News your connection to The Boston Globe
Book Review

A new appreciation of Fuller as a writer, thinker, and risk-taker

Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, Volume II, The Public Years, By Charles Capper, Oxford University,649 pp., $40

The first volume of Charles Capper's biography of Margaret Fuller, published in 1992, covered her "private years," her first three decades that included her father's direction of her classical education and her launching of her "Conversations," the intellectual soirees that brought women (and sometimes men) together on topics from myth and literature while bringing Fuller a precarious income augmented by tutoring and writing.

Capper's second volume, almost half again as long as the first, covers just 10 years, from 1840, when Fuller assumed the editorship of the Dial, transcendentalism's "Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion," to 1850, when she died in pounding surf off Fire Island, shipwrecked on the voyage bearing her from revolutionary Italy back to uncertain professional and social prospects in the United States.

As the heft of Capper's treatment underlines, Fuller's decade of public life ranged over an extraordinary amount of territory, both geographical and intellectual. Far from the character she was long given as the madwoman in the attic of American transcendentalism, Fuller emerges in Capper's telling as perhaps the most professional, peripatetic, and internationally engaged of the group.

During Fuller's two years as editor of The Dial, from 1840 to 1842, she pursued Ralph Waldo Emerson and other well-known transcendentalists for contributions; recruited work by lesser-known talents, including friends like Ellen Hooper and Caroline Sturgis; saw to the journal's layout; and made up for her contributors' delays with her own pen.

While collaborating with Emerson on The Dial, Fuller also pursued her "Waldo" with more obscurely personal aims in view, pressing George Sand's "Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre" on him as a lesson in mystical romantic affection and wailing into her journal, "Why is it that the religion of my nature is so much hidden from my peers? . . . I shall wait for [Waldo] very peaceably, in reverent love as ever; but I cannot see why he should not have the pleasure of knowing now a friend, who has been 'so tender and true.' "

Although Capper concedes that Fuller's and Emerson's vocabulary of disembodied romantic friendship seems today "a gross evasion of the clear erotic issue between them," he demands respect for Fuller's "painful eagerness to use the Romantic therapeutic tools of her pre-Freudian world to make some sense of her emotional life." Looking outward from her stalemate with Emerson to the condition of women generally, Fuller in her long essay "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women" (published later as "Woman in the Nineteenth Century") transmuted her anguish over the unshared "religion of my nature" into the tale of an American Indian woman who "dreamt in youth she was betrothed to the sun," self-reliant, and "She built her wigwam apart, filled it with emblems of her alliance and means of an independent life."

After delivering "The Great Lawsuit" to The Dial in the spring of 1843, Fuller put this image of self-sufficiency to the test by trekking into the territories of Illinois and the Great Lakes, traveling some of the time as a woman alone. On Mackinaw Island she encountered native women, with a mixture of ambivalence and sympathy that she recorded in "Summer on the Lakes, in 1843," her first book aimed at a wide audience. In it, she called for an American hero who would be "no thin Idealist, coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens while his feet step firmly on the ground."

Fuller's romantic idealism was never bloodless, despite her reputation for migraines and scoliosis and simple unhappiness . As she wrote in a Dial review of Fanny Elssler, the Austrian dancer who shocked Boston, "Everything tends in the civilized world to a reinstatement of the body in the rights of which it has been defrauded, as an object of care and the vehicle of expression."

Like many 19th-century American travelers, Fuller eventually found in the more civilized world of Europe a reinstatement of the body, in the shape of a handsome Italian husband (probably) and a son (certainly). She also encountered the revolutions of 1848, which spurred her evolution into what Capper calls a "cosmopolitan liberal patriot." In her columns for the New-York Daily Tribune she called on "all that is most truly American in America" to rally to the side of revolutionary Italy, while voicing increasing support for abolition and other reforms in the United States.

Weighing the controversy over whether Fuller actually married Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a soldier in the Roman Civic Guard 10 years her junior, Capper judges it "almost certain that at some point Fuller did secretly marry," perhaps in April 1848 but in any case after she became pregnant with her son, Angelo. Americans in Italian expatriate colonies warmed to what Fuller called her "unexpected accessories of husband and child," but many of her friends were wary of Fuller's encumbered return to the United States.

Despite her fears of shipwreck and social ostracism, Fuller embarked. Lost in the wreck off Fire Island were not only Fuller, Ossoli, and their son, but the manuscript of Fuller's book on the Italian revolution. It is not clear that she meant to return to the United States to stay. Capper speculates that "already in her mind she was contemplating becoming something other than the American she had always been." Her macabre death -- Emerson sent Henry David Thoreau to search for her body and belongings, unsuccessfully, among the scavengers who combed Fire Island's shores -- made her into an American romantic legend.

Capper's magnificent biography restores Fuller as a transnational citizen of the liberal Atlantic world and as the first great American champion of cosmopolitan avant-garde culture.

Mary Loeffelholz is a member of Northeastern University's English Department and the author of books on Emily Dickinson and modernist women writers.