MARGARET FULLER’S SPIRITUAL LEGACY
Rev. Dr. Dorothy May Emerson
December 28, 2010, 8 pm
According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
What makes a person great? What shapes the kind of person who will act boldly for justice? What enables a person to bring forth that which is within them to save themselves and the world?
One of the uses of history is to provide us with role models. In entering their stories, we can gain insight on the challenges we face in our own lives. We might even receive moments of insight and grace that enable us to let our own greatness emerge more powerfully.
Margaret Fuller is one such role model. The struggles she faced in her life and how she overcame her limitations to become great can encourage us to ask ourselves such questions as:
• How do we know we have something important to contribute to the world?
• How do we turn the difficulties we encounter in life into opportunities for growth?
• How do we find the courage and support to bring forth what is within us to create?
Barry Andrews, editor of The Spirit Leads, a recent book of Margaret Fuller’s writings, describes her as a “religious radical, avant-garde cultural critic, feminist, progressive social theorist, investigative journalist, war correspondent [and] public intellectual” —and he left out public educator, which I think was one of her most important roles. Any one or two of these roles would have made her an important person.
But she did all this in a short life of only 40 years, in a society where women had almost no rights, where her access to education—and even to libraries—was limited, and where she had to struggle with difficult economic circumstances.
On the plus side, she was born a Unitarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into an educated but not wealthy family. The house where she was born and lived for the first 16 years of her life still stands. It now serves the community as the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, something I think Margaret would very much appreciate. When she was an older teenager, the family moved to a more upscale neighborhood close to Harvard College.
Her father, Timothy Fuller, was a lawyer. In those days, girls did not receive much education beyond basic reading and just enough science to be able to teach their children, but Timothy saw that his daughter had real ability and guided her in a strict classical education. By the time Margaret was 3-1/2 years old, he was teaching her how to read and write; at 4-1/2 he taught her arithmetic; by the age of 5, she was learning English and Latin grammar.
Her mother, Margarett Crane Fuller, taught her daughter to appreciate the beauty of nature. As a young girl, Margaret loved walking in the gardens her mother created around her house in Cambridge. She later wrote about how happy she was to be among the flowers.
Even as a child, Margaret thought deeply about life. Later she remembered wondering about her life’s purpose. She wrote in a letter to a friend:
I had stopped myself one day on the stairs, and asked how I came to be here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?
Her life would lead her on many paths in search of answers to such questions.
In terms of her education, she was mostly taught by her father, with a few periods here and there of attendance at various schools. When she was 9, and again as a teenager, she went to the Port School in Cambridge. This school prepared boys for Harvard but also allowed girls to attend, quite rare for those days. When she was 11, she attended Dr. Park’s Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies, where she studied Italian, French, and geography, and took dancing lessons.
Then, she was 14, the Fullers sent her to Susan Prescott’s more traditional Young Ladies’ Seminary in Groton, because they were worried their daughter was so smart and spoke her mind so forcefully that she might be “unmarriageable.”
During much of this time her father was in Washington DC, serving in the US Congress. However, he monitored her studies via letters he and Margaret exchanged almost daily. After her often negative experiences in the various schools, at the age of 15 and with her father’s assistance, Margaret Fuller created her own course of self-study. She had already been reading books in her family’s well-stocked library, but now she set forth to read and study both the classics and newer writings from Europe in a more systematic manner.
While still a teenager, Margaret became friends with a group of young Harvard students, many of whom were preparing for ministry in the Unitarian church. German philosophy, literature, and poetry were the “craze.” Margaret borrowed books from them and engaged them in intense discussions of what they were reading. Among these friends were two whose Bicentennial is also this year—James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing.
When Margaret was in her 20s her family moved to a farm in Groton. Moving to the country was her father’s idea, and as an unmarried woman, she was required to go along. She hated the isolation and resented having to leave her friends, but she came to appreciate what she learned in those years and called that period of her life her “graduate school.” As she reflected back a few years later:
There … in solitude the mind acquired more power of concentration and discerned the beauty of a stricter method. There the heart was awakened to sympathize with the ignorant, … and hope for the seemingly worthless, for a need was felt of realizing the only reality, the divine soul of the visible creation, … which cannot permit evil to be permanent or its aim of beauty to be eventually frustrated in the smallest particular.
The isolation gave her time to focus on her reading and study. This is where she immersed herself in the German romantics and began translating Goethe and writing his biography, which she never completed. She began also writing essays for publication and was first paid as a teacher of children other than her family. Teaching and writing became her dual career.
While in Groton, Margaret’s father died suddenly of cholera. This is when her financial problems started. For the rest of her life, she had to struggle to support herself and help her family. This was no easy task for a woman in the first half of the 19th century.
Shortly after her father’s death, Margaret was invited to Concord to visit Ralph Waldo Emerson and his new wife, Lidian. Waldo, as he was called, was the leading light of the new Transcendentalist movement, much of which was influenced by the German romantics Margaret had been studying since she was a teenager.
On this first visit to Concord, she met Bronson Alcott, who shortly thereafter offered her a position as teacher at his Temple School in Boston. While the experience may have been enlightening, her purpose had been to earn money and Bronson, who was not known for his financial stability, never paid her.
