Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810-July 19, 1850) “possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time.” So wrote Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their 1881 History of Woman Suffrage. Author, editor, and teacher, Fuller contributed significantly to the American Renaissance in literature and to mid-nineteenth century reform movements. A brilliant and highly educated member of the Transcendentalist group, she challenged Ralph Waldo Emerson both intellectually and emotionally. Women who attended her “conversations” and many prominent men of her time found Fuller’s influence life-changing. Her major work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845, profoundly affected the women’s rights movement which had its formal beginning at Seneca Falls, New York, three years later.
Margaret was the first-born child of Unitarian parents, Margarett Crane and Timothy Fuller, Jr. Margarett Crane’s family were Unitarians in Canton, Massachusetts. As a student at Harvard College, Timothy Fuller exchanged his family’s Calvinistic views for Unitarian rationalism. After their marriage, they joined the Cambridgeport Parish Unitarian Church where Thomas Brattle Gannett was minister. Timothy Fuller served on the Church Council. Margarett Crane Fuller was lively, affectionate, well-read and independent in her thinking. A lawyer and a Republican in Federalist New England, Timothy Fuller was elected to the Massachusetts Senate in 1813 and in 1818 began the first of four terms in the United States Congress, later returning to the state legislature and finally retiring to write. Eight daughters and sons were born to the couple, and six grew to adulthood.
After a younger sister died, Margaret was an only child and the focus of her parents’ attention until she was five. Determined to give his daughter the best possible education, her father taught her himself. “I was put at once under discipline of considerable severity,” Margaret remembered, “and, at the same time, had a more than ordinarily high standard presented to me. . . . [My father] thought to gain time, by bringing forward the intellect as early as possible. Thus I had tasks given me, as many and various as the hours would allow, and on subjects beyond my age; with the additional disadvantge of reciting to him in the evening.”
Margaret seemed a sponge for many disciplines, including Latin, begun at age six, English grammar, mathematics, history, music and modern languages. Margaret herself thought the price paid for this early and intensive drilling, sometimes late into the night, was sleeplessness and nightmares as a child and a lifetime of poor eyesight and migraine headaches.
On an irregular basis between 1819 and 1825, Margaret attended the Cambridge Port Private Grammar School, Dr. Park’s Boston Lyceum, and Miss Prescott’s Young Ladies’ Seminary in Groton, Massachusetts, where her parents hoped she would gain polish in feminine accomplishments. Early instruction and natural brilliance gave her a sense of superiority which classmates interpreted as arrogance. Longing for admiration and companionship, Margaret was socially awkward and unpopular among peers who responded to her with a mixture of awe and ridicule.
Her schooling ended, she pursued her studies on her own. While serving as governess to the younger Fullers, she also found time to study informally with Lydia Maria Francis (later Child) who lived in the Watertown parsonage with the family of her brother, the Unitarian minister Convers Francis. Together Margaret and Maria read the classics and moderns like Rousseau, Byron and Mme. de Staël, who excited Margaret’s romantic enthusiasm. Acknowledging that she was “wanting in . . . intuitive tact and polish” with “powers of intellect” . . .”not well disciplined,” Margaret was determined that “all such hindrances may be overcome by an ardent spirit.”
Her ardent spirit and astonishing accomplishments appealed to several young collegians who soon became her intimates, among them James Freeman Clarke, Frederic Henry Hedge and William Henry Channing. Clarke commented that a conversation with Margaret “could not merely entertain and inform, but make an epoch in one’s life.” Eliza Farrar, wife of Harvard professor John Farrar, took Margaret on as a project in the improvement of dress and manners and introduced her to visitors like Fanny Kemble and Harriet Martineau. A cluster of girl friends completed a happy social circle as Margaret came into her own in her late teens and early twenties.
In 1833 Timothy Fuller moved his family to a farm in Groton, Massachusetts, where Margaret resented her isolation but set to work on serious writing. She translated a drama of Goethe and published essays in Boston papers and in James Freeman Clarke’s journal, the Western Messenger. Her father’s sudden death of cholera in the fall of 1835 threw the family into financial crisis. Fuller had to give up the prospect of a European tour with the Farrars and Harriet Martineau. She struggled to take her father’s place, protect her mother’s interests and see to the education and welfare of the younger children. From that time forward, financial difficulties plagued her life.
In compensation for the lost trip to Europe, Eliza Farrar and Harriet Martineau urged Emerson to befriend Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody suggested he invite her to Concord. Though she had counted on the experience abroad to prepare her for a literary career, the introduction into the Transcendentalist circle served the purpose.
