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This is how the Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Matteson begins his new and gripping biography of Margaret Fuller: "[She] was, in her time, the best-read woman in America and the one most renowned for her intelligence."
As Matteson tells us, Fuller was a brilliant writer, a fiery social critic, an ardent feminist before that term had even been invented — and a leading female figure in New England's transcendentalist movement, counting the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allen Poe among her friends.
She edited America's first avant-garde intellectual magazine, and was the first foreign correspondent, male or female, for an American newspaper. But in spite of her many achievements, Matteson writes, "if the ordinary person knows one thing about Margaret Fuller," it's " ... how her life came to an end."
Fuller's was a spectacularly tragic death: At the age of 40, she was returning from Europe with her Italian husband and their baby boy. The small ship they were on was within sight of Fire Island, New York, when it ran aground. People on the beach watched and did nothing as the waves pushed and battered the boat, which broke apart and sank. Most of the passengers made it to shore, but Margaret Fuller, her husband, and their baby perished.
So why is a woman of such impressive accomplishment and brilliance and former fame remembered mostly for the way she died? And why is it worth knowing the full measure of who Fuller was today? Matteson answers both of those questions and many more, in his new biography, "The Lives of Margaret Fuller."
- John Matteson, author, "The Lives of Margaret Fuller."
Excerpt: "The Lives of Margaret Fuller" by John Matteson
TIMOTHY FULLER JR., BEING A MAN OF GREAT ENERGY AND GENERally keen perception, saw some aspects of his surroundings with extreme clarity. As he was only a man, however, there were other facets of life that he observed less readily. He was apt and attentive when it came to books and study. His vision was perhaps clearest when he trained his eye on a goal to be achieved and a prize to be won. He saw with much less acuity, however, when he was called on to examine his own heart or to observe the emotional needs of those nearest him. It would have been unjust to call him a cold man, for a person who lacked passion could never have applied himself so fervidly to perfecting the life of his mind and, as a public figure, to serving the needs of his fellow citizens. Although some whispered that he lacked empathy as a family man, both the volume and the content of his letters to his wife and children argue that this was not the case. Still, there was in Timothy Fuller a curious flaw that kept him from realizing that exacting study, worldly advancement, and devoted public service might not be the only ingredients in human happiness. He denied the gentler requisites of contentment to himself and to the people near him who craved them most, not because he intended any cruelty, for he dispensed the things he valued with generosity. Rather, his lack of warmth arose because he never quite understood that the heart had offices the head could not perform.
With his eldest child, whom her family called Sarah Margaret but whom the world would know as Margaret Fuller, Timothy eagerly shared the wealth of his powerful intellect. Almost alone among the fathers of daughters in his time, he sought to raise her to a level of knowledge and understanding that other men reserved solely for their sons. Nevertheless, as so often happens between fathers and children, he could not share with Sarah Margaret the things she desired most. Out of Timothy Fuller’s parental generosity, and also out of his considerable parental failings, grew the most talented and perhaps the most exasperating American woman of her generation.
Wherever prevailing practice or opinion might lead, a Fuller was likely to strike out in the opposite direction. There seems to have been an indefinable element in the family constitution that fostered an appetite, not only for difference but also for disruption and dissent. This reputation for contrariness began with neither Margaret nor her father; it extended backward at least one generation further. Margaret’s paternal grandfather, the elder Timothy Fuller, distinguished himself by gaining admission to Harvard, where he studied for the ministry. Once there, he distinguished himself in a more dubious fashion, as on the day when, with no apparent provocation, he hurled bricks and other projectiles through a classroom window while a Hebrew recitation was going on inside.1 Once graduated, he eventually found a home and a Congregationalist pulpit in the frontier settlement of Princeton, Massachusetts.2 There, he demonstrated what many would come to recognize as a family trait: a thorough incapacity to recognize when it would be most prudent to keep quiet. In his mid-thirties when the Revolutionary war began, the older Timothy did not join the fight. Age may not have been his only reason for not taking up arms. Indeed, in the town of Princeton, suspicions were rife that the pious reverend harbored pro-British sentiments. When he became a bit too vocal in questioning the patriotic cause, the issue of his loyalties became, in his own words, “a Subject of public Discussion and warm Debate [with] Much Contention & Disorder ensu[ing] in Several Places.”3 In the spring of 1776, despite Fuller’s assurances that he entertained no “principles inconsistent with the cause of liberty,” his parishioners voted him out of the pulpit.4 When he tried to flout the congregation’s will and continue preaching, he was stopped at the church door by a deputation of the town’s most physically imposing men. Persuaded that the force of arms was likely to prevail over the force of argument, the cowed and astonished reverend withdrew from the town.
He did not, however, abandon the ministry. Seeking shelter from the political tempest of the times, he resettled on Martha’s Vineyard, in the town of Chilmark, and assumed the leadership of a flock with more Tory inclinations. It was in Chilmark, on July 11, 1778, that the younger Timothy Fuller was born, the fourth child in the family but its first boy.5 He was eventually to have nine siblings: five sisters and four brothers.6 Timothy grew up in a generation plagued by the anxious fear that it could never live up to the courage and deeds of its Revolutionary fathers. The fact that Timothy the father had taken no part in the noble cause made Timothy the son all the more anxious, by way of compensation, to prove his own patriotism and sense of duty. The year Timothy Jr. turned twenty-one, 1799, also marked the death of George Washington. Fuller mourned the great man’s passing in his journal and wondered how the void left by the general’s death could ever be filled. His personal solution to this question was twofold. First, he dedicated himself to a life of public service. Second, he meant to raise a family that, he hoped, might one day surpass the glory of the founding generation.
At his death, Timothy Fuller Sr. was eulogized as “a model for the performance of parental duty.”7 Part of that duty, in his view, meant training his sons to achieve intellectual superiority and, above all, professional success. He convinced Timothy Jr. at an early age that no young man, particularly one from a family more distinguished for its learning than for its wealth, could expect to win a respected place in the world without working for it, and working hard. Young Timothy would probably have happened upon this awareness on his own. As it was, his father was more than ready to point it out to him. Timothy Jr. was so slight of build that a friend would recall decades later that “the crumbs a bird would pick up would almost suffice him.”8 But like the sparrows who fearlessly contend for such crumbs, Timothy learned quickly that lack of size was no excuse in the competition for worldly prizes.
In an autobiographical sketch written when she was thirty, Margaret Fuller surmised that the vital importance of earthly success was virtually the only lesson the elder Timothy impressed on his namesake. She observed that the great ambition of her grandfather had been to send his sons to college and that, therefore, her father “was taught to think only of preparing himself for Harvard University, and when there, of preparing himself for the profession of Law.”9 If Margaret is to be believed, her father experienced a closely monitored and rather heavily managed upbringing, in which the petty but essential pleasures and freedoms of boyhood were subordinated to a staunch ethic of performance and achievement. It seems that these values powerfully shaped Timothy’s later ideas of his own duties as a father.
