“I do not like Sarah, call me Margaret alone, pray do!”
— Margaret Fuller, age 9, in a letter to her father, Timothy Fuller, 16 January 1820
Margaret Fuller’s Youth & Family Life
Sarah Margaret Fuller, known as Margaret by most, was born on 23 May, 1810 to Timothy Fuller and Margarett Crane Fuller in Cambridgeport Massachusetts. Margaret’s father Timothy was a lawyer and U.S. Congressman whose job required him to travel for six-months of the year. While at home, Timothy rigorously educated Margaret in reading, writing, and translating Latin. During Timothy’s time away from the Fuller family home, young Margaret maintained frequent correspondence with her father, updating him on the rapid evolution of her studies. Under the pressure of her father’s high expectations, Margaret’s intellect quickly surpassed that of her peers, making her a distinguished and often lonesome child who had great difficulty maintaining friendships.
Given her father’s progressive mindset regarding her education, at the age of 9 Margaret was able to attend the co-ed Cambridgeport Private Grammar School (nicknamed The Port School) with her younger brother, Eugene. Margaret’s intellect continued to grow, prompting Timothy and Margarett Crane Fuller to enroll Margaret in Boston’s academically notable all girls academy, Dr. Park’s Lyceum for Young Ladies of Boston. Despite Margaret’s academic success at Dr. Park’s academy, she returned to The Port School after one year to oversee the Latin studies of her two younger brothers. In 1824, Margaret was sent to Miss Susan Prescott’s School in Groton Massachusetts where her father hoped she would develop the skills needed for domestic life. Recounting her time spent at Miss Prescott’s school, Margaret wrote “Mariana,” which she later published in 1844 in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. The story is widely considered a fictional representation of Margaret’s experience as a perpetually lonely and misunderstood child who found inspiration and solace in the guidance of Susan Prescott herself. Margaret only spent one year at Miss Prescott’s School and returned to Cambridgeport at age 15. Timothy’s goal of encouraging a desire for domesticity was unsuccessful and Margaret had a renewed sense of determination to remain an intellectually distinct individual, despite being shunned by her peers. In a letter to Susan Prescott during Margaret’s first year back in Cambridgeport:
I feel the power of industry growing every day, and, besides the all-powerful motive of ambition, and a new stimulus lately given through a friend. I have learned that nothing, no! not perfection, is unattainable. I am determined on distinction, which formerly I thought to win at an easy rate; but now I see that long years of labor must be given to secure even the ‘succes de societe,’ – which, however, shall never content me. I see multitudes of examples of persons of genius, utterly deficient in grace and the power of pleasurable excitement. I wish to combine both. (Fuller to Susan Prescott, 11 July, 1825)
Shortly after Margaret’s return to the Fuller family home in Cambridgeport, Timothy moved the family to a large Georgian style home in Old Cambridge located a short distance from Harvard. During her years in Cambridge, Margaret became accustomed to the intellectually stimulating environment that predominated most of the social events she attended. A sense of comfortability grew in Margaret as she immersed herself in Cambridge society but it all came crashing down when, in 1831, Timothy announced to his family that he was leaving politics and the law behind to become a rural farmer. The process of selling their large Cambridge home while looking for a farm to buy resulted in the Fullers living temporarily with Margaret’s Uncle Abraham.
