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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Sarah Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller’s father had been disappointed when his first child was a girl. Still, when he was not away as a member of Congress or as Speaker of the Massachusetts House, he gave her the same education as any young man of their class might have received. At age fifteen, her daily schedule began at five in the morning, ended at eleven at night, and included reading literary and philosophical works in four languages, especially German, walking, singing, and playing the piano. The passages about “Miranda” in Woman in the Nineteenth Century reflect an idealized view of this upbringing, omitting the lifelong nightmares and headaches which may have been rooted in this imposing routine. When her family moved back to Cambridge in the early 1830s, Fuller met most of the people central to the Transcendentalist movement: Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, W.H. Channing, among others. She was already on her way to what Thomas Carlyle called a “predetermination to eat this big universe as her oyster or her egg,” and she made an instant impression on those around her.

The death of her father in 1835 forced Fuller to take up school-teaching to support herself and her family. After a brief stint in Alcott’s progressive Temple School in Boston, she accepted a post in Providence, Rhode Island, moving there in 1837. But Fuller saw teaching as a means, not an end, and she keenly felt her isolation from the intellectual circles in Boston, to which she returned in December, 1838.

There she flourished. In May, 1839, she published her translation of Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe in the Last Years of His Life, and in January, 1840, she began a two-year period as editor of The Dial, the semi-official journal of the Transcendentalists. During this period she supported herself by holding “Conversations” for women on topics such as poetry, ethics, Greek mythology, or the other subjects outlined in her letter to Sophia Ripley. Fuller believed that women had been educated solely for display and not to think. She saw herself as a catalyst for the women in her groups, and at her “Conversations” she attempted to guide and draw out the participants, to force them to realize the potential within themselves. Her “Conversations” between 1839 and 1844 were so popular—even though among the most expensive in Boston—that she was finally constrained to admit men. The “Conversations” anticipate the later organization of women’s literary clubs and other efforts aimed at the self-development of women, who remained largely excluded from advanced educational institutions.

Between May and September, 1843, Fuller and some friends toured the midwest. Upon returning to Boston, Fuller set about writing up her account of the trip, and in June, 1844, published it as Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. The value of her book does not lie in its factual matter—Fuller had aimed at giving her “poetic impression of the country at large.” In her commentary, she sympathized with the plight of the Indians and their betrayal by the whites, worried about attempts to imitate eastern standards of culture at the expense of losing what was unique to the West, and inserted many long passages of scenic description to convey her own sense of wonder at all the natural beauty she had seen.

Summer on the Lakes not only helped Fuller gain recognition as an author, it also brought her to the attention of Horace Greeley, who hired her as literary critic and general essayist for his New York Tribune and who offered to publish her next book. Fuller revised and expanded her essay “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women” from the July, 1843, Dial, and moved to New York in December, 1844, while still working on the book.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in February, 1845, is Fuller’s best-known work—indeed, the only one of her works generally made available to students. In it she attacks the hypocrisy of man, a hypocrisy that allowed him to champion freedom for blacks while maintaining legislation to restrict the rights of woman; a hypocrisy that saw man complain about woman’s physical and emotional unsuitability for positions of responsibility in public life, yet insist that she be a field hand, a nurse, the one to raise and socialize children. She applied to “the woman question” ideas about self-development she shared with Emerson, and adapted something of his hortatory style to her social purposes. “What woman needs,” she wrote,

is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely, and unimpeded to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home.

Fuller’s arguments for full equality of opportunity, for abolishing stereotyped gender roles—“there is no wholly masculine man,” she wrote, “no purely feminine woman”—and for women themselves to represent their own best interests may sound strikingly apt to today’s readers. In any case, the book remains the fullest statement of women’s rights to come out of the Boston-centered literary renaissance of mid-nineteenth-century America.

Fuller wrote nearly 250 reviews and occasional essays for the Tribune in the intense year and a half she worked in New York. Papers on Literature and Art (1846) collected only a few of these, including her famous essay surveying American literature, much of which is reprinted in this volume. But as a reporter she was also able to visit and write about women’s prisons, Hopper Home, a halfway house for female convicts, immigrant slums, city hospitals. She focused her attention, as she had not before, on specific social issues of the day, like capital punishment, the abolitionist movement, the war on Mexico, treatment of madness.