At Harvard, Timothy Fuller Jr. was a proud young man, eager to succeed and quick to take offense when he felt he had not been given his due. A handful of anecdotes help to paint his portrait. In 1799, while on break from college, Fuller accepted a teaching position in hopes that the sixteen dollars a month he had been promised might defray some of his expenses. On accepting lodgings with a Mr. Furbush, he noted with delight that he was to have a room of his own. In no time at all, however, Fuller found his self-regard unacceptably compromised. The day after his arrival, he fulminated in his journal, “The family I board with are so intolerably dirty, intolerably polite . . . & intolerably intolerable that I anticipate an intolerable winter.” After only three days, he found another room to let and left Furbush, whom he derided in his journal as the “commander of the castle.”10 Fuller’s complaint about intolerable politeness is telling; he found good, frank disagreement infinitely preferable to feigned, unctuous displays of manners. Fuller liked to meet people on equal terms; any presumed superiority on the part of an acquaintance was likely to send him into a lather. Offered the chance to give a declamatory oration at the college chapel, Fuller chose as his subject a line from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man: “Honor and shame from no condition rise.” He exulted in being told afterward that he had never spoken better.11 Throughout his life, he held firmly to the proposition that one’s condition in society mattered little for good or ill; he respected others according to what they could do.
Some of the happiest moments that Fuller recorded in his diary reveal his innate love of competition, particularly competition that involved logic and language. He enjoyed going into Boston to hear debates in the legislature. He also took special pleasure in belonging to a campus group that the members called their Coffee Club. Sometimes meeting in Fuller’s room, the Coffee Club dedicated itself to redressing grievances that arose between fellow students. According to Fuller, the group’s mock trials were “conducted in such a manner as to be a source of improvement & pleasure.” At one session, during which Fuller acted as “attorney in two causes & chief justice in a third,” the club did not adjourn until almost one o’clock in the morning.12
It was Timothy’s misfortune that the Coffee Club was not a sufficient outlet for his love of argument. In his senior year at Harvard, he imprudently helped to lead a student revolt against a newly adopted set of rules for student behavior. Fuller drafted and submitted the student body’s petition of protest to the college president, evidently with his habitual bluntness. The college not only rejected the students’ petition but also summarily punished Fuller by lowering his class rank by one place. Had Fuller remained silent in the controversy, he would have graduated first in his class.
Disputation came naturally to Timothy Fuller. The gentler arts of living presented more of a problem. Handsome and self-confident, he was attractive to women, and he enjoyed returning their attentions, sometimes by flirting, sometimes more aggressively. He could, however, grow scornful of deeper emotion. One day when he was twenty-one, Fuller wrote in his diary that he had caught a glimpse through a window of a pretty girl named Margaret Rogers “as she sat by Mr. Parkman’s parlor fire.” Although the sight was inspiring, Fuller felt no impulse to wax poetic. He wrote, “Were I such a milksop as to love, I might think [the scene] very precious.”13 In one of his college orations, Fuller warned against falling too easily for the allures of women and denounced “that base passion for the sex” as “the most sordid appetite” of which young men were capable.14 But he cared little for his own advice. While briefly teaching at a coeducational school called Leicester Academy, he acquired a somewhat scandalous reputation for his forwardness with his female students. In his journal, he boasted of having walked in the moonlight with a Miss Tucker, “a sweet girl, not yet fifteen,” and how he “made free with her lips and enjoyed her blushes.”15 Glorying in his rakishness, he detailed his osculatory adventures with a half-dozen girls, vainly noting, “I have . . . perceived myself capable of [a] plurality of loves.”16 It is the usual case that young men who profess to love many truly love none; Fuller’s petty dalliances with the girls of Leicester Academy were never more than a self-absorbed game.
Young Timothy’s ties to his own sex were, perhaps, somewhat noncommittal as well. Fuller had little trouble writing themes and oratories on the greatness of Washington and the moral excellence of Christianity. When he attempted an essay on friendship, however, he found the results “strangely barren.”17 Timothy was no loner; his diaries tell frequently of parties, dinners, and convivial sleigh rides, the latter being an activity he seems especially to have enjoyed. Nevertheless, he tended to be critical in his observations of others. It appears that, at Harvard, he opened himself to only one close, soul-sharing companion, a fellow student named Benjamin Peirce. Peirce once wrote to Fuller that he had been “almost lost in dejection” but had been restored to perfect spirits. “To what must I attribute this sudden change?” Peirce asked. “I owe it to my friend.”18 Yet Peirce could be troubled by the scorn with which Timothy regarded his supposed intellectual inferiors. After Fuller had been “extremely mortified” at having to converse with some unlettered farmers, Peirce cautioned him to remember that “[c]ommon people are not so far sunken as to be void of all ideas of what learning is.” Indeed, he added, “people of knowledge may & do sometimes render themselves ridiculous even to the vulgar.”19
Apart from Peirce, it was to his four brothers—Abraham, Henry, William, and Elisha—that Timothy apparently looked for companionship. With some minor variations, they were kindred spirits. Physically small, they instinctively sought out an alternative form of largeness by achieving academic and professional renown. At their father’s urging, all but one of the Fuller brothers took degrees from Harvard, and all five became lawyers. This fact was indicative of a larger cultural shift. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the most learned men in New England were men of the cloth. In the nineteenth century, more and more of them would be men of the bar.20 The Fuller brothers became collectively recognized in Boston legal circles as a force not to be taken lightly. Abolitionist and early Fuller biographer Thomas Wentworth Higginson called them “men of great energy, pushing, successful, . . . of great self-esteem.”21
Taken together, the Fullers seemed to know everything. The zeal with which they published the fact made them hard to take even separately. One day Timothy’s brother Abraham called on Higginson’s mother and found her darning socks. Unable to bear the ineptitude of her work, Abraham abruptly seized the woman’s needle—and proceeded to teach her more about darning than she had dreamed there was to know. She was both grateful for the lesson and stunned by the impudence with which it was given. Contentious, confident, and possessing not “a particle of tact” among them, the brothers were admired more than they were liked.22
Strangely for the sons of a minister, the Fuller men were perhaps resented most for their materialism. Surviving accounts denounce brothers Abraham and Henry as men who lived too much in the world. At the age of thirty, Margaret Fuller was to arraign her father for the same failing. She complained that, for Timothy, “[t]o be an honored citizen, and to have a home on earth, were made the great aims of existence. To open the deeper fountains of the soul, to regard life here as the prophetic entrance to immortality, to develop his spirit to perfection,—motives like these had never been suggested to him, either by fellow-beings or by outward circumstances.”23 These inclinations, she felt, made her father an undistinguished, prosaic character. Although his ideas and ambitions made him a good son and brother and a kind neighbor, Margaret claimed that they never inspired her father to imagine a higher existence for himself.
Margaret’s observations of her father’s character should be accepted only with reservations. Since its publication, the sketch in which she most fully discussed his personality has been termed “an autobiographical romance.” In her time, a romance was regarded as a form of writing that, while it had a strict obligation to reveal the truth of the human heart, was expected to do so “under circumstances . . . of the writer’s own choosing and creation.” It is evident that Margaret made some use of the romanticist’s license, as Hawthorne put it, to “mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture.”24
It would have been strange if Timothy, the son of a minister, had had as little interest in his spiritual life as his daughter suggests, and, indeed, his journal proves that Margaret considerably overstates her case. He was a regular attendee at church, and his diary often refers to sermons that made impressions on him. When the Fuller family rode in their carriage, Timothy was wont to sing hymns along the way. Often, too, he would offer rides to children whom he saw walking in the same direction and, as they sat beside him, would gladden them by sharing encouraging words and whatever small coins he found in his pockets.25 Once, after having neglected his diary for some time, Timothy returned to it with a resolve “to make it much better than my former diaries, particularly by admitting less levity, & more moral and religious reflexions.”26 It is evident, however, that Timothy saw his obligation to God in primarily earthly terms. In a journal entry, he made particular note of a sermon he had heard: “We are bought with a price, [and] therefore should glory God in our body & our spirits, which are His. . . . We should employ them alone for his glory [and] God’s glory is best promoted by diffusing happiness among his creatures, that being his design in creating them.”27 Fuller felt resonance with the idea that one served God best not through prayer and communion, but by helping others. If his daughter Margaret tried to discover her father’s spirituality in mystical effusions of the soul, it is no wonder that she did not find it. His Christianity, like almost every other part of him, expressed itself more in practice than in sentiment.
