The American feminist and Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller drowned on this day in 1850, aged forty. Fuller’s beliefs, accomplishments, and fervent personality put her in the spotlight throughout her life, but her last years, spent in Rome supporting the short-lived Roman Republic, reached an operatic level of passion and poignancy. As foreign correspondent of the New York Tribune, Fuller argued the cause of the Italian revolutionists in the dispatches she sent home. In Rome, she assisted on the Republican ramparts and in their field hospitals. She also may have married—the evidence for an official marriage is contradictory—an Italian nobleman who was prominent in the Republican cause, and had a son by him. With the ramparts fallen and her husband in jeopardy, Fuller reluctantly decided to return to America, despite premonitions of disaster and warnings from Emerson and other Concord friends that her socialist leanings and doubtful marriage would provoke public disfavor. When her boat ran aground just off the New York coast, she and her son chose to stay with her husband, who could not swim. Fuller and her husband were washed out to sea and never found; the young boy’s body was recovered on the shore. The memorial to Fuller put up by her family reads, “Born a child of New England, / By adoption a citizen of Rome, / By genius belonging to the World.”
Some of Fuller’s contemporaries also placed her in the “genius” rank. Edgar Allan Poe thought that the fallacy in Fuller’s lobby for women’s rights was that “[she] judges woman by the heart and intellect of Miss Fuller, but there are not more than one or two dozen Miss Fullers on the whole face of the earth.” Poe’s evaluation is echoed in comments by Emerson and Hawthorne—though perhaps their attraction to Fuller went further, as suggested in Susan Cheever’s book on the Concord circle, American Bloomsbury (2006), one chapter of which is titled “Margaret Fuller, the Sexy Muse.”
Fuller also had a high opinion of herself—”I now know all the people worth knowing in America,” she writes in her memoirs, “and I find no intellect comparable to my own”—but her goals reflect more than mirror gazing. One of her earlier poems reads, “Let me gather from the Earth, / one full grown fragrant flower, / Let it bloom within my bosom / through its one blooming hour….” In a late letter from Rome, she states, “I neither rejoice nor grieve, for bad or good, I acted out my character.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.