Margaret Fuller and the Ideal of Heroism

by Robert N. Hudspeth

To write an essay on heroism is probably rash, for there is perhaps only one other cliché so grand and so amorphous when we speak of the Nineteenth century, and that is "genius", which, uncomfortably for me, tends to merge into "hero". Yet here am I, willing to enter into the nineteenthcentury frame of mind and see if we can find useful things to say about how a notion of heroism informs Margaret Fuller's writing. I began this exploration knowing where I wanted to end: here in Rome, with the revolution of 1849 in shambles and Fuller assessing what had happened, for I have long thought that it was here in those conditions where Fuller at last found her ideal fulfilled: heroism had a "local habitation", and the hero a name: Giuseppe Mazzini. But it is a long journey from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Rome, though it took Fuller only 14 years to make it (and I must pause to emphasize the startling fact that this woman of large accomplishment had a public life of only 15 years, a bare decade and a half from 1835 to 1850). What we will find is an abiding concern for heroism that informed Fuller's literary criticism and shaped her political writing in Italy, that moves from books to revolution, from a set of abstract ideals to a living drama embodied in Mazzini.

Let us think for a moment of the context in which she lived. Born in 1810 of a politically engaged father, Fuller grew to adulthood in the first decades of the republic's existence. "The United States" was still a fairly new idea that had been badly undercut by nearrebellion in New England and by the continued sectional schism caused by slavery. Growing up in Cambridge, Fuller was immersed in a bookish society, one made even more intense by her father's rigorous tutelage. She read and read and read. By the time she was 20, Fuller was already trading ideas with liberal Unitarian ministers and coming ever more completely under the spell of German literature. Some combination of a veneration of classical Rome and German romanticism inevitably made heroism attractive to Fuller, whose ideas were decidedly apolitical. In that, she was a daughter of her time and place, for New England literary culture paid scant attention to heroism; in fact, the official democratic mythology actively discouraged an interest in "great men", for equality was the reigning ethos. It is not an accident that the Scot Thomas Carlyle titled his book, On Heroes and HeroWorship, and the Heroic in History and that Emerson, nine years later titled his Representative Men. There is something in the American culture that does not love a hero.

One of her earliest acknowledgments of living heroism was devoted to a figure of the past, to the marquis de Lafayette, to whom she wrote a letter when he visited Boston in 1825: «Sir, the contemplation of a character such as yours fills the soul with a noble ambition». There is nothing unusual or remarkable here, except for the next line, in which Fuller imagines the possibility of her own fame despite her being a woman, «to whom the avenues of glory are seldom accessible». It is there in that bold claim that Fuller met a problem that she never wholly solved: how to ungender the word "hero". Routinely in English, the expression is inevitably "the hero, he...". But in her letter to Lafayette Fuller dares to imagine herself having found an «avenue of glory»1.

In May 1830, still short of her twentieth birthday, in a letter to a minister friend, Fuller attempted to define her idea of a hero: «I have greatly wished to see among us such a person of Genius as the Nineteenth century can afford ­ ie. one who has tasted in the morning of existence the extremes of good and ill both imaginative and real ­ I had imagined a person endowed by nature with that acute sense to Beauty (ie. Harmony or Truth) and that vast capacity of desire which give soul to love and ambition». Having begun with a genderneutral set of terms, she finds herself trapped in the inevitable male form: «I had wished this person might grow up to manhood alone (but not alone in crowds)». She has no alternative but to continue in specific terms that resonate through her subsequent career:

I wished this being might be launched into the world of realities his heart glowing with the ardor of an immortal towards perfection; his eyes searching everywhere to behold it; I wished he might collect into one burning point those withering palsying convictions which in the ordinary routine of things so gradually pervade the soul; that he might suffer in brief space agonies of disappointment commensurate with his unpreparedness and confidence []. Such a man would suddenly dilate into a thing of Pride, Power, and Glory ­ A centre round which asking, aimless hearts might rally ­ A man fitted to act as interpreter to the one tale of manylanguaged ages!2

