- Historic Sites
Humanity, Said Edgar Allan Poe, Is Divided Into Men, Women, And Margaret Fuller
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
On the first of August, 1846, they sailed aboard the Cambria , a sailsteam ship. It was a record crossing: ten days sixteen hours Boston to Liverpool—symbolic of the new industrial revolution. But for Margaret, another, more important revolution was impending. In London, Paris, Rome, awaited the three men who would totally change her life.
In Britain Woman in the Nineteenth Century had been read with much sympathy, opening many doors for Margaret. She and the Springs undertook a leisurely tour by diligence, canal boat, and the new iron horse. She interviewed Harriet Martineau, Wordsworth, and De Quincey; inspected pubs, country estates, coal mines, castles, steel mills, public laundries, and, incidentally, got lost for an entire night on the Scottish mountain Ben Lomond. She was appalled by the poverty and the class distinctions, enchanted by the English countryside, furious at the working conditions in the mines and factories, shocked by the filth and hopelessness of the poor. Immediately she advocated a “peaceful revolution.” She was emotionally and politically ready for the first real revolutionary she had ever met.
His name was Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile living in England with a sentence of death on his head, an intellectual with intense, beautiful, fascinating eyes. He was five years Margaret’s senior. He had organized poor immigrant boys into schools and clubs as part of his “Young Italy” movement. One evening Margaret addressed one of the groups, and Mazzini wrote to his mother that she “made a touching speech.” He wrote other things, too, so glowing that his mother suggested that he should have Margaret live with him and care for him. But he was not to be diverted from revolution by even a Margaret Fuller.
Margaret for her part was swept entirely into his orbit. She found him “pure music.” She wrote an article for the Tribune about Mazzini and his goals, reminding Americans that Italy was “the mother of our language and our laws, our greatest benefactress.” Unaware of potential dangers, she joined a plot to smuggle Mazzini back into Italy as a member of the Springs’ party—with an American passport. So secret was the scheme that past biographers generally have been unaware of it. The plan called for Mazzini to make contact with the Americans later in Paris, in disguise. To Margaret his parting admonition was far from political: “Learn to love not only Italy, but the Italians.” She accepted this advice to a degree that perhaps astonished him.
In Paris, Margaret plunged, with her usual adventurousness, once more into a round of sightseeing, theatre, opera, interviews. She was invited to a court ball (King Louis Philippe). For a tooth extraction, she tried the new wonder drug, ether. Of the luminaries she met, George Sand (Madame Dudevant) and her lover, Chopin, were outstanding. In Woman Margaret had spoken favorably of George Sand as an emancipated woman, bringing the wrath of the morally self-righteous down on her own head. Now she exercised caution and reported only to her spinster friend Elizabeth Hoar that George Sand “needs no defense, but only to be understood, for she has bravely acted out her nature.” It was as if Margaret Fuller sought to prepare a brief in her own defense.
Well she might, for an ironic question posed to her in a letter from Mazzini’s friend Adam Mickiewicz was pounding in her ears: “For you the first step of your deliverance … is to know whether you are to be permitted to remain a virgin.” Like Mazzini an exile, Mickiewicz lived in Paris, banished from his Polish homeland by the Russian czar for revolutionary activities. At age fortyeight he was still strikingly handsome and of superb physique, his country’s national poet, and a popular hero as well.
It is difficult to understand why Mickiewicz’s letters have been overlooked as playing a decisive part in Margaret’s European adventure. Certainly she recognized this “real and important relation,” as she said. As for Mickiewicz, his sweeping appreciation of Margaret was in bold contrast to that of her niggardly New England colleagues: she was “the only woman to whom it has been given to touch what is decisive in the present world and to have a presentiment of the world of the future.” He continued by letter to urge her physical liberation.
Mazzini, constantly spied upon, was forced to change his plans and did not come to Paris—fortunately for the American conspirators. But Margaret was deeply disappointed. In early spring, 1847, she and the Springs left Paris, heading for Naples. On the way a serious mishap occurred: their English steamer was rammed and nearly sunk by a coastal ship. Quite cavalierly Margaret described it all for her Tribune readers, but in a letter to Emerson admitted the frightening truth: she had “only just escaped being drowned.”