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The Woman Who Dreamed Too Much

The Posthumous Triumph of a Genius of Conversation, a Fisher of Men, a Hero of Love and Contemplation

MY HEART IS A LARGE KINGDOM Selected Letters of Margaret Fuller; Edited by Robert N. Hudspeth; Cornell University Press: 336 pp., $29.95

April 15, 2001|CRISTINA NEHRING | Cristina Nehring teaches literature at UCLA and Universite de Paris XIII. Her essays have appeared in Harper's, Michigan Quarterly Review and The American Scholar

When Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a shipwreck in 1822, he was 30. He had fathered six children; three died, two others he was judged "unfit" to raise. He had married two teenagers; both he abandoned, one committed suicide on that occasion. At the time of his death, he was living out of wedlock with a new woman. England mourned when Shelley died, and Lord Byron called him "the best and least selfish man."

When Margaret Fuller drowned in a shipwreck in 1850, she was 40. She had had her first lover-and child-less than two years before. She had just completed the manuscript she hoped would bring her literary renown. Baby, book and boyfriend perished with her when the ship that was to take her home from Italy (where she had covered the failed revolutions) capsized 100 yards off the coast of New York. And yet, America did not mourn when Fuller died. For all her renown as journalist, Transcendentalist, public intellectual and feminist-for all her legendary intelligence and, not least, countless friends-her death met with cross-continental relief. "Margaret's Euthanasia," an old friend called it. "It was manifest that she was not to come back to struggle against chilled affections There was no position for her like."

Why not? Fuller had her child out of wedlock. Indeed, though she claimed she had married the father since, it was unclear how she should have done so without a papal decree, given his Catholicism and Italy's moral climate. So she was returning to New England a fallen woman, an embarrassment. It didn't help that her lover was 11 years her junior and impoverished. Intellectual genius or not, she was widely considered irredeemable, and sympathy for her was discouraged as not merely superfluous but, worse, egotistical. "If Margaret had lived," intoned her brother William, "there would have been a thousand cares for her to encounter." Ergo, he told their mother, grief for her was "tinctured with selfishness." Indeed, as luminaries like James Freeman Clarke soon said, Fuller's "life was complete as far as experiences and development went."

Complete, indeed. Fuller was on the brink of a spectacular literary career when she died. "On the brink" is right, for she had not yet attained the sort of fame for her writing that she craved and would almost certainly have earned had she lived. Since adolescence, she was (unlike Shelley, who had great family wealth, which he squandered) beset with teetering financial responsibilities (after her father died she worked as a school mistress to support her siblings and mother) and, perhaps more important, a nervousness about writing for the public. "What a vulgarity there seems in writing to this multitude!" she confided to a friend. "We ... have not yet made ourselves known to a single soul, and shall we address those still more unknown? Shall we multiply our connections, and thus make them still more superficial?"

The works she published in her lifetime are important; "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" is the first significant feminist tract in America-and it is laden with good sense. But it is not great. There is something exhaustively researched and exhausting about it. Fuller rakes up every myth and tale and historical anecdote in the annals of humanity to prove that women can achieve as much as men. The idea is courageous for its time, but its presentation is timid-the work of a young and overly conscientious writer.

Her other important work, the dispatches from Europe, are far better; significantly, they hail from the final years of her short life. By that time, she was winning trust in her public written voice. She had claimed what she once thought the privilege of genius: "to take the public for a confidant." Her metaphors flow richly and naturally; her mind leaps confidently from stem to blossom without feeling that it must alight upon the whole garden.

She was also at the brink of domestic and romantic happiness. After decades of unreciprocated affections, she had found a man who would live and die for her. Their child, Angelino, was 1 year old when he disappeared with her into the sea.

How could her country have taken her death with such equanimity? In many ways, Fuller's life, like that of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died half a century earlier, is harder proof of the predicament of women in her day than anything she wrote of it.

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