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Margaret Fuller

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Sarah Margaret Fuller

The only known daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller (by John Plumbe, 1846)
Occupation Teacher
Nationality United States
Literary movement Transcendentalism

Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli (May 23, 1810 – July 19, 1850) was a journalist, critic and women's rights activist associated with the American transcendental movement. She was the first full-time female book reviewer in journalism. Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States.

Born Sarah Margaret Fuller in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was given a substantial early education by her father, Timothy Fuller. She later had more formal schooling and became a teacher before, in 1839, she began overseeing what she called "conversations": discussions among women meant to compensate for their lack of access to higher education. She became the first editor of the transcendental publication The Dial in 1840 before joining the staff of the New York Tribune under Horace Greeley in 1844. By the time she was in her 30s, Fuller had earned a reputation as the best-read person in New England, male or female, and became the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College. Her seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was published in 1845. A year later, she was sent to Europe for the Tribune as its first female correspondent. She soon became involved with the revolution in Italy and allied herself with Giuseppe Mazzini. She also met Giovanni Ossoli, with whom she had a child. All three members of the family died off Fire Island, New York, traveling back to the United States in 1850. Fuller's body was never recovered.

Fuller was an advocate of women's rights and, in particular, women's education and the right to employment. She also encouraged many other reforms in society, including prison reform and the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Many other advocates for women's rights and feminism, including Susan B. Anthony, cite Fuller as a source of inspiration. Many of her contemporaries, however, were not supportive, including her former friend Harriet Martineau, who said that Fuller was a talker rather than an activist. Shortly after Fuller's death her importance faded; the editors who prepared her letters to be published, believing her fame would be short-lived, were not concerned about accuracy and censored or altered much of her words before publication.


Early life and family

Birthplace and childhood home of Margaret Fuller

Sarah Margaret Fuller was born May 23, 1810, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first child of Timothy Fuller and Margaret Crane Fuller. She was named after her paternal grandmother and her mother; by the age of nine, however, she dropped "Sarah" and insisted on being called "Margaret". The Margaret Fuller House, in which she was born, is still standing. Her father taught Fuller to read and write at the age of three and a half, shortly after the couple's second daughter, Julia Adelaide, had died at the age of fourteen months. He offered her an education as rigorous as any boy's at the time and forbade her from reading the typical feminine fare such as etiquette books and sentimental novels. He incorporated Latin into his teaching shortly after the birth of the couple's son, Eugene, in May 1815, and soon she was translating simple passages from Virgil. During the day, young Margaret spent time with her mother, who taught her household chores and sewing. In 1817, her brother William Henry Fuller was born and her father was elected as a representative in the United States Congress. For the next eight years, he would spend four to six months of the year in Washington, D.C. At the age of 10, Fuller wrote a cryptic note which her father saved: "On the 23rd of May, 1810, was born one foredoomed to sorrow and pain, and like others to have misfortunes".

In 1824, Fuller was sent to the School for Young Ladies in Groton at the advice of aunts and uncles, though she resisted the idea at first. While she was in Groton, Timothy Fuller, in order to help John Quincy Adams with his presidential campaign in 1824, did not run for re-election; he had hoped Adams would return the favour with some kind of government appointment. On June 17, 1825, Fuller was in attendance at the ceremony when the American Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument 50 years after the battle. Fuller left the Groton school and returned home at the age of 16 after having studied there for two years. At home, she studied the classics and trained herself in several modern languages and various examples of world literature. By this time, she realized she did not fit in with other young women her age. She wrote, "I have felt that I was not born to the common womanly lot". Eliza Farrar, wife of Harvard professor John Farrar and author of The Young Lady's Friend (1836), attempted to train her in feminine etiquette until the age of 20, though Farrar was never wholly successful.

Early career

Fuller was an avid reader; by the time she was in her 30s, she had earned a reputation as the best-read person, male or female, in New England. She used her knowledge to give private lessons based on the teaching style of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Fuller hoped to earn her living through journalism and translation; her first published work, a response to historian George Bancroft, appeared in November 1834 in the North American Review. When she was 23, her father's law practice failed and he moved the family to a farm in Groton. On February 20, 1835, both Frederick Henry Hedge and James Freeman Clarke requested written contributions from her to publish in their respective periodicals. Clarke helped her publish her first literary review in the Western Messenger in June: criticisms of recent biographies on George Crabbe and Hannah More. In the fall of that year, she suffered a terrible migraine with a fever that lasted nine days; Fuller would often be plagued with headaches throughout her life. While she was still recovering, her father died of cholera on October 2, 1835. She was deeply affected by his death: "My father's image follows me constantly", she wrote. She vowed to step in as the head of the family and take care of her newly widowed mother and her younger siblings. Her father had not left a will, and two of her uncles gained control of his property and finances, later assessed at $18,098.15, and forced the family to rely on them for support. Humiliated by the way her uncles were treating the family, Fuller wrote that she regretted being "of the softer sex, and never more than now".

