Sarah Margaret Fuller was unquestionably the most important woman in the Transcendentalist movement. An intellectual, teacher, conversationalist, editor, feminist, author, translator, and social critic, she moved from Boston to New York in 1844. There, she was the literary critic for the New-York Tribune for nearly two years before leaving on a European trip, ending in Italy, where she participated in the Revolution of 1848 and met her future husband, Giovanni Ossoli. When she returned to America in 1850 with her husband and son, their ship went aground off Fire Island, New York, and all three drowned.
Collecting Margaret Fuller was a nineteenth-century pastime. Upon hearing of her death, Emerson sent Thoreau and Ellery Channing to Fire Island to search for her body (and those of her husband and child) and whatever of her literary manuscripts they could recover, especially the history of the Italian Revolution on which she had been working. No manuscripts were found and only her son’s body was located. Emerson then embarked with William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke upon a book to memorialize Fuller’s life. They wrote to all who had known Fuller, asking for reminiscences and letters. These, along with excerpts from Fuller’s own letters and journals, as supplemented by narratives from the three editors, comprised the bulk of Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, published in two volumes in 1852. The book is a classic example of a woman’s life being refashioned for presentation to a wider public, as the editors created a “Margaret” who was more religiously orthodox and socially acceptable than they perceived the real Fuller to be, and one whose writings were devoid of the expressed sexuality they possessed. Naturally, to accomplish this portrait, the editors selectively quoted from Fuller’s own manuscripts in order to present the tidy picture of her that they wished the audience to see. Not only that, they also lost or destroyed many of the manuscripts they had gathered (some of which were sent to the compositor as printer’s copy and discarded after use). Of the Memoirs, Robert Hudspeth—editor of Fuller’s letters—has commented that we can “make these observations” on the book: (1) “Almost no letters are intact”; (2) Fuller “appears in the Memoirs to be consistent in her attitudes, but in fact she could be quite one woman to one correspondent and another to a second”; (3) “The posthumous mixing of letters and essays obliterates the rhetorical situation that prompted the writing”; (4) “The shattered chronology . . . obscures the growth of Fuller’s mind and personality”; (5) “The necessary gaps created by the limited number of sources created large blind spots” in her biography; and (6) because “Fuller’s childhood letters were not used . . . her early life is recreated only by [printing] her adult autobiography . . . which tells us more about Fuller’s adulthood than about her childhood.”
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (one of the second-generation Transcendentalists) wrote the next major Fuller biography, published in the American Men of Letters series in 1884. Like the editors of Memoirs, Higginson appealed to surviving Fuller associates for reminiscences and documents, which he put to much better use and transcribed more accurately in his one volume than his predecessors had in their two. His biography is more balanced, and he saved those manuscripts that were not returned to his sources (today they are in the Boston Public Library). In 1903, Fuller’s romantic relationship with James Nathan was first revealed, when Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller was published, based on manuscripts that the Boston Public Library had purchased from Nathan.
Even though there were a number of major events in 1910 celebrating the centennial of Fuller’s birth, interest in her waned and her writings soon went out of print. In 1926, the family deposited at Harvard University a large collection of Fuller papers, twenty-two bound volumes and four boxes of mostly manuscript materials, stretching seven linear feet. And there they sat until Madeleine Stern mined them for her 1942 biography of Fuller.
Joel Myerson was ahead of his time in collecting Margaret Fuller. He comments on late twentieth-century trends: “Collecting Fuller was, when I became involved, a one-person show—me. Because Fuller’s work was out of print, it was not taught at colleges, and thus new generations of readers and collectors were not exposed to her. Indeed, she was known more for the largeness of her life than for the quality of her writings, and the many anecdotes about her did not encourage further inquiry; for example, she is quoting telling Thomas Carlyle that ‘I accept the universe,’ to which he responded, ‘Gad! she'd better!,’ and Oscar Wilde commented that when Emerson wrote about Fuller the printer had to send out extra cases of capital ‘I’s. It was not until the early eighties, when women’s literature emerged as a legitimate and popular area of study, that collectors joined scholars in recognizing Fuller’s importance, and just as the space allocated her in classroom anthologies increased, so did the prices of her books, and especially Woman in the Nineteenth Century. In 1975 I paid $80 for a copy of Summer on the Lakes inscribed to one of Fuller’s best friends in Italy, Countess Arconati; two of my six copies of the 1845 Woman in the Nineteenth Century are in wrappers, and for those I paid $275 and $50 in 1982 and 1985, respectively; and of my two copies of the first English edition of Woman, I paid $35 in 1973 for the one on display here—the only known copy in original binding with the illuminated title page—and $25 in 1975 for Fuller’s own copy. Manuscript material by her, though, remains harder to find because most of her letters went to correspondents whose own papers have ended up in public collections and, besides, she died young. But even now there are wide disparities among the sale prices of her letters, ranging from a few hundred to over ten thousand dollars—the last letter I bought, in 2005, only cost $472. Still, prices continue to climb because more collectors are accumulating writings by women, and Fuller is a necessary addition to any ‘high spots’ collection.”
60. Concord Celebrates 200: Margaret Fuller Bicentennial, May 21, 22 & 23, 2010. At First Parish in Concord & Concord Free Public Library . . . (Concord: Transcendentalism Council at First Parish in Concord, 2010).
61. Margaret Fuller. Woman in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1845).
62. Margaret Fuller. Woman in the Nineteenth Century (London: H. G. Clarke & Co., 1845).
63. Margaret Fuller. Autograph letter, signed, to “Lizzie” [Elizabeth Hoar], January 16, .
64. Evelina Metcalf [one of Fuller's students]. “School Journal” kept from April 23 to May 16, 1838, in Providence, Rhode Island.