Margaret Fuller: America’s First Public IntellectualJune 5th, 2010 at 11:01
On the 200th anniversary of her birth, Unitarian-Universalists are rediscovering and celebrating one of the giants of their movement, Margaret Fuller. She is acknowledged in the recent UU World article as one of the trio of key thinkers that defined the philosophy of Transcendentalism that emerged in the mid 19th Century as a challenge to the prevailing patriarchal “command and control” paradigm of the emerging capitalism, industrialism, and the related social engineering that was popular in mainstream progressive Protestant denominations, including mainstream Unitarianism.
Obscured in history, perhaps because of her gender, Fuller may in fact have played the critical role (as what some call America’s first public intellectual) in putting forward the Transcendentalist ideas of a more humanistic self-directed vision of human progress. Maybe more so than her colleagues Emerson and Thoreau, she championed those ideas in American popular cultural to counter the prevailing top-down model of social development.
Though it may sound like an oxymoron to contemporary UUs, in Massachusetts at the turn of the 19th Century there was a mainstream “Unitarian orthodoxy” that pervaded the theology of this denomination and its nexus at the Harvard Divinity School. This theology was rooted in the scientific rationalism of 17th Century English philosopher John Locke, who defined the self as…
That conscious thinking thing… which is sensible, or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.
That orthodoxy discounted the role of the spiritual, and any knowledge beyond the realm of the senses and rational thought.
A prime example of that Unitarian progressive orthodoxy, were the ideas and actions of Unitarian Horace Mann, who launched mandatory universal schooling in Massachusetts, the basis of today’s American public school system. Capturing the view of social engineering, Mann famously said…
Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former.
That orthodoxy grew out of a Unitarian religious establishment in Colonial America where the religion was the official or “first” church in many towns in the Massachusetts Commonwealth prior to the US Constitutional mandate of separation between church and state. Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists did not embrace this mainstream Unitarian thinking were soon to lead a rebellion against it, which given our history in retrospect, could be judged ultimately unsuccessful.
So this was the milieu that Sarah Margaret Fuller was born into in 1810, born just a little more than two miles from the Harvard stronghold of Unitarian orthodoxy. Her surname came from her father, Timothy Fuller; a Harvard trained lawyer and son of a Unitarian minister, later serving in the US Congress from Massachusetts, and playing a key role in John Quincy Adam’s successful campaign for President in 1924. Her given name Sarah was the name of her father’s mother. Her middle name came from her mother (of whom I could find little on the Internet) Margaret Crane Fuller, but a clue to the closeness of their relationship might be the fact that by the age of nine she insisted on dropping the “Sarah” and being called “Margaret” instead, and so it was.
From her earliest years her father strove to give her the sort of robust classical education almost exclusively reserved for the young men of the intellectual elite, and at an accelerated pace on top of that. By the age of six he had taught her to read… in Latin! (He had taught her to read English by age three.) Interestingly, he forbade her from reading the etiquette books and other standard female fare of the times, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1795 feminist manifesto, A Vindication for the Rights of Women.
She wrote later about her father in her autobiography…
He thought to gain time, by bringing forward the intellect as early as possible… Thus I had tasks given me, as many and various as the hours would allow, and on subjects beyond my age, with the additional disadvantage of reciting to him in the evening, after he returned from his office. As he was subject to many interruptions, I was often kept up till very late.
As a result, she believed, she suffered nightmares, insomnia, and migraine headaches, which continued throughout her life.
To maybe get a sense of the journey for this prodigious but perhaps over-educated young person, at the age of 10, Fuller wrote a note which her father saved, which said…
“On the 23rd of May, 1810, was born one foredoomed to sorrow and pain, and like others to have misfortunes.
Again, those are the words of a ten-year-old.
Fuller was a determined autodidact (that is, self-learner) with a life-long passion for learning. Like most sons and daughters of elite families in the early 19th Century, she did most of her learning at home with parents, relatives and friends functioning as teachers, mentors and tutors. She in fact reached young adulthood before Unitarian Horace Mann spearheaded mandatory universal public school for all youth in her home state of Massachusetts in the 1830s.
