The Woman Who Dreamed Too Much

Cristina Nehring teaches literature at UCLA and Universite de Paris XIII. Her essays have appeared in Harper's, Michigan Quarterly Review and The American Scholar

When Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a shipwreck in 1822, he was 30. He had fathered six children; three died, two others he was judged “unfit” to raise. He had married two teenagers; both he abandoned, one committed suicide on that occasion. At the time of his death, he was living out of wedlock with a new woman. England mourned when Shelley died, and Lord Byron called him “the best and least selfish man.”

When Margaret Fuller drowned in a shipwreck in 1850, she was 40. She had had her first lover-and child-less than two years before. She had just completed the manuscript she hoped would bring her literary renown. Baby, book and boyfriend perished with her when the ship that was to take her home from Italy (where she had covered the failed revolutions) capsized 100 yards off the coast of New York. And yet, America did not mourn when Fuller died. For all her renown as journalist, Transcendentalist, public intellectual and feminist-for all her legendary intelligence and, not least, countless friends-her death met with cross-continental relief. “Margaret’s Euthanasia,” an old friend called it. “It was manifest that she was not to come back to struggle against chilled affections There was no position for her like.”

Why not? Fuller had her child out of wedlock. Indeed, though she claimed she had married the father since, it was unclear how she should have done so without a papal decree, given his Catholicism and Italy’s moral climate. So she was returning to New England a fallen woman, an embarrassment. It didn’t help that her lover was 11 years her junior and impoverished. Intellectual genius or not, she was widely considered irredeemable, and sympathy for her was discouraged as not merely superfluous but, worse, egotistical. “If Margaret had lived,” intoned her brother William, “there would have been a thousand cares for her to encounter.” Ergo, he told their mother, grief for her was “tinctured with selfishness.” Indeed, as luminaries like James Freeman Clarke soon said, Fuller’s “life was complete as far as experiences and development went.”


Complete, indeed. Fuller was on the brink of a spectacular literary career when she died. “On the brink” is right, for she had not yet attained the sort of fame for her writing that she craved and would almost certainly have earned had she lived. Since adolescence, she was (unlike Shelley, who had great family wealth, which he squandered) beset with teetering financial responsibilities (after her father died she worked as a school mistress to support her siblings and mother) and, perhaps more important, a nervousness about writing for the public. “What a vulgarity there seems in writing to this multitude!” she confided to a friend. “We ... have not yet made ourselves known to a single soul, and shall we address those still more unknown? Shall we multiply our connections, and thus make them still more superficial?”

The works she published in her lifetime are important; “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” is the first significant feminist tract in America-and it is laden with good sense. But it is not great. There is something exhaustively researched and exhausting about it. Fuller rakes up every myth and tale and historical anecdote in the annals of humanity to prove that women can achieve as much as men. The idea is courageous for its time, but its presentation is timid-the work of a young and overly conscientious writer.

Her other important work, the dispatches from Europe, are far better; significantly, they hail from the final years of her short life. By that time, she was winning trust in her public written voice. She had claimed what she once thought the privilege of genius: “to take the public for a confidant.” Her metaphors flow richly and naturally; her mind leaps confidently from stem to blossom without feeling that it must alight upon the whole garden.

She was also at the brink of domestic and romantic happiness. After decades of unreciprocated affections, she had found a man who would live and die for her. Their child, Angelino, was 1 year old when he disappeared with her into the sea.

How could her country have taken her death with such equanimity? In many ways, Fuller’s life, like that of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died half a century earlier, is harder proof of the predicament of women in her day than anything she wrote of it.

Striking similarities exist between the two: Both were translators, prolific critics and reformers; both were skeptical of marriage and wrote important tracts on the rights of women. Both loved deeply, painfully and, often, unrequitedly (Wollstonecraft threw herself into the Thames River in a failed suicide attempt after the artsy opportunist she loved, Gilbert Imlay, took another mistress; Fuller was dumped by Imlay’s double, James Nathan, when the latter fled to Europe with an “English maiden’). Both wrote astonishing love letters. Both had children out of marriage. Both had no sooner met men who loved them properly than they died-Wollstonecraft in childbirth, Fuller in shipwreck. Both were treated, when they died, as sinners; both had memoirs penned about them by philosophers-William Godwin (Wollstonecraft’s husband) wrote Wollstonecraft’s; Ralph Waldo Emerson joined with William Channing and James Freeman Clarke to write Fuller’s. Both these memoirs have been variously damned-Godwin’s for saying too much (he was accused of having destroyed his wife’s posthumous reputation by detailing her affair with Imlay) and Emerson’s, ironically, for saying too little (he has been thrashed by contemporary scholars for amending or eliminating texts that he thought would sink Fuller in public scandal). Both tried valiantly to live their principles of equality and honesty and both were roundly punished for it by their contemporaries.


