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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Spirit of Nationalism Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)

[7129] Anonymous, Margaret Fuller (1840), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-47039].

Margaret Fuller ranked among the most celebrated public intellectuals in her own day, an accomplishment that is especially remarkable given the social strictures and limitations women faced in the early nineteenth century. The foundation of her extraordinary career can be traced to the rigorous education she received from her father: under his tutelage she sometimes put in eighteen-hour days reading literary and philosophical texts in four languages. As her account of her early life in the “Autobiographical Romance” makes clear, Fuller developed into a prodigy but suffered emotionally in the absence of a normal childhood.

By her early twenties, Fuller had become integrally involved in the Transcendentalist movement, forming lasting intellectual and emotional relationships with men like Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and, most importantly, Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was also involved in Brook Farm and can be found not too far below the surface of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance. At Emerson’s urging, she served as the editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial during its first two years of publication, overseeing submissions and sometimes writing the majority of its content herself. Because The Dial did not make money, Fuller supported herself during this time by leading “Conversations” for an elite group of educated Boston women. Fuller, frustrated that women were “not taught to think,” designed her Conversations as discussion groups to encourage women to probe difficult questions and systematize their thinking in a supportive atmosphere. Fuller’s charisma and her ability to draw out her students made the Conversations an enormous success.

The Conversations helped Fuller clarify her feminist ideas about the need to reform women’s education and social status. In 1843, she articulated these ideas in a powerful essay for The Dial entitled “The Great Lawsuit: MAN versus MEN, WOMAN versus WOMEN.” Arguing that women should be afforded the freedom “as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely,” Fuller asserted that neither sex should be circumscribed by rigid boundaries or social expectations. She later expanded and revised the essay into the book-length study Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). The book was Fuller’s most important and influential work, and, despite its unorthodox subject matter, it sold out its first edition.

In 1844, Fuller published her first travel account, Summer on the Lakes, a collection of essays about a trip to the Midwest. The book attracted the attention of Horace Greeley, who promptly hired Fuller as a paid columnist and literary critic for his newspaper, The New York Daily Tribune. Fuller spent two years living in New York, where she wrote nearly 250 reviews and essays for the newspaper. She produced astute critiques of literature and art, as well as reports on social issues such as poverty, prostitution, prison conditions, abolition, and the treatment of the insane. Fuller’s growing interest in exposing contemporary social problems and suggesting practical, institutional reforms separated her from many members of the Transcendentalists, who tended to focus most of their energy on abstract theories or personal experience.

Fuller carried her interest in reform to Europe in 1846, when the Tribune sent her there as one of America’s first foreign correspondents. Traveling through England, France, and Italy, Fuller met important writers, artists, philosophers and politicians of the day and sent her impressions back in her reports for the Tribune. She was deeply moved by Giuseppe Mazzini, the exiled Italian revolutionary who was working to unite his country under a republican government, and she traveled to Italy to report first-hand on the political instability in Rome. While in Italy, Fuller became romantically involved with Giovanni Ossoli, a Roman aristocrat much younger than herself. She gave birth to their son in 1848 while keeping their relationship secret from her friends and family. In the midst of this personal turmoil, Fuller managed to write regular reports of the Italian revolution for the Tribune, urging Americans to embrace the cause of Italian nationhood. She also became actively involved in the revolution, serving as a nurse during the siege of Rome. After the failure of the revolution, Fuller and Ossoli found their political and financial situation in Italy untenable and departed by ship for America with their infant son. Tragically, their ship foundered off the coast of Fire Island, New York. The entire family drowned.

