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A Double Inheritance: On Margaret Fuller | The Nation

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A Double Inheritance: On Margaret Fuller

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In America, celebrated public intellectuals who are women have, most often, been admitted to the ranks of high cultural regard only one at a time, and never without qualification. In the last century, for instance, the spotlight fell on Mary McCarthy in the 1940s and Susan Sontag in the 1960s, each of whom was smilingly referred to by the public intellectuals of their times as the “Dark Lady of American Letters.” In the first half of the nineteenth century, although a fair number of her sex among abolitionists and suffragists were brilliant, it was Margaret Fuller, world-class talker and author of the influential treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), who stood in the allotted space, alone in a sea of gifted men, most of whom chose to denature her—she thinks like a man—as they could not believe they had to take seriously a thinking woman. This was a great mistake, thought a former student of Fuller’s. “With all the force of her intellect,” said Ednah Dow Cheney in 1902, “all the strength of her will, all her self-denial and power of thought she was essentially and thoroughly a woman, and she won her victories not by borrowing the peculiar weapons of man, but by using her own with courage and skill.”

The Lives of Margaret Fuller
A Biography.
By John Matteson.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Vivian Gornick
Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. Her biography of Emma Goldman is forthcoming from Yale.

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Some 160 years after her death, Fuller remains a haunting figure not so much for the one important book she committed to paper as for the exceptional life she lived, the significance it had in its own moment as well as the one it might have had, if it had not been cut severely short in 1850 when she was 40. Within that short span of time, however, Fuller underwent the kind of dramatic transformation that calls attention to one of moral philosophy’s great conundrums: Is it nobler to spend one’s time on earth devoted to the spiritual elevation of one’s own individuality, or to bond with the eternal struggle for equality in the belief that to serve the greater good is to elevate the spirit life of humanity? This question provides John Matteson’s new book, The Lives of Margaret Fuller, with its organizing principle, and has helped him write a biography that tracks Fuller’s internal journey with a degree of informed sympathy that does full honor to a uniquely American woman who was never more American than when she went abroad in search of large answers to this large question.

* * *

Margaret Fuller, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1810, was the offspring of a family of Unitarian rationalists who believed that, as children of God, we are obligated to develop the intelligence within. Her father, Timothy Fuller, a prominent lawyer and Congressman, exhibited a shared temperament of snotty self-assurance on this score. The enthusiasm, Matteson tells us, with which Timothy and his brothers published the fact that they “knew everything” made people grateful for the information and stunned by the nerve. “Contentious, confident, and possessing not a ‘particle of tact’ among them, the brothers were admired more than they were liked.”

Margaret, the eldest of six children, grew up her father’s daughter: she was the one born brilliant and soon made scornful. To a large degree, she had the childhood of John Stuart Mill. Once her father saw—and this, almost in Margaret’s infancy—that he had a child of prodigious mental ability, he drilled her mercilessly. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her for her own particular self; it was that he loved more the opportunity to satisfy both duty and inclination through the cultivation to the utmost of the remarkable brain he had at his disposal.

Thus, at 4 Margaret could read and understand stories written for grown-ups; at 6 she was studying grammar, both English and Latin; at 9 she was reading major works, again in English and in Latin. History, modern languages and literature were not far down the road; when she got to them, she swallowed them whole. Under her father’s influence, Matteson notes, she came to revere the German Romantics—Goethe, especially—all of whom held the idea that the world was ever evolving toward a higher level of consciousness, and that to pursue consciousness through learning “was a matter not just of destiny but of quasi-religious duty.” To this ideology Fuller consecrated herself, and in her eyes all who did not do likewise deserved her contempt.