Fortunately she was soon offered a well paid position at Greene Street School in Providence, Rhode Island. While in Providence, she also began offering educational programs for adults, primarily women.
During her time in Providence, she made another trip to Concord where she was invited to participate in the circle of mostly men who were developing the ideas of transcendentalism. Later they asked her to be the first editor of their journal, The Dial.
Over the next eight years, Margaret visited Concord a number of times and found it—and the people she engaged with here—an important source of inspiration in her life. She met Elizabeth Hoar and Sarah Alden Ripley, two well educated women who tutored and taught school. And, she met Henry David Thoreau, the great Naturalist writer.
She often stayed with the Emersons. As she wrote in a letter to Waldo: “I like to be in your library when you are out of it. It seems a sacred place. I came here to find a book, that I might feel more life and be worthy to sleep, but there is so much soul here I do not need a book.”
She also stayed in the Old Manse with Nathaniel and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, and with her sister, Ellen, and poet husband Ellery Channing in their small cottage, where her namesake Margaret Fuller Channing was born.
While her time in Concord was an important intellectual and spiritual resource for her, Margaret had pressing practical issues to deal with, namely the support of her family and herself.
After 18 months in Providence, Margaret, now in her late 20s, returned to Boston. She began two projects that would cement her reputation as a thought leader. She launched her first series of Conversations and edited the first three volumes of the Transcendentalist journal, the Dial.
In her role as editor, she helped shape perhaps the first purely American literary and philosophical movement. She also wrote many of the articles in the journal. At first she wrote commentary on other authors and ideas, and then on the art and music she experienced in Boston. Before long, though, she turned to writing about what she experienced most directly in her life—the inferior status of women.
The Conversations began in 1839 and continued through 1844. She invited women in her wide network to participate and encouraged them to invite their friends. They each paid a fee for participation, thus enabling Margaret to support herself and help her family. Each series had a different theme, and as time went on these themes became increasingly political.
At each meeting, she began with a presentation on subjects such as art, history, mythology, literature, or nature, followed by discussions and debates. The goal was to encourage women to consider and discuss "great questions" like: "What were we born to do? How shall we do it?”
Many notable women attended these Conversations, including Lidian Emerson, Sarah Alden Ripley, Lydia Maria Child, Eliza Farrar, Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody—to name just a few. The Conversations are considered a major contribution to the development of organized American feminism, as many of the participants went on to become leaders in the emerging women’s suffrage movement.
Throughout her life, Margaret spent time reflecting on her experiences and recording her memories and observations in letters to friends and in journals. In her early 30s during one such contemplative period, she recalled a mystical experience she had when she was 21.
It was Thanksgiving and she had gone to church to please her father, but like so many young adults did not relate to the service. She was struggling with a disappointing relationship and could not accept the smiling people and the benevolent God being preached in her Unitarian church. As soon as the service was over, she ran into the fields, walking for miles in the barren late fall New England landscape. There she had a spiritual awakening that served as a source of inspiration for the rest of her life.
First she stopped at a stream she describes as “shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered leaves.” Pretty much how she was feeling, I imagine. “I marveled that it did not lose itself in the earth,” she wrote to a friend. Continuing on her walk, she came to a pool surrounded by thick trees. Here’s where things began to change.
Suddenly the sun shown with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover, which it will use when it has been unkind all a cold autumn day. And, even then, passed into my thought a beam from its true sun, from its native sphere, which has never since departed from me.
She remembered the questions she asked herself as a child about who she was. She “saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under [the] limitations of time and space and human nature.” And then she recognized something about the power of the soul: “I saw, also, that it must do it.” She understood that the soul must learn to act in spite of it all, and “that it must make all this false true,—and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God.” Reminds me of that Indigo Girls song: “How long till my soul gets it right? Can any human being ever reach that kind of light?”
In 1843, Margaret was invited by James Freeman Clarke and his sister Sarah to travel to the Great Lakes. This trip brought her into contact with the difficulties of frontier life for the immigrants there and with the devastation westward expansion had on indigenous peoples. Originally planning to write a travel journal, her book Summer on the Lakes became more of a critique of life in what was then understood by those on the east coast as “the west.”
Universalist Horace Greeley, publisher of the New-York Daily Tribune, was very impressed by this book and by her Dial essay, entitled “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women.” He offered her two opportunities that widened her influence considerably. He invited her to come to New York to write a front-page column for his widely read newspaper, and he encouraged her to expand her Dial essay on gender equality into a book.
So in 1844, at the age of 34, she went to a friend’s country home on the Hudson River to work on the book that made her famous, Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
From our perspective in the early 21st century, it’s very difficult for us to understand the enormity of what it meant for Margaret Fuller to question the gender norms of her day a mere half century after the formation of this country. Biographer Bell Chevigny asserts: “To conceive of women differently was tantamount … to challenging the assumptions on which the nation was built.” To say nothing of the religious assumptions of the Christianity, even the Unitarianism, of the day.
