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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Margaret Fuller (1810-1850)

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

Margaret Fuller Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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