Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Margaret Fuller: American Journalist, Transcendentalist, Feminist

Sarah Margaret Fuller (born 23 May 1810)

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Margaret Fuller was given a rigorous education by her father, a politician and lawyer. Unlike many men of his time, Timothy Fuller trained his daughter as he would a son--though Fuller would later blame her father's demands and expectations for her "nervous affections," the nightmares, sleepwalking, migraines, and depression that plagued her throughout her life.

An 1846 daguerrotype of
Margaret Fuller
After her father was elected to the U.S. Congress, Fuller attended a series of schools to continue her education, including the Port School in Cambridgeport (1819), the Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies (1821-22), and the School for Young Ladies in Groton (1824-26), but at the age of sixteen she returned home to continue her education on her own in a course of study she outlined for herself--she read widely, focused on teaching herself modern languages, and continued the study of the classics her father had begun.

Two crucial events occurred in 1835: Fuller's father died, and she made the acquaintance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The family's dire financial circumstances after Timothy Fuller's death led to Margaret Fuller's first career, as a teacher. She took up a position at Bronson Alcott's Temple School, Boston (1836-37), then at the Green Street School, in Providence, Rhode Island (1837-39). 

Back in Boston, Fuller then launched a series of "conversations" for women at the noted educator Elizabeth Peabody's West Street bookshop. These conversations were by subscription--the first of them was held on 6 November 1839, the last in 1844. These were a series of discussions, organized and conducted by Fuller, on literature, education, religion, and art, all of which aimed at improving women's lives and allowing them a greater participation in the exchange of ideas, opinions, and views. They also raised the "great questions" facing women: What are we born to do? What are we capable of doing? In Boston she joined the Transcendentalist movement, which included among its notable members Elizabeth Peabody and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Fuller also began her career in journalism, editing the Transcendentalist literary and philosophical journal, The Dial, from 1840 to 1842. In 1843, The Dial published her essay "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men, Woman versus Women," one of the first great feminist texts by an American writer.

In 1844, she moved to New York to write for Horace Greeley's New-York Daily Tribune. She also produced a travel diary, Summer on the Lake, recording her travels in the Great Lakes and Wisconsin territories.

Expanding on "The Great Lawsuit," she published Woman in the Nineteenth Century, now her most well known work, in 1845. In this extraordinary extended essay, Fuller urges women to educate themselves in order to gain a measure of independence outside the domestic sphere. She also argues for women's equality, analyzes the institution of marriage, and advocates for a reform of property laws.

In 1846, Fuller left the United States for Europe, traveling as a foreign correspondent for Greeley. While in Europe and writing for the Tribune, she met Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, and George Sand.

In Italy, Fuller reported on the revolution, met and married Angelo d'Ossoli, and had a child. She died in a shipwreck on returning to the U.S., just off the coast of Fire Island, New York.  

For Judith Thurman's New Yorker essay on Fuller, which includes a heartbreaking account of Fuller's death at sea, click here. The occasion of Thurman's essay is the publication of two biographies of Fuller, John Matteson's The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography, and Megan Marshall's Margaret Fuller: An American Life.

There are many printed editions of Fuller's work available, but I've linked here to online editions available via the American Transcendentalism website.

(If you're interested, there is a wonderful biography, also by Megan Marshall, of Elizabeth Peabody and her sisters: The Peabody Sisters: The Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism.)

Update, 20 May 2020: The American Transcendentalism website is now archived--I've updated the links here so that they are still working, but if you should have a problem, that's why.