Fuller, Margaret (1810–1850)

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Fuller, Margaret (1810–1850)

Early feminist writer, central figure with the Transcendentalists, and one of the most intellectually gifted American women of the 19th century. Name variations: Sarah Margaret Fuller as a child; Margaret Fuller Ossoli, d'Ossoli, or Marchioness Ossoli after her marriage. Born Sarah Margaret Fuller in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, on May 23, 1810; died in a shipwreck off New York harbor, on July 19, 1850; eldest child of Timothy Fuller (1778–1835, a lawyer, member of the state assembly and U.S. Congress) and Margaret (Crane) Fuller; may have been married to her lover Marquis Giovanni Angelo Ossoli in 1849 or 1850; children: one son, Angelo.

Taught school in Providence (1837–39); began "conversations" for educated women (1839); was editor of the Dial (1840–42); wrote book reviews for Greeley's New York Tribune (1844–46); voyaged to Europe (1846); as a journalist, covered the Italian republicans and the revolution (1846–49).

Selected writings:

Günderode (translation of the correspondence between Karoline von Günderode and Bettina von Arnim , 1842); Summer on the Lakes in 1843 (Boston: Little Brown, 1844); Women in the Nineteenth Century (NY: Tribune Press, 1845); Papers on Literature and Art (2 vols. NY: Wiley and Putnam, 1846); Collected Works (1855); Life Without and Life Within (collection of essays and poems, Boston, 1860).

Margaret Fuller was one of the most intellectually gifted American women of the 19th century. Thwarted by her family's poverty and by the restrictions of her gender in early life, she matured into a superb speaker and writer in her 30s. Her work as a literary critic and historian of the Italian revolution was cut tragically short by her death in a shipwreck when she was only 40.

Fuller was the oldest of nine children, and her ambitious father Timothy Fuller decided to bring her up as though she were a son. He made her work hard at a difficult educational program

while pursuing his own career, first as a lawyer, later as a U.S. congressional representative, and then as speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly. At age six, she began to learn Latin and soon showed prodigious intellectual gifts, devouring Shakespeare and Cervantes while still very young and reading all of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid by the time she was eight. The price of this forced learning and a harsh streak in her father's manner was a long series of gruesome nightmares, in which she dreamed of being trampled by horses, and of being lost in a blood-soaked forest. She spent two teenage years in Groton, Massachusetts, at Miss Prescott's boarding school, where her intellectual brilliance amazed the teachers and unnerved fellow students. Fuller had violent temper tantrums when other students mocked her eccentricities, followed by paroxysms of remorse when her petty vengeance was discovered. She returned to the family's home in Cambridge-port, near Harvard University, when she was 15. There, she befriended Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., William Ellery Channing, and Richard Henry Dana, soon to be famous men, who were then studying at Harvard, and advanced her education by discussions with such professors as the logician Henry Hedge.

The pleasures of Harvard life ended abruptly when her father decided to retire from law and politics to a country farm in 1833. The life did not suit Margaret Fuller, then aged 23; she was bored teaching her young siblings and looking after the family when her mother Margaret Crane Fuller became an invalid. Her father's death from cholera two years later made matters worse. Responsible for the entire family, Fuller decided to work in Boston as a teacher and send them money rather than remain immured in the countryside. She worked at Bronson Alcott's Temple School as a Latin and French teacher, amazing the father of Louisa May Alcott with her brilliance and energy, and taking on extra teaching and translating work to earn money for the family. After a year, Bronson's eccentric methods of religious education scandalized the children's parents, most of whom abandoned his school and drove it into bankruptcy. Fuller's reputation was spreading, however, and the Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island, now offered her $1,000 per year to teach just four hours a day, which was the highest teaching salary offered to a woman up to that time. She accepted and spent her leisure time reading Goethe and translating works of German philosophy. Aware that she was not a beauty, Fuller worked hard to make striking dresses for herself and to cut a distinctive figure even if not a conventionally attractive one.

In 1841, the family sold its farm in Groton and moved back to the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. There Fuller became a central figure in the Transcendentalist Club, befriending Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, the Sturgis sisters , George and Sophia Ripley , and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody . The Transcendentalists rebelled against the conventional, theologically dry religion of Unitarian Boston in favor of their own blend of German philosophical idealism and nature mysticism. A group of talented writers, they were also great conversationalists (Bronson Alcott tried to make a living as a traveling conversationalist), and many of them described Fuller as the greatest talker among them. Her friend James Freeman Clark wrote: "All her friends will unite in the testimony that whatever they may have known of wit and eloquence in others, they have never seen one who, like her, by the conversation of an hour or two, could not merely entertain and inform, but make an epoch in one's life."

