Fuller, Margaret: Introduction

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A pioneer of nineteenth-century feminism, Margaret Fuller was a well-respected social and literary critic. She is best known as the founding editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, and as the author of the feminist treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845).


Sarah Margaret Fuller was born May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. She was the eldest of seven surviving children of Margaret Crane and Timothy Fuller, a Harvard graduate and attorney who served in the Massachusetts State Senate, the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and the United States House of Representatives. Fuller displayed superior intellectual skills at an early age and her father decided to personally oversee her education, which included rigorous study of classical languages and literature. She began studying Latin grammar at the age of five and progressed to Greek, French, Italian, and German. However, the demands of her father's strict educational program took its toll on her health as a child, causing Fuller to later regret having "no natural childhood." In 1821, recognizing that she had little social interaction with other children outside the family, the Fullers sent their daughter to Dr. John Park's school in Boston, which she attended for little more than a year. Her only other formal schooling was at Susan Prescott's school in Groton, which she attended from 1824 to 1826.

Fuller was exposed at a young age to the intellectual life of Boston and Cambridge; she impressed many of the Harvard students and faculty with her wit and learning, although she earned the disapproval of an equal number by her failure to adhere to contemporary standards of demure femininity. In 1833, Timothy Fuller moved the family to Groton where Fuller, cut off from her friends in Boston, assumed much of the care and education of her siblings. Two years later, her father's sudden death from cholera forced Fuller into the teaching profession as a way to help support her mother and her younger sisters and brothers. Back in Boston, she taught at Bronson Alcott's Temple School in 1836, supplementing her income with night classes in German and Italian poetry for adults. A year later she left Boston to teach in Albert Gorton Greene's school in Providence. By 1839, her family's financial situation had improved and Fuller joined her mother in Boston, where she resumed her friendships with the leading figures of the Transcendentalist movement, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Horace Greeley. That same year, she started the first of her annual "Conversations," a lecture and discussion series for adult women—some of them her former students—and began editing the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, serving without pay for the first two years. She resigned from the position in 1842 and the magazine ended publication two years later under Emerson's editorship. In 1844, Fuller moved to New York and took over as literary editor of Greeley's New York Daily Tribune. She became one of America's first foreign correspondents when she traveled to Europe in 1846 and sent dispatches back to the Tribune. In 1847 Fuller traveled to Italy where she met Giovanni Ossoli with whom she had a son the following year; it is unclear whether or not the couple married. They were returning to America in 1850 when their ship ran aground and sank off Fire Island on July 19. Fuller's body was never recovered, nor was the manuscript of her final book.


Fuller's professional writing career began with her work on The Dial, the first issue of which appeared in July, 1840. Since she had some difficulty convincing other writers to contribute to the magazine, Fuller wrote a great deal of the material featured in the first several issues herself. In 1844, she published Summer on the Lakes, a collection of travel essays written after her 1843 tour of the Great Lakes with her friend Sarah Clarke. Two years later, Papers on Literature and Art, consisting of essays previously published in periodicals, was published. The work covered a wide variety of subjects, from reviews of current books and exhibitions to an essay on her own critical perspective called "A Short Essay on Critics."

Fuller's best-known work is Womaninthe Nineteenth Century, an extended treatise on the status of women. A shorter version had appeared two years earlier in The Dial under the title "The Great Lawsuit." Fuller called for complete equality between males and females, and compared the struggle for women's rights with the abolition movement. She insisted that all professions be opened to women and contended that women should not be forced to submit to the men in their lives: husbands, fathers, or brothers. The book was highly controversial in its time; critics believed Fuller's notions would destroy the stability and sanctity of the home. Some objections were lodged on religious grounds as her ideas were considered contrary to the divine order.


Aside from the controversial nature of Fuller's theories, early criticism of her writings focused on her literary style, which was modeled on that of the classics, but was considered far too ornate and lengthy. Contemporary assessments of her work were also colored by resistance to Fuller's strong personality. In addition, the heavy-handed editing of her papers and diaries after her death—by such famous contemporaries as William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clark, and Ralph Waldo Emerson—suppressed some of the more controversial aspects of her life and work. As a result, succeeding generations of critics, given such a distorted view of the woman and her writings, have underestimated her contributions to the nineteenth-century struggle for women's equality. While Woman in the Nineteenth Century was considered the inspiration for the 1848 women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, the work virtually disappeared after the publication of a second edition in 1855. Since the 1970s, Fuller's work has been reexamined and her critical reputation restored primarily through the efforts of feminist scholars.

Suggesting that Fuller's unusual writing method has been misunderstood by critics, Fritz Fleischmann explains that, for her, writing was a process of discovery: "Fuller writes to find out 'what she means,' rather than to expound on what she means; and her method of writing is in full consonance with her purpose and her message." Annette Kolodny (see Further Reading) also contends that Fuller's style, so thoroughly dismissed by her contemporaries, was actually ahead of its time; Kolodny praises the revolutionary nature of Fuller's theories and the "even greater daring of her rhetorical strategies." Cynthia J. Davis acknowledged that Fuller was searching for a "degendered rhetorical form," but more importantly, according to Davis, was the fact that "Fuller not only degendered rhetoric, she degendered bodies, and this was a radical thing to do, even within a feminist tradition." But the radical nature of her work and her failure to conform to conventional standards of femininity made Fuller a self-proclaimed outsider in nineteenth-century culture, according to Michaela Bruckner Cooper. "While Fuller stressed her difference from others," Cooper reports, "she does not always do so confidently. Frequently, anxiety about her status as a woman and writer surfaces." Nonetheless, many critics today praise Fuller as a pioneer feminist whose writings, in some cases, anticipate the work of scholars today.

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