Margaret Fuller, Trailblazing Journalist and Reformer
By Sarah K. Bolton | On December 9, 2020 | Updated September 2, 2022 | Comments (0)
Margaret Fuller (born Sarah Margaret Fuller; later Margaret Fuller Ossoli; 1810 – 1850) was a well-known figure in her lifetime as a women’s rights advocate, abolitionist, editor, and journalist. For a time, she was considered the best-read person in New England and became the first woman to gain access to Harvard’s library.
In 1844, Margaret joined the New York Herald Tribune as America’s first full-time book reviewer. In 1846, she became the Tribune’s first woman editor and first female foreign correspondent.
After spending four tumultuous and productive years in Europe, Fuller died tragically in a ship accident upon returning to America, leaving a legacy that was controversial as it was unique.
A staunch advocate of women’s rights (especially in the areas of education and employment), she was also active in the areas of prison reform and was an abolitionist before the Civil War. Many reformers who came after her, including Susan B. Anthony, cited Margaret Fuller as an inspiration.
Because her life was cut short, she didn’t have time to publish many full-length works (and devoted much of her career to being an editor, journalist, and teacher), but her 1845 book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was her magnum opus. Though her renown and reputation faded shortly after her death, her life and work are certainly deserving of reconsideration.
The following biography of Margaret Fuller has been adapted from Lives of Girls Who Became Famous by Sarah Knowles Bolton, 1886/1914, hence the somewhat florid language.
A precocious child
Margaret Fuller, in some respects the most remarkable of American women, lived a pathetic life and died a tragic death. Without money or beauty, she became the idol of an immense circle of friends; men and women were alike her devotees. It is the old story: that the woman with brains makes lasting conquests of hearts, while the pretty face holds its sway only for a month or a year.
Margaret, born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts on May 23, 1810, was the oldest child of a scholarly lawyer, Mr. Timothy Fuller, and of a sweet-tempered, devoted mother. The father, with small means, had one absorbing purpose in life—to see that each of his children was finely educated. To do this, and make ends meet, was a struggle.
Very fond of his oldest child, Margaret, the father determined that she should be as well educated as his boys. In those days there were no colleges for girls and none where they might enter with their brothers, so Mr. Fuller was obliged to teach his daughter after the wearing work of the day.
The bright child began to read Latin at age six, but was necessarily kept up late for the recitation. When a little later she was walking in her sleep, and dreaming strange dreams, he did not see that he was overtaxing both her body and brain.
When not reading, Margaret enjoyed her mother’s little garden of flowers: “I loved to gaze on the roses, the violets, the lilies, the pinks; my mother’s hand had planted them, and they bloomed for me. I kissed them, and pressed them to my bosom with passionate emotions. An ambition swelled my heart to be as beautiful, as perfect as they.”
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A studious teen
Margaret grew to fifteen with an exuberance of life and affection, which the chilling atmosphere of that New England home somewhat suppressed, and with an increasing love for books and cultured people.
“I rise a little before five,” she wrote, “walk an hour, and then practice on the piano till seven, when we breakfast. Next, I read French — Sismondi’s Literature of the South of Europe — till eight; then two or three lectures in Brown’s Philosophy. About half-past nine I go to Mr. Perkins’s school, and study Greek till twelve, when, the school being dismissed, I recite, go home, and practice again till dinner, at two. Then, when I can, I read two hours in Italian.”
And why all this hard work for a girl of fifteen? The “all-powerful motive of ambition,” she claimed. “I am determined on distinction, which formerly I thought to win at an easy rate; but now I see that long years of labor must be given.”
Two years after, at seventeen, she wrote: “I am studying Madame de Staël, Epictetus, Milton, Racine, and the Castilian ballads, with great delight … I am engrossed in reading the elder Italian poets, beginning with Berni, from whom I shall proceed to Pulci and Politian.”
A well-loved figure
Witty, learned, imaginative, she was conceded to be the best conversationist in any circle. She possessed the charm that every woman may possess — appreciation of others, and interest in their welfare.