From late 1839, Fuller led a series of women's "conversations," which were in effect seminars on contemporary issues. Developing an early feminist insight into the condition of her sex, she urged her "assistants," as the participants were known, to study with the same rigor showed by their men folk and to look on their intellectual lives as vocational rather than merely decorative. The conversations, two hours a week, lasted 13 weeks for each of four consecutive years, gaining steadily in repute and drawing larger audiences each time. Fuller profited from them (at $10 per "assistant") and became an intellectual celebrity in New England but found when she once tried a course of mixed "conversations" that the men dominated the talk and patronized the women. Never subject to false modesty, she told Emerson, who also admired her, "I now know all the people worth knowing in America and I find no intellect comparable to my own."

Relinquishing teaching, she became first editor of The Dial, the Transcendentalists' magazine. Widely renowned, with a large group of clever and influential friends and acquaintances, she had the intellectual, literary, and business skills to make the project succeed. Emerson and George Ripley helped her get the magazine going, but she wrote eight of the articles in the first edition and was The Dial's most prolific contributor throughout its five-year life. When Ripley started the Brook Farm commune in the spring of 1841, he and his wife urged Fuller to join them as the farm's "presiding genius." Fuller was willing to visit for weekends and hold impromptu conversations but, recalling her earlier experiences, felt no attraction to farming and the countryside and refused to live there. She suffered from severe and disabling headaches nearly every afternoon and cherished the privacy she could not have enjoyed in the commune. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who did settle down at Brook Farm for a while, disliked Fuller and modeled his odious character Zenobia, in The Blithedale Romance (1852), on her. He also wrote later that she was "a great humbug with a strong, heavy, unpliable, and, in many respects, defective and evil nature."

Fuller always had her share of opponents, knew she was unattractive to many men, and never expected to marry. "From an early age" she wrote:

I have felt that I was not born to the common womanly lot. I knew that I should never find a being who could keep the key to my character, that there would be none on whom I could always lean; that I should be a pilgrim and sojourner on the earth, and that the birds and foxes would be surer of a place to lay their heads than I.

In the late 1830s, she had fallen in love with Samuel Gray Ward, a man seven years her junior who had studied art and literature in Germany and shared many of her philosophical enthusiasms. She was dismayed when Ward decided to join his family's banking business rather than take the risk of a writing career, and even more dismayed when she learned that he was marrying one of her young disciples, Anna Barker.

In 1843, Fuller took a break from overwork and emotional upset by visiting what was then the far western edge of white settlement, now Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Traveling to Niagara Falls and then by boat to the small settlement of Chicago, she met Native Americans for the first time and began to lament their displacement by acquisitive and often violent white settlers. In true Transcendentalist fashion, she also regretted that the evangelical missionaries who were often among the first settlers in a new frontier area were trying to extinguish the natives' nature-religion. In a book based on this summer's experiences, Summer on the Lakes (1844), Fuller expanded on themes she had been exploring in the Dial, particularly the sufferings of women on the frontier and the unjust disadvantages they faced. While completing it, she got permission to use Harvard University's library, the first woman ever admitted there. The book's success gave her confidence to press on with another, Women in the Nineteenth Century, based on her 1843 Dial article, "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men: Woman versus Women." It was an acute work of feminist criticism, demonstrating the unjust burdens borne by American women. It too had no American precedent, and it marked Fuller as a leading theorist in the cause of American feminism. She made the analogy between women and African-Americans which has since become a standard argument:

As the friend of the Negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the friend of Woman assume that Man cannot by right lay even well-meant restrictions on Woman. If the Negro be a soul; if the woman be a soul, appareled in flesh, to one Master only are they accountable. There is but one law for souls, and if there is to be an interpreter of it, he must come not as man or son of man, but as son of God.

Laced with Italian poetry, quotations from German and French philosophers, and occasional Transcendentalist asides, Woman in the Nineteenth Century attacked prostitution, criticized the psychological degradation of women, and argued that men and women would both benefit from equal social and legal treatment. It sold out within a week and spread widely through North America, scandalizing conventional readers but widening her circle of intellectual admirers.

