Today, May 23, is the birthday of Margaret Fuller. She would be 209 years old. I don’t know if you have ever heard of her. I hadn’t really, maybe vaguely. She was actually born Sarah Margaret Fuller, named after both her grandmothers, until she dropped the first name at age 9. She was in other ways a precocious child, too, the oldest of Massachusetts lawyer and Congressman Timothy Fuller’s children, and he taught her to read and write before age 4.
Fuller, a Harvard grad, was such a stern teacher that he forbade her reading sentimental novels and instead gave her what was then, at the beginning of the 19th century, a vigorous classical education — indeed a rarity for a woman at that time.
Margaret Fuller grew up expecting to be exceptional, and she was: as a journalist, editor, literary critic and women’s rights advocate. She strenuously protested slavery, homelessness and other injustices. She advocated for education for women. She also was reputed to be the best read person in all of New England. She was the only woman allowed to use the Harvard library for her research. Her breakthrough book was “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” considered the first major feminist work in the United States, and she was friends and the intellectual equal of such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne — said to have modeled Hester Prynne after her, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and admired by Edgar Allan Poe.
She died in 1850 at age 40 in a shipwreck off Fire Island, with her Italian count husband — if they ever married — and 2-year-old son, within sight of the shoreline. Her ship, the Elizabeth, ran aground on a sandbar as it was being captained by the first mate. The event was in all the metropolitan newspapers four days after the tragedy, once word could get out after the gale passed that had come sweeping up the East Coast, destroying the ship. Fuller had been sent by her publisher, Horace Greeley of the New-York Daily Tribune, to Europe from which she filed dispatches for four years, first from England and then from the 1848 revolutionary wars raging in Italy. In effect, she was this nation’s first female wartime correspondent.
Fuller’s life was honored with a book, “Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli,” a flattering portrait edited jointly by Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing, all of whom rushed to get it out in print before, they feared, her reputation would die. In fact, it was the best-selling book in the United States until Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Margaret Fuller was a remarkable woman, and I am glad to meet her. How did we happen to meet?
We were introduced by Angela Reich and the Three Village Historical Society. Reich wrote a book called “Shipwreck of Hopes,” about the ship Elizabeth, and although this is fiction, the author spent a great deal of time getting the historic context right. She traveled to Harvard, poured over original letters and manuscripts, and otherwise discovered that there were thousands of shipwrecks off the Fire Island coast. Yes, thousands! This just happened to be one of them, and this one carried a famous passenger.
It is a wonderful thing that we can listen to a writer discuss his or, in this instance, her book and all that went into the writing, dressed in our daytime suburban-casual clothes, enjoying other community members similarly gathered and even a little homemade carrot cake on a given Monday night. In the process we learned some local history and met two worthy women: Margaret Fuller and Angela Reich.
We live in a terrific place where such delights — theater, music, documentaries, political debates and book discussions — frequently happen. All we have to do is get off the sofa after dinner and go to them. It’s often hard but so worth the effort.