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.
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.
The polite and well-bred were truly horrified at Miss Fuller’s brazenness. The book was met with jeers, derision, mockery. It was denounced as preposterous, hysterical, immoral. The first edition was sold out within a week. It became known abroad. “Margaret Fuller” was soon a household name— inspiring to some and revolting to others.
The book was filled with a series of shockers:
“There exists in the minds of men a tone of feeling toward women as toward slaves.”
“What Woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded.”
“[Men] think that nothing is so much to be dreaded for a woman as originality of thought or character.”
“Let it not be said, wherever there is energy or creative genius, ‘She has a masculine mind.’”
“Were [women) free, were they able fully to develop the strength and beauty of Woman, they would never wish to be men or manlike.”
“There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”
“Women are the best helpers of one another. Let them think, let them act.”
“We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.”
Horace Greeley, whose publishing firm had accepted Woman , had shrewdly foreseen the response. Already he had invited Margaret to come to New York as the first female member of the working press. Though he carped about Margaret’s statement that women should be sea captains if they wished, and refused to open doors for her, he gave her free rein. Her articles were to alternate between social and literary criticism. Since Boston intellectuals regarded New York as an uncultured, materialistic Babylon, the fact that Margaret--ignoring clucks from Emerson—accepted the job was considered little short of treason. She began work in December of 1844, soon scandalizing everyone by interviewing prostitutes in Sing Sing prison.
Margaret’s treason was magnified when she reviewed scathingly the works of New Englanders Longfellow and Lowell and dissected Emerson’s second series of essays and his poems as if working on a cadaver. She did not hesitate to be scalpel precise about Emerson: “We miss what we expect in the work of the great poet or the great philosopher,” she wrote about the essays. “Here is undoubtedly the man of ideas, but we want the ideal man also; want the heart and genius of human life to interpret it, and here our satisfaction is not so perfect.” Her criticism of his poetry was no less sharp: “His poems are mostly philosophical, which is not the truest kind of poetry. They want the simple force of nature and passion, and while they charm the ear and interest the mind, fail to wake far-off echoes in the heart.”
Already she had broken with Emerson spiritually, though they continued intermittent communication. Her reviews in effect were a public farewell. Eventually he was to have revenge.
‘Until Margaret Fuller immigrated to New York at the age of thirty-four, her major emotional involvement had been with Emerson, whose craggy face and lanky form she greatly admired. She called him “my Druid.” Her first adolescent crush had been her kinsman George T. Davis. When Davis married someone else, Margaret took to bed with a fever. Then Margaret, at eighteen, became infatuated with the fifteenyear-old beauty Anna Barker, kin of the Astors, sent from New York to Cambridge to acquire culture —a girl who in later years so titillated Emerson that he gushed about “that very human piece of divinity.” A decade later, thinking of Anna, Margaret wrote musingly in her journal, “It is so true that a woman may be in love with a woman and a man with a man.” After Anna came Samuel Gray Ward, called by Margaret her “Raffaello” because he was “so sensuous, so loving, and so lovely.” The dénouement was too painful: Sam Ward married Anna Barker, not Margaret. Thus finally Margaret turned toward Emerson, a married man with Margaret, in her way, rivalling Henry David Thoreau for the Sage of Concord’s affections.
Margaret’s “soul” relationship to Emerson came to a climax in the autumn of 1840, the time of the Ward-Barker wedding. Letters recently published for the first time have given a new dimension to this exchange, and it now appears that Margaret and Waldo were far more intimate than anyone had guessed. Emerson carefully filed his correspondence, but all of Margaret’s letters from this period disappeared—except one, and that one was a copy in Emerson’s own handwriting, suggesting that he may have preferred to delete some sections. These fragments reveal that Margaret’s emotions, though fever hot, were not caloric enough to melt the Emersonian glacier.
Toward the end of September, 1840, Emerson wrote that “certain crises must impend,” and “perhaps it [is] better to part now. Now in your last letter you … do say … that I am yours & yours shall be, let me dally how long soever in this or that other temporary relation.” Next day he entered in his journal, avoiding use of Margaret’s name: “You would have me love you? What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you.”
On the day of Emerson’s letter Margaret was writing to her closest woman friend, Caroline Sturgis (with whom Emerson also corresponded): “Of the mighty changes in my spiritual life I do not wish to speak, yet surely you cannot be ignorant of them.”
