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“It is easier to describe her ideas than to fathom the many-sided person that unfolded over the short forty years of her life. A contemporary said of her that ‘Margaret had so many selves that you can peel her like an onion’” (Rossi, 144). In May of 1810, an influential woman of many sides was born in Massachusetts. This woman, Margaret Fuller, would go on to scribe many social documents and encourage women to fight for their places in society. In her 40 years of life, Margaret Fuller managed to leave her mark as a revolutionary feminist and transcendentalist, demonstrated through her eloquent speeches and educated writings about her forceful opinions on social topics, traced back to her challenging personal life.
From a young age, Sarah Margaret Fuller was taught to be an intellectual by her father and those around her. By age six, Fuller was said to have been able to read Latin and by age seven she could read Virgil, Horace, and Ovid (Madison, 422).
By her teen years, she was teaching her younger brothers and sisters. However, this rigorous schooling from her stubborn intellectual father caused Fuller to become socially inept and to develop migraines and nightmares later in her life (Fergensen, 10). In her younger years, she could not get along well with other girls her age; therefore, her father, Timothy Fuller, sent her to a school for girls. While at the girls’ school, Fuller could not adjust herself to the mental immaturity of her classmates, who had not been studying classics in their free time (Madison, 423).
She eventually returned home to care for her family after two years. As the oldest daughter, it was her duty to help her mother as the head of the household (Ashby, 91).
Being the head of her household, even with her mother around, was not an easy task for Fuller. She had to tend to domestic chores, other household tasks, and tutor her siblings. She wrote, “Thus, you may imagine, as I am the only grown-up daughter, that my time has been considerably taxed” (Fergensen, 11). The struggles that Fuller faced during her younger years, however, helped to shape her into the woman she became in her older years- a woman of many layers who knew what she believed in.
As she grew physically and mentally throughout her life, Fuller became involved with several different groups of people such as transcendentalists, feminists, and revolutionaries. She knew important figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, “we shall not get far…I am a little afraid of her, she has such an overpowering personality” (Madison, 426). Others included Bronson Alcott, who stated she was “the most brilliant talker of the day” (Fergensen, 10), and George Sand, Caroline Healey Dall, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women who went on to become active women’s rights advocates, most likely because of the influence that Fuller had upon them (Fergensen, 14). Fuller also continued to publish essays in close connection with Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune and edit The Dial, the voice of Transcendentalism (Fergensen, 14), but this activity will be analyzed shortly.
In 1846, Fuller moved overseas to Europe to become the first American female correspondent. She settled in Italy the next year after touring Scotland, England, and France. These travels, combined with her movement around the Eastern states of America, gave her even more interesting knowledge about people and their thoughts; about transcendental ideas and feminist issues. While in Italy, Fuller became involved in the Roman revolution and met an Italian nobleman named Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. Despite apprehension, they had a son together and were secretly married in 1848 (Ashby, 92). This is where Margaret Fuller’s story comes to a tragic end.
Both Fuller and her husband dreaded the trip to America in the spring of 1850. Ossoli had been warned in his youth by a fortune-teller to beware the sea. Margaret Fuller did not seem able to assuage his fears, since she shared them on other grounds herself… “I shall perish with my husband and my child” (Wade 1940:265). Their ship crashed against rocks within sight of Fire Island, off the shore of Long Island, during a storm… All three were drowned on July 19, 1850 (Brown, 157).
Despite her unfortunate end, Margaret Fuller left behind influential ideas, writings, and relationships, which lead to the need to analyze and evaluate where the ideas came from and what impact they had during her life and the years to come.
Besides the strict education Fuller was brought up with, there were other factors that contributed to her strong opinions and personality. She was blessed with an intelligent mind, but she also knew how to surround herself with people that would build her up, mentally and emotionally. Fuller taught at multiple schools until her return to her home in Groton, Connecticut in 1838, where she hid away in her mother’s home to work on translating one of her greatest feats, Eckermann’s Gespräche mit Goethe. This gained much positive attention, but Margaret had other things going on in her life. Her family had to go through all of Timothy Fuller’s belongings that had not been touched since his death, and then move the family to Massachusetts. In 1838, they settled in Jamaica Plain, southwest of Boston (Matteson, 146). After some heartbreak and friend trouble due to intense passions, Fuller decided she needed to return to exercising her intellect and inspiring others. So, encouraged by her friend Bronson Alcott, Fuller began her first series of conversations (Matteson, 157).
Alcott had influenced Fuller to begin these conversations by hosting some of his own, beginning in 1835. Following suit, Fuller began her conversations in 1939. The guidelines from Alcott were as follows:
First…the converser announced the topic of the conversation in advance but used no notes…Second, the atmosphere was meant to be more intimate than a public oration…The leader’s goal was not only to inform but also to inspire listeners to offer their own reflections on the topic. Finally, the conversation was conceived as a vehicle for social and spiritual reform (Matteson, 157).
