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.

Capper’s second volume, subtitled ‘The Public Years’, begins with a passage from Fuller’s private journal, written on the eve of the Dial’s first publication and expressing both apprehension and resolve. ‘I did envy those who had kept within the protecting bound of a private life,’ she wrote, ‘but I will not.’ She would, instead, ‘court severest trials’ in pursuit of ambitions that she, unlike most women, or even men, of her time and place, readily owned up to. Some years later she put it this way: ‘There are in every age a few in whose lot the meaning of that age is concentrated. I feel that I am one of those persons in my age and sex. I feel chosen among women.’

Ironically, it was as she vowed to break free of the ‘protecting bound’ that confined most women to the domestic sphere that Fuller began to identify more closely with women – and to cultivate within herself what she saw as feminine qualities. One reason for this was a growing fondness and respect for the women in her Conversation classes, which included the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and the formidably educated historian and pedagogue Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. While Fuller remained their leader, she gained important support in return. An equally powerful impetus was her failed attempt to establish a closer bond with Emerson, a man seven years her senior and a married father of two. Fuller was, by all accounts, a plain, short-sighted woman, mildly handicapped by curvature of the spine and recurrent migraines; yet her personal magnetism was indisputable. Capper gives over his first chapters to an account of her negotiation with Emerson: not for its gossip value, but because it represented a defining moment in the intellectual growth of these two great ‘thinking Americans’, as Fuller hoped they would be remembered.

A recent book by Susan Cheever, American Bloomsbury, makes much of the erotic undercurrents that no doubt played their part in the Concord circle; besides Emerson, Fuller and Thoreau, the band of free-thinking rustics included Nathaniel Hawthorne and his artist wife, Sophia Peabody, as well as assorted Alcotts. But Cheever’s case for a not-so-sublimated romance between Fuller and Emerson is greatly exaggerated. Fuller championed and practised a ‘heroic’ virginity, understanding herself to be ‘obliged’ to live ‘without the sanctuary of the central relations’, which years later made it difficult for her to give in even to her besotted marquis in Rome. Cheever misses the true fascination as well as the historical truth of the matter. If there is an Anglo-American comparison to be made, it is with Britain’s ur-Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose spiritual philosophy the Transcendentalists had adopted, along with their passionate commitment to friendship. Emerson, a self-confessed ‘worshipper of Friendship’, believed there was no ‘other good equal to it’.

Yet Fuller and Emerson’s friendship was a friendship between a woman and a man, and it was on those terms that Fuller lured Emerson into debate, proposing an androgynous model of human nature that she believed could support a heterosexual friendship every bit as intense and mutually beneficial as a marriage, if not more so. ‘I am bent on being his only friend myself,’ she confided in her journal three days after the first issue of the Dial appeared. ‘There is enough of me, could I but reveal it. Enough of woman to sympathise with all feelings, enough of man to appreciate all thoughts. I could be a perfect friend.’

Emerson’s sunny side was little in evidence in his personal relationships: his second marriage lacked the lustre of his early first marriage to a tubercular teenage beauty who died little more than a year after their wedding. Straining at the tether, he welcomed female house guests for weeks at a stretch and allowed lecturing and Dial business to take him into Boston so he could visit his women friends. On one such visit, Fuller seems to have pushed for more. ‘At the very time when I, slow and cold, had come fully to admire her genius, and was congratulating myself on the solid good understanding that subsisted between us,’ Emerson wrote in his journal, Fuller had charged him with an inability to sustain an intimate friendship of mutual ‘revelation’. Briefly tempted to accept her challenge and establish ‘permanent relations’, presumably through some kind of pact committing them to regular free expression, Emerson instead drew back.

Emerson both admired and feared Fuller’s emotionality: in his terms, her ‘heart’, which, he wrote to her, ‘unceasingly demands all, is a sea that hates an ebb.’ To himself, in his journal, he said more:

You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought & said? Well, whilst you were thinking & saying them, but not now. I see no possibility of loving any thing but what now is, & is becoming; your courage, your enterprise, your budding affection, your opening thought, your prayer, I can love, – but what else?

He simply did not know how, safely, to proceed.

Fuller began to receive letters from Emerson ‘of most unfriendly friendliness’. In one, he framed their connection this way: ‘We meet & treat like foreign states, one maritime, one inland, whose trade & laws are essentially unlike.’ Provoked by Fuller’s challenge to bolster his own theory of friendship, Emerson set to work on an essay on the subject, outlining his view that true friends meet only as impermeable, ‘self-sufficing’ entities, strong enough to remain unchanged by the encounter. ‘Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared,’ he wrote. Friendship is an ‘evanescent intercourse’: ‘We will meet as though we met not, and part as though we parted not.’ On Fuller’s next visit to Concord, he insisted that they communicate by letters carried between his study and Fuller’s bedroom by his young son Waldo.

