Margaret Fuller (1810-50) is without question one of the most fascinating and provocative women of nineteenth-century America. She deserves to be better known than she is, for her contribution was significant—in the areas of Transcendental thought, American feminism, and newspaper and magazine journalism.

During the period covered by the present volumes of letters, Fuller grew up in Massachusetts, taught young ladies, dazzled her contemporaries with formidable learning, conducted “conversations” (or consciousness-raising sessions) with Transcendental women, edited (with Emerson) The Dial, and, after moving on to New York, served as literary editor for Horace Greeley’s New-York Daily Tribune. After 1844 she travelled in Europe, lived in Italy, became involved with the revolutionaries attached to Mazzini, bore a perhaps illegitimate child to the rebel nobleman Ossoli, and—after the collapse of the first campaign of the Risorgimento—returned to America. On the return voyage, Margaret, the Marquis Ossoli, and their child Angelo were shipwrecked and drowned off Fire Island, New York. She was forty years old.

The editor of the letters, Robert N. Hudspeth, has quite rightly claimed that this edition will present Fuller in a new light. Even so, I think it doubtful that Fuller’s letters are “the best means we have of capturing the whole of her diverse personality.” A distinctive personality emerges here, but it is not the whole Fuller. It is not, for example, the vivid Fuller to be found in her journals or in the testimony of her contemporaries. Nor is it the Fuller of the “Margaret cult” espoused in contemporary feminism. In fact, Fuller disliked what she called “the epistolary medium” because it “does not refresh like conversation, it does not stimulate, like good serious study or writing.” Only the letters describing her travels in the West, written in 1843, have any literary merit. And although she was the author or translator of several books—Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe (1839), Günderode (1842), Summer on the Lakes (1844), Papers on Literature and Art (1846), and Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845)—only the last survives, principally as a sacred unread text in the women’s movement.

Fuller was essentially a talker, rather than a writer. Henry James called her a dazzling moral improvisatrice who “left nothing behind her, her written utterance being naught.” This is perhaps too harsh, but even her close friend Elizabeth Barrett Browning remarked that “If I wished anyone to do her justice, I should say, as I have indeed said, 'Never read what she has written.”’ The judgment of Eleanor Roosevelt, in an introduction to Margaret Bell’s 1930 biography of Fuller, seems as true of the letters as of Fuller’s other prose: “To us to-day much of what she said and wrote seems pedantic and the language, which was that of the scholar of her day, smacks somewhat of the Blue Stocking.” Fuller is thus not a great stylist whose letters give unalloyed pleasure. But we do find in the correspondence what Roosevelt called the “enthusiasm for greatness of mind and soul” typical of everything that Margaret Fuller wrote.

The principal value of this edition of letters is the light it throws on Fuller’s sense of herself as a woman, defining herself against the constraints of a patriarchal society. In her childhood, her father Timothy Fuller provided her with a thorough education in languages and literature, philosophy, history, and religion. His regimen was demanding and, since she deeply loved him, she was overly conscientious, with the effect that she developed lifelong splitting headaches and suffered terrifying nightmares. She was later to criticize her father’s educational system as tyrannical, but it was no different from that regularly imposed on boys; and, in any case, it prepared her for a life of literature and criticism. Among women she had few intellectual equals in the 1830s and 1840s.

In her youth, like many Transcendentalists, she proclaimed an Emersonian self-reliance that endeared her to her women students but that made her seem arrogant to very nearly every male acquaintance. According to Hawthorne, Emerson “apotheosized her as the greatest woman . . . of ancient or modern times, and the one figure in the world worth considering.” But she could stun Emerson by announcing matter-of-factly that “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own”; and she could casually observe that “I myself am more divine than any I see.” Such doting on herself might have charmed Whitman, but this celebration of the self repelled Elizabeth Pea-body and Hawthorne, Thoreau and James Russell Lowell, the latter satirizing her extravagantly in A Fable for Critics for her “I-turn-the-crank-of-the-Universe air.”

Fuller’s sublime egotism is tempered in these letters. We do not find here many of those outrageous expressions of “mountainous me” that stupefied her contemporaries. (On reflection, she blithely told Carlyle, for instance, “I accept the Universe,” to which he retorted, “By Gad, she’d better.”) Nor do we find here much of that bizarre gender confusion evident in her private journal. For whatever reasons, Fuller split herself into a masculine and a feminine identity, associating passion and feeling with her womanhood and the life of the intellect with a masculine self. Hers was not the usual androgynous sensibility, often acclaimed in feminist criticism, but evidence of a deeply disturbed psychosexual maladjustment. We will not find in the letters, for example, the acknowledgment in the journal that “It is so true that a woman may be in love with a woman, and a man with a man. I like to be sure of it, for it is the same which angels feel.” To be sure of it meant abandoning her usual “refuge in the All,” but the risks seemed instructive. Her passionate involvement with some of the girls in her class produced such perfervid and rapturous effects that the saintly Emerson uneasily recorded that her female friendships were “not un-mingled with passion, and had passages of romantic sacrifice and of ecstatic fusion, which I have heard with the ear, but could not trust my profane pen to report.”

