The Fictioning
 
 

Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, March 20th, 2008
Voice your opinion about this review by
posting a comment on the Powells.com blog


 

Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life #02: The Public Years

by Charles Capper

A Noble Career

A review by Christine Stansell

Like Walt Whitman, her slightly younger contemporary, Margaret Fuller was one to contain multitudes. No American woman of the pre-Civil War era -- and no European woman of the era -- wrote so brilliantly about so many things, while living so intently and intensely. For that matter, you would be hard put to think of a man who equaled Fuller's range of literary, intellectual, and political accomplishments. Charles Capper has been engaged for nearly two decades in writing a two-part biography, the first ever to take Fuller's full measure. His first volume gave readers a glorious girl of Boston who turns into a major Transcendentalist thinker; and now the second follows Fuller the accomplished writer through the amazing last ten years of her short life, in which she moves to a national, and then an international, stage as literary editor, New York journalist, astute traveler, political commentator in Europe on the eve of the revolutions of 1848, and partisan under fire in Rome as the revolution goes down to defeat. While Fuller has long been honored by scholars, she has never quite escaped a lesser role in a long-running documentary about New England's golden age. Now, with Capper's magnificent study, she has the whole film that she deserves, fully imagined, with beautifully crafted historical detail and a full complement of locations: Boston, yes, but also New York, London, Paris, and Rome.

Capper's second volume begins with Fuller still in Boston in 1840, preparing the first issues of The Dial, the journal that was the Transcendentalists' attempt to jolt the adolescent American psyche with an electric current of imagination and creative self-reliance. She was thirty years old, unmarried, and astonishingly successful, having made herself into America's first -- and only -- woman of letters. (It would be a long time before another would preside over a heavyhitting intellectual journal: as far as I know, Freda Kirchwey was the next, becoming The Nation's editor in 1933.) The Dial was America's first avant-garde magazine. It published a mélange of art, music, and literary criticism, short fiction, social thought, and essays by Fuller, Emerson, Theodore Parker, and many lesser lights.

What it did not do was support any religious denomination, preach about Christian morals and duties, advocate particular reforms or political parties, or feature genteel commentary and fiction. Instead the editors proudly refused institutional connections, and promoted experimental writing, and did not shy away from offending polite taste. Pundits excoriated the magazine and its editor. They called it stupid and mad: "wild raving, mixed up of German metaphysics and coarse infidelity, -- the whole served up in a style turgid and affected." But liberal readers -- the "large-souled inquirers," as one sympathizer identified The Dial's natural audience -- were convinced, and the magazine became a touchstone for an evolving liberal American intellect.

The Dial's major themes were what Capper calls post-colonial -- a surprising term to use in this context, but an interesting way to look at the enterprise. Culturally, after all, the United States in those years was still a shaky start-up. How to get free of the Old World, with its centuries of accumulated cultural capital, its troves of literature, paintings, and music, its legions of critics, writers, and philosophers? How to extend the country's political promise -- exemplified by universal white manhood suffrage, virtually complete by 1840 -- into a vital life of the mind? How to bring it into a conversation with Europe? These were questions that preoccupied Margaret Fuller for the rest of her life. And the magazine appeared at a propitious moment of democratic revival, abounding in reform energies -- above all the abolitionist movement, sprung from a cadre in Boston, which by 1840 was a national force. The ardor for change, driven by the Second Great Awakening's call to bring God's grace to the sinful world, gathered in right-minded recruits to call for a host of reforms -- temperance, prison reform, Sunday closings. The Dial stood aside from these policies, but it advocated an analogous shake-up in the national psyche, focused simultaneously inward -- toward individual reflection and self-realization -- and outward, in striving for an ideal.

Her tangled and extraordinary relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson consumed the better part of Fuller's personal life. Emerson was an assistant editor at The Dial and the one on whom Fuller depended. The two were more than colleagues; intellectually, certainly, they were a match pair. Friends thought that none were closer as critics and interlocutors. They learned much from each other: Emerson was optimistic about the prospects for a singular American literature, whereas Fuller, less sanguine, sought to inspire Americans by bringing the news of European Romanticism. By 1840, though, their friendship had turned into a classic heterosexual stand-off. She wanted to be closer, and he wanted things to stay the way they were. It was never an affair, or even a sublimated attraction, in the modern sense. Emerson was married, and both were respectable Bostonians. Adultery was not in the cards.

