- The Many Faces of Margaret Fuller
Since her tragic death by shipwreck in 1850, Margaret Fuller's readers have attempted to make sense of what seems like a life in fragments. Along with her magnum opus, a history of the Roman revolution and republic, the waves off Long Island swallowed many of the clues that might have helped to organize the astounding events of her public life. The rapidly expanding trajectory—from Transcendentalist New England to New York and finally to revolutionary Europe—has continued to challenge Fuller's interpreters. Combined with this challenge is a complex series of intense romantic, emotional, and political attachments—any one of which would seem to be the makings of an engaging novel: Fuller's early loves for Samuel Ward, Anna Barker, and Caroline Sturgis; her tangled relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson; her infatuations with William Clarke and James Nathan; her complicated political and emotional relationships with European revolutionaries Giuseppe Mazzini and Adam Mickiewicz; and her final union with Giovanni Ossoli. It is no wonder that it took three different editors to compile the first attempt to record Fuller's [End Page 198] life—the 1852 Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Emerson, William Henry Channing, and James Freeman Clarke each depicted the woman who had been "his" Margaret Fuller. It is no surprise that their three portraits differ.
Feeling at times that none of her contemporaries would ever understand her, Fuller gravitated toward personal and literary forms that pulled others into intimate structures of connection. As a result, conversation, dialogue, and letter writing were her most natural means of expression and became the armature of her most extended, published works: the translations of Eckerman's Conversations with Goethe and Bettina Brentano's correspondence with Gun-derode, the complex cultural dialogues of Summer on the Lakes and Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and the intensely personal dispatches from Europe. Each of these texts either positions the reader as Fuller's correspondent or the-matizes the issues found in personal and cultural dialogues. If an understanding of Fuller's life and writing depends upon an intimate responsiveness to her plea for connection, this has been the case especially for her biographers. Two new biographies of Margaret Fuller provide a fascinating glimpse into the ways contemporary biographers choose to answer that call. While each provides a compelling narrative, Meg McGavran Murray and Charles Capper tell strikingly different stories. For Murray, Fuller was a suffering woman whose "blighted childhood" turned her into a "wandering pilgrim" looking for her lost home (327, 171). In contrast, Capper sees Fuller as the foremost female intellectual of her age and its leading cultural critic, who became a "cosmopolitan" intellectual able to interpret American cultural concerns through her unprecedented knowledge of European literature and politics (240).
Murray's Margaret Fuller: Wandering Pilgrim tells the story of a passionate but thwarted woman who struggled to overcome the disastrous effects of being raised by a harsh and even abusive father. While nearly every biographer has noticed Timothy Fuller's strong impact upon his daughter's personality, no one before Murray has given this father-daughter bond such a central explanatory role. The "pattern underlying Fuller's life," Murray observes, "was an obsessive paternal presence linked with a sense of missed maternal love" (58). Cast out into the world as a "pilgrim," Murray's Fuller struggled her entire life to overcome the oppressive effects of her father's abusive influence and to find love and a stable home where she might be recognized. Linking Fuller's emotional style to her early, conflicted relationship with her father, differences that were cemented in place by his death in 1835, Murray follows the complicated web of ties between Fuller and men as diverse as Emerson, Nathan...