Object of the Month

"All this may be very 'unlovely,' but it is I": A Margaret Fuller Letter as Edited by Her Friends

Letter from Margaret Fuller to James Freeman Clarke, 19 April 1836

Letter from Margaret Fuller to James Freeman Clarke, 19 April 1836

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  • In this letter written on 19 April 1836, to the Rev. James Freeman Clarke, twenty-five-year-old Margaret Fuller describes her plans to travel to Europe; analyzes her own character; and reflects on her lack "of what is commonly called modesty." For more than 140 years, this letter was known only through heavily-edited fragments of it published in the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852). See online presentation of the letter as it appeared in the London 1852 edition. In 1985 it was rediscovered by the Massachusetts Historical Society and in 1994 printed in its entirety for the first time in The Letters of Margaret Fuller.

    "I know enough of the misery of being baffled and hemmed in on every side by seemingly insignificant barriers"

    In April 1836, when Margaret Fuller wrote to James Freeman Clarke, she was in a state of "prodigious ferment," living in the quiet country town of Groton, Massachusetts, where her family had moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1833. The monotony and isolation of her life there frustrated her literary ambitions, and the sudden death of her father in 1835 was a severe blow to the financial security of her family and her plans to travel to Europe to gather materials for a biography of Goethe. While she had begun to publish articles and essays in newspapers and journals, and continued to improve her education through a rigorous course of self study, the death of her father forced Fuller to take up teaching to support her family, first in Bronson Alcott's school in Boston, and later in Providence, Rhode Island. It would be ten years before she was able to make her long-planned trip to Europe.

    Fuller's letter to James Freeman Clarke stands in interesting contrast to the letter she had written only two days before to Mary Tyler Peabody. While she expressed many of the same sentiments in both letters, wrestling with her self doubts and frustrated literary ambition, the tone of the letters, written almost simultaneously to a close personal (male) friend, Clarke, and to an older, more distant, female acquaintance, Peabody, is quite different. To Clarke, she gave a critical analysis of her own character--"all this may be very 'unlovely,' but it is I,"--leavened with self-deprecating humor. Her letter to Mary Peabody, a woman equally "hemmed in" by the barriers placed before 19th-century women, is more formal, but in it Fuller expresses her admiration for Peabody who had recently returned from an extended stay in Cuba, and who had managed to see at least something of the world beyond "earth bound" Groton.

    James Freeman Clarke

    The Rev. James Freeman Clarke, one of Margaret Fuller's closest friends, was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1810, the same year as Fuller. Clarke grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, under the influence of the Rev. James Freeman, an early leader of the Unitarian movement in America, who had married Clarke's widowed grandmother and for whom he was named. Educated at Harvard College and the Harvard Divinity School, Clarke was ordained in 1833 and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he served as minister of the Unitarian church there and edited the Western Messenger, a liberal Unitarian journal that published Transcendental authors including the early writings of Margaret Fuller. Clarke and Fuller had been childhood friends--they thought that they might even be distant cousins--and would correspond from 1830 until Fuller's death in 1850. Clarke returned to Boston in 1841 where he founded the Church of the Disciples and became an energetic social and religious reformer, antislavery advocate, and prolific author. He died in Boston in 1888.

    The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli

    In 1846, Margaret Fuller at last was able to make her long-delayed trip to Europe, where she wrote as a foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune. She settled in Italy, where she witnessed the revolution in Rome, and fell in love with Giovanni Ossoli, an Italian count. On 19 July 1850, Margaret Fuller (by then the "Marchioness Ossoli"), her husband, a political refugee from the Italian Revolution, and their young son, Angelo, were drowned in a shipwreck as they returned to the United States. When news reached Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a long-time friend and correspondent of Fuller, dispatched their mutual friends Henry David Thoreau, and cousins William Ellery and William H. Channing, to the scene of the disaster to try to rescue the manuscript of a book that Fuller had written on the recent events in Italy, and any other of her manuscripts that had survived the disaster. Their forlorn mission led to a project to compile and publish a biography of Fuller, illustrated with examples of her correspondence. Margaret and Her Friends, the working title of the biography, turned out to be a larger and more complicated project than Emerson and William H. Channing had anticipated. James Freeman Clarke stepped forward to help with Fuller's early life, relying heavily on her letters to him, while Emerson and Channing covered her later years. The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli appeared in American and English editions in 1852.

    No matter how well-meaning Emerson, Clarke, and Channing may have been, modern biographers of Margaret Fuller have described their editorial decisions as "maddening." They revised, re-arranged, and deleted long passages from her letters and writings, distorting her image, while presenting it as taken directly from her own words. Some changes reflected 19th-century propriety. They deleted from the published version of this letter Margaret Fuller's description of Goethe as "licentious" because he had not married when he fathered a child. Questions about whether Fuller actually was married at the time of her death probably influenced their decision.

    For more than a century, many of Fuller's letters were known only from the corrupted fragments published in the Memoirs. In 1985, however, the Historical Society discovered 84 letters from Fuller to James Freeman Clarke, including the letter displayed here, in additions to the Perry-Clarke Collection, donated to the Society by James Freeman Clarke's Perry family descendants. This discovery allowed Robert N. Hudspeth, the editor of the scholarly edition of The Letters of Margaret Fuller, to publish the entire text of many of her letters for the first time, and gives the modern reader the opportunity see how Hudspeth's predecessors had altered her writings in the Memoirs. See an electronic transcription of the letter indicating the sections that were published.

    An Exhibition and Conference to Celebrate the Bicentennial of Margaret Fuller's Birth

    To commemorate the bicentennial of Margaret Fuller's birth, the Historical Society will mount an exhibition, "A More Interior Revolution: Elizabeth Peabody, Margaret Fuller, and the Women of the American Renaissance," that will be on display from March 22-June 30, 2010. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 1:00-4:00 PM. For information on accompanying gallery talks and related programs, please visit March 2010-June 2010 Events.

    The exhibition draws upon the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Concord Free Public Library. Guest curator Megan Marshall, author of the acclaimed biography, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, has assembled letters, journals, and published writings of Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller, along with writings, publications, and works of art created by their female contemporaries--other women who participated in the American literary renaissance in New England between 1830 and Fuller's death in 1850. While Margaret Fuller would leave Boston for a career in journalism in New York and then on to participate in the social upheaval in revolutionary Europe, Elizabeth Peabody remained here and argued for "a more interior revolution"--for men and women to accomplish "in the republic of letters, in the temple of lofty sciences," what the founding fathers had accomplished "fifty years since in politics."

    In conjunction with the exhibition, the Historical Society will sponsor a three-day conference, "Margaret Fuller and Her Circles," April 8-10, 2010. For information on the conference program, please visit the conference web page or call 617-646-0512.

    Sources for Further Reading

    For more information on Margaret Fuller's early life, see the November 2008 "Object of the Month" at the Historical Society's website.

    Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life. Vol. 1, The Private Years; vol. II, The Public Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992-2007.

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

    Clarke, James Freeman. Autobiography, Diary, and Correspondence, ed. Edward Everett Hale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891.

    Deiss, Joseph. The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969.

    Fuller, Margaret. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth. 6 vols. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983-1995.

    Fuller, Margaret. Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, ed. R. W. Emerson, W. H. Channing, and J. F. Clarke. London: Bentley, 1852.


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