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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Margaret Fuller (1810–1850)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
“MARGARET was one of the few persons who looked upon life as an art, and every person not merely as an artist, but as a work of art,” wrote Emerson. “She looked upon herself as a living statue, which should always stand on a polished pedestal, with right accessories, and under the most fitting lights. She would have been glad to have everybody so live and act. She was annoyed when they did not, and when they did not regard her from the point of view which alone did justice to her…. It is certain that her friends excused in her, because she had a right to it, a tone which they would have reckoned intolerable in any other.” In the coolest way she said to her friends:—
          “I take my natural position always: and the more I see, the more I feel that it is regal. Without throne, sceptre, or guards, still a queen…. In near eight years’ experience I have learned as much as others would in eighty, from my great talent at explanation…. But in truth I have not much to say; for since I have had leisure to look at myself, I find that so far from being an original genius, I have not yet learned to think to any depth; and that the utmost I have done in life has been to form my character to a certain consistency, cultivate my tastes, and learn to tell the truth with a little better grace than I did at first. When I look at my papers I feel as if I had never had a thought that was worthy the attention of any but myself; and ’tis only when on talking with people I find I tell them what they did not know, that my confidence at all returns…. A woman of tact and brilliancy, like me, has an undue advantage in conversation with men. They are astonished at our instincts. They do not see where we got our knowledge; and while they tramp on in their clumsy way, we wheel and fly, and dart hither and thither, and seize with ready eye all the weak points, like Saladin in the desert. It is quite another thing when we come to write, and without suggestion from another mind, to declare the positive amount of thought that is in us…. Then gentlemen are surprised that I write no better, because I talk so well. I have served a long apprenticeship to the one, none to the other. I shall write better, but never, I think, so well as I talk; for then I feel inspired…. For all the tides of life that flow within me, I am dumb and ineffectual when it comes to casting my thought into a form. No old one suits me. If I could invent one, it seems to me the pleasure of creation would make it possible for me to write. What shall I do, dear friend? I want force to be either a genius or a character. One should be either private or public. I love best to be a woman; but womanhood is at present too straitly bounded to give me scope. At hours, I live truly as a woman; at others, I should stifle.”
  1
  All these naïve confessions were made, it must be remembered, either in her journal, or in letters to her nearest friends, and without fear of misinterpretation.  2
  This complex, self-conscious, but able woman was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, in 1810, in the house of her father, Timothy Fuller, a lawyer. Her mother, it is reported, was a mild, self-effacing lover of flower-bulbs and gardens, of a character to supplement, and never combat, a husband who exercised all the domestic dictation which Puritan habits and the marital law encouraged.
          “He thought to gain time by bringing forward the intellect as early as possible,” wrote Margaret in her autobiographical sketch. “Thus I had tasks given me, as many and as various as the hours would allow, and on subjects beyond my age; with the additional disadvantage of reciting to him in the evening after he returned from his office. As he was subject to many interruptions, I was often kept up till very late, and as he was a severe teacher, both from his habits of mind and his ambition for me, my feelings were kept on the stretch till the recitations were over. Thus, frequently, I was sent to bed several hours too late, with nerves unnaturally stimulated. The consequence was a premature development of the brain that made me a ‘youthful prodigy’ by day, and by night a victim of spectral illusions, nightmare, and somnambulism, which at the time prevented the harmonious development of my bodily powers and checked my growth, while later they induced continual headache, weakness, and nervous affections of all kinds…. I was taught Latin and English grammar at the same time, and began to read Latin at six years old, after which, for some years, I read it daily…. Of the Greek language I knew only enough to feel that the sounds told the same story as the mythology; that the law of life in that land was beauty, as in Rome it was stern composure…. With these books I passed my days. The great amount of study exacted of me soon ceased to be a burden, and reading became a habit and a passion. The force of feeling which under other circumstances might have ripened thought, was turned to learn the thoughts of others.”
  3
  By the time she entered mature womanhood, Margaret had made herself acquainted with the masterpieces of German, French, and Italian literatures. It was later that she became familiar with the great literature of her own tongue. Her father died in 1835, and in 1836 she went to Boston to teach languages.
