May 23, 2010

Bicentennial of Margaret Fuller

It was 200 years ago today that Sarah Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. That day,  May 23, 1810, Timothy Fuller and Margarett Crane welcomed their first child into the world; father, however, would have preferred a boy. Even so, he went about educating his little daughter as if she were a son.

Young Margaret (she dropped the name "Sarah" as a child because it made her sound too old) was reading and writing by age three and a half. By about age six, she was translating Latin. Her father forbid her from reading typical feminine fair like sentimental novels and etiquette books. She read them anyway, and wrote long letters to her father justifying that decision. At age 10, Margaret wrote a cryptic note on her birthday: "On the 23rd of May, 1810, was born one foredoomed to sorrow and pain, and like others to have misfortunes."

24 years after that, on her birthday in 1844, she completed the last draft of her first book, Summer on the Lakes. The book chronicled her adventures in the Great Lakes region and beyond. Her travels took her to Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Niagara Falls. She went kayaking, hiking, and interacted closely with Native  Americans, whom she portrayed sympathetically in her book. It was published with illustrations by her companion on the trip, Sarah Clarke, wife of James Freeman Clarke. In preparing to write her book, she did additional research on the region using the library at Harvard College — making her the first woman to do research at America's oldest college.

Fuller earned several other firsts: first editor of the Transcendental journal The Dial, first full-time book reviewer, first female overseas correspondent, and author of the first major American book on feminism, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). She occasionally experienced ominous dreams which she considered premonitions, much like her cryptic note at age 10. She died tragically in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York in 1850. She was 40 years old.

Fuller lived life to the fullest, perhaps more than other Transcendentalists, who were more thinkers than doers. From Summer on the Lakes, here's how she describes her disappointment in white-water rafting:

I sat down, and in less than four minutes we had descended the rapids, a distance of more than three quarters of a mile. I was somewhat disappointed in this being no more of an exploit than I found it. Having heard such expressions used as of "darting," or, "shooting down," these rapids, I fancied there was a wall of rock somewhere, where descent would somehow be accomplished, and that there would come some one gasp of terror and delight, some sensation entirely new to me; but I found myself in smooth water, before I had time to feel anything but the buoyant pleasure of being carried so lightly through this surf amid the breakers... I should like to have come down twenty times, that I might have had leisure to realize the pleasure.

*The image above is from the Fuller collection at Houghton Library, Harvard. It is believed to be the only photographic image of Fuller, though several copies exist. To learn more about this fascinating woman, and some of the events in honor of her 200th birthday, please visit


  1. Who knew!? Imagine reading at 3. Loved the rafting story.

  2. Wonderful entry re Fuller, including that rafting experience! Just want to comment regarding your "more thinkers than doers" umbrella reference to the Transcendentalists. But weren't Thoreau--and Bronson Alcott--"doers" as well as thinkers? They both seemed to "walk the talk," along with Fuller.

  3. You are absolutely right about Thoreau and Alcott! That line was a subtle jab at my least favorite Transcendentalist, R. W. Emerson. :)

  4. Yes, although say what you will about RWE not dirtying his hands with toil (and I have some problems with the man as well), wasn't he pretty generous in financially assisting other Transcendentalists, such as Thoreau and Fuller (even if his wealth was the result of an inheritance from his first wife)?

  5. Thanks so much for not-only your informative entry, but the connecting link to the MF bicentennial site.