‘Do not fancy that I complain or grieve,’ Fuller wrote in one of these. ‘I understand matters now, and always want you to withdraw when you feel like it.’ Yet she couldn’t help reminding him of what she had offered and he had refused: the feminine sympathy and tenderness he must also have resisted from his wife. ‘But I am of a more lively and affectionate temper or rather more household and daily in my affection.’ She refused to let the friendship lapse entirely, even if it meant accepting Emerson’s more limited terms: ‘The genial flow of my desire may be checked for the moment, but it cannot long. I shall always burst out soon and burn up all the rubbish between you and me, and I shall always find you there true to yourself and deeply rooted as ever.’

But privately Fuller was much less accepting. In a letter to a friend, she lashed out at Emerson’s ‘foreign states’ policy, in an implicitly gendered critique: friends ‘are not merely one another’s priests or gods’ but ‘ministering angels’. She saw Emerson, now, as lacking both womanly sympathy and manliness, the complementary qualities she believed should coexist in any fully developed person. ‘I wish I were a man, and then there would be one,’ she wrote in her journal. ‘I weary in this playground of boys! proud and happy in their balls and marbles. Give me poets, lawgivers, Men. There are women much less unworthy to live than you, Men! The best are so unripe, the wisest, so ignoble, the truest so cold!’

Fuller’s idea of friendship was both more permeable – more ‘plastic’, as she might have said – and more productive than Emerson’s. True friends are ‘sharers of our very existence. There is no separation; the same thought is given at the same moment to both, – indeed, it is born of the meeting.’ Responding explicitly to Emerson’s essay, she wrote: friends ‘not only know themselves more, but are more for having met, and regions of their being, which would else have laid sealed in cold abstraction, burst into leaf and bloom and song.’

‘I do then with my friends as I do with my books,’ Emerson had written in ‘Friendship’, ‘I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.’ Yet Emerson continued to reach out to Fuller, who used both friends and books more readily, and to rely on her as a ‘ministering angel’. When Waldo died suddenly of scarlet fever at five, Emerson wrote first to Fuller, pouring out his grief and anguish. But when Fuller left Massachusetts three years later, in 1845, to become literary editor of Horace Greeley’s thriving New York Tribune, it was not only, as one member of her Conversations sisterhood thought, to gain her ‘freedom from the puritanism that had annoyed her here’, but also to free herself from the influence of one particular self-reliant, free-thinking Puritan. She had already determined to ‘leave’ Emerson alone ‘in his cell affirming absolute truth’.

In Woman in the 19th Century (1845), Fuller had her say. Capper gives an excellent account of the state of American feminism at the time. Activist women were split into two factions: those who, radicalised by the anti-slavery movement, demanded equal rights for women along with African Americans, and those who espoused women’s fitness for reform by example alone. Fuller essentially brushed aside the conflict to ask how women and men could best fulfil their destinies on earth. It was, in Capper’s terms, a ‘Romantic’ plea for self-realisation. ‘Let them be sea-captains, if you will,’ was one of her more quotable exhortations.

Fuller’s Romantic individualism led her to offer a critique of marriage that made her book highly controversial. ‘I have urged on woman independence of man,’ Fuller wrote, ‘not that I do not think the sexes mutually needed by one another, but because in woman this fact has led to an excessive devotion, which has cooled love, degraded marriage, and prevented either sex from being what it should be to itself or the other.’ In an era that so sentimentalised romantic attachments and venerated marriage, Fuller could not have been surprised to find herself reviled by some critics, one of whom wrote her off as a Transcendental ‘chieftainess’ who had produced an ‘obscene’ and ‘frightful’ book. But the first edition of her book sold out its 1500 copies within a week.

At the same time, Fuller was earning a national following with her columns in the Tribune – they reached more than 30,000 readers – on topics ranging from Beethoven’s symphonies to the women at Sing Sing prison. And she would soon bargain her way into an overseas posting. The European tour she had put off more than a decade earlier would begin at last. With her international reputation firmly established on the basis of Woman in the 19th Century and British progressives’ fondness for the Dial, Fuller did not travel as one of the ‘Murray guide book mob’ she so disliked. Her round of visits to the intellectual elite was so strenuous that one worries for Eddie Spring, the boy she was meant to be tutoring to cover her living expenses while abroad. In London she was welcomed by Emerson’s friend Carlyle, who saw her as a ‘strange lilting lean old maid’ of 36, with a ‘high-soaring, clear, enthusiast soul’. She lectured to an audience of philanthropists and free-thinkers at the exiled patriot Giuseppe Mazzini’s charity school for impoverished Italian street boys, where she won over her listeners with an impassioned argument for ‘international moral exchange’ and the ‘emancipation’ of Italy.

