April 2012, Week 2


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Wed, 11 Apr 2012 23:56:49 -0400
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A Double Inheritance: On Margaret Fuller

Vivian Gornick 
April 3, 2012   |    
This article appeared in the April 23, 2012 edition of The

The Lives of Margaret Fuller
A Biography.
By John Matteson.

In America, celebrated public intellectuals who are women
have, most often, been admitted to the ranks of high
cultural regard only one at a time, and never without
qualification. In the last century, for instance, the
spotlight fell on Mary McCarthy in the 1940s and Susan
Sontag in the 1960s, each of whom was smilingly referred
to by the public intellectuals of their times as the "Dark
Lady of American Letters." In the first half of the
nineteenth century, although a fair number of her sex
among abolitionists and suffragists were brilliant, it was
Margaret Fuller, world-class talker and author of the
influential treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century
(1845), who stood in the allotted space, alone in a sea of
gifted men, most of whom chose to denature her--she thinks
like a man--as they could not believe they had to take
seriously a thinking woman. This was a great mistake,
thought a former student of Fuller's. "With all the force
of her intellect," said Ednah Dow Cheney in 1902, "all the
strength of her will, all her self-denial and power of
thought she was essentially and thoroughly a woman, and
she won her victories not by borrowing the peculiar
weapons of man, but by using her own with courage and

Some 160 years after her death, Fuller remains a haunting
figure not so much for the one important book she
committed to paper as for the exceptional life she lived,
the significance it had in its own moment as well as the
one it might have had, if it had not been cut severely
short in 1850 when she was 40. Within that short span of
time, however, Fuller underwent the kind of dramatic
transformation that calls attention to one of moral
philosophy's great conundrums: Is it nobler to spend one's
time on earth devoted to the spiritual elevation of one's
own individuality, or to bond with the eternal struggle
for equality in the belief that to serve the greater good
is to elevate the spirit life of humanity? This question
provides John Matteson's new book, The Lives of Margaret
Fuller, with its organizing principle, and has helped him
write a biography that tracks Fuller's internal journey
with a degree of informed sympathy that does full honor to
a uniquely American woman who was never more American than
when she went abroad in search of large answers to this
large question.

* * *

Margaret Fuller, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in
1810, was the offspring of a family of Unitarian
rationalists who believed that, as children of God, we are
obligated to develop the intelligence within. Her father,
Timothy Fuller, a prominent lawyer and Congressman,
exhibited a shared temperament of snotty self-assurance on
this score. The enthusiasm, Matteson tells us, with which
Timothy and his brothers published the fact that they
"knew everything" made people grateful for the information
and stunned by the nerve. "Contentious, confident, and
possessing not a 'particle of tact' among them, the
brothers were admired more than they were liked."

Margaret, the eldest of six children, grew up her father's
daughter: she was the one born brilliant and soon made
scornful. To a large degree, she had the childhood of John
Stuart Mill. Once her father saw--and this, almost in
Margaret's infancy--that he had a child of prodigious
mental ability, he drilled her mercilessly. It wasn't that
he didn't love her for her own particular self; it was
that he loved more the opportunity to satisfy both duty
and inclination through the cultivation to the utmost of
the remarkable brain he had at his disposal.

Thus, at 4 Margaret could read and understand stories
written for grown-ups; at 6 she was studying grammar, both
English and Latin; at 9 she was reading major works, again
in English and in Latin. History, modern languages and
literature were not far down the road; when she got to
them, she swallowed them whole. Under her father's
influence, Matteson notes, she came to revere the German
Romantics--Goethe, especially--all of whom held the idea
that the world was ever evolving toward a higher level of
consciousness, and that to pursue consciousness through
learning "was a matter not just of destiny but of
quasi-religious duty." To this ideology Fuller consecrated
herself, and in her eyes all who did not do likewise
deserved her contempt.

She was plain, she was overweight, she blinked
compulsively; her voice was nasal, and she talked and
wrote an alarmingly complicated blue streak. One Cambridge
wit observed that the Transcendentalists "read Dante in
the original Italian, Hegel in the original German...and
perhaps the hardest task of all, Margaret Fuller in the
original English." By Fuller's 20s, everyone in Cambridge
who mattered considered her the most educated woman in New
England, as well as the one who suffered fools least
gladly. Years after her death, Emerson remembered that
many people "did not wish to be in the same room with
her." Partly it was "the effect of her manners, which
expressed an overweening sense of power, and slight esteem
of others.... The men thought she carried too many guns, and
the women did not like one who despised them." There were
indeed many who could not bear the sight or the sound of
her--among them Nathaniel Hawthorne; then again, there were
many who prized her company--among them, Lidian and Ralph
Waldo Emerson.

Fuller was permanently of two minds about her
extraordinary childhood. On the one hand, she wrote of her
father that he had treated her "not as a plaything, but as
a living mind," and for this she would be forever
grateful. On the other hand, she thought that she had paid
for this gift with lifelong migraines, permanent insomnia
and impaired eyesight, as well as a debilitating inability
to believe that her intellectual output was sufficient.
While her father had set great store by her intelligence,
he had also corrected far more than he had praised. So,
Matteson writes, "along with the superior attention span
and tremendous knowledge," she absorbed from her father "a
fierce penchant for self-criticism." It doesn't take much
imagination to see how easily a sense of one's
insufficiency can become projected outward, onto one's
fellow creatures. Meeting Fuller in New York in 1845,
Edgar Allan Poe said of her, "The upper lip habitually
uplifts itself...conveying the impression of a sneer."

This double inheritance of erudition and disdain was the
formative experience of Fuller's life, the one that made
and unmade her repeatedly. She became that most startling
of human configurations: an insecure narcissist,
formidably educated, forever exhibiting a nervous contempt
for the second-rate, never able to puzzle out why she felt
eternally alone as she marched indomitably forward.
Throughout her life, many knew her but only a few would
have the stamina to love her; among those few, aside from
the Emersons, were Horace Greeley, Caroline Sturgis and
Henry David Thoreau; and later, in Europe, Giuseppe
Mazzini, Thomas Carlyle and George Sand. Nowhere, however,
could she make the emotional connection that would relieve
her sense of isolation.

Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. Her biography of
Emma Goldman is forthcoming from Yale.

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