A few days later she wrote Waldo the letter he copied for his file: ”… If you ever know me well, you will feel that the fact of my abiding by you thus far, affords a strong proof that we are to be much to one another. How often have I left you despairing & forlorn. How often have I said, This light will never understand my fire. … Could I lead the highest angel captive by a look, that look I would not give, unless prompted by true love: I am no usurper. … To L. [Lidian, Mrs. Emerson] my love. In her I have always recognized the saintly element. … Yet I am no saint, no anything, but a great soul born to know all.”
A month later Margaret told Caroline in confidence: “I have just written a letter to our dear Waldo which gives me pain. … His call bids me return, I know not how, yet full of tender renunciation, know not how to refuse.” Emerson’s reply was unsparing: “I have your frank & noble & affecting letter, and yet I think I could wish it unwritten.”
From this point on, all was a downward spiral. Margaret’s assumption of the Dial editorship that same year increasingly consumed her energies. When, a year later, she was a houseguest at Emerson’s home in Concord, she and the Sage preferred to confront each other by letter from room to room, rather than face to face. Emerson’s small son, Waldo, was their courier. Balked by the impenetrable walls between them, Margaret wrote plaintively: “When I come to yourself, I cannot receive you, and you cannot give yourself; it does not profit.” And: “There is nothing I wish more than to be able to live with you, without disturbing you.”
Perhaps Margaret’s acceptance of Greeley’s Tribune offer in late 1844, in addition to her need to earn a living, was a gesture of defiance toward Emerson. In New York she was sufficiently free of “the Dear Wise One” to be able to search elsewhere for a soul mate. The likeliest prospect stemmed from the most unlikely quarter: a blue-eyed, blond German immigrant from Holstein, a businessman. James Nathan, whom she met at a literary soiree, was about her age, but from a family as orthodox in Judaism as hers was in Puritanism. He had two particular assets: a guitar, which he played with a romantic air, and an appealing dog named Josie.
Margaret had been invited by Mrs. Greeley to live at the Greeley farm on the outskirts of town. Aside from the fact that this location was difficult for a city suitor, Mr. Greeley did not much “take to” Nathan, and subterfuge became necessary. Margaret and Nathan were forced to meet in bookshops, tearooms, restaurants, and other public places, which retarded the development of intimacy.
Again Margaret resorted to the pen, composing a series of notes which are theatrical in comparison with her letters to Emerson, and fanciful in comparison with the love letters she was to write later in Italian. Evidently her inner eye seemed to be watching a play with a histrionic, grandly dramatic heroine. “I hear you with awe assert power over me and feel it to be true,” she wrote. “It causes awe, but not dread, such as I felt sometimes since at the approach of this mysterious power, for I feel deep confidence in my friend and know that he will lead me on in a spirit of holy love.…”
However, he did not. The “affair” lasted only a few months, until Nathan hurriedly departed for Germany, leaving his dog with Margaret. Only gradually did she realize she had been abandoned; the disillusionment was bitter. She demanded the return of her letters, or that they be burned. Nathan refused. The letters weighed heavily on Margaret, but their existence did not become public knowledge until 1903. Sold by Nathan’s son, they were published with an introduction by Julia Ward Howe and titled The Love Letters of Margaret Fuller . The more revealing Italian love letters remained almost totally unknown.
Psychically and physically exhausted, Margaret eagerly accepted the opportunity to go abroad as foreign correspondent for the Tribune . It was the old dream realized. Marcus and Rebecca Spring, wealthy Quaker friends, offered to pay Margaret’s fare if she would accompany them and tutor their twelve-year-old son, and Greeley offered to pay eight to twelve dollars per dispatch.
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.”
“ My Italy,” as Margaret exulted to Emerson, vital, sensuous Italy, was in 1847 divided into eight separate political states, with the temporal territories of the pope splitting the peninsula in half from sea to sea. Rome and the Papal States were ruled by the pope as a theocracy. The object of Mazzini’s crusade was to unite all Italy into a single republic. In reaction, every frontier post of every state had standing orders for his immediate arrest.
Into this stewing caldron Margaret leaped as a devoted Mazzinian, eventually to become in Rome a letter drop for Mazzini’s secret agents. She also bore introductions to various republicans, who were to help provide information for her Tribune dispatches. She began tepidly with a travelogue about Rome but quickly switched to politics, Holy Week, and Pope Pius ix. She questioned whether the newly elected pontiff would be able to fulfill his subjects’ aspirations for desperately needed reforms—and whether he was as liberal as he seemed. This warning proved her among the most astute political observers in Europe. Time and again she would anticipate Pius’s actions to an almost unbelievable degree.
