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Margaret Fuller: Journalist, Critic, Transcendentalist

America’s first feminist. The 19th century’s journalist, critic, transcendentalist, adventurer, Margaret Fuller.

The only known daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller, by John Plumbe, 1846. (Wikimedia Commons)

The only known daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller, by John Plumbe, 1846. (Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret Fuller was a woman in full in an age when most American women were still utterly creatures of hearth and home.  In the 1830s and ‘40s, when the country was still young and woodstoves needed tending, Margaret Fuller was diving into the life of the mind and into the world.

Running with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne.  Running ahead of Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Amelia Earhart.  Of Edith Wharton.  Hemingway.  A proto-feminist.  Transcendentalist.  Adventurer.  Revolutionary.  Free-thinker.

This hour, On Point:  a new biography lights up the remarkable life of Margaret Fuller.

-Tom Ashbrook


Megan Marshall, author of “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Fuller knew everyone, not just Emerson and Thoreau but the young Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well. When she donated a cow to Brook Farm, the utopian commune founded in the 1840s in Massachusetts, Hawthorne liked to call it the ‘transcendental heifer.’”

The New Republic “Ultimately Marshall chose to write Fuller’s story ‘from the inside, using the most direct evidence—her words, and those of her family and friends.’ Just as Fuller’s critical publications were ‘hybrids’ that included ‘personal observation’ and ‘confessional poetry,’ Marshall chose to use fictional techniques to enhance the ‘lights and deepen the shadows’ of Fuller’s life. She wanted to tell the fullest story of the Fuller story, ‘operatic in its emotional pitch, global in its dimensions.’ Shaping her narrative like a novel, Marshall brings the reader as close as possible to Fuller’s inner life and conveys the inspirational power she has achieved for several generations of women.”

The Nation “In America, celebrated public intellectuals who are women have, most often, been admitted to the ranks of high cultural regard only one at a time, and never without qualification. In the last century, for instance, the spotlight fell on Mary McCarthy in the 1940s and Susan Sontag in the 1960s, each of whom was smilingly referred to by the public intellectuals of their times as the ‘Dark Lady of American Letters.’ In the first half of the nineteenth century, although a fair number of her sex among abolitionists and suffragists were brilliant, it was Margaret Fuller, world-class talker and author of the influential treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), who stood in the allotted space, alone in a sea of gifted men, most of whom chose to denature her—she thinks like a man—as they could not believe they had to take seriously a thinking woman.”

Excerpt: “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life”

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  • Coastghost

    I just knew I reserved a special place in my heart for Nate Hawthorne:

    “It was such an awful joke that she should have resolved–in all sincerity, no doubt–to make herself the greatest, wisest, best woman of the age. And to that end she set to work on her strong, heavy, unpliable, and in many respects defective and evil nature, and adorned it with a mosaic of admirable qualities, such as she chose to possess; putting in here a splendid talent and there a moral excellence, and polishing each separate piece, and the whole together, till it seemed to shine afar and dazzle all who saw it. She took credit to herself for having been her own Redeemer, if not her own Creator.”

    And no, apparently, not Sheryl Sandberg. Or . . . .

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=714940886 Barbara Kernan

       This Hawthorne quote is hardly kind.  He points out first all that threatened him in her, and then claims that her efforts to improve her nature only “seemed to shine.”  For Hawthorne to say that she “took credit” for her own creation reveals his adherence to a status quo religion and his inability to full understand the transcendental moment or patriarchy.  “An awful joke” it may have been to have been cultivated by her father to be an intellectual in such an age…but a worse one, to my thinking, to have been judged by the likes of Hawthorne who believed he was open-minded.

      • Coastghost

        I have absolutely no idea of the context of the Hawthorne quote: I lifted it from my American ed. of THE FRANK MUIR BOOK, which Stein & Day gave an unwieldy title not to be reproduced here. Mr Muir failed to give a citation for this quote: I can’t tell whether it appeared in private correspondence or in some published account (my guess is the former). By some reckonings, Miss Fuller served as Hawthorne’s model for Hester Prynne, in which case he helped give her the literary immortality she managed not quite to win for herself. Reading and re-reading the quote, I’m not able to discern as you are that Hawthorne felt or thought himself “threatened” by any aspect Miss Fuller presented, and I’ll say nothing about either one’s theological innovationism or originality, except to note how “Pelagian” feminists tend to be towards their own gender but how “Augustinian” they tend to be towards the other gender in imputing ontological defectiveness or impairment. (I’m unaware of formal theological gender exemptions historically.) 
        I conclude here with one other paragraph from Mr Muir’s account:
        “There was a story that at a public meeting concerning Transcendentalism Miss Fuller rose in a moment of enthusiasm and cried, ‘I accept the universe!’ At which Carlyle growled, ‘By God, she’d better!’” Perhaps in an unguarded moment, Carlyle was practicing charity.

      • Michele

         I agree the quote speaks more to the character of the speaker than subject.

  • nj_v2

    I’ll be interested to hear this program. Bucky (R. Buckminster) Fuller—something of a personal hero for me—was a grandnephew of Margaret, and i haven’t learned much about her. It appears the genes responsible for her deep thinking were a family trait.

    (Will have to listen later, though; i’ll be busy during the live broadcast.)

  • Laur5000

    I look forward to learning more about this interesting person and her contributions. Thanks for the story, On Point!