The Greene Street School where Fuller taught from 1837–1839

Around this time, Fuller had hoped to prepare a biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but felt that she could only work on it if she traveled to Europe. Her father's death and her sudden responsibility over her family caused her to abandon this idea. In 1836, Fuller was given a job teaching at Bronson Alcott's Temple School in Boston, where she remained for a year. She then accepted an invitation to teach at the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, in April 1837 with the unusually high salary of $1,000 per year. Her family sold the Groton farm and Fuller moved with them to Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. On November 6, 1839, Fuller held the first of her "conversations", discussions among local women who met in the Boston home of the Peabodys. Fuller intended these meetings to compensate for the lack of education for women with discussions and debates which focused on subjects including the fine arts, history, mythology, literature, and nature. Serving as the "nucleus of conversation", Fuller also intended to answer the "great questions" facing women: "What were we born to do? How shall we do it? which so few ever propose to themselves 'till their best years are gone by". A number of significant figures in the women's rights movement attended these "conversations", including Sophia Dana Ripley, Caroline Sturgis, and Maria White Lowell.

The Dial

In October 1839, Ralph Waldo Emerson was seeking an editor for his transcendental journal The Dial and, after several had declined the role, he offered it to Fuller, referring to her as "my vivacious friend". Emerson had first met Fuller in Cambridge in 1835; of that meeting, he admitted "she made me laugh more than I liked". The next summer, Fuller spent two weeks at Emerson's home in Concord where their friendship grew. Fuller accepted Emerson's offer to edit The Dial on October 20, 1839, though she did not begin work until the first week of 1840. She edited the journal for the first two years of its existence from 1840 to 1842, though her promised annual salary of $200 was never paid. Because of her role, she was soon recognized as one of the most important figures of the transcendental movement and was invited to George Ripley's Brook Farm communal experiment. She never officially joined the community but was a frequent visitor, often spending New Year's Eve there. In the summer of 1843, she traveled to Chicago, Milwaukee, Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York; while there, she interacted with several Native Americans, including members of the Ottawa tribe and the Chippewa tribe. She reported her experiences in a book called Summer on the Lakes, which she completed writing on her 34th birthday in 1844; critic Evert Augustus Duyckinck called it "the only genuine book, I can think of, this season". She had used the library at Harvard College for further background information on the Great Lakes region, making her the first woman allowed to use Harvard's library.

One of Fuller's most important works, " The Great Lawsuit", was written in serial form for The Dial. She originally intended to name the work "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women"; when it was expanded and published independently in 1845, it was instead named Woman in the Nineteenth Century. After completing it, she wrote to a friend: "I had put a good deal of my true self in it, as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth." The work discussed the role that women played in the American democracy and Fuller's opinion on possibilities for improvement. It has since become one of the major documents in American feminism and is considered the first of its kind in the United States.

New York Tribune

Margaret Fuller illustration

Fuller left The Dial in 1844 in part because of ill health but also because of her disappointment with the publication's dwindling subscription list. She moved to New York that autumn and joined Horace Greeley's New York Tribune as literary critic, becoming the first full-time book reviewer in journalism and, by 1846, was the publication's first female editor. Her first article, a review of a collection of essays by Emerson, was printed in the December 1, 1844, issue. At this time, the Tribune had some 50,000 subscribers and Fuller earned $500 a year for her work. In addition to American books, she reviewed foreign literature, concerts, lectures, and art exhibits. During her four years with the publication, she published more than 250 columns, most signed with a "*" as a byline. In these columns, Fuller discussed topics ranging from art and literature to political and social issues such as the plight of slaves and women's rights. She also published poetry; her poems, styled after the work of Emerson, do not have the same intellectual vigor as her criticism.

Around this time, she was also involved in a scandal involving fellow literary critic Edgar Allan Poe, who had been carrying on a public flirtation with the married poet Frances Sargent Osgood. At the same time, another poet, Elizabeth F. Ellet, became enamored of Poe and jealous of Osgood and suggested the relationship between Poe and Osgood was more than just innocent flirtation. Osgood then sent Fuller and Anne Lynch Botta to Poe's cottage on her behalf to request that he return the personal letters she had sent him. Angered by their interference, Poe called them "Busy-bodies". A public scandal erupted and continued until Osgood's estranged husband Samuel Stillman Osgood stepped in and threatened to sue Ellet.

