Authors: Margaret Fuller

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American critic, journalist, essayist, and women's rights advocate.

May 23, 1810

Cambridgeport, Massachusetts

July 19, 1850

Off the coast of Fire Island, New York

Biography

Margaret Fuller, a critic, essayist, and journalist associated with the transcendentalist movement, is now considered to have been among the most brilliant and important literary figures of her day, though, ironically, not one of the best writers. She was born Sarah Margaret Fuller on May 23, 1810, the oldest of six children. Because her father was disappointed that she was not a boy, she was given a rigorous private education. She could read Latin fluently by the age of six and eventually developed a lifelong interest in German, English, and emergent American literature.

Margaret Fuller

(Library of Congress)

After her father died, Fuller turned to teaching to help support her family. At first she taught school in Providence, Rhode Island, while working on a biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1838 she returned to the Boston area, where she gave language lessons and, on the strength of her broad learning, effective conversation, and radical opinions, became a member of the Transcendental Club. Her remarkable gift for discussing literature and ideas enabled her to organize “conversations” for women and men, and her talents for literary criticism became officially recognized when she became editor of the transcendentalist journal the Dial, a post she held from 1840 to 1842. During this period she became friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others, all of whom were impressed with her powerful mind and strong ego.

Following her successful and rigorous editorship of the Dial (she sent rejection notices to Henry David Thoreau, among others), Fuller took a tour of Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York during the summer of 1843. Her experience led to her first book, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844), ostensibly a travel book, in which she records her impressions and inner responses to the countryside. She describes the Midwest in idyllic, pastoral terms, and sometimes, as when she encounters Niagara Falls, she registers moments of sublimity. Her descriptions of forests, lakes, and prairies, usually viewed through the lens of literary and classical allusions, are richly suggestive. She also hints at a growing concern over social issues, saying much about the plight of the American Indians she encountered, and includes summaries of her readings. The book aroused the attention of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New-York Tribune, who hired her as a literary critic in 1844. Against Emerson’s objections, she moved to New York and pursued her interest in social issues, an interest she found somewhat wanting among her transcendentalist friends.

Fuller wrote numerous book reviews and essays for the Tribune (250 during one typical one-and-a-half-year period) in which she espoused a combination of Scottish common sense, philosophy, and romanticism that she dubbed “comprehensive criticism.” Her goals as a critic included introducing Americans to European writers, demanding excellence, cultivating public taste, and fostering indigenous American writing. During this time she expanded an essay on women that she had previously written for the Dial into her most important book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). This pioneering feminist treatise brings transcendentalism’s Olympian idealism into the social realm, arguing powerfully for equal opportunity for both sexes to develop their inner divinity. Published two years before the first women’s rights convention, Fuller’s book asserts that masculinity and femininity are traits shared by both men and women, and in a series of illustrations from mythology, history, and literature, she demonstrates that the progress of the race depends on the abolition of the cultural enslavement of women.

After the success of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller collected many of her critical essays and published them in Papers on Literature and Art (1846). In these essays she discusses, among others, the composers Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven; major British writers such as John Milton and Robert Browning; and American literature as a whole. She prophesies a glorious future for American literature, particularly if it should develop more after continental European than British models.

In the summer of 1846 Fuller traveled to Europe, where she wrote as a foreign correspondent for the Tribune. While in Italy she became a partisan of patriot Giuseppe Mazzini during the Italian Revolution, writing to Emerson that she now found life more interesting than art. She entered into a liaison with another partisan, the disinherited marquis Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, and had a child by him. The fact that it was not clear whether or not she and Ossoli were married created a scandal. When the Italian Revolution failed, Fuller returned to the United States with Ossoli and their son, but their ship sank just off Fire Island, New York, and all three perished. Fuller’s manuscript for a book on the Italian Revolution was destroyed as well.

Although Fuller was always considered a better conversationalist than writer, her criticism, after that of Edgar Allan Poe, is among the best of her time. There were those who had agreed with her when she had claimed that she found “no intellect comparable to my own”; Emerson dubbed her “the greatest woman . . . of ancient or modern times.”

