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“I Find No Intellect Comparable To My Own”

June 2024
18min read

Margaret Fuller very possibly spoke the truth, and the literary men of the age both admired and shied away from her

Margaret Fuller is usually remembered—if at all—because she is supposed to have told Thomas Carlyle in London, “I accept the universe.” The legend implies that she underwent a struggle to achieve this accommodation, and that the universe was to feel complimented. So posterity chuckles over Carlyle’s reputed comment, “By Gad, she’d better!” A more documented testimony to what many of her contemporaries sneered at as her “infinite me” is a remark she made at Emerson’s table: “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.” The heroine of such anecdotes is bound to seem to us a bit ludicrous, if not conceited, almost as much as she did to James Russell Lowell in the 1840’s. But the fact is that at Emerson’s table she was speaking the truth.

She was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, in 1810, to a father who, in a pattern of domesticity especially practiced in New England, dominated the family with dictatorial masculinity; and to a mild, sweet, self-effacing blank of a mother. Timothy Fuller was a lawyer; from 1817 to 1825 he was in Congress as a Jeffersonian—which made him something of an oddity in Boston society where Jefferson was still viewed with alarm. Timothy, the story goes, wanted a boy, and when Margaret came instead, he set himself to educate her as though she were a boy. Later he had sons, but he never so ferociously drilled them; in fact, they received most of their elementary education from Margaret. Defenders of Mr. Fuller argue that he did not torture Margaret unduly, that he imposed on her only the sort of training which any boy preparing for college was then subjected to, and that the only irregular fact about his discipline was its being administered, in that day and place, to a girl.

Even if this be so, such an exoneration of the father leaves out of account the passionate, nervous, highly charged, and pathetically impressionable nature of the daughter. She had to recite her lesson when he came home from the office at night; she did not get enough sleep and awoke again and again, shrieking out of nightmares of horses tramping her to death, of forests with the trees dripping blood. What Timothy required of her does seem excessive, even had it been demanded of a healthy boy who could study at decent intervals and have the relaxation of an afternoon’s game on the common. And then, of course, there was no college to which Margaret could go, even though she was thoroughly at home in history, the works of Thomas Jefferson, several languages, English literature, and mathematics. She knew more than the boys of her age, the sons of her family’s friends who went as a matter of easy course to Harvard and to the Divinity School. She more than kept pace with them by reading prodigiously-at a rate, said Emerson, comparable to Gibbon’s. By the time she was twenty she was fabulously erudite—and was wracked every day by migraine headaches of excruciating severity.

Timothy Fuller, a caustic and saturnine man, did not prosper in his profession. In 1833, a misguided effort at economy induced him to move the family to a farm in Groton. In terms of the transport facilities of that year, Margaret in Groton was condemned to as rustic an exile as an Ovid sentenced to the Euxine. She had no society beyond the young brothers she was teaching; she wrote reams of letters, read even more frantically, and nearly died of brain fever. At the crisis of that seizure, Timothy came to her, after due deliberation, and straightforwardly informed her that though she had defects, she did not have a single fault that he could find. Margaret suffered unspeakable disappointment as the family crisis prevented her accepting an invitation to travel in Europe; upon Timothy’s death in 1835 she had further to confront the information that he left virtually no money. Though publicly Margaret would speak of him with reverence, to her journals—which she kept voluminously—she told how she had walked alone in hours of childish passion “and called for a Father, often saying the word a hundred times, till stifled by sobs.” To these journals she confided long apostrophes to Goethe and Beethoven, calling herself their daughter.

For an impoverished New England spinster who in 1835, had even a smattering of learning, there was only the one legitimate opening—teaching school. But Margaret had more learning than any man in the area. Alter teaching for two years in a sort of experimental school in Providence (where she aroused among the girl students a fervent, not to say feverish, devotion), she took her life, or at least her reputation, in her hands by proposing to conduct in Boston, for money, a series of “Conversations” for such women as, in the Athens of America, cherished intellectual as well as social aspirations. Clad in homemade dresses which her neophytes thought to be of an Oriental sumptuousness, she led those resolute thinkers through long explorations of classical mythology and sustained probings of such questions as “What is Life?” Soon she was widely celebrated, in tones either of breathless adoration or raucous derision, as the “American Corinne.”