In 1824 at the age of 14 and at the advice of her father’s siblings, Fuller was sent off to school, to the School for Young Ladies in Groton. She resisted the idea at first but apparently enjoyed the enriched environment, including all the people, ideas, libraries and other resources the school gave her access to. After two years at the school she returned home at age 16 and “unschooled” (can’t resist getting that in…*g*) reading all the classic literature she could find and learning several modern languages.
As Fuller reached adulthood, family friend Eliza Farrar (the wife of a Harvard professor and later author of an etiquette manual for young women) made an attempt to teach Fuller proper female etiquette that the Wikipedia article on Fuller characterized as “never wholly successful”.
Beyond the more conventional training for a young woman in an elite family, Fuller continued to be a voracious reader, and by the time she was in her 30s she had earned a reputation as the best-read person, male or female, in New England. It was presumably the result of all this self-directed study, unvarnished by the conventional framing that teachers might have brought to her education, that she read the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Hindu Vedic thought, German Idealism, English Romanticism and the mystical spiritualism of Emanuel Swedenborg, the building blocks for the Transcendentalism that she, Emerson, Thoreau and others would embrace and put forward.
Initially, she used her knowledge in a more traditionally female venue as a tutor and giving private lessons, but she hoped to earn her living as a journalist and by translating foreign-language works into English. Her first published piece was a response to historian George Bancroft, appearing in November 1834 in the North American Review.
It was soon after that in 1835 that great calamity and tumult entered Fuller’s life. Her father contracted and died of Cholera. Since he had not written a will, his brothers stepped in and gained control of the family estate and all family finances. This put Fuller, her mother, and her sisters in the humiliating position of being forced to rely on her uncles for support. Fuller wrote that she regretted being “of the softer sex, and never more than now.” Still, she tried the best she could to step in to her father’s shoes and focus her time and efforts in supporting her mother and sisters.
As often seems to happen, calamity and opportunity seem to come together, coincidentally if not directly related. It was also in 1935 that Fuller met Ralph Waldo Emerson at a meeting in Cambridge. She made an instant impression on him as he recalled, “She made me laugh more than I liked”, which is an interesting insight on these two giants of American philosophical thought. Later that year she spent two weeks as a guest at Emerson’s home.
So a digression on Ralph Waldo Emerson…
The publication of Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature is usually considered the watershed moment when Transcendentalism became a major cultural movement. Emerson wrote later in his speech “The American Scholar”…
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
Emerson closed the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness to emerge from this new philosophy…
Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit.
Perhaps the contemporary equivalent of Emerson’s thinking is what is known today as “the law of attraction”, that we create our own reality by our strongest thoughts and intentions.
Interestingly, the name “Transcendentalists” was originally a pejorative term coined by harsh critics of the movement, who were suggesting it was beyond sanity and reason.
Three years after this coming-out and calling out by Emerson in the elite lecture circuit, in 1839 Fuller held the first of many salons for discussions among local women of the elite. Fuller intended these meetings to compensate for the lack of education for women, holding discussions and debates which focused on subjects including the fine arts, history, mythology, literature, and nature. Serving as the “nucleus of conversation”, Fuller also intended to answer the “great questions” facing women, including, “What were we born to do? How shall we do it?” Questions, according to Fuller, which so few women “ever propose to themselves ’till their best years are gone by”.
Her “conversations”, as she called her salons, spread through the community of daughters, wives and mothers of the male intelligentsia of New England the ideas of Feminism and Transcendentalism. A number of significant figures in the women’s rights movement attended her salons, including Sophia Dana Ripley, Caroline Sturgis, and Maria White Lowell. The fact that her events were contained to the more domestic world of women, while her comrade Emerson lectured before audiences of prominent men, probably accounts again for her relative historic obscurity.
During this period Fuller was recruited by Emerson to be the Editor of his Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, and she served in that capacity for four years but was never paid her promised yearly salary of $200. Perhaps Emerson was guilty of the prevailing patriarchal thinking of the time, that Fuller, as a woman and a friend, did not require the payment that a male editor would expect and require.
But after four years, as the publication’s readership declined, she left the position, moved from her hometown and Unitarian nest in Boston to New Your City and took a job with Horace Greeley’s now famous daily paper The New York Tribune. She joined the paper as a literary critic, becoming the first person in American journalism to be a fulltime book reviewer.