But for Margaret, Holy Week had another and special significance. She had visited St. Peter’s with the Springs and separated from them to view various chapels. Somehow there was confusion about their rendezvous, and she found herself alone. She was approached by an obviously cultivated young man, handsome, with flowing hair, a mustache, and melancholy eyes. He asked if he could be of any help. Margaret explained her situation, and he offered to find a carozza —but no carriages were at hand. So he walked her to her lodgings. His name was Giovanni Angelo Ossoli.
He was, as it happened, eleven years her junior, the youngest son of a noble family important in the papal service. His mother had died when he was a child. His father was a high papal official; his three brothers served in the pope’s Guardia Nobile , and one brother was, in addition, a secretary of the Privy Chamber. He himself was a marchese—heir of the great lords of the castle of Pietraforte. He was also secretly a republican, an admirer of Mazzini. Until the past two years almost nothing has been known in America about Ossoli. As late as 1963, Professor Miller could write that Angelo “on somewhat vague premises claimed to be a Marquis.” Yet a superb Ossoli chapel, a symbol of the family’s nobility, stands in one of the oldest churches in Rome for anyone to see.
Margaret thought at once that she had found another soul mate. But Angelo proved to be less ethereal and more real—as Margaret discovered when they picnicked with cheese and wine in the Alban hills. Nevertheless, from Margaret’s letters it is evident that the relationship was still at this time platonic. Shortly, to her amazement, Angelo offered to marry her. She refused and left with the Springs for northern Italy.
Then the totally unexpected happened. Margaret parted with the Springs, and instead of resuming the homeward journey, as planned, hurried from Milan to Rome. Angelo, of course, was the magnet. Mickiewicz had written that she ought not to “leave your young Italian.” Angelo himself had predicted to Margaret: “You will return—to me.” Margaret said later, “I acted upon a strong impulse. … I neither rejoice nor grieve. I acted out my character.” She had written, “Woman is born for love, and it is impossible to turn her from seeking it.” How well she knew herself!
Angelo was not in any sense an intellectual like the metaphysical transcendentalists. His book learning was meager, but he had the cultural education of any young man of the aristocracy, as was attested by Margaret’s close friends in Rome, sculptor W. W. Story and his wife Emelyn. In no way was Angelo the “boor” that Hawthorne, who never met him, said he was. He was, curiously, anticlerical, but not antiCatholic. He opposed only the Church’s temporal power. Margaret found in him gentleness, sympathy, an intuitive understanding of her as a woman. He was able to provide the human warmth the Puritan moralists lacked. In short, she loved him, and unquestionably he loved her. He did not feel that the disparity in their ages was of any significance—though Margaret confided to a close friend that if someday he should love someone else, “I shall do all that this false state of society permits to give him what freedom he may need.”
Their affair was kept secret from everyone including, most especially, their families. Obliquely Margaret wrote to her mother: “I have not been so well since I was a child, nor so happy ever.” In December of 1847 Margaret discovered that she was pregnant, and suddenly a dark mood of despair overwhelmed her. “At present I see no way out except through the gate of death,” she wrote Caroline Sturgis, not yet confessing her condition. She continued to refuse Angelo’s offers of marriage. “The connection seemed so every way unfit,” she said. To Angelo such a marriage meant being disinherited, simply because Margaret was poor, Protestant, and radical. Indeed, until recently the Ossoli family took the view that Margaret ruined Angelo’s life.
For all her depression Margaret made no move toward abortion. When her girth could no longer be concealed, she sought a hiding place outside Rome, in the village of Rieti fifty miles distant. Since Angelo had volunteered as a sergeant in the popular “civic guard,” he could not leave the city; and the two carried on an intense correspondence in Italian. Not the least of their problems was the papal censor. Angelo often hid secret messages in newspapers he sent to Margaret and used cover names in his letters. In many of their letters the personal and political are so intermingled as to become inseparable.
“I received this morning your dear letter,” Angelo wrote. “The banker [a republican agent] sent a message that the documents didn’t come, because Mazzini had escaped from Milano. I am very disturbed at hearing that you had such a bad night … I hope that you will always be courageous. I will be waiting for a sign to come straight into your arms, before they deprive us of even this pleasure. … Meanwhile I salute you, and believe me am always yours.”
