Humanity, Said Edgar Allan Poe, Is Divided Into Men, Women, And Margaret Fuller

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Sarah Margaret Fuller was born May 23, 1810, in the village of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Margaret’s father, Timothy Fuller, had worked his way through Harvard Law School and had been elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Jeffersonian. The Fullers were descended from one Thomas Fuller, a pious and poetry-writing Englishman who settled in Salem in 1638. Timothy’s father, a clergyman, had opposed the signing of the United States Constitution on the grounds that it condoned human slavery. The cantankerous Fullers had a tradition of speaking out when the spirit moved them.

Timothy at the age of thirty married Miss Margaret! Crane, a young woman of twenty, sweet and passive but far from unintelligent—as so often has been implied. Margaret was the first of eight children, of whom two died in infancy and the youngest, a boy, developed mental illness. As Timothy had wanted a boy for his first-born, he resolved to educate Margaret exactly as if she might someday be a candidate for all-male Harvard.

Until Margaret was sent away to boarding school, in adolescence, Timothy assigned her lessons and heard her recitations. At the age of four and a half she could read, and by six was reading Latin with the fluency of English. From Latin she went on to Italian, French, German, a smattering of Greek—studying the masters in each language. She became so versatile that schoolmates invented the legend that she could simultaneously eat an apple, rock a cradle, knit a stocking, and read a book. They were not far wrong.

For this energetic precocity Margaret paid a price: she was set apart from her schoolgirl companions, and boys her own age were bewildered by her. It is hardly surprising that as a child she walked in her sleep and had nightmares of colossal faces and rampant stallions. At eight she read and was deeply affected by Romeo and Juliet . Much later she wrote, “At eight or nine years old the passions are not infrequently felt in their full shock.” Her appraisal of her childhood was succinct: “The child fed with meat instead of milk becomes too soon matured.…”

When Margaret was twenty-three, her father, after a series of economic reverses, dragged the family to a rocky, isolated farm in Groton, Massachusetts. For Margaret it was a period of exile and despair, unrelieved by outside social and intellectual contacts. On Timothy’s sudden death two years later, Margaret gave up her dream of Europe and assumed the responsibility for supporting the family. This she did by teaching school in Providence and later by her Boston “Conversations.” These were lectures for women on such subjects as Greek mythology and religion, and, despite ridicule, they established her reputation among the local intellectuals.

It was in this period, about 1835, that she first met Emerson. She was twenty-five, he thirty-two. Then began, in Emerson’s words, that “strange, cold-warm, attractiverepelling” relationship that was to endure with many temperature variations for the remainder of her life.

Given the time and place of Margaret’s birth, her education, and her ecstatic nature, it was perhaps inevitable that she should gravitate toward the transcendentalist camp. Yet she never subscribed fully to transcendentalist ambiguities and finally broke with the movement. She held reservations about so exciting a project as George Ripley’s Brook Farm experiment in communal living. The Transcendentalist Club split over the issue, with Emerson exclaiming sententiously, “I am not bitten by this madness of Socialism.” While Margaret, on the other hand, called herself an “ardent Socialist,” she felt that Brook Farm was not so much socialistic as idealistic. She did not join the commune but often visited to lead classes.

When the transcendentalist group, after much debate, decided in 1840 to establish a journal, the Dial , Margaret was chosen editor. This post she held for two years; she was succeeded by Emerson. It was in the pages of the Dial that Margaret launched her one-woman campaign for women’s rights. Once in her journal she had written, ” ‘Tis an evil lot to have a man’s ambition and a woman’s heart.” In 1843 she published an article with the ungainly title “The Great Lawsuit—Man versus Men: Woman versus Women,” on the theme that she later developed more fully in her book on women’s rights. It aroused controversy in a small circle not enough, however, to satisfy Margaret.

Then she went West, completed and published her travel book, Summer on the Lakes , and with a pause only long enough to refill her inkwell-resumed her discussion of women’s rights. Writing at frantic pace—and as usual not bothering to parse or prune her sentencesshe produced Woman in the Nineteenth Century , published in New York in February of 1845. Now, she wrote triumphantly, “the measure of my footprint would be left on the earth.” The immediate result was as if she had been wearing hobnail boots.