Fuller (Marchesa D'ossoli)

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Born 23 May 1810, Cambridgeport, Massachusetts; died 19 July 1850, off Fire Island, New York

Wrote under: S. M. Fuller, S. Margaret Fuller, J.

Daughter of Timothy and Margaret Crane Fuller; married Giovanni Angelo, Marchese d'Ossoli, 1850; children: Angelo

Margaret Fuller's father was a lawyer and politician; her mother bore nine children, seven of whom survived infancy. Having hoped for a son, Fuller gave his oldest child a masculine education. Pushed by her father's ambitions and by her own growing sense that she could achieve greatness, Fuller read Horace, Ovid, and Virgil in the original at seven and continued reading widely in her father's library until she first attended school at fourteen. Two unhappy years at school in Groton, Massachusetts, made clear the social problems caused by what she herself considered her lack of a normal childhood. Back in Cambridge, she studied French, German, Italian, Greek, and philosophy, and made friends with future transcendentalists Frederick Henry Hedge and James Freeman Clarke. In 1833 Fuller's father retired from public life and moved his family to a farm at Groton, 40 miles from Boston. For two years, Fuller took care of the house and of her younger brothers and sisters while teaching four of the children five to eight hours a day. She also continued her ambitious "self-culture," reading widely in history, literature, philosophy, and religion.

When Fuller's father died in 1835, she became breadwinner and head of the family. She taught at Bronson Alcott's school in Boston (1836-37) and the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island (1837-39). In 1839 she moved her family to Jamaica Plain and began her "Conversations" in Boston and Cambridge, which continued until 1844.

In 1836 Fuller had begun her friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. A passage from Emerson's 1837 journal typifies the mixture of affection and exasperation she could arouse: "Margaret Fuller left us yesterday morning. Among many things that will make her visit valuable and memorable, this is not the least that she gave me five or six lessons in German pronunciation never by my offer and rather against my will, each time, so that now spite of myself I shall always have to thank her for a great convenience—which she foresaw." From July 1840 until July 1842, at the urging of Emerson and other transcendentalist friends, Fuller edited the Dial.

In 1843 Fuller accompanied James and Sarah Clarke on a trip to Illinois and Michigan. In December 1844 she went to New York City as a correspondent for Horace Greeley's Daily-Tribune. In part because of an unfortunate romantic involvement with James Nathan, Fuller sailed in August 1846 for Europe and subsequently traveled in England, Scotland, and France, still acting as a Tribune correspondent. In Rome in 1847 she met her future husband, the Marchese d'Ossoli. Her son Angelo was born in September 1848. Ossoli supported the Roman Republic, and the family stayed in Rome throughout the French siege. Fuller directed a hospital and cared for the wounded. After the republic fell, the family went to Florence and then sailed for America. All three were drowned when their ship broke up in a storm off Fire Island.

Fuller began writing with translations of Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe (1839) and the Correspondence of Fräulein Günderode and Bettina Von Arnim (1842); some unhappy attempts at fiction; and rhapsodic, sentimental verse of little merit. Her first successful and original work, Summer on the Lakes (1844), used the frame of her Western visit with the Clarkes for a mixture of realistic reporting, autobiography, historical and philosophical musings, and literary criticism. The result resembles Thoreau's later A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849).

Using a journal she had kept on the trip, Fuller provides fresh and perceptive comments on places and people from Chicago and the prairie settlements of Illinois to Milwaukee and Mackinaw. Whatever is rhapsodic or overly Romantic in her approach to the West usually succumbs before her own observations and her commonsense good will. Fuller admires the spirit of the new land, even as she recognizes the cruelty with which the Native Americans had been forced from their country. She mourns the vanished romance and vanishing beauties, but admires the new democracy: "In the West, people are not respected merely because they are old in years.… There are no banks of established respectability in which to bury talent there; no napkin of precedent in which to wrap it. What cannot be made to pass current, is not esteemed coin of the realm."

Fuller pities the loneliness of the settlers, particularly the women, whose training she feels has made them less able to bear solitude. She observes that the desire to be fashionable can only slow progress toward adjustment and enjoyment. Educational methods "copied from the education of some English Lady Augusta, are as ill-suited to the daughter of an Illinois farmer, as satin shoes to climb the Indian mounds."

Fuller herself adapted admirably. In Pawpaw Grove, Illinois, she slept on the supper table in a barroom "from which its drinking visitors could be ejected only at a late hour." She captures the incongruities and cruelties of the Western scene in vignettes—the daughter of a famous "Indian fighter" playing the piano at the window of a boarding house in Milwaukee as Native Americans pass by selling baskets of berries; 2,000 Chippewas and Ottawas encamped at Mackinaw to receive their annual payments from the American government—or in a single sentence: "Whenever the hog comes, the rattlesnake disappears."