Yet even to the most driven, practical, and emotionally cautious of persons, love may come. In early 1809, while attending church in Cambridge, Timothy met the woman who, it seemed, stood alone in her power to stir him to a better self. His love for her, their daughter later declared, was “the green spot on which he stood apart from the common-places of a mere bread--winning” life.28 Her name was Margarett Crane. Gentle and retiring, Margarett found her greatest happiness in growing flowers. One of her sons was later to remember her most clearly “as she stooped over her flower-bed, and toiled long sunny hours over its extensive border.” Because she was nearsighted, she would kneel and bend close to her plants. If she discovered some new promise of beauty there, she would turn with a delighted smile and point out the new wonder “with a child-like simplicity.”29
The elder Margarett’s delight in her garden reflects both her spontaneous love of the world around her and her preference for scenes that were free from complexity and conflict. Although the younger Margaret always regarded her mother as “the most disinterestedly generous person . . . I have ever known,” Margarett’s tremendous kindness was not matched by a powerful will.30 An essentially passive person, she loved to surround herself with living things even more passive than she was. When she was in true dudgeon over an issue, she was capable of calling Timothy “a ninny,” but this was seldom.31 In her gentleness, she was a helpful balance to the cerebral, contentious Timothy. Whether and how two natures made of such different materials could form a truly sympathetic union is difficult to judge.
Margarett was Timothy’s junior by about ten and a half years, and she was not quite out of her teens when the two met. Though her daughter was to remember her as a “young, untaught country girl,” Margarett had some experience as a schoolteacher, and, like Timothy, she was descended from Puritan stock.32 Otherwise, their similarities were not obvious. Margarett was five feet ten inches tall; Timothy was eight or nine inches shorter. Whereas Timothy was brash and ambitious, Margarett was soft spoken and demure. He was stubborn and proud. She was playful and charming. She impressed people, not with the sharpness of her mind and temper, but with the irrepressible cheer of her disposition. Higginson thought she was “one of the sweetest mothers who ever lived.”33
She was also beautiful. Acquaintances of the Crane family admired her lustrous skin and captivating blue eyes. Undoubtedly enchanted by her appearance, Timothy was also likely enthralled by the pleasure Margarett took in learning, though her formal schooling was only rudimentary. After they had been married nine years, she wrote to him, “The first wish of my heart is to make you happy, and the second to cultivate my mind.”34 Her striving for self-improvement succeeded on some fronts better than others. At twenty-nine, Margarett still struggled to master subtraction and multiplication and called her own efforts “perfectly ridiculous.”35 However, she loved to read. She and Timothy enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s plays aloud together. Indeed, Timothy came to feel that he needed to have Margarett present to bring his experiences of culture to life. After attending a performance of Much Ado about Nothing, he wrote, “The theatre has very few charms for me—especially unless my Margarett is by my side.”36 Their courtship was brief, and its outcome was never much in doubt. On May 28, 1809, after only a few months’ acquaintance, Timothy Fuller and Margarett Crane married.
By the following year, the couple had laid the foundations for a happy, bounteous life. In addition to having established a comfortable legal practice, Timothy had also gained a reputation among the leaders of the state Republican Party—the progressive party of Jefferson and Madison that has no ancestral connection to today’s GOP. Although the leaders of his party were slaveholding Virginians, Timothy firmly opposed slavery; when Congress debated the Missouri Compromise in 1820, Fuller’s speech against the measure was impassioned and important enough that it was published. In 1810, however, Timothy’s future career in Washington was only a dream. He and Margarett had settled into a three-story Federal-style house a half-hour’s walk from Harvard College, on Cherry Street in the neighborhood known as Cambridgeport. Uncomfortably close to a busy soap works, the house was neither fashionable nor beautiful. “Marshy and imperfectly reclaimed,” the area at large compared poorly with the nearby college.37 But the neighborhood was growing, and Timothy must have considered the property a good investment. On May 23, five days short of her first wedding anniversary, Margarett Crane Fuller gave birth to her first child, whom she and her husband named Sarah Margarett in honor of the baby’s grandmother and mother. The terminal “t” of the baby’s name was eventually dropped, though her parents habitually referred to her by both her Christian names. This child was almost ten when she insisted on being called simply “Margaret.”38 Timothy marked the day of Sarah Margarett’s birth by planting three handsome elm trees in front of the house. As the girl grew up, she regarded these trees and her mother’s flower garden as the only things of beauty that adorned the plain and unattractive house.39
In her most famous work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Margaret Fuller described with some sadness the typical reaction a new mother of that time experienced upon learning that her baby was a girl. “Is it a daughter?” Fuller wrote, “There is usually a slight degree of regret, so deeply rooted is the idea of the superiority of man in happiness and dignity.” She hastened to add, however, that this disappointment could be more than balanced by worthier emotions. When a mother looked down on her baby girl, Fuller asserted, “she is more and more softened towards it—a deep sympathy—a sentiment of identity with this delicate being takes possession of her; an extreme pity for so much weakness, a more pressing need of prayer stirs her heart.”40 The bond of feeling that Margarett Crane Fuller felt for her new daughter was strong from the beginning. She continually hugged, played with, and slept with her baby. There is no evidence that this tie weakened at all two years and three months later when Sarah Margaret acquired a sister, Julia Adelaide. As far as the somewhat scanty evidence can be pieced together, it suggests that, throughout her infancy, Sarah Margaret combined many of the best traits of both her parents. She had her father’s energy and quick capacity for learning, and her mother’s cheerful disposition.
By 1813, Timothy had parlayed the goodwill of his political associates into a seat in the Massachusetts state senate, and everything looked bright for the Fuller family. But, as in so many families of the time, the perfect picture was soon scarred by loss. If our lives may be said to begin with our first permanent memories, then Margaret Fuller’s life began with a consciousness of death. That awareness came on October 5, 1813, when her little sister, only fourteen months old, died. Remembering the day more than twenty-five years later, Fuller recalled coming home and being met by the nursery maid, her face streaming with tears. The maid led Sarah Margaret by the hand into the room where Julia’s body lay. Curiously, Sarah Margaret was neither deeply saddened nor traumatized by this viewing. She was struck, instead, by what she could only call the “beauty of death.” Thirty years later, she still believed that the severe sweetness of what she had beheld exceeded the greatest accomplishments of sculpture.41
Of a more devastating moment, Fuller retained no direct memory at all. Friends and relatives, however, remembered clearly that, as she stood at her sister’s graveside, she sent up a frantic, piercing wail and pleaded with the adults not to put Julia’s body in the ground. This story was evidently repeated to her often enough that Fuller had no reason to question its accuracy. As she looked back on it all, she believed that what had repelled her most was the somber, artificial formality of the funeral itself. The black clothes, the stiffness of the procession, and the dour faces of the mourners struck her as false and ugly. She later recalled feeling that her sister’s life and death had both been beautiful, but the attempt to encase and deaden everyone’s feelings within a bland and ordered ceremony—what she later called “all this sad parade”—was not.”42 Already, Sarah Margaret sensed that instinctive spirituality and formal religiosity could pull powerfully in opposite directions, and she had a sense of the direction she preferred.