On the surface this portrait is an idealized version of James Clarke, to whom she wrote it, but at another level it is Fuller's idealized version of her own aspirations. She might be the «interpreter to the one tale of manylanguaged ages». There was, to be sure, the problem of gender to be solved; Fuller could not avoid describing herself in this passage, even as she knew that her circle of action was going to be severely limited. Moreover, there was the latent problem that her vision is a bookish one constructed out of her extensive, cosmopolitan reading, and finally, there was the problem to us, not to her, that this vision is wholly apolitical. Yet, even this early in her thinking, Fuller incorporates ideas that will abide in her work: the hero-genius will be a reconciler of extremes, a symbol of growth, and an interpreter.

It was this last term, the "interpreter" that gave her an immediate opening, for during the following halfdecade Fuller became a literary critic, and so everything she wrote or implied about heroism became a function of the critic's mind and responsibility and, at least for a time, was shaped by a literary example: some poets, she wrote in 1836, are «pilotminds of the age», who «win from the raging billows large territories, whose sands they can convert into Eden bowers, tenanted by lovely and majestic shapes»3. This impassioned but vague language points toward conceptions but cannot make them concrete. Finally, she finds her focus: «thought itself is [as] immortal as the soul from which it radiates». Thinking becomes the center of human activity. «Whenever we perceive a profound thought», she goes on to say, «we offer a higher homage than we can to commonplace thoughts»4. This is the same idea that had led her to write only a few months earlier that the most important «benefactors» of mankind were those who «suggest thoughts and plans», who comprise «intellects of the higher order»5. At this point, in the mid1830s, Fuller had committed herself to the workings of the intellect. It was in intellectual power that heroism originates. Her own role as critic was to interpret those minds to a reader. In doing so, Fuller appropriated at least a part of what she thought "heroic".

Her next significant idea about heroism came with her essay on Goethe published in the "Dial" in 1841. First, she explains Goethe's conception of the Dämonische. It is, in many ways, the obverse of the intellect, for, as Fuller describes it, it is «an individuality [...] gifted with an instinctive, spontaneous force, which at once, without calculation or foresight, chooses the right means to an end»6. She makes it clear that what she finds in Goethe's idea is a force of being, a presence, not a set of activities. Those individuals who are Dämonische are not necessarily people of accomplishment; they may be quite obscure. What they have is a magnetic self: «by his eye and voice he rules all around him»7. Without using the term, Fuller has described the heroic personality. Moreover, as it was earlier in her first essays, the idea here is apolitical. The heroic is presence, not activity; it is private, not public; it does not of necessity do anything.

It is not until later in the essay that she develops a concern for activity that joins to the Dämonische, to become a heroic ideal. After quoting Goethe on the one «who would do great things» and who would «give us freedom», Fuller says that «there is a higher spiritual law always ready to supersede the temporal laws at the call of the human soul»8. This clearly represents her faith in human agency, an agency rooted in spiritual reality. The snares of "temporal laws" can be evaded by the human soul, though that soul must "call". I understand her to mean that the individual must be active; that only through the exercise of a "call" can the individual triumph. She continues in the next sentence, «the soul that is too content with usual limitations will never call forth this unusual manifestation»9. Contentment is a great failure here. Like Emerson's essays of exactly the same period, Fuller's writing focuses on activity, and as he did in his essay Heroism, Fuller assumes that a hero resists; in resistance heroism is born. Furthermore, Fuller in the 1840s is assuming that what is to be resisted is the sum of all the forces in the culture that work against selfdevelopment. The resistance implied by heroism is deeply personal and individual. Its goals are not political liberation and change but individual growth.