She first visited the Emersons for three weeks in the summer of 1836 while Emerson was finishing his essay, Nature, published later that year. As many were on first acquaintance, he was put off by Fuller’s “extreme plainness,” her “trick of opening and shutting her eyelids,” and her “nasal voice,” predicting that we would “never get far.” Soon however, as many were, he was won over and wrote to Elizabeth Peabody that his guest “has the quickest apprehension & immediately learned all we knew & had us at her mercy when she pleased to make us laugh. She has noble traits & powers & cannot fail of a permanent success.” As the friendship grew, their correspondence revealed Emerson’s growing respect for Fuller’s intellect, and her dissatisfaction with his cool reserve.
Through the Emersons, Fuller met Bronson Alcott, who was looking for a teacher to replace Elizabeth Peabody as assistant at his controversial Temple School. In the fall Fuller moved to Boston, began a series of language classes for women, and served as assistant to Alcott for a few months before he was forced to close the school. The following year she took a teaching position at the Greene Street School in Providence.
In 1839 Fuller moved her family from the Groton farm to a rented house in Jamaica Plain, five miles from Boston. In Elizabeth Peabody’s West Street bookshop, she held several series of conversations that attracted women of the city and surrounding area who were intellectuals and social activists. The circle included Unitarians Lidian Emerson, Sarah Bradford Ripley, Abigail Allyn Francis, Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Hoar, Eliza Farrar, Mary Channing, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody, Sophia Dana Ripley and Lydia (Mrs. Theodore) Parker. Though women might be taught the same subjects as men, they had little opportunity to use their learning. Fuller provided a setting where they could discuss what they knew, free to explore ideas and speak their own thoughts on such topics as classical mythology, education, ethics, the fine arts, and woman. Men were included in one evening series hosted by George and Sophia Ripley, but it was less successful than the women-only sessions. Income from the conversations supported Fuller for five years during which she published her acclaimed translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe and several shorter pieces. Earlier she had begun a never-completed biography of Goethe, the polymath romantic who greatly appealed to her.
At Emerson’s invitation Fuller had begun attending meetings of the Transcendentalist circle in 1838, and the following year she agreed to serve as editor of the new Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. Emerson, Alcott, Henry Hedge, Ellen Hooper, Caroline Sturgis, Ellery Channing, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Peabody, George and Sophia Ripley were among its contributors. For almost three years she coaxed articles and poems from reluctant writers, rejected unsuitable material, and wrote much of the Dial’s content herself.
While part of the Transcendentalist scene Fuller wrote her personal credo. Raised a Unitarian in Cambridge, she had later attended the Federal Street Church, calling Channing “our philanthropist” whose “sermons purged as by fire.” In Providence she had gone to the church of Unitarian antislavery activist the Rev. Edward B. Hall. Gradually she adapted her inherited faith to her own needs, wishing to be a Christian “in full possession of my reasoning powers.” In 1842 she wrote that she believed in Christ “because I can do without him . . . but I do not wish to do without him. He is constantly aiding and answering me.” But Christ was not enough. “We have all had the Messiah to reconcile and teach, let us have another to live out all the symbolical forms of human life with the calm beauty and physical fulness of a Greek god, with the deep consciousness of a Moses, with the holy love and purity of Jesus. Amen!” She did not reject the church as did some Transcendentalists, but she joined them in finding that “nowhere I worship less than in places set apart for that purpose. . . . The blue sky seen above the opposite roof preaches better than any brother.”
When Emerson took over as editor of the Dial, Fuller contributed her groundbreaking essay, “The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women,” for the July, 1843 issue. She then went with Sarah Freeman Clarke on a tour of the Great Lakes territory, the subject of Summer on the Lakes in 1843, published the following year.
Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, noted Fuller’s new book and her work with the Dial and invited her to write for his paper. Before taking that post, she enlarged “The Great Lawsuit” to be published in 1845 as Woman in the Nineteenth Century. On finishing it, she described to William Henry Channing “a delightful glow as if I had put a good deal of my true life in it, as if, suppose I went away now, the measure of my foot-print would be left on the earth.”
Indeed, the book was her major gift to the times. A manifesto for the women’s rights movement, it revealed Fuller’s enormous knowledge of literature and philosophy as she described the oppression of the female sex through history and advocated equal status for women. Years later Horace Greeley wrote, “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, and in controlling and disposing of the property she has inherited or aided to acquire . . . hers is the ablest, bravest, broadest, assertion yet made of what are termed Woman’s Rights.”
