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How Margaret Fuller Changed American Feminism

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In her 1883 memoir of the great American feminist intellectual Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe acknowledged that she was already a late-comer to the haunting story. Soon after Fuller’s tragic death by shipwreck in 1850, her friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing published their two-volume Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. As Howe ruefully asked herself, “What can such biographers have left for others to do?” In the 130 years since Howe’s book, many more illustrious biographers have come forward to join the list.1

Thus Megan Marshall, author of the prize-winning group biography The Peabody Sisters (2005), has had to ask herself what is left for her to do. As she explains, she initially thought she would subordinate the drama of Fuller’s unhappy personal life to her historical role: “For a time I believed I must write a biography of Margaret Fuller that turned away from the intrigues in her private life, that spoke of public events solely, and that would affirm her eminence as America’s originating and most consequential theorist of woman’s role in history, culture, and society.” Fuller was indeed the most learned woman in nineteenth-century America, the editor of the Transcendental journal The Dial, the first female foreign correspondent for an American newspaper, and the author of a controversial feminist manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

But Fuller was also a haunting tragic heroine, dead at the age of 40, and never assuming the role for which she had seemed destined, as intellectual and spiritual leader of the American women’s movement. As Marshall immersed herself more deeply in Fuller’s writings, she came to question the value of separating the public intellectual from the private woman. Fuller, she decided, “did not experience her life as divided into public and private.” Indeed, she hoped that the split in her psyche between the emotional but passive woman and the unfeeling but active man would be healed through her writing, and that “from the union of this tragic king and queen, shall be born a radiant sovereign self.”

Ultimately Marshall chose to write Fuller’s story “from the inside, using the most direct evidence—her words, and those of her family and friends.” Just as Fuller’s critical publications were “hybrids” that included “personal observation” and “confessional poetry,” Marshall chose to use fictional techniques to enhance the “lights and deepen the shadows” of Fuller’s life. She wanted to tell the fullest story of the Fuller story, “operatic in its emotional pitch, global in its dimensions.” Shaping her narrative like a novel, Marshall brings the reader as close as possible to Fuller’s inner life and conveys the inspirational power she has achieved for several generations of women.

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The frontspiece of Fuller's 1846 manifesto "Woman in the Nineteenth Century"

Marshall pays tribute to Emerson, Clarke, and Channing by using the section titles of their memoir—Youth, Cambridge, Groton and Providence, Concord, New York, Europe, and finally Homeward—for the seven sections of her own book. For the first five sections, her effort to write about Fuller “from the inside” is brilliantly successful.2 Fuller was never going to be a belle; as a teenager she was stout and badly dressed, with acne, a squint, and scoliosis. She repeatedly mistook friendship for romance and enmeshed various men in intense emotional correspondences. Marshall is also an insightful guide to Fuller’s intellectual, philosophical, and political formation. Even in the 1820s and ’30s, Marshall shows, Cambridge was not a total social desert for a very smart girl. Fuller’s erudition, and especially her witty and forceful conversation, won her a place as the only woman member of the Transcendentalist intelligentsia. If she had been a man, Marshall notes, Fuller would have been a member of the “brilliant Harvard class of ’29.’” But living in Cambridge, she was able to make friends with the brightest young men of the era and to help them with German translations and reviews.

When she was 21, her father decided to relocate the family to a farm in Groton, and for the first time, she found herself with “nobody to speak to.” Fuller determined to channel her passions into learning, teaching, editing, and writing. First she taught her siblings at home; after her father’s death in 1835, she took a position at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School, hoping to earn money. That same year, she met Emerson, her soul mate and mentor, but a man almost autistic in his inability to sense and respond to feelings. As Fuller realized, he “would never soothe the illness, or morbid feelings of a friend, because he would not wish anyone to do it for him.” In 1839, she began her “Conversations” with advanced women in Boston, and soon became the editor of The Dial. But she was beginning to chafe at the limitations of her position as a woman; “a man’s ambition with a woman’s heart.—‘Tis a cursed lot.” In 1846, she published her impassioned manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1846), which galvanized readers in its call for full equality for women.

Soon after, Fuller left Boston for New York and a job as a critic and reporter for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. But even living the life of a single woman in the city left her confined to the mores and expectations of nineteenth-century America. In order to grow, she had to go to Europe, which she finally managed as a foreign correspondent for the Tribune. In this bold departure, Marshall argues, Fuller pioneered “a new American life,” blazing a trail that would be followed in the future by writers as different as James, Hemingway, “and countless other seekers of inspiration and new theaters of action abroad.”

