The Threshold of Joy

Sketch of Margaret Fuller
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Margaret Fuller was thirty-three and suffering from migraines when she wrote “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” a manifesto on behalf of sexual equality, and saw it published in The Dial, the journal founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson whose editorship she had recently resigned. The article, expanded into a book and published in 1845 under the title Woman in the Nineteenth Century, made its stirring claim to equal rights in the rhetoric of transcendentalism, according to which the self was limitless and unbounded, with each human being containing the possibility of divine perfection.

Fuller, far from limiting her vision to political or legal equality, saw sexual inequality in terms of its corrosive power to destroy not only love, marriage, and family relationships, but also the inner or existential lives of women. Sexual hierarchy robbed women of “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 their judge.” In the book-length version, she wrote of little girls encouraged to play with feminine toys; of society’s unfair denigration of single women (or “old maids”), whom she argued could play an important social role; and of the necessity of widening the range of occupations open to women. Most of all, she wrote of how the psychological and economic dependence of women trapped them as permanent children, a condition that stunted their spirits and therefore held back the whole development of humanity. For male and female souls were entwined; masculine and feminine “energies” spilled into each other. Men and women were thought to occupy two separate spheres, two entirely different ways of being in the world, “but, in fact,” Fuller wrote, “they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

After writing “The Great Lawsuit,” Fuller broke out of her New England world, leaving behind the Cambridge of her childhood. She moved to New York to write for the New York Tribune. She then departed for Europe, where she lived in Rome and reported on the Italian Revolution of 1848–49. Her thought widened and expanded beyond the transcendentalists’ focus on the self, and turned toward revolutionary socialism. Fuller’s transformations were not only political and intellectual: while living in Italy, she became pregnant and bore a child. It is not clear that she ever married her son’s father, but if she did, it was only after the conception of the baby.

Margaret Fuller then died dramatically and unexpectedly, in 1850, in a shipwreck only 220 yards off the shore of Fire Island. Most of the wreck’s victims who tried to swim to land survived. But Fuller—and her child and his father, whom she was bringing back to America—stayed aboard the sinking ship for hours, waiting for help that never arrived. Her death fascinated and horrified her contemporaries, many of whom could not help but interpret it as an appropriate, if terrible, end to a life that had strayed so far from social conventions. She was depicted in sketch-art aboard the storm-tossed ship, her clasped hands at her bosom and her eyes cast toward heaven. Ralph Waldo Emerson and a few of Fuller’s other famous associates collected some of her writing, along with their own memorial essays, and published a volume of her Memoirs, which enjoyed a brief period of surprising commercial success. But shortly after, the public’s interest in Fuller—as in the transcendentalist movement—disappeared. In the late twenties, literary critic V. L. Parrington described her work as “the completest embodiment of the inchoate rebellions and grandiose aspirations of the age of transcendental ferment.”

John Matteson’s The Lives of Margaret Fuller (Norton, $32.95) offers to reintroduce her to a popular audience, though the biographer himself seems not quite sure what to make of his subject. Like others who’ve written about her recently, Matteson is drawn to Fuller mostly because her life was so vividly exceptional for her time, more than for the relevance of her ideas. He claims the transcendentalist motif of self-development and discovery as a structuring principle of his biography, saying that he wants to chart Fuller’s life as a “succession of lives,” that her “essence was life, not writing,” and that her “greatest creation was her life.” Despite its anti-intellectual bent, which has the effect of domesticating her story in its own time and place, the biography does help us see Fuller in new ways that set it apart from what’s come before.

Recently, for example, scholars have traced Fuller’s relationship with transcendentalism—even though she’s long been associated with the movement, her own ideas were never fully contained within it. Matteson illuminates the depth of Fuller’s personal ambivalence toward the very transcendentalist friends she was closest to and suggests the likely influence of this ambivalence on her career as a writer and thinker. She was a woman in a male circle, and her prominence depended on her connection to Emerson. But although the transcendentalists accepted her—even making her the editor of their magazine, The Dial—her relationships with them remained unsatisfying in ways that may have prompted her turn toward writing about the problems of women.

