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“I Find No Intellect Comparable To My Own”
Margaret Fuller very possibly spoke the truth, and the literary men of the age both admired and shied away from her
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
For the fact of the matter is that, amid these emotional whirls, despite the paralyzing headaches, Margaret did write. Her essay on Goethe in the second volume of The Dial veers from fascination to moral repulsion and back to absolute surrender, but for all its incoherence it is the best thing written on Goethe in the America of her era, infinitely more perceptive and vibrating than Emerson’s pontifical pronouncement in Representative Men. Once in New York, she flung herself headlong into the cause of “National Literature,” calling upon the country to produce a genius “as wide and full as our rivers, flowery, luxuriant and impassioned as our vast prairies, rooted in strength as the rocks on which the Puritan fathers landed.” Although in 1837 “The American Scholar” had summoned the sluggard intellect of the nation to awake, nevertheless Emerson found this strident New York nationalism in bad taste. And when Margaret declared Longfellow wanting the free breath of nature and called his culture “superficial,” then Lowell and Dr. Holmes, who by this time had become enemies of all literary patriotism, could write her off as a total loss to barbarism.
Today, Margaret’s essays are considerably faded. However massive her erudition, her mind was undisciplined, and her style as verbose as her emotions were chaotic. Still, they are remarkable achievements. However, what gave her fame, or notoriety, was a book that grew out of a piece in The Dial (where it was entitled “The Great Lawsuit—Man vs. Men; Woman vs. Women”), now called Woman in the Nineteenth Century and printed by Horace Greeley in 1845. Usually this is set down as an uncommonly vociferous plea for women’s rights. At conventions of suffragettes later in the century Margaret was invoked as a saint and a martyr. Actually, the book is pitched on so lofty, what to modern taste must appear so hysterical, a level that it can hardly stoop to argue the mundane business of the ballot. Its repetitious manifesto is: “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.” But if, in her shrill intoxication over “the lyrical or electrical element” in her sex, she seemed to the orthodox opinion of the country to threaten the sacred institution of matrimony, masculine America could brush her aside with a guffaw when she shouted: “I do not care what case you put; let them be seacaptains, if you will.” This was too much even for a radical Greeley; when she lived in his house he would refuse to open doors for her, quoting the sea captain sentence. It is recorded that Margaret did not appreciate the joke. We may remark in passing what was certainly a sad deficiency in her: though she could be wryly gay about her distresses and her pains, she seems to have had absolutely no sense of humor.
Thanks to the stir about the book, Margaret went abroad in 1846 as a personage. She met as an equal the best minds of Europe—Carlyle, the Brownings, Walter Savage Landor, H. F. R. de Lamennais. In Paris she was welcomed by George Sand with a wide embrace and a “C’est vous,” to which Margaret, escaped from Boston, responded, “Il me fait de bien de vous voir.” As this was a time when American males of good breeding did not utter the name of George Sand in the presence of ladies, they could conclude that this interchange only proved to what depths of depravity the reading of Goethe would lead a girl. But Margaret could write—in the dispatches she sent to Greeley, which make her our first woman foreign correspondent and which remain today as good reporting as any in American journalism—that George Sand needed no defense, “but only to be understood, for she has bravely acted out her nature, and always with good intentions.”
Then Margaret Fuller acted out her nature, and with the best of intentions, by going to Italy. Ultimately her friends could see that she was predestined to meet her fate in Italy. In New England, Emerson explained to Carlyle, she was an exotic, “a foreigner from some more sultry and expansive climate.” Bronson Alcott, incompetent about worldly affairs but always astute about persons, moralized that “she was a citizen and a socialist, by virtue of constitution, or by womanhood; and here in this particular, she was less American than Greek.” In 1849, during the siege of Rome, through the death struggle of the Republic, she worked with Mazzini, whom she had met in London and immediately admired. Emerson, in the security of Concord and quite incapable of conceiving the ordeal to which Margaret was submitting herself, lamented grandly that the Roman Revolution was producing no great man; he must have been at least jolted when he received her angered reply: “Mazzini is a great man. … I dearly love Mazzini.” She labored in the hospitals, day and night, with a gallantry equal to that of Garibaldi. By itself, this service was enough to make her a heroine; but her friends were still more astounded when, after the Republic was stifled, they found that in the midst of this turmoil she had acquired a husband—at least she said they were married—one Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, who had some vague claim to being a marquis. So Margaret Fuller, the formidable Sibyl of Boston, was returning to America in July of 1850 as a marchioness, or at least as Madame Ossoli.