- Historic Sites
Humanity, Said Edgar Allan Poe, Is Divided Into Men, Women, And Margaret Fuller
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Increasingly it became evident that Ossoli, because of shrinking finances and more restive secret police, must leave Florence. So Margaret determined to take her husband, her child, and her manuscript to face the rigors of home. They chose the cheapest passage they could find—a merchant sailing ship, the Elizabeth . In mid-May, 1850, they embarked from Livorno. Margaret passed her fortieth birthday aboard ship, without celebration. Angelo was only twenty-nine.
A fortnight after sailing, as they reached Gibraltar, the captain died of smallpox. A week of quarantine, and the ship sailed on again, under command of the first mate. A few days later, little Nino developed smallpox. He did not die; Margaret, as before, nursed him back to life. On the eighteenth of July the first mate informed the passengers they would arrive in New York the following day. Margaret rejoiced and selected Nine’s landing clothes. That evening the wind freshened, becoming a gale by midnight. The first mate, thinking they were off New Jersey, held course with close-reefed sails. In fact, they were off Long Island.
At 4 A.M. the Elizabeth struck a Fire Island sand bar. Through dawn and all morning the passengers and crew huddled in the forecastle while the ship gradually broke up from the relentless force of the waves and wind. The lifeboats had been smashed, and Margaret gave the only available life preserver to a sailor who went overboard to summon aid. Through the spray and rolling surf human figures could be seen on the beach; but they were beach pirates, waiting to pillage the wreck, and no help came. Toward midday the first mate abandoned ship with a wooden plank. “Save yourselves !” he shouted.
Margaret, with long dishevelled hair and still wearing her white nightgown, clung to her child and husband. She refused to make any attempt toward land without them both. She was last seen near the foremast just before a great wave struck.
Shortly before they sailed, Margaret had written that her life proceeded like a Greek tragedy—"I can but accept all the pages as they turn.”
Of the three of them only the baby’s body, cast up on the beach, was ever found.
Margaret’s death was a public sensation, and an official investigation of the wreck was launched. From the New England group of Margaret’s old friends, it was Thoreau, not Emerson, who rushed to Fire Island to seek in the sands any trace of Margaret’s manuscript on the Roman Revolution. Nothing was discovered except a trunk containing Margaret’s and Angelo’s love letters and a few documents in Italian.
Even after her death, Margaret’s psychic conflict with Emerson continued. Bleakly he noted in his journal, “I have lost in her my audience.” He had repeatedly urged her to return to Concord; and when he was in Britain lecturing, he begged her to sail with him on the same ship. At the time Margaret received this letter she was in hiding and big with child. When news of Margaret’s son and husband reached Concord, Emerson was gravely disturbed; he felt Ossoli had “taken her away” from him. Abruptly he changed his position. When Margaret asked advice on marketing her manuscript, he counselled her to remain in Italy while he acted as her agent. “It is certainly an unexpected side for me to support,—the advantages of your absenteeism,” he wrote.
From their earliest meeting, Margaret had provoked him, saying such things as, “Your prudence, my wise friend, allows too little room for the mysterious whisperings of life.” She called him “the cold stone.” He replied defensively that she was like the “crackling of thorns under a pot.” When, shortly after her death, he assumed—for whatever private reasons—the chief responsibility for assembling her memoirs, he confessed that Margaret “remained inscrutable to me.”
He did not hesitate, however, to include remarks that he attributed to Margaret, attested to by no one but himself, which helped establish the false image of her overweening egotism, her “rather mountainous ME,” as he described it. One such has passed into the history books: “She said to her friends, ‘I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.’” In the copy of the Memoirs owned originally by Margaret’s first love, George T. Davis, pencilled beside this quotation of Emerson’s is the phrase “Sublime bosh!”
Another example of his doctoring : Emerson stated in the Memoirs that Margaret’s famous passage describing Mazzini was written to him“You say, do I not wish Italy had a great man. Mazzini is a great man: in mind a great poetic statesman, in heart a lover, in action decisive and full of resources as Caesar. Dearly I love Mazzini, who also loves me.” This paragraph in fact was not addressed to Emerson at all, but to Caroline Sturgis. Emerson deleted it from Caroline’s letter and attached it to one addressed to him.