To do this, Bell Chevigny continues: “She had to create a way of life that was not yet possible and a self whose nature was without local example.” (repeat) Mahatma Gandhi said something similar in these often quoted words: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” What amazes me is how someone like Margaret Fuller could do this two centuries ago.
Fortunately, she was not the only woman on this journey at the time. Other women were awakening to the limitations of their proscribed roles. Margaret Fuller’s deep friendships with both women and men and her Conversations with women helped shape her new ideas. Later she met women in Europe who were living radically different lives from the norms she grew up with.
Still, she was the one who articulated a new vision for the relationship between men and women. “A new manifestation is at hand,” she declared, envisioning a time when women and men would share equally in all aspects of life. Perhaps her most radical new idea, though, was that she based her rationale for equality on an understanding of male and female as fluid forms, something we are just now coming more fully to comprehend. Here’s how she put it:
Male and female represent 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.
Margaret Fuller wrote that she enjoyed being a woman, but constantly felt restricted by the role of woman. When she spoke or wrote intelligently she was often complimented as having a masculine mind. Her goal for herself and for society was to integrate the two, so that women would be free “as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her.”
Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published in 1845. Within a week of publication the entire edition of 1500 books was sold to booksellers. This small volume ignited the emerging women’s suffrage movement and made Margaret Fuller a major spokesperson for women’s rights.
By the time the book was published, she was in New York City, where she spent 18 months writing her front page columns in the New-York Daily Tribune. She alternated between literary and arts criticism and social commentary. Increasingly she considered the implications of economics as formative for social values and relationships. Her widely read columns raised the consciousness of the American people about the social conditions of a broad range of people, including prisoners and those living in poverty. She became increasingly alarmed at inequities, especially those resulting from industrialization. And she spoke out for the rights the oppressed in all circumstances.
Margaret Fuller was one of the early holistic thinkers. Just as she understood male and female as in fluid relationship, she also understood body and spirit as inseparable. One could not expect people to develop spiritually if their bodies were suffering from deprivation. Nor could any people develop when some were being denied basic necessities of life.
In 1846, she finally had the opportunity to make her long dreamed of trip to Europe. She began her journey in England and Scotland, then went to France, and then to Italy, where she became an active participant in the democratic revolution of 1848. She continued in her role of journalist, sending dispatches back via ship to be published in the Tribune. Thus she became one of the first important foreign correspondents, providing for Americans eye-witness reports on developments in Europe.
As with much of her writing, her goal was to encourage and inspire the establishment of what she understood as true democracy, which would enable every person to develop their gifts and become contributing members of society. She increasingly sought to shift public attention from the self-reliant individual to the just society, from the reformation of the self to the reform of society as a whole.
It might seem as if she were moving away from the self-culture promoted by other Transcendentalists, but in a sense she was simply taking it a step further by shifting the application of the principles of transformation from self to society. In her commentary on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, she noted that the responsibility of the writer is “to admonish the community … and arouse it to nobler energy.” This is what she sought to do in her dispatches from abroad.
Each country she visited brought her into connection with notable writers and thinkers and expanded her thinking about the meaning of life and possibilities for the future. She discovered new attitudes about women and new social mores, which opened new horizons for her.
In Italy, she truly came into her own. Freed from much of the constriction of New England Puritanism, she found new freedom to be herself. She fell in love with a nobleman, the Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and gave birth to their child “Nino.” It is unclear whether or not they actually married, but given the political situation and the fact that she was not Catholic, it would have been difficult to find a priest to marry them. However, they did find a priest to baptize the child.
When the Roman Revolution failed, Margaret and her family fled to Florence. In 1850, they decided to return to the United States. Short on funds, they booked passage on a freighter, essentially a sailboat. It went aground on a reef in sight of the Fire Island (New York) shore and all three drowned, along with the manuscript of the book Margaret had been writing, an eye-witness account of the revolution.
Despite her tragic death, Margaret Fuller remained one of the most influential and best known women in America well into the beginning of the 20th century. In her amazing life, she wrote and published four books, and nearly 350 articles, poems, and essays. She helped define Transcendentalism and influenced both the women’s suffrage movement and the growing movements of social reform. Now another century later, she is coming back into prominence through this Bicentennial.
Throughout her life, Margaret Fuller continually sought new insights and new understandings. Amidst the practical demands of her life, her reading and conversations, reinforced by periodic mystical visions, kept reminding her of the larger purposes of life. Usually these visions came at times of disappointment, conflict and confusion, when she could have easily given up. Over time, she learned that difficulties often led to new insights and growth. She wrote:
Very early I knew that the only object in life was to grow. I was often false to this knowledge, in idolatries of particular objects, or impatient longings for happiness, but I have never lost sight of it, have always been controlled by it, and this first gift of love has never been superseded by a later love.
Margaret Fuller had to fight long and hard to be herself, to carve out her own way in the world, and to bring forth that which was within her. It may seem like we have it easier these days. We don’t have the same limitations due to gender restrictions, but prejudice and oppression still challenge many of us.
Margaret Fuller believed society should be directed by “the divine obligation of love and mutual aid between human beings.” It is now up to us to continue to work together to bring that vision into reality. In so doing, her legacy continues through us, as we continue the process of creating greater justice and equity in our world. May it be so.