In the early months of 1833, the Fullers moved to a farm in Groton, Massachusetts. Margaret had been dreading the family’s relocation since her father had broken the news to them. Not only did living on a farm increase her daily chores but it also removed her from the intellectually stimulating society of Cambridge. Making matters worse, the family finances had become so stressed that Timothy expected his oldest and brightest child to take over the schooling of her six younger siblings. Margaret did as her father asked but on 1 October, 1835, Timothy Fuller died suddenly from illness. Timothy was not legally prepared for untimely death and much of it fell to Margaret. Margaret understood very little about legal matters that came with her father’s death and his lack of a will, but she was certain all of it would push her further from her dreams of traveling to Europe. In an unaddressed letter, assumed to be written around 1836, Margaret expressed concern about what was required of her in the aftermath of Timothy’s death in relation to her ambitions:
Please God now to keep my mind composed, that I may store it with all that may be conductive hereafter to the best good of others – Oh! keep me steady in an honorable ambition. Favored by this calm, this obscurity of life I might learn every-thing, did not these feelings lavish away my strength – Let it be no longer thus – Teach me to think justly and act firmly – Stifle in my breast those feelings which pouring forth aimlessly did indeed water but the desert and offend the sun’s clear eye by producing weeds of rank luxuriance –(To [?], 1836)
After writing the passage above Fuller was presented an opportunity to do what was “the best good of others” when she was accepted a position assisting at A. Bronson Alcott’s Temple School in Boston. Unfortunately, Alcott was not financially prepared to pay Fuller for her assistance in the classroom and she decided to look for employment elsewhere. In 1837 Fuller accepted an offer to teach for Hiram Fuller (no relation), who had founded the Green Street School in Providence, Rhode Island. Hiram offered Margaret a yearly salary of $1,000 which was significant enough to support herself and help her family through the financial crisis after Timothy’s death.
Although Margaret was a natural teacher, she felt her writing was limited by the amount of time she was spending in the classroom. After a year, Fuller returned to Boston and made a living through private lessons, her first book publication (an English translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life (1836), and by 1839 she began to host her widely popular Conversations for women at Elizabeth Peabody‘s bookstore in Boston.
Fuller as an Intellectual, Teacher & Transcendentalist
From 1826 to early 1833 Margaret lived in Old Cambridge, close to Harvard University. The community in Old Cambridge was predominately Harvard professors, scholars and intellectuals whom Margaret, despite her formal education having ended, found a place among. It was during these years that Margaret met James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888), a recent Harvard graduate who was in his first year of Divinity School. Fuller and Clarke became close friends and together they studied German with hopes of reading the original German texts that they considered foundational in literary Romanticism. Once proficient in German, Fuller began to explore the literature of late eighteenth-century German intellectuals and took great interest in Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832) whose phrase “Das ewig weibliche zieht uns hinan” (The ever womanly draws us forward) influenced the development of her feminist thinking. Fuller’s interest in German and Goethe led to the publication of her first book in 1839, an English translation of the first two parts of Johann Pater Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life (1836). During this time Fuller prepared to write the biography of Goethe but the task was never completed. Margaret and her dear friend James F. Clarke maintained frequent correspondence, often discussing their ideas regarding Goethe’s writing:
It seems to me as if the mind of Goethe had embraced the universe – I have felt so much lately in reading his lyrick poems – I am enchanted while I read; he comprehends every feeling I ever had so perfectly, expresses it so beautifully, but when I shut the book, it seems as if I had lost my personal identity – All my feelings linked with such an immense variety that belong to beings I had thought so different. What can I bring? (Margaret Fuller to James F. Clarke, 7 August, 1832).
Margaret’s old schoolteacher from Dr. Park’s Boston school, Elizabeth Peabody, took interest in Margaret’s writing and as editor of American Monthly Magazine published three of Fuller’s literary critic essays in the spring of 1836. Elizabeth also arranged for Fuller to stay with Ralph Waldo Emerson; the visit would be her first personal encounter with the revered lecturer, essayist, and prominent transcendental figure. During her stay with Emerson, Fuller met Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) who offered her an assisting position at the Temple School in Boston. The Temple School was open from 1834 to 1838 and became representative of the Transcendentalist ideals regarding educational reform. In 1837 Fuller left the Temple School and negotiated a contract with Hiram Fuller of the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island where she was promised a yearly salary of $1,000.
