19th-century journalist Margaret Fuller made her own headlines
Perhaps the last piece of performance art played out by Margaret Fuller, whose life seems an endless series of stimulating exercises for the benefit of her family, friends and fans, was to die July 19, 1850, in a shipwreck off Long Island's south shore.
Returning from the tumult of Italy's war, where she reported for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune and secretly married an Italian of lower rank nobility, she brought with her the chaos, horror and ugliness of death, all in full view of her genteel New England colleagues, who rushed down from Boston to scour the beaches for any remains of her body, her manuscripts, her life.
This scene is perhaps the most riveting of many dramas portrayed in "Margaret Fuller: A New American Life," by Megan Marshall, recently published by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, N.Y.
As Marshall describes her, Fuller was educated beyond the scope achieved by most men of her time, regardless of social rank. Fuller sparred intellectually with the great brains of New England, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and others, then left them for the ink-stained offices of the Tribune, where she saw more of life than all the others combined.
And that was before she went to Italy to become a war correspondent.
Fuller's life has provided raw material for many writers before Marshall. So why another biography of her?
"The last popular biography of her was Paula Blanchard's in 1979," Marshall said, in a telephone interview from her hotel in Manhattan. "All the others were scholarly bios."
"There was new material," Marshall added. "All of her letters were put into print, and her writings for the New York Tribune. All of her published work is in print and readily available. So she seemed right for someone who wanted to write an accurate and creative book."
"She was such a fine writer in her private writings and published work," Marshall said. "I feel very honored to write about her."
Marshall dated her interest in Fuller to a class she took as an English major at Bennington College, in Vermont. Having studied the Transcendentalists in high school and again in college, she read down a list of male names, all the minds who shaped American intellectual culture in the decades after the Revolution and before the Civil War. And suddenly she stopped.
"There was in this anthology a lone woman," said Marshall. "She was practically the only one in any of my lit courses."
The lone woman, of course, was Fuller.
Born Sarah Margaret Fuller on May 23, 1810 in Cambridge, Fuller was home schooled by her father, Timothy Fuller, a lawyer and Congressman, and tutors. By late childhood she was proficient in Latin, and she decided to drop Sarah from her name as she liked the sound of Margaretta instead.
Becoming a teacher in 1839, she held what she called "Conversations" at a local bookstore, owned by Elizabeth Hawthorne, sister to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
She called them "Conver-sations" because it was against the law then for women to lecture.
A year later, she became the first editor of Emerson's "The Dial," a journal of transcendental writing. She was known as the best-read person in New England. She was the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College. In 1844, she went to New York to work for Greeley.
Her seminal work "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" was published in 1845. A year later, she was in Italy, the Tribune's first female war correspondent.
Fuller reported the revolutions in Italy from the viewpoint of Giuseppe Mazzini, nicknamed "The Beating Heart of Italy," who helped bring about the independent and unified modern state.
Fuller, who was unmarried, fell in love with Giovanni Ossoli, married him secretly and had a child. Too poor to book passage on a steamer, they traveled on an old commercial sailing vessel carrying a load of marble. The captain died enroute and was buried at sea.
What dramatic life might Marshall tackle next?
"I'm going to return to the obscure," said Marshall. "I'm writing about Elizabeth Hawthorne, known as Ede, because young Nathaniel couldn't pronounce Elizabeth when he was growing up."
What attracted Marshall to Hawthorne?
"She was an eccentric recluse," she said. "A female Thoreau, a female Bartleby the Scrivener."
Marshall was also taken by a saying attributed to Hawthorne: "Consult your own comforts and forswear self sacrifice."
"She was saying that women did so much attending to family and friends, they needed to take some enjoyment from life," Marshall said.
The quiet of the Hawthorne bookstore, the little red farmhouse where the family lived, seems a quiet respite after dealing with the sturm and drang of Fuller's life.
Her body was never found.
Fuller's death on Fire Island's sandy shores was marked by a placque and monument erected in 1901, more than 50 years after her death. Julia Ward Howe sang her recently composed "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and women suffragettes stood up and told each other what an inspiration Fuller was to them.
Perhaps fittingly, the placque and monument disappeared in the Halloween Nor'easter of 1991, also known as The Perfect Storm.
"I grew up here, lived here all my life, and I know exactly where it used to be," said Buzzy Bragg, fire chief of the Point O Woods Fire Company. "When we moved the dunes back after the Halloween storm, it wasn't there."
The only public place to visit a historic remembrance of Fuller is Mount Auburn Cemetery, where her infant son is buried. Howe is also buried there, not far from the Fuller family monument.
If you go ...
What: ‘Margaret Fuller:
A New American Life'
Where: The Mount,
2 Plunkett St., Lenox
When: Monday, 4 to 6 p.m.
Admission: $20 for members, $22 for non-members. Call ahead for tickets.
Information: (413) 551-5111, www.edithwharton.org
Megan Marshall will open The Mount's Summer Lecture Series with a talk about Margaret Fuller, a female war correspondent, Thoreau's editor, and Emerson's close friend.
What: Marmee and Louisa:
The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother
Where: The Mount,
When: Monday, July 15, 4 to 6 p.m.
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