‘Radiant genius and fiery heart’


Reclaiming the legacy of Margaret Fuller, the forgotten intellectual at the heart of the Transcendentalist movement and the first American theorist of women’s equality.


Margaret Fuller illustration, c.1840

Margaret Fuller, c.1840

Hulton Archives/Getty Images

If Unitarian Universalism were the sort of religion that canonized saints, then Margaret Fuller would be Our Lady of Wisdom—and Wit, Equality, and Social Justice.

Or, if we were completely honest, we might have to call her Our Lady of Perpetual Obscurity.

May 23 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Sarah Margaret Fuller, one of the three principal thinkers of the Transcendentalist movement, the vanguard theorist on women’s equality and gender roles in America, and, some say, the first public intellectual in the United States, male or female. Yet a lot of us, perhaps most of us, have only a vague idea of who she was.

In her relatively brief life, from her birth to a Unitarian family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1810 to her death in a shipwreck in 1850, she accomplished a staggering list of firsts and milestones. Furthermore, Fuller’s visionary ideas—on the need for both social and personal transformation, rationalism and mysticism, intellectual freedom and religious pluralism, and democracy and human rights outside our borders—resonate with modern Unitarian Universalism.

“Of all the women in [Unitarian Universalist] history who have made a really significant contribution, she is certainly at the top of the list, yet we’re relatively ignorant about her,” says the Rev. Dr. Dorothy Emerson, who is cochairing one of three UU-related Margaret Fuller bicentennial committees. She admits that she herself only recently learned the full scope of Fuller’s work. “It’s really revealing of how we lift up men and what men do, that we could claim Transcendentalism and not understand how significant her role was in it. In so many ways she’s embedded in our whole movement.”

Fuller is best known for writing the first American manifesto for women’s equality, Woman of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845. It was forward-looking for any time, but especially in a time when women’s lives were confined to home, an era when colleges didn’t even admit women. It became an internationally known bestseller.

“If you ask me what offices women may fill: I will reply—any,” she wrote. “I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains, if you will. . . . I have no doubt, however, that a large proportion of women would give themselves to the same employments as now. . . . Mothers will delight to make the nest soft and warm. . . . The difference would be that all need not be constrained to employments, for which some are unfit. . . . By being more a soul, she will not be less woman, for nature is perfected through spirit.”

Fuller went further than calling for the need to open colleges and professions to women and to give women voting and property rights. She also dove into the concept of “gender roles”—which few really explored until the Second Wave of feminism in the 1970s—arguing that we all have characteristics that our culture has deemed “male” or “female,” which need to be developed if any of us are to be free and whole.

But to characterize Fuller’s contributions on that work alone would be like describing an elephant by looking only at its trunk.

“One reason she’s a little confusing to people is that she can’t really be pegged,” says Megan Marshall, who is now at work on a book called The Passion of Margaret Fuller. “She had so many activities; it’s hard to say what she was. You can say Emerson was a philosopher, Thoreau a naturalist. Fuller really was the first female public intellectual, like Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, or Simone de Beauvoir. I’m personally shocked that she’s faded from the public mind.”

A paradox about Fuller’s current obscurity is that her life story overflows with the kind of narrative drama our contemporary culture laps up. It’s easy to imagine the movie treatment: a heady Merchant Ivory drama with a smart, willful heroine, crossed with Titanic, and a little Joan of Arc thrown in.

“This woman just leaps off the page in terms of her intellect and her struggle to be herself,” says Carole Braverman, the playwright of The Margaret Ghost, which will be staged June 17 through 20 at the First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Fuller was just three when her father decided it was time to begin her education. A Harvard-trained lawyer and congressman, Timothy Fuller instructed her in the same rigorous classical education he’d had: Latin, Greek, grammar, history, math, music, and modern languages. By six she was translating Virgil.

“He thought to gain time, by bringing forward the intellect as early as possible,” she wrote in her “Autobiographical Sketch, ” published in memoirs assembled after her death. “Thus I had tasks given me, as many and various as the hours would allow, and on subjects beyond my age, with the additional disadvantage of reciting to him in the evening, after he returned from his office. As he was subject to many interruptions, I was often kept up till very late.” As a result, she believed, she suffered nightmares, insomnia, and headaches, which continued throughout her life.