  • Dale_in_williamsburg_1

    Was she friends with Aaron Burr?  He had the same views on women’s education and had raised his daughter using the same principles.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeffharmon52 Jeff Harmon

      Doubtful.  She was still in her twenties when he died at age 80.  She hadn’t written much of significance until several years after Burr died – that is, well into the 1840′s.

  • beckylemon

    Is it even remotely true that in addition to looking for Fuller’s body, searchers were looking for any writings that may have survived the shipwreck.  To possibly steal them?  

  • Coastghost

    Fuller read Ovid, too: but did she read Aristophanes?

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeffharmon52 Jeff Harmon

      Every educated person had both Latin and Greek then.  No doubt she knew of Aristophanes – in the original.

  • bfryer

    I first became familiar with Margaret Fuller in the 1980s, when a friend of mine named Carol Braverman presented a play at the Berkeley Repertory Theater called “The Margaret Ghost.” I wept for her…..to be a brilliant woman entrapped in a patriarchal culture in which she fought for a place was difficult indeed. And to be in unrequited love with Emerson must have worsened things too!

  • G_Leigh

    I believe it would be almost equally as amazing for Fuller to exist today as in the early 19th Century. I wonder who Megan Marshall believes would be Fuller’s peers today? The struggles inherent to a woman “bringing up” a family in 2013 are still oppressive, I personally find, and limit the possibilities that in college I learned to expect. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeffharmon52 Jeff Harmon

      Probably Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tim.cross.794 Tim Cross

    It would be a shame to refer to Margaret Fuller as America’s first feminist without recognizing the influence of Lydia Maria Child on Fuller.  Fuller walked the path that had been blazed by Child. Fuller was tutored by Child in Boston in the 1820s, and Fuller and every other feminist of her generation relied on Child’s landmark History and Condition of Women.   

  • DrewInGeorgia

    Interesting show, thanks for this.

  • KatherinePage

    In answer to Tom’s question—if Margaret Fuller were alive today, she would be Megan Marshall—or maybe Hillary Rodham Clinton!

  • G_Leigh

    I believe it would be just about as amazing for Fuller to exist today as she did in the early 19th Century. I’d be interested in knowing who Megan Marshall believes Fuller’s peers would be if she lived today? Outside of academic circles, I’d argue that the future I learned to expect for myself in university (as a woman) has been quashed at least in part by “bringing up” a family. 

  • bfryer

    someone needs to make a movie about her!

    • J__o__h__n

      Be careful what you wish for.  They might change the ending and have her swim to shore after saving the other passengers singlehandedly. 

  • Kumar Nochur

    The reading by the author of the Fuller passage on the equality of man and woman, each containing both elements that are to be harmonized had overtones of the Tantric two-in-one image of Ardhanarisvara, the eternal being of pure consciousness appearing as Shiva on the right and Shakti, his dynamic energy, on the left.  Was Fuller influenced in her feminist vision by exposure through her Trascendentalist comrades to the newly discovered translated scriptures from India that dazzled Emerson and Thoreau, including the Vishnu Purana, the Vedas, and the Bhagavat Gita, and possibly some Tantric texts as well? 

  • Owote

    Did Fuller die too early to be familiar with George Elliot?   There are obvious parallels in their two lives.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeffharmon52 Jeff Harmon

      Yes.  Fuller drowned about a full decade before Eliot published her first novel, Adam Bede, in 1859.

    • Brooke Opel

      George Elliot wrote a review of Fuller’s “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” a decade after it was published. The review is called “Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft” and was published in an October 13, 1855 issue of The Leader. So, while you make a good point in drawing a parallel between Fuller and Elliot, I think the correct question to ask is: What might have Elliot drawn from her reading of Fuller? 

      • Owote

        Thank you, Brooke Opel. This information— that Mary Ann Evans studied and reviewed a work by Margaret Fuller— is much appreciated. It seems that each has played a leading role in transcending common mindsets, opening minds. They might have known about each other prior to any “George Eliot” publications— which brings up another question: What might Margaret Fuller have drawn from reading reviews written by Mary Ann Evans (or whatever pen-name this person used)?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Barbara-Elsbeth/100003274141829 Barbara Elsbeth

    ‘Speaking of transcendence…I was literally transported. This morning’s introduction to Margaret Fuller via “on point” was superb!!! Thank you!  Barbara Elsbeth

  • Joanne Johnson

    I learned many, many, things when I joined the Margaret Fuller 
    “House” at 10 yrs  old. Arts and crafts,swimming,camping,cooking and much more was part of its programs. Now I can read about the sites founder

  • Isernia

    We have been fascinated by the life of Margaret Fuller for many years though we missed this ON POINT program. Just returned from vacation, glanced at our bookshelves to find THE ROMAN YEARS OF MARGARET FULLER by Joseph Deiss and MARGARET FULLER, An American Romantic Life by Charles Capper both recommended reading on this extraordinary woman.  In Rome, we see constant references to her in historical museum displays, most recently during the celebration of the anniversary of the l849 Roman Republic constitution.  On visits to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Ma., a stop at Buckminster Fuller’s grave site brought to mind the family connections.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/F7BE75OEJ4JLOQIHW5MFDGC5QI BruceD

    I read an exceptional bio of Fuller titled “The Many Lives of Margaret Fuller” by a talented writer name Mattheson a couple months ago which I doubt will be surpassed any time soon. Margaret’s equal in the feminist movement will seldom be equaled in any age. 

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