One would think that contemporary feminism had by now long righted these wrongs. One would be mistaken. To be sure, both Wollstonecraft and Fuller-particularly Fuller-have inspired increasing critical attention in the last century. There are Fuller societies in the United States, Fuller conferences, many (uneven) Fuller biographies, a couple of one-woman shows based on her life and various recent editions of her dispatches and letters-among them Robert N. Hudspeth’s “Collected Letters,” the last volume of which appeared in 1994. It is Hudspeth, too, who has now assembled the “Selected Letters.” ’We have too long thought of ‘history’ only as what men said,” he declares in his introduction. Hudspeth has the best of feminist intentions. The problem with his new selection, alas, is the problem with much contemporary feminist reaction to Fuller: It stunts as it raises her.

Concretely: It hides her heart to hallow her head. It operates on the assumption that a female intellectual such as Fuller must not be caught feeling anything. Hudspeth happily gives us Fuller’s letters to the greatest or second-greatest love of her life, Sam Ward-but only after she had fallen out of love with him and he is securely married to someone else. Similarly, he gives us large numbers of letters to her aunt Mary Rotch, to her publishers and younger siblings, at a time when her correspondence to these people was severely curtailed because her life, as Hudspeth admits, was “dominated” by her affair with James Nathan, the journalist who won her heart only to take a mistress and abandon her when she became too “intense.” She was writing him one, often two, letters a day during this period. Only three of these captivating letters make the selection-the same number as appear to a publisher with whom she had chilly relations. Are they the most interesting ones? Take a guess: They are the calmest. They show only one side of her.

And Fuller, more than Walt Whitman, was “large and contained multitudes.” She was a one-woman comedy of humors. By turns grave and proud, childlike and lyrical, she could also be passionately sad and intensely self-dramatizing, even pitiful, but always in eloquent, honest, contagiously human ways. She could be coy or commanding, arrogant, selfless or foot-stamping; playful or soulful. Her correspondence, unabridged, is a course in human nature-its highest ideals, its tenacious realities and the occasional electric union of the two. And nowhere is Fuller as vivid and various as in her love letters. It is no exaggeration to say that they are among her best writing. Unfortunately, in this selection, not many of them make the cut.

Witness this passage to Nathan: “My mind,” she writes at the beginning of their acquaintance, “is enfolded in your thought as a branch with flame.” Half sensing, perhaps, the pain he would cause her, she adds that “it is great sin even to dream of wishing for less ... feeling than one has. The violet cannot wish to be again imprisoned in the sod, because she may be trampled on by some rude foot.” Early in their encounters, Nathan made a lighthearted attempt to seduce her, which she, ever a votary of soul-matedom and still, as far as one knows, a virgin, rebuffed. As time went on, however, he convinced her that her reluctance was “artificial,” that she inhabited a fairy world and needed desperately to come down to earth and become “human.”

‘I long to become human,” responded Fuller, “but divinely human.” And with that she launched into a soliloquy as beautiful as it must have been intimidating: “Let the soul,” she wrote, “invest every act of its noble abode with somewhat of its own lightness.... Are you my guardian to ... attach me more firmly to the earth? Long it seemed that it was only my destiny to say a few words to my youth’s companions and then depart. I hang lightly as an air plant. Am I to be rooted to the earth, oh choose for me a good soil and a sunny place, that I may be a green shelter to the weary and bear fruit enough to pay for staying.’To Nathan, that sounded like a lot more trouble than it was worth. He never seems to have tried to seduce her again. In any case, by that time, his English maiden had moved in with him. The relationship to Fuller dawdled on for almost a year, with all the hope and effort on her side, until Nathan wrote her from Europe that he was getting married to a German girl.