In August, 1846, Fuller sailed for England as one of the first American “foreign correspondents,” male or female. She began with the expected literary tour of England, where the recently issued Papers won her a warm reception among British writers. She also met, and was deeply influenced by, social activists like the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, and literary figures concerned with sexual liberation like the poet Adam Mickiewicz and the then-notorious French woman novelist George Sand. By the summer of 1847 she had taken up residence in Rome and had soon become involved in the revolutionary movements that were to shake Italy and all of Europe. She was swept up in the republican uprising, in her dispatches to the Tribune urging American support for the republican cause, and in the final siege of Rome running a military hospital. She also entered a relationship with Giovanni Ossoli, by whom she had a son, Angelo, in September, 1848; they apparently married the following year. When the Roman Republic fell to French troops in July, 1849, the Ossolis escaped to Rieti, where Angelo had almost been starved by a wet-nurse, and then to Florence, where many of their friends, including the poets Elizabeth and Robert Browning, appear to have been scandalized by their marriage and the fact that Giovanni was eleven years younger than Margaret. After a winter working on her history of the Roman Republic, Fuller set sail with Ossoli for America the following May. Their ship was caught in a storm, wrecked on a sandbar some fifty yards off Fire Island—almost within sight of New York City—and went down; only Angelo’s body was ever found. Thoreau spent five days unsuccessfully combing the beach for their remains or for Fuller’s missing manuscripts.

Although Fuller is famous today for Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she was best known by her contemporaries for her criticism—which attempted to establish well-defined standards—for her own personality—which some friends experienced as “the presence of a rather mountainous ME”—and for her conversation itself—which some found much superior to her writing. Indeed, she seems both to have intrigued and threatened many of her contemporaries: Hawthorne called her a “great humbug” in his journal and may have mocked her in the character of Zenobia in his novel about Brook Farm, The Blithedale Romance. While her friend Emerson lamented that he had “lost in her my audience,” he, W.H. Channing, and James Freeman Clarke attempted to smooth away the social and political radicalism of her last years, bowdlerizing her journals and rewriting her letters in their Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852). In the hands of such ambivalent editors, Fuller came to be regarded as, at best, a serio-comic footnote in American literary history, her style that—in the words of a prominent twentieth-century critic—of a headstrong “galloping filly.” The emergence of a renewed women’s movement in the 1960s helped revive interest in Fuller’s work. Recent scholarship has shown the continuing influence of her writing on nineteenth-century feminists. And contemporary criticism has begun to understand the tensions in her life and work, the successes and failures of her prose, as reflections of her original effort to imagine “the woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain.”
Joel Myerson
University of South Carolina

In the Heath Anthology
To [Sophia Ripley?] (1839)
from Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1844)
American Literature
      Foreign Correspondence of the Tribune (1846)
      Its Position in the Present Time (1846)
      Prospects for the Future (1846)
Things and Thoughts in Europe
      Dispatches 17, 18 (1847)

Other Works
Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844)
Papers on Literature and Art (1846)

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A timeline of Fuller's life.

Margaret Fuller
Basic biographical information.

Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site providing primary and secondary bibliographies and suggested directions for researching Fuller.

The Window: Philosophy on the Net
An introduction to Fuller's work from the perspective of philosophy.

Secondary Sources

Margaret Vanderhaar Allen, The Achievement of Margaret Fuller, 1979

Paula Blanchard, Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution, 1978

Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, vol. 1: The Private Years, 1992

Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings, 1976; rev. ed., 1994

Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller, 1994

Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossili, ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, 2 vols., 1852

Joel Myerson, Margaret Fuller: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography, 1977; supplement in Studies in the American Renaissance 1984, 331-385

Joel Myerson, Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Primary Bibliography, 1978

Joel Myerson, ed., Critical Essays on Margaret Fuller, 1980

Madeline B. Stern, The Life of Margaret Fuller, 1942

Christina Zwarg, Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson, and the Play of Reading, 1995