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HANDOUT 1: Introducing Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller was:

  • A pre-eminent United States human rights advocate
  • The first major U.S. foreign correspondent, spending four years in Europe reporting on and supporting, among other things, Italy's failed socialist revolution
  • The first literary editor of a major U.S. metropolitan newspaper (The New-York Tribune)
  • One of 19th-century America's most highly paid public lecturers
  • The first editor of The Dial, the Transcendentalists' literary magazine
  • Author of five books and almost 350 articles, essays, and poems
  • The first woman to step foot in and also to use Harvard University's library.

Sarah Margaret, as Fuller was known to her family, was born in 1810, the first child of Margarett Crane Fuller and Timothy Fuller, Jr. Margaret Fuller's father, Timothy Fuller, Jr., was also her tutor. He was a staunch, old-line Unitarian rationalist, a lawyer who served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, ran but did not win election as Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor, and finally became a (failed) gentleman farmer.

Fuller's autobiographical account of her early years was not published by its author, but rather after her death by her friends. The account reveals a father who tyrannically ruled over every aspect of Margaret's life endeavoring to raise her as the boy he had wanted as his oldest child. Paternal love from this man was earned rather than freely given. Fuller conformed. The result: extreme achievement. "By age fifteen," as biographer and editor Joel Myerson notes, "her schedule included reading literary and philosophical works in four languages, during a day that lasted from five in the morning until eleven at night. The only break in this scholarly routine was the few hours reserved for walking, singing, and playing the piano."

Like father, like daughter. She was popularly stereotyped as "habitually sneering, scoffing, and arrogant." Her biographer Charles Capper notes that her friend and colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson dismissed these kinds of negative comments as "superficial judgment." What "some heard as an arrogant tone, [Emerson] quipped, `was only the pastime necessity of her talent'." Nevertheless, he, too, was bothered by her egotism.

Fuller was a person with a brilliant mind who struggled with cultural notions that women could not be intellectual. Her life experiences led her both to feel compassion for others and to understand the ways in which she needed to embrace both her emotional life and her intellectual gifts. She was keenly aware of the limits placed on women in the society in which she lived and in 1845 published the feminist classic, Women in the Nineteenth Century. Fuller succeeded in joining head to heart through mystical experiences, she grew beyond the transcendentalist philosophy which had been so important to her and became an international advocate for human rights in America. She preached freedom for the enslaved African; economic rights for the poor; federal rights for Native Americans; and civil rights for all women. She called for a new humanity for her colleagues and peers, the hyper-rational Boston Unitarian elite. Fuller believed that these men did not sufficiently consider, as biographer Meg McGavran Murray succinctly put it, "the role of emotions in our lives." She became a critic of both traditional and transcendental Unitarian dogma, preaching liberal religious freedom, saying "I have pledged myself to nothing. God and the soul and nature are all my creed, subdivisions are unimportant... I act for myself, but prescribe for none other."

After a time in Italy first as a correspondent reporting on the Italian revolution, she married Giovanni Angelo, the Marchese d'Ossoli, one of the supporters of the revolution, and gave birth to a son. In 1850, on a return trip to the United States, the young family was drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Long Island. Fuller friends and family members struggled afterward to make sense of her life, publishing her papers and biography.

Fuller had heartfelt hope, transformed into action. And so she said, "the soul says to us all: Cherish your best hopes as a faith, and abide by them in action. Such shall be the effectual fervent means to their fulfillment."

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Wednesday, February 20, 2013.

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