So, by the time Fuller wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1844 she was committed to an ideal of heroism that both was intellectually ambitious and personally electrifying, but that was not yet focused. Fuller had so little enthusiasm for the abolitionists that the women agitating for freedom were not satisfactory. As usual, she turned to history and found in the Countess Emily Plater a Polish hero, a woman «capable of all sweet affections, capable of stern virtue»10, praise that lets Fuller confront the lingering problem created by the gendering of the word "hero", for again she felt compelled to explore the ill effects of the masculine associations. Using her alterego figure of Miranda, Fuller brings into the open the fact that invariably «the use of ["manly"] where a heroic quality is to be described». Miranda goes on to claim that «persistence and courage are the most womanly no less than the most manly qualities» and that she would ungender the word so as to mean «a heavenward and instructed soul» rather than either «manly» or «womanly»11.

Almost as a corollary to this, Fuller praises Abby Kelly, a radical woman's rights advocate: «she acted like a gentle hero», says Fuller under the guise of a correspondent who wrote to her, «all heroism is mild and quiet and gentle»12. Here Fuller consciously and pointedly demilitarizes heroism, as she had done with the figure of Panthea, wife of Abradatus, whose story she found in Xenophon. The husband had fulfilled his warrior role by dying a noble death in combat. Xenophon, however, accords to the wife in her suicide a dignity that is equal to the husband's heroism. Fuller holds Panthea up as an exemplar of nobility whose "heroism" is in her selfcommand, her peace and her faithfulness, all qualities matched evenly against a masculine warrior code13.

Fuller's method in Woman in the Nineteenth Century allows her to experiment, to offer contrasting ideas as possibilities of how we understand women's lives. Here she has used her fictional, yet autobiographical Miranda; she has created a letter from a correspondent; she has used a Greek historian. All of this allows her to move the notion of heroism into new forms, to challenge the reader to surrender stereotypes, to uncouple "manly" from "heroic". All of these figures are less extreme than the Goethean ideal of Dämonische, each is less intellectually intense. Woman among other things grounded the possibilities of heroism in daily life and located possible living exemplars, for Fuller's interest in George Sand, Harriet Martineau, and Abby Kelly gave substance to the claim that what a woman needs is «not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her»14. It is, in short, an opening to heroism redefined and localized.

But, having repositioned the idea of heroism, Fuller regresses in her essays written in the "NewYork Daily Tribune" to an ideal of hero worship. In a piece on Beethoven, Fuller says that «there is as high a joy in worshipping the hero as in emulating him»15, and in a review of Milton's prose works, she says «we love heroworship, where the hero is, indeed, worthy the honors of a demigod»16. She simply could not do without the idea that the hero has «a character governed by a principle of its own, and not by rules taken from other men's experience», a line that comes from a littleknown essay on the relationship between beauty and time that she wrote in April 184617. In order to discuss individuals who become more attractive as they age, Fuller says that it is in heroes that one sometimes finds a person with «originality of character», a «spontaneity of action» who grows with time, whose experiences «expand the soul, deepen and vary the experience, refine the perceptions and immortalize the hopes and dreams of youth»18. Amid the several themes that converge in this figure, Fuller again addresses the gender issue. She takes as her title Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra, «Age could not wither her nor custom stale / Her infinite variety», but toward the end of the essay rewrites the line to make it genderneutral «Age cannot wither them nor custom stale / Their infinite variety»19. Souls, the center of her conception of heroism, do not have genders. No matter whether she starts from the masculine or the feminine, Fuller habitually converges on a neutral center.

In this brief essay based on Shakespeare, Fuller seems to fall back on an earlier view of heroism, for again her notions of heroism are drawn from books. Though in Woman she had acknowledged the possibility of real women being heroic, she still was ambivalent. The power of the imagined hero proved irresistible to a woman so committed to literary study. As long as she lived in the United States, Fuller was an intellectual who was more concerned with a hypothetical state of being rather than with the accomplishment of living souls.

That focus, of course, changed when she met Giuseppe Mazzini, the man who became a living hero, the man who embodied all of her ideals and who was a man who changed from being a "presence", a hero of potential, to a man who actually did something heroic, even though their mutual ideals remained unfulfilled. Fuller met Mazzini at Carlyle's home in London in October 1846. She immediately was drawn to him, and he gave her letters to George Sand in Paris and to fellow revolutionaries in Italy. Apparently he also proposed to disguise himself and accompany Fuller and her traveling companions to Italy. Though this idea did not materialize, Fuller did visit his mother in Genoa. In March 1849 Mazzini came to Rome, at which time Fuller wrote him a letter congratulating him on his triumph. He later came to visit her at her apartment and gave her tickets to hear him speak in the Assembly. From the very first she found him to be the charismatic, intellectual, spiritual leader she had been trying to define in all of her career.