With the baby due in a fortnight, Margaret requested, “See if you can get details of Milano … I am terribly worried about our dear friends there [fighting against the Austrians]; how they must be suffering now! Also I am thinking much of you. I hope that you are less tormented. If we were together it would be a consolation, though everything is going badly now. But it’s impossible to continue so, always, always. Goodby my love. I am sorry that we must pass so many days until you come; but I am glad I have the small portrait, which I look at often. M. (I hug you.)”
The baby, a boy, was born with difficulty September 5, 1848, and given its father’s name and title, possible in Italy, then and now, even when the parents are not married. Angelo drew up a complex legal document in Latin on parchment. He was able to stay only one day, then rushed back to Rome. After several months the baby was placed in a foster home in Rieti, to Margaret’s great distress; then reluctantly she took the diligence to Rome. She wished to hide the baby in the city, but Angelo refused, for fear their secret might become known. They continued, unwillingly, to live apart.
Margaret returned on the eve of one of the most stirring revolutions in European history, a dramatic upsurge of the Italian Risorgimento. With finances exhausted, she resumed at once her dispatches to the Tribune . She resumed, too, the systematic collection of material for the monumental History of Italian Liberation she proposed to write.
For her literary task Margaret had extraordinary sources of information. From Angelo’s contacts she had access to the papal side; from Mazzini’s contacts, the republican side. In addition, she herself had made noteworthy friends among the Italians, particularly the Marchesa Costanza Arconati Visconti (of the famed and ancient Visconti family). They carried on an active correspondence. And, fortunately, Lewis Cass, Jr., the American chargé d’affaires to the papal court, formed a strong liking for her and passed on much inside information. To top things off, she had chosen, accidentally, an apartment overlooking the pope’s Quirinale Palace—so that she watched from her balcony some of the most dramatic scenes of the revolution.
One such scene occurred when the papal Swiss Guard fired on a crowd demonstrating for a constitution, civil rights, and redress of grievances. Inside the palace were Angelo’s brothers, serving in the papal elite guard. Outside were Angelo and the civic guard. The crowd reacted with bedlam, setting fire to the great portal of the palace. Margaret saw “the broken windows, the burnt doors, the walls marked by shot, just beneath the loggia on which we have seen [the pope] giving the benediction.”
A few days later Pius ix fled in the disguise of a simple priest, taking asylum with the Bourbon king of Naples, who also had a revolution on his hands. Events thereafter proceeded swiftly, with the entry of Mazzini and Garibaldi into Rome, the proclamation of a Roman Republic, and the advance of Bourbon, Spanish, Austrian, and French troops to destroy the Republic and restore the pope to his throne. Mazzini became chief of the Triumvirs governing the Republic and was in frequent contact with Margaret. (A number of his letters survive.) Garibaldi, whom Margaret had first seen while she was hiding in Rieti, became a leader in the defense of Rome—though alas for the Romans, not commander in chief.
The French army, sent by Louis Napoleon, was the first to arrive. The French soldiers were driven back and disorganized by Garibaldi but returned with reinforcements to besiege Rome. One of the defenders was Margaret’s Angelo, now promoted to captain, in charge of a battery of rusty cannon. During the siege, from April 30 to July 4, 1849, Margaret was director of a military hospital, watching every cartload of wounded for the dreaded sight of Angelo. The last night of the attack she spent on the walls with Angelo, expecting death for them both. Today a viale —a tree-lined street —within the walls is named for her.
Margaret’s dispatches to the Tribune were strictly factual. Nevertheless, in her editorial interpolations she called openly for United States recognition of the Roman Republic. In this she had the support of envoy Cass. But the State Department moved with such slowness that word of recognition did not arrive until a fortnight after the Republic’s fall.
Margaret’s partisanship for Mazzini did not blind her to the primary weakness in his revolutionary program—the lack of economic planning. With amazing insight for someone of her background, she commented: “Mazzini has a mind far in advance of his time in general, and his nation in particular. … And yet Mazzini sees not all: he aims at political emancipation; but he sees not, perhaps would deny, the bearing of some events which even now begin to work their way.... I allude to that of which the cry of Communism, the systems of Fourier, etc., are but forerunners.” Margaret may well have already been aware of the 1848 publication by Marx and Engels of The Communist Manifesto and of its implications.