That drizzly, darkening October, Sarah Margaret felt a chill of isolation that never completely left her. As an adult, she wrote nostalgically of her lost Julia: “She who would have been the companion of my life was severed from me, and I was left alone. This has made a vast difference in my lot. Her character, if that fair face promised right, would have been soft, graceful and lively; it would have tempered mine to a gentler and more gradual course.”43 Fuller imagined that Julia would have smoothed the sharp edges of her own personality. She supposed that, in a household dominated by the mind, her younger sister would have helped to nourish and develop her heart. It is extremely unlikely that Julia would have played to perfection the idealized role her sister imagined her fulfilling. And yet, if Fuller was even partly right, a portion of herself was buried in 1813.
After Julia’s death, Mrs. Fuller descended into a period of delicate health, which seems not to have ended until her next child was born. During this time, the emotional bond between Sarah Margaret and her mother grew still closer than it had been and arguably closer than it would ever be again. Having lost one child, the elder Margarett became understandably more attentive to the one who remained. She recalled that, in the aftermath of Julia’s loss, “the intelligence, rich fancy, buoyant spirits, and extreme activity [of Sarah Margaret] occupied more of my thoughts, and observations, than [in] many subsequent years.”44
As her mother recollected, Sarah Margaret took some of her greatest pleasures “in reading, in riding with us, [and] in gathering flowers, a love of which seemed to be born with her.”45 As an adult, Margaret, too, remembered going on flower-picking expeditions, many of which took place in the garden behind the family’s house. From her back door, she could descend a high flight of steps into a small, quiet oasis of roses, violets, lilies, and fruit trees. As she gathered her handfuls of blooms, she kissed them and pressed them close to her heart with a passion that, it later seemed to her, she never dared to express to any human being. Here the best hours of her childhood were spent. Here she felt at home. But amid the flowers of her mother’s garden, Sarah Margaret thought she heard a speechless challenge. “An ambition swelled [in] my heart,” she later wrote, “to be as beautiful, as perfect as they.” She ruefully added, “I have not kept my vow.”46 It may seem strange that a bower of floral splendor would inspire a little girl with a merciless urge toward perfection. Yet her mother’s recollections confirm that Sarah Margaret, even at such an early age, reacted to criticism in a brooding fashion that showed a lack of patience with her own shortcomings. According to Margarett Crane Fuller, her daughter “showed great sensitivity to reproof, not so much in tears shed at the time but silent reserve.”47
Sarah Margaret’s habits of perfectionism and sensitivity were not lessons learned from flowers alone. She had another early, disconnected memory that, although she could not place it precisely in time, remained vivid and powerful into adulthood. She remembered stopping one day on a staircase and asking herself four overwhelming questions: “How came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?” Between upstairs and down, the bizarre and unaccountable fact of her existence had burst upon her and demanded an explanation. She had none. As her childhood and teens went by, these questions would revisit her again and again like an unbidden ghost. She would be a grown woman before she could effectively respond to them.48
Julia’s death affected her father almost as profoundly as it did her mother. Though Timothy’s health did not give way, he, too, seems to have been made less certain of what he could count on in life. He had regarded Julia as “unusually forward, pretty, & engaging” and had had high expectations for her.49 Margaret remembered that, after this time of bereavement, all of her father’s hopes and feelings became concentrated on her. It may have been that his younger daughter’s death drove him to clutch his remaining child tighter to himself. She was the being above all others that he now most dreaded losing. At the same time, he seems to have sought refuge in the state of mind in which he felt most secure. Timothy was happiest when he was either studying or pursuing some coveted honor. In one sense, then, it is not surprising that the relationship into which he drew his surviving daughter was steeped both in academic learning and in a consuming urge toward perfection.
On another level, though, Timothy’s conduct was surprising indeed. In early manhood, he had regarded young women chiefly as ornaments and potential conquests. Few would have expected him to raise a daughter who might be admired for her intellect and independence. In fact, he wanted his eldest child to resemble as little as possible the frilly creatures whom he had simultaneously lusted after and disdained. Other well-placed Massachusetts fathers might groom their girls for lives of inoffensive beauty and decorous submission; Timothy’s own paternal errors were to end up at the opposite pole.
Whatever his motivations, the task that Timothy set for himself and Sarah Margaret presented a tremendous challenge. “He hoped,” Margaret later wrote, “to make me the heir of all he knew, and of as much more as the income of his profession enabled him to give me means of acquiring.”50 Although the details of the first phases of Timothy’s educational campaign are sketchy, it is clear that an early mastery of the written word formed one of its cornerstones. In a letter to his wife, written when his beloved pupil was not yet four, he wrote, “My love to the little Sarah Margaret. I love her if she is a good girl & learns to read.”51 Considering books written for young children too babyish for her, he quickly plunged her into more sophisticated though still not fully adult material, including Aesop’s fables. On New Year’s Day 1815, when Margaret was four and a half, he proudly proclaimed that she could read and understand “in a very great degree” the stories in Maria Edgeworth’s Parent’s Assistant and could read tolerably from “any common book.”52 As can be gathered from the fact that her mother ranked reading first among her daughter’s early pleasures, Sarah Margaret took to this instruction eagerly. That both her parents “always remarked her superior intelligence” surely encouraged her. In this early period of her mental awakening, she seems to have flourished.53 At the age of five, her future close friend James Freeman Clarke observed her as a “joyful child, with light, flowing locks and bright face, who led me by the hand down the back-steps of her house into the garden.”54
The image of five-year-old Margaret, secure in her mother’s love and her father’s esteem and welcoming a little playmate into her backyard paradise, is irresistibly sweet. Yet there were tiny flaws in this portrait that, although they initially troubled no one, would be painfully felt as time passed. Margaret had little exposure to children her own age. Her brother Richard recalled that their parents “were very careful” in “guard[ing] their children from evil playmates.”55 Yet even benign playmates were few. Her mother noticed that Margaret “had no child to tempt to childish amusements.”56 As Margaret herself recalled, “In the house was neither dog nor bird, nor any graceful animated form of existence. I saw no persons who took my fancy, and real life offered no attraction.”57 The little girl immersed herself in books not only because she loved them, but also because she had no other equally appealing place to go. As wonderful as her world of reading was, she later wished that she had not been given any books until later—that she had lived instead among toys and played in the open air. As it was, Sarah Margaret’s “mental activity was greater than her physical,” and her mother, to her later regret, failed to recognize “the necessity of constant exercise . . . to give balance to both.”58 Like the fictionalized version of her immature self that Margaret was later to trace in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Sarah Margaret “took her place easily . . . in the world of the mind.”59 There were other worlds in which she was spending far too little of her childhood.