So it was not eros they struggled over, but a New England sort of agape -- or how to reach an exacting ideal of romantic friendship. Capper describes the intellectual and emotional stakes this way: "through mutual introspection and questing, one could experience a tension-filled merging with an unknown 'other' on the cosmic ladder to the 'infinite.'" At thirty, already past marriageable age in the terms of her day and often lonely, Fuller thought that this meant an enveloping intimacy: the recognition of her full self, not just the brilliance that Emerson did honor but also her melancholy and her vulnerability. Emerson wanted -- and desperately needed -- her company, her warmth, and her understanding, but he did not wish to expend too much effort in their communion. The rounds of desires expressed and reproaches leveled kept up for years, and eventually led to something close to a rupture, although it was never complete.

Capper's understanding of the inner world of these intricate people is superb, and he translates the exquisite nuances of silky, sibilant, lofty Transcendental-speak into recognizable modern terms. If Eskimos really do have five hundred names for snow, Fuller had a thousand lofty formulations for being angry, and Emerson had as many exquisite concoctions to prettify his distance. Their hopes, needs, and exasperations dance awkwardly through their correspondence: her desire for closeness, and his alternating prevarications and come-ons, calibrated by his anxiety that she would finally disappear if she had to settle for less. "I am nobler than he can see," she wrote in her journal after a frustration. "Shall I never succeed to supersede that Ethical Man who can talk all his virtue and of who I am weary." And yet she persisted: "I could be a perfect friend, and it would make me a nobler person." As for Emerson, he lured her on and then shut her out. Her heart, he complained to his journal, "unceasingly demands all, & is a sea that hates an ebb." Capper gives a fair and touching account of this most anomalous kind of relation, a deep friendship between a man and a woman.

The demise of The Dial made it easier for Fuller to draw away. She took up her teaching to Boston's intellectual women again, a kind of one-woman night school. In her lectures, romantic friendship receded before a wistfully high-minded vision of Woman, infused -- we might imagine -- with her recent disappointments: a Romantic heroine inwardly suffering , outwardly striving, and ultimately triumphing (if not in this world, then in the next). Always fighting off sadness, she took off in a new direction, embarking on a rigorous tour of the far frontier along the shores of the Great Lakes as far as Chicago, a journey that led to a successful book of travel writing.

The impasse with Emerson seems to have made her ready to face the impasse with Boston, where endless delicate exchanges coursed through a closed circle of friends but where, for her, nothing ever really changed. Writing propelled Fuller forward, as it always would. Woman in the Nineteenth Century -- an expansion of articles on the woman question she wrote for The Dial -- followed the travel book in short order. Horace Greeley, the whirlwind who edited the New York Tribune, had been following Fuller's career, and in a surprise move -- since Greeley had no particular sympathy for women's rights -- he asked her to come to New York to join the Tribune staff as a one-woman "literary department."

This is partly a story about the good things that can happen when a person leaves Boston. In accepting Greeley's offer, Fuller pushed out of eddies where she could have gently drifted for years. Other Bostonians despised New York's dirt, noise, blunt manners, and literary hustle, but Fuller was right at home. "It is so central," she wrote home with pleasure, "and affords a far more various view of life than any I ever before was in." "That was a new era," a friend mused after her death about the New York move. "The persons she knew best were more vehement, adventurous, & various than her friends here; less moral, less poetical, less beautiful but she enjoyed their freedom from the Puritanism that had annoyed her here." Certainly all those tactful adjectives applied. Fuller held forth at the literary salons (frequented by writers decidedly less poetical and beautiful than the folks at home), and rode the omnibuses (on one trip she cheerfully fended off an on-the-spot marriage proposal from a less-than-moral stranger). As for the vehement, she fell in love with a New York Jew (a species only just evolving), one James Nathan, who turned out to be a bounder. Still, he pulled her into an adult erotic heterosexual relationship (whether or not they actually slept together), something that had long eluded her in Boston. The disappointing end -- the distressed maiden he claimed to have rescued from the streets turned out to be his mistress -- nonetheless left Fuller aware, for the first time, of her sexual capacities and of the magnitude of her longings.

