On this date in the mid-19th century, America lost one of its greatest writers and keenest observers when Margaret Fuller died on July 19, 1850, in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island, New York. Her work has fascinated me for many years; indeed, her thinking and remarkable insight into the human condition have inspired me to write Woman in the 21st Century, a novel-trilogy in which she is a major character who disrupts the life of a young writer.
In honor of her birthday this year (May 23), I wrote this essay. Lacking time to write something new to commemorate the day she died, I'm posting it here.
The Most Famous Woman in America
France’s near-president Ségolèn Royal, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark, and our very own Nancy Pelosi probaby don’t know it but they ought to bow toward Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 23rd. That is the birthday of the little known pioneer whose brush-clearing nearly two centuries earlier opened the path for women to do whatever they pleased, including to govern.
In 1900, Margaret Fuller was the most famous woman in America—even though she’d been dead for fifty years and had only lived for forty. Today, most people don’t know her at all.
If Fuller were alive now, she likely would have a column in The New York Times. Arguably the most prolific writer in the young America of the 1840s, Fuller was the David Remnick and Christiane Amanpour of her time rolled into one. She edited The Dial, The New Yorker of its day, and filed first-person reports from the Roman Revolution of 1848.
Fuller was the Transcendentalists’ Transcendentalist, probably the greatest genius among them, certainly the most published, and likely the best traveled. Without benefit of Harvard (Emerson and Thoreau) or Bowdoin (Hawthorne) or even Bronson Alcott’s primary school where she taught, Fuller was fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian. At twenty-four, she published her first article, “In Defense of Brutus,” in a Boston newspaper, allying herself with Caesar’s assassin; at twenty-nine, the same year she assumed editorship of the The Dial, she published her translation of “Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe.”
At thirty-four, Fuller was the first woman in America to have a page-one newspaper byline. She spent six years at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the last three as a foreign correspondent covering the Roman rebellion of the mid-19th century. In eighteen months, this polymath published two hundred and fifty articles—reviews of literature, art, music, politics, travelogues, profiles, and front-line battle reports from the Roman rebellion. She was the original blogger.
Fuller said she knew all the great minds in America—which was likely true—and that none compared with her own, a bit of theatre that, had she appeared on The Daily Show, she never would have lived down.
In her final two years, she was a working mother.
With all that, Fuller is known best for the pamphlet she wrote at thirty-three. Originally published in 1843 in The Dial, “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women," Fuller’s insights into human potential sold out almost immediately. Another two years would pass before Greeley and McElgrath would publish it in a proper bound volume as Woman in the Nineteenth Century.
Fuller objected to the new title as her work was rumination on both men and women, positing that man could not fulfill his potential until woman fulfilled hers. It was heady stuff for its time when the mere whisper of women’s rights was cause for alarm. Fuller wanted it all for women—as thinkers, voters, carpenters, mothers, and anything else woman wanted—and she wanted it all for men.
Today, the expansive thinker behind “The Great Lawsuit” certainly would have a way to interpret news of societies where women cannot leave their homes unescorted—but can go online and formulate new politics, where young people blow themselves up beside vegetables, having received their instructions in their Inboxes.
But Fuller would not have stopped there. A mystic, she ultimately looked beyond the headlines—way beyond, to other realms, perhaps the reason why she’s having a bit of a comeback today: She merits many pages in Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters, is a central character in Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury, and even appears in Geraldine Brooks’ novel, March.
“The stars,” Fuller wrote, “tell all their secrets to the flowers, and, if we only knew how to look around us, we should not need to look above.”
And so, on May 23, I will make my annual pilgrimage to pay homage to Margaret Fuller on her birthday. As in most years since discovering her in the 1970s, I will go to the cemetery where many of America’s literati lie and walk up Pyrola Path to the rise just off the main drag. I’ll wander the family plot where Margaret’s parents, siblings, and progeny all are buried—along with her grandnephew, Bucky Fuller, whose small marker is engraved with his signature invention, the geodesic dome.
There at the plot’s edge stands a slate-and-granite monument erected by her famous friends after her death. Drowned in a shipwreck off Fire Island when returning from Italy with her husband and little son in 1850, her body was never found. Three stanzas from her twenty-four-line epitaph capture the spirit of this woman who ran interference for all of us so long ago:
“Born a child of New England, By adoption a citizen of Rome, By genius belonging to the World.”
—Jessica Lipnack is seeking representation for The Persuasion, the first volume in her Margaret Fuller trilogy, Woman in the 21st Century.