Margaret Fuller: Maps and Patterns
of a Transgressive Journey

by Liana Borghi

Time and again I have wondered why Margaret Fuller is still a mythical character for me, and not just the woman I know her to have been. Her substance appears to be made of the fictionable material one assembles to write the lives of pop stars and popular heroes. Since this feeling persists despite the critical edition of her letters, the many critical studies, and the learned biographies, I have come to suspect that my impression is not totally subjective, but more likely prompted by her narrative strategies. Fictional plots and counterplots surface from her letters and other writings, authorizing readers to cast her as the heroine of many life stories, and soliciting our identification with them. Maybe, as it has been said, she was a failed fiction writer who exercised her mythopoietic talents on the best material available to her, which was her own life. Or it could be that I get this impression because, approaching her primary sources as I have done, like many readers, either through the untrustworthy Memoirs (1852) or through less biassed accounts of her life, I am cast in the role of authorized voyeuse and fellow traveller on a reading expedition that very much resembles a récit de voyage, moving from place to place, mentally, spacially, metaphorically. And as reader and spectator of an imperfect autobiography, I find the trope of the journey particularly apt, given that the performance of Fuller's identity construction seems to rely on its recurrence. It must be, of course, an uncharted journey of self-discovery recorded like a map for future memory. Perhaps the story of Fuller's travels has been told so many times because it tells itself in her writings, almost as if she had channeled her whole life in a spacial directive: a first remove, a second remove ­ an epic of metaphoric escape and redemption: from Cambridgeport and Groton, to Providence, Boston, New York, the lakes, and finally to Europe and back ­ almost back.

I like to remember that my travels in American literature began in earnest with Margaret Fuller. A dear friend lent me first editions of her work, and Joseph Deiss's biography put the Roman Republic and Cristina di Belgioioso on the map for me. I was interested in Fourier at the time, and in Brook Farm. Predictably, when I first crossed over to the United States, and landed in Boston just in time to hear of President Nixon's impeachment on the hotel radio, I went to the Houghton Library in Cambridge to read Fuller's correspondence. That is how I met Bell Chevigny, who was working there on her critical anthology.

I was of course by no means the first Italian woman in contemporary Italy to be captured by Fuller (and I say nothing here of the men, like Mario Praz and Agostino Lombardo, who had written about her). Emma Detti was a remarkable precedent. As she explained in her introduction to Margaret Fuller e i suoi corrispondenti, published in 1942 (the same year as Madeline B. Stern's American biography), she had attended a course on Transcendentalism given at Smith College, and her teacher Mary Lewis had suggested she work on Fuller and Italy. Fuller's niece, Mrs. Arthur Nicholls, then made available to her the manuscripts which were later deposited at Harvard. Detti published most of the letters written by Fuller's Italian correspondents and wrote her biography around them. It is still a very good book. But for me nothing could match Chevigny's feminist revision.

When I met her in 1974, women's studies had just begun. Her book, published two years later by the Feminist Press, came out at the great surge of women's historiography, while the feminist movement peaked in western countries1. In many ways hers was a new story, restoring to Fuller's life the radical quality effaced both by the hagiographic attempts of her contemporaries and by the malicious personal gossip which had followed the publication of Hawthorne's comments2. Chevigny had given an exemplary reading of how the personal could be political throughout, I said, reviewing her book for the Antologia Vieusseux ­ a stuffy journal with a distinguished reputation, issued in Florence under half a mile from where Detti's biography had been printed in via San Gallo3.

Fuller (and Bell Chevigny) have continued to be part of my life over the years. Now they both take the lead as part of a different story, connected with locational feminism, and with the poststructuralist discourse on space and subjectivity which has lately become so insistent, requiring that we reconsider, under the heading of postmodern geographies, issues of maps and boundaries, home and displacement, identity and difference, writing and rewriting. These questions are hardly new as far as Fuller is concerned, but I am going to ask them again, in terms of emplotment.

