By Ruth Nourse
Published May 1, 1989
We have discussed in the last two installments of this series that a certain elite group of educators, writers, and literary critics set out in the mid- to late 1800s to discredit the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This scheme was carried out because some felt it necessary to bury America’s Christian heritage, and place our nation on a new philosophical course. It was obvious to these individuals that a literary hero like Longfellow – who was so outspokenly Christian – would have to lose his place of prominence in American letters. We will focus our attention this month on the work of critic Sarah Margaret Fuller.
Sarah Margaret Fuller was born on May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Her father Timothy, an attorney who was elected to the Massachusetts legislature and later to the U.S. Congress, was bitterly disappointed, having set his heart on a son. He determined to educate his daughter as though she were a boy. The little girl was expected to be ready for recitation when her father came home from work in the evening, and he demanded perfection.
After lessons were learned, Margaret was encouraged to use her father’s library, which included books by literary artists such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and others that few in America knew existed. These were works not widely read in America before the 1880s, but from which Timothy Fuller’s precocious little girl began to build her world view.
The burden of studying so diligently with her exacting father probably contributed to a lifetime of emotional problems for Margaret. She was a lonely child; her life revolved around her father, his books, and church attendance. Her father eventually began to see his mistake in hindering Margaret from making friends her own age. He decided to send her to a boarding school in Groton 40 miles away. Classroom and dormitory life was not easy for Margaret or for those who shared it with her. Schoolmates soon found the Fuller girl always insisted on her own way and was unwilling to follow the leadership of others.
After she left the school, Margaret exchanged letters for five years with an understanding teacher and told of her self-imposed program of self-improvement. Thus Margaret Fuller planned to develop discipline and social graces so that she could, one day, distinguish herself through her superior intellect. She was an exceedingly serious young woman, who at 16 could discuss Byron and Rousseau or the philosophy of John Locke. When her father entertained President John Quincy Adams at a ball in 1826, this young lady, gowned in pink silk, served as hostess. Timothy Fuller saw something queenly in this awkward young woman. History would vindicate this perception.
An Aversion to Christianity
A spiritual turning point in Margaret’s life is described in her journal: “It was Thanksgiving Day and I was obliged to go to church, or exceedingly displease my father. I almost always suffered much in church from a feeling of disunion with the hearers and dissent from the preacher: but today more than ever before, the services jarred upon me from their grateful and joyful tone.“1
On the way home she had a mystical experience: “For myself, I believe in Christ because I can do without him: because the truth he announces I can see elsewhere imitated: because it is overshadowed in the very nature of my being. But I do not wish to do without him. He is consistently aiding and answering me. Only I will not lay any undue and exclusive emphasis on him. When he comes to me I will receive him: when I feel inclined to go by myself, I will.“2
Margaret’s faith in the doctrine of self-culture was strengthened and defined by Goethe, whose writings she discovered in 1832. This German poet and dramatist, who took both subjects and style from Greek myths, became Margaret’s idol. She found in Goethe’s writings a world for women beyond the world she knew – the “oppressive, narrow world” of Christian home and family. She defended Goethe’s immorality and unspirituality, saying she would not let her knowledge of his private life “interfere with her judgment of his works.” Goethe showed her that life was not ruled by laws so unchangeable as those of the Puritans.
In 1839, Margaret rented a house in Jamaica Plains outside of Boston. Money had to be earned in some way. Taking stock of assets, she identified conversation as her best asset. Already a herald of the joys of German literature, Margaret would find in her conversations a more ample platform from which to introduce Goethe to America.3
For her first class, she enlisted 25 members at $25 each. There were to be 13 “conversations” on Greek Mythology followed by another course of 13 on the Fine Arts. During the next five years, Margaret scheduled regular “conversations” on such subjects as ethics, demonology, creeds, poetry, ideals, and philosophical questions. She called on women to have the courage to thus improve themselves, even though they would be called “crude and tasteless” for attending her meetings.
