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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 316


This is the memorial to Margaret Fuller.

Born in 1810 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to an active family in politics and reform and to a father who served several terms in Congress, Fuller was taught to read at a very young age and subjected to a strict educational regime by her father. She never fit into regular society as a young woman. Various attempts were made to turn her into the republican motherhood ideal of the time, but she resisted. She lived at home and did not marry, something quite unusual for a woman of her social standing. But she was educating herself at an incredible rate and soon would be considered the best-read person in all of New England. She began to write as well, which became necessary to help support the family after her father died without a will in 1835 and his brothers took control of all the family assets.

Fuller began publishing short pieces, criticism, and translations in 1834. She got work teaching at some of New England’s finest schools. More importantly, she became one of the leading lights of the new intellectual circles of the Cambridge-Concord area, attracting supporters, both men and women and considering the moral and literary questions of the day, including freedom for women. In 1839, Ralph Waldo Emerson hired her to edit The Dial, which became the leading Transcendentalist journal. This sounds better now than it did then; in fact, Emerson had a hard time getting anyone to edit it and it never paid her much as it was a struggling literary publication. Fuller already knew a lot of famous intellectuals, but this opened up all of the nation’s intellectual circles to her and she became one of the leaders of the Transcendentalist movement, even if she was never comfortable with that title. She spent some time at the communal living experiment at Brook Farm, although she never lived full-time there. She, like Thoreau (whose writing she found frustrating), traveled a lot and wrote up her experiences in some of the nation’s first thoughtpiece travel books. She became the first woman ever allowed to use Harvard’s library when she was doing research on the Great Lakes for one of her books. She pushed for prison reform, better treatment of Native Americans, women’s complete equality, abolitionism, and flirted with atheism.

Fuller left The Dial in 1844 because it was failing. She moved to New York to work with Horace Greeley on his New York Tribune. This actually paid pretty well and she published 250 pieces in it over the next four years, usually without using her name. But she pushed her ideas on feminism and the evils of slavery as well as published poetry and essays. In 1846, Greeley sent her to Europe. There, as the paper’s foreign correspondent, she met the intellectual and political radicals of the day in England, France, and Italy. It was also there that she began living with the Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a disgraced noble denounced by his family. Both radicals rethinking society, including gender roles they felt ridiculously constrictive in the early Victorian years, started living together without being married. Eventually they did get married, but not before Fuller got pregnant and had a son. They remained in Europe during 1848 revolutions, where Ossoli fought in Italy and Fuller nursed.

In 1850, Fuller and her family decided to return to the United States. Unfortunately, smallpox broke out on board. Ossoli contracted it and recovered, but the captain died. As the ship approached the Massachusetts coast, the less experienced first mate hit a sandbar. The ship went down fast. Fuller, Ossoli, and their baby all drowned within the viewing distance of people lined up on shore. This was a great tragedy for humankind and for the American intellectual and political world. Fuller during the 1850s and that decade’s aftermath would have made for a fascinating figure. So many stories left to tell. On the other hand, these shipwrecks were incredibly common. Transportation, both new and old technologies, simply killed a lot of people through the mid-nineteenth century. Movement was taking your life into your own hands, although with disease rates and sanitation problems, so was staying still. The nineteenth century had lots of sad ways to die young! Incredibly, all those people on shore made no attempt to save anyone–even as they gathered up carts to collect all the cargo drifting ashore!!!! Emerson sent Thoreau, who long served as his proxy, to New York to try to find the bodies, but he was unable to do so.

The monument to Margaret Fuller and her family is in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts, right next to her grandnephew Buckminster Fuller in the family plot. Quite a family of remarkable intellectual figures, even if some negative critics have often called both Fullers kind of shallow in the end.

If you would like this series to visit more figures of the early to mid-19th century American literary scene, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Walt Whitman, who greatly admired Fuller, is in Camden, New Jersey while James Russell Lowell, who very much hated her after she criticized his work, is actually in the same cemetery she is so I guess I can wander up to Cambridge at some point again. Anyway, previous posts in this series are archived here.

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