In Paris she looked up George Sand, who put away a sheaf of galley proofs she’d been correcting to converse with Fuller, ‘as if we had always known one another’, by Fuller’s account. ‘It is better to throw things aside,’ Sand told Fuller, ‘and seize the present moment.’ Sand’s connection, through Chopin, to other Polish expatriates, led Fuller to the poet-revolutionary Adam Mickiewicz, with whom she instantly felt a ‘deep-founded mental connection’, the first truly to rival her attachment to Emerson. Evidently feeling the same spark, Mickiewicz wrote to Fuller: ‘I encountered in you a true person … Such an encounter on life’s journey consoles and fortifies.’ Far more worldly than the sage of Concord, Mickiewicz launched a direct assault on Fuller’s chastity, by way of philosophical argument. ‘You have pleaded the liberty of woman in a masculine and frank style,’ he told her. ‘Live and act, as you write … Do not forget that even in your private life as a woman you have rights to maintain.’

This was advice she would take to heart when, soon after resigning her position as a governess and settling in Rome to cover the Italian reunification movement for the Tribune, she met Marquis Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, an officer in the Roman Civic Guard, as she was leaving vespers at St Peter’s. Ossoli was, as she wrote to a friend later, ‘younger than myself; a person of no intellectual culture, and in whom, in short, you will see no reason for my choosing.’ He didn’t speak English – not an obstacle for the multilingual Fuller, but probably the reason at least one of her American friends perceived him to be ‘half an idiot’. Yet, after she had turned down a proposal of marriage from the infatuated Ossoli, the two became lovers.

Ossoli was not the lover (or friend) Fuller had once sought: a man who could fully comprehend her ‘masculine’ intellect along with her inward ‘revelations’. Nor was he one of the adoring men who had ‘loved me with a mixture of fancy and enthusiasm excited by my talent’. But he was the youngest son in a large family who had nursed an invalid father, and he shared Fuller’s democratic Mazzinian politics. More important, Fuller wrote, ‘he loves me from simple affinity; he loves to be with me, and serve and soothe me.’ Ossoli offered Fuller what Capper calls ‘a kind of maternal love in masculine guise’. Fuller, who had once despaired of finding even one true man, now praised Ossoli as ‘capable of the sacred love, the love passing that of women’.

Capper claims to have resolved the much debated question of whether Fuller and Ossoli ever actually married – no document has surfaced to prove it – and his detailed argument that they did will fascinate those who remain interested in this mystery. But does it matter? In Fuller’s time, those who were ready to be shocked would remain so, simply because of the affair, which, after an initial period of secrecy, Fuller never tried to hide. Those who had accepted what Lowell identified as Fuller’s first-ness – her exceptional nature – surely shared the view of her friend Lydia Maria Child: ‘I approve of Margaret’s taste in having a private marriage all to herself.’ Fuller, gauging the winds of popular opinion before setting out on her homeward voyage, resolved matters for herself this way: ‘I pity those who are inclined to think ill, when they might as well have inclined the other way, however let them go.’

What does matter is that after the terrifying months of bombardment in Rome, during which Ossoli fought valiantly for Italy and Fuller filed dispatches and nursed the wounded, the life she led for a brief time with Ossoli and their infant son, Angelino, in the hill town of Rieti, finally pleased this woman who had been one of marriage’s most astute critics without ever having shared a bed with a man. ‘I like also much living with my husband,’ she wrote to one of the few friends she had informed of the arrangement, an uncannily modern one by Fuller’s description: ‘In him I have found a home, and one that interferes with no tie.’ Of Nino, she wrote: ‘What a difference it makes to come home to a child!’ Fuller had made the difficult decision to leave her son with a wet nurse for the first six months of his life while she remained in Rome as the Tribune’s correspondent: ‘I am deeply interested in this public drama, and wish to see it played out. Methinks I have my part therein, either as actor or historian.’

‘It had seemed that in a state of society where marriage brings so much trifling business … and various soporifics, the liberty of single life was most precious,’ she wrote to her friend. Fuller had worried that she and Ossoli would ‘lose much by entering on the jog-trot of domestic life’. But she did not ‘find it so; we are of mutual solace and aid about the dish and spoon part, yet enjoy our free rambles as ever.’ Since her quarrel with Emerson, Fuller had given little thought to the ‘dish and spoon part’, to her wish to be ‘household and daily in my affection’. Now at last she had managed it.

Accidental death gives a life story the shape of a morality tale, as if the death were, in Capper’s words, ‘somehow grimly fitting’. Sentences spoken years before are scrutinised for portents. ‘Let them be sea-captains’ is one of these: the man at the helm on the night she died in 1850 was one of those male ‘unworthies’ Fuller had excoriated. Yet, as Capper reminds us, the shipwreck was simply an accident, and Fuller’s life ‘contained great possibilities’ at the time of her death. Some of her friends in America were privately relieved that she never made it to shore; how would she have been welcomed with her messy personal affairs so well known? ‘She had only to open her mouth, & a triumphant success awaited her,’ Emerson countered, while mourning Fuller in his usual self-centred fashion: ‘I have lost in her my audience. I hurry now to my work admonished that I have few days left.’

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