Of course, Fuller was to bring her own personality and focus into these conversations. Instead of having them be open to both men and women. Fuller focused mainly on talking to women. She wished to give not only intellectual support to these women but also emotional support. “Her hope, she said, was to supply ‘a point of union to well-educated and thinking women in a city which, with great pretensions to mental refinement, boasts at present nothing of the kind and where I have heard many of a mature age wish for some such means of stimulus and cheer’” (Matteson, 157).
Once the women were gathered around, the conversations began. Each series of talks had a different theme, and each series consisted of about 12 meetings. “Margaret’s usual practice was to introduce the subject under discussion, throw out some leading ideas, and suggest directions in which further investigation might take place” (Brown, 53). At first, not many women were bold enough to offer ideas so Fuller had to have them write them down, but eventually, everyone was at least participating a bit in the conversations. She was “always leading and encouraging members of the group in ideas that provoked further enterprise between one class and those to follow. She found all the women in the group to be intelligent, and five or six had talent” (Brown, 54). Her first subject was Greek mythology relating to the relationship between constitution and nature, with Fine Arts, more Greek mythology as seen through art, and ethics following. Following these talks, Fuller’s ego and reputation grew (Brown, 56).
The easiest way to understand Margaret Fuller’s feminist views is by diving into The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women. This early work of hers was published in the Dial as Woman of the Nineteenth Century in early 1845. In this essay, Fuller gets fully into what she believes should be the rights and roles of women. Near the beginning, she illustrates a conversation between herself and a “sorrowful trader” who does not agree with the idea that women should not be slaves to their husbands and subjected to domestic work all the days of their lives. This is a vivid example of some of the criticism she received for her ideas.
“Is it not enough…but now you must be trying to break up family union, to take my wife away from the cradle, and the kitchen hearth, to vote at polls, and preach from a pulpit? Of course, if she does such things, she cannot attend to those of her own sphere. She is happy enough as she is. She has more leisure than I have, every means of improvement, every indulgence…She is too amiable to wish what would make me unhappy, and too judicious to wish to step beyond the sphere of her sex. I will never consent to have our peace disturbed by any such discussions…Am I not the head of my house…I am the head and she the heart.”
…[Margaret:] “But our doubt is whether the heart consents with the head, or only acquiesces in its decree” (Rossi, 161).
Did the husband ask the wife what she wished to do? No, and this is where Fuller made her point that men were not allowing women to live up to their full potential, intellectually or emotionally.
It was not rare for Fuller to argue for the development of all human beings, no matter the sex or ethnicity, so from there, she began to relate the state of women to that of slaves. She was not surprised that the Anti-Slavery party was fighting for the rights of women since neither party could own land or live as an equal to a free man or husband. In addition, the free men could own property, take everything from woman or slave, with little protection for either. Men even seemed to feel the same way towards women as they did towards slaves. While she seemed to tear the male sex down, Fuller worked to build up women, whether they were “feminine” or “masculine”. She fought for their rights, no matter what a woman pleased to do or whichever way she wanted to expand her intelligence (Rossi, 161-162).
More criticisms came from the Hawthorne couple, Nathaniel and his wife, Sophia. In response to The Great Lawsuit Sophia says,
“It seems to me…that if she [Fuller] were married truly, she would no longer be puzzled about the rights of woman. This is the revelation of woman’s true destiny and place, which never can be imagined by those who do not experience the relation… Home I think is the great arena for women” (qtd. In Chevigny 231-2). And if Sophia Hawthorne thought Fuller should put aside the rights of women for marriage, then her husband judged Fuller even more harshly (Martin, 91).
Nathaniel goes on to portray Fuller in a negative way in his later work, The Blithedale Romance. Not every fellow author met by Fuller agreed with her radical feminism, especially because of her “masculine” nature and idea that marriage was not necessary for a woman. Before she fell in love and later got married, marriage seemed like a prison to Fuller. About her preferences, Martin writes, “Female friendship appealed to Fuller, in part because it held the potential for a symmetrical relationship that was uncorrupted by the patriarchal power dynamics inherent to male-female relations” (Martin, 92). Margaret was passionate about her close friends, no matter male or female, but the thought of getting married was not appealing to her. However, she did get lonely at times, and once said, “I am alone, as usual” (Madison, 433). Unfortunately, heartbreak would follow her, and her future marriage to someone who greatly admired her would later be short-lived.