By the time she led little James Clarke into the family’s garden, Sarah Margaret’s life had already begun to change. The transformation had started on May 14, 1815, when a baby brother joined the Fuller family. Timothy, who was unable to be present at the birth, exulted at the news. He proclaimed his “joy & thankfulness to the Author of all good, which I hope will be confirmed & increased by the character, disposition, & future conduct of the little nameless stranger.”60 The stranger soon acquired the name of Eugene, and his arrival signaled a shift in the family’s relationships. Quite naturally, Mrs. Fuller became absorbed in the care of her infant, and Sarah Margaret found herself obliged to depend ever more on Timothy for attention and affection. With redoubled emphasis, she was learning to identify love and acceptance with her intellectual performance.
Timothy might have been expected to diminish his educational ambitions for his five-year-old daughter now that a son had come on the scene. To his great credit, he did not. To the contrary, the lessons became steadily more intense and sophisticated as Sarah Margaret grew older. Although he later came to think somewhat differently, Timothy had not yet dreamed that one could ever have too much instruction, or receive it too early. When she was six, he introduced her simultaneously to English and Latin grammar. The rudiments of Greek followed in due course. By nine, she was reading a compendious list of histories and biographies in English, as well as many of the major works in the Latin canon.61 The lessons kept up even when Timothy was away; he deputized his younger brother Elisha to continue the unrelenting drill. Even after the first of his four consecutive elections to Congress in 1816 forced him to spend half the year in Washington and manage Sarah Margaret’s education only from a distance, Timothy continued to play Prospero to his daughter’s Miranda, and the brave new world he showed her consisted of the very best things he knew.
Eventually, Margaret came to identify herself explicitly with the clever but sheltered young woman of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Later, in both her essay “The Great Lawsuit” and her groundbreaking Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she gave the name Miranda to a fictionalized alter ego whose youthful experiences of education closely paralleled her own. Through Miranda, Fuller presents some of the happier aspects of the educational path on which her father placed her. She writes that Miranda’s sire “cherished no sentimental reverence for women, but [held] a firm belief in the equality of the sexes.” Like Sarah Margaret, Miranda is her father’s eldest child “and came to him at an age when he needed a companion.” From the earliest moments of his daughter’s mental quickening, we are told, Miranda’s father treated his child “not as a plaything, but as a living mind.” Her “cherished head” was sacred to him, a “temple of immortal intellect.” If Miranda’s father did not overly indulge her, he refrained from spoiling her out of respect, not coolness of feeling. Under his tutelage, Miranda “was early led to feel herself a child of the spirit” and acquired “a dignified sense of self-dependence” and security. “The world was free to her,” Fuller adds, “and she lived freely in it.”62
Woman in the Nineteenth Century strives to illustrate and praise the tremendous sense of power and purpose that an intelligent, socially egalitarian father can instill in a promising daughter. It presents the relationship between Fuller’s imagined Miranda and her father as ideal. Yet the version Fuller gives in the “autobiographical romance” mentioned earlier is as darkly critical as her story of Miranda is laudatory. Somewhere between the sunlight of Miranda’s education and the deeper shadows of Fuller’s “romance” lies the true nature of Timothy Fuller’s tutelage of his daughter.
Fuller’s “autobiographical romance” tells a tale of scholarly drudgery, if not outright victimhood. In it, her father looms as an exacting, unfeeling taskmaster. He was, she recollects, “a man of business” in all things, “even in literature.” She does concede that the energy and discipline with which he flung himself into the task of educating her had some advantages. At least for a time, he spared her the handicapping experience of “passing through the hands of so many ignorant and weak persons as so many do at preparatory schools.” Moreover, Timothy presented his daughter with “a more than ordinarily high standard” of academic performance.63 Challenged to strive toward perfection in her studies, motivated to win the favor of the most important man in her life, Sarah Margaret applied herself with single-minded determination, and she learned her lessons exceptionally well. At the time, she was in no position to complain. At the age of nine, she wrote to Timothy, “I am possessed of the greatest blessing of life a good and kind father. Oh I can never repay you for all the love you have shown me.”64 Looking back, however, the adult Margaret believed that her father’s love had come at an unacceptable price.
If Timothy prized accuracy, he had far less inclination to nurture creativity. His daughter recalled that, trained to seek the perfection of reason and logic, Timothy “had no belief in minds that listen, wait, and receive. He had no conception of the subtle and indirect motions of imagination and feeling.” All the habits of his intellect set him squarely against the natural character of his daughter, which was, as she remembered, “fervent . . . disposed to infatuation, and self-forgetfulness.”65 Margaret later observed that her father, while growing up, had somehow lost his “poetical apprehension of the world, free and splendid as it stretches out before the child.”66 Thus lacking in the ability to see the world as a place of unimaginable beauty, perpetually new, Timothy was limited as an instructor. Under his tutelage, fancy gave way to philosophy; dreams yielded to drill. Sarah Margaret came quickly to understand life as an experience of continual struggle and trial. At the age of thirty-six, she was to write, “From infancy I have foreseen that my path must be difficult.”67 Outwardly, Sarah Margaret dutifully conformed. Inwardly, it was a different matter. “My own world,” she recalled, “sank deep within, away from the surface of my life. . . . [M]y true life was only the dearer that it was secluded and veiled over by a thick curtain of . . . intellect.”68 Yet the girl was absorbing more of her father’s turn of mind than she realized. For the rest of her life, when Margaret reached for her pen, she did so much more confidently as a critic than as a creator.
It has become commonplace to regard Margaret Fuller as a child-genius of truly extraordinary abilities. Certainly, only a very special child could have flourished under, let alone endured, Timothy’s relentless regime of study. Yet Timothy’s methods were not his alone. He may have had in mind his political hero, Thomas Jefferson, who had also put his daughters through a highly exacting course of study. Fuller biographer Charles Capper sagely notes that several of Timothy’s ambitious contemporaries, including the fathers of Frederic Henry Hedge, James Russell Lowell, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had their sons reading Latin or French fluently well before they were ten.69 What made Fuller and Jefferson so unusual in their time was not the ferocity of their educational theories but rather their liberalism; they dared suppose that the rigors of a classical education could be managed by a girl.
Line by line, declension by declension, Sarah Margaret earned her father’s grudgingly dispensed pride. As she grew older, though, it was usually the defects, not the excellence of her mind that rose to the surface when she evaluated her own mental powers. Along with the superior attention span and tremendous knowledge she absorbed from her sessions with Timothy, Sarah Margaret also acquired a fierce penchant for self-criticism. The latter trait need not be seen as wholly negative. Rather, her capacity for clear self-assessment, coupled with a sense that no achievement would ever be quite enough, was the perfect antidote to complacency. However, it was also a partial antidote to happiness.
