Saturday, May 23, 2009

Margaret Fuller at 199

On May 23, 1810, Timothy and Margaret (Crane) Fuller welcomed their first (of eight) children. They named her Sarah Margaret Fuller — it would not be long after that the precocious child demanded she be referred to only as "Margaret." In fact, in her professional career — which spanned education, journalism, criticism, poetry, etc. — she went by that name, rather than the more conventional etiquette which would have her named "Miss Fuller."

The relationship between Poe and Fuller was, like many of Poe's interactions, complicated. Despite some comments against Fuller (he once called her an "old maid" and a "busybody") and her involvement in a strange personal interaction (involving Frances Osgood; I'll tell that tale another time), I believe Poe sincerely admired her work.

The earliest interaction I found was, oddly, over James Russell Lowell, who later became a sort of literary rival for both Fuller and Poe. A critic for the Daily Tribune in New York (presumed to be Fuller) strongly disagreed with Poe's review of Lowell. Charles Frederick Briggs wrote to his friend Lowell on January 17, 1845, about the disagreement: "Poe's criticism about your Conversations [on Some of the Old Poets] was extremely laudatory and discriminating; it was the female ass of the Tribune [e.g. Fuller] that misunderstood him."

The same month, Fuller noted Lowell's critical/biographical sketch of Poe. She noted that the article ("frank" and "earnest") introduced her to some of Poe's poetry which she never read before. She liked "The Haunted Palace" and "To Helen" enough to reprint them in the Tribune. The latter, she writes, is "of such distinguished beauty in thought, feeling, and expression, that we might expect the life unfolded from such a bud to have the sweetness and soft lustre of a rose." She was always very honest in her opinions of Poe. Later in 1845, she reviewed The Raven and Other Poems and suggested they were "all fragments" — suggesting that he was capable of better poetry, "with the exception of The Raven, which seems intended chiefly to show the writer's artistic skill." Nevertheless, she notes that the poems "breathe a passionate sadness, relieved sometimes by touches very lovely and tender" and show "a sweep of images, thronging and distant like a procession of moonlight clouds on the horizon."

Poe, in turn, acknowledged Fuller's "high genius." In 1846, he commended her daring review of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. As he wrote, "it is one of the very few reviews of Longfellow's poems, ever published in America, of which the critics have not had abundant reason to be ashamed." When Fuller published Woman in the Nineteenth Century, her definitive work (regarded as the first major feminist work in the United States), Poe praised her fortitude. He called it "a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller." He particularly praised her for not manufacturing a false public persona. Instead, he wrote, her "personal character and her printed book are merely one and the same thing."

Happy 199th birthday to Margaret Fuller — a woman well ahead of her time! All the best for her bicentennial next year, in 2010!

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