Replacing Christ with Goethe
Fuller crusaded against what she called the “cult of true womanhood,” i.e., piety, purity, submissiveness, passivity, and domestic virtues. Her classes were seen as a part of the transcendentalist mania that swept New England in the 1830s and ’40s. It was the time of “Newness,” and new ideas were being put forward on almost every subject. In a short while, transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson wished to join her conversations.
After the transcendentalists found their literary offerings unwelcome in many periodicals, they began, in 1840, to plan a quarterly journal of their own, The Dial. Margaret was to be the editor of the new journal, with Emerson the co-editor. With its announced purpose “To promote the constant evolution of the truth, not the petrification of opinion,” The Dial was a welcome forum in which to make new ideas heard.4 Margaret made no effort to edit out the more radical flights from the world of orthodoxy. Everyone was allowed to express what was on his mind.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s evaluation of the journal may be seen in a letter to his father: “Have you seen The Dial? The organ of the Transcendentalists? I am sure it would amuse you: its beauty, its wisdom and folly, make a strange mixture.” Longfellow’s view of Goethe differed greatly from Sarah Margaret Fuller’s; he denounced the writer as sensual and immoral. Most Americans saw him as anti-Christian.5
Work on The Dial brought Margaret into closer association with Emerson than she had previously managed to achieve, but Goethe continued to be her most admired influence. In Goethe, Margaret found an affinity with a universal spirit more compelling to her, more liberating, than she found in Christ. Through Goethe’s writings she came to believe that as the principle of sin is destroyed, the personality attains absolute freedom, and thus finds its “true self.”
She believed that through this freedom we become gods, able to give life which we have in this way received. She later wrote: “I constantly think of Goethe … He is the light of the age … High priest of truth, and best lover of man.“6 Having thus deified Goethe, Margaret could accept no superior source of truth.
Margaret Fuller then went on to New York in 1844 to work as literary editor on Horace Greely’s New York Tribune. From this platform she launched her attacks on the poetical works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After the Cambridge poet had commenced his rise to fame, she wrote: “We must confess a coolness towards Mr. Longfellow, in consequence of the exaggerated praises that have been bestowed upon him. When we see a person of moderate powers receive honors which should be reserved for the highest, we feel somewhat like assailing him and taking from him the crown which should be reserved for grander brows.”
Centered as she was on self-perfection, Margaret disdained all those who aspired to nothing better than home and family – people whose values were reflected in Longfellow’s poetry. “She wondered why God suffered ‘these grub-like lives, undignified even by passion – these lifelong quenchings of the spark-divine.’”
In 1846, Margaret sailed for Europe and became romantically involved with a young Italian revolutionary. They were later forced to flee with their young son to Florence, where she mailed announcements of her marriage, and the birth of her child, to friends in America. On May 17, 1850, she and her family perished in a violent storm off Fire Island on July 19. Margaret Fuller’s editors, including Emerson, removed her papers and all journal material unacceptable to Americans of the 19th century to protect her reputation and their own.
We have no way to know what transpired in Margaret’s thoughts as a ship was torn apart beneath her. Perhaps she, like Edgar Allen Poe, changed her mind about a lot of things. Her story is now told here because her leadership in shaping America’s new age did not end with the tragedy off Fire Island. America’s public schools and libraries are monuments to her triumph in the overturning of the Christian social order in Longfellow’s America.
Next month Ralph Waldo Emerson’s role in the shaping of American philosophy will be examined.
1 Frederick August Braun, Margaret Fuller and Goethe (Henry Holt & Co., 1910: Folcroft Library Editions, 1971), p. 34.
2 Ibid., p. 35.
3 Mason Wade, Margaret Fuller, Whetstone of Genius (The Viking Press, 1940), p. 68.
4 Ibid., p. 84.
5 Margaret Vanderhaar Allen, The Achievement of Margaret Fuller (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979), p. 48.
6 Braun, p. 63-64.
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