She was plain, she was overweight, she blinked compulsively; her voice was nasal, and she talked and wrote an alarmingly complicated blue streak. One Cambridge wit observed that the Transcendentalists “read Dante in the original Italian, Hegel in the original German…and perhaps the hardest task of all, Margaret Fuller in the original English.” By Fuller’s 20s, everyone in Cambridge who mattered considered her the most educated woman in New England, as well as the one who suffered fools least gladly. Years after her death, Emerson remembered that many people “did not wish to be in the same room with her.” Partly it was “the effect of her manners, which expressed an overweening sense of power, and slight esteem of others…. The men thought she carried too many guns, and the women did not like one who despised them.” There were indeed many who could not bear the sight or the sound of her—among them Nathaniel Hawthorne; then again, there were many who prized her company—among them, Lidian and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Fuller was permanently of two minds about her extraordinary childhood. On the one hand, she wrote of her father that he had treated her “not as a plaything, but as a living mind,” and for this she would be forever grateful. On the other hand, she thought that she had paid for this gift with lifelong migraines, permanent insomnia and impaired eyesight, as well as a debilitating inability to believe that her intellectual output was sufficient. While her father had set great store by her intelligence, he had also corrected far more than he had praised. So, Matteson writes, “along with the superior attention span and tremendous knowledge,” she absorbed from her father “a fierce penchant for self-criticism.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily a sense of one’s insufficiency can become projected outward, onto one’s fellow creatures. Meeting Fuller in New York in 1845, Edgar Allan Poe said of her, “The upper lip habitually uplifts itself…conveying the impression of a sneer.”

This double inheritance of erudition and disdain was the formative experience of Fuller’s life, the one that made and unmade her repeatedly. She became that most startling of human configurations: an insecure narcissist, formidably educated, forever exhibiting a nervous contempt for the second-rate, never able to puzzle out why she felt eternally alone as she marched indomitably forward. Throughout her life, many knew her but only a few would have the stamina to love her; among those few, aside from the Emersons, were Horace Greeley, Caroline Sturgis and Henry David Thoreau; and later, in Europe, Giuseppe Mazzini, Thomas Carlyle and George Sand. Nowhere, however, could she make the emotional connection that would relieve her sense of isolation.

* * *

Timothy Fuller died of cholera when Margaret was 25. As she was the eldest, the support of the family now rested on her shoulders. She began teaching—among the many places she worked was Bronson Alcott’s experimental Temple School—and in 1839, in order to integrate her growing preoccupation with women’s education and the need to make a living, Fuller instituted the Wednesday morning “conversation classes” for women with which her memory is historically identified. To these Conversations came the wives and sisters of every prominent family in Cambridge—the Channings, the Clarkes, the Peabodys—

and it is from their diaries and letters that we have the best testimonials to the legendary brilliance of Fuller’s conversation, as well as the varied experience of her as a teacher.

Sarah Freeman Clarke: Her conversation was “like the sun shining upon plants and causing buds to open into flowers. This was her gift, and she could no more help exercising it than the sun can help shining.” It made for an educational force of great power.

Caroline Healey Dall: “She can discourse, but she cannot converse…. To converse, a person must appreciate the minds of others, and so draw them out.” This, she asserted, Fuller could never do.

Elizabeth Peabody: “She studies and thinks with the seriousness of one upon oath, and there has not been a single conversation this winter, in either class, that had not in it the spirit which giveth life. Just in proportion to the importance of the subject does she tax her mind and say what is most important.”

Sophia Hawthorne: “Queen Margaret!”

It was when Fuller met Emerson in 1836 that her life as an intellectual among intellectuals began. She had initiated the meeting, and at first the Sage of Concord was put off by her unwomanly boldness; but soon enough, charmed by her erudition and originality of spirit, he became and remained her most influential interlocutor. To him she would owe the most, insofar as an educated inner life was concerned. When, in 1839, Emerson urged her to take on the editorship of the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, she could not refuse. Although she proved a dynamic editor, one who learned quickly to appreciate the meaning of achieving structure in short pieces of prose, her heart was not in the work. Sometime during these years Fuller began to chafe consciously at what it meant to be a woman in a world made by and for men, and her one lasting piece of work began to germinate.

