July 19, 2010

Fuller: that the anguish may be brief

Their trip was full of problems from the beginning. To save money, the family chose to leave Europe in a merchant freighter, the Elizabeth, with a crew accustomed to transporting cargo, not people. First delayed by rain, the ship was also delayed by an outbreak of smallpox which claimed the life of the captain, who was replaced by an inexperienced first mate. Then, within 100 yards of the shore of Fire Island, New York, the Elizabeth hit a sandbar and was heavily damaged. It was July 19, 1850, about 3:30 or 4:00 a.m.

It was there that, within sight of shore, the critic/feminist/reformer/editor/travel writer Margaret Fuller died, along with her husband Giovanni Ossoli and baby Angelino. Most of the crew survived and onlookers on shore waited patiently for cargo from the ship to arrive on shore for their plundering. The bodies of Margaret Fuller and her husband were never found, despite a search by both William Henry Channing and Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was sent by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who years earlier hand-picked Fuller as the first editor of The Dial, the official journal of the Transcendentalists. Thoreau wrote back what some of the witnesses saw of the ship as it broke apart. He also noted how little of the family's belongings were found: "the broken desk... a large black leather trunk... a carpetbag... and one of his shoes are all the Ossoli effects known to have been found." The wreck of the Elizabeth would be sold for scrap the day he wrote the letter.

Fuller had ominous premonitions about her trip. She wrote at the time about "praying fervently, indeed, that it may not be my lot to lose my boy at sea, either by unsolaced illness, or amid the howling waves." In fact, Angelino contracted smallpox at the same time as the Elizabeth's captain. If the boy did die, however, she asked that the whole family "may go together, and that the anguish may be brief." While delayed by rain, Fuller wrote to her mother back in Massachusetts, who she hadn't seen after a few years living in Europe (primarily Italy):

Should anything hinder our meeting upon earth, think of your daughter as one who always wished, at least, to do her duty.... I hope we shall be able to pass some time together yet, in this world. But, if God decrees otherwise, here and hereafter, my dearest mother, [I am] your loving child, Margaret.


  1. A very touching post. It seems Margaret still had some of the old New England Protestant in her, as she talks about God's decrees. Frank O'Hara died on Fire Island (and so did another modern poet, whose name I can't recall). I think this story could make a dramatic short play; wonder if anyone has done that?

  2. "Margaret Fuller's Universe" is one; I believe there may be others.