Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from American National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 03 August 2020

Fuller, Margaretfree

(23 May 1810–19 July 1850)
  • Joel Athey

Fuller, Margaret (23 May 1810–19 July 1850), author and feminist, was born Sarah Margaret Fuller in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, the daughter of Timothy Fuller, a lawyer, and Margaret Crane. Her father taught his oldest child reading at age three and Latin at age six, but Fuller’s education grew eclectic in later childhood when she was left largely to her own resources. “To excel in all things should be your constant aim; mediocrity is obscurity,” her father wrote to Margaret when she was ten. Under such pressures, Fuller suffered periodically throughout her life from depression and headaches. Timothy Fuller was often away, serving four terms in Congress (1817–1825). Margaret’s mother, a devout Unitarian, was subdued by sickly health. In Fuller’s fictional Autobiographical Romance (1852), she portrays an authoritarian father in his study and a poetic mother in her garden.

At home Margaret was charged with educating the children. She attended Port School alongside Richard Dana and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was to model the title character of Elsie Venner after her, and then the Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies. Young Margaret was uneasy around her peers. Acute but plain, with eyes blinking nervously from nearsightedness, she countered teasing with formidable wit; she “made up [her] mind to be bright and ugly” (Memoirs, vol. 1 p. 228).

Timothy Fuller moved the family to Groton in 1833 to reside as a farmer-scholar, an exile Margaret resented. Nevertheless, she knew Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing from the family’s Boston days, met English writer Harriet Martineau, who visited Cambridge in 1834 and encouraged Fuller to write a biography of Goethe, and two years later was invited to stay at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home in Concord. Fuller taught German pronunciation to Emerson, and he reciprocated by writing Thomas Carlyle for assistance on her Goethe project. By age twenty-four, she was under the sway of philosophers soon to be known as Transcendentalists, whose philosophical and social idealism, with its Unitarian center, was applied especially to religious doubts.

Fuller’s energy was drained by having to raise her siblings while reading voraciously. Excursions to New York only reminded her how isolated farm life was. She ran a home school and submitted didactic literary critiques to Western Messenger (June 1835) and a short romance, “Lost and Won,” to Galaxy (Aug. 1835). She taught at Bronson Alcott’s school in Boston until it foundered over his antireligious views and then in Providence for one and a half years.

After her father died in 1835, Fuller’s complex of resentment and admiration emerged, prompting her to write that children “should not through books ante-date their actual experiences” (Memoirs, vol. 1, p. 31). She recognized the fragile female position: “You know we women have no profession except marriage, mantua-making and school-keeping” (Letters, Feb. 1836). In reviewing The Life of James Mackintosh in the American Monthly Magazine (June 1836), she analyzed a statesman who failed for insufficient “earnestness of purpose,” which she blamed on “the want of systematic training in early life” and “uncommon talents for conversation,” both reflections on herself.

In 1837 Fuller attended Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard and was inducted into the Transcendentalist movement, in which she was recognized as an equal by men and shared the gibes hurled at Transcendentalism, as even Unitarian churches closed their doors to these freethinkers. Her professional watershed occurred in 1839, when she published translations of Johann Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe and German poetry and moved back to Boston. In October Fuller accepted the editorship of The Dial, a new quarterly for Transcendentalism, and a month later opened the first of her “Conversations,” at which Boston women, and some invited men, met to discuss society and women’s roles in society.

The first issue of The Dial appeared in July 1840. Fuller emphasized literature more than religion, which was just as well because dissenting Unitarian ministers were scarcely unified or eager to publish under a single masthead. During her two-year tenure as editor Fuller supplied numerous articles, including “Short Essay on Critics” and a re-evaluation of Goethe at a time when he was considered a moral renegade. Her analyses employed a conversation technique to allow opposing viewpoints, a manner that mirrored Goethe’s concept that truth can occupy grounds in both camps of an argument.

Fuller also contributed a series of four mystical sketches on women, which dramatized both maternal strength and the female quest into the self, a search for woman’s power and buried creativity that, in Fuller’s own time and country at least, had to emerge outside patriarchal law. Her language posited a mythology of the female realm akin to imagery seen later in the female selfhood generated by twentieth-century artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Judy Chicago.

Most important, Fuller followed these sketches with “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women,” a feminist tract that coupled mysticism with her own reading and admiration for feminist predecessors Martineau (Society in America, 1837) and Anna Jameson (Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, 1838). Fuller emphasized women’s intellect as well as sensibility and proclaimed that “the restraints upon the sex were insuperable only to those who think them so,” but pragmatically added “or who noisily strive to break them.” Her articles appeared without a byline and without remuneration. With strained nerves aggravated by the withdrawal of a promised $75 per quarterly, Fuller departed from The Dial in 1842, to be succeeded as editor by Emerson.