The heroine of Madame de Staël’s Corinne, or Italy, published in 1807, soon translated and read by every lady in England and America who had any pretensions to literary culture, is a beautiful, dark, sensuous chanter of poetic improvisations in Rome; at the end of the book she dies in exquisite and protracted pain for the love of a stolid English nobleman. Margaret was fully as erudite as that romantic creature was represented as being, and at the climaxes of her Conversations, when she had reduced the others to awed silence, she would close her eyes in an inspired trance and utter unfathomable words of occult wisdom. But there the analogy ended. Not only was she incapable of spontaneous verse and rhymes, but she was, alas! phenomenally homely. Her hair was not quite blond and was stringy and thin. Dr. Holmes, who along with Lowell spoke the opinion of the gentlemen of proper Boston, and who, as did all these, preferred his women to be ministering angels and not to read Kant and Goethe in the original, said that her abnormally long neck was “ophidian.” The little band of Harvard youths who adored her this side of idolatry (and also this side of the marriage proposal) make this most striking of her features no more alluring to us when they descant, as does Channing, upon “the singular pliancy of the vertebrae and muscles of her neck, enabling her by a mere movement to denote each varying emotion.” “In moments of tenderness, or pensive feeling,” the unwitting Channing disastrously continues, “its curves were swan-like, but when she was scornful or indignant, it contracted, and made swift turns like that of a bird of prey.” Add to this terrifying accomplishment her other mannerisms—”a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids,” said the candid Emerson, “the nasal tone of her voice”- and you understand why even those who loved her acknowledged that a first impression could be repelling, and why those who could not abide her saw in her only the comic Miranda of Lowell’s A Fable for Critics.

Her relation with this fellowship of Harvard intellectuals, all of them going on to the Divinity School and then to Unitarian or Independent pulpits from which they preached a Transcendental Christianity which professing Christians decried as more Transcendental than Christian, is a curious story. Probably anyone not a qualified psychiatrist ought not to meddle with it. She studied with them, exchanged her journals for a reading of theirs, and with them ventured far into what were then held to be the dangerous, the infidel and immoral, bogs of German romanticism. She boldly announced that she would write a life of Goethe, and would not shrink from treating his amours. As a consequence of these forbidden studies, Margaret became easily the peer of any in that confederation called the Transcendental movement, and so was the inevitable nominee, once they undertook to publish a magazine, to become in 1840 managing editor of The Dial.

However, all these youths married amiable, docile maidens. Just how much Margaret was in fact clutching at them for something other than mental companionship is hard to tell, either because they were too polite after her death to confess, or else because they were too utterly unsophisticated at the time to know what was going on. For one of them, Samuel Gray Ward, she apparently so failed to disguise her feelings that when he married the lovely blond Anna Barker, Emerson was obliged to skirt gingerly around the open secret: “Ah! my friend, you must be generous beyond even the strain of heroism to bear your part in this scene & resign without a sigh two Friends:—you whose heart unceasingly demands all, & is a sea that hates an ebb.”

Still, one fact is obvious, even from the fragmentary evidence that comes clown from the Transcendental circle: they all—but most of all Margaret—exalted the cult of “friendship,” both of the men with the women and of the women with the other women, to so rarefied a height that without having to indulge in what are commonly called affairs they could experience a range of the torments and fluctuations of passion that would challenge the analytical powers of a Marcel Proust. And it was Margaret who galloped at the most self-consuming rate through these intensified attachments.