In other acquaintances, it was Fuller who proved more worldly, blithe and assertive. When the painter Thomas Hicks, whom she had met in Rome and identified as a kindred spirit, failed to call the next week, she sent a note. “I do not understand,” she wrote him, with splendid presumption, “why you do not seek me more. You said you ... had not time. I tried to believe you ... but I could not. I can always find time to see anyone I wish to; it seems to me it is the same with everyone.... I want to know you and love you.... How can you let me pass by, without full and free communication?” He couldn’t. Within weeks, they were fast friends, and they remained so until Fuller’s death.

The most famous correspondence of Fuller’s-and in some ways the richest-is that with Emerson, whose lectures Fuller had attended in Boston and adored. If Fuller idolized him at the beginning of their relation, she provoked, teased, contradicted and confided in him before long. “But Waldo, how can you expect the muse to come to you,” she quips in one letter. “I have seen her several times ... she looks in your study window when she can get a chance, for they are almost always shut” and upbraids him for his ascetic life: “I must away,” says the muse, to “worlds more fair....” Emerson must have been half-convinced by Fuller’s muse, for in the essays he published the same year, he declared, with gusto, that “the scholar loses no moment that the man lives. Experience

Fuller and Emerson’s relationship was one of rampant mutual influence and encouragement. They exchanged not only manuscripts, letters, criticism and books but also pages from each other’s journals. Many of Emerson’s essays seem written to Fuller; hers respond to him. Thus, in “Friendship,” Emerson will defend the need for private contemplation against Fuller’s siren call to companionship, delivered the previous summer, when she and her friend, Caroline Sturgis, assailed him for being too much the loner. “Almost all people,” he avers, “descend to meet. All association must be a compromise.” In an article on German writers, Fuller talks back: The two writers shared “their best thoughts, their fairest visions.... They needed not ‘descend to meet.”’ As different as they were, Fuller and Emerson aided and admired each other in equal measure: “Your excellence never shames me, nor chills my next effort,” she wrote as she sent a New York Tribune piece for his inspection, “You are intellect, I am life.”

Of course, intellect and life can easily get into scrapes together. Four years before this letter, they did. Emerson had become the object of Fuller’s heated passion and, like others before him (albeit with better reason-he was married, for one), he had backed away from her. It seems that Emerson “lost” at least two of her stronger love letters to him when he edited her memoirs. He still had 32 years of marriage ahead and had some reason to do so-for both his wife’s and Fuller’s sakes. What is less understandable is that Hudspeth has omitted many more of Fuller’s most powerful missives from his selection. Many of her letters from this time-both amorous and angry-are missing, as are those she wrote Emerson after their love fiasco had calmed. In fact, no letter I have quoted so far appears in the selection. Modern Fuller scholars have a penchant for maligning the lifelong intimacy of Emerson and Fuller: on one hand to make sure nobody sees her as the towering philosopher’s lowly disciple (she was not); on the other, to fashion her as the mistreated woman in the relationship, thus presumably scoring a feminist point.

But Fuller was not mistreated. It was only when she went to Emerson and informed him, with gorgeous self-assurance, that “you are mine and mine shall be, may you dally how long soever in this or that temporary relation,” that he stepped back-a little. “O divine mermaid or fisher of men, to whom all gods have given a witch-hazel-wand,” he writes her: No. We’re too different to “belong” to each other. That said, he sends love from his wife, pledges his devotion and “opens all his doors to her sunshine and morning air.”

She took a while to recover. At first, she tries, a little childishly, to outdo him in the statement of their differences: “I have felt the impossibility of meeting far more than you,” she claims, even while-enamored and all-too-human-offering this as clinching proof of their deeper affinity: “My abiding by you thus far [in light of their differences] affords a strong proof that we are to be much to one another.” Soon after, she demands to know whether he loves her-to which he responds, amid heart-felt compliments, by begging her to speak of anything but their “relation’: “It will not prosper with me,” he says.

Even though their friendship resumed and deepened and they collaborated on many projects, including the first Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, Fuller tagged Emerson as a cold fish forever afterward. He bore it with good humor. Meeting the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz in Europe years later, she wrote Emerson that she had found, at last, “the man I wished to see, with the intellect and passions in due proportion for a full and healthy human being.... How much time have I wasted on others!” she exclaims, with obvious, and cruel, implications. And yet, Emerson understood and admired her passionate nature in a way few others did and stayed true to her, in every way his own quieter temperament allowed. It is he who begged her to return to America in the late 1840s, when, poor, pregnant, ill and unwed, she was despairing in Italy. “I command you to come & sail home with me,” he wrote her from London, where he had been visiting. In some ways, it would have been good if she had-the ship he took arrived. Fuller’s did not.

