(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Margaret Fuller 1810-1850

(Full name Sarah Margaret Fuller) American essayist, critic, travel writer, translator, and poet.

For additional information on Fuller's life and career, see .

Fuller was a distinguished literary and social critic and pioneering feminist. As a founding editor of the Transcendentalist journal the Dial and a contributor to other influential periodicals, she was instrumental in introducing European art and literature to the United States. In addition, her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1855) is an important early American feminist treatise.

Biographical Information

Fuller was the first of nine children born to a lawyer and his wife. She received an extensive private education and became active in intellectual circles made up of Harvard and Cambridge students and faculty, later forming longstanding personal and professional relationships within the Transcendentalist movement, including friendships with Amos Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She participated in various liberal educational and social experiments, including Alcott's progressive Temple School and the Fruitlands and Brook Farm communal living experiments. Fuller's efforts to involve women in the country's intellectual life included a series of "Conversations" between 1939 and 1842, lectures on history, art, literature, and culture during which Fuller encouraged questions, discussion, and independent thought. Contemporary records, including the letters and diaries of the women who participated, attest to Fuller's brilliance as a speaker. Fuller worked closely with Emerson in developing editorial policy for the Dial magazine and served as its unpaid editor for its first two years of publication; the Dial failed within a year after Emerson assumed the editorship in 1842. After publishing literary criticism, social commentary, and travel essays in Greeley's New York Daily Tribune, Fuller obtained the post of literary editor of that journal in late 1844. Traveling to Europe in 1846, Fuller sent back firsthand accounts of the Risorgimento, the Italian liberal independence movement, to the Tribune, thus becoming one of the United States' first foreign correspondents. Fuller met and may have married Giovanni Ossoli in 1847; she was returning to the United States in 1850 with Ossoli and their son when her ship sank within sight of shore. Her body was never recovered.

Major Works

Fuller is best remembered for Woman in the Nineteenth Century, an acute assessment of the personal, social, professional, and political status of American women. Highly controversial in its time, particularly in calling for all professions to be open to women, this treatise was often condemned on religious grounds: Fuller's argument for equality between the sexes was held to controvert divine intent. Her travel essays and social commentary, first published periodically, were gathered and published in Papers on Literature and Art (1846), Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844), and several posthumous collections. These works included vibrant landscape descriptions, discussion of the living conditions of Native American tribes, investigation into the treatment of incarcerated women, and feminist commentary. The dispatches that Fuller submitted from Europe to Greeley's New York Daily Tribune during the Risorgimento are generally acclaimed to contain some of her finest written work; in these firsthand accounts of the Italian fight for independence, Fuller demonstrated facility with vivid, terse, and profoundly moving reportage.

Critical Reception

Most assessments of Fuller's writing note that with the exception of her foreign correspondence from Italy, her literary style is overly ornate, allusive, and convoluted. Fuller's contemporaries reacted as much to her forceful personality as to her literary accomplishments, and commented more on her character and conversation than on her published works. Meaningful evaluation of her life and works was impeded when William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clark, and Ralph Waldo Emerson produced a heavily edited volume of posthumous Memoirs, seriously misrepresenting Fuller, revising passages from her letters and diaries as well as from works written for publication. Her reputation suffered further when Hawthorne based his portrayal of the alluring but strident and manipulative Zenobia in The Blithedate Romance on Fuller. The distortions of the more famous male associates who outlived Fuller colored popular impression of her for many decades. More balanced evaluation began in 1927 when Vernon Louis Parrington offered an evaluation of her written works in his Main Currents in American Thought. Since the late 1970s, scholarship and reinvestigation by primarily feminist critics has resulted in far more accurate estimation, acknowledging Fuller's contribution to the cultural life of nineteenth-century America and as a commentator on, and crusader to improve, the status of women.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (travel essays) 1844

Woman in the Nineteenth Century (essay) 1845

Papers on Literature and Art (criticism) 1846

Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Conditions, and Duties of Woman (essays) 1855

At Home and Abroad; or; Things and Thoughts in America and Europe (essays and letters) 1856

Life Without and Life Within (essays and poetry) 1860

The Writings of Margaret Fuller (essays, criticism, letters, poetry, memoirs) 1941

The Letters of Margaret Fuller. 6 vols....

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Orestes Brownson (essay date 1845)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, in Brownson's Quarterly Review Vol. 2, No. 2, April, 1845, pp. 249-57.

[An American clergyman, editor, and essayist, Brownson was a prolific writer whose work was centrally concerned with the quest for religious truth and belief in justice and political liberty. In the following review, he charges that Woman in the Nineteenth Century possesses neither style nor structure, and rejects on religious grounds Fuller's call for women's equality.]

MISS FULLER belongs to the class . . . of Transcendentalists, of which sect she is the chieftainess. She has a broader and richer nature man Mr. [Theodore]...

(The entire section is 3758 words.)

The Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany (essay date 1845)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, in The Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, May, 1845, pp. 416-17.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that Woman in the Nineteenth Century lacks formal structure and rigorous analysis of a clearly stated thesis, but commends the intelligence and eloquence found throughout the book.]

On the whole, we have been disappointed in this book as we like to be disappointed. A woman here vindicates the cause of her own sex without a very large infusion of special pleading—an achievement not slightly meritorious, and deserving no small praise. We took up the volume,—we are...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Henry James (essay date 1903)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Siege of Rome," in William Wetmore Story and His Friends: From Letters, Diaries, and Recollections, Vol. 1, Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1903, pp. 93-163.

[James was an American novelist and short story writer valued for his psychological acuity and complex sense of artistic form. He also wrote literary criticism in which he developed his artistic ideals and applied them to the works of others. In the following excerpt, taken from a reminiscence of the period during which Fuller was living in Rome, James muses on Fuller's place in literary and intellectual history and in the personal histories of those who knew her.]

The unquestionably haunting...

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Paula Blanchard (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Conversations and The Dial," in Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1978, pp. 139-62.

[In the following excerpt, Blanchard discusses the series of "Conversations," paid seminars combining elements of entertainment, instruction, and intellectual development for women which Fuller conducted in Boston beginning in 1838. Blanchard also examines Fuller's development and editorship of the Transcendentalist journal the Dial.]

[Margaret Fuller's] conversation, Emerson said simply, was the most entertaining in America. And it may very well have been during one of the bookstore discussions that someone...

(The entire section is 6779 words.)

Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Genesis, Form, Tone." In Margaret Fuller's "Woman in the Nineteenth Century": A Literary Study of Form and Content, Of Sources and Influence, " Greenwood Press, 1980, pp. 128-45.

The first impression a reader may get from a hasty perusal of Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century is one of effusiveness and formlessness. Containing a display of erudition that is impressive, it is prolix, as was the work of many transcendentalists and other writers of the past century. In the April 1845 issue of his Quarterly Review, Orestes Brownson observed that Woman has "neither beginning, middle, nor end, and may be read backwards as well as forwards."...

(The entire section is 6762 words.)

Stephen Adams (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'That Tidiness We Always Look for in Woman': Fuller's Summer on the Lakes and Romantic Aesthetics," in Studies in the American Renaissance, 1987, pp. 247-64.

[In the following essay, Adams proposes that when assessed by Romantic literary aesthetics, Fuller's seemingly aimless travel narrative possesses an identifiable structure.]

From its publication, critics have been disturbed by the apparent disunity, randomness, and padding of Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. Even the favorable reviewers stressed its heterogeneous nature. In describing the book as "a remarkable assemblage of sketches," Edgar Allan Poe echoed James...

(The entire section is 7944 words.)

Jeffrey Steele (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Freeing the 'Prisoned Queen': The Development of Margaret Fuller's Poetry," in Studies in the American Renaissance, 1992, pp. 137-75.

[Steele is an American educator and critic who here applies to Fuller's poetry biographical interpretations that he considers crucial to an understanding of her emotional and intellectual development. He divides Fuller's poetry into three chronological periods: an early period (1835-38) consisting primarily of occasional pieces and poems to a close friend; a middle period (1839-1843) that charts a spiritual crisis in Fuller's life; and a mature period in 1844, during which Fuller wrote nearly all of her notable poems. The following excerpt is taken...

(The entire section is 8347 words.)

Bell Gale Chevigny (excerpt date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE:An introduction to The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings, revised edition, Northeastern University Press, 1994, pp. 3-15.

[In the following excerpt, Chevigny comments on the quality of Fuller's writing.]

[It] is appropriate to remark on the quality of Fuller's writing. While it can be argued that certain social prejudices blocked her contemporaries from perceiving some of its virtues, still many modern readers have difficulty with it. At the worst, they find the style overblown, the form rambling and repetitious, the tone self-indulgent or arrogant, and the whole effect unremittingly intense. Although such difficulties cannot be explained...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Donna Dickenson (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE:An introduction to Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Other Writings by Margaret Fuller, edited by Donna Dickenson, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994, pp. vii-xxix.

[In the following introduction to her edition of a collection of Fuller's writings, Dickenson surveys Fuller's life, thought, and works.]

'My dear Sir,' I exclaimed, 'if you'd not been afraid
Of Margaret Fuller's success, you'd have stayed
Your hand in her case and more justly have rated her.'
Here he murmured morosely, 'My God, how I hated her!'
[Amy Lowell, 'A Critical Fable']

(The entire section is 7910 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Myerson, Joel. Margaret Fuller: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Burt Franklin & Co., 1977, 272 p.

Lists and annotates critical writings, as well as poems dedicated to Fuller, and stories, novels, and poems which feature characters thought to be based on her. Important manuscript collections by and about Fuller are also listed.

——. Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pitts-burgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978, 163 p.

Extensive primary bibliography. Myerson provides analytical descriptions of Fuller's book-length...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)