Leading up to the opening of the Greene Street School, Margaret stayed with the Emerson’s multiple times. Margaret had hoped to meet Emerson for years before her first visit with him in the summer of 1836. Having been a social and intellectual misfit for most of her life, Margaret was drawn to the Transcendental ideals that Emerson gave public lectures on. Margaret’s Divinity School friends, including James F. Clarke and Henry Hedge, had become highly interested in Emerson when he resigned from an esteemed Boston pulpit when the congregation would not allow him to disregard the ritual of communion like he wished to. Margaret had expressed interest in meeting Emerson as early as 1834. In a letter to Frederic H. Hedge (Henry), Margaret makes the case for her friend to send one of her Goethe translations to Emerson:
With regard to Mr Emerson, I had two reasons (if they may deserve to be so called) for wishing him to see my Tasso. It gratified me that a mind which had affected mine so powerfully should be dwelling on something of mine even though ‘twere only new dress for the thoughts of another – And I thought he might express something which would be useful to me. I should like very much his corrections as well as yours if it be not too much trouble. (30 November, 1834)
Hedge sent the manuscript of Tasso to Emerson and it was received well. After reading it, Emerson decided that he wanted to know Margaret Fuller and they began a correspondence that led to Fuller’s frequent stays at the Emerson home. Their friendship intensified and the nature of their relationship seemed, especially in the early years, confused at times. Nevertheless, Fuller and Emerson held each other in the highest regard. Throughout their friendship, which lasted the rest of Fuller’s life and remained at the forefront of Emerson’s mind after her death, the two discussed and exchanged countless literary, ideological, and transcendental ideas.
In the year after her first stay with Emerson, Margaret attended a few of the Transcendental Club meetings. In 1839, the Transcendental Club decided to created a quarterly journal called The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion which was first published in July of 1840 and continued until April of 1844. Not only did Margaret edit the first eight publications alongside Emerson, but she contributed a significant amount of her own writing to the journal. Appearing in the first publication of The Dial (July 1840) was Thoreau’s poem “Sympathy” and a prose essay titled “Aulus Persius Flaccus.” The publication came less than two weeks before Thoreau’s twenty-third birthday and was the first time his writing had appeared in print.
Fuller as a Conversationalist, Feminist, Journalist, Social & Literary Critic
Before Margaret began her job as editor of The Dial, she started hosting a series of Conversations for adult women. Fuller’s intention was not to teach anything specific to her female audience, but to promote original thought through discussing the classical myths that had inspired her audacious behavior since childhood. Before starting her Conversations, Margaret wrote a letter to Sophia Ripley explaining her intentions for the women-based classes:
Thus to pass in review the departments of our thought and knowledge and endeavor to place them in due relation to one another in our minds To systematize thought and give precision in which our sex are so deficient, chiefly, I think because they have so few inducements to test and classify what they receive. To ascertain what pursuits are best suited to us in our time and state society, and how we may make best use of our means for building up the life of thought upon the life of action. (Margaret Fuller to Sophia Ripley, 27 August, 1839)
In the summer of 1843, Margaret traveled west with her close friend James Freeman Clarke and his sister Sarah Freeman Clarke. Their journey included spending time on the Great Lakes as well as seeing the prairies of Michigan and northern Illinois. Fuller’s journey into the underdeveloped west gave her a new perspective on the future of America being created by settlers. Part of this perspective meant acknowledging the sad and sobering fact that there was a history of peoples’ being erased in the process. Summer on the Lakes in 1843 (1844) had an extremely successful reception among the literary community and general public alike.
After reading Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, founder of the New-York Tribune, Horace Greeley (1811-1872), was so impressed by Fuller’s work that he offered her a position as a journalist and literary critic. Fuller accepted the position and moved to New York but did not actively begin working for the Tribune until she finished expanding her essay “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men, Woman versus Women” which was published in 1843 by The Dial. Fuller’s expansion, titled Women in the Nineteenth Century, was published in February, 1845 and became known as the first landmark in American Feminist literature.
While Fuller worked for the Tribune, she wrote various essays and articles that ranged all the way from literary criticism to translations of foreign press. Of her published pieces in the Tribune, Fuller wrote numerous essays addressing what she considered to be significant issues of the nineteenth century. Among these issues was the growing disparity between upper and lower classes in the wake of the industrial revolution, the social and economic iniquity faced by women and African Americans, and the desperate need to reform institutions such as prisons and asylums. For a selected bibliography of Fuller’s Tribune journalism, see Fuller’s Journalism for the New-York Daily Tribune.