Because Emerson is the central figure in the consociation her friendship with him has, naturally, been closely studied, by none more surgically than by Emerson himself when he joined with William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke to edit her Memoirs in 1852. By then, in retrospect, he could put it: “When I found she lived at a rate so much faster than mine, which was violent compared with mine, I forboded rash and painful crises, and had a feeling as if a voice cried, Stand from under!” Contemporaneous documents demonstrate that only by the most nimble skill did Emerson manage to stand from under, that on several occasions he was sucked, if not exactly into, then to the brink of, the maelstrom of her devouring hunger for both affection and domination. They worked together in businesslike partnership on The Dial (the strain became too great for her at the end of 1842 and he took over the editing, though she continued to expend time and energy on the magazine), yet every once in a while their emotions would slip out of control. He would write her what in any other land except New England would be called a love letter, and she would berate him in barely concealed rage as he would retreat into his impenetrable “egotism.” She interrupted the factual correspondence to tell him that he was hers and hers he would continue to be. Emerson took again to flight: “O divine mermaid or usher of men,” he answered, “you & I are not inhabitants of one thought of the Divine Mind, but of two thoughts.” They met, he informed her, as ambassadors of foreign states, she maritime, he inland. “I find or fancy in your theory a certain wilfulness and not pure acquiescence which seems to me the only authentic mode.” He may have supposed that he was thus putting their relation on a sale basis: to one who listens for emotional undertones, he seems to be cleverly encouraging the flirtation. At any rate, she would turn on him with devastating frankness, telling him that he failed her “when my soul, in its childish agony of prayer, stretched out arms to you as a father.” We may suspect that she was trying to lash him into reaction when she tells him, “You are not the friend I seek.” Still, she struggled hard not to give him up: “But a beautilul foe, I am not yet, to you. Shall I ever be? I know not.”

It all makes for a curious Yankee melodrama, wherein one suspects that they were toying with temptations they were both too virginal to recognize. On the other hand, they, like all the Transcendental group, stood for freedom—Emerson wanted The Dial to scare the bantlings of “Conformity”—and they may have dallied with these phrases in order to get a peep into regions where a Madame de Staël or a George Sand freely cavorted. But there comes a point, even in New England, when escapades that lead to nothing cease to yield any satisfactions whatsoever. Margaret reached that point in the autumn of 1844 and broke out of the mesh by an action which her New England associates could regard only as blackest treason: she went to New York.


One is tempted to imagine what Margaret Fuller might have become, say at the age of seventy, had she stayed in Boston. Would she, like Elizabeth Peabody, her only rival in the Transcendental Club, have ended up a dowdy eccentric, accepted at last by the community as harmless and even rather beloved as a local monument? We shall never know, for she not only removed to New York, but in that Babylon was the first female in America to join the working press. She wrote reviews and other columns for Horace Greeley’s Tribune. Boston regarded New York as a brawling, vulgar conglomeration, not worthy of being called a city except insofar as a few strayed New Englanders, notably William Cullen Bryant, kept alive a faint flicker of culture. Women of anything like Margaret’s distinction of mind could not be imagined as going there of their own free choice; for her to soil her hands with the ink of a Gotham newspaper was downright shocking. But for her to publish in that paper on August 1, 1846, a farewell to the city in which she brazenly reported that twenty months within it “have presented me with a richer and more varied exercise for thought and life, than twenty years could in any other part of these United States"—well, neither proper Boston nor Transcendental Concord could condone conduct so unbecoming her sex. Few in either locality bethought themselves that her journalism in the Tribune, an employment which Emerson said “is not satisfactory to me,” was literary criticism of a maturity that nothing else in the country, except perhaps some pieces by Edgar Poe, could equal. They were the less likely to think this because they held Poe’s critical efforts to be beneath contempt.