Fuller was hard on people. She had more spirit than they-and knew it. Therein lies her brilliance, and therein her frequent frustration with the rest of the world: “I see no divine person,” she wrote Emerson. “I myself am more divine than any I see.” This is not to say that she thought her work was always up to snuff-she knew many things (ill health, poverty, gender) made her “inadequate to her desires,” but she knew she had the goods within. And she was right. A genius of conversation, a “fisher of men,” a hero of love and contemplation, she sought heroes in her companions, too. Most fell short.

“Men disappoint me so,” she pined in 1841. “I wish I were a man, and then there would be one. I weary in this playground of boys, proud and happy in their balls and marbles. Give me heroes, poets, lawgivers, Men....” But it was not only men who disappointed this “largest of women,” as Emerson’s sister-in-law called her. Women disappointed her, too. In fact, she related to them in much the same way. To the modern eye, her letters to friends Sturgis and Anna Barker look like squarely homosexual love letters. She even talks of “sleeping with” Anna (they had shared a bed), of chasing “eros” from her relationship with Sturgis (by which she seems to mean possessiveness). She addresses both these women in the most intimate tones and seeks on various occasions to extract confessions of love from them, which Sturgis, in particular, resists with all the valiance of an Emerson or a Nathan.

All of Fuller’s friends, male and female, were essentially too cool for her. It is to her credit that she analyzed her own dynamic as precisely as she did. In her idiosyncratic travel narrative, “Summer on the Lakes,” she reinvents herself as Mariana, a girl who was never “content to receive [her companions] quietly, but threw herself too much into the tie.... Like Fortunio, who sought to do homage to his friends by building a fire of cinnamon, not knowing that its perfume would be too strong for their endurance, so did Mariana. What she wanted to tell, they did not want to hear; a little had pleased, so much overpowered, and they preferred the free air of the street, even, to the cinnamon perfume of her palace.”

Mariana dies of heartbreak in the tale. A man, Fuller suggests-albeit with the temperament of Mariana-would never have wasted away as she did in domestic depression; he would have been driven out of it by professional and social obligations: “[H]e would have been called by life, and not permitted to be wrecked by the affections only.”

Fuller was not wrecked, either, by the “affections only” though, God knows, she suffered on their account. But she suffered grandly. She thought grandly-and the more sharply when it came to relationships between people. Without her, Emerson could never have written a word on “Friendship” or “Love’; nor is it likely that he would ever have exited his “quarantine of temperament,” as he called it. In fact, there was hardly a literary or philosophical giant in her day-Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edgar Allan Poe, George Sand, Joseph Mazzini (the leader of the Italian revolutions), Mickiewicz-who was not mesmerized by Fuller’s brilliant conversation. She empathized grandly; in Italy, she adopted the cause of revolution as her own and tended the wounded soldiers with all the fervor with which she later tended her child.

Finally, she loved grandly-and it is high time contemporary academic feminism ceases to see this as a vice, a blemish on her feminist forehead, but as a star. It was not weakness but strength, not fear or dependence but generosity of soul, courage of heart and majesty of imagination that allowed her to love as she did. Unlike Emerson, Fuller never protected herself-nor conserved her energies for her art. Where he carefully withdrew from company lest it “put him out of tune for writing,” she commanded it; where he guarded his “visions” lest he lose them, she tossed out her wisdom with open palms. Where he opened his heart once (to his first wife, who died at 19), got hurt and shut it forevermore, Fuller opened and reopened her resilient heart, though it got battered to a pulp a thousand times. And the world of words and thoughts is richer for it.