Fuller’s relationships with her infant child and with his father, on the other hand, emerge in this biography as complicated but joyful. Fuller’s death aboard the sinking ship has haunted generations of critics, in part because it is so easy to see it as a kind of indirect suicide—she was returning to a hostile land, with no certain economic future, no real possibilities, and she was burdened by a relationship with a man who lacked a clear path forward himself. She was mother to a child that she did not want to care for, her soul’s freedom and her sense of control over her own work having been thwarted by biological reality. Matteson gives us a portrait of the challenges motherhood posed for Fuller, but he also provides evidence that motherhood offered her an emotional respite. Such an interpretation opens up the possibility that Fuller stayed aboard that sinking ship because she did not want to risk the possibility of her own survival if it meant losing the human connections to her family—especially to her child—that she had only just begun to form. This makes her loss all the more tragic. She died on the cusp of realizing a new potential.

Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridge in 1810 to an ambitious, Harvard-educated, politically active father who ran a legal practice, and a gentle, quiet mother who apparently loved nothing more than tending her flowerbeds. The idea that men and women were destined for different spheres could have been no more fully realized than it was in Fuller’s own family. The world of the intellect was that of her father. Learning to think meant becoming part of a world in which she was tutored, prodded, crammed full of every classic text and every literary allusion. Under his instruction, she was reading complete books before the age of five. By six, he was tutoring her in Latin (Greek came shortly thereafter). By nine, she was immersed in histories, biographies, and the Latin canon.

The education cost her plenty. She read all day, waiting for her father to come home and hear her lessons late at night. “The consequence,” she later wrote, “was a premature development of the brain, that made me a ‘youthful prodigy’ by day, and by night a victim of spectral illusions, nightmare, and somnambulism.” When she lay down at night to try to sleep, she saw gigantic faces advancing toward her, their features distorted by proximity. She was haunted by images of being trampled by horses, or of trees dripping with blood, or of a pool of blood rising until it threatened to engulf her. One might have thought that the “best-read woman in America,” as Matteson puts it, would have been proud of her early intellectual development. But in later life, Fuller blamed her education for her frequent headaches and for her lasting physical weakness and frailty. She wrote that her education made it difficult for her to be an independent thinker: “The force of feeling which, under other circumstances, might have ripened thought, was turned to learn the thoughts of others.” She claimed that she wished she had “read no books at all” until she had been older—she wished that she had “lived with toys, and played in the open air. Children should not cull the fruits of reflection and observation early, but expand in the sun, and let thoughts come to them.” She received an education that became the most important fact of her life. But it was bound up with a strong sense of her limitations and failures—her inability to fit in seamlessly with the classical tradition that her father had pressed into her.

When Fuller went to school, she could not make friends with the other girls, whose progress she conspicuously outpaced. Matteson, following many biographers (beginning with Emerson) catalogues her physical flaws: she was chubby, and prone to acne and bad posture. Her family did not provide emotional respite from her social isolation; when she transcribed her father’s letters, for example, he complained of the “slovenliness” of her handwriting. Her formal education stopped when she was almost fifteen, but she continued to read and study on her own, consuming the works of Racine, Milton, Dante, Rousseau, Voltaire, Goethe—the list goes on.

In 1833, Fuller’s father, upon retiring from politics, moved the family from Cambridge to a country estate in Groton. Two years later, he died of cholera. His daughter closed the eyes of his corpse. Her first teacher was lost, and she was forced, at age twenty-five, to feel her own way intellectually in the world.

Fuller was also forced to earn her own living for the first time. She worked on a biography of Goethe, but this would not pay the bills. It was her interest in Goethe, all the same, that led her to Ralph Waldo Emerson; a mutual friend gave him a copy of a story that she’d translated. Emerson invited Fuller to spend two weeks visiting with him and his second wife, Lidian, in the summer of 1835.