The work in New York was pure pleasure. She thrived in an office that was all male, loud and rough. She might have written from home in ladylike seclusion, but she trekked daily to the Tribune building downtown, near City Hall. Except for a few newsgirls, she was the only female among gangs of printers and journalists working full-out. She warmed to the chance to throw off the cosmic shrouds of Transcendentalism and write for a large audience. The Tribune was the first national newspaper, with some 30,000 subscribers at a time when papers were passed around and read by many more, and a circulation up to and across the Erie Canal into Ohio and beyond. "I do just as I please," she stressed to old friends, "and as much or little as I please, and the Editors express themselves perfectly satisfied, and others say that my pieces tell to a degree, I could not expect." She worked prodigiously -- some 250 pieces in a year and a half. Greeley, looking back, remembered fondly how she learned to forgo literary effects for a direct, terse style -- a journalist's standard of the plain truth, not the Transcendentalist's ideal of the whole truth: "She never asked how this would sound... nor what would be the effect of saying anything; but simply 'Is it the truth? Is it such as the public should know?'"

Her Boston friends sniffed at the vulgarity of this sort of writing, and her family tugged at the strings of duty and guilt to draw her home. At first Emerson approved of the New York job, but in the face of her success he coolly retracted his approval, writing disdainfully of Muses on treadmills. But Fuller had enough of them all. "I have now a position where if I can devote myself entirely to use its occasions, a noble career is before me yet," she replied firmly to her brother. "I have given almost all my young energies to personal relations. I no longer feel inclined to this, and wish to share and impel the general stream of thought."

And the stream of thought carried her on. As a reviewer of American literature, she did not have much to work with. The full flowering of the American Renaissance was ten years away. Poe reigned over the New York scene, and of course Emerson was in print. But while Hawthorne's first short stories had already appeared (Fuller published some in The Dial), he had yet to write his novels, and Thoreau had not yet written a book; Whitman was publishing a Brooklyn newspaper, and Melville was known as an adventure writer. Still, being around so many ambitious, hustling writers increased her confidence about the prospects for literature on native grounds. She favorably reviewed Typee and rated The Narrative of Frederick Douglass high on her Romantic scale of poetic sincerity: "It is thus that an American literature may grow up, if men will write of what is rooted in their real lives, instead of copies from foreign models or ideals which rest only the clouds above them."

Fuller added reviews of the city's art and music to her beat, and diversified her critic's portfolio to include social commentary, as she poked around town in the company of philanthropic friends. In the pieces that resulted, she pushed the pity-the-poor genre that Greeley adored to its limits. It was her unsentimental choice of subjects, and her identification with their plight, that strengthened her reports. She became especially interested in women prisoners at Sing Sing. Women and girls jailed mainly for prostitution -- a standardissue charge to which a solitary woman was liable -- the Sing Sing women called up her own sense of vulnerability as a single woman open to sexual smears and innuendoes.

Yet Fuller's most important new interest was in New York's swelling population of immigrants and political exiles. The antipathy to foreigners was rising in 1846, fed by the bellicose nationalism of the Mexican war and antipathy to the first wave of Irish famine refugees as they hit New York. Curiosity, always the best antidote to prejudice, led Fuller to take on the politically charged subject, which was well outside her general assignment. Characteristically, she broadened the frame. She wrote sympathetically about the Irish, but also read the New York foreign-language newspapers -- French, Spanish, Italian, and especially German -- and attended political meetings. A coherent view of immigrants, based on an incipient sense of America's place in the North Atlantic world, began to take shape.