For five years Fuller’s Conversations, however, continued to attract Boston’s leading lights and show off her star qualities, for as Emerson recorded in his journal, “Her powers of speech throw her writing into the shade.” More than her writing, they established her reputation and enhanced her income. The 1841 series of Conversations was titled “The Ethical Influences of Women on the Family, the School, the Church, Society and Literature.” Her 1842 Conversations, titled simply “Woman,” stretched Emerson’s philosophy on the infinitude of the individual to include women. The sessions ended with Fuller in a trancelike state, uttering Delphic wisdom. For Emerson, “She rose before me at times into heroical and godlike regions, and I could remember no superior woman, but thought of Ceres, Minerva, Proserpine” (The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William Gilman et al., vol. 8 [1960], pp. 368–69), but in truth the two were often irreconcilable in philosophy as well as personality. She never stayed in Emerson’s home after 1842.

Fuller’s visit to Chicago and Niagara resulted in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, a potpourri of frontier scenes and contrived poetic flights. She fretted over the rapacity of white settlers, notably their treatment of Native Americans, and saw lost opportunities to secure a fresh start for civilization and for women. For her research on westward expansion, the Harvard library allowed her in as its first woman scholar.

By 1844, when Horace Greeley offered her the literary editorship of his New-York Daily Tribune, making her the first woman in the working press, Fuller’s private life was at a crossroads. Her family no longer needed tending, and her web of friendships was strained. Emerson remained cordial but grew distant. She stayed at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Old Manse, but it was his wife who admired Fuller; Hawthorne considered her brash and intellectually pretentious, a “great humbug.”

In 1845 Fuller expanded “The Great Lawsuit” into Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which celebrated both the creative and intellectual sides of woman’s nature, her muse and her Minerva. She combined Charles Fourier’s critique that woman must be entirely equal to man with Goethe’s pragmatic “as the man, so the institutions,” meaning to Fuller that society at large, namely “unready men,” must be reformed in order for woman to achieve her “radiant sovereign self.” Her poem at the end of the volume stresses the equality of the sexes, “So shalt thou see what few have seen, / The palace home of King and Queen.”

Although her disruptive prose style only loosely associated the rush of inspirations (again, from Emerson, “She ought not to write because she talked so well”), the first edition of Woman in the Nineteenth Century sold out in two weeks. Greeley trumpeted its success, and Knickerbocker Magazine called it “a well-reasoned and well-written treatise.” Conservative critics in the Quarterly Review and the Southern Quarterly were appalled that she encouraged women to pursue knowledge as men did; they also noted that an unmarried woman should not presume to “truly represent the female character.”

For most of her tenure at the Tribune, Fuller lived with Greeley and his wife (Mary Greeley had attended the Conversations in Boston). Greeley’s air was one of “friendly antagonism” (Memoirs, vol. 2, p. 153), and he often hailed her by her signature remark on women: “Let them be sea-captains if you will” (Woman, p. 191). Fuller’s reputation was such that Woman in the Nineteenth Century was pirated in England by December and her Tribune column placed on the front page. During her rise to prominence in 1845, Fuller fell in love with James Nathan, a prosperous businessman in New York City (only her letters survive, and her nineteenth-century biographers made no mention of this romance). The affair was a passing interlude, ending when Nathan left the country that same year.

For eighteen months Fuller’s 250 newspaper articles influenced culture in a populist way that Emerson avoided—and even worse, in that Babylon, New York City. She praised Herman Melville’s Typee, chastised Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Euro-poetic elegance, and belittled James Russell Lowell, who later lampooned her in A Fable for Critics (1864). Her columns also directed public attention to slums, immigrants, and working women. In Papers on Literature and Art (1846) she neglected Edgar Allan Poe, for which he rescinded his earlier praise of “high genius” and called her “an ill-tempered and very inconsistent old maid” (letter to George W. Eveleth dated 4 Jan. 1848, The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom, vol. 2 [1966], p. 355).

In 1846, as Fuller was about to go to Europe as Greeley’s foreign correspondent, Emerson journeyed from Concord to see her off. In England, she met Martineau, William Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, and Carlyle, then departed accompanied by the exiled Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini, who traveled incognito. In Paris she adored woman novelist George Sand, whom she had singled out in “The Great Lawsuit.” She traveled to Genoa, Naples, and finally Rome, where in 1847 she met Giovanni Angelo, marchese d’Ossoli, the handsome, youngest son of fallen aristocrats. Ten years younger and casually educated, Ossoli was scarcely a match for Fuller, but by June he offered marriage and by December she was pregnant. Whether she ever officially married has not been determined (April or May 1848 is a suggested date); Ossoli, a Roman Catholic, could not marry a Protestant.

