What I mean by the Muse is that unimpeded clearness of the intuitive powers, which a perfectly truthful adherence to every admonition of the higher instincts would bring to a finely organized human being. It may appear as prophecy or as poesy. … and should these faculties have free play, I believe they will open new, deeper and purer sources of joyous inspiration than have as yet refreshed the earth.
Let us be wise, and not impede the soul. Let her work as she will. Let us have one creative energy, one incessant revelation. Let it take what form it will, and let us not bind it by the past to man or woman, black or white.
Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 1845
Margaret Fuller, born in 1810, has these “firsts” to her credit
- first full-time book reviewer in American journalism
- first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College
- first female foreign correspondent for a major newspaper in the U.S.
But that is just the beginning to understanding and appreciating this remarkable woman who thought far ahead of her time.
Margaret Fuller was as smart as any man around her. In an age when the educational and professional opportunities were limited, Fuller elbowed her way into the top intellectual circles of her day with a depth of knowledge and understanding could not match. Her personality could be grating. She was assertive in an age when women were supposed to be demure. She talked when most women would have stayed silent. She showed up in public places when most women would have stayed home.
She was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into a family that valued education and had an extensive library. She had some periods of formal education at various schools, but in the main, her education was directed by her father and conducted by herself. By the time she was in her late 20s, her family had moved to Groton, Mass., her father had died, and her financial troubles — which would plague her for the rest of her life — had begun.
But she had begun an intellectual journey that would take her a long way in a very short time.
She had met Ralph Waldo Emerson and those who would become known as the Transcendentalists, America’s first literary movement. In fact, she was so involved with them that they asked her to edit their publication, The Dial, and she did so, contributing a number of articles of her own. To sustain herself financially, she began teaching, and in 1839, she began a series of Conversations, seminars in which women were invited to discuss the status of females in modern society. During all of this time, she wrote extensively — articles, essays, reviews, and books.
Fuller knew most of the major literary figures of the day including Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allen Poe, who called her a “busy-body” when she intervened with him for a friend.
Her writing caught the attention of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who invited in 1846 her to move to New York and become a columnist and reviewer. Before doing that, however, Greeley encouraged her to expand her writings on gender inequality into a book. She did so, and the book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, became a founding document of modern feminism. Her subsequent work at the Tribune as a reviewer and columnist greatly expanded her audience for her radical views on gender equality.
Those radical views included abolitionism (the freeing of slaves) and suffrage (the right of women to vote).
In August 1846, she sailed for Europe. She had been hired to tutor the son of a wealthy Quaker family, but she continued to write for Greeley’s Tribune. As such, she became American journalism first female foreign correspondent. Her travels took her to Italy where she met and fell in love with Giovanni Ossoli, an Italian nobleman of no particular wealth or intellectual virtue. He was involved in the Roman revolution of the period, however, and Fuller sent dispatches about that movement to the Tribune, thus becoming American journalism’s first female war correspondent.
Fuller and Ossoli had a son, but there is no record that they were ever married. In 1850, they returned to America on board a merchant ship. As it approached Fire Island, New York, the ship was caught in a violent hurricane. Fuller, Ossoli, and their son were killed, and their bodies were never recovered. A cobbled-together anthology of her works after her death was a best-seller in the 1850s until it was replaced at the top of the charts by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Here’s another sample of her writing:
We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres, would ensue.
Yet, then and only then will mankind be ripe for this, when inward and outward freedom for Woman as much as for Man shall be acknowledged as a right, not yielded as a concession.
Another first should be added to Margaret Fuller’s list of credits at the beginning of this piece:
She was America’s first female public intellectual. Her mind and her pen never stopped, and her life was too short.
Fuller’s life has inspired several biographies, which are amply cited in a 2013 New Yorker article on Fuller’s life by Judith Thurman: An Unfinished Woman | The New Yorker
Thanks to https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Margaret_Fuller#Woman_in_the_Nineteenth_Century_.281845.29 for the quotations in this piece.
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