The 19th century writer and journalist Margaret Fuller was brilliant, bold, feminist, and on her way to making a mark on par with her famous friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau when both her final manuscript and her life were lost in a tragic accident.
Born on May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, Fuller was destined for greatness. The first-born of an ambitious lawyer, she was educated at the same level as boys of her social standing, and barred from wasting her time on the books of etiquette and romance typically given to girls. She later wrote of her father, "He hoped to make me the heir of all he knew."
Fuller could read by age 4, write by 6, and grew to be a voracious bookworm comfortable with both Greek and Latin. This made her a misfit among her peers, who often saw her as a pompous know-it-all. But Fuller eventually blossomed in Cambridge and in Harvard's culture of intellectualism, which inspired and embraced her. There, her wit and outspoken nature were largely valued over her marital prospects or looks.
American colleges did not yet accept female students, so further education was no option for this highly intelligent young woman. No matter. She'd begun drafting a biography of Goethe, and even taught herself German to better research his writings. But her father's unexpected death from cholera spurred the then 25-year-old Fuller to take work as teacher, so she might help support her widowed mother and younger siblings. Teaching led her to Boston and Providence, where she made friends who shared her passion for philosophy. Among these pals was Emerson, who famously described Fuller's company as "like being set in a large place. You stretch your limbs & dilate to your utmost size."
By 1840, Fuller was writing and editing Emerson's transcendentalist journal The Dial. Her reputation in New England's intellectual community grew thanks to both this effort and the "conversations" (popular public discussions on art and female empowerment) that she hosted in the posh homes of Boston's intellectual elite from 1839 to 1844. These “conversations” drew the notice of New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who hired Fuller as a literary critic for his newspaper, which was then on its way to becoming one of the most-read in the nation. But Fuller's greatest success was yet to come.
Archive.org // Public Domain
In 1845, Fuller made history with Woman in the Nineteenth Century, often considered the first major feminist work published in the United States. This groundbreaking book began as a series of Dial essays called "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," where Fuller argued that men and women must see each other as equals before they can transcend to divine love. Fuller reasoned that ignoring our commonality was the base of much of America's sins, from the slaughter of Native Americans to the slavery of African-Americans.
While her unapologetic politics ruffled the feathers of critics like poet Rufus Wilmot Griswold and soon-to-be Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Woman in the Nineteenth Century won praise from some of Fuller's most respected colleagues.
Thoreau heralded her accessible style, writing: "Miss Fuller's is a noble piece—rich, extempore writing, talking with pen in hand." And Edgar Allan Poe—a fearsome literary critic in his own right—declared Woman in the Nineteenth Century's politics "unmitigated radicalism," yet called her a "genius" and proclaimed: "[It's] a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller … I need scarcely say that the essay is nervous, forcible, thoughtful, suggestive, brilliant, and to a certain extent scholar-like."
Between her work for the Tribune and her book, Fuller had emerged as America's most respected female intellectual. But the time was ripe for a new adventure, and in 1846 she traveled to England and France, becoming the first female American foreign correspondent. During this time, she befriended Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle and French novelist Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known by her masculine pen name George Sand. The following year, Fuller became America's first female combat reporter, heading south to cover the Italian revolutions. There, she fell in with the Italian Independence movement, publishing stories from their base while helping out at their hospitals. And she fell for the dashing aristocrat revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli.
Giovanni Angelo Ossoli,Harvard University, via margaretfuller.org // Public Domain
Theirs was a romance that rocked the New England intellectual elite for several reasons. For one thing, Fuller's love life was littered with "amorous friendships"-turned-heartbreaks. Often jilted, she'd lamented that no man nor woman could appreciate both her "woman's heart" and "man's ambition." Never regarded for her beauty, she was 37, essentially a spinster by the day's standards. More alarming, her beau was a penniless patrician who barely spoke a word of English, had no career to speak of, and was about 10 years Fuller's junior. But most shocking of all: Fuller gave birth to his illegitimate baby, Angelo "Nino" Ossoli, in September 1848. No marriage record has ever been found, although Emerson has suggested the two tied the knot in late 1847. However, it's possible he lied to protect the reputation of the friend he admired.
Yet revolution and romance were not all that occupied Fuller's time in Italy. She'd written a history of the short-lived Roman Republic, the Italian independence cause to which her partner was dedicated. Having been embedded in its rebellion, Fuller had a unique perspective on this republican state that she was eager to share with the world. In a letter to her brother, she confessed that she hoped her book could be "something good which may survive my troubled existence." But once the short-lived republic crumbled, the Fuller-Ossoli family decided to depart for America, hoping to find a home for their child, and a publisher for Fuller's manuscript.
But this would never be.
Without two pennies to rub together, Fuller couldn't afford steamship passage, and so scraped together enough to buy their way onto the merchant ship Elizabeth. It left Livorno in May 1850, setting out for a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In a letter penned before they boarded, Fuller divulged her fears about this big move, and all the change it brought. Read in the wake of what was to come, it sounds like a grim premonition. She wrote:
"I am absurdly fearful, and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling … I have a vague expectation of some crisis, I know not what … Yet my life proceeds as regularly as the fates of a Greek tragedy, and I can but accept the pages as they turn."
On July 19, 1850, a heinous hurricane hit the Atlantic seaboard, running the Elizabeth aground a few hundred yards from the shore of Fire Island, New York. While much of its crew and captain scrambled ashore, Fuller and her family were last seen aboard. Accounts of their last moments differ, though all include ghastly descriptions of snapped masts, vicious waves, and lovers faced with impossible choices. Yet each version shares the same tragic end: Fuller and Ossoli drowned. Their bodies were never recovered.
Urged by Emerson, Thoreau traveled to the small New York island to search for any sign of their dear friend, her family and—failing all else—her final work. Thoreau (years away from publishing Walden) tirelessly interviewed survivors and locals, desperate for a sign of hope. Instead, he found himself face-to-face with the body of Fuller's 20-month-old son in the back of a local's buffalo-pulled cart. He recalled in his heartbreaking notes, "The child had nothing but its night gown on at first it never cried at all When found it was quite naked."
Thoreau was furious, not only for the loss of his friend, but also because her death could have been prevented. His notes railed against the locals, calling them "wreckers on shore who were more concerned with recovering belongings than actually saving people from the ship." Thoreau believed these men "with their hats decked out with the spoils of the drowned" could have used their oyster boats to rescue the shipwrecked. Instead, Fuller, who could not swim, was robbed of hope by those who gladly robbed her trunks and possibly her greatest work.
A drawing of Fuller's cenotaph in Mount Auburn Cemetery, via Flickr // Public Domain
Though Fuller's life and work was cut short when she was just 40 years old, this daring author won the respect not only of many distinguished contemporaries, but also of advocates who are still inspired by her message more than 150 years later. In 1860, fellow feminist writer and transcendentalist Caroline Healey Dall declared Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century "doubtless the most brilliant, complete, and scholarly statement ever made on the subject." As second wave feminism hit in 1976, the book was rediscovered, and Fuller was recognized as a feminist pioneer, working woman, activist, and intellectual far ahead of her time.