Capper calls it "liberal cosmopolitan patriotism" -- a cumbersome designation, but accurate. With conviction born of years spent dwelling in the European literary imagination, Fuller insisted that immigrants brought precious resources to America, not just from the old treasures of European culture but also from the ongoing struggles for freedom in Poland and Italy. Immigrants, she believed, were necessary for the continual "regeneration" that was America's particular gift. But immigrants, too, needed to be regenerated by democracy, lest they retreat into ethnic enclaves: "We want all this new blood, but we want it purified, assimilated, or it will take all form of comeliness from the growing nation."

It was a remarkably radical stance at the time, and it gave Fuller her intellectual footing for the next leap. In 1846, a wealthy New York couple asked her to accompany them abroad, and Greeley signed onto the idea with an advance for fifteen articles about her travels. Politically, the comparison between Europe and America, always favorable to the latter, was starting to turn around, even to as ardent a nationalist as Fuller. The admission of Texas as a slave state and the Mexican War appalled her. "What a year it has been with us!" she brooded at the end of 1845. "Texas annexed, and more annexations in store; Slavery perpetuated, as the most striking new feature of these movements. Such are the fruits of American love of liberty!" Not a few months before, she had condemned Europe as bankrupt, but now she reported about change. Translating an article written by a confederate of Marx and Engels in Paris and published in a New York German paper, Fuller provided Tribune readers with the first account in America of the communist program. She followed up with news of labor unrest in Germany and France. Already educated by American radical reformers in the milder principles of utopian socialism, she spied tangible progress in Europe.

As a European traveler in 1846, Fuller broke the mold. Neither literary pilgrim nor travel writer, she arrived in London to step into a reputation that preceded her and assumed the place of an equal in sophisticated literary circles. The revolutions of 1848 were less than two years away, and liberals everywhere sensed something big in the making. Encounters with two of the charismatic leaders of the day turned out to be life-changing: the first with Giuseppe Mazzini, exiled in London, plotting to return to Italy and resume the struggle for unification; and the second with Adam Mickiewicz, the poet and leader of the Young Poland movement, in exile in Paris.

Nowhere is Capper's marvelous scholarship more apparent than in his account of the great final act of Fuller's saga, from her arrival in Europe to her tragic death on the ship bound for home in 1850. Fuller fully grasped the importance of what was happening on the Continent. Everything expanded for her. The disappointed friend of the Ethical Man and the spurned lover of James Nathan became a woman to whom some of the finest male minds in Europe flocked. Learning after her death about these years in Fuller's life, her Boston friends were amazed, but the fact was that everywhere she went men wanted to marry her.

The friendship with Mickiewicz turned into a particularly rich mixture of mind, heart, and sublimated desire. Like many European radicals, the Polish exiles were kindly disposed toward women's rights. In particular, Mickiewicz had taken to heart an older utopian socialist belief that a female messiah would usher in the great revolution, and in Fuller he spotted his leading lady. Capper captures Mickiewicz's wonderful swashbuckling leap toward the cosmos on Fuller's behalf, and her dazzled response: he "ferreted out all of her favorite themes, and provoked by her own fervent talk and his familiar habits and intuitive powers, projected them onto an enormous screen of world-historical proportions." Better yet, he could see the woman in the intellectual. In a florid mystical-historical language of seduction, he urged her to surrender her virginity. For the world deserved her full consummation with life: "Thou shouldst bring to the new world fruit matured by centuries, exciting fruits." This was very different from floating around in the clouds over Boston, one transparent eyeball tracking another, and Fuller was not oblivious to the contrast between her two best male interlocutors. "How much time had I wasted on others which I might have given to this real and important relation," she wrote to Emerson about Mickiewicz.

Traveling on to Italy in 1847, Fuller gained a view of contemporary society there that other Americans on their pilgrimages through the ruins completely missed. Within weeks of her arrival she met liberals in the aristocracy, the intelligentsia, and the middle classes, and comprehended the tensions between them, and how Mazzini, still in exile, was managing them. She took off bravely on her own, traveling by herself for the first time and learning enough Italian to communicate reasonably. Mickiewicz's letters followed, singing the theme song of the new age, hers and the world's. "Live and act," he urged. Fulfill the "legitimate needs of your organism." She had long written about women's rights, he reminded her, and now was the time to make good. Is it any wonder that by the time Fuller got to Rome she was alive with pleasure and a vision of a different life? Italy was the "dream of my heart and realization of my mind." "To live here, alone and independent, to really draw in the spirit of Rome," she exalted to her mother. "Oh! what joy!"