Assignment in Europe

Fuller was sent to Europe in 1846 by the New York Tribune, specifically England and Italy, as its first female foreign correspondent. She traveled from Boston to Liverpool in August on the Cambria, a vessel that used both sail and steam to make the journey in ten days and sixteen hours. Over the next four years she provided thirty-seven reports from overseas. She interviewed many prominent writers including George Sand and Thomas Carlyle—whom she found disappointing because of his reactionary politics, among other things. George Sand had previously been an idol of hers, but Fuller was disappointed when Sand chose not to run for the French National Assembly, saying that women were not ready to vote or to hold political office. Fuller was also given a letter of introduction from Cornelius Mathews for Elizabeth Barrett; the two women did not meet, as Barrett had just eloped with Robert Browning.

In the spring of 1846, she met Giuseppe Mazzini in England, who had been in exile from Italy since 1837. Fuller also met the Italian revolutionary Giovanni Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family because of his support for Mazzini. Fuller and Ossoli moved in together in Florence, Italy, likely before they were married, if they ever were. Fuller originally did not support marrying him, in part because of their different religions; she was Protestant and he was Roman Catholic. Emerson speculated that the couple was "married perhaps in Oct. Nov. or Dec" of 1847, though he did not explain his reasoning. Biographers have speculated that the couple married on April 4, 1848, to celebrate the anniversary of their first meeting. By the time the couple moved to Florence, they were referred to as husband and wife, though it is unclear if any formal ceremony took place. It seems certain that at the time their child was born, they were not married. By New Year's Day 1848, she suspected that she was pregnant but kept it from Ossoli for several weeks. Their child, Angelo Eugene Philip Ossoli, was born in early September 1848; they nicknamed him Angelino. The couple was very secretive about their relationship but, after Angelino suffered an unnamed illness, they became closer. Fuller finally informed her mother about Ossoli and Angelino in August 1849. The letter explained that she had kept silent so as not to upset her "but it has become necessary, on account of the child, for us to live publicly and permanently together." Her mother's response makes it clear that she was aware that a legal marriage had not taken place. Even so, she was happy for her daughter, writing: "I send my first kiss with my fervent blessing to my grandson." Modern biographers are still unclear if Fuller and Ossoli ever married.

The couple supported Giuseppe Mazzini's revolution for the establishment of a Roman Republic in 1849—Ossoli fought in the struggle while Fuller volunteered at a supporting hospital. After generations of rule by several parties, few of which were Italian, Italy had been left without an official central government with various pieces of the country overseen by different weak governments, including one under the control of the Papacy. When Pope Pius IX was appointed in 1846, he made small steps towards the establishment of a central Italian democratic government, though revolutionaries like Mazzini did not trust the Pope's efforts. The political unrest was enough that the Pope disguised himself and escaped on November 24, 1848. A Roman republic with a representative government was established in February 1849, only to be destroyed by an invasion from France a few months later. Because Fuller and Ossoli were aligned with the revolution, when Pope Pius IX returned to Rome in 1850, they had to flee Italy and decided to move to the United States. She intended to use her experience to write a book about the history of the Roman Republic, a work she may have begun as early as 1847, hoping to find an American publisher after a British one rejected it. She believed the work would be her most important, referring to it in a March 1849 letter to her brother Richard as, "something good which may survive my troubled existence."


Memorial marker for Margaret Fuller and family located at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts

In the beginning of the year 1850, Fuller wrote to a friend: "It has long seemed that in the year 1850 I should stand on some important plateau in the ascent of life... I feel however no marked and important change as yet." Also that year, Fuller wrote: "I am absurdly fearful and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling... It seems to me that my future upon earth will soon close... I have a vague expectation of some crisis—I know not what". A few days after writing this, Fuller, Ossoli, and their child began a five-week return voyage to the United States aboard the ship Elizabeth. The ship was an American merchant freighter carrying cargo that included mostly marble from Carrara as well as a statue of John C. Calhoun sculpted by Hiram Powers. After a short delay due to rain, the Elizabeth set sail on May 17. At sea, the ship's captain, Seth Hasty, died of smallpox. The child, Angelino, contracted the disease as well, though he recovered.