Fuller had always located intellect and spirituality in her idea of heroism. The necessary resistance that a hero must exert came from a union of heart and head, of mind and soul (the abstractions are inevitable, for they are the ones she uses most). Her very first mention of Mazzini in the "Tribune" after she had met him in London emphasizes these qualities: «[he] is not only one of the heroic, the courageous, and the faithful Italy boasts many such but he is also one of the wise». For her, «He is one of those same beings who, measuring all things by the ideal standard, have yet no time to mourn over failure or imperfection»20. This line virtually repeats the claim in the Cleopatra essay, discussed above, that such men had impulses that «proceeded from a fulness and certainty of character, that made it impossible they should doubt or repent, whatever the results of their actions might be»21. Typically, even though Fuller well knew of Mazzini's political activities and ideas, she praises him in a time of crisis because he wrote to the pope «not from power to power, but from soul to soul»22.

As Fuller watched the events of 1848 unfold, she always had Mazzini in mind. It is clear that in an unstated and probably not wholly understood way, he was the symbolic alternative to Pius ix, a man who could have been the hero Fuller anticipated. Early in her responses, she accurately estimated Pius: «it was necessary to be a great thinker, a great genius, to compete with the difficulties of his position. I never supposed he was that; I am only disappointed that his good heart has not carried him on a little farther»23. A year later, when he had failed the revolution, Fuller could dismiss him contemptuously: «Poor Pope! how has his mind been torn to pieces in these later days». The advice Pius received from his counselors came to «cloud his mind»24. From her earliest writing, Fuller believed that heroes had unusual mental talents; that they thought more clearly, more deeply.

Fuller's residence in Rome, her knowledge of the language and her friendship with Mazzini allowed her to frame the developing crisis in terms of heroic leadership. Throughout her "Tribune" essays she consistently contrasted Mazzini with his rivals to show how he alone could lead the Romans to freedom. The first and most important of these contrasts was with Pius, who failed his opportunity to be the liberating hero. Mazzini was a man of thought and spirituality, both qualities Pius lacked. Where Pius's mind had been «torn to pieces», Mazzini's was clear and powerful. «Mazzini is a man of genius», wrote Fuller, «an elevated thinker, but the most powerful and first impression from his presence must always be of the religion of his soul»25. Throughout the increasingly tense days of 1848 and 1849, Pius and Mazzini were linked in Fuller's imagination as the failed and the true heroes.

The second of her contrasts was that of Mazzini and Abbé Vincenzo Gioberti, who was taken seriously as a leader in the revolution and who, Fuller thought, might seriously challenge Mazzini. In a dispatch of 20 February 1849, Fuller said that she «always looked upon [Gioberti] as entirely a charlatan, who covered his want of all real force by the thickest embroidered mantle of words»26. Though she gave Gioberti credit for opposing the Jesuits, she finally found him too bound up with Charles Albert. In direct contrast to Gioberti she goes on to say that «meantime the thought of Mazzini echoed through Tuscany»27. Typically, it is Mazzini's thought that mattered. Though he himself was absent, his ideas had taken root and were flourishing despite the appeal of Gioberti to those Italians for whom open revolution was not thinkable.

The third contrast Fuller made at this time was between Mazzini and Count Pellegrino Rossi, the exile who had returned to Rome, become prime minister of the Papal States, but who was assassinated as he arrived to take up the office. Fuller explicitly discussed the two together in March 1849 by pointing out that both were exiles who, when they came to Rome were named "Citizen of Rome". Rossi, however, was an extension of the pope's failed policies and who died because he was despised; Mazzini was elected a citizen by the people of Rome. The one outsider died an outsider; the other was embraced by the people and became one of them28. Fuller even risks approving of assassination in her contrast, for the symbolism is so intensely meaningful to her.