Fuller was in awe of Emerson when they met—she once described him as “my only minister”—but although he enjoyed, appreciated, even loved her, their friendship seems never to have been one of equals. Their mutual frustrations lie at the heart of Matteson’s biography, which gains its frisson from describing afternoons that Fuller spent with Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, from depicting a world in which these literary icons were simply friends. The book is packed with stories of Thoreau standing under Fuller’s window to invite her out for an early morning boat ride, or Emerson and Fuller sending each other notes carried by Emerson’s beloved son Waldo. Undeniably, she felt close to these male intellectuals. Yet the friendships, like Fuller’s initial education, came at a cost. Fuller was nervous, thrilled, brimming with stories and ideas when she met Emerson, seven years her senior. He was bowled over by her stories, her anecdotes, the habit she had of describing others with a scornful air, her intellectual aggression, and her sense of humor. She stayed for three weeks instead of the invited two. She was desperate to know what he thought of her, constantly complaining, “I know not what you think of me.” He withheld his opinions—which were often contradictory anyway—writing to his brother that she was “extraordinary” but also noting with condescension: “How rarely can a female mind be impersonal.”

Margaret Fuller, 1850.

Their friendship deepened while Fuller developed as an intellectual. She tried teaching at elite girls’ schools—which she found deeply frustrating—but then began to earn money through “conversations,” in which a speaker charged an entrance fee for a talk that, unlike a formal lecture, was delivered without notes. Fuller spoke (most of the time) to women-only audiences, and sought to focus their attention on pressing questions about the nature of their existence: “What were we born to do? How shall we do it?” The “conversations,” which recalled the seventeenth-century gatherings convened by New England’s first woman spiritual dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, were immensely popular, and Fuller developed a loyal following as a brilliant speaker. But as her renown grew, she had more difficulty writing. She was constantly plagued by physical maladies: “My body is a burden, not an instrument.” She often despaired of her abilities, decorating her work with so many quotations and allusions that it is hard not to see these displays of her erudition as a way of hiding her own ideas. She was constantly frustrated with herself, berating herself cruelly for her insufficiencies. “I feel within myself an immense power, but I cannot bring it out,” she wrote in her journal. “I stand a barren vine stalk from which no grape will swell, though the richest vine is slumbering in its root. . . . Often, too often do I wish to die.”

In this context, her relationship with Emerson was all the more troubling. In 1839, he came to her to ask a favor: Would she edit his new quarterly journal? The name—The Dial—was to be taken from an essay by Bronson Alcott, in which (as Matteson explains) he suggested that “just as a sundial marked the movements of the sun . . . the individual soul was an instrument that registered the greater movements of the universal spirit.” Fuller said yes. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and one that she could not have imagined arising elsewhere in antebellum America. But it was a collaboration that failed to give her intellectual recognition and support. Even as Fuller took up the charge, she marked her distance from Emerson and her friends. “My position as a woman, and the many private duties which have filled my life, have prevented my thinking deeply on several of the great subjects which these friends have at heart,” she wrote not long after taking up the editorship. She did not enjoy the detailed work of copyediting. And as she worked on the journal, she began to feel that she could not trust Emerson. She observed to herself that whenever she left him she felt “despairing and forlorn.” He openly told her that he didn’t really understand her, and he bragged to her about his other female friends, with whom he felt more intimate. Hurt feelings might have been ameliorated had he paid her for her work on The Dial; instead, she quit in frustration after a year.

How exceptionally difficult and confusing this relationship must have been for Fuller—probably making her furious on some level even as she depended on it, even as it afforded her opportunities she could not have found anywhere else—comes out in a story that Matteson tells about her sojourn with the Emersons in the summer of 1842, after she left the magazine. Emerson’s adored five-year-old son Waldo had died of scarlet fever earlier in the year, and his wife, Lidian (she had changed her name from Lydia because Emerson was irritated by the way it sounded when people pronounced it with a New England accent), was distraught. Despite this, Fuller came to stay with the Emersons that summer. She took long walks with the Emersons in the afternoons and evenings, watching the moon on the Concord River, dallying in the hemlocks on a “golden afternoon.” Emerson told her that “the soul knows nothing of marriage” and dilated on how the emotional demands of a wife could not help but limit a man from achieving his greatness. Lidian was extremely jealous, not so much because she imagined an affair, but because Emerson’s intellectual intimacy with Fuller excluded her. She confronted Fuller, who was defensive and angry, saying that other women had so much that she did not have that it was impossible to imagine them being envious of her. Still, the entire episode must have seemed to Fuller an example of a relationship whose existence depended upon denying the emotional needs of the woman—pretending that they were not even real. Were such examples of marriage why she wrote in Woman in the Nineteenth Century that she “urged on woman independence of man . . . because in woman this fact has led to an excessive devotion, which has cooled love, degraded marriage, and prevented either sex from being what it should be to itself or the other”?