In the spring of 1843 The Dial published an essay of Fuller’s called “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women.” She meant this piece, Matteson tells us, “to foster a greater good for Man and Woman alike, whom she regarded as ‘the two halves of one thought.’” She pointed out that, as things stood, there was a discrepancy between “an ideal concept of the two sexes” and the reality, which was “a stunted, degraded vision of humanity…cut off from its rightful spiritual inheritance by habits of jealousy, skepticism, and myopic self-interest.”

Out of this piece would come Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a seminal work for the growing feminist movement. Framed in the context of the Transcendentalist view that a good world could be achieved only through the intellectual and spiritual elevation of each and every human being, the book argued, through a wealth of literary, philosophical and historical references, that such elevation must begin with the recognition of women as citizens in their own right. The argument was so impressive that even Horace Greeley—no feminist, he—said, “If not the clearest and most logical,” it was “the loftiest and most commanding assertion yet made of the right of Woman to be regarded and treated as an independent, intelligent, rational, being entitled to an equal voice in framing and modifying the laws she is required to obey.”

Greeley, the famously progressive editor of the New York Tribune, was the last man to take Fuller’s life in hand. She had written a small book about a trip she’d taken on the Great Lakes, and it had caught his attention. At his wife’s suggestion, Greeley invited Fuller to come work for him as a literary critic, the first such post in an American newspaper. To the surprise of all in Cambridge, she accepted his offer, and in 1844, after she had nearly completed Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she moved to New York, became a journalist, discovering politics and, along with it, a wide world that she quickly came to relish. The Transcendental obsession with the nature of self-perfection began to crack, as an eggshell cracks around an emerging chick.

The amount of work that Fuller did on the Tribune is remarkable, especially because she could not meet a deadline. New York life, high and low (and the low was as low as it gets), drew her like a magnet; to her amazement the attraction was stamped not “self-improvement” but “reform.” She began to write not only about books but about the life of the underclass in New York, then America, then abroad. News of the European freedom movements of the 1840s filled her columns, and she mourned publicly the imperial clampdowns. Nevertheless, her insecurities were such that the day and the hour and the mood needed to be mysteriously in conjunction for her to sit down at the desk.

Reminiscing about her time on the paper, Greeley said, “While I never met another woman who conversed more freely or lucidly, the attempt to commit her thoughts to paper seemed to induce a singular embarrassment and hesitation. She could write only when in the vein; and this needed often to be waited for through several days…. To the inveterate hack-horse of the daily press the notion of waiting for a brighter day or a happier frame of mind, appears fantastic and absurd.” Yet Greeley admired her greatly. On having heard her speak out on behalf of prostitutes, he said, “I have known few women, and scarcely another maiden, who had the heart and the courage to speak with such frank compassion, in mixed circles, of the most degraded and outcast portion of the sex.” In Cambridge they could hardly believe their ears. Fuller occupied with the fate of prostitutes? Foreign freedom movements? Starvation and inequality? Had Queen Margaret abdicated her throne?

* * *

An American as educated and insecure as Margaret Fuller was destined to feel a provincial until she’d been to Europe; when her long-awaited chance came along in the summer of 1846—a pair of wealthy American friends invited her to join them on their journey abroad—she jumped at it. Armed (by Emerson) with letters of introduction to people like Thomas Carlyle in London, and encouraged by Greeley, she sailed for England, promising her generous editor that she would be reporting regularly from the continent.

It was as though Europe had been waiting to show the “new” Fuller what she could best make use of. In England, what she saw, first and foremost, was not gardens and churches but the inhuman poverty created by industrialization (the London slums were terrifying); and while she loved meeting Jane and Thomas Carlyle, it was Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary-in-exile, whose passion for a unified Italy electrified her. Mazzini’s homeland was being torn apart between foreign occupation, on the one hand—either the French or the Austrians were always in power—and the accommodating Italian monarchies, on the other, while ordinary people went on living in ignorance, political oppression and unspeakable poverty. Mazzini, a man of supreme intelligence and goodness, was fighting for a republic. His hunger for democracy (a thing Fuller had always taken for granted) started her thinking about the shortcomings of her own republic: slavery, women’s subjugation, unbridled capitalism.