Naturally brilliant, young Margaret became so accomplished and so competitive that she was insufferable to be around. She attended three schools, intermittently, including a ladies’ finishing school, in her parents’ hope of quelling her social awkwardness. When she was twelve, her family sent invitations to ninety of her classmates for a ball, which proved a disaster. Only a few accepted, and those who showed wouldn’t speak to Margaret afterward.

As Fuller matured, she found peers, themselves an impressive group, who appreciated her brilliant conversation and basked in her belief in their own “secret interior capability” and her urging them to “aspire to something higher.” In time, her young male friends began to enter Harvard, many of them to become prominent Unitarian ministers—James Freeman Clarke, Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, William Henry Channing—and the young women became wives, often ministers’ wives.

Intimidating to the young men, and demanding a depth of friendship from both sexes that led to much heartbreak, Fuller began to realize there was no role for her education and intellect in society, and she fell into a depression. Her father expected her to teach her younger siblings. She remarked in an 1834 letter, “I pour ideas into the heads of the little Fullers; much runs out.” She saw little future for herself.

On Thanksgiving 1831, when she was twenty-one, her father forced her to attend church in Cambridge. “The grateful and joyful tone” grated on her foul mood, she wrote in her journal. As soon as she could, she raced for “the meditative woods” outside town. There, she had the first of the mystical epiphanies that came to her in times of turmoil throughout her life.

“How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller?” she wrote. “What does it mean? What shall I do about it? . . . I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly . . . that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the all, and all was mine.”

Though she continued to suffer depressions, illnesses, and money worries throughout her life, a passion inside her was unloosed—to learn, teach, produce, reform, and be a full and whole actor in the world. “Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow,” she wrote in her memoirs.

In 1836, two events shook her and shaped the rest of her life: Her father died unexpectedly of cholera, shifting financial responsibility for the family onto her, the oldest, even though control of his estate went to an uncle. And she met Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she had greatly admired, beginning an intense, hot-and-cold friendship and intellectual partnership, in which each pushed the other in shaping their ideas and writings. “We agreed that my god was Love, his Truth,” she wrote in her journal after a day spent walking with Emerson.

Fuller looked for positions to earn money. A natural teacher in all she did, for a time she worked with Bronson Alcott’s struggling Temple School, then took a position at the Greene Street School in Providence in 1837. At first skeptical of Alcott’s open Socratic conversations, she developed her own style of drawing students out through dialogue, demanding that they must always ask and never be ashamed if they didn’t understand.

She applied the same principles to her Conver­sations, or educational salons, for women, which she held in Elizabeth Peabody’s Boston bookshop. Attended from 1839 to 1844 by 200 prominent, mostly Unitarian women—including the Peabody sisters, Julia Ward Howe, and Lidian Emerson—the Conversations were “a vindication of women’s right to think,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton later wrote. And Fuller was able to make a reasonable living, charging $20 for a series, half the tuition of a Harvard class.

In a letter, Fuller wrote that she was determined to help women “answer the questions, —What were we born to do? and how shall we do it?—which so few ever propose to themselves till their best years are gone by.”

As Fuller’s pursuit of vocation led her to places few women of her class ever went, her story turned more swashbuckling. She traveled to the Great Lakes and wrote about sleeping in a barroom, shooting rapids in a canoe, and witnessing the suffering of native people and pioneer women, in her 1844 book, Summer on the Lakes.

Soon after joining the New York Tribune that same year, she spent a night in Sing Sing prison, gathering a group of women prisoners in dialogue much like her Boston Conversations. During her twenty months at the newspaper, she wrote some 250 bylined articles, in addition to unsigned columns and reviews. Her investigative pieces took her into New York’s hospitals, asylums, and slums, and she critiqued race and class issues, often from the perspective of women.

Her other writerly role, at both the Dial and the Tribune, was as a bold critic, who loved and promoted all the arts. Rather than judging a work on moral grounds like most reviewers of her day, she judged it on its own aesthetic standards. She saw her mission as bringing forward young authors like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, women such as Lydia Sigourney and Caroline Kirkland, Europeans such as Elizabeth Barrett and Alfred Tennyson. She also promoted controversial authors like George Sand and arts such as dance and theatre. She fearlessly critiqued the celebrated poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as overrated, and praised the ideas in her friend Emerson’s essays but took him to task for his cool, detached style.

