- Historic Sites
“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
Some who still remembered her were angered, and Christopher Cranch declared that young Hawthorne “has his quietus, for he sees that public opinion is against him.” But by 1884, there was not much opinion left that could be aroused about Margaret. The adulation of the feminists had not helped her reputation. Neither did it aid her cause that Bronson Alcott should continue to speak glowingly of her—"We have had no woman approaching so near our conception of the ideal as woman herself"—since he added as proof of her ideality that she more than anybody sympathized with his own “drift and purposes.” The turgidity, the dithyrambic prolixity of her writings, quickly came to seem, to the few who looked at them, embarrassing.
Yet her specter haunted all who knew her, and many who did not. Henry James, born in New York in 1843, stood beside his father on a Hudson River excursion boat and heard Washington Irving tell that Margaret Fuller had been drowned the day before. Even at the age of seven this small boy was resolved to be one on whom nothing is lost, and he knew, if nobody else did, that a heroine had gone to a heroic death. He did not belong, he was always to insist, to the “Boston connection,” yet the “Margaret-ghost” was more present to him than to any of them. Fifty-two years later, as he was executing a commission to edit William Wetmore Story and His Friends, James came face to face with the ghost. The Storys had befriended her in Italy, and to them she seemed the incarnation of “cosmopolitanism.” Had she not been so prematurely cut off, James asked, would she have represented that quality to a younger generation? James agreed with Emerson about her writings: they were “naught.” But the figure, the legend, the ghost? Would she, James asked, “with her appetite for ideas and her genius for conversation, have struck us but as a somewhat formidable bore, one of the worst kind, a culture-seeker without a sense of proportion, or, on the contrary, have affected us as a really attacking, a possibly picturesque New England Corinne?”
James’ all-retaining memory held the sense of how the name of Madame de Staël’s heroine stood for Margaret’s generation as the supreme symbol of female genius. By the time James asked the question few persons, even those of some literary cultivation, would grasp the point of his reference. In recent years, as a part of the extensive rediscovery of the American past that characterizes the present, there have been several attempts to bring the Margaret-ghost to life and even some reprintings of her essays or segments of Woman. These endeavors have not been anywhere near so successful as, let us say, those devoted to the resurrection of Herman Melville. The temptation to make Margaret a great liberal, a champion for the splendid proposition that women have a right to possess and use intelligence, and to shed tears over her untimely death, is too often offset by the suspicion that Nathaniel Hawthorne was in some degree correct when he said that much of the ridiculous was mixed up with her tragedy. The long neck, the nearsighted arrogance, those qualities which put her in the galerie of the bluestockings of that age, like them (in James’ phrase) “glossily ringletted and monumentally breastpinned,” prevent us from erecting memorials. It may be, in the end of all, that what she most means for the spiritual history of America is precisely that she poses Henry James’ query but does not answer it, thereby thrusting certain responsibilities upon us.
In which case, it is just possible that she came to some such understanding of her own self. There was no joy in her heart, only dire foreboding, as she was returning to her native land. She, the best mind in America (in her own estimation), had capitulated to marriage and motherhood, wherefore the males were gloating and sneering. That she herself ever wanted any other resolution may, however, be argued from the obvious manifestations of her sexuality, even from her most perfervid feminist utterances. No reader of her journals—of those portions which the three Transcendental worthies allow us to read—can help perceiving, even from these carefully edited fragments, how she hungered for love. She found it, we must suppose, in Ossoli. With him and the son she bore him she was about to dare America to answer the question of what it would or could make of her. There is evidence that while the Elizabeth was breaking up she could have been rescued had she been willing to exert herself. Within sight of America, Margaret Fuller chose to perish with her husband and her child.