Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2411

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. He invited her to become the newspaper’s literary critic, and—against the advice of friends such as Emerson—Fuller accepted. In December, 1844, she moved to New York, leaving the constraints of family and friends behind, to become the first female member of the working press in the United States.

Horace Greeley said that Fuller was, in some respects, the greatest woman America had yet known, and he gave her almost a free hand with her writing. Fuller’s style became more solid, and her thinking deepened even further as she wrote regularly on major authors and ideas of her time. While at the Tribune, Fuller also became concerned about public education and social conditions. She visited prisons, poorhouses, and asylums, and her front-page articles about them moved people’s feelings and laid the foundation for reforms.

In 1845, Greeley published Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century, the first American book-length discussion of equal rights for men and women. The book became a public sensation and made Fuller’s name known throughout the English-speaking world. A classic in American feminist literature, it combined the spiritual focus of a transcendental vision with the need for practical action and was influential in the Seneca Falls conference on women’s rights in 1848. In 1846, Fuller published Papers on Literature and Art, a compilation of her critical reviews which set a high standard for American literary criticism.

The strain of writing on deadline made Fuller’s chronic headaches worse, however, and she was also trying to recover from a broken romance. In August, 1846, Greeley commissioned her as America’s first foreign correspondent, and she visited first England, then France, and finally Rome, in April, 1847. Everywhere she went, Fuller met with major figures of the time and sent dispatches back to the Tribune. Fuller was disturbed by the misery that she saw around her, particularly that of working-class women. More and more, life—not art—became her preoccupation, and Fuller’s articles on the common worker appeared prominently in the Tribune.

In the summer of 1847, Fuller made an extended tour of Italy. She was drawn into the Italian struggle for independence, and in the course of her travels she met Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a young Italian count who was committed to the liberal cause. Ossoli and Fuller became lovers and, it seems, planned for a life together. Because Ossoli would have been disowned by his aristocratic family for marrying a non-Italian and a non-Catholic, however, the marriage was delayed for more than a year.

Ossoli and Fuller spent the winter of 1848 involved in the Republican struggle in Rome. Fuller continued to send detailed articles about the revolution to the Tribune, but she kept her relationship with Ossoli a secret for a long time, even from family and friends in America. Fuller was expecting a child, so she moved to Rieti, outside Rome, where she gave birth to a son, Angelo, on September 5, 1848. Fuller stayed with the child until April, then left him with a nurse and returned to Ossoli and the fighting in Rome, where she directed an emergency hospital and ran supplies to her husband’s fighting unit. When the Italian liberals were finally defeated in July, 1849, Ossoli and Fuller were forced to leave Rome. They took Angelo and fled to Florence, where Fuller wrote what she thought was the most important work she had done to date: a history of the Italian Revolution.

Fuller wanted to publish the manuscript in the United States, so the family set sail for New York City on May 17, 1850, despite Fuller’s deep foreboding about the journey. Difficulties started soon after they set sail: The ship’s captain died of smallpox; then Angelo became sick with the disease, and he almost died. On July 17, just after land was sighted, a storm came up and the inexperienced captain ran the ship aground near Fire Island, New York. Whenever the storm abated, people tried to swim to shore, only a few hundred feet away, but Fuller resigned herself to death and refused to leave the ship. She eventually allowed a sailor to try to save the baby, but Fuller and her husband stayed on board as the ship was pulled apart by the sea. Angelo’s body finally washed ashore, but Fuller, Ossoli, and Fuller’s manuscript were never found.

Summary

Those who remember Margaret Fuller most often do so within the context of her association with New England Transcendentalism, but her most significant contributions were in the areas of literary criticism and social reform. Despite the fact that her own writing style was inconsistent, Fuller is nevertheless considered to be one of the two real literary critics of the nineteenth century, along with Edgar Allan Poe. She developed a theory of criticism that combined perspectives of realism and romanticism, and she held to high standards that did not fluctuate with the prevailing winds of the times.

Fuller was also a pioneering journalist and perceptive social critic on both the national and the international level. In Tribune columns, her commentary on public education and social conditions looked deeply into American values. She visited and wrote about Sing Sing and Blackwell’s Island prisons, for example, which led to the establishment of the first halfway house for newly released female convicts. Her dispatches from Europe—especially her account of the Italian revolution—helped Americans grow in their understanding of the world around them.

Although Fuller did find fulfillment as a wife and mother, her powerful character was not circumscribed by these traditional female roles. In her behavior, Fuller questioned economic, social, and political assumptions about women; in her writing, she propagated her belief in equality through. Her major work, Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845), is generally considered to be the first important feminist work by an American woman. Fuller fascinated the readers of her day and challenged their ideas about what a woman could and should be. More than a century later, her argument that people should be able to express themselves as individuals, not simply as representatives of their gender, continues to offer insights into the unlimited potential of human nature.

Bibliography

Allen, Margaret Vanderhaar. The Achievement of Margaret Fuller. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979. This biography presents probably the most strikingly feminist perspective on Fuller’s life and work. Allen concludes that Fuller was easily the equal of Emerson and Thoreau.

Blanchard, Paula. Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution. New York: Delacorte Press, 1978. This biography is written from a clearly feminist perspective, though with a more subtle voice than Margaret Allen’s. It has helped to make Fuller more accessible to the general reading public.

Chevigny, Bell Gale, comp. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1976. The major study changed Fuller scholarship in the mid-1970’s and is essential reading for anyone who is seriously interested in Fuller.

Edwards, Julia. Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. This work presents a lively and vivid account of Fuller’s activities in Europe and quotes liberally from her communiques to the Tribune. It gives a real sense of Fuller within the context of the times.

James, Laurie. Why Margaret Fuller Ossoli Is Forgotten. New York: Golden Heritage Press, 1988. James, an actress, has done extensive research in preparing her original one-person drama about Fuller, which has toured internationally. In this sixty-five-page book, James presents her thesis that Fuller has been buried in history because the authors of her “definitive” biography Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852) intentionally misrepresented her life and works. James builds quite a case against Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Henry Channing, and James Freeman Clarke. She elaborates further in her Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller (1990).

James, Laurie, ed. The Wit and Wisdom of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. New York: Golden Heritage Press, 1988. This selection of quotations is organized around topics such as “love,” “equality,” “revolution,” “toys,” and “faith and soul.” Fuller’s astute, often wry observations have not gone out of date, and the reader can get a real taste of Fuller from this small book. It also includes a list of Fuller’s major achievements and a bibliography.

Myerson, Joel, comp. Critical Essays on Margaret Fuller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. These articles represent Fuller criticism from 1840 to the date of this publication. As Myerson observes, it is obvious that from the start, critics were more interested in Fuller’s personality than in her work. The fifty-three mostly short selections make interesting reading.

Watson, David. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic. New York: Berg, 1988. This is a useful account of Fuller’s life, work, and reputation. Watson examines Fuller’s roles as romantic, feminist, and socialist, suggesting that she deserves to be taken seriously as a contributor to historically important bodies of thought. Of particular interest is Watson’s examination of modern feminist Fuller scholarship. He concludes that modern attempts to “rescue” Fuller do not always escape the myopic traps to which they are opposed. Includes a chronology, an index, and a bibliography.

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