So tinged with erotic seduction was Fuller’s teaching that one of her female students later remarked: “Had she been a man, any one of those fine girls of sixteen, who surrounded her here, would have married her: they were all in love with her, she understood them so well.” Ultimately, Fuller came to realize that the incipient, if not enacted, lesbianism of such feelings could destroy her, and after a tempestuous breakup with her friend Caroline Sturgis they reconstructed a relationship that Fuller described as “redeemed from the search after Eros.”

Yet Eros was the driving, well-nigh uncontrolled energy in this woman. One of the great catastrophes of her life was rejection in love by Samuel Ward, who decided to marry Anna Barker, a mutual friend to whom Margaret also had a passionate erotic attachment. She marveled at George Sand’s insight into “the life of thought” and concluded “She must know it through some man.” And a continuing refrain in these letters is her yearning for someone who could give her this insight. She told F. H. Hedge that she longed “to pour out my soul to some person of superior calmness and strength and fortunate in more accurate knowledge. I should feel such a quieting reaction.” Only Goethe, she thought, had a mind equal to her own—and passion too, for his amorous liaisons were absorbing to her and she begged all the men she knew for more information about his affairs, ostensibly for a biography, which she never completed. But such things could not be openly or comfortably disclosed to an unmarried woman.

Emerson, though an ex-minister, a married man, and a father, was next best to Goethe, as the pivotal mind of his time. And Fuller intrigued to meet him and tried desperately to seduce him, at least intellectually, with a voracious energy that went beyond the Romantic Cult of Friendship. In the fall of 1840, both she and Caroline Sturgis, in a bizarre triangle, pursued Emerson to the brink of Eros. In his private journal, Emerson spoke to Fuller with a directness not evident in their letters:

You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought and said? Well, whilst you were thinking and saying them, but not now. I see no possibility of loving anything but what now is, and is becoming; your courage, your enterprize, your budding affection, your opening thought, your prayer. I can love, but what else?

It was always that “what else” that Fuller required. Frustrated by his lofty ministerial reserve, she complained of his “use” of the instincts “rather for rejection than reception,” and his failure to offer her “the clue of the labyrinth of [her] own being.” Thinking that she wanted power over him, he called a temporary halt to their correspondence.

Resigned to being bright and ugly, and fascinated by Mary Magdalen, George Sand, Goethe’s mistresses, and Madame de Stael’s Corinne, Fuller abandoned New England, where men seemed full of “petty intellectualities, cant and bloodless theory.” As she had said to Almira P. Barlow, “I am more and more dissatisfied with this world, and cannot find a home in it.”

Fuller’s departure for New York, to write for Horace Greeley’s newspaper, was seen in Boston and Concord as a dangerous test of constraining ethical standards, and her social work with “fallen women” in Sing Sing prison seemed a doubtful project in political journalism for a woman who had shown no interest whatsoever in the New England abolition movement then raging. The Englishwoman Harriet Martineau expressed this criticism perhaps most acidulously in her Autobiography, where she contrasted herself and Fuller on the issue of antislavery:

The difference between us was that while she was living and moving in an ideal world, talking in private and discoursing in public about the most fanciful and shallow conceits which the transcendentalists of Boston took for philosophy, she looked down upon persons who acted instead of talking finely, and devoted their fortunes, their peace, their repose, and their very lives to the preservation of the principles of the republic.

But abolition was not Fuller’s issue, a fact that seemed paradoxical to her friends.

More urgent to Fuller was a serious redefinition of the role of women in society, and she was unwilling to postpone it until after the emancipation of blacks. “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down,” she wrote in Woman in the Nineteenth Century. “We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.” This sounds promising, and is written with force. But then she takes off into the Transcendental gas: “Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres, would ensue.”

Such crystallizations were not imminent in New England, nor were they likely even in New York. Nor, finally, could she even focus on this issue. Like most of the Transcendental crowd, she had no vocation. In Italy, in the revolutions of 1848, she found another public issue. From Transcendental Individualist and Feminist she passed on to the role of “enthusiastic Socialist.” Italy offered her the final field for her intellectual and sexual radicalism.

Even from afar, however, Fuller was a scandal in New England. For the news about Margaret, reported back to Concord, was that she and her ostensible husband Ossoli, ten years her junior, had never really been married—or, if so, orily after the birth of their child. Emerson insisted that her criticism of marriage as an institution was merely theoretic and that, when she returned, a license would be produced. Others weren’t so sure, and tongues wagged in Boston. Of course the shipwreck destroyed any evidence that might have resolved the question. (Thoreau was sent down to Fire Island to recover the Ossolis’ bodies and their belongings, but only the child Angelo was washed ashore.) Hawthorne was convinced that the Ossoli business was the final evidence of Fuller’s collapse into sensuality; and his Zenobia, in The Blithdak Romance, was a cautionary instance of the fate of sexual irregularity in woman in the nineteenth century. Holmes’s Elsie Venner, if not James’s The Bostonians, may also owe something to the memory of this extraordinary woman, the American Corinne. In any case, these letters—wonderfully annotated and scrupulously edited from sometimes mutilated and even bowdlerized texts—recover for us a Margaret Fuller who was at once the intellectual wonder and the sexual terror of her age. They re-animate the “Margaret-ghost” that—as Henry James observed in his life of William Wetmore Story—still haunted the New England mind a half century later.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 4, on page 68
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