In love, Fuller wrote cryptic letters, sounding miserable but desiring to stay in Italy for three years. Twice, Emerson, in London, urged her to Paris so he could escort her home to Concord, but she remained to fulfill her destiny: “to be free and absolutely true to my nature” (Letters, Apr. 1847). A year after her son’s birth, Fuller broke her silence to family and friends back home: “You may address me in future as Marchioness Ossoli” (Aug. 1849).

Meanwhile, democratic uprisings were occurring across Europe in 1848, and Fuller was on the scene to chronicle the Roman republic’s birth and ultimate demise when French troops retook Rome in the name of the pope. As war broke out, Fuller identified with the Italian people: “What shall I write of Rome in these sad but glorious days? If Rome falls, if Venice falls, there is no spot of Italian earth where they can abide more” (Tribune, 24 July 1849). With Ossoli fighting bravely in the civic guard, Fuller staffed the hospital during the two-month siege and fall of Rome, writing home to remind Americans of the marquis de Lafayette’s intervention in their own fight for freedom and the current “holocaust of broken hearts” (Tribune, 16 May 1849).

Fuller and her husband escaped to Florence, where she wrote a history of the Roman struggles at the home of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Robert then accompanied them to Leghorn for their voyage to America. On 19 July 1850, in a diminishing gale, only four hundred yards off Fire Island, New York, their ship foundered on a sand dune and sank ten hours later. The Ossoli family drowned; only the baby’s body was recovered. Emerson sent Henry David Thoreau to scour the beaches, but all was lost, including Fuller’s Roman revolution manuscript.

Emerson and William Henry Channing undertook a biography, although Fuller’s family stifled much concerning her religious views and dubious marriage. The sanitized two-volume Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852), with little mention of the romantic final years, sold 1,000 copies its first day; thirteen editions were printed by the century’s end. Fuller’s correspondence for the Tribune was published in At Home and Abroad (1856). Woman in the Nineteenth Century was reissued in 1855, and Greeley published a six-volume edition of Fuller’s works in 1869. Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s biography in 1884 de-emphasized her Transcendentalism by saying that Fuller desired “a career of mingled thought and action, such as she finally found,” because she was not framed by nature for a mystic, a dreamer, or a bookworm (p. 4).

Fuller’s writings never achieved the landmark status of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), for they were pontifical and mystical as well as imaginative. Hence her life was more influential than her works. Emerson’s letters reveal his great indebtedness to Fuller, which ironically is often neglected as feminists strive to show Fuller’s independence. Critics speculate that Hawthorne, in spite of his hostility, refigured her as characters in all his major novels. Certainly Fuller inspired women writers, including Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, and Edith Wharton. Her influences on Walt Whitman, Poe, Melville, and Henry James are documented but have not been fully explored.

In the twentieth century, Fuller is a puzzling icon in American feminism because early feminists came to recover her “experience” as a woman but stayed to find only her intense theoretical emphasis. Her modern biographer Joan von Mehren touted Fuller as a major figure in American Romanticism whose “original experiments with symbolism and mysticism, misunderstood by her contemporaries as expressions of morbid self-absorption, extended her insight into feminine psychology and the boundaries of religious experience” (Minerva and the Muse, p. 351). Fuller’s other enduring contribution was the national dimension she brought to the role of literary critic.


Fuller’s manuscripts are at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and the Boston Public Library. See The Letters of Margaret Fuller, ed. Robert Hudspeth (6 vols., 1983–1994), and Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, ed. R. W. Emerson et al. (2 vols., 1852). Early biographies are Julia Ward Howe, Margaret Fuller (Marchesa Ossoli) (1883; repr. 1970), and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1884; repr. 1968). Perry Miller’s introduction to his Margaret Fuller, American Revolutionary (1963) and Jeffrey Steele’s introduction to his Essential Margaret Fuller (1992) are excellent, although Miller’s analyses were frequently hostile toward Fuller. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings, ed. Bell Gale Chevigny (1976; rev. ed., 1994), collects commentary by contemporaries for each period of Fuller’s writings. Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, vol. 1 (1992), is rich in historical and social context. Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (1994), is based on her writings. Christina Zwarg, Feminist Conversations: Fuller, Emerson and the Play of Reading (1995), provides a feminist reading. Catherine Mitchell, ed., Margaret Fuller’s New York Journalism (1995), covers Fuller’s Tribune activities. Horace Greeley’s obituary is in the New-York Daily Tribune, 23 July 1850.