The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. Transcendentalism

§ 12. Margaret Fuller

No one of the leading transcendentalists illustrates this aspect of the movement more completely than does the first editor of The Dial, Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810–1850).

The character of Margaret Fuller’s childhood and early training is the key to much in her later career. She was brought up by a father whose stern temperament and uncompromising notions on education made him peculiarly unfitted to understand and mould the delicately sensitive nature of his daughter. Under the mental tasks he imposed upon her, her health became impaired and she was overstimulated intellectually and emotionally. All the early part of her life was a struggle against the sentimentalism and self-consciousness which her early education had engendered. As a young woman she was proud and imperious, at times overbearing, in her nature. She could use her tongue sharply and sarcastically, a quality which, combined with a high temper and a tendency to tell the truth, made her many enemies; and gradually, as she became more widely known, out of these hints that she herself supplied, there emerged in the public mind a distorted conception of her personality—a view that still lingers—which made her out a woman of insufferable vanity and masculinity, a veritable intellectual virago. Along with Alcott she became a chief butt of coarse and unsympathetic critics.

As a matter of fact, however, the unloveliest features of Margaret Fuller’s personality were but the reverse sides of sterling virtues, and it is to her lasting credit that she lived to master and in the main to outgrow her early defects. The family duties devolving upon her at the death of her father, the sacrifice of long-cherished plans for foreign travel, a brief period of teaching, her work as editor of The Dial—these experiences gave her needed self-control and contact with practical problems, and the figure that emerges from them some years later as literary critic of The New York Tribune and social and philanthropic worker is an exceedingly able, sensible, and admirable woman.

From her early years, Margaret Fuller read omnivorously (at a rate like Gibbon, Emerson once said). Her linguistic equipment was good, and there is little question that she came to know Continental literature, that of Germany especially, more fully and appreciatively than any other of the transcendentalists. Her choice as editor of The Dial therefore was natural. She also put her literary acquirements to use—as did Alcott his educational theories and mystical lore—by holding conversations on Greek mythology and other subjects. While these at the beginning were not free from amateurishness and a narrowly self-cultural ideal, they had deeper qualities, the promise of powers more fully revealed in her Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) and her collected Papers on Literature and Art (1846), which, in spite of their decidedly uneven quality, reveal her on the whole as one of the best equipped, most sympathetic and genuinely philosophical critics produced in America prior to 1850.

Following Miss Fuller’s removal to New York, the realistic element in her work grew stronger, her interest in social and political questions increased, and particularly during her three years in Italy from 1847 to 1850—where she was married to the Marquis Ossoli—did her intimate contact with the struggle for Italian freedom broaden and deepen her nature. In fact her career seemed just entering on its most useful phase when it was tragically cut short by her death in the wreck off Fire Island in 1850 of the ship that was bringing her back to New York, a disaster in which her husband and child also perished.

Though her later promise was thus unfulfilled, Margaret Fuller had already accomplished much.

  • “It has been one great object of my life,” she once declared, “to introduce here the works of those great geniuses, the flower and fruit of a higher state of development, which might give the young who are soon to constitute the state, a higher standard in thought and action than would be demanded of them by their own time.… I feel with satisfaction that I have done a good deal to extend the influence of the great minds of Germany and Italy among my compatriots.”
  • She had, in truth, accomplished this, and her words are suggestive of one of the greatest achievements of the transcendental movement on its literary side.