In 1846 friends offered her passage to Europe in exchange for tutoring their son. She leapt at the chance. After being welcomed into the homes of intellectuals such as Thomas Carlyle, William Words­worth, and George Sand in England and France, she was drawn to Italy and the revolutionaries who wanted to throw off Austrian and papal control and unify their country through democratic reform. During her three years there, she sent regular newspaper dispatches back to the Tribune, wrote a book about the Italian struggle, and urged her American friends to support the cause. In those few years she also fell in love with Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a handsome, younger Italian revolutionary, and had a child at age 38.

After the fall of the short-lived democratically elected government in Italy, and with little means to support their family, Fuller and Ossoli decided to return to America on a merchant ship, to save money. Everything went wrong. Soon after departing, the captain contracted smallpox and died. The baby, Angelino, caught the disease but recovered.

At 4 a.m. on July 19, 1850, in the midst of a hurricane, the inexperienced mate ran the ship into a sandbar off Fire Island in New York. The 150 tons of marble it was carrying smashed out of the hold. Some of those onboard got to shore, but neither Fuller nor Ossoli could swim. Several times, including just before the voyage, Fuller had written about her fears of drowning and of shipwreck. The crew offered her a place in a lifeboat, but she refused to leave her family. All three drowned.

A cenotaph for her was erected in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, inscribed, “By birth a child of New England / By adoption a citizen of Rome / By genius belonging to the world.”

The force that is Margaret Fuller still captivates those who meet her today, through biographies and her own writings, just as she did while living.

For a circle of scholars, feminists, and history buffs, Fuller has become a central passion of their lives. They visit her cenotaph on the anniversaries of her birth and death. When they meet, they entertain themselves with Fuller arcana—Did she start teaching at the Greene Street School in June or October?—just as Red Sox trivia mavens might argue over whether Carl Yastrzemski or Ted Williams held more team records.

Most of these Fuller fans have a UU connection. Several share a Road to Damascus sort of story: They happened on Margaret Fuller in a library in the early 1970s while looking for something else, were struck by her insights, couldn’t understand how no one else seemed to know of her, and have been devoted disciples now for decades. Laurie James remembers coming across a library book on Fuller when her children were young—“not a particularly good book, but the story drew me in. She spoke to me . . . [and] it became my ‘mission’ to bring Margaret Fuller’s forgotten name and accomplishment forward.” James has since written three books about Fuller and for forty years has been performing a one-woman show, “Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller.” Eerily, playwright Carole Braverman had an almost identical experience in the library archives as a graduate student in Berkeley, California, and was so compelled by Fuller, she left school to write The Margaret Ghost. And Jessica Lipnack, who had her Fuller epiphany at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, is posting installments of “The Persuasion,” first of a trilogy imagining Fuller’s ghost visiting a twenty-first-century writer, on her blog (endlessknots.netage.com).

Back in June 2007 about a dozen of these “Margaret Fullerines,” as Lipnack calls them, showed up at the First Church of Belmont, Massachusetts, to figure out how to celebrate her bicentennial, bubbling over with ideas and enthusiasm. Each month more Fuller enthusiasts joined, until the committee (margaretfuller.org), led by Dorothy Emerson and Jessica Lipnack, had about a hundred people on its mailing list.

Other UU-related committees have also formed: one to honor Fuller at this year’s General Assembly, chaired by the Rev. Jenny Rankin of the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts (UUA.org/margaretfuller); and another coordinating activities in New York City, led by James (lauriejames.net).

These groups have been hard at work, not always harmoniously, creating the biggest, best, and most educational birthday celebration they can. The result is months of exhibits, plays, concerts, lectures, panel discussions, classes, worship services, tours, a traveling display, a children’s book, an anthology, and hymn and sermon competitions. (See uuworld.org, March 15, 2010, for a complete guide.) The groups are united around one goal: Every child, every adult in the UUA should know who Margaret Fuller is, with curriculum, worship materials, and other resources to draw on for years to come.