Possibly because of the inexperienced first mate, now serving as captain, the ship slammed into a sandbar less than 100 yards from Fire Island, New York, on July 19, 1850, around 3:30 a.m. Many of the other passengers and crew members abandoned ship. The first mate, Mr. Bangs, urged Fuller and Ossoli to try to save themselves and their child as he himself jumped overboard, later claiming he believed Fuller had wanted to be left behind to die. On the beach, people arrived with carts hoping to take advantage if any cargo washed to shore; none made any effort to rescue the crew or passengers of the Elizabeth, though they were only 50 yards from shore. Ossoli and Fuller, along with their child, were some of the last on the ship; most others had attempted to swim to shore. Eventually, Ossoli was thrown overboard by a massive wave and, after the wave had passed, a crewman who witnessed the event said Fuller could not be seen.

Henry David Thoreau traveled to New York, at the urging of Emerson, to search the shore but neither Fuller's body nor that of her husband were ever recovered; only Angelino had washed ashore. Few of their possessions were found other than some of the child's clothes and a few letters. Fuller's manuscript on the history of the Roman Republic was also lost. A memorial to Fuller was erected on the beach at Fire Island in 1901 through the efforts of Julia Ward Howe. A cenotaph to Fuller and Ossoli, under which Angelino is buried, is in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The inscription reads, in part:

By birth a child of New England
By adoption a citizen of Rome
By genius belonging to the world

Within a week after her death, Horace Greeley suggested to Emerson that a biography of Fuller, to be called Margaret and Her Friends, be prepared quickly "before the interest excited by her sad decease has passed away". Many of her writings were soon collected together by her brother Arthur as At Home and Abroad (1856) and Life Without and Life Within (1858). He also edited a new version of Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1855. In February 1852, The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli was published, edited by Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing, though much of the work was censored or reworded. It particularly left out details about her love affair with Ossoli and an earlier relationship with a man named James Nathan. The three editors, believing the public interest in Fuller would be short-lived and that she would not survive as a historical figure, were not concerned about accuracy. Even so, for a time, it was the best-selling biography of the decade and went through thirteen editions before the end of the century. The book focused on her personality rather than her work and, as a result, detractors of the book ignored her status as a critic and instead criticized her personal life and her "unwomanly" arrogance.


Fuller was an early proponent of feminism and especially believed in providing education to women. Once equal educational rights were afforded women, she believed, women could push for equal political rights as well. She advocated that women seek any employment they wish, rather than catering to the stereotypical "feminine" roles of the time, such as teaching. She once said, "If you ask me what office women should fill, I reply—any... let them be sea captains if you will. I do not doubt that there are women well fitted for such an office". She had great confidence in all women but doubted that a woman would produce a lasting work of art or literature in her time and disliked the popular female poets of her time. Fuller also warned women to be careful about marriage and not to become dependent on their husbands. As she wrote, "I wish woman to live, first for God's sake. Then she will not make an imperfect man for her god, and thus sink to idolatry. Then she will not take what is not fit for her from a sense of weakness and poverty". By 1832, she had made a personal commitment to stay single. Fuller also questioned a definitive line between male and female: "There is no wholly masculine man... no purely feminine" but that both were present in any individual. She suggested also that within a female were two parts: the intellectual side (which she called the Minerva) and the "lyrical" or "Femality" side (the Muse). She admired the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed men and women shared "an angelic ministry", as she wrote, as well as Charles Fourier, who placed "Woman on an entire equality with Man". Unlike several contemporary women writers, including " Mrs. Sigourney" and " Mrs. Stowe", she was familiarly referred to in a less formal manner as "Margaret".

Fuller also advocated reform at all levels of society, including prison. In October 1844, she visited Sing Sing and interviewed the women prisoners, even staying overnight in the facility. Sing Sing was developing a more humane system for its women inmates, many of whom were prostitutes. Fuller was also concerned about the homeless and those living in dire poverty, especially in New York. She also admitted that, though she was raised to believe "that the Indian obstinately refused to be civilized", her travels in the American West made her realize that the white man unfairly treated the Native Americans; she considered Native Americans an important part of American heritage. She also supported the rights of African-Americans, referring to "this cancer of slavery", and suggested that those who were interested in the Abolition movement follow the same reasoning when considering the rights of women: "As the friend of the Negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the Friend of Woman assume that Man cannot by right lay even well-meant restrictions on Woman." She suggested that those who spoke against the emancipation of slaves were similar to those who did not support the emancipation of Italy.

Though she was never comfortable being labeled a transcendentalist, Fuller agreed with the transcendental concern for the psychological well-being of the individual. She criticized people like Emerson, however, for focusing too much on individual improvement and not enough on social criticism. Like other members of the so-called Transcendental Club, she rebelled against the past and believed in the possibility of change. However, unlike others in the movement, her rebellion was not based on religion.