But the mythic fancy disappeared once she settled in, because she discovered there was indeed a place for her in the real, and newly exciting, world. Politics and love engaged all her faculties. A new man appeared, Giovanni Ossoli, a full-fledged suitor who wanted to marry her. Ten years her junior and by all accounts a man of integrity and great sweetness of character, Ossoli was an officer in the city's Civic Guard, a minor noble and an ardent republican. They fell in love, began an affair, and married secretly -- perhaps when Fuller learned that she was pregnant. The dangers of her situation were twofold: condemnation from Boston and disinheritance from Ossoli's conservative family, who would disown him for marrying an American Protestant. Fuller kept the pregnancy secret too, even from her closest American friends in Rome, moving to the countryside for the last months in order to give birth. A son was born to adoring parents in September, 1848.

The Ossoli family's history was inseparable from the Risorgimento as it unfolded in Rome. As the revolutions of the spring of 1848 went down to defeat, one after another, events in Italy were moving in the opposite direction over the summer and the fall. The forces of change ranged from liberal aristocrats on the right, who sought a constitutional monarchy with a narrow suffrage and unity under the pope, to Mazzini's coalition on the left: urban professionals, middle-class people, and workers who championed a republic based on universal manhood suffrage. The politics were fraught and exceedingly complex, forged under pressure from the invading Austrian army and the pope. (Capper is the first biographer to place Fuller precisely in this landscape; for this alone his book must be counted a breakthrough.) Initially Fuller had good relations with leading figures in all the factions, but always the American democrat, she did not waver from Mazzini's cause.

Her thinking about democracy moved fast. Influenced by Mickiewicz's and Mazzini's Romantic nationalism, she came to believe that each country, while bound to the others, had a distinct mission in securing liberty and human happiness, a kind of rainbow coalition of European differences. The United States remained the template for what democracy could attain; and she could not abide cheap anti-Americanism. But 1848 and the Risorgimento shifted the balance of human hope for her. In the face of "this horrible cancer of Slavery, and this wicked war" in Mexico, she saw democracy's possibilities flower in Europe while America slept. But in America still lay the idea; and so, for her, the revolution in Italy was inextricable from America, "ours above all others." It was her job to awaken America to the new standard bearers.

Fuller and Ossoli were back in Rome, having left the baby in the country with a wet nurse, when papal control collapsed in November 1848. Liberal aristocrats lost control of the government, and Mazzini's democrats moved to the center of power. The Civic Guard had mutinied months earlier and gone over to the radical political clubs, so Ossoli was now fully a partisan. They both knew that they were needed in the city, Ossoli to serve with the only military force in Rome, Fuller to do her best with dispatches to the Tribune to inform Americans that the democrats were not rabble-rousing thugs, as conservatives were depicting them. In January, elections were held. It was a better turnout than in the United States, Fuller noted happily (this was saying something, since turnouts for American elections after 1840 were pretty high, as near as we can tell), and the democratic republicans won a stunning victory. In February, 1849, the new Assembly declared the Roman Republic.

It lasted four heady months, until a French army, sent by Louis-Napoleon to shore up a Catholic alliance, appeared at the end of May and laid siege to the city. Ossoli and Fuller took an active part in the protracted bloody battle, he as a soldier under fire, she as a nurse in the hospitals, risking her life under constant bombardment. She was soon the only American left in Rome. Fearing for her life, Fuller entrusted the secret of her marriage and the care of her baby to American friends, among the last to leave the city, should she and Ossoli die. But they survived, scrambling out of the fallen city on the heels of Garibaldi's retreat. They reclaimed the child and slipped into exile, one family among many despondent '48ers on the run, scouting out possible sanctuaries and evading arrest.