After the Republic failed and the French triumphed, Fuller again returned to Rossi and Mazzini but this time she added a third name to her contrast, the French general Oudinot, who led the conquering force. This "triumvirate", unlike the one that led the Republic, has but one hero. Fuller emphasizes the cruel irony that Rossi, Mazzini, and Oudinot all had been named "Citizen of Rome". Yet, Rossi had his honor from the disgraced pope and Oudinot had his by force of conquest. Mazzini alone was made a citizen by his fellow citizens. He alone became the possible democratic hero who, though an outsider originally, had been elected and empowered by those whom he led. Significantly, Fuller returns to the term she applied to Abby Kelly in Woman in the Nineteenth Century when she praised «the unyielding mildness of Mazzini»29. The supposedly "feminine" quality made Mazzini unique among his contemporaries for Fuller.

Mazzini's slogan, "Dio e Popolo" rang true for Fuller, for she could fantasize about a worldwide democratization: «It seems as if Fate was at work to bewilder and cast down the dignities of the world and democratize Society at a blow»30. But even as she says this she acknowledges the failures in her native land: «My country», she writes, «is at present spoiled by prosperity, stupid with the lust of gain, soiled by crime in its willing perpetuation of Slavery, shamed by an unjust war»31. A failed President Polk had pursued an unjust war; a flawed general Zachary Taylor had just been elected to succeed him. «It is not the making a President out of the Mexican War», Fuller wrote, «that would make me wish to come back»32. There was no American counterpart for the phrase she used in Italy: «the heroic Milan, the heroic Venice, the heroic Sicily»33. Heroism no longer depends on a person; the personified cities, the people, have become heroic.

As the crisis loomed in mid1849 Fuller had come to see Mazzini as «the inspiring soul of his people»34. She had few illusions about the success of the Republic in the face of the united hostility of the European powers, but she claimed that Mazzini had animated the Romans. She knew by then that even though a hero might fail politically, there was a success in the future that he had created. Much earlier, in 1847, Fuller had paid tribute to "constancy", a trait necessary for progress: «he who could be constant to those moments in which he has been truly human ­ not brutal, not mechanical ­ is on the sure path to his perfection and to effectual service of the Universe»35. It is just these results, personal growth and public responsibility, that Mazzini had fulfilled for Fuller. Where her earlier ideas about heroism were taken from her reading, her ideal born in the crisis of the Roman revolution was a living ideal, led by a living hero. No longer was "heroism" a hypothetical ideal derived from reading; now it existed in daily practice. It was for this reason that Fuller could say to Caroline Sturgis that «Mazzini is a great man; in mind a great poetic statesman, in heart a lover, in action decisive and full of resource as Caesar»36 and to William Henry Channing that in him she «revered the hero»37.

To trace Fuller's interest in and ideas about heroism is to discover that it is a topic that informs much of what interested her. She was a literary critic first and then a journalist, and, finally, a historian. Throughout her career, however, she had an ideal of resistance. She understood that her own culture left much to be desired, that it was materialistic and greedy, that it seldom rewarded serious thought or imaginative literature. There was an emptiness and drift to American culture that angered her, so she turned to European models or to the far past of antiquity. No matter whether it was Xenophon, Goethe, or Mazzini, Fuller's hero was a symbol of even better things to come. The "hero" was always an imagined version of our potential "best self", a figure that could embody vision and accomplishment, who was endowed with power and wisdom, who had a spiritual depth and a magnetism of personal presence. In her "hero" we find the idea fused with a personality. Her thinking about heroism tried to unite the past with her nineteenthcentury present; it became a touchstone for literary performance, for social reform, and, finally, for political activity.

