Concord has a woman in mind

Margaret Fuller — transcendentalist, intellectual, author on women’s rights — is at last being recognized in her own backyard

Donna Davis playing Margaret Fuller and Alec Walker playing Ralph Waldo Emerson during a dress rehearsal of the 'Margaret Fuller Story' at the First Parish Church in Concord on May 9. Donna Davis playing Margaret Fuller and Alec Walker playing Ralph Waldo Emerson during a dress rehearsal of the "Margaret Fuller Story" at the First Parish Church in Concord on May 9. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Shohet West
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2010

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She debated into the wee hours with Bronson Alcott, and studied philosophy with Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Concord office. A distinguished journalist, she became the first woman granted research privileges at Harvard.

Then, Margaret Fuller sailed to Europe and fell in love with an Italian revolutionary.

In 1850, during a voyage back to the United States with their young son, all three died in a shipwreck off New York’s Fire Island. Henry David Thoreau made the trip to help search for the bodies; only the toddler’s was recovered, after it washed ashore.

“To the last, her country proves inhospitable to her,’’ a distraught Emerson wrote in his journal. “Brave, eloquent, subtle, accomplished, devoted, constant soul!’’

Concord celebrating the life of a transcendentalist may not sound groundbreaking. In this community that once served as a petri dish for the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, honoring intellectual heroes from bygone days is nothing new.

But when historians, visitors, and townspeople converge this weekend in celebration of a bicentennial, it won’t be any of the usual suspects whose name is on everyone’s lips. It will be Fuller, born 200 years ago Sunday.

Events dedicated to this pioneering 19th-century feminist include lectures, panel discussions, walking tours, photo exhibitions, a play, a chamber music concert, and a worship service.

“She became the formative public intellectual of her time, when that was not something women did,’’ said Dianne Weiss, chairwoman of the event. “She was a real believer in social reform, from women’s rights to abolition to prison reform. And she knew how to raise people’s awareness of those issues through her writing. Her book, ‘Woman in the Nineteenth Century,’ is the very first American feminist tract we have, and it put her on the map,’’ Weiss said.

Fuller’s bicentennial is being celebrated elsewhere this year — from her birthplace of Cambridge to New York and California — but Concord was a latecomer to the proceedings.

The idea hatched last fall in a small discussion group of Concord’s Transcendentalism Council, led by a local Fuller scholar, the Rev. Jenny Rankin, minister at First Parish in Concord, with Weiss also among the participants.

“What I learned about Margaret Fuller in Jenny’s class made me realize what a dynamite woman Fuller was,’’ said Weiss. “And with the bicentennial of her birth coming up, it just seemed to me that in Concord, of all places, we should be doing something about it.’’

In the late 1830s, Fuller made frequent trips from her Cambridge home to Concord, where her sister Ellen lived. There she came to know Emerson and other members of the transcendentalism movement. She became the first editor of The Dial, the movement’s chief journal, and was subsequently hired by Horace Greeley to write for the New York Tribune. In 1846, he sent her to Europe as the paper’s first female foreign correspondent.

There, she fell in love with Italian revolutionary Giovanni Ossoli, with whom she eventually set up house and had a child, though it is unclear from historical records whether they ever married.

By the time of Fuller’s death at age 40, she was nationally recognized as a leading feminist and writer.

Although New England has its share of Fuller authorities, Donna Davis, who will play the leading role in Saturday night’s performance of “Margaret Fuller’s Universe,’’ confesses that she was not one of them. The play was written several years ago by Sayre Sheldon and Agnes Butcher.

“I’m learning about her through the playwrights’ eyes,’’ said Davis. “The play covers her life from the ages of 23 to 40, and it’s unbelievable to me what she managed to do in that amount of time. It’s such a compelling story in terms of what a bright light she was and how quickly she accomplished so much, but also what a short life it was.’’

Many historians view the decrease in attention during the 20th century to Fuller’s work as a backlash to women getting the vote, according to Weiss. Nonetheless, recent years have seen a resurgence of attention, and several Fuller biographies are due out in the upcoming year.

Though it’s tempting for Fuller’s followers to speculate on what more she would have accomplished had she lived longer, Rankin cautions against idealizing her.

“Margaret Fuller was a real person,’’ the Unitarian Universality minister said. “She was a woman of spiritual courage who had real struggles in her life. There was no path for her, as a bright woman in 1830. She couldn’t go to Harvard or become a minister like Emerson; she couldn’t become a lawyer like her father. But she didn’t give up or crawl into a hole. She kept educating herself. In a society where there was no path for a powerful, bright woman, she made a path for herself. But she was also human. She struggled, she got depressed, she fell in love with the wrong guy.

“She was a complete person, and I find human beings more interesting than heroes on pedestals.’’

Weiss hopes that visitors to this weekend’s events take away more from it than just an awareness of a historical figure.

“There is still a lot that Margaret Fuller can teach us,’’ Weiss said. “The revolution she started isn’t over yet.’’

Concord is celebrating the bicentennial of Margaret Fuller’s birth with three days of events sponsored by the Transcendentalism Council at First Parish in Concord, Concord Free Public Library, Concord Museum, Emerson Forum, Emerson House, The Old Manse, The Thoreau Society, and Concord Bookshop.

Events will take place at First Parish in Concord, 20 Lexington Road, unless otherwise noted.

Friday, May 21

▸7 p.m. ’’Margaret Fuller in Time,’’ keynote lecture with biographer and historian Charles Capper. Concord Free Public Library, 129 Main St. Free.

Saturday, May 22

▸10 a.m. Panel discussion with three Margaret Fuller scholars. Moderator: the Rev. Jenny Rankin. Free.

▸1:30 p.m. Margaret Fuller-themed tours leave from First Parish for stops at The Old Manse, Emerson House, and Concord Museum. $10. Reservations required at 978-369-9602.

▸4 p.m. Chamber music concert of the Transcendentalist Period. Free.

▸8 p.m. “Margaret Fuller’s Universe,’’ a costumed staged reading; $10. Reservations at 978-369-9602 or tickets at door.

Sunday, May 23

▸ 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Worship services in honor of Margaret Fuller’s life and achievements.

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