At six, Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) was reading in Latin. At twelve, she was conversing with her father in philosophy and pure mathematics. By fifteen, she had mastered French, Italian, and Greek, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning for mental discipline. In her short life, Fuller — one of the central figures in my book Figuring, and the person whom Emerson considered his greatest influence — would go on to write the foundational treatise of the women’s emancipation movement, author the most trusted literary and art criticism in America, work as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper and the only woman in the newsroom, advocate for prison reform and African American voting rights, and become America’s first foreign war correspondent, trekking through war-torn Rome while seven months pregnant. In her advocacy for African American, Native American, and women’s rights, Fuller would ardently espouse the simple, difficult truth that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble.” All of this she would accomplish while bedeviled by debilitating chronic pain at the base of her neck — the result of a congenital spinal deformity that made it difficult to tilt her head down in order to write and was often accompanied by acute depression.
The only known photograph of Margaret Fuller
In her thirty-third year, in the midst of heartbreak, Fuller left her native New England to journey westward into the largely unfathomed frontiers of the country. She returned home transformed, awakened to new social, political, and existential realities. Eager to supplement her observations with historical research, she persuaded the Harvard library to grant her access to its book collection — the largest in the nation. No woman had previously been admitted for more than a tour. She then set about relaying her impressions and insights, ranging from a stunning portrait of Niagara Falls to a poignant account of the fate of the displaced Native American tribes with whom she sympathized and spent time. This became Fuller’s first book, Summer on the Lakes — part travelogue, part anthropological study, and part political treatise.
At the heart of the book — which greatly inspired the astronomer Maria Mitchell, anther key figure in Figuring — was the search for truth of a higher order. Punctuating Fuller’s lyrical prose are sentiments worn all the truer by time. In a passage that should be emblazoned on every voting ballot (and composed before what Ursula K. Le Guin wryly termed “the invention of women,” when every woman was “man”), Fuller observes:
This country… needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value, yet who, if his play be true, heeds not what he loses by the falsehood of others; a man who hives from the past, yet knows that its honey can but moderately avail him; whose comprehensive eye scans the present, neither infatuated by its golden lures, nor chilled by its many ventures; who possesses prescience, the gift which discerns tomorrow — when there is such a man for America, the thought which urges her on will be expressed.
Find more of Fuller’s towering, prescient, yet tragically forgotten genius in Figuring, then revisit Walt Whitman, who admired her greatly, on democracy and resistance.