One of her former conversational "assistants," Mary Cheney , now married to New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley, read and admired Summer on the Lakes, and when she showed it to her husband he also recognized its author's exceptional talent. Greeley had made famous the phrase, "Go West, Young Man!," which inspired frontier adventurers, and Fuller's learned discussion of the costs as well as the benefits of frontier life impressed him. He invited her to come to New York and work as literary critic on his crusading newspaper the Tribune, and she accepted with alacrity. There, Fuller was required to write three articles every week, many of them reviews of poor quality fiction. She could be scornful of inferior work and, even when reviewing the books of Boston friends like Emerson, was willing to make sharp reprimands.

Ripley, Sophia (1803–1861)

American educator and Transcendentalist. Born on July 6, 1803; died in 1861; married George Ripley (1802–1880, a leading Transcendentalist); children.

A close friend of Margaret Fuller, Sophia Ripley also contributed to the Dial. She was the first in that periodical to touch on the "women's question," in her 1841 article "Woman," complaining that women lose themselves in marriage, becoming "an appendage … the upper nurse." Though Ripley carried on a traditional existence in her marriage to George Ripley, she was a leading spirit in developing with her husband their utopian Brook Farm, a model community based on the ideals of Christianity and Transcendentalism. Its members included Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Sullivan Dwight, Christopher Cranch, Almira Barlow , and Margaret Fuller's brother Lloyd. Wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Sarah R is wonderfully free from egotism of place and time and blood."

Book reviewing took up most of her time on the Tribune, but she also wrote about the prison-reform movement in which she became involved. After visiting women's prisons at Sing-Sing and in New York City, she was convinced that many of the inmates, incarcerated for prostitution, could be rehabilitated if the prisons taught them working skills rather than simply keeping them off the streets. Articles advocating these and other reforms helped Greeley sell more newspapers, and he found his gamble in hiring her paying handsome dividends.

As a personal friend of Greeley and his wife, Fuller lived with them in their house by the East River, but their relationship became strained when she fell in love with a man they considered unsuitable. He was James Nathan, a German-Jewish immigrant and merchant with literary and artistic tastes to match her own. He confided his hopes and plans to her during their frequent meetings, most of which had to take place outdoors because of the Greeleys' disapproval. At one point, he apparently made sexual advances that shocked her. They remained intimate, however, and it grieved her to learn that his family was sending him on an extended business tour to Europe. She wrote him almost every day during the first months of his absence. His replies were dutiful but a good deal less frequent.

Let Ulysses drive the beeves [cows] home, while Penelope there piles up the fragrant loaves; they are both well employed…. But Penelope is no more meant for a baker or weaver solely, than Ulysses for a cattle-herd.

—Margaret Fuller

When Fuller was a child, her father had promised that she could conclude her education with a trip to Europe. Financial problems and his untimely death had made the trip recede from her horizon, and, at the age of 35, she had still not set foot on European soil. In 1846, her opportunity came at last when a pair of close friends, Marcus and Rebecca Spring , offered Fuller the chance to accompany them on a long European excursion, acting as companion to their son Edward. She agreed to go and arranged to write regularly for Greeley's paper, playing in effect the part of foreign correspondent for the Tribune. After a rapid but rough journey on one of the new Atlantic steamers which added seasickness to her already long list of infirmities, Fuller reached England. She toured the sights of the industrial revolution, many of them horrifying visions of poverty and degradation, and met several literary celebrities, including Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth. Her reputation had preceded her over the ocean, and many of the British writers recognized her as a luminous figure in American literature. The meeting that she most prized, however, came a few months later when she and the Springs had moved on to France. It was with George Sand , a daringly bohemian woman who had had a string of well-publicized love affairs with some of Europe's greatest artists, had written controversial novels based on her experiences, and was now "living in sin" with the composer and piano virtuoso Frederic Chopin. Sand saluted Fuller as a literary equal which went at least some way towards compensating her for the shattering news, learned just before she left London, that James Nathan had decided to marry another woman.

From France, the group moved on to Italy, visiting Florence, Pisa, Naples, Venice, and Rome. Italy held a special place in Fuller's affections, and she believed strongly in the cause of the Italian republican leader Giuseppe Mazzini, whom she had met during his exile in London. At Rome in a chance encounter, she met the Marquis Giovanni Ossoli, whose family were distinguished servants of the Vatican. Against their wishes, he had become a republican sympathizer, and in the political upheavals of the following two years was closely allied with the radical faction that planned to unify Italy and nullify the pope's political power. Fuller's friendship with Ossoli, who was ten years her junior, matured quickly, based on common political convictions, even though he did not share her literary and artistic tastes. She told the Springs that she would like to stay on when they moved from Rome, reassuring them that she could live for several months on her savings and that the steady flow of articles she was sending back to New York would enable her to make more money.

