers’ emphasis on “the awesome responsibility of the individual for his own moral development” and their assertion “that the unfolding of human consciousness, or soul, must be to some degree divinely assisted from within.” Margaret was moved most deeply by Goethe and hoped for years to be able to write his biography.
Examining the state of her soul filled only one part of her life at this time, however. As the oldest daughter in a growing family, she had substantial domestic responsibilities, especially after the Fullers moved from Cambridge to Groton in 1832. Blanchard devotes several pages to a description of the household duties that had to be shared by the servants and the women in a typical family of the time. Since the Fuller income, although adequate, provided wages for only one servant, Margaret was required to assume many of these responsibilities for her ailing mother. She managed to sandwich in her reading of Goethe, Schiller, and Thomas Jefferson between hours of tutoring six young children and attending to domestic chores.
This was also a period, Blanchard speculates, when she was searching for a direction for her life. She apparently concluded fairly early that she would not marry. Though she was accepted as an equal by her male friends in Cambridge, they did not look upon her as a future wife. As Blanchard puts it, “The price of being one of the boys was being one of the boys.” The choices open to an unmarried woman, as Margaret was painfully aware, were either teaching or remaining under the paternal roof. She was in fact exploring the possibility of teaching in Kentucky, where her friend James Freeman Clarke was minister of a church, when her father died suddenly in 1835.
Timothy Fuller’s death was both a liberating force and an...
(The entire section is 2540 words.)