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Humanity, Said Edgar Allan Poe, Is Divided Into Men, Women, And Margaret Fuller
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Poe’s witticism was not meant kindly, but it was actually a compliment. Without doubt Margaret Fuller stood first among women of the nineteenth century. It is surprising that, as America’s first liberated female, she is not today first in the hearts of her countrywomen. The primary responsibility for this neglect lies with her intimate friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, under the guise of loving kindness, defeminized, distorted, and diminished the image of her that has come down to us.
Though today almost forgotten, Margaret Fuller still probably holds more firsts than any other American woman who ever lived. As editor of the transcendentalist Dial , she was the first woman editor of an important intellectual magazine. She was the first woman to write a book about the Wrest and such experiences as sleeping in a barroom, shooting rapids in an Indian canoe, and witnessing maltreatment of the red man by the white man. She was the first woman to break the taboo against the female sex in the Harvard College Library. As columnist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune , she was the first U.S. woman journalist and and the first professional literarycritic of cither sex in the United States. Her sensational book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), was the first uncompromising plea by an American woman for women’s rights. Encouraged to go to Europe by Greeley, she was the first American woman foreign correspondent. And while covering the bloody Roman Revolution of 1849, she became the first American woman underground revolutionary in a foreign cause.
She was also the one passion blossom in the flowering of New England, as her friends—Emerson, Bronson Alcott, William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Thoreau, Elizabeth Hoar, the Peabody sisters —and her enemies —Poe, James Russell Lowell, Longfellow, Hawthorne—were to discover with shock. She dared, in the end, to fulfill herself as a woman—to cease being a “strange, lilting, lean old maid,” as Thomas Carlyle described her, and take a lover. The secret was kept until her marriage was announced. That her consort was an Italian revolutionary nobleman over a decade younger, the father of her yearold child, was stunning. It proved too much for even the practical, liberal Greeley, and it cost her her job.
Only very recently have new details been published that reveal the true story of Margaret’s life abroad, changing markedly the image Emerson passed on to posterity after her death. Emerson dominated a triumvirate, with Channing and Clarke, to edit her so-called Memoirs . His tricky techniques—whether deliberate or unconscious—converted her from a warm, rich, loving personality into a snobbish, egotistical, passionless old maid.
She was indeed strange and lilting, but for all Carlyle’s description of her at thirty-six, not truly “lean.” He meant, probably, that she was not so buxom as an English matron. In fact, however, she was a large-breasted woman whose figure had already developed fully by the time she was thirteen. She was able to dance endlessly and to ride a score of miles horseback without fatigue. Everyone admitted that she dressed in the best of taste and carried herself regally. She was a gifted mimic with a wry sense of humor and occasionally a lacerating tongue. Horace Greeley said she might have been “the first actress of the nineteenth century.”
The legend that she was “phenomenally homely,” as even the distinguished Professor Perry Miller of Harvard wrote in an article in A MERICAN H ERITAGE in February, 1957, was based on descriptions by men perhaps jealous of her intellectual achievements who apparently wished to defeminize her. “Those who seem overladen with electricity frighten those around them,” Margaret observed. Emerson, in contrast to his own pulpit voice, found her tones “nasal"; and Channing described her neck, in the tactful Victorian tradition, as swanlike. Less tactfully, he added that it “made swift turns like that of a bird of prey.” The strand of tawny blond hair that survives negates all claims that it was stringy and lusterless. Frederic Hedge, her contemporary, declared that she had “blond and abundant hair, excellent teeth, and sparkling, dancing, busy eyes.” True, she was nearsighted and squinted disconcertingly.
Though Emerson confessed he was unable to understand why Italian men paid court to her, Europeans found her graceful and charming. The great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote to her: “After having admired the women of Rome, say to yourself, ‘I too am beautiful!’ … In you I met a real person. I need not give you any other praise.” Firmly her New England colleagues belittled her appearance. “She had no pretensions to beauty,” James Freeman Clarke said. Yet he admitted, “She was not plain.” Elizabeth Hoar, that dry New England intellect who described Emerson as a “ray of white light” and Margaret as a “prism,” summed up: “Only her presence can give you the meaning of the name Margaret Fuller.”
In one of her innumerable candid appraisals of herself, Margaret wrote: “I am ‘too fiery’ … yet I wish to be seen as I am, and would lose all rather than soften away anything.” This honesty endured to the end of her life.