This sympathy unlocked every heart to her. All loved her. Now it was a serving girl who told Margaret her troubles and her cares; now it was a distinguished man of letters. She was always an inspiration. Men never talked idle, commonplace talk with her; she could appreciate the best of their minds and hearts, and they gave it. She was fond of social life, and no party seemed complete without her.
Starting to teach and a breakdown in health
At age twenty-two, she began to study German, and in three months was reading with ease Goethe’s Faust, Tasso and Iphigenia, Körner, Richter, and Schiller. She greatly admired Goethe, desiring, like him, “always to have some engrossing object of pursuit.” Besides all this study she was teaching six little children, to help bear the expenses of the household.
The family at this time moved to Groton, a great privation for Margaret, who enjoyed and needed the culture of Boston society. The teaching was continued because her brothers must be sent to Harvard College, and this required money; not the first nor the last time that sisters have worked to give their brothers an education superior to their own.
At last, the constitution, never robust, broke down, and for nine days Margaret lay hovering between this world and the next.
While Margaret recovered, her father was taken suddenly with cholera and died after two days’ illness. He was sadly missed, for at heart he was devoted to his family. When the estate was settled, there was little left for each; so for Margaret life would be more laborious than ever.
She had expected to visit Europe with Harriet Martineau, who was just returning home from a visit to this country, but the father’s death crushed this long-cherished and ardently-prayed-for journey. She must stay at home and work for others.
Margaret now obtained a situation as a teacher of French and Latin in Bronson Alcott‘s school. Here she was appreciated by both master and pupils. Mr. Alcott said, “I think her the most brilliant talker of the day. She has a quick and comprehensive wit, a firm command of her thoughts, and a speech to win the ear of the most cultivated.” She taught advanced classes in German and Italian, besides having several private pupils.
She was passionately fond of music and art, saying, “I have been very happy with four hundred and seventy designs of Raphael in my possession for a week.” She loved nature like a friend, paying homage to rocks and woods and flowers. She said, “I hate not to be beautiful when all around is so.”
Beginning as a speaker and editor
After teaching with Mr. Alcott, she became the principal teacher in a school at Providence, R.I. Here, as ever, she showed great wisdom both with children and adults. After two years in Providence she returned to Boston, and in 1839 began a series of parlor lectures, or “conversations,” as they were called.
This seemed a strange thing for a woman, when public speaking by her sex was almost unknown. These talks were given weekly, from eleven o’clock till one, to twenty-five or thirty of the most cultivated women of the city.
Now the subject of discussion was Grecian mythology; now it was fine arts, education, or the relations of a woman to the family, the church, society, and literature. In these gatherings, Margaret was at her best — brilliant, eloquent, charming.
During this time a few gifted men, Emerson, Channing, and others, decided to start a literary and philosophical magazine called the Dial. Probably no woman in the country would have been chosen as the editor, save Margaret Fuller. She accepted the position, and for four years managed the journal ably, writing for it some valuable essays.
Some of these were published later in her book on Literature and Art. Her Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a learned and vigorous essay on woman’s place in the world, first appeared in part in the Dial. Of this work, she said, in closing it:
“After taking a long walk, early one most exhilarating morning, I sat down to work, and did not give it the last stroke till near nine in the evening. Then I felt a delightful glow, as if I had put a good deal of my true life in it, and as if, should I go away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on the earth.”
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A writer and translator
Margaret Fuller had published, besides these works, two books of translations from German, and a sketch of travel called Summer on the Lakes. Her experience was like that of most authors who are beginning—some fame, but no money realized. All this time she was frail in health, overworked, struggling against odds to make a living for herself and those she loved.
Margaret was now thirty-four. Her sister was married, the brothers had finished their college course, and she was about to accept an offer from the New York Tribune to become one of its constant contributors, an honor that few women would have received.
Early in December 1844, Margaret moved to New York and became a member of Horace Greeley’s newspaper family. Her literary work here was that of “the best literary critic whom America has yet seen.”
A European journey
A year and a half later an opportunity came for Margaret to go to Europe. Now, at last, she would see the art galleries of the old world, and places rich in history, like Rome. Still, there was the trouble of scanty means and poor health from overwork.