Given her philosophical agenda, her first piece was aptly a review of a collection of Emerson’s essays. After two years she became the paper’s first female editor. During her four years with The Tribune, she published more than 250 columns, most signed with only an asterisk as a byline. In her columns, Fuller discussed topics ranging from art and literature to political and social issues such as the plight of slaves and women’s rights.
While Emerson spoke in the rarified air of universities and other intellectual venues, and Thoreau (seven years her junior) was living in Emerson’s house and serving as tutor to Emerson’s children, Fuller was speaking to the general public and putting these alternative ideas out their in the American cultural zeitgeist.
While working at The Tribune, Fuller published in 1845 her most influential work, Women in the Nineteenth Century, the first great American feminist work, on a par and as influential as Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, published fifty years earlier in England. Her book is credited as one of the key motivators for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Seneca Falls conference in 1848 which launched the 19th Century American women’s movement. It was just one more piece of Fuller’s incredible legacy.
In 1846 Fuller was sent to Europe, again as another first, this time as The Tribune’s first female foreign correspondent. Over the next four years she provided 37 reports from overseas, including interviews with prominent writers such as George Sand and Thomas Carlyle. In her somewhat perhaps arrogant style she found both of them lacking, Sand (who had been an idol of Fuller’s) because she would not run for the French National Assembly and Carlyle because of his reactionary politics.
While working in Europe, Fuller met the Italian revolutionary Giovanni Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family because of his support for the Italian revolution. Though there is no clear evidence that they actually married, they had a child together, Angelino, in 1848. Ossoli fought in the 1849 revolution while Fuller volunteered at a supportive hospital to treat the wounded.
In 1850 Fuller and Ossoli decided to return to the United States with their now two-year-old son. They booked passage on a freighter rather than a passenger ship to save money. Early in the voyage the ship captain died of small pox. Their son Angelino contracted the disease but recovered. Possibly because of the inexperienced first mate, now serving as captain, the ship slammed into a sandbar less than 100 yards from shore of Fire Island, New York, on July 19, 1850, around 4am in the midst of a hurricane. Some of those on board swam to shore, but neither Fuller nor Ossoli could swim. The crew offered her a place in a lifeboat, but she refused to leave her family. All three drowned.
Fuller was just 40 years old when she died, but she had done more of note than most people do in lives twice as long. Though she suffered depressions, illnesses, and money worries throughout her life, she had an unquenchable passion to know everything there was to know and be a full participant in the world. As she wrote in her memoirs, “Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow”. That she did!
By the late 1840s, Emerson believed the Transcendentalist movement was dying out, especially after Margaret Fuller’s death. “All that can be said”, Emerson wrote, “is that she represents an interesting hour and group in American cultivation”. Thus Emerson put the Transcendentalist movement in its place as part of the developmental coming of age of American culture.
So here is Margaret Fuller in her own words…
On the primacy of human growth and development she said…
I am suffocated and lost when I have not the bright feeling of progression” and again, “Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow.
Male and female represent the two sides of the great radical dualism. But in fact they are perpetually passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid. There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.
On the struggles of life…
Drudgery is as necessary to call out the treasures of the mind, as harrowing and planting those of the earth.
Two persons love in one another the future good which they aid one another to unfold.
On applying imagination to one’s life…
Only the dreamer shall understand realities, though in truth his dreaming must be not out of proportion to his waking.
Besides her compelling life’s narrative, I resonate with Fuller because of the ideas that she and her fellow Transcendentalists put forward. These are ideas that championed self-reliance, self-direction and individual liberty, and challenged dogmatic liberalism and the kind of one-size-fits-all social engineering that grew from it.
It was the sort of dogmatic thinking that Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau and others railed against, that inspired a different, more doctrinaire breed of Unitarians like Horace Mann, to champion heavy-handed institutions, like mandatory one-size-fits-all public education to try and instruct all the children of Massachusetts (particularly the immigrant Catholic ones) in a “non-sectarian” Unitarian Protestant theology.
But that’s another post! For now… happy 200th birthday Margaret! Thanks for being there and championing the cause of liberty, a cause that I and others continue the struggle for today.
Tags: america's first public intellectual, american feminist thought, american intellectual thought, american philisophical thought, famous unitarian women, liberty vs social engineering, margaret fuller, ralph waldo emerson, transcendentalism, unitarianism