“The more, the better as far as I’m concerned,” says the Rev. Barry Andrews, a member of the GA committee who chaired the UUA’s Emerson bicentennial committee in 2003 and has just compiled The Spirit Leads: Margaret Fuller in Her Own Words for Skinner House Books. “I think there are more Margaret Fuller events than we had for Emerson, and that’s great. She made a significant contribution to our movement, but she has been overlooked. . . . She was really a more wide-ranging thinker than Emerson or Thoreau, and I hate to say that, because I put Emerson and Thoreau on a pedestal.”

Margaret Fuller is not simply an accomplished nineteenth-century American figure who happened to be Unitarian. Contemporary scholars are increasingly putting her at the very heart of Transcendentalism, reconsidering her as a visionary who influenced the Unitarian movement and our message today far more than we have given her credit for.

Lawrence Buell, a Transcendentalism scholar and English professor at Harvard, and a member of the First Parish in Lincoln, Massachusetts, counts her as one of the three main figures of Transcendentalism, along with Emerson and Thoreau. Boston University historian Charles Capper, who won the 1993 Bancroft Prize for his biography of Fuller, goes further: Fuller, he says, “created the role of engaged public intellectual, speaking to a circle of intellectuals, but also speaking to a wider public, constituting the beginning of American democratic culture.” (Emerson’s primary vehicle was the lecture platform, while Fuller’s was the mass-circulation newspaper, and her Woman in the Nineteenth Century was a bestseller.) Even Emerson wrote in his journal, “Margaret with her radiant genius and fiery heart was perhaps the real center that drew so many and so various individuals into a seeming union.”

David Robinson, a UU historian and English professor at Oregon State University who is at work on a book, ‘Her Radiant Genius’: Margaret Fuller and the Transcendental Ethos, argues that Fuller’s “central role in the genesis of Transcendentalism . . . is yet to be taken with due seriousness” and calls Woman in the Nineteenth Century “a quintessential work of Transcendentalism.”

These scholars say that we can still see Fuller’s enormous influence on American society and our religious movement in at least three areas:

First, Fuller laid the foundation for the women’s movement that has remade society over the past 200 years. Like the other Transcendentalists, Fuller tried to apply William Ellery Channing’s theological concept of self-culture, “the care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature,” to herself. She then taught that message—which Emerson adapted as “self-reliance,” and Fuller called “self-dependence”—in her Conversations, and realized that women were the most crucial audience for it.

“If anyone needed to hear the message of self-reliance—of claiming the self, trusting yourself, and moving in an inner-directed way toward develop­ment—it was women,” Robinson says. “They were denied exactly that. If you take the idea of self-culture as fundamental to Unitarianism, then Fuller is essential to Unitarianism, in the sense that she reads it through female eyes, and makes the case that the self is not male exclusively.”

Next, Fuller’s move to write investigative journalism marked a political turn in the Transcendentalist movement, Robinson says, connecting it to what we now think of as progressive, rights-based social justice. She applied the same message to institutions she saw as barriers to self-development: prisons, asylums, hospitals, slums, immigration policy, poorhouses. She framed the issue of imprisoning women for prostitution, for example, not as the moral issue her contemporaries saw, but rather as lack of economic opportunity and social standing. No one else was thinking that way or looking so broadly.

Finally, Fuller anticipated what became, only in this past century, a national concern: promoting democracy worldwide. “She was ahead of her time,” Capper says. “She immersed herself in the problem of human rights outside the United States and thought a lot about the question of how and when America should intervene in the conflicts.”

Bearing witness to the struggles for democratic reform sweeping across Europe, she critiqued what is now known as American exceptionalism. “She’s arguing for Americans to see the American Revolu­tion not as unique, or divinely appointed, but to see it as part of a larger democratic, progressive kind of change worldwide,” Robinson says.

Margaret Fuller is a towering pillar in the temple of American intellectual history. Although she once wrote there is “nowhere I worship less than in the places set apart for that purpose,” or maybe even because of that, she is definitely one of us. Her intellectual legacy—which called for personal transformation and social justice, equality for all, democratic ideals and human rights—could not resonate more strongly with the UUA’s Seven Principles today. Her life, intensely lived each day of her forty years, a jarring and intoxicating fusion of brilliance and arrogance, compassion and vulnerability, still inspires readers to be full actors in our world, to change it for the better, and most of all, to grow. On her 200th birthday, let’s reclaim this Transcendentalist saint into the inner circle of the Unitarian pantheon.

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