The physical effects of Timothy’s teaching were equally long lasting and, Margaret believed, more harmful. His exacting standards, coupled with the chronic lack of rest that Margaret endured, unnaturally stimulated her nerves and kept her feelings “on the stretch” for too long at a time.70 The toll on her endurance was worsened by the fact that Timothy typically began their lessons only after a long day at his law office, when both he and Margaret were worn out and tempers were likely to flare. Margaret later said that she had never met a man with greater powers of attention than her father. Long into the night, by the flickering light of candles, she did her best to match him.71 When she did sleep, her rest was fitful and disturbed. Her life began to split into two incongruous halves. By day, she was her father’s sunlit “youthful prodigy.” By night, she was the helpless prey of “spectral illusions, nightmare and somnambulism.”72 As soon as the lessons were ended and the lights put out, she imagined ugly, colossal faces looming toward her out of the dark. In her dreams, she found herself being trampled by horses or trudging behind the casket in her mother’s funeral procession. She recalled with particular vividness a dream she had after a long evening of working her way through Book III of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas pulls the stalks of plants out of the ground, only to discover dark blood oozing up from the earth. In her nightmare, Sarah Margaret found herself
among trees that dripped with blood, where she walked and walked and could not get out, while the blood became a pool and plashed over her feet, and rose higher and higher, till soon she dreamed it would reach her lips.73
Her frightening visions were sometimes so real that they drove her out of bed to walk in her sleep, “moaning all over the house.”74 In her “romance,” when she related the worst of her reactions to her father’s regimen, Fuller shifted her narration from first to third person, as if to interpose some small but precious distance between herself and her remembered terrors. Hearing of her nightmares, Timothy chided his daughter and told her to set aside such nonsense, never suspecting that he himself was to blame for her agitation. Margaret also averred in later years that her interminable lessons “prevented the harmonious development of my bodily powers and checked my growth, while, later, they induced continual headache, weakness and nervous affections, of all kinds.” At the age of thirty, Margaret still suspected that her constitution had been so wasted in these early years that she was destined for “a premature grave.”75
Fuller’s memoir paints a deeply touching picture, and it is impossible to read it without feeling profound sympathy for the little girl wrenched out of childhood and prematurely thrust into a world of geography, Virgil, and Greek grammar. But Fuller’s recollections tell only part of the story of her formative years. There is no reason to question, in its larger contours, the traditional view of Timothy Fuller as a nearly obsessed taskmaster where his daughter’s education was concerned. However, that overall perception must not be allowed to harden into a reductive caricature. While there can be no doubt that her father made extraordinarily harsh demands on his eldest child, he was far from being an emotionless pedant. Sarah Margaret’s younger brother Arthur, who edited many of his sister’s works after her death, was horrified to imagine what people would think of his father if they took Margaret’s “Romance” to be literally true. Pointing out that Margaret’s sketch had been brought to light only after her death and, obviously, without her consent, Arthur claimed that she never would have published it “without such modifications as would have shown our father to have been a most judicious and tender one.”76 Arthur conceded that Timothy had, “to a certain extent,” overlooked his daughter’s physical health while tasking her mental gifts to the utmost.77 However, he noted, this error was committed by “all the educators of his time,” and Timothy had at least been wise enough to avoid it in the education of his younger children. Arthur was also of the view that Timothy’s overstimulation of Sarah Margaret’s intellect “would have harmed none but one possessing a mind so precocious and unusual.” As time went by, Arthur insisted, Margaret saw her father “more and more [as] a person to be deeply loved and respected.”78
Is Arthur’s exoneration of Timothy to be believed? During the most taxing years of his sister’s education, Arthur had not yet been born. In Margaret’s and Timothy’s mature relationship, he saw no tyranny. As to the more complex story of their earlier relationship, however, he was at best a hearsay witness. In suggesting that it was his sister’s sensitive constitution, not their father’s harshness, that was most at fault, he comes perilously close to blaming the victim. And yet Arthur knew his father and sister better than any of us can. He also understood from experience what we can see only at a great distance: his culture’s assumption—almost universally held before the 1830s—that children could and should be treated as miniature adults.
As has been suggested, one of the reasons Sarah Margaret endured and responded to her father’s teaching was that she felt his love, for her and for knowledge, and wished to repay that love. Despite his strictness, Timothy’s devotion to his family can hardly be questioned. Until he went to Washington to take his seat in Congress, he and his wife were seldom apart. During their first five years of marriage, Margarett left home only once—to visit her mother—and she stayed away only two days.79 In March 1813, when Sarah Margaret was almost three, a session of court in Concord obliged her father to spend three nights away from home. Timothy was surprisingly agitated by this seemingly brief absence. He underlined the words “three nights” in his journal and observed that he had “never [been] absent so long at one time before, & not more than 9 or 10 in all since my marriage.”80 He hated to be away from home.
Once Fuller was in Washington, he and his wife began a voluminous correspondence, and it was not uncommon for them to write twice a day. Timothy’s letters attest to his larger complexities as a father. In 1817, during Timothy’s first year in Congress, another son, William Henry, joined the family, and Timothy’s interest in news of his three children was avid. If more than a few days passed without a letter from Margarett, he was sure to send a cajoling letter of his own, demanding a prompt reply. In his letters, a portrait of a devoted husband and a remarkably caring father emerges. Certainly, he was interested in monitoring his daughter’s academic progress, and he made sure that Margarett kept him informed regarding the young girl’s studies. He kept up a steady stream of assignments, corrections, and advice regarding Sarah Margaret’s work. “How does SM improve?” was his incessant, anxious query.81
However, it is evident that his concern for her was moral and physical as well as academic. The family preserved one of Margaret’s early penmanship exercises, which begins, in very large letters, “Love your enemies. Love your enemies. Love your enemies.” The lesson ended with a line that might have served as a motto: “He who would search for truth must dive below.”82 During the opening weeks of his first congressional term, Timothy’s letters evince far deeper and more frequent concern about a tooth that his daughter had broken than her efforts at learning.83 Reports of her condition caused him “great uneasiness,” and he wrote to his wife in anxious hopes for “a complete remedy in the easiest & safest manner for my dear girl.”84 Indeed, there is even scattered evidence that he felt Sarah Margaret was reading too much and that her involvement with fictional realms was leading her to forget her affections for real human beings. In one letter, Timothy expressed disappointment that she had not added a line to one of her mother’s recent letters. He gently chided, “Sarah Margarett forgot to send her love—I suppose she was bending over some tale of woe or mystery, & so forgot it. I forgive the little girl & expect her recollection will come to her in time.”85
Timothy was sensitive to the fact that his daughter missed him, and he marked places on his letters that he had touched to his lips, so that Sarah Margaret, now seven, might kiss those spots and feel as if he were with her. When Sarah Margaret heard that a letter from Timothy contained “affectionate notice of her,” her eyes would “sparkle with pleasure.”86 When asked how much he loved his father, Eugene replied, “Sixty pounds.”87 Sarah Margaret surely agreed.
Early in his time in Congress, Timothy reported to his wife that he was dreaming more often, and the recurring subject was his wife and “dear children.” Fearing that Margarett might suspect him of engaging in a bit of maudlin romanticism, he assured her that he was not exaggerating “This is literally so,” he wrote, “& not said to please you.”88 The image of Timothy Fuller, not as an unfeeling martinet, but as a man who wanted the best for his eldest child and sought it unwisely, is not only more accurate but in a sense more tragic: the most lasting wounds he inflicted were those that began with love.