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Fuller edited The Dial alongside friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

But in dealing with the eventful final five years of Fuller’s life—her years in Europe and her fatal journey back home—Marshall identifies so closely with her subject that critical distance disappears; and these years present the most difficult biographical issues. The facts are generally clear. She went to Europe in pursuit of another man, the German-Jewish banker James Nathan, whom she had met in New York. But when she got to England, Nathan wrote to her that he was engaged. In Paris, she met George Sand, and the Polish patriot and poet Adam Mickiewicz, who advised her to lose her virginity: “You should not confine your life to books and reveries. You have pleaded the liberty of woman in a masculine and frank style. Live and act, as you write.” Surely Emerson would not have given her such bold counsel.

In 1847, Fuller went to Rome, where the Italian fight for independence from Austrian rule was beginning, and almost immediately met a handsome, but virtually uneducated and penniless young Catholic revolutionary, Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. They began an affair, and the age of 37, she became pregnant. Their son Angelo, “Nino,” was born in the mountain village of Rieti, away from the fierce battles between Italian revolutionaries, Austrian soldiers, and their French military allies in Rome. But after a few months, she left Nino with a wet nurse to go back to Rome and cover the final disastrous siege and bloody defeat of the fledging Italian republic, and to work on her history of the Italian revolution. In 1850, Fuller, claiming to be married to Ossoli, made the difficult decision to return to U.S. with her husband and child. But the boat was wrecked just off Fire Island, and all three were drowned. The manuscript she had believed to be her finest work was lost, and Fuller was mourned as the courageous feminist leader who never got to see the promised land.

To a modern feminist, Mickiewicz’s advice seems almost miraculously daring and right. It’s easy to see her love affair and maternity as an emotional liberation. If she had lived, Fuller might have done her best writing, even as a novelist—she could have read the Brontës. If she had been a European, she could have entered Bohemia alongside George Sand. But for an American woman of her place and time, her decision to take a lover was almost a death sentence in an age before birth control. Once she became pregnant and bore a child, she could never be free from social stigmas and constraints; even to her comrades in Concord, she would have worn a scarlet letter. Why did she choose Ossoli as a lover, and did she really marry him? Fuller’s American and British friends in Florence regarded Ossoli as a toyboy; according to the American sculptor Joseph Mozier (who also lived in Italy at that time), he was “the handsomest man,” but “half an idiot.” Marshall defends him; “perhaps the awkward muteness … was a self-protective numbness, an aftereffect of wartime service,” or a “hushed reverence for his wife.” But another recent biographer, John Matteson, is more cynical; “consistently in her letters, he comes across as both remarkably loving and almost impossibly brainless—almost more plausible as a Newfoundland puppy than a man.” Marshall argues that they had to marry because of Italy’s “strict laws on children of unwed mothers.” Fuller was tied to Ossoli whatever she may have wished, although she also loved his loyalty and tenderness.

And what about Nino? Although she adored the baby, Fuller was a naïve, perhaps neglectful mother, leaving him for months with an unreliable wet nurse, who nourished her own infant instead, giving Nino only bread soaked in wine. He was emaciated and weak when they returned to Rieti. Matteson suggests that Fuller and Ossoli may have been in deep denial that they actually had a child, and wonders whether the unacknowledged Nino and their obligations to him did not seem quite real even to them.

Fuller had to create a new American life as a woman, and her courageous efforts to be true to both the private and the public self cannot fail to win our admiration and compassion. Even if Marshall’s life of Fuller is not new in its facts, it is eloquent and welcome. But I think that biographers have done all they can for Margaret Fuller. Now we need a great film-maker to bring her story to millions. Attention Steven Spielberg: Here is the material for another magnificent biopic. It’s long overdue.

Elaine Showalter is the editor, most recently, of The Vintage Book of American Women Writers.

  1. Most recently John Matteson published Lives of Margaret Fuller (2012). Fuller’s essays, journalism, and letters, moreover, have been edited by scholars including Robert Hudspeth, Joel Myerson, and Jeffrey Steele.

  2. In a stunning first chapter, Marshall derives Fuller’s high intelligence, literary ambition, and self-discipline from a close reading of the letters she wrote to her father between the ages of seven and nine.