Fuller soon saw that large things were happening: not just Italy but France, Austria and Germany were also bursting apart. Enormous social forces were at work on the European continent, and they threw into serious question the task of individual self-perfection. She had always said that she longed for a world in which every human being would be so deeply fulfilled that there would be no looking up and no looking down. Now those sentiments had taken an undreamed-of, flesh-and-blood turn. For the first time in her life she saw the import of class division, the hierarchy of human value that it established. She also realized that the personal fulfillment she had so glibly envisioned could not begin to accomplish itself without political equality. Suddenly, she knew herself as a person who welcomed radical action. Mazzini declared her a friend of the revolution.

In Paris she met the glamorous George Sand and, more important, the Polish poet and patriot-in-exile Adam Mickiewicz, whom she immediately identified as a kindred spirit; he, too, was struggling with the tension between politics and the private self. But it was in Rome, her “City of the Soul,” that everything fell into place—love, work, revolution—and it was from here that she wrote her mother that she now realized that at home in the States, “I was not in the soil most fitted to my nature.” In a letter of amusing immodesty she told her mother that the Italians “sympathize with my character…as no other people ever did…they admire the ready eloquence of my nature, and highly prize my intelligent sympathy of their sufferings in the past and their hopes for the future.”

In Rome she loved it all—the food, the light, the open sensuality, the political excitement that charged the air—and, with an exhilaration she had never known, wrote about it all: the street life, the churches, the Papacy and its discontents, the expectant uprising and, when it came, the twists and turns of a revolution that developed, vibrated and died within a year. Greeley published every word that Fuller wrote, relishing the richness of her response, the fullness of her sympathies, the insistence with which she urged her readers to support the cause of Italian nationalism as though it was their own. She often ran into conservative Americans who “saw her as a reckless troublemaker” urging to revolution people they themselves saw as “happy enough.” Fuller thought that the sort of life her compatriots were calling “happy enough” would not suffice for her, so why should it for the Italians? The work she sent home during these years made her one of the first foreign correspondents who not only informed American readers of the world beyond their borders but interpreted it for them.

In April 1847 another life-changing event took place. Wandering around St. Peter’s, Fuller got hopelessly lost, accepted the aid of an attentive young Italian (he was a good ten years younger than she), then let him walk her home. His name was Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, the son of a noble Italian family, and an amiable soul who could not make his way in the world. In one sense, their connection was most unlikely; in another, it was all too predictable.

* * *

Ossoli was intelligent but uneducated, gentle but weak-willed, appreciative but uncultured, and she was a 36-year-old virgin hungry to experience “life.” Who better to supply it than someone like Ossoli, whose simplicity, coupled with a growing adoration, chipped steadily away at her many fears. For the next two months they met regularly; at the end of that time Ossoli asked Fuller to marry him. At first she withdrew in panic—No, no, she said, such an alliance was “in every way unfit”—and in June fled Rome. To her eternal credit, by October she was back in the city, and in all probability went to bed with Ossoli very soon thereafter.

Erotic love came as a shock and a revelation. For the first time she knew in the flesh what it meant to make oneself vulnerable to life; the knowledge made her shiver and it made her glow. If it had overtaken her at home she would probably have felt ruined—the mere thought of Cambridge and the stigma of illicit love made her ill—but as it came to her through an Italian in Italy, where there was less stigma, to be sure, but none that felt life-threatening. She was filled with so strong a sense of life’s precariousness that an empathic feeling for her fellow creatures swept through her. She would not again, she thought, be so quick to despise anyone.

Now came her happiest days. She was settled in a great European city, having a great sexual romance, working hard at her dispatches to New York and feeling the nervous, wide-awake excitement of human sympathy. Emelyn Story, the wife of the American sculptor William Story, was one of the few people in Rome who had known Fuller in Cambridge. She was amazed at the change in her. The “person on intellectual stilts with a large share of arrogance and little sweetness of temper” was no more. If one could believe it, Fuller seemed relaxed and outgoing, filled with good will, even affection; there was not an ounce of contempt in her voice. It was, of course, too good to last, and it did not.