Undeniably, Timothy was deeply proud of Sarah Margaret’s academic overachievements. Equally undeniably, Sarah Margaret began to see herself as being cast in the role of the family prodigy. However, it should be emphasized that she enjoyed this role and, at least by the time she was eight, was not being compelled to fill her mind with Latin and Greek grammar entirely against her will. As culture critic Ann Douglas has observed, it became difficult early on to distinguish Timothy’s ambitions from Sarah Margaret’s own.89 The month before she turned ten, Timothy admonished her, “To excel in all things should be your constant aim; mediocrity is obscurity.”90 Yet she was not much older when she wrote him, “Be assured that I will do my utmost to acquit myself well. . . . I think of nothing else.”91 Timothy, of course, could not resist showing off his star pupil to the ladies and gentlemen of the Commonwealth who came to dine with their congressman. The reactions of his guests may well have varied, but the response of Ellen Kilshaw, an English visitor of whom much will be said later, may be taken as representative. She wrote:
I can give [my family and friends] no idea of what my dear Margaret is. She is so surprising for her years, and expresses herself in such appropriate language upon subjects that most of twice her age do not comprehend. I really was astonished when she first conversed with me.92
It is a rare child whose head will not be turned by such adulation. Most children, when they discover they have a particular talent that brings them the praise of adults, will dedicate themselves more and more to refining that skill. So, then, with Sarah Margaret. She recalled that, before very long, her heavy course of study ceased to be a burden, and reading became a habit and a passion. To a certain extent, by her middle childhood years, she immersed herself in study because studying was simply what she did.
But there was very likely another reason for Sarah Margaret’s continually redoubled efforts at mental self-improvement. It concerned, not the approval of her father, but rather a desire for more recognition from her mother. From the time of the death of her sister Julia in 1813 until the birth of her eldest brother Eugene two years later, Sarah Margaret had been the Fullers’ only child. It is clear that, no matter how firmly they insisted on educational opportunities for girls, Timothy and Margarett were delighted to have a boy. To make matters more difficult for Sarah Margaret, Eugene soon exuded an effervescent, prepossessing character. If one may judge from his parents’ correspondence, Eugene was almost impossibly cute, winning a generous share of attention and love with charm and personal allure. There was also another layer to the emerging familial relationships: in the Fuller nursery, a subtle reversal of expected gender roles was taking place. From a perspective of adult retrospection, Margaret realized that she had been “the child of masculine energy & Eugene of feminine loveliness.”93 Whereas most people tend to regard gender as distinctly binary, Sarah Margaret’s childhood taught her to view gender identity as existing on a fluid spectrum, with subtle differences in shade instead of precise delineations. “Where lies this difference betwixt male and female?” she later asked herself. She then admitted, “I cannot trace it.”94
During the next decade, Timothy and Margarett added to their family with vigorous regularity. Ellen Kilshaw, born in 1820, was the only break in a torrent of sons: Arthur Buckminster in 1822; Richard Frederick in 1824; James Lloyd in 1826; and, finally, Edward Breck in 1828. These additions to the family—and the constant readjustments they demanded—continually unsettled Sarah Margaret’s feelings of acceptance and security.
Predictably, the ever-burgeoning household meant that Margarett had less time to spend with Sarah Margaret than she might have considered ideal. In the early 1850s, soon after the death of her famous daughter, Margarett tried to write a recollection of what her lost offspring had been like during childhood. She found her memories to be embarrassingly sparse. “Why is it,” she demanded to know, “that I can recall so little of thy beauteous childhood, my glorified one . . . a being so gifted, so active . . . why is it that I, your mother, so rich in thy affections and ever blessed in thy presence fail in power to weave a wreath to the memory of thy childhood!”95 Although Margarett was surprised by her incapacity to remember Sarah Margaret as a child, no one who reads her letters to her husband in the late 1810s need share her astonishment.
Even before her quintet of babies in the 1820s, Mrs. Fuller had begun to divert her attention away from Sarah Margaret. Her infatuation with her first two boys, especially Eugene, consigned her eldest child to a lesser position. It is clear from Margarett’s letters that, on a purely emotional level, Eugene had an unrivaled place in his mother’s heart. In these letters, William Henry is “pleasant as usual”; Eugene is “merry and interesting.”96 Sarah Margaret, by contrast, is chiefly represented as pegging away at her studies. Margarett could seldom resist slipping into her letters some little anecdote of Eugene’s charming prattle. Mrs. Fuller always spelled out Eugene’s name in full. By contrast, Sarah’s name was invariably shortened to “S. M.”
Although Margarett freely represented Sarah as hardworking and dutiful, she was not inclined to depict her daughter as unreservedly lovable. Sensing that she was losing her preeminent claim on her parents’ affections, Sarah Margaret began to compete with her brothers for attention, deeply grateful when she was noticed with the same cheerful indulgence that was usually reserved for her younger brothers and quietly disappointed when she was treated differently. Her anxiousness can be seen in this passage from one of Margarett Fuller’s letters to Timothy:
S.M. wishes me to tell you she loves you and depends upon your writing her, as you promised she inquired very particularly whether you desired me to kiss her as you did Eugene and wished me to tell all you wrote of her.97
In another letter, Mrs. Fuller commented that “S. M. [is] very desirous to have your approbation in every thing she does.”98
One feels in these letters Sarah Margaret’s zeal, almost to the point of desperation, to be recognized and loved. Unable to duplicate Eugene’s magnetism, Sarah Margaret quickly learned the trick of winning the attention of her father and his friends by performing marvelous feats of intellect. While her father was in Washington, however, her mother became her only immediate source of parental approval. Margarett was not as impressed as her husband by mental performances. Early in her husband’s first congressional term, she somewhat defensively wrote to him of Sarah Margaret, “I never neglect her when I can possibly avoid it.”99 Her wording implies a guilty knowledge that sometimes she could not avoid neglecting her. Arguably, it was not Timothy’s physical absence, but Margarett’s dwindling ability to relate to her, that was now the more significant emotional gap in Sarah Margaret’s life. Mother and daughter became quite close in later years. Still, Margaret the younger could not easily excuse her mother’s early inattention. She wrote, “It is not mother’s fault that she was ignorant of every physical law . . . but I can’t help mourning, sometimes, that my bodily life should have been so destroyed by the ignorance of both my parents.”100
Fuller’s own recollections of her childhood, focused as they are on her budding intellectual life, tend to overstate her isolation. Charles Capper avers that young Margaret had “extensive dealings with a wide circle of adults and children” and that the house on Cherry Street welcomed a steady stream of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. It seems doubtless, too, that Timothy, as a rising politico, entertained assiduously. There were also frequent visits to relatives in Boston, as well as Mrs. Fuller’s parents in Canton, whose details no one thought worthy to preserve. “We have company,” Mrs. Fuller wrote when Sarah Margaret was eight, “almost every evening.”101 As mentioned, Margaret’s uncle took charge of her instruction while her father was away, and Uncles Abraham and Henry looked in regularly.102 Although Cambridgeport offered few pleasant avenues for walking, Sarah Margaret much enjoyed going for evening strolls on the bridge to Boston and looking at “the river, and the city glittering in the sunset, and the lovely undulating line all round.”103 It was a life not wholly empty of pleasures. Nonetheless, considering the wealth of information available on so much of Fuller’s life, one feels that stories of childhood companions, memories of games and frolics, and family anecdotes of playful adventures are strangely and uncomfortably scarce. One wishes there were more with which to challenge Fuller’s own assessment that she had “no natural childhood.”104
Without question, Timothy’s firm belief that his daughter was the intellectual and moral equal of any boy laid some of the foundations for his daughter’s later desire to be treated on a par with the male intellectuals of her time. Yet it may also have been Sarah Margaret’s early realization that, try as she might, she would never be another Eugene in her mother’s eyes, that led her to be so critical of society’s penchant for setting aside so many of its privileges and prerogatives exclusively for men. She hungered for affection, and neither of her parents gave it to her easily or without conditions. As she grew older, her urge to know was immense, yet it was not as strong as her consuming need to be loved. As Fuller observed in her mid-thirties, “I confess I want indulgence from those I love. . . . [I]t seems to me, it is not that I want blind idolatry, but as a child never finding repose on the bosom of love, I seek it now, childishly perhaps. God knows all about it.”105 It may truly have seemed to her as if an infinite intelligence were needed to fully understand the depth of her want.
