In This Article Margaret Fuller

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Teaching
  • Reception

American Literature Margaret Fuller
David Robinson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0119


Margaret Fuller (b. 1810–d. 1850), an early advocate of women’s rights, a key participant in the Transcendentalist movement, and a pioneering woman journalist, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and educated rigorously in languages and the classics by her father Timothy Fuller, an attorney, state senator, and four-term US congressman. A precocious learner, Fuller came later to believe that her father had brought her forward too early, damaging her health in the process. Growing up in Cambridge, she befriended James Freeman Clarke, an aspiring Unitarian minister who joined her in the study of German and shared her deep interest in modern German authors. The unexpected death of her father in 1835 stunned Fuller and left her family in a precarious financial situation, upsetting her plans to launch a literary career with a biography of Goethe. With European travel impossible, she focused instead on translation and connected herself with the Transcendentalist movement, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Working with Emerson and other Transcendentalists, Fuller became the editor of the Dial, a fledgling Transcendentalist journal, in 1840. This put her in working contact with aspiring authors and provided a venue for her own work, spurring a remarkable outpouring of essays, reviews, and poems in the early 1840s. Among these were a forceful defense of Goethe, then under attack in the United States on religious grounds, a group of experimental prose narratives connected with female power and spirituality, and a compelling essay on women’s rights, which she expanded into Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Fuller published the book just as she had become a columnist for the New-York Tribune, a move that awakened her to urban social problems and the importance of mass education and democratic reform. She traveled to Europe in 1846, visiting Great Britain, France, and eventually Italy, where she married Giovanni Ossoli, a supporter of the 1848 nationalist uprising in Rome. Fuller observed and reported on the revolution and supported it actively. When the new republic was put down by French intervention, Fuller returned to America with her husband and son, planning a history of the revolution. But she died with her family in a shipwreck on her return. Her premature death at age forty was an overwhelming loss to American culture and to the emerging women’s movement, only two years after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on Women’s Rights.

General Overviews

Fuller’s varied career as an author, editor, journalist, and women’s rights activist calls for intellectual range among her readers and critics. Chevigny 1994, first published in the mid-1970s, was an instrumental work in Fuller’s recovery as an important American author and cultural figure. It includes an overview of her career, descriptions by her contemporaries, and selections of her works. Allen 1979 makes a case for the variety of Fuller’s accomplishments. Howe 1997 links her with an American tradition of self-development that includes Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and others. Fuller’s emergence as a major historical figure in the 1970s and 1980s is captured in Fleischmann 2000, an essay collection that centers on Fuller’s importance as an agent of change. Steele 2001 focuses on Fuller’s remarkable self-redefinition in the 1840s that moved her toward feminism and her political advocacy. For detailed and well-considered analyses of all of these aspects of her achievement, see Capper 1992 and Capper 2007 in Biographies.

  • Allen, Margaret Vanderhaar. The Achievement of Margaret Fuller. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979.

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    A survey of Fuller’s career emphasizing her repeated confrontation with limit and failure and her ability to grow through experience. Considers Fuller the equal of her Transcendentalist contemporaries Emerson and Thoreau and calls for a deeper recognition of her achievement.

  • Chevigny, Bell Gale. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.

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    Chevigny’s hybrid biography/anthology is one of the most influential works in the recovery of Fuller’s modern reputation. She revealed a thinker whose feminist ideas and struggles for acceptance and self-understanding seemed revelatory to modern scholars of both women’s studies and Transcendentalism. First published in 1976.

  • Fleischmann, Fritz, ed. Margaret Fuller’s Cultural Critique: Her Age and Legacy. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

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    Fifteen original essays from different scholars that represent significant themes of Fuller criticism in the 1980s and 1990s, and explore various aspects of Fuller’s work as a cultural critic. The volume includes discussions of her philosophical influences, her literary relationships with important contemporaries, and her literary style and strategies.

  • Howe, Daniel Walker. “Margaret Fuller’s Heroic Ideal of Womanhood.” In Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. By Daniel Walker Howe, 212–234. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

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    Influential assessment of Fuller and the American ideology of self-culture, the capability of the individual to progress intellectually and spiritually through concerted effort. Howe’s discussion of Fuller’s conception of the heroic woman is grounded in her feminist adaptation of William Ellery Channing’s doctrine of the cultivation of the soul and the impact of Goethe and the German romantics on her aesthetic and philosophical quest.

  • Steele, Jeffrey. Transfiguring America: Myth, Ideology, and Mourning in Margaret Fuller’s Writings. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

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    Important analysis of Fuller’s emergence as a feminist thinker. Considers two overlooked textual groups that explain Fuller’s courageous struggle for self-transformation in the 1840s. Three Dial narratives in 1840–1841 set out a mythology of feminine empowerment, and an outburst of poetry in 1844 helped her formulate a conception of reciprocal empathy and mutuality that enabled her social activism.

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