Margaret Fuller’s Youth & Family Life

Daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller by John Plumbe, 1846.

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.