In spite of her criticism, her portrayal of Mazzini throughout is warm and deeply sympathetic, as her portrait of Garibaldi (whom at first she feared as a guerrilla bandit) is one of respect and admiration. It would be difficult to find in American journalism more graphic and moving descriptions than her eyewitness account of the tattered Garibaldi legion as it prepared to retreat to the hills and fight on for Italian freedom; or of Mazzini as he wandered hollow-eyed about the streets after the French had entered Rome.
The final paragraph of Margaret’s last dispatch ended with a personal appeal: “O men and women of America, spared these frightful sights —acknowledge as the legitimate leaders and rulers, those men who represent the people. …”
Angelo Ossoli, like Mazzini, escaped from Rome with an American passport provided by Cass at Margaret’s request. Margaret and Angelo, both almost penniless, fled together to their child, hidden in Rieti. They found their “Nino” near death, emaciated by what was probably an intestinal infection. This added trauma very nearly threw Margaret into shock. She rallied and with Angelo’s devoted help slowly nursed the baby back to life.
Angelo’s father had died, and he was no longer on speaking terms with his brothers. He tried to recoup some of his inheritance but failed. Rieti, so close to Rome, was dangerous. In the autumn the dispirited revolutionaries moved on to Florence, where their American passports saved them from the Austrian police. There, according to a letter written in Italian by Angelo’s sister Angela, Margaret and Angelo were married. This letter is the only evidence extant, and only in 1969 was it published in English. Margaret in fact became the Marchesa Ossoli.
Horace Greeley, apparently paying heed to rumors of free love, dropped Margaret from his payroll. Though her financial situation steadily deteriorated, she settled down to write her History . Angelo settled down to learn English. He had no way to earn a living. As Margaret wrote to Caroline Sturgis, “Being a nobleman is a poor trade in a ruined despotism.”
Margaret revelled in her child, bathing, dressing, playing with him constantly, writing long letters to her friends about his graces. “Christmas day I wasjust up, and Nino all naked on his sofa, when came some beautiful large toys: a bird, a horse, a cat. … It almost made me cry to see the kind of fearful rapture with which he regarded them.”
In Florence they lived quietly; among their few friends were the Brownings. Margaret had introduced them to the American public but reviewed Miss Barrett less favorably than Mr. Browning. Miss Barrett, in retaliation, initially proclaimed Margaret’s situation scandalous and finally called her writings “naught.” Also, she was wary of Margaret politically, “she being one of the out and out Reds and scorners of grades of society.” Margaret, for her part, found Mrs. Browning “too gentle and faded at first sight to excite prospective feeling of any kind.”
If such a buzz of gossip had been provoked in Florence, then what of America? To Emelyn Story, Margaret wrote that she did not admit “the rights of the social inquisition in the United States to know all the details of my affairs … many persons there will blame whatever is peculiar.”
Everyone in the United States whom she had criticized or offended would be quick to condemn. Lowell already had mangled her in his Fable for Critics . Bishop John Hughes’s reply to her dispatches had been to organize mass rallies in New York supporting Pius ix. Her praise of abolitionists had annoyed moderates. And finally, certain judgments in her dispatches had alienated many patriots: “My country is at present spoiled by prosperity, stupid with the lust of gain, soiled by crime in its willing perpetuation of slavery, shamed by an unjust war [the Mexican War], noble sentiment much forgotten even by individuals, the aims of politicians selfish or petty, the literature frivolous and venal. In Europe ... a nobler spirit is struggling—a spirit which cheers and animates mine.”
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.
Emerson went further with his literary license. He revised Margaret’s sentences and substituted words, modifying her lava-hot style into a semblance of his own stiff, pontifical language. He changed places and dates. He shifted copy from one source to another. He blue-pencilled, deleted, scissored whole sections of letters and journals. Sometimes letters were copied and originals discarded. Scores of pages of secret diaries were ripped away. In the end some vital part of Margaret had been amputated, and Emerson rested content with the portrait he and his fellow editors had created. In essence, despite their stated kindliness, they distrusted her because she was a woman intellectual who dared acknowledge her sexuality.
Even so, for all their labors, traces of the real Margaret Fuller could not be suppressed: the wide-ranging freedom of her mind and outlook, for one thing; and for another, her true, womanly, passionate hunger for love. A statement that Margaret once made tauntingly to Emerson could serve as a fitting epitaph for both Dear Waldo and herself: “You are intellect, I am life!”