She said, “A noble career is yet before me if I can be unimpeded by cares. If our family affairs could now be so arranged that I might be tolerably tranquil for the next six or eight years, I should go out of life better satisfied with the page I have turned in it than I shall if I must still toil on.”
In Paris, Margaret attended the Academy lectures, saw much of George Sand, waded through melting snow at Avignon to see Laura’s tomb, and at last was in Italy, the country she had longed to see.
Here she settled down to systematic work, trying to keep her expenses for six months within four hundred dollars. Still, when most cramped for means herself, she was always generous. Once, when living on a mere pittance, she loaned fifty dollars to a needy artist.
In New York she gave an impecunious author five hundred dollars to publish his book, and, of course, never received a dollar in return. Yet the race for life was wearing her out. So tired was she that she said, “I should like to go to sleep, and be born again into a state where my young life should not be prematurely taxed.”
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Falling in love in Italy
Margaret befriended Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, and was enthusiastic for Roman liberty. All those dreadful months she ministered to the wounded and dying in the hospitals, and was their “saint,” as they called her. But there was another reason why Margaret Fuller loved Italy.
Soon after her arrival in Rome, as she was attending vespers at St. Peter’s with a party of friends, she became separated from them. Failing to find them, seeing her anxious face, a young Italian came up to her, and politely offered to assist her.
Unable to regain her friends, Angelo Ossoli walked with her to her home, though he could speak no English, and she almost no Italian. She learned afterward that he was of a noble and refined family; that his brothers were in the Papal army, and that he was highly respected.
After this, he saw Margaret once or twice when she left Rome for some months. On her return, he renewed the acquaintance, shy and quiet though he was, for her influence seemed great. His father, the Marquis Ossoli, had just died, and Margaret, with her large heart, sympathized with him.
Finally, he confessed to Margaret that he loved her and that he “must marry her or be miserable.” She refused to listen to him as a lover, said he must marry a younger woman—she was thirty-seven, and he but thirty—but she would be his friend. For weeks he was dejected and unhappy.
She debated the matter with her own heart. Should she, who had had many admirers, now marry a man her junior, and not of surpassing intellect, like her own? If she married him, it must be kept a secret till his father’s estate was settled, for marriage with a Protestant would spoil all prospect of an equitable division.
Love conquered, and she married the young Marquis Ossoli in December 1847. He gave Margaret the kind of love which lasts after marriage, veneration of her ability and her goodness.
“Such tender, unselfish love,” recalled a friend of Margaret’s. “I have rarely before seen; it made green her days, and gave her an expression of peace and serenity which before was a stranger to her. When she was ill, he nursed and watched over her with the tenderness of a woman. No service was too trivial, no sacrifice too great for him. ‘How sweet it is to do little things for you,’ he would say.”
To her mother, Margaret wrote, though she did not tell her secret, “I have not been so happy since I was a child, as during the last six weeks.”
The horrors of war
But days of anxiety soon came, with all the horrors of war. Ossoli was constantly exposed to death in that dreadful siege of Rome. Then Rome fell, and with it the hopes of Ossoli and his wife.
There would be neither fortune nor home for a Liberal now — only exile. Very sadly Margaret said goodbye to the soldiers in the hospitals, brave fellows whom she honored, who in the midst of death itself, would cry “Viva l’Italia!”
But before leaving Rome, a day’s journey must be made to Rieta, at the foot of the Umbrian Apennines. And for what? The most precious thing of Margaret’s life was there — her baby. The fair child, with blue eyes and light hair like her own, had already been named by the people in the house, Angelino, from his beauty.
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Becoming a mother
Margaret had always been fond of children, and now a new joy had come into her heart, a child of her own.
She wrote to her mother: “In him, I find satisfaction, for the first time, to the deep wants of my heart. Nothing but a child can take the worst bitterness out of life, and break the spell of loneliness. I shall not be alone in other worlds, whenever Eternity may call me … I wake in the night — I look at him. He is so beautiful and good, I could die for him!”