To return for a moment to the "genius" letter she wrote James Clarke in 1830, we can recognize the youthful enthusiasm that allowed her to imagine herself as the hero of the Nineteenth century, for surely all imaginative, ambitious young people have some notion of an heroic possibility for themselves. By July 1849 Fuller had seen a genuine hero; she had measured what it cost him personally to be the great man, and she could acknowledge that she «owned [herself] not of that mould»38. And yet, if she was not to be the hero, she had a significant role to play. From literary critic acting as the interpreter who mediates between the creative genius of the author and the inquiring reader, Fuller had become the mediator between the heroic Mazzini, whose actions she did not always accept nor understand, and an American public who had no conception of what heroism could mean. Fuller had come far in a few years: from the youthful need to find heroism in personal growth of the sort championed in Goethe, she had come to a fully political understanding. After the fall of the Roman Republic Fuller had no illusions about organic growth. A corrupt political world needed heroes who could combine the power of mind, the mildness, the constancy she found in Mazzini. Fuller had more than a rudimentary understanding that there was to be a day of reckoning in her slaveholding native land; she knew full well that, as she wrote about Mazzini and the dying young men of Rome, most Americans were oblivious to the need for a hero and to the cause which would inevitably create one.

At the very end of her writing career, as she sends «love to my country», Fuller made an audacious prayer: «O Lucifer, son of the morning, fall not this time from thy chariot, but herald in at last the long looked for, wept for, bled and starved for day of Peace and Good Will to men»39. Here she envisions Lucifer's redemption; Satan becomes redeemed into a figure of peace; he returns to being the «bright morning star» as Fuller reverses the tradition that reached from Isaiah to Milton. She dares to rewrite one of the most potent myths of English literature. Where Fuller might have been expected to call for Christ's return to earth to fulfill His original promise, she turns instead to the selfruined angel, not to the incarnated God-man. Jesus, because he is divine, cannot be a hero to Fuller; Lucifer, the fallen angel, more closely symbolizes human experience. It is to the fallen that Fuller looks for her next hero.


1. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, R. N. Hudspeth (ed.), 6 vols., Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London 19831994, i, p. 150.

2. Ivi, vi, pp. 1678.

3. M. Fuller, Modern British Poets, in "American Monthly Magazine", October 1836, p. 321.

4. Ivi, p. 327.

5. M. Fuller, The Life of Sir James Mackintosh, in "American Monthly Magazine", June 1836, p. 74.

6. M. Fuller, Goethe, in "Dial", July 1841, p. 18.

7. Ibid.

8. Ivi, p. 29.

9. Ibid.

10. L. J. Reynolds (ed.), Woman in the Nineteenth Century, W. W. Norton, New York 1998, p. 25.

11. Ivi, p. 23.

12. Ivi, p. 66.

13. Ivi, pp. 545.

14. Ivi, p. 20.

15. M. Fuller, The Beethoven Movement, in "NewYork Daily Tribune", 3 September 1845, p. 1.

16. J. Mattson Bean, J. Myerson (eds.), Margaret Fuller, Critic, Columbia University Press, New York 2000, p. 246.

17. M. Fuller, Age could not wither her, in "NewYork Daily Tribune", 10 April 1846, p. 1.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. L. J. Reynolds, S. Belasco Smith (eds.), "These Sad But Glorious Days". Dispatches from Europe, 1846-1850, Yale University Press, New Haven 1991, p. 99.

21. Fuller, Age could not wither her, cit., p. 1.

22. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, cit., v, p. 49.

23. Reynolds, Belasco Smith (eds.), "These Sad But Glorious Days", cit., p. 199.

24. Ivi, p. 244.

25. Ivi, p. 264.

26. Ivi, p. 254.

27. Ivi, p. 255.

28. Ivi, pp. 2623.

29. Ivi, p. 313.

30. Ivi, p. 229.

31. Ivi, p. 230.

32. Ibid.

33. Ivi, p. 236.

34. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, cit., v, p. 240.

35. Reynolds, Belasco Smith (eds.), "These Sad But Glorious Days", cit., p. 166.

36. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, cit., v, p. 210.

37. Ivi, p. 247.

38. Ibid.

39. Reynolds, Belasco Smith (eds.), "These Sad But Glorious Days", cit., p. 320.