Fuller’s relationships with others in the transcendentalist circle were even more strained. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, were friendly to her face. Matteson tells of Hawthorne and Fuller reading and talking on the grass together one bright Sunday morning, their conversation of childhood memories and mountains interrupted by Emerson returning from a Sabbath stroll through the woods. They went boating together. Fuller wrote that Hawthorne seemed more like a brother to her than any other man. Yet in later years, Hawthorne described her as having a “strong and coarse nature,” made fun of her aspirations (calling them “such an awful joke”), and, when she died, wrote: “She was a great humbug . . . tragic as her catastrophe was, Providence was, after all, kind in putting her and her clownish husband, and their child, on board that fated ship.”

With friends like these, it’s not surprising that Fuller wrote about how women needed to work on their own terms for their freedom, and how they would have to do so in spaces free of men, whose minds were “so encumbered by tradition” that they could not be deeply involved in the struggle: “At present, women are the best helpers of one another.” Her “conversations” must have seemed an attractive alternative to the strange emotional space provided by Emerson and Hawthorne. But who were the women friends who could be her intellectual allies in the same way? The suffragettes recognized her importance (Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that her book had “more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time”); she had extremely close (and, Matteson suggests, erotically inflected) relationships with a few female friends; she became familiar with many of the famous women intellectuals of her time: Harriet Martineau, George Sand, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet none of these women provided the intellectual space that the transcendentalist avant-garde could offer her. In a real way, she was alone.

Margaret Fuller left New England in 1844, going first to New York (where she finished her book, adding, among other things, passages based on conversations with women serving time at Sing Sing for prostitution), then to Europe, then to a revolution. There she fell in love with an Italian man, eleven years her junior, whom she met by chance in a Roman church. It might seem that the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli was not the best match for Fuller. As she wrote to William Henry Channing, one of her transcendentalist friends, “If earthly union be meant for the beginning of one permanent and full, we ought not to be united.” Ossoli was not an intellectual, although he was (as was she) deeply committed to the Roman Revolution (he fought in the revolutionary Civic Guard). She had no intention of getting pregnant, and she was devastated and terrified when she did. In her newspaper columns filed from Europe for the New York Tribune, she hinted at suicide. Yet she gave birth in a remote Italian village, with Ossoli leaving the day after Angelo Eugenio Filippo Ossoli arrived. (They were keeping their relationship secret from his family as well.) Two months later, Fuller left little Nino (as he was known) in the village and returned to Rome to report on the revolution. Even after she became aware that Nino was not safe—the family she left him with was barely feeding him; he became ill; the village and even the family he was staying with was torn by violence—she did not act quickly to remove him from danger. All of this might seem to provide ample evidence for her ambivalence about becoming a mother at all, her life irrevocably linked to that of a man with whom she might otherwise have had a passing affair and to a helpless and dependent child.