          “I still,” wrote Emerson (1851), “remember the first half-hour of Margaret’s conversation. She was then twenty-six years old. She had a face and a frame that would indicate fullness and tenacity of life. She was rather under the middle height; her complexion was fair, with strong, fair hair. She was then, as always, carefully and becomingly dressed, and of ladylike self-possession. For the rest, her appearance had nothing prepossessing. Her extreme plainness,—a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids,—the nasal tone of her voice,—all repelled; and I said to myself, ‘We shall never get far.’ It is to be said that Margaret made a disagreeable first impression on most persons, including those who became afterwards her best friends, to such an extreme that they did not wish to be in the same room with her. This was partly the effect of her manners, which expressed an overweening sense of power, and slight esteem of others, and partly the prejudice of her fame. She had a dangerous reputation for satire, in addition to her great scholarship. The men thought she carried too many guns, and the women did not like one who despised them.”
  4
  In 1839 Margaret began her famous “Conversations” in Boston, continuing these for five winters. “Their theory was not high-flown but eminently sensible,” writes Mr. Higginson, “being based expressly on the ground stated in her circular; that the chief disadvantage of women in regard to study was in not being called upon, like men, to reproduce in some way what they had learned. As a substitute for this she proposed to try the uses of conversation, to be conducted in a somewhat systematic way under efficient leadership.” In 1839 she published her translation of Eckermann’s ‘Conversations with Goethe,’ and in 1842 of the ‘Correspondence of Fräulein Günerode and Bettine von Arnim.’ The year 1839 had seen the full growth of New England transcendentalism, which was a reaction against Puritanism and a declaration in vague phrases of God in man and of the indwelling of the spirit in each soul,—an admixture of Platonism, Oriental pantheism, and the latest German idealism, with a reminiscence of the stoicism of Seneca and Epictetus. In 1840 The Dial was founded to be the expression of these ideas, with Margaret as editor and Emerson and George Ripley as aids. To this quarterly she gave two years of hard work and self-sacrifice.  5
  Another outcome of the transcendental movement, the community of Brook Farm, was to her, says Mr. Higginson, “simply an experiment which had enlisted some of her dearest friends; and later, she found [there] a sort of cloister for occasional withdrawal from her classes and her conversations. This was all: she was not a stockholder, nor a member, nor an advocate of the enterprise; and even ‘Miss Fuller’s cow,’ which Hawthorne tried so hard to milk, was a being as wholly imaginary as [Hawthorne’s] Zenobia.”  6
  Her ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century’ (1844) led Horace Greeley to offer her a place in the literary department of the New York Tribune. It is her praise that she was able to impart a purely literary interest to a daily journal, and to make its critical judgment authoritative. The best of her contributions to that journal were published, with articles from the Dial and other periodicals, under the title of ‘Papers on Art and Literature’ (1846).  7
  In that year she paid the visit to Europe of which she had dreamed and written; and her letters to her friends at home are now, perhaps, the most readable of her remains. Taking up her residence in Italy in 1847, and sympathizing passionately with Mazzini and his republican ideas, she met and married the Marquis Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. Her husband was seven years her junior, but his letters written while he was serving as a soldier at Rome, and she was absent with their baby in the country, reveal the ardor of his love for her. During the siege of Rome by the French, Mazzini put in her charge the hospital of the Trinity of the Pilgrims. “At the very moment when Lowell was satirizing her in his ‘Fables for Critics,’” says Mr. Higginson, “she was leading such a life as no American woman had led in this century before.” Her Southern nature and her longing for action and love had found expression. In May 1850 she sailed with her husband and son from Leghorn for America. But the vessel was wrecked off Fire Island within a day’s sail of home and friends, and, save the body of her child and a trunk of water-soaked papers, the sea swallowed up all remnants of the happiness of her later life.  8
  The position which Margaret Fuller held in the small world of letters about her is not explained by her writings. She seems to have possessed great personal magnetism. She was strong, she had intellectual grasp and poise, possibly at times she had the tact she so much admired, she had unusual knowledge, and above all a keen self-consciousness. Her nature was too Southern in its passions, just as it was too large in intellectual vigor, for the environment in which she was born. She was in fact stifled until she escaped from her egotism and self-consciousness, and from the pale New England life and movement, to find a larger existence in her Italian lover and husband, and their child. And then she died.  9
  The affectionate admiration which she aroused in her friends has found expression in three notable biographies: ‘Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli,’ by her brother; ‘Margaret Fuller Ossoli,’ by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (‘American Men of Letters Series’); and ‘Margaret Fuller (Marchesa Ossoli)’ by Julia Ward Howe (‘Eminent Women Series’).  10
 
 
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