Let Them Be Sea-Captains

Megan Marshall

  • Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life: The Public Years by Charles Capper
    Oxford, 649 pp, £23.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 506313 4

In ‘Margaret Fuller Drowned’, a sonnet of the early 1970s, Robert Lowell, whose ancestor James Russell Lowell had been skewered by Fuller’s pen more than a century earlier, sums up what’s commonly known about Fuller. ‘You had everything to rattle the men who wrote,’ he begins, addressing her as ‘the first American woman?’ (emphasis on the question mark). Then he shifts to the deck of the merchant ship Elizabeth, en route from Livorno to New York City in 1850, whose passengers included the 40-year-old Fuller, ‘in a white nightgown, your hair fallen long’, with her young Italian lover (to whom she may or may not have been married) and their one-year-old son. All three died when they were swept overboard in a storm after an agonising 12-hour wait for rescue when their ship foundered on a sand bar within sight of shore at Fire Island, near New York.

Improvising on what might have been Fuller’s last thoughts, Lowell ends by transposing her famous formulation – ‘Ourselves are all we know of heaven’ – into an even more egocentric key: ‘Myself is all I know of heaven.’ The prodigiously educated, astonishingly prolific and conversationally predatory Fuller was well known even among America’s self-examining Transcendentalists for what her closest ally in the movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called her ‘mountainous me’. Before she left the United States when she was 36 for a tour of England and the Continent, where she would seek out Wordsworth, Carlyle, George Sand and the Brownings, she was supposed to have said: ‘I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.’ Never mind that this monumental egotist – the author of Woman in the 19th Century, a study of gender politics that would not be equalled until Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex – was obliged to travel as governess to a wealthy family in order to subsidise the trip. Fuller’s ‘manifold nature’ (her phrase) was made up of many contradictions, as Charles Capper makes plain in this compendious and absorbing biography. She could be ‘sarcastic and reverent, serious and droll, self-regarding and self-sacrificing, alienated and engaged’. She had immense pride, and no pride at all.

Fuller was first at many things – the first woman to be allowed to use Harvard’s library, the first woman editor of an influential literary journal, the first cultural critic for a national newspaper (her articles routinely appeared on page one), the first female foreign correspondent and the only American journalist to remain ‘embedded’ throughout the 1849 French siege of Rome. Yet Lowell proposes, not inappropriately, a more fundamental first-ness, and his question mark is apt in ways Fuller herself would have understood. The greatest contradiction she experienced within herself, and one that, by Capper’s account, was present in every important decision she made, was between what she identified as her masculine and feminine impulses.

Fuller’s childhood seemed unlikely to produce the kind of first woman Lowell may have been hinting at with a 1970s-style leer. (Her affair, begun at 37 with a good-looking Italian marquis ten years her junior, and her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, caught the imagination of 1970s feminists as well.) Fuller’s lawyer-politician father had been disappointed that his first child was a girl, and insisted on educating her as if she were a boy, and then some. By the time she was 15, she was rising at five each morning to pursue studies in four different languages, overseen by her exacting father, who often kept her up until 11 at night.

Not surprisingly, she emerged from this training with the conviction that her intellectual faculties were masculine in nature, a belief that only intensified when her father died suddenly of cholera ten years later. Fuller had been set to embark on a European tour that would put the finishing touches to her scholarly apprenticeship, but cancelled the trip and turned to managing her family’s dwindling finances and supporting her mother and six younger siblings – a feat she accomplished with an exhausting combination of teaching, tutoring and, finally, writing for publication.

Capper covered all of this in the first volume of his biography, subtitled ‘The Private Years’, along with Fuller’s emergence first as protégée and then as provocatrice in the circle of reformers and spiritual seekers who gathered around Emerson in the late 1830s in rural Concord.[*] At the close of that book, Fuller had begun her famous ‘Conversations’ for women in Boston, aimed at remedying ‘defects’ in her pupils’ education and encouraging them to think and speak for themselves. Under her guidance, the women analysed Greek myths, wrote and discussed papers, and began asking questions like ‘What were we born to do?’

Emerson appointed Fuller editor of the Dial, the ‘Magazine for Literature, Philosophy and Religion’, which he hoped would ‘shed a new light on the world’ when it began publication in July 1840. Although Emerson pulled rank and substituted his own upbeat opening salvo for Fuller’s in the first issue (this Dial would measure ‘no hours but those of sunshine’, he wrote), she maintained full control for the remaining two years of her editorship. She relinquished the job to Emerson only when told that the quarterly, which Capper argues convincingly was America’s leading progressive journal despite having only three hundred subscribers, would never be able to pay her promised salary. Still supporting her mother and siblings by tutoring and with tuition fees from her Conversations, Fuller also wrote a third of the Dial’s articles, and broke in a stable of headstrong, ‘hyperindividualist’ contributors, including the young Henry David Thoreau, spending countless hours working on their ‘sublimo-slipshod’ submissions.

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[*] Oxford, 456 pp., £19, January 1995, 978 0 19 509267 7