In 1848 Fuller gave birth to an unwanted child. The pregnancy—motherhood!—horrified her. She had discovered herself as a woman with an enormous appetite for worldly engagement but almost none for family life. After all, she had wanted only the experience of sexual love, not a permanent attachment to a man with whom she couldn’t talk, a baby she couldn’t care for, a home whose upkeep defeated her. Throughout the pregnancy she existed in a state of unrelieved despair, writing letters that hinted of a tragic turn in her life to friends and family who did not yet know of Ossoli’s existence. “With this year,” she wrote to one, “I enter upon a sphere of my destiny so difficult, that I, at present, see no way out, except through the gate of death.” To another, “I feel as if I had received a great injury…. I wish I could weep my life away.”

Nonetheless, from the balcony of her apartment in Rome, she watched with a full heart as the revolution unfolded, struggled to live and then died. In 1848 there were brief uprisings in Rome; then in January 1849 republican forces led by Giuseppe Garibaldi marched into the city and declared the Papal State of Rome a republic. Mazzini returned home to Milan, and elections were held for a Constituent Assembly. In June the French assaulted the city, defeating the republican army and restoring the pope to power. Revolution in Italy would not rise again for another twenty years.

For the rest of her short time on earth, Fuller referred to those days in Rome as “that great tide of life in which my heart had gone forward with as much force as was left [in] it.” An American in Italy who’d known her in Cambridge found her looking greatly aged late in 1849, but remarkably, he observed, her conversation was shot through with compassion for all concerned. She had lived long enough to experience intimately that great philosophic convulsion—the passion for the supremacy of the individual alternating in distress with the equally compelling passion for universal equality—and the experience had given her a breadth of vision that made her wise. She intended to spend the rest of her life thinking about the consequences—both for history and the idea of the sacred self—of such self-divisions. Italy was over for her.

In May 1850, along with her child and her lover (no marriage certificate has been found for Fuller and Ossoli), as well as a draft of a book on the Italian revolution, Fuller boarded a ship bound for New York. It was against all advice, from friends abroad and at home, that she had decided to return to America. Other people seemed to know what she would not allow herself to know. Yes, she was a changed woman; but after all, not that changed. She would be returning to the cold judgment of a puritanical Cambridge that no doubt would view her as a failure: shackled to a man without education or a profession, a baby to whom she felt only intermittently connected and the burden of having, once again, to make a living for the family. How could she ever again approach the project of self-improvement? Would she have the strength to face down the self-doubt that was bound to assault her? Could she hold her head high in spite of the exhausting secrets with which she would have to live (imagine telling Emerson that her child was illegitimate). Where, her old friends would think, was the much vaunted progress of which she had boasted?

On the voyage across the Atlantic, Fuller sat on deck, staring into space a good deal of the time; or else she spoke with irritation to the ever attentive Giovanni; or handed him the baby more often than others thought natural. How she must have dreaded the arrival home! During those months at sea with nothing to do but brood, she had gradually lost faith in her ability to rise above her compromised circumstances. She had lived through a war, seen ordinary people perform magnificently, had herself endured what she could never have dreamed of enduring. The experience had made her, potentially, one of the most interesting political reporters the country would ever produce. At that late moment, all that she had undergone seemed to expose rather than protect her against the hard, unforgiving stare of the place of origin she had left in order to become herself. The tragedy is that she had become herself, only she had not yet inhabited her new identity fully enough to traverse the gap—wide as no-man’s-land—that lies between where we come from and where we are going. That journey takes not so much courage as time, and time had run out on her.

In July, off the coast of Fire Island—yards from shore and just miles from New York City—her ship struck a sandbar during an unseasonable storm and sank. Survivors of the shipwreck said that the Ossolis could have saved themselves, but, they reported, because Margaret would not leave the ship, neither did the others. Giovanni, with the baby in his arms, stood behind her while she sat unmoving on the rain-swept deck, her hands on her knees, her eyes staring into space, declaring that she saw death before her, it was useless to try to save herself.

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