Contemporary academic feminism needs to grow up. Passion and reason, eros and intelligence are not incompatible. So long as feminist scholars fail to see this, they replicate the errors they mock of previous editors. Emerson mangled Fuller’s letters, one hears again and again-damn him. He did it to protect her moral reputation. Hudspeth, who spent many years painstakingly restoring those letters to as full a form as possible for his “Collected Letters,” has now mangled them all over again in his own selection (which, alas, is the only edition non-scholars will probably see). To be sure, his reasons differ; he is trying to protect Fuller against suspicions not of sexual transgression but emotional excess. He is trying to portray her not as sexually pristine but as politically correct, measured and invulnerable. The result, unfortunately, is the same: All the good letters are excluded. All the letters that show her impassioned, impetuous, enamored, imaginatively exaggerating, endangered, over-the-top-in other words, all the letters that make Fuller Fuller, that distinguish her from tamer 19th-century women-are absent. The docile correspondent who emerges from these pages is not the woman who inaugurated feminism in the New World; she is not the woman who became the New York Tribune’s first literary critic, The Dial’s first editor or the nation’s first full-time female journalist. Nor is she the woman who played muse to the American Transcendentalists and proved to be one of their most eloquent voices. Reading the “Selected Letters,” one might almost take Fuller for a nice normal girl. And that would be an offense to her and a loss to the study of literature and human nature.

Fuller’s letters are a sentimental education. They crackle with brutally honest insights; they abound with human emotion writ large. They are also, in many cases, electrically well-written. Simply because they are letters, and Emerson’s answers often come in essays, does not mean that her work is “history” and his “literature.” Emerson himself was an adversary of genres: He construed his essays as a departure from traditional literary forms: “Why should we write dramas, & epics?” he asked, when we can “write as variously as we dress and think?” Why write essays, one might equally ask, when one can clothe one’s thought more fetchingly and transparently in letters? Fuller’s was a personal intellect, and it showed best in a personal genre like the letter. Emerson’s was an impersonal intellect, drawn to grand axioms. He “loves Man,” Fuller observed once, “but not Men.” The opposite held true for her. For all the love of “universals” she shared with Emerson, she thought best on-and wrote best to-individuals.

We have recently begun to break down the tyranny of genres. We have realized that just because a painting is made with recycled garbage rather than oil paints, it is not necessarily inferior. We could go further: We must admit that just because a piece of prose has “Dear Waldo” in front of it does not mark it as inferior. Private genres are no worse than public; indeed, Emerson’s private journals are increasingly seen as the crown of his literary achievement-as harder-hitting, more economical and more vivid, even, than his public lectures.

In Italy, Fuller found what she could not in her own country. Writing regular columns on the revolution for the last four years of her life, she met a beautiful 26-year-old in a Roman cathedral. Not an intellectual, he was nonetheless unintimidated by her intellect-and captivated by her courage and spirit. After initially refusing him, Fuller relented-and he became her lover. True to her moral independence, she spurned conventions, postponed (or skipped) a marriage ceremony and declared that should her companion ever fall in love with a younger woman, “I shall do all that this false state of society permits to give him what freedom he may need.”

He showed no signs of needing any. Fuller’s letters to her confidants, initially fearful, grow ever gladder. And yet she knew how far she had ranged from the proprieties and experience of her American friends and therewith from their sympathy. “My friends remain in their place,” she wrote Sam Ward and Anna Barker months before her death. “I seem to have more clue to their state than they to mine. Across the stream I see them; they look fair and tall, but I must go to them; they cannot come to me. Farewell.” She did not make it across the stream. And her friends, to some degree, denied her; her work went unfinished.

Or did it? “In earlier days, I dreamed of doing and being much,” she confessed to her mother in 1849, “but now am content with the Magdalen to rest my plea hereon: ‘She has loved much.”’ But in loving much, Fuller thought much; she wrote much; her passion was ignited by reason and her reason by passion.

Reading Fuller’s “Collected Letters’-and one must, for there is no representative selection yet-one’s pieties are constantly under siege: Her ruthless honesty makes our own definition of honesty (consisting, as it often does, merely in not lying) seem cheap and easy. The courage she showed in applying her principles to reality makes our own principles appear bloodless. The brilliance of her letters topples our hierarchy of literary genres. The way in which she loved and thought, and thought and loved, explodes our feminist assumptions of the antagonism between these two, and invites us also, perhaps, to greater emotional courage.

Even Emerson knew, in theory, that it was no dishonor but an education to love and-if necessary-lose. “It never troubles the sun,” he says in one of his essays, “that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the cold and crude companion. If he is unequal, he will presently pass away; but thou, thou art enlarged by thy own shining.”

So was Margaret Fuller.