Meeting Margaret Fuller

March 22, 2011

Having met Abraham Lincoln recently (or at least an actor bringing him to life—see my blog, “Meeting Mr. Lincoln,” March 4, 2011), I was pleased to meet a contemporary of Lincoln, Margaret Fuller (portrayed by Laurie James). She told my wife and me, and a few dozen others (at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Niagara Falls, N.Y.) about her eventful life.

Born Sarah Margaret Fuller in 1810 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was provided by her enlightened father with an education as good as any boy of that time might have received. Her father steered her away from the frivolous feminine fare of the day, like sentimental novels and books on etiquette, in favor of instruction in the classics; she read Virgil, for example, in Latin. By the time she had reached her thirties, she was regarded as the best-read person of either sex in all of New England, and she was the first female permitted to use the Harvard College library.

Fuller famously said, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candle in it.” So she put her own learning to use to help lift women out of oppression. In 1839 she began to oversee what she called “conversations”: women’s discussions to help compensate for their being kept from higher education. She penned the first major American feminist treatise, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), and championed other social causes, including abolition of slavery, prison reform, and treatment for the mentally ill, as well as advocating for the poor and homeless. She was ahead of her time when she declared, “There is no wholly masculine man . . . no purely feminine,” observing that both traits were present in each individual.

Fuller became a member of the first U.S. intellectual movement to achieve a lasting influence, Transcendentalism. While Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau believed that God-given intuition was superior to scientific rationalism in comprehending reality (they held that natural facts embodied spiritual truths), their idealism was meant to apply to the real world: Holding that every soul was equal in the sight of God, they fought for equalitarian principles over authoritarian ones, and many of their ideas are today championed (without the supernaturalism) by secular humanists.

Margaret Fuller served as the first editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial , thus influencing the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and others. She also taught at the innovative Temple School in Boston, became the first literary critic of the New York Tribune , and was the first female to serve as the Tribune’s foreign correspondent.

As a correspondent in Europe, she engaged in “participatory journalism” long before the term would see print. She joined the Italian Revolution and took as her lover Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a former marquis whose revolutionary zeal caused his pro-papist family to disinherit him. Whether the couple were legally married seems doubtful, but they acted as husband and wife after the birth of their son, Angelino. When the revolution failed, the Ossolis fled Italy and in time determined to move to the United States. Tragically, on July 19, 1850, their ship wrecked just off the American coast (at Fire Island, New York) and only Angelino’s little body was recovered.

After more than 160 years, which have seen Margaret Fuller’s legacy be buffeted but not wrecked, it was a pleasure meeting and listening to one who could seem so much more in tune with our time than her own.