The only place to go was the United States. The pitfalls were plain -- Ossoli spoke not a word of English; it was not at all clear what an Italian military man could do in the States; American friends cautioned her not to return because rumors of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy would make them pariahs -- but there was no other choice. Strapped for money, they took a cheap fare on a kind of nineteenth-century version of a tramp steamer. They got across the ocean, but in a storm off Fire Island the crew misread the location and ran aground on a sandbar. The Fire Islanders of the day were a nasty group, who lived off pickings from shipwrecks that washed up on the beach, and they had no use for rescue efforts. So although the boat was in clear sight of the shore, no one acted while there was time. The family spent the night with other desperate passengers huddled on the disintegrating ship. Late in the morning, Fuller was washed away, and then Ossoli and the child.

The story was as dramatic then as it is now. Newspaper headlines, the Tribune above all, blared the news of the tragedy to a sensation-loving public. Emerson, not a man to bestir himself from Greater Boston, got Thoreau to whiz down in his stead to conduct a transcendental investigation. The lofty gumshoe combed the beach along with other literary notables, whether to find Fuller's body or her literary remains is not clear. Then, as the horror subsided, strangers and friends alike began to take stock, exactly as biographers, historians, and critics have been doing ever since.

The dominant tendency in the aftermath of the disaster was to see Fuller as the victim of her own choices. Her detractors even hinted that she was better off dead. One imagines Sophia Peabody Hawthorne pursing her lips as she wrote to Nathaniel that "I am really glad she died.... There was no other peace or rest to be found for her -- especially if her husband was a person so wanting in force and availability." Later this kind of moralistic condemnation died away, to be replaced by a more sophisticated view of the destiny that turned Fuller into the heroine of a narrative with a triumphant conclusion. America would have killed her off anyway, writers came close to suggesting; a dramatic death at the height of her powers was more fitting than the ignominy and the marginality that awaited a woman writer who had fought in a revolution, married an Italian, and borne a child in sexually compromised circumstances, all the while developing one of the most acute cosmopolitan minds of the era. Surely the Ossolis would have been shunted from pillar to post, with Fuller ending up some dingy teacher or Lyceum lecturer, a relic. No heroine in a nineteenth-century novel, remember, was ever allowed to live happily ever after.

Capper's book makes us see that Fuller was finally not a romantic heroine but a historical creature, endowed with extraordinary capacities for making a place for herself. History was her salvation, and there are many reasons to think that she would have again risen to history's occasions. It is not at all certain, for instance, that the Ossolis would have been isolated: America in the 1850s was soon full of '48ers, especially Germans, some of them clinging to their own culture and fastened on Europe, others kindling to humanity's next great fight -- the battle to free the slaves. Fuller, with her grasp of European politics and her fluent German, might have been a critical intermediary between the two worlds. Also, a women's rights movement was forming, the most full-bodied in the world; and many of the early leaders, who had cut their intellectual teeth on Fuller's work, counted on her to be a major presence. She most certainly would have written the history of the 1848 revolutions that she had begun in Europe, and thereby enlivened a cosmopolitan strain in American thinking. Finally, Capper notes, there was the pioneering task of nursing: it is good to think that Fuller could have brought what she learned in Rome to caring for the injured in the Civil War hospitals.

It was much more likely that Fuller would have become a leading public figure of the American mid-century than that she would die in a shipwreck. Not that she would have lived happily ever after -- this is history, not a sentimental novel. But it was her genius to ride out the endless heave of trouble and come down in a strange place that she made her own with friendship and work. Fuller was the pre-eminent intellectual of the first generation of American women who were convinced that their yearnings for a larger life prefigured nothing less than a new era in history. Her conjoined faith in her own promise and the promise of democracy emboldened her to continuing feats of intellectual and personal discovery. At a time when ardent nationalism and passionate cosmopolitanism seem, for most American liberals, a contradiction in terms, it is a signal pleasure, and a useful one, to be presented with a genuine national treasure, brilliantly burnished and revealed in all her wonder. Charles Capper finally brings Margaret Fuller back home, reclaiming her and her immense intelligence for America.

Christine Stansell, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, is writing a history of feminism, 1972-2002.


Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

spacer
spacer
  • back to top

FOLLOW US ON...

     
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.