Author Works Nonfiction: Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, 1844 Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 1845 Papers on Literature and Art, 1846 (2 volumes; also known as Literature and Art, 1852) Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, 1852 (2 volumes [US; 3 volumes in UK]; W. H. Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Freeman Clarke, editors) Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties, of Woman, 1855 (Arthur B. Fuller, editor) At Home and Abroad; or, Things and Thoughts in America and Europe, 1856 (Arthur B. Fuller, editor) Life Without and Life Within; or, Reviews, Narratives, Essays, and Poems, 1859 (Arthur B. Fuller, editor) Art, Literature, and the Drama, 1860 (Arthur B. Fuller, editor; includes both volumes of Papers on Literature and Art) Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller, 1845–1846, 1903 Margaret Fuller: American Romantic; A Selection from Her Writings and Correspondence, 1963 (Perry Miller, editor) The Letters of Margaret Fuller, 1983–94 (6 volumes; Robert N. Hudspeth, editor) The Portable Margaret Fuller, 1994 (Mary Kelley, editor) Margaret Fuller’s New York Journalism: A Biographical Essay and Key Writings, 1995 (Catherine C. Mitchell, editor) Margaret Fuller, Critic: Writings from the New-York Tribune, 1844–1846, 2000 (Judith Mattson Bean and Joel Myerson, editors) My Heart Is a Large Kingdom: Selected Letters of Margaret Fuller, 2001 (Robert N. Hudspeth, editor) Selected Works: Essays, Poems, and Dispatches with Introduction, 2003 (with Ralph Waldo Emerson; John Carlos Rowe, editor) Translations: Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life, Translated from the German of Eckermann, 1839 (of Johann Peter Eckermann’s Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens) Günderode, 1842 ( of Bettina von Arnim’s Die Günderode; also known as Correspondence of Fräulein Günderode and Bettine von Arnim, 1861) Bibliography Allen, Margaret Vanderhaar. The Achievement of Margaret Fuller. Pennsylvania State UP, 1979. Explores the range of Fuller’s intellectual and professional accomplishments. Also shows the importance of two major influences, in chapters on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Blanchard, Paula. Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution. Delacorte Press / S. Lawrence, 1978. An extensive biography that aims to correct the misconceptions about the Fuller “myth” by providing a fair, realistic, and historically factual view of her. Covers Fuller’s involvement with transcendentalism as well as her later social activism. Brown, Arthur W. Margaret Fuller. Twayne Publishers, 1964. A useful, concise survey of Fuller’s life and work. Contains a selected annotated bibliography of secondary sources. Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life. 2 vols., Oxford UP, 1992–2007. The subtitles of these two volumes, The Private Years and The Public Years, indicate Capper’s concern with the tensions between the private (family-oriented) and the public (intellectual) Fuller. Both volumes are remarkably detailed regarding Fuller, her family, and her contemporaries. Capper, Charles and Cristina Giorcelli, editors. Margaret Fuller: Transatlantic Crossings in a Revolutionary Age. U of Wisconsin P, 2007. A collection of ten essays that focus on the last three and a half years of Fuller’s life, when she worked as a reporter in Europe, looking at how this period of her life affected her political views and her literary interests. Chevigny, Bell Gale, compiler. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings. Rev. and expanded ed., Northeastern UP, 1994. Includes excerpts from Fuller’s writings, illuminating commentary about her by contemporaries, and useful section introductions that summarize various aspects of Fuller’s life and career. Edwards, Julia. Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Houghton Mifflin, 1988. Presents a lively and vivid account of Fuller’s activities in Europe and quotes liberally from her communiques to the Tribune, giving a real sense of Fuller within the context of the times. Fuller, Margaret. Margaret Fuller: American Romantic; A Selection from Her Writings and Correspondence. Edited by Perry Miller, Doubleday, 1963. Selections from Fuller’s writings and correspondence, preceded by an insightful foreword. James, Laurie. Why Margaret Fuller Ossoli Is Forgotten: A True Account—Typical of How Famous Women Have Been Buried in History. Golden Heritage Press, 1988. A short book presenting the author's thesis that Fuller has been buried in history because the editors of her “definitive” autobiography, Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, intentionally misrepresented her life and works. James builds quite a case against Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Henry Channing, and James Freeman Clarke. She elaborates further in her Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller (1990). James, Laurie, compiler and editor. The Wit & Wisdom of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Golden Heritage Press, 1988. A selection of quotations organized around topics such as “love,” “equality,” “revolution,” “toys,” and “faith and soul.” Also includes a list of Fuller’s major achievements and a bibliography. Myerson, Joel, editor. Fuller in Her Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of Her Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. U of Iowa P, 2008. A collection of writing about Margaret Fuller that reveals the many facets of her personality as a woman, writer, scholar, student, and teacher. Looks at how she struggled to fulfil societal expectations and how they impacted her writing and her life. Slater, Abby. In Search of Margaret Fuller: A Biography. Delacorte Press, 1978. A very readable and accessible account of Fuller’s complicated life, including her family background, romantic interests (and disappointments), and friends, both the famous and the lesser known. Watson, David. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic. Berg, 1988. A useful account of Fuller’s life, work, and reputation that examines her roles as romantic, feminist, and socialist, suggesting that she deserves to be taken seriously as a contributor to historically important bodies of thought. Of particular interest is Watson’s examination of modern feminist Fuller scholarship. Concludes that modern attempts to “rescue” Fuller do not always escape the myopic traps to which they are opposed. Includes a chronology, an index, and a bibliography.

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