And yet, as Matteson’s biography makes clear, that’s only part of the story. Perhaps her relationship with Ossoli—whom she always described as adoring—felt like a reprieve from the intellectualism of her other connections. It was part of the revolutionary upheaval, forming a new kind of political community. And Nino gave her tremendous pleasure from the moment he was born. Everyone said he was beautiful. When she came back from Rome to see him at Christmastime, she was amazed by how he leaned his head into her chest, as though to reproach her for leaving. She sat and watched him sleep. When he was a toddler, back in her care, she wrote loving descriptions of him: “He laughs, he crows, he dances in the nurse’s arms . . . he blows like the bellows . . . and then having shown off all his accomplishments, calls for his playthings.” She wrote of his “fearful rapture” and “pure delight” at new toys: “You would laugh to know how much remorse I feel that I never gave children more toys in the course of my life.” She was filled with joy when she came back from a walk and saw how happy he was to see her—it seemed, at times, the happiness that he brought her was “the first unalloyed quiet joy” of her life. She was not sure that he was brilliant or gifted or talented. “My little one seems nothing remarkable,” she wrote. For Fuller, though, for whom intellectual gifts had been so fraught, this admission may have seemed a blessing. “I feel the tie between him and me so real, so deep-rooted, even death shall not part us. I shall not be alone in other worlds, whenever Eternity may call me.”

At the same time, over her last months in Italy, even as she watched the revolution collapse—as she wrote, she saw “every hope for which we struggled, blighted”—her ambivalence over writing seemed to have lessened. No longer did she dally about, waiting for inspiration while reproaching herself for failing to be a genius. Instead, she worked on her book about the Roman Revolution that was to have been her magnum opus, and although she was far from done with it when she left, she carefully packed her draft in the hopes that she would soon find a publisher.

When Fuller decided to go home, many of her friends told her she shouldn’t make the trip. Emerson suggested that her book about the revolution would be more successful if it came from an expatriate. Gossip ran rife about her new family. But she insisted on returning, in spite of her premonitions that something terrible might happen.

When the boat (piloted by an inexperienced sea captain and caught in an unexpected storm) hit a submerged sandbar near Fire Island and broke open, at first it seemed that the possibilities for survival were good. They were in sight of the shore; people appeared to be gathered there; surely they would send help soon. None arrived. Fuller and her new family were alive on the wreck for more than ten hours, hoping that someone would rescue them. Until the very last minutes, they refused to swim. The boat began to break apart. The other passengers and the crew abandoned the drowning vessel; most of them survived.

Why didn’t Fuller swim? Did her lifelong fear of drowning make it impossible for her to act? Was it some kind of latent depression or ambivalence about returning to America? Was it simply that the situation was so uncertain that she could not think clearly, her escape demanding a physical strength she lacked? Why did she stay while the water rose around her, as in her childhood nightmares? Matteson suggests Fuller was not paralyzed by her fear of America, nor by an inner passivity that broke through from her youth, but by the terror that if she tried to make it to the shore, then she might live, but her child might not. She had written, only months earlier, that she could not imagine surviving the loss of Nino. Earlier in her life, she had written that she believed she would always be alone. Now she was not alone, but was that gift to be taken from her? In the end, it should be noted, she did try—she let the ship’s steward take Nino to make the desperate swim. But it was too late, and all were overwhelmed by the water. The last words she was heard to say were: “I see nothing but death before me—I shall never reach the shore.”

For many years afterward, Margaret Fuller’s sudden death seemed to her contemporaries like a punishment for her trampling of social convention. As one of her friends wrote, “her life was romantic and exceptional, so let her death be.” Even Emerson consoled himself that her death was “in happy hour,” for “her health was much exhausted. Her marriage would have taken her away from us all, & there was a subsistence yet to be secured, & diminished powers & old age.” In publishing Fuller’s Memoirs, Emerson was able to claim her memory for his transcendentalism. This is ironic, for had Fuller lived, her life might have carried her still further away from Emerson and his world. The intellectual community she had once thought would nurture her ambitions—one in which she could be an exceptional woman among a group of men—might have been replaced by a different relationship to writing. She might have become more confident in her powers, less agonized, less determined to prove herself in a community emotionally alien to her. Perhaps her child and her relationship to Ossoli (as mysterious as her friends found it) would have provided a different kind of ballast. Maybe she would have made common cause with Anthony and Stanton and the first women’s movement. As Matteson indicates, the truth might be that (as another of her friends put it) her “life spilled at the very threshold of her joy.” “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 in its kind. Had I but one more moment to live I must wish the same.”

Kim Phillips-Fein's most recent book is Fear City: The New York City Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of the Age of Austerity. She teaches history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.

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