The romantic story of Fuller’s life and the accounts of her personal magnetism have tended to overshadow the importance of her written work. Generations of biographers, historians, and literary critics have frequently claimed that Fuller’s dynamic personality and extraordinary experiences merit more interest than any of the texts she composed. Only recently have scholars begun to appreciate the stylistic sophistication and forward-thinking reformist agendas in her writing.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask students to consider why Fuller would have titled her essay “The Great Lawsuit.” What kind of case is she pleading? Who are the principals involved in the “suit”? You might have the class read the first footnote to this essay in The Norton Anthology of American Literature to gain insight into what Fuller intended with the title. Ask your students whether they think they could stage this lawsuit as a mock court case. How might one try this case? Would it benefit from being performed? What would have to be changed or omitted from Fuller’s original text?
  • Fuller was famous for her ability as a speaker and an interlocutor, a skill she marketed in the popular “Conversations” she ran for women in Boston. A student recalled her talent for facilitating discussion: “Whatever was said, Margaret knew how to seize the good meaning of it with hospitality, and to make the speaker feel glad, and not sorry, that she had spoken.” Eventually the Conversations attracted so much attention that Fuller admitted men to the group. According to all in attendance, however, the inclusion of men disrupted the informal, hospitable atmosphere of the Conversations. As Emerson put it, the men apparently felt that they “must assert and dogmatize,” and their more formal style of rhetorical debate silenced many of the female participants. After you provide students with this background information, ask them to think about Fuller’s style of composition and argumentation in “The Great Lawsuit.” How does she go about persuading readers to share her views? What kind of resolution does she seem to expect for her “lawsuit”? How does Fuller’s model of argumentation differ from the masculine tradition that Emerson characterized as “asserting and dogmatizing”?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How does Fuller describe her relationship with her father in her “Autobiographical Romance”? How does she feel about the rigorous education she received?
  2. Context: In Chapter 1 of Summer on the Lakes (included in the archive), Fuller describes her experience at Niagara Falls, a popular tourist destination in the nineteenth century. How does her initial emotional response to the Falls–“I felt nothing but a quiet satisfaction … everything looked as I thought it would”–relate to contemporary cultural ideals of the “sublime”? What kinds of expectations mediate her experience of the Falls? Why does she envy the “first discoverers of Niagara”? Does she ever come to feel the “sublimity” that she hoped to find in the scene? How?
  3. Context: “The Great Lawsuit” echoes and builds on many of the ideas and values first articulated in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. How does Fuller’s essay compare to some of Emerson’s essays which also call for social and intellectual change among Americans (“The American Scholar” or “Self-Reliance,” for example)? What ideals does Fuller have in common with Emerson? How is Emerson invoked in Fuller’s writing style? How does Fuller extend Transcendentalist ideals in her discussion of the role of women in American society?
  4. Exploration: How does Fuller’s “Autobiographical Romance” relate to earlier traditions of American autobiography, such as Benjamin Franklin’s or Frederick Douglass’s narratives of their own lives? Does Fuller describe her development as a process of self-making in the same way that Franklin and Douglass do? How does her attitude toward literacy and education compare to Franklin’s and Douglass’s?
  5. Exploration: George P. Landow, professor of English and art history at Brown University, argues that the sublime is “an aesthetic of power.” For Landow, “the spectator of natural sublimity always experiences a situation of being overpowered by the size or energy of the sublime phenomenon, an endless desert, majestic mountain, raging ocean, or thundering waterfall: In the terms of descriptions of proper gender relations of the period, the enjoyer of the sublime, who is often described as being “ravished’ by the experience, takes an essentially feminine role. Under the influence of Edmund Burke who contrasted the bracing sublimity of masculine power to the relaxing effects of feminine beauty, sublimity became an explicitly gendered aesthetic category. Nonetheless, both men and women experienced it in the same way.” Test Professor Landow’s argument that men and women experience the sublime in the same way by comparing Fuller’s experience of Niagara Falls in the first chapter of Summer on the Lakes with that of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s male narrator in “My Visit to Niagara.”

Selected Archive Items

[7129Anonymous, Margaret Fuller (1840),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-47039].
Fuller was an extremely influential nineteenth-century thinker and writer. She was the first female overseas news correspondent and covered such major events as the Italian revolution.

[9022Nathaniel Hawthorne, My Visit to Niagara (1835),
courtesy of the New-England Magazine.
Hawthorne published this sketch anonymously in the New-England Magazine; it shows the nineteenth-century fascination with Niagara Falls.

[9026George Barker, Niagara Falls, N.Y., Close-Up View from Below (1886),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-97270].
Nineteenth-century photograph of the popular tourist attraction Niagara Falls. Fuller and others commented on the sublimity of the falls.

[9038Margaret Fuller, Chapter 1 of Summer on the Lakes (1844),
courtesy of the University of Washington.
In this chapter from Summer on the Lakes, Fuller describes visiting Niagara Falls. After the book’s publication, Horace Greeley hired Fuller as a columnist and critic for The New York Daily Tribune.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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