The events of the Italian crisis of 1848–49 are immensely complex, involving the country in invasions from France and Austria and dividing Rome between supporters and opponents of the papacy. As the crisis unfolded and as Mazzini returned to lead the provisional republican government of Rome, Fuller's fascination at being in the midst of a revolution gave way to dismay. She discovered that she was pregnant as a result of her love affair with Ossoli. They were devoted to one another but for the moment both agreed that they could not possibly marry. His family would cut him off penniless if he married an American Protestant, and she had no plans to become a Catholic, nor a conventional wife. She was convinced that her life was ending, that no one so ill and old as she (she was 38) could give birth. In any event, however, the baby boy was born safely in a mountain village away from Rome, and Fuller hired a wet nurse to look after him in the town of Rieta. She then spent several hectic months migrating back and forth between Rome and Rieta, watching the revolution unravel. Ossoli fought on the battlements of Rome against a French army that had besieged the city, and Fuller became involved in supervising a hospital for wounded republican soldiers on an island in the River Tiber. She also conceived the plan of writing a history of the Roman revolution as it unfolded before her eyes, comparing it to the American Revolution. Considering the two countries side by side she wrote:

My friends write to urge my return; they talk of our country as the land of the future. It is so, but that spirit which made it all it is of value in my eyes, which gave all hope with which I can sympathize for that future, is more alive here [in Italy] at present than in America. My country is at present spoiled by prosperity, stupid with the lust of gain, soiled by crime in its willing perpetuation of slavery.

She was depressed to discover that the American republic refused to give diplomatic recognition to the Roman republic but instead stood by and watched it fall. The Romans, in the face of overpowering odds, surrendered unconditionally on July 4, 1849, after a prolonged French bombardment had shattered many familiar Roman landmarks. Fuller and Ossoli had survived but now feared reprisals and had to leave the city rapidly. Going to collect Angelo, their son, they found him sick and half starved because of recent privations brought on by the war.

Angelo recovered, and Fuller realized that she must now break the fact of his existence to her relatives and friends back in States. The news at once started rumors and gossip going in America; Greeley terminated her contract at the Tribune, and she found she was unable to get a contract for the book she was writing about the Roman revolution. With her son and Ossoli, whom she now introduced as her husband, she went to Florence where she found a temporary job as a governess and was befriended by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning , the English poets. Aware that the authorities were seeking former republican soldiers, however, they were not safe anywhere in Italy, and Fuller decided they must return to America and face the risk of scandal and ostracism.

After borrowing the money for passage on the cheapest ship they could find, the family set sail for New York on the American merchant ship Elizabeth in May 1850. En route, the captain died and an inexperienced mate was forced to take over. Approaching New York harbor in high wind on the early morning of July 19, 1850, the ship ran aground on a reef off Fire Island. The storm worsened and the ship began to break up. The shore was in sight, but the lifeboats had been smashed, and one of the men who tried to swim ashore for help was swept away and drowned. Fuller and Ossoli, with their son Angelo, apparently resolved that they would stay together at all costs, and when the captain cried "Abandon ship" they stayed behind and were drowned.

Mourned by relatives and friends who had been waiting with eager anticipation to see her as a wife and mother and to meet her exotic husband, Fuller's death seemed tragic and, to many, unnecessary. Three of her Transcendentalist friends, Emerson, Clark, and Channing, published a eulogistic memoir of her life and work in 1852 and paid tribute to her lasting influence on their lives. Fuller was largely forgotten by the end of the 19th century, however, and only with the more recent feminist movement have her history and her work been thoroughly revived.


Allen, Margaret V. The Achievement of Margaret Fuller. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979.

Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Slater, Abby. In Search of Margaret Fuller. NY: Delacorte Press, 1978.

Stern, Madeleine. The Life of Margaret Fuller. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Wade, Mason, ed. The Writings of Margaret Fuller. NY: Viking, 1941.

suggested reading:

Blanchard, Paula. Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution. NY: Delacorte Press, 1978.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, W.H. Channing, and J.F. Clarke. Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Boston, MA: Phillips, Sampson, 1852.

Miller, Perry, ed. Margaret Fuller: American Romantic. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1969.

Von Mehren, Joan. Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1994.


Fuller Manuscripts and Works, Houghton Library, Harvard University; Margaret Fuller Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Fuller, Margaret (1810–1850)

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