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Portrait of M. Fuller
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America's first true feminist, Margaret Fuller holds a distinctive place in the cultural life of the American Renaissance. Transcendentalist, literary critic, editor, journalist, teacher, and political activist, ultimately turned revolutionary, she numbered among her close friends the intellectual prime movers of the day: Emerson, Thoreau, the Peabody sisters, the Alcotts, Horace Greeley, Carlyle, and Mazzini--all of whom regarded her with admiration and sometimes even awe.

Born in Cambridgeport, MA, on May 23, 1810, Fuller received an intellectually rigorous classical education, whose boundaries she challenged when she won admittance for herself to the male-only halls of Harvard's Library, where she continued her reading, research, and study of languages--(she was especially fond of French and German Romantic literature and an able scholar of German, French, Italian, Greek, and Latin.) After a period of teaching and attending to family concerns in Groton, MA, Fuller set about to carve for herself a niche in the Transcendentalist community. Invited by Emerson to visit him in Concord in 1836, it was not long before she had made captive to her conversation not only Emerson and Lidian, and their circle, but also the Alcotts. Her introduction to Bronson Alcott proved fortuitous; the idealistic educator invited her to replace Elizabeth Peabody at his innovative Temple School in Boston, which Margaret did in December of that year.

Go Next Conversations

 The Fuller family home
The Fuller family home as it appears today in Groton, MA.
After Alcott's experiment went bankrupt, Fuller organized a series of "Conversations" or seminars for women, which she offered in Boston from 1839-1844. So popular were the subscriptions to these discussions and so spellbinding a conversationalist was Fuller, that she attracted not only the wives of prominent citizens, but also other sympathetic social reformers. Her method--one she shared with Bronson Alcott--was Socratic; each conversation was devoted to a philosophical question, and Margaret would engage the participants in discussion and dialogue before expounding her own views with a clarity of thought and luminosity of expression that dazzled her listeners. That women could have their own opinions on matters outside their "sphere" proved an intoxicating proposition. One of the lasting results of these Conversations was Fuller's publication of her 1845 feminist tract, WOMEN IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. It was also during this period that she and Emerson founded the Transcendentalist journal, THE DIAL, in 1840. Fuller served as editor for the first two years, turning the publication over to Emerson's editorship in 1842.

Go Next The Dial

After THE DIAL ceased publication in 1844, Fuller was invited by Horace Greeley, Owner and Editor of the NEW YORK TRIBUNE, to relocate to that city and to serve as literary and cultural critic for the paper. Fuller worked for Greeley, boarding for a time with him and his wife, before taking her own lodgings. The period proved to be one of personal, as well as intellectual growth in Fuller's life. Not only did she embark on what was likely her first romantic liaison--revealed only years after her death with the publication of her letters to James Nathan--but she increased her awareness of urban poverty and strengthened her commitment to social justice and to the causes that concerned her: prison reform, Abolitionism, Women's Suffrage, and educational and political equality for minorities.

Roman Years

In 1846 she embarked for Europe as a foreign correspondent for the TRIBUNE. After touring England and France, she settled in Rome in 1847, where she entered the last vivid phase of her all-too-short life. Introduced to Giuseppe Mazzini, the leader of the Italian Unification Movement, she soon embraced the cause of Italian freedom. Her partisanship was also sparked by her falling in love with one of Mazzini's lieutenants, the Marchese Giovanni Ossoli, to whom she bore a son out of wedlock and with whom she played an active role the Siege of Rome in 1849. The hopes of the liberationists dashed after the failure of their revolt, Ossoli and Margaret married and decided to return to America with their son Angelino. They set sail from Livorno on May 17, 1850, reaching the waters off Fire Island on June 19, where in the early hours of the morning the ship struck a sandbar and slowly sank. Fuller, Ossoli, and their son drowned.

Her shocked friends mourned her lavishly. Of the numerous tributes received, the reminiscence by her fellow journalist Charles T. Congdon is one of the most touching:

"In American literature she will remain a remarkable biographic phenomenon, while the tragic death of this Lycidas of women, a most painful personal story of shipwreck, was intensified by so many melancholy incidents that whoever, long years hence, may read them, will wonder how the gods could have been so pitiless, and why the life of new happiness and larger intellectual achievement which was before her should so suddenly have ended upon that savage and inhospitable shore."

(Fisher Unwin, London 1903)

"We will worship by impromptu symbols, till the religion is framed for all Humanity. The beauty grows around us daily, the trees are now all in blossom and some of the vines; there is a Crown Imperial just in perfection, to which I paid my evening worship by the light of the fire, which reached to us, and there are flashes of lightening too. But I do not like the lightening so well as once, having been in too great danger. Yet just now a noble flash falls upon my paper, it ought to have noble thoughts to illumine, instead of these little nothings, but indeed to-night I write only to say: thou dear, dear friend, and we must must meet soon."(Letter IV to James Nathan)
"To feel that there is so quick a bound to intercourse, makes us prize the moment, but then also makes it so difficult to use. Yet this one thing I wish to say, where so many must be left unsaid. You tell me, that I may, probably never know you wholly. Indeed the obstacles of time and space may prevent my understanding the workings of character; many pages of my new book may be shut against me, better than to yourself. Perhaps? I believe in Ahnungen beyond anything." (Letter XIII to James Nathan)


"She wore this circle of friends, when I first knew her, as a necklace of diamonds about her neck. They were so much to each other that Margaret seemed to represent them all, and to know her was to acquire a place with them. The confidences given her were their best, and she held them to them. She was an active, inspiring companion and correspondent, and all the art, the thought, the nobleness in New England seemed at that moment related to her and she to it. She was everywhere a welcome guest."(Emerson on Fuller)

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