To those readers for whom Margaret Fuller is only a footnote to the Brook Farm episode of the Transcendental movement, this collection of thirty-seven dispatches written for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune presents an opportunity to view her as a developing personality, burning off heaps of silliness and taking on something like character—even splendor—as she finds herself caught up in the brief, calamitous life of the Roman Republic during the European uprisings of the late 1840s.
Sensing the possibilities of what a later age would call New Journalism (“If you could mix in them personal life still more,” she advised her predecessor at the Tribune at his dispatches, “it would improve them”), Fuller spent much of late 1846 and early 1847 reporting from England and France—and quite without the distinction the editors of this volume attribute to her dispatches as a whole (“Their engaging contents, their vital, organic form, their supple, powerful prose . . .”). In fact, the British reports are oddly paced and suffer from a nails-on-the-blackboard tendency to follow up any clear observation of particulars with self-cherishing truisms. The sight of a sharp seventy-six-year-old Scotswoman makes Fuller tell readers back in New York that the old lady proves “the truth of my theory that we need never grow old.” Locating herself among those “who take an interest in the cause of human freedom,” Fuller can be counted on to become compulsively rhetorical about anything she’s glimpsed. “All but the very poor in England put out their washing,” she notes in Dispatch 10, “and this custom ought to be universal in civilized countries, as it can be done much better and quicker by a few regular laundresses than by many families, and ‘the washing day’ is so malignant a foe to the peace and joy of households that it ought to be effaced from the calendar.” She can be as unintentionally funny as Simone de Beauvoir would be, traveling in America a century later: when Fuller declares the “Precieuses Ridicules” to be “a race which is never quite extinct,” she has at last said a mouthful.
Much gush results from her encounters with literature (“Since Adam, there has been none that approached nearer fitness to stand up before God and angels in the naked majesty of manhood than Robert Burns”) and with art (“Who can despair when he thinks of a form like that, so full of life and bliss!”). One example of truly practical criticism, however—her account of how, after she had a tooth extracted, attending a Parisian performance of Don Giovanni soothed her raw nerves—does foreshadow the distinctive quality of the Italian dispatches: their author’s ability to put personal trouble to journalistic use. The distress arising out of unexpected poverty (from financial mix-ups with Greeley) and pregnancy (by Giovanni Ossoli, a Civic Guard captain) vitalizes the heretofore literary character of her emotional responses with real feeling, and lets her describe political catastrophe with an authentically broken heart.
Before arriving in Rome, Fuller’s politics consisted of a tentative subscription to Fourierism, which she imagined to be making “considerable progress” wherever “they spread the necessity of some practical application of the precepts of Christ.” She had met Mazzini in London and been predictably bowled over (“not only one of the heroic, the courageous, and the faithful—Italy boasts many such—but . . . also one of the wise”), but nothing really prepared her for the Italian challenge to Austrian rule that she was to witness between late 1847 and the summer of 1849. Eager to convert Americans to the cause of Italian freedom and unification, Fuller fleshes out her dispatches with manifestos and poems, and the second half of this volume reads as a surprisingly coherent history of the Italian revolution, from the first hints of papal support to the ultimate defeat of Mazzini.
Tragedy becomes her, and she records the sights of the brutalized city with a fine, genuine anger.
Fuller’s changing reactions to Pius IX show the whole dispiriting downward trajectory. She moves from near adoration (“He has shown undoubted wisdom, clearsightedness, bravery and firmness, but it is above all, his generous heart that gives him his power over this people”) into apprehension, disappointment (the pontiff is “fettered by the prejudices of education”), and, finally, after both he and the French have betrayed the Italian cause, contempt (“It seems he cannot rest, or his wicked counsellors cannot rest, till he has recanted every good thing he ever did”). The Italians themselves, whatever Fuller may say in her private correspondence, are lauded to Tribune readers for their humanity and courage: “Wonderfully has this people been developed within a year!” she writes in the spring of 1848. Despite hardship, she feels no desire to come home, insisting that the spirit of liberty is more alive in Italy than in an America besotted by prosperity, slavery, and the conquest of Mexico.
According to her new editors, Larry J. Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith, she expresses a “proprietary attitude” toward her Italian experience. (Their long introduction, like Fuller’s book, gets better as it goes along.) Announcing her intention to write a history of “this great drama,” Fuller declares that “The materials are over-rich. I have bought my right in them by much sympathetic suffering . . .” The morning after the Republic is proclaimed, she proceeds to the Capitol, where she meets an American:
He “had no confidence in the Republic.” Why? Because he “had no confidence in the People.” Why? Because “they were not like our People.” Ah! Jonathan and John—excuse me, but I must say the Italian has a decided advantage over you in the power of quickly feeling generous sympathy, as well as some other things which I have not time now to particularize. Mais nous nous reverrons. I have memoranda from you both in my note-book.
She declares a desire to serve as the American ambassador in Rome, even though “woman’s day has not come yet.” That particular bit of feminist history would not be made until Dwight Eisenhower gave the Italian embassy to Clare Boothe Luce, but in 1849 Bishop John Joseph Hughes did complain that “no ambassador from foreign countries has recognised [a Roman] republic, except it be the female plenipotentiary who furnishes the Tribune with diplomatic correspondence.”
Fuller’s best descriptive writing covers the French bombardment of Rome, which proved fatal to the Republic in the summer of 1849:
When the bombs began to come, one of the Trasteverines, those noble images of the old Roman race, redeemed her claim to that descent by seizing one and extinguishing the match. She received a medal and a reward in money. A soldier did the same at Palazzo Spada, where is the statue of Pompey, at whose base great Caesar fell. He was promoted. Immediately the people were seized with emulation; armed with pans of wet clay they ran wherever the bombs fell, to extinguish them. Women collect the balls from the hostile cannon and carry them to ours.
Fuller finds the strength to tend to young men in the hospitals (“One kissed an arm which was cut off”) and, after describing how the café-loving Italians must hurry home at the hour of the French-imposed curfew, goes on to say what she never could have in her verbose English dispatches: “Comment is unnecessary.”
Her last dispatch, from Florence on January 6, 1850, is a whirlwind of anger and prophecy.
Tragedy becomes her, and she records the sights of the brutalized city with a fine, genuine anger, mocking one uninformed foreign journal for implying that the red flags flying from Roman rooftops indicate bloodlust: “these flags are put up at the entrance of those streets where there is no barricade, as a signal to coachmen and horsemen that they can pass freely. There is one on the house where I am, in which is no person but myself who thirst for peace, and the padrone who thirsts for money.”
Her last dispatch, from Florence on January 6, 1850, is a whirlwind of anger and prophecy: “Do you laugh, Roman Cardinal, as you shut the prison-door on a woman weeping for her son martyred in the cause of his country? Do you laugh, Austrian officer, as you drill the Hungarian and Lombard youth to tremble at your baton? Soon you, all of you, shall ‘believe and tremble.’”
One feels certain that prolonged bitterness over the defeat would have spoiled her hard-won splendor back into silliness, just as one knows that, had she been born seventy or so years later, Saint Petersburg would have been the second Troy she wished to see burn. By the end of her Roman witness, Fuller’s radicalization was complete enough for her to have acquired “twentieth-century” habits of selective reporting: Reynolds and Smith point out that she “surely knew, but chose not to say” that during the French siege of Rome some republicans had taken to murdering priests.
Fuller’s proposed “History of the Late Revolutionary Movements in Italy” was rejected, despite some improbable help from Carlyle, by a London publisher. The manuscript perished in June 1850, when Fuller, Ossoli, and their son, returning to America on the Elizabeth, were shipwrecked and drowned.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 7, on page 73
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