An American Witness to a Foreign Revolution
On August 1st, 1846, Margaret Fuller travelled to Europe to be a foreign correspondent for Greeley and the Tribune. By 1847, Fuller had landed in Rome where she fell in love with Italian revolutionary Marchese Giovanni Angelo d’Ossoli (Giovanni), and on September 5th, 1848, she gave birth to a son, Angelo Eugene Phillip d’Ossoli (Nino). By this time, Fuller had already decided to stay in Italy and had become involved in the Revolution. At the height of the Revolution and during the French siege of Rome, Fuller took charge of a city hospital called Fate-bene Fratelli while Giovanni was fighting. Once Rome had fallen, Margaret and Giovanni decided to leave Italy and set sail for America on the 17th of May, 1850.
The Loss and Remembrance of Margaret Fuller
While sailing west on the Elizabeth, Captain Hasty contracted smallpox and died before the vessel was through the Strait of Gibraltar. After a week-long quarantine the ship continued its journey under the command of Henry Bangs who had been first mate to Captain Hasty. On the 19 of July, 1850, the Elizabeth ran aground off the shore of Fire Island, New York. Despite being within sight of land, the extreme winds and swelling waves made it impossible for Margaret, Giovanni, and Nino to swim safely to shore. All three perished in the wreck, alongside Fuller’s manuscript of the Italian Revolution.
When news of the disaster reached New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson sent Henry David Thoreau to the site of the wreck to recover all he could of Margaret Fuller’s writings while Emerson remained home to begin writing what would be his portion of Fuller’s memoir. Emerson wrote a letter to Marcus Spring regarding his decision:
My dear Sir,
The morning papers add no syllable to the fatal paragraphs of last night concerning Margaret Fuller; no contradiction and no explination. At first I thought I would go myself and see if I could help in the inquiries at the wrecking ground, and act for the friends. But I have prevailed on my friend, Mr Henry D. Thoreau, to go for me and all the friends. Mr Thoreau is the most competent person that could be selected; and in the dispersion of the Fuller family, and our uncertainty how to communicate with them, he is authorized by Mr Ellery Channing to act for them all.
I fear the chances of recovering manuscript and other property, after five or six days, are small, and diminishing every hour. Yet Margaret would have every record of her history for the last three or four years; and whatever is found by anyone would easily be yielded up to a diligent seeker. Mr Thoreau is prepared to spend a number of days in this object, if necessary, and you must give him any guidance or help you can. If his money does not hold out, I shall gladly pay any drafts he may make on you in my name. And I shall cordially unite with you in any expense that this painful calamity shall make necessary.
The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1845-1859,
Volume 8. Edited by Eleanore M. Tilton.
Columbia University Press, 1991. pp. 254-255.
Thoreau searched the shoreline and a neighboring village for anything that may have washed ashore but was disappointed by his findings. He was able to recover some of Margaret’s jewelry, empty trunks of varying sizes, her portable desk, a few articles of clothing, and Giovanni’s guardsman’s coat which he kept a button from. The only papers to be recovered from the wreck some of Margaret’s letters and a slender journal she had kept in the early months of 1849 before the siege of Rome had begun.
Thoreau addressed a letter to Emerson on July 25, 1850, summarizing the details he had gathered about the Elizabeth’s and the events that followed. See The Correspondence of Thoreau (1850, pp. 262-263) for the full letter.
Years later, Thoreau recalled his time on Fire Island while writing Cape Cod:
Once also it was my business to go in search of relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had been cast up a week after the wreck, having got the direction from a lighthouse: I should find it a mile or two distant over the sand, a dozen rods from the water, covered with a cloth, by a stick stuck up. I expected that I must look very narrowly to find so small an object, but the sandy beach, half a mile wide, and stretching farther than the eye could reach, was so perfectly smooth and bare, and the mirage toward the sea so magnifying, that when I was half a mile distant the insignificant sliver which marked the spot looked like a bleached spar, and the relics were so conspicuous as if they lay in state on that sandy plain, or a generation had labored to pile up their cairn there. Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them, in fact only a slight inequality in the sweep of the shore. There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the sense and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and they sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore, and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it.
(Cape Cod, The Beach Again, pp. 107-108)