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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
The incomprehensible component in the strange drama is this Ossoli. Those closest to her in Italy could never account for the union; at this distance we can hardly solve the puzzle by amateur psychologizing. Nevertheless, it intrigues our curiosity. Ten years younger than she, he was anything but an intellectual. In every particular he would seem to be the complete opposite of the young men of Harvard she had known in her youth. Tender, smiling, courteous, very much at ease, he was clearly devoted to his angular and ailing wife, and would “with knightly zeal” take her parasol to be mended. Not that her friends were ever able to study him closely: when they came, ostensibly to talk metaphysics with her, he went quietly down to the corner café. All they could attest was that he fought bravely at Rome—unless they added that he was at least a man, for he begot upon Margaret a male child, born in secrecy amid miserable hardships in the hill town of Rieti. Belatedly the harrowing story was revealed: Margaret had done her strenuous work under fire while her husband stood in daily peril of death and while she herself was cut off from all communication with her baby. Only after it was all over might Emerson even begin to measure the depth of the distress out of which she wrote him from Rome, “Let me feel, that, amid the fearful agitations of the world, there are pure hands, with healthful, even pulse, stretched out toward me, if I claim their grasp.” In fact, we do not know whether the heart that beat with this healthful, even pulse ever did comprehend.
With the Republic suppressed and the Austrians again masters of Tuscany, there was no longer any place in Italy for a revolutionary Margaret. She had lamented upon first reaching Rome, “A little money would have enabled me to come here long ago, and find those that belong to me, or at least to try my experiments; then my health would never have sunk, nor the best years of my life been wasted in useless friction.” Now she had found those who belonged to her, a baby and her enigma of a husband; but there was even less money. Could she try her experiments in America? “I have a vague expectation of some crisis,” she wrote her mother. “My life proceeds as regularly as the fates of a Greek tragedy, and I can but accept the pages as they turn.” She, Ossoli, and the child took passage on the bark Elizabeth; two days away from New York, on July 19, 1850, the vessel went ashore on the rocks of Fire Island. Some of the passengers and crew managed to get ashore. Margaret and Ossoli clung for twelve mortal hours to the disintegrating forecastle; at the last moment the steward tried to make the beach with Angelino, the baby, but both were washed up dead. The disaster was reported in all American newspapers, with long obituaries upon Margaret Fuller.
Word that she was on her way had preceded the Elizabeth. The “timorous,” Emerson noted, were asking, “What shall we do? How shall she be received, now that she brings a husband and child home?” The foundering of the Elizabeth transferred the answer to the realm of speculation. Emerson’s indomitable optimism assured him that she “had only to open her mouth and a triumphant success awaited her.” Margaret had insights into the society of 1850 that her Olympian friend often did not appreciate: she said she knew “enough of the United States to be sure that many persons there will blame whatever is peculiar.” Would those pure hands have been stretched out to her? If our imagination is challenged to picture what Margaret Fuller would have been like had she remained in Boston, it is positively staggered at trying to conceive what would have been the career of the Marchioness Ossoli in America. The wreck of the Elizabeth deprived the cultural history of this country of what would surely have been an exciting chapter. Considering the limits then imposed upon social tolerance, perhaps it is as well that we forwent the experience.
After making his contribution to the Memoirs in 1852, Emerson seldom refers to Margaret in journals or letters, and on those few occasions speaks mechanically of her as noble. In 1884 Julian Hawthorne published a portion of his father’s Italian Notebooks which his mother had tactfully left out of her edition. Nathaniel Hawthorne encountered a sculptor in Rome who claimed to have known Ossoli, who asserted that he was handsome but half an idiot and a boor. Thus reminded of Margaret, Hawthorne exploded with what appears to be long-suppressed rancor: Margaret Fuller was a humbug, “a strong and coarse nature,” who tried every way to refine herself, to make something dazzling out of “her strong, heavy, unpliable, and, in many respects, defective and evil nature.” He took a fiendish delight in supposing that for the basest of sensual motives she fell “as the weakest of her sisters might,” and a sardonic satisfaction in concluding that her tragedy was the more melancholy “because so much of the ridiculous was mixed up with it.”