For the fact of the matter is that, amid these emotional whirls, despite the paralyzing headaches, Margaret did write. Her essay on Goethe in the second volume of The Dial veers from fascination to moral repulsion and back to absolute surrender, but for all its incoherence it is the best thing written on Goethe in the America of her era, infinitely more perceptive and vibrating than Emerson’s pontifical pronouncement in Representative Men. Once in New York, she flung herself headlong into the cause of “National Literature,” calling upon the country to produce a genius “as wide and full as our rivers, flowery, luxuriant and impassioned as our vast prairies, rooted in strength as the rocks on which the Puritan fathers landed.” Although in 1837 “The American Scholar” had summoned the sluggard intellect of the nation to awake, nevertheless Emerson found this strident New York nationalism in bad taste. And when Margaret declared Longfellow wanting the free breath of nature and called his culture “superficial,” then Lowell and Dr. Holmes, who by this time had become enemies of all literary patriotism, could write her off as a total loss to barbarism.

Today, Margaret’s essays are considerably faded. However massive her erudition, her mind was undisciplined, and her style as verbose as her emotions were chaotic. Still, they are remarkable achievements. However, what gave her fame, or notoriety, was a book that grew out of a piece in The Dial (where it was entitled “The Great Lawsuit—Man vs. Men; Woman vs. Women”), now called Woman in the Nineteenth Century and printed by Horace Greeley in 1845. Usually this is set down as an uncommonly vociferous plea for women’s rights. At conventions of suffragettes later in the century Margaret was invoked as a saint and a martyr. Actually, the book is pitched on so lofty, what to modern taste must appear so hysterical, a level that it can hardly stoop to argue the mundane business of the ballot. Its repetitious manifesto is: “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.” But if, in her shrill intoxication over “the lyrical or electrical element” in her sex, she seemed to the orthodox opinion of the country to threaten the sacred institution of matrimony, masculine America could brush her aside with a guffaw when she shouted: “I do not care what case you put; let them be seacaptains, if you will.” This was too much even for a radical Greeley; when she lived in his house he would refuse to open doors for her, quoting the sea captain sentence. It is recorded that Margaret did not appreciate the joke. We may remark in passing what was certainly a sad deficiency in her: though she could be wryly gay about her distresses and her pains, she seems to have had absolutely no sense of humor.

Thanks to the stir about the book, Margaret went abroad in 1846 as a personage. She met as an equal the best minds of Europe—Carlyle, the Brownings, Walter Savage Landor, H. F. R. de Lamennais. In Paris she was welcomed by George Sand with a wide embrace and a “C’est vous,” to which Margaret, escaped from Boston, responded, “Il me fait de bien de vous voir.” As this was a time when American males of good breeding did not utter the name of George Sand in the presence of ladies, they could conclude that this interchange only proved to what depths of depravity the reading of Goethe would lead a girl. But Margaret could write—in the dispatches she sent to Greeley, which make her our first woman foreign correspondent and which remain today as good reporting as any in American journalism—that George Sand needed no defense, “but only to be understood, for she has bravely acted out her nature, and always with good intentions.”

Then Margaret Fuller acted out her nature, and with the best of intentions, by going to Italy. Ultimately her friends could see that she was predestined to meet her fate in Italy. In New England, Emerson explained to Carlyle, she was an exotic, “a foreigner from some more sultry and expansive climate.” Bronson Alcott, incompetent about worldly affairs but always astute about persons, moralized that “she was a citizen and a socialist, by virtue of constitution, or by womanhood; and here in this particular, she was less American than Greek.” In 1849, during the siege of Rome, through the death struggle of the Republic, she worked with Mazzini, whom she had met in London and immediately admired. Emerson, in the security of Concord and quite incapable of conceiving the ordeal to which Margaret was submitting herself, lamented grandly that the Roman Revolution was producing no great man; he must have been at least jolted when he received her angered reply: “Mazzini is a great man. … I dearly love Mazzini.” She labored in the hospitals, day and night, with a gallantry equal to that of Garibaldi. By itself, this service was enough to make her a heroine; but her friends were still more astounded when, after the Republic was stifled, they found that in the midst of this turmoil she had acquired a husband—at least she said they were married—one Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, who had some vague claim to being a marquis. So Margaret Fuller, the formidable Sibyl of Boston, was returning to America in July of 1850 as a marchioness, or at least as Madame Ossoli.

