Recently published in Houston Woman magazine: a review essay of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
It’s hard to imagine the depths of Margaret Fuller’s despair as she came of age, an intellectual prodigy in the early nineteenth century, expected to achieve nothing more than a suitable marriage. What had her father, Timothy Fuller, a lawyer and politician, been thinking when he exhorted his first-born child to “excel in all things?” “Mediocrity is obscurity,” he taught her very early on, and she internalized his own grand ambition. He educated her to be “the heir of all he knew” – as sharp a mind as a lawyer and as eloquent a tongue as a clergyman. And then she was told to divert all her intellectual and adventurous aspirations into a husband and family.
Against all odds, Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850) went on to publish three books, including the feminist classic “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” (1845); edit the transcendentalist journal “The Dial”; serve as literary editor of Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune; and become the country’s first woman foreign correspondent.
What I can easily imagine is Fuller’s intellectual drive: her appetite for knowledge and the need to express her ideas. It was as inexorable as any twenty-first century celebrity’s drive to fame or entrepreneur’s drive to fortune. She so acutely felt the impossibility of her situation that it came to define her — early on as a philosophically-minded writer and editor and later as an activist journalist. As a social reformer, she posed the question not just for herself but for all her oppressed gender, including slaves, prostitutes, and prison inmates: With what power can a woman move through the world when she has no access to power, or the world?
Fuller decided to forego marriage, “a corrupt social contract” for women, and she could find no role model to help her envision an alternative life as a woman intellectual. She was thwarted by her female “duty” to the domestic sphere, even by those who respected her prodigious talents. It wasn’t until she traveled to Paris and met the writer George Sand that she glimpsed a way to “live her character” as a respected thinker in her own right. Fuller was impressed by Sand’s unconstrained lifestyle, loving and giving birth outside of marriage. “She needs no defence,” Fuller reflected, “but only to be understood, for she has bravely acted out her nature.”
As a foreign correspondent in Europe for the New-York Tribune, Fuller came to fully embrace herself as a “radical,” aligning herself with the freethinking exiles and activists she met there. And it was in Rome that Fuller found the “home” that had eluded her in America. As she reported on the republican revolution, she enjoyed “the liberty of single life” — unheard of for a woman back in Boston or New York. In her rented rooms on the Corso, she had her books, fresh flowers on the writing table, a sitting room for hosting guests, and “all the pleasures I most value, so rich and exalting.” She let herself fall passionately in love with an Italian man, Giovanni Ossoli, uneducated and ten years her junior. She gave birth to a baby boy, concealing both father and son as she continued to cover the French invasion of Rome for the New-York Tribune.
After the revolution faced defeat, Fuller decided to return home with her family (she married Ossoli at some undocumented date). The disapproving gossip began even before she set sail on the merchant freighter Elizabeth. What repercussions Fuller would have faced (Boston was not Paris), we’ll never know. The Ossori family made it as far as Fire Island, where a storm sunk the Elizabeth. Three hundred yards from shore, unable to swim and no rescue forthcoming, Fuller, only 40 years old, drowned, along with her husband and son.
From the very start, Fuller refused the script she was handed as a woman; forging her own identity, instead, required a heroic and life-long struggle. “What concerns me now,” Fuller wrote in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, “is that my life be a beautiful, powerful, in a word, a complete life.” Well into the twenty-first century, we are each yet called to answer the same essential question: What makes my life complete?
c 2014 Ann Daly