Victor Nuovo: A little-known transcendentalist

27th essay in a series

I suspect that almost everyone who reads this essay will be unfamiliar with Margaret Fuller (1810–50). Her name does not ring a bell in our minds as do the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau, her contemporaries, or Frederick Douglass, Oliver Wendell Holmes or Henry and William James, her successors in the intellectual life of America. And yet, there should be no doubt that she belongs among this august group, and her writings, as do theirs, deserve to be included in everyone’s list of American Classics, of books to read and reread. I will remark on only two of them in this essay. “Autobiographical Romance” and “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.”

She was born in Cambridge, Mass., the eldest of nine children, seven of whom survived. Her father, a Harvard-educated lawyer and sometime politician, determined that, although a woman, she should receive a Classical Education, and he assumed the role of her teacher, for he could not send her to Harvard. He had her reading Latin at age 6, and, linguistically gifted, she went on to master Greek, French, German and Italian, and could quote from the classics of all these languages. Her writings are filled with literary allusions, which makes them difficult to read, for she assumed that her readers would be as literate as herself.

Her education began when she was still a child. In her “Autobiographical Romance” she writes that its effect was to deprive her of her childhood. Her father, whose character she fittingly summed up in one word, “martinet,” allowed no activities that he thought childish, or “womanish.” It was not because he had no sons, he had five of them, three of whom attended Harvard. Perhaps it was because she was the eldest child.

When she reached her teen years, her father came to recognize the ill consequences of his home schooling, and repented of it, and he did his best to compensate for his mistake. But, as Margaret recalled, it was too late. She was unable to relate to girls her age, or boys. They were childish; she was above them all, and her superiority over her peers was not altogether unpleasant to her. This should come as no surprise, for as a reviewer of “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” wrote, her writings reveal the qualities of “powerful intellect, comprehensive thought, and thorough education.”

When the members of the Transcendental Club decided that they should create a literary journal to promote their ideas and projects, they chose her as its first editor. Emerson greatly valued his conversations with her, for they supplied him with ideas, many of which became seeds of his essays. Thus, she might be described as a seminal figure in the Transcendentalist Movement. And her writings still have this effect today, which is why it is so important that they be rediscovered and read, preserved and handed on.

Her father loved her mother dearly, although she had none of the qualities that he instilled in his daughter. Margaret likened her to an angel. Her mother kept a garden, which was the place where Margaret would go for solace. But the early death of her father, soon to be followed by the death of her mother, made Margaret, as the eldest child, head of the family, a role that she filled wisely and well. But it interfered with her ambition, which, like Thoreau, was to be a writer.

In 1843, she published in The Dial, the transcendentalist journal, an essay entitled, “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” which she would then expand into a book, entitled “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.” It has been described as “a landmark in the history of feminism,” which it certainly is. But such an attribution hardly does it justice, for it is not about women only, but about women and men, and their true archetype, which is neither male nor female, but a union of both in humanity, which she chose to call “Man.” “By Man I mean both man and woman: these are the two halves of one thought … twin exponents of a divine thought.” This is reminiscent of Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The image of God to which “Man” conforms is androgynous, and this becomes the theme of her whole work; its central thesis is that in order to become truly human, men and women must transcend their birth gender or “cisgender” (to use a current term) and unite with the other, indeed they must embrace the whole of human nature in all its diversity. To become whole persons, each of us must unite the male and female in ourselves. In this respect, to be human is to be, in a manner, transgender.

This is a revolutionary idea. If it is not, then there never have been any revolutionary ideas. The two halves of one idea (i.e. Woman, Man) must unite in all men and all women, and become one person. Each of us, male or female, must embody the archetypal “Man-Woman” in our essential selves. Only then will the great injustices of patriarchalism and abuse of women, and of those who mixed gender identity be overcome, and our society will become truly human and whole.

“Woman in the Nineteenth Century” charts the course of radical transformation that must be undertaken before true gender equality is achieved. So we must all read it, and take it to heart. Margaret Fuller is indeed a seminal American figure, a social philosopher of the front rank.

As I wrote earlier, the early death of her father made Margaret Fuller head of her family and responsible for their support. Horace Greeley read her contributions to The Dial, and offered her a position with The New York Tribune. She became a regular correspondent, and in 1848 was sent to Europe, where she contributed regular reports of the revolutionary events there. She became the prototype of the foreign correspondent. In Italy, she met and fell in love with Roberto Ossoli, an Italian nobleman turned revolutionary. They had a child, married, and decided to return to America. The journey was ill fated. The ship on which they sailed hit a sand bar Montauk Point, Long Island, and sank.

Postscript: Margaret Fuller’s chief writings are available in two anthologies: “The Portable Margaret Fuller” (Penguin Press), and “The Essential Margaret Fuller” (Rutgers University Press). Both are affordable, and either will do.

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