The incomprehensible component in the strange drama is this Ossoli. Those closest to her in Italy could never account for the union; at this distance we can hardly solve the puzzle by amateur psychologizing. Nevertheless, it intrigues our curiosity. Ten years younger than she, he was anything but an intellectual. In every particular he would seem to be the complete opposite of the young men of Harvard she had known in her youth. Tender, smiling, courteous, very much at ease, he was clearly devoted to his angular and ailing wife, and would “with knightly zeal” take her parasol to be mended. Not that her friends were ever able to study him closely: when they came, ostensibly to talk metaphysics with her, he went quietly down to the corner café. All they could attest was that he fought bravely at Rome—unless they added that he was at least a man, for he begot upon Margaret a male child, born in secrecy amid miserable hardships in the hill town of Rieti. Belatedly the harrowing story was revealed: Margaret had done her strenuous work under fire while her husband stood in daily peril of death and while she herself was cut off from all communication with her baby. Only after it was all over might Emerson even begin to measure the depth of the distress out of which she wrote him from Rome, “Let me feel, that, amid the fearful agitations of the world, there are pure hands, with healthful, even pulse, stretched out toward me, if I claim their grasp.” In fact, we do not know whether the heart that beat with this healthful, even pulse ever did comprehend.

With the Republic suppressed and the Austrians again masters of Tuscany, there was no longer any place in Italy for a revolutionary Margaret. She had lamented upon first reaching Rome, “A little money would have enabled me to come here long ago, and find those that belong to me, or at least to try my experiments; then my health would never have sunk, nor the best years of my life been wasted in useless friction.” Now she had found those who belonged to her, a baby and her enigma of a husband; but there was even less money. Could she try her experiments in America? “I have a vague expectation of some crisis,” she wrote her mother. “My life proceeds as regularly as the fates of a Greek tragedy, and I can but accept the pages as they turn.” She, Ossoli, and the child took passage on the bark Elizabeth; two days away from New York, on July 19, 1850, the vessel went ashore on the rocks of Fire Island. Some of the passengers and crew managed to get ashore. Margaret and Ossoli clung for twelve mortal hours to the disintegrating forecastle; at the last moment the steward tried to make the beach with Angelino, the baby, but both were washed up dead. The disaster was reported in all American newspapers, with long obituaries upon Margaret Fuller.

Word that she was on her way had preceded the Elizabeth. The “timorous,” Emerson noted, were asking, “What shall we do? How shall she be received, now that she brings a husband and child home?” The foundering of the Elizabeth transferred the answer to the realm of speculation. Emerson’s indomitable optimism assured him that she “had only to open her mouth and a triumphant success awaited her.” Margaret had insights into the society of 1850 that her Olympian friend often did not appreciate: she said she knew “enough of the United States to be sure that many persons there will blame whatever is peculiar.” Would those pure hands have been stretched out to her? If our imagination is challenged to picture what Margaret Fuller would have been like had she remained in Boston, it is positively staggered at trying to conceive what would have been the career of the Marchioness Ossoli in America. The wreck of the Elizabeth deprived the cultural history of this country of what would surely have been an exciting chapter. Considering the limits then imposed upon social tolerance, perhaps it is as well that we forwent the experience.


After making his contribution to the Memoirs in 1852, Emerson seldom refers to Margaret in journals or letters, and on those few occasions speaks mechanically of her as noble. In 1884 Julian Hawthorne published a portion of his father’s Italian Notebooks which his mother had tactfully left out of her edition. Nathaniel Hawthorne encountered a sculptor in Rome who claimed to have known Ossoli, who asserted that he was handsome but half an idiot and a boor. Thus reminded of Margaret, Hawthorne exploded with what appears to be long-suppressed rancor: Margaret Fuller was a humbug, “a strong and coarse nature,” who tried every way to refine herself, to make something dazzling out of “her strong, heavy, unpliable, and, in many respects, defective and evil nature.” He took a fiendish delight in supposing that for the basest of sensual motives she fell “as the weakest of her sisters might,” and a sardonic satisfaction in concluding that her tragedy was the more melancholy “because so much of the ridiculous was mixed up with it.”