For the Tribune, Fuller wrote essays, reviews and criticism brought together and published as Papers on Literature and Art in 1846. That summer she sailed for Europe as the newspaper’s foreign correspondent. Relishing her long-postponed trip abroad, she visited England and Scotland, moved on to Paris, and finally to Italy. In Paris she met George Sand, whom she had long admired, and found a new friend and mentor in the exiled Polish philosopher and poet Adam Mickiewicz. Having met the Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Mazzini in England, she became an ardent supporter of his movement.
On the eve of the 1848 uprisings in Italy, Austria and France, Fuller plunged into the turmoil. No longer the “outsider” she had seemed in New England, she felt at home in Italy, free to express her fullest sense of self. When war broke out, she saw a role for herself “either as actor or historian.” To her the revolution meant freedom and human rights for the laboring class and for women. She rededicated herself to Rome, “City of the Soul,” and sent vivid eye-witness reports to the Tribune.
Soon after her arrived in Rome she met the handsome twenty-six-year-old nobleman, Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. Then in her late thirties, she had survived several unfulfilled love relationships. She enjoyed the attentions of this young man in what soon became a serious attachment. In the summer of 1848, she retreated to the village of Rieti where her son, Angelo Eugenio Filippo Ossoli, was born on September 7. It is not clear whether Fuller and Ossoli ever married. Her letters home had made only oblique references to her personal situation. Finally, in 1849, she sent a packet of letters to her mother and other friends, telling of Ossoli and the birth of their son.
With the outbreak of war in Rome itself, Ossoli’s unit of the Guard was actively involved, and Fuller volunteered in a hospital. Although the revolution at first succeeded and a Roman Republic was celebrated, Fuller was right in predicting that it would not last. When the pope was restored to power, the Ossolis fled to Florence. There for the first time they lived together openly and were readily accepted by the expatriate colony, including the Brownings, whose baby son was close to theirs in age. Fuller continued work on her history of the Italian revolution. For a time she thought of remaining in Italy where they could live inexpensively and she could complete her book. Friends urged her to stay there, uncertain of her reception at home in her new role.
Nevertheless, in May, 1850, the Ossolis sailed for New York on the merchant freighter, Elizabeth. Not long after leaving port, the captain died of smallpox. Baby Angelo caught the disease but recovered during the voyage. The inexperienced mate who took command after the captain’s death miscalculated his position and was unaware of an approaching hurricane. During the night before the ship’s expected landfall, it struck a sandbar within sight of Fire Island and began to break up. Some crew members managed to reach shore, but the wind and high surf made it impossible to launch a lifeboat. The Ossoli family perished on July 19, 1850.
Emerson sent Henry Thoreau to search the wreckage, but no trace was found of their bodies or personal effects, including Fuller’s manuscript history of the revolution. The Fuller family erected a monument to Margaret in their plot at Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge.
The bulk of Fuller’s manuscripts are at the Boston Public Library and the Houghton Library, Harvard University. The Massachusetts Historical Society also has some of her papers. Her letters are collected in Robert Hudspeth, editor, The Letters of Margaret Fuller, 6 volumes (1983-94). Collections of Fuller’s work include Arthur B. Fuller, editor, At Home and Abroad (1856) and Life Without and Life Within (1860); Perry Miller, Margaret Fuller, American Romantic: A Selection from Her Writings and Correspondence (1963); and Jeffrey Steele, editor, The Essential Margaret Fuller (1992). Joel Myerson has prepared Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Bibliography (1978).
Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing gathered material from the friends of Fuller and published The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852). Early biographies are Julia Ward Howe, Margaret Fuller (Marchesa Ossoli) (1883); Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1884); and Caroline W. H. Dall, Margaret Fuller and Her Friends (1898). Higginson also wrote an article, “Who Was Margaret Fuller?” in Eminent Women of the Age (1869), which is reprinted in Howard N. Meyer, The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2000). Among many modern biographies are Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings (1976); Paula Blanchard, Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution (1978); Laurie James, Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller (1990); Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: The Private Years (1992); and Joan VonMehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (1994). There are extracts from Fuller’s writings and a biographical sketch by Paula Blanchard in Dorothy May Emerson, editor, Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936 (2000). See also Alice S. Rossi, “The Making of a Cosmopolitan Humanist: Margaret Fuller,” in The Feminist Papers, From Adams to deBeauvoir (1973).
Article by Joan Goodwin
Posted August 10, 2001