Horace Greeley admired the book enough to offer Fuller a job on his Tribune, and Evert Duyckinck wrote in his diary for 1844 that Summer on the Lakes was the only genuinely American book he had seen published.

Papers on Literature and Art (1846) collected Fuller's critical pieces, but the only other book she wrote was Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), a revision and amplification of her July 1843 Dial article, "The Great Lawsuit—Man versus Men; Woman versus Women." Fuller's transcendental tract endorses above all the idea that the powers of each individual should be developed through his or her apprehension of an ideal. Her insistence on the godlike possibilities of all humans differs little from the same radical idealism in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, but Fuller emphasizes that the fullest possible development of man will not come without the fullest possible development of woman. Fuller also feels that woman has so far been given fewer chances to realize her possibilities: "The idea of Man, however imperfectly brought out, has been far more so than that of Woman; that she, the other half of the same thought, other chamber of the heart of life, needs now to take her turn in the full pulsation, and that improvement in the daughters will best aid in the reformation of the sons of this age."

Fuller says that women must not wait for help from men, continuing their old, bad habits of dependence, but must help themselves; self-reliance and independence are the best ways of aiding themselves and their sisters. The capacity for economic independence is prerequisite to moral and mental freedom, and the freedom to choose celibacy over a degrading or unequal and merely convenient marriage is essential. Late in her book, she makes her famous statement that women should be able to do anything for which their individual powers and talents fit them—"let them be sea-captains if they will."

Woman in the Nineteenth Century thus mixes transcendental idealism and insistence on an economic basis for equality; it discusses prostitution and property rights for women along with the true ends and aims of the ideal marriage. Fuller's broad social sympathies lead her to point out that the degradation of white women in 19th-century America equals that of red and black men and women. But, she says, what women want is not "poetic incense," not "life-along sway," "not money, not notoriety, not the old badges of authority which men have appropriated to themselves," but "the freedom, the religious, the intelligent freedom of the universe to use its means, to learn its secret, as far as Nature has enabled them, with God alone for their guide and judge." Fuller is radical because she argues that "Man" encompasses both man and woman, and that both should be allowed equal opportunity to develop.

The myths that have grown up around Fuller's brief life and her relatively small oeuvre make her contributions difficult to assess. Some contemporary and many later critics have maintained that the genius she displayed in conversation, whether natural or guided, never became fully evident in her writings: "Ultimately she should be remembered for what she was rather than what she did" (Blanchard). The Dial has always been seen as central to the transcendentalist movement; some contend that the magazine reflects Fuller more than it does "the generality of transcendentalist thought" (Rosenthal). Fuller's writings for the Dial and the Tribune gave her a chance to introduce European culture to America, to promote American literature, and to diffuse her social ideals while contrasting them with harsh reality. With Poe she must be considered America's first major literary critic, but her reporting gives evidence of a livelier, more supple prose that might have matured given time. Undoubtedly, she contributed much to American Romanticism and the feminist movement.

Other Works:

Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (edited by R. W. Emerson, et al., 1852). At Home and Abroad (edited by A. B. Fuller, 1856). Art, Literature, and the Drama (edited by A. B. Fuller, 1860). Life Without and Life Within (edited by A. B. Fuller, 1860). Margaret and her Friends (edited by C. W. H. Dall, 1895). Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller, 1845-1846 (1903). The Writings of Margaret Fuller (edited by M. Wade, 1941).

The papers of Margaret Fuller, Marchesa d'Ossoli, are housed in the Boston Public Library and the Houghton Library, of Harvard University.


Blanchard, P., Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Romanticism (1978). Boller, P. F., American Transcendentalism 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry (1974). Brown, A. W., Margaret Fuller (1964). Buell, L., Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (1973).Chevigny, B. G., The Women and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writing (1976). Cooke, G. W., An Historical and Bibliographical Introduction to Accompany the Dial (1961). Deiss, J. J., The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller (1969). Durning, R. E., Margaret Fuller, Citizen of the World (1969). Gilman, W. H., et al., The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1960-). Harding, W., and C. Bode, The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau (1958). Hudspeth, R. N., ed., The Letters of Margaret Fuller (5 vols., 1983-88). Miller P., The American Transcendentalists (1957). Miller, P., The Transendentalists (1950). Myerson, J., Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Bibliography (1978). Myerson, J., Margaret Fuller: A Secondary Bibliography (1977). Simpson, C. M., ed., The American Notebooks (1972). Spender, D., ed., Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers (1983). Stern, M. B., The Life of Margaret Fuller (1942). Swift, L., Brook Farm (1900). Urbanski, M. M. O., Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary Study of Form and Content, of Sources and Influence (1980) Wade, M., Margaret Fuller: Whetstone of Genius (1940). Wilson, E., Margaret Fuller: Bluestocking, Romantic, Revolutionary (1977).

Reference works:

AA. The Female Prose Writers of America (1855). NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

ELN (Sept. 1970). SAQ (Autumn 1973).