Some who still remembered her were angered, and Christopher Cranch declared that young Hawthorne “has his quietus, for he sees that public opinion is against him.” But by 1884, there was not much opinion left that could be aroused about Margaret. The adulation of the feminists had not helped her reputation. Neither did it aid her cause that Bronson Alcott should continue to speak glowingly of her—"We have had no woman approaching so near our conception of the ideal as woman herself"—since he added as proof of her ideality that she more than anybody sympathized with his own “drift and purposes.” The turgidity, the dithyrambic prolixity of her writings, quickly came to seem, to the few who looked at them, embarrassing.

Yet her specter haunted all who knew her, and many who did not. Henry James, born in New York in 1843, stood beside his father on a Hudson River excursion boat and heard Washington Irving tell that Margaret Fuller had been drowned the day before. Even at the age of seven this small boy was resolved to be one on whom nothing is lost, and he knew, if nobody else did, that a heroine had gone to a heroic death. He did not belong, he was always to insist, to the “Boston connection,” yet the “Margaret-ghost” was more present to him than to any of them. Fifty-two years later, as he was executing a commission to edit William Wetmore Story and His Friends, James came face to face with the ghost. The Storys had befriended her in Italy, and to them she seemed the incarnation of “cosmopolitanism.” Had she not been so prematurely cut off, James asked, would she have represented that quality to a younger generation? James agreed with Emerson about her writings: they were “naught.” But the figure, the legend, the ghost? Would she, James asked, “with her appetite for ideas and her genius for conversation, have struck us but as a somewhat formidable bore, one of the worst kind, a culture-seeker without a sense of proportion, or, on the contrary, have affected us as a really attacking, a possibly picturesque New England Corinne?”

James’ all-retaining memory held the sense of how the name of Madame de Staël’s heroine stood for Margaret’s generation as the supreme symbol of female genius. By the time James asked the question few persons, even those of some literary cultivation, would grasp the point of his reference. In recent years, as a part of the extensive rediscovery of the American past that characterizes the present, there have been several attempts to bring the Margaret-ghost to life and even some reprintings of her essays or segments of Woman. These endeavors have not been anywhere near so successful as, let us say, those devoted to the resurrection of Herman Melville. The temptation to make Margaret a great liberal, a champion for the splendid proposition that women have a right to possess and use intelligence, and to shed tears over her untimely death, is too often offset by the suspicion that Nathaniel Hawthorne was in some degree correct when he said that much of the ridiculous was mixed up with her tragedy. The long neck, the nearsighted arrogance, those qualities which put her in the galerie of the bluestockings of that age, like them (in James’ phrase) “glossily ringletted and monumentally breastpinned,” prevent us from erecting memorials. It may be, in the end of all, that what she most means for the spiritual history of America is precisely that she poses Henry James’ query but does not answer it, thereby thrusting certain responsibilities upon us.

In which case, it is just possible that she came to some such understanding of her own self. There was no joy in her heart, only dire foreboding, as she was returning to her native land. She, the best mind in America (in her own estimation), had capitulated to marriage and motherhood, wherefore the males were gloating and sneering. That she herself ever wanted any other resolution may, however, be argued from the obvious manifestations of her sexuality, even from her most perfervid feminist utterances. No reader of her journals—of those portions which the three Transcendental worthies allow us to read—can help perceiving, even from these carefully edited fragments, how she hungered for love. She found it, we must suppose, in Ossoli. With him and the son she bore him she was about to dare America to answer the question of what it would or could make of her. There is evidence that while the Elizabeth was breaking up she could have been rescued had she been willing to exert herself. Within sight of America, Margaret Fuller chose to perish with her husband and her child.

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