Such, then, were the influences that the configuration of her family and the intensity of her education exerted on the developing spirit of Sarah Margaret Fuller. The content of what she was learning, however, mattered no less than the fashion in which she was learning it. Immersed as she was in her father’s beloved Latin classics, she was quick to absorb not only the language but also the values of classical antiquity. She thus developed unusual moral opinions for a girl in the consummately Christian New England of the 1810s. In the pages of Virgil and Cicero, she found “an indomitable will . . . self-command, and force of expression.”106 Although her grasp of Greek never advanced beyond the basics, she understood “enough to feel . . . that the law of life in that land was beauty, as in Rome it was stern composure.”107 These beauties and strengths appeared to offer a fuller, more luxuriant life than what she saw in her Bible, and they enticed her.
Sarah Margaret’s younger siblings were hardly more disposed toward Christian belief than she was, and the children’s lack of religious enthusiasm concerned their mother, who reproached herself and her husband for their “neglect in instructing our children in the principles & practice of our blessed religion.”108 It was not that they did not try; the little Fullers were regularly brought to the Cambridgeport Parish Unitarian Church, where Timothy served on the church council and the parishioners received a weekly infusion of liberal Christianity. Sarah Margaret looked forward to Sundays. For the Fuller family, the Sabbath was a day set apart, a time for more elaborate dinners and finer clothes. The day gave her a rest from the routine of tasks and recitations that filled the remainder of her week, and it also gave her a much-needed chance to play. Church going, however, gave her no pleasure at all. To the contrary, she had a habit of looking around herself with an air of conscious disdain, convinced of her superiority to her fellow worshippers. She wrote later that she “sought everywhere for the Roman or Shakespeare[an] figures, and she was met by shrewd, honest eye, the homely decency, or the smartness of a New England village on Sunday. There was beauty, but I could not see it then; it was not the kind I longed for.” She reserved her most withering contempt for a family with five “hard, dry, dwarfed” daughters who sat near to her and who seemed to have nothing in common with the Muses and Graces who danced in her mind. Surely these girls, too, had living spirits and ardent dreams, but in their faces and manners Sarah Margaret could see only the narrow, complacent qualities of “working-day residents in this beautiful planet.”109
There was an insufficiency in such people, she felt, and it was a quick, though perhaps unjust, step for her to conclude that their beliefs must be insufficient as well. However eloquently its moral truths and calming consolations may have spoken to her, she felt that Christianity answered only a portion of her needs. She was, as yet, too young to find the right words for its perceived inadequacy, but, at the age of twenty-four, she wrote out the sentiments she had been harboring since childhood:
I well remember what reflections arose in my childish mind from a comparison of the Hebrew history where every moral obliquity is shown out with such naiveté and the Greek history full of sparkling deeds and brilliant sayings and their gods and goddesses, the types of beauty and power with the dazzling veil of flowery language and poetical imagery cast over their vices and failings.110
Sarah Margaret desired a faith that would enthrall her entire being—a faith of healthy bodies and curious questing minds that would fulfill her aesthetic as well as her moral cravings. In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold, an English poet and critic born when Margaret Fuller was twelve, observed that western civilization was divided between the two great ideas of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraism, according to Arnold, sets its sights on the study and observance of divine law. Its touchstones are self-restraint and strictness of conscience. Hellenism, to the contrary, aspires to a flexibility and openness of mind and spontaneity of consciousness. Fuller never had the chance to read Arnold, yet for much of her life, she would find her allegiances torn between the two models of ideal culture that he postulated. In this first phase of her awareness, Hellenism held a commanding lead.
In his essay, Arnold warned that the modern incarnation of Hellenism, for all its exuberant embrace of life, “had . . . a side of moral weakness and of relaxation or insensibility of the moral fibre.” He felt that “this loss of spiritual balance, this exclusive preponderance given to man’s perceiving and knowing side” was the great imperfection of Hellenic temperament, and he regarded Puritanism as the necessary Hebraic reaction against the overly voluptuous Hellenistic spirit of the Renaissance.111 The New England into which Margaret Fuller was born was still nearer in spirit to its Puritan legacy than to the age of romanticism toward which it was gradually moving. Fuller was destined to do as much as anyone to urge New England toward a more Hellenic concept of the ideal self. Yet she herself partook of the weaknesses that Arnold perceived in the classical Greek character. Along with her clarity and spontaneity of mind came an impulsiveness of emotion; her affections could be mercurial, and her demonstrations of ill temper could be volcanic. Young Sarah Margaret too often stood in need of the law-abiding, dutiful conscience of the Hebraist.
Though she later complained that excessive studying had stunted her growth, Sarah Margaret initially shot up fairly rapidly. Before she was ten and a half, she wrote proudly to her paternal grandmother that she was “a tall girl five feet two inches high.” Well before the onset of adolescence, then, she was already approximately as tall as her father. Always desiring to appear significant to others, Sarah Margaret liked the notice that being taller than average brought her way. She invited her grandmother to “multiply my stature with my years and perhaps you may find me grown enough to merit some degree of consideration.”112 At the same time, however, her unusual height presented more than a few problems. For one, along with her inordinately advanced education, it gave adults another reason to expect her to be more emotionally mature than she actually was. When her mother tried to warn her that people would judge her according to her height instead of her age, Margaret complained bitterly to her father: “I do not think this is just, for surely our knowledge does not increase because we are tall.”113
Somewhat abruptly, not long after writing her lament, Sarah Margaret stopped growing; Emerson was to remember her as being “rather under the middle height.”114 Nevertheless, her early resentment at being judged according to her growth instead of her age may disclose something about how she relished being regarded as a prodigy. Her father was constantly urging her to be exceptional; to deserve his pride and love, she must distinguish herself in all things. She well realized that a ten-year-old girl who could read Virgil was a marvel. A five-foot-two young woman who could read Virgil was less extraordinary. Sarah Margaret had learned the dangerous lesson that most children of exceptional ability soon discover: the cherished status of the wunderkind begins to fade when one ceases to appear young. Paradoxically, then, the brightest of children—those who seem to possess the greatest advantages as they move toward adulthood—perceive an incentive not to grow up, lest they lose the aura of precocity that they believe is their key to acceptance.
This was the first life of Margaret Fuller, a life whose contours she was powerless to choose but which she in some regards readily embraced. Seeking the love of her parents, encouraged by the praise of the adults who made up her world, she conformed to the role of the gifted girl. As she devoured literature and perfected her Latin, the other aspects of her self were shifting out of balance daily. She was becoming more mind than body, more a denizen of the library than a citizen of the world. What her father had given her was, in the abstract, a rich and marvelous preparation, but in a society that had no experience in accommodating female intellectuals, the purpose to which this preparation might be turned was a mystery. In the short term, her early influences and growth would lead her to an adolescence of awkward and painful adjustments. She was to learn that, in the minds of one’s less distinguished peers, there is seldom any firm distinction between the exceptional and the abnormal.
This program aired on January 25, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.
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