Legacy and criticism

Title page for Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845)

Margaret Fuller was especially known in her time for her personality and, in particular, for being overly self-confident and having a bad temper. This personality was the inspiration for the character Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, specifically her radical thinking about "the whole race of womanhood". She may also be the basis for the character Zenobia in another of Hawthorne's works, The Blithedale Romance. Hawthorne and his then-fiancee Sophia had first met Fuller in October 1839.

She was also an inspiration to poet Walt Whitman, who believed in her call for the forging of a new national identity and a truly American literature. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was also a strong admirer, but believed that Fuller's unconventional views were unappreciated in the United States and, therefore, she was better off dead. She also said that Fuller's history of the Roman Republic would have been her greatest work: "The work she was preparing upon Italy would probably have been more equal to her faculty than anything previously produced by her pen (her other writings being curiously inferior to the impressions her conversation gave you)". An 1860 essay collection, Historical Pictures Retouched, by Caroline Healey Dall, called Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century "doubtless the most brilliant, complete, and scholarly statement ever made on the subject". Despite his personal issues with Fuller, the typically harsh literary critic Edgar Allan Poe wrote of the work as "a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller", noting its "independence" and "unmitigated radicalism". Thoreau also thought highly of the book, suggesting that its strength came in part from Fuller's conversational ability. As he called it, it was "rich extempore writing, talking with pen in hand".

Another admirer of Fuller was Susan B. Anthony, a pioneer of women's rights, who wrote that Fuller "possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time". Fuller's work may have partially inspired the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Anthony, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote in their History of Woman Suffrage that Fuller "was the precursor of the Women's Rights agitation" who "possessed more influence upon the thoughts of America, than any woman previous to her time". Modern scholars have suggested Woman in the Nineteenth Century was the first major women's rights work since Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), though an early comparison between the two women came from George Eliot in 1855. It is unclear if Fuller was familiar with Wollstonecraft's works; in her childhood, her father prevented her from reading them. In 1995, Fuller was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Fuller, however, was not without her critics. A one-time friend, the English writer Harriet Martineau, was one of her harshest detractors after Fuller's death. Martineau said that Fuller was a talker rather than an activist, that she had "shallow conceits" and often "looked down upon persons who acted instead of talking finely... and despised those who, like myself, could not adopt her scale of valuation". The influential editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who believed she went against his notion of feminine modesty, referred to Woman in the Nineteenth Century as "an eloquent expression of her discontent at having been created female". New York writer Charles Frederick Briggs said that she was "wasting the time of her readers", especially because she was an unmarried woman and therefore could not "truly represent the female character". English writer and critic Matthew Arnold scoffed at Fuller's conversations as well, saying, "My G–d, what rot did she and the other female dogs of Boston talk about Greek mythology!" Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had previously been a supporter of Fuller, was critical of her after Woman of the Nineteenth Century was published:

The impression it left was disagreeable. I did not like the tone of it—& did not agree with her at all about the change in woman's outward circumstances... Neither do I believe in such a character of man as she gives. It is altogether too ignoble... I think Margaret speaks of many things that should not be spoken of.

Fuller had angered fellow poet and critic James Russell Lowell when she reviewed his work, calling him "absolutely wanting in the true spirit and tone of poesy... his verse is stereotyped, his thought sounds no depth; and posterity will not remember him." In response, Lowell took revenge in his satirical A Fable for Critics, first published in October 1848. At first, he considered excluding her entirely but ultimately gave her what was called the "most wholly negative characterization" in the work. Referring to her as Miranda, Lowell wrote that she stole old ideas and presented them as her own, was only genuine in her spite and "when acting as censor, she privately blows a censor of vanity 'neath her own nose".

Shortly after Fuller's death, her importance faded. Her obituary in the newspaper she once edited, the Daily Tribune, said that her works had a few great sentiments, "but as a whole they must commend themselves mainly by their vigor of thought and habitual fearlessness rather than freedom of utterance". As biographer Abby Slater wrote, "Margaret had been demoted from a position of importance in her own right to one in which her only importance was in the company she kept". In the 20th century, American writer Elizabeth Hardwick, former wife of Robert Lowell, wrote an essay called "The Genius of Margaret Fuller" (1986). She compared her own move from Boston to New York to Fuller's, saying that Boston was not a good place for intellectuals, despite the assumption that it was the best place for intellectuals.

Selected list of works

  • Summer on the Lakes (1844)
  • Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845)
  • Papers on Literature and Art (1846)

Posthumous editions

  • Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852)
  • At Home and Abroad (1856)
  • Life Without and Life Within (1858)
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