When Ossoli and Margaret reached Rieta, what was their horror to find their child worn to a skeleton, half-starved through the falsity of a nurse. For four weeks the distressed parents coaxed him back to life, till the sweet beauty of the rounded face came again, and then they carried him to Florence, where, despite poverty and exile, they were happy.
Considering a return to America
Margaret’s friends now urged her to return to America. She had nearly finished a history of Rome in this trying time, 1848, and could better attend to its publication in this country. Ossoli, though coming to a land of strangers, could find something to help, support the family.
To save expense, they started from Leghorn, May 17, 1850, in the Elizabeth, a sailing vessel, though Margaret dreaded the two months’ voyage, and had premonitions of disaster. She wrote:
“I have a vague expectation of some crisis — I know not what. But it has long seemed that, in the year 1850, I should stand on a plateau in the ascent of life, when I should be allowed to pause for a while, and take more clear and commanding views than ever before. Yet my life proceeds as regularly as the fates of a Greek tragedy, and I can but accept the pages as they turn …
I shall embark, praying fervently that it may not be my lot to lose my boy at sea, either by unsolaced illness, or amid the howling waves; or, if so, that Ossoli, Angelo, and I may go together, and that the anguish may be brief.”
For a few days, all went well on shipboard. Then the noble Captain Hasty died of small-pox, and was buried at sea. Angelino took this dread disease, and for a time his life was despaired of, but he finally recovered and became a great pet with the sailors. Margaret was putting the last touches to her book. Ossoli and young Sumner, brother of Charles, gave each other lessons in Italian and English, and thus the weeks went by.
A tragedy in the making
On Thursday, July 18, after two months, the Elizabeth stood off the Jersey coast, between Cape May and Barnegat. Trunks were packed, good nights were spoken, and all were happy, for they would be in New York on the morrow.
At nine that night a gale arose; at midnight it was a hurricane; at four o’clock, Friday morning, the ship struck Fire Island beach. The passengers sprung from their berths. “We must die!” said Sumner to Mrs. Hasty. “Let us die calmly, then!” was the response of the widow of the captain.
One of the sailors suggested that if each passenger would sit on a plank, holding on by ropes, they would attempt to push him or her to land. Margaret was urged, but she hesitated, unless all three could be saved. Every moment the danger increased.
Margaret had finally been induced to try the plank. The steward had taken Angelino in his arms, promising to save him or die with him, when a strong sea swept the forecastle, and all went down together.
Ossoli caught the rigging for a moment, but Margaret sank at once. When last seen, she was seated at the foot of the foremast, still clad in her white nightdress, with her hair fallen loose upon her shoulders. Angelino and the steward were washed up on the beach twenty minutes later, both dead, though warm. Margaret’s prayer was answered—that they “might go together, and that the anguish might be brief.”
The pretty boy of two years was dressed in a child’s frock taken from his mother’s trunk, which had come to shore, laid in a seaman’s chest, and buried in the sand, while the sailors, who loved him, stood around, weeping. His body was finally removed to Mt. Auburn, and buried in the family lot.
Bodies never recovered
The bodies of Margaret and Ossoli were never recovered. The only papers of value that came to shore were their love letters, now deeply prized. The book ready for publication was never found.
When those on shore were asked why they did not launch the life-boat, they replied, “Oh! if we had known there were any such persons of importance on board, we should have tried to do our best!”
Thus, at forty, died one of the most gifted women in America, when her work seemed just begun. To us, who see how the world needed her, her death is a mystery. She filled her life with charities and her mind with knowledge, and such are ready for the progress of Eternity.
More about Margaret Fuller
- Summer on the Lakes (1844)
- Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845)
- Papers on Literature and Art (1846)
- Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852)
- At Home and Abroad (1856)
- Life Without and Life Within (1858)
- Margaret Fuller (Marchesa Ossoli) by Julia Ward Howe (1883)
- The Essential Margaret Fuller by Jeffrey Steele, 1992
- Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life by Charles Capper, 2010
- The Lives of Margaret Fuller by John Matteson, 2012
- Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall, 2014
More about Margaret Fuller
- “An unfinished woman: The desires of Margaret Fuller” by Judith Thurman
- Margaret Fuller and Her Conversations