In The Great Lawsuit, Fuller mentioned the character “Miranda.” It was speculated that Miranda was just an alias for Margaret herself. Miranda’s father, like Margaret’s, saw her as an equal. Her father treated her as an intellectual and raised her to be self-reliant, a virtue important to Fuller. “Of Miranda I had always thought as an example, that the restraints upon the sex were insuperable only to those who think them so” (Rossi, 165). Fuller, after studying her friend “Miranda,” decided that women could be free from the prison of their sex if only they thought that they were equal with men. Subsequently, it seemed that women needed to be brought up as equals to see themselves in that way and to work towards self-reliance. Miranda “had taken a course of her own, and no man stood in her way…and the many men, who knew her mind and her life, showed to her confidence as to a brother, gentleness as to a sister” (Rossi, 165). When it came to females, Fuller thought a lot of work needed to be done on the part of not only men and their views of women, but on the part of women’s views of themselves and their limitations.
The patriarchy was not the only thing Margaret Fuller wished to destroy. During her first round of conversations, she joined forces with other Transcendentalists, including Emerson and George Ripley, to attack the money-mindedness of American society. They did this by starting The Dial magazine, a sort of Holy Bible for Transcendentalists. Fuller wrote in a letter to her friend William H. Channing that “American’s cared more for getting a living than learning ‘to live mentally and morally’” (Matteson, 173). This was the motivation for this club of thinkers to cobble together private diaries, spontaneous criticism, and poetry by transcendental authors to spread the importance of thinking throughout Boston, and incidentally, fans of the authors. The only qualifications for contributors were “as long as they qualified as free spirits earnestly thoughtful and sincerely desirous of communicating heartfelt sentiments to the world” (Brown, 58), and thought that “the earth is [mankind’s] school, if not his birthplace; God his object; life and thought his means of interpreting nature and aspiring to God” (Brown, 48). If these authors, including Fuller, the editor, thought freely about humanity and nature and passed Fuller’s scrupulous editing, they could contribute to the magazine.
Margaret contributed to the journal and was adamant about defending her views and eloquently sharing them with readers. Fuller worked as the editor for two years but decided to leave the job to Emerson after readership declined. From there, she went on to continue her conversations and work on new projects. The Dial only lasted for four years in total, but left a mark on people’s minds and thoughts, even more than Fuller could have hoped (Brown, 62).
One characteristic of Fuller’s transcendentalism was her much less optimistic view that Utopia could not be reached. She said, “it is impossible to build up” (Brown, 60). However, she was supportive of her friend Ripley when he began planning his own Utopia. This farm community, called Brook Farm, upheld the Transcendental principal of high thinking and plain living, much in contrast to the money focus of conservative American life. Fuller became a bit of a celebrity in the community, and she even hosted a few conversations there (Madison, 431).
After leaving The Dial and finishing her conversations, Margaret Fuller’s life turned into one of travel. She was invited to the Great Lakes country, where she recorded her impressions of the frontier in her first book, Summer on the Lakes. From there, she was invited by Horace Greeley to write literary criticism for the New York Tribune, so she traveled to the new state. Her works from this period were collected and published in 1846 under the title Papers on Literature and Art. These were the most distinguished criticisms in Fuller’s lifetime (Madison, 433).
During this time, Margaret went through some heartbreak, because even the most masculine of women feels the bitter pains of lost love. However, her consolation was a grand tour of Europe with some friends. They started out in Great Britain, where her reputation had spread positively. She was respected by readers of her works and met with important people during her time there. She left for Paris in the fall, where she lived the high life while also being upset over the immense poverty. She meditated and wrote on this unfortunate situation, but headed to Rome in the spring. Fuller much admired the Italians, with their dignified antiquities and rich culture. There, she felt more in tune with humanity and the passions of the world. This is where Margaret and Giovanni, mentioned earlier, began their love story (Madison, 433-435).
Fuller did more than just fall in love with the history and people of Italy. She got involved with the Italian liberation movement. She empathized with the divided country and was willing to help work toward national unity. She wanted political freedom, social betterment, and equality, much like she wanted for women and all people back in America. She greatly enjoyed being part of this revolution, keeping her brave spirit with her as she returned to Rome. Unfortunately for her, Napoleon led a siege on the city, leading Fuller to become a part of the medical effort for her side of the revolution. “She was ‘tired out’—tired of thinking and hoping—tired of seeing men err and bleed” (Madison, 437). With her spirits dashed, Fuller, along with her husband, returned to Reiti where they had left their young son during the revolution’s events. After months of writing on the revolution, it was decided that the young family needed to go home to America due to lack of assets in Italy. From there, the family died in that fateful boat crash (Madison, 435-437).
All throughout her important life, Margaret Fuller was passionate about everything she believed in. From improving the rights of women to taking part in an Italian revolution, Fuller never lost sight of what she believed in. Without her strict and troubling upbringing, Margaret might not have been as influential, but thanks to her intellect and fierce spirit, we are left with her own words, fighting for an improved society for all. “It is clear that, above all, Fuller wanted to be remembered as a pioneering feminist…she ‘felt a delightful glow as if [she] had put a good deal of [her] true life in it, as if, suppose [she] went away now, the measure of [her] foot-print would be left on the earth’” (Fergensen, 19).
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