In these geographical terms of thinking about subjectivity and identity, one could ask: what kind of subject, what kind of space does Fuller's mapping perform? Cartography tends to emphasize boundaries over sites4, and narrative requires hurdles, obstacles, openings and closures. So, what maps of culture and knowledge connect Fuller's New England Miranda to the American traveller greeted by Georges Sand with, «ah, c'est vous», and to the Margaret Ossoli exchanging patterns for baby caps with Elizabeth Barrett Browning? What narrative plots link the windows of Casa Guidi to the willow-shaded river terrace in Rieti, and the windows overlooking piazza Santa Maria Novella in Florence to the bleak sight of the stormy sea off the American coast? Having asked this, I now really can't bear to theorize the cruel pressure of space on subjectivity in that last dreadful shipwreck scene of ultimate closure. My mind sidesteps to another narrative space, linking Fuller's labor into death with her less difficult and troubled labor in Rieti, when she gave birth to her baby. Nonetheless I can't help remembering the pathos of Rosella Mamoli Zorzi's narrative about that scene, where she evokes Thoreau's view of the beach after the wreck, as he picks up scraps of paper, and comes across a small bundle of bones which appears inoffensive and secretly in connivance with the ocean but which, as he stands there, reigns over the shore in a ghostly way5.

Here too, inevitably, space and subjectivity interact to construct necessary, and even predictable plots for the observer-reader. As Peter Brooks says, we live immersed in narrative, which we use as a mode of ordering and explaining, a form of thinking and reasoning about a situation. Time-bound, plots are «the internal logic of the discourse of mortality»; a product of our refusal to allow temporality to be meaningless, they show «our stubborn insistence of making meaning in the world and in our lives»6. Every surface event contains its narrative Bildung ­ repressed narratives waiting to be developed, often surfacing through metaphor and symbols, for viewers and readers to quicken into story. It is a measure of Fuller's gift that we become every time willing captives of her tale, and even fail to notice another narrative taking shape, through a pastiche of different genres: the construction of her metamorphic romantic persona which makes her travelogue a self-portrait7.

As in a mystery story, for several decades critics have been led on by the clues she left ­ information extant or erased ­ about her marriage and sexuality. It is the one secret of her life, which has been, for those who worried about it, its sensational master plot. Her encodings have been subjected to clever detection, so that it is enough for me to quote her use of natural metaphors to map subjective changes, as in the double text, says Chevigny, where she writes of summer grapes ripening in time for the autumn harvest and at the same time she is thinking of the baby ripening inside her. Stories, moods, and events are also hinted at through erudite literary and mythological references ­ like the quotation in her 1844 Scrapbook, Each Orpheus must to the depths descend (Chevigny, p. 554) ­ which are typical of her literary bend and employment8. Her travels became copy material, with the dual function of earning her livelihood and giving testimony of herself to herself and others ­ the record being as real as reality if not more real. Quoting her own words in a letter, Larry Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith maintain that «as her absorption in historical events grew, they too became texts in her eyes, or rather, the raw material for texts, valuable not necessarily for their own sakes, but for the literary use she could make of them» (p. 28). I don't believe this holds true at all times. It was rather life itself that she was after, but it could not be grasped without a story.

I am reminded here of a relevant passage in Hannah Arendt's Life of Rahel Varnhagen. Rahel Levin, a German Jewess just a generation younger than Fuller (she died in 1833), shared with her a veneration for Goethe and a talent for conversation, and like her was called by many a genius. When Karl August Varnhagen von Ense published Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde (Berlin 1834) ­ a selection of his wife's letters ­ Fuller, who was 23 years old at the time, read about it in the London and Westminster Review and wrote to Caroline Sturgis: «In Rahel you may recognize well known lineaments. Observe what she says (quoted by Goethe) about being born only to live». In the edition of Fuller's letters, Rahel Levin's quotation is completed in a note by Robert Hudspeth, who draws the implied similarities with Fuller's case: «I am as unique as the greatest appearance in this earth []. To me it was appointed not to write, or act, but to live»9.

The curious element in this episode is that her talent for life was used by the early biographers to minimize Fuller's strong intellectual achievement and emphasize the feminine and romantic side of her life. But now that her writings have been mostly restored to us, we tend to de-emphasize her romanticism and highlite metanarrative traits. I think we should balance the two, and to this end Hannah Arendt's comment on Varnhagen's life can be useful.

In her biography of Varnhagen she says that unhappiness and despair had taught Rahel that the experience of suffering is true knowledge of «life as it is». Although she had written in a letter, «What do I do? Nothing. I let life rain on me», she continued to believe that through word and writing life can be shared and witnessed10. There were times when Fuller finally managed to let life rain on her, but she was aware throughout of the importance of recording the experience. Textual strategies were, after all, her métier.

I appreciate therefore that Reynolds and Smith rely on Hayden White's theories11 to detect that Fuller in her dispatches and letters is «continually searching for a plot which can explain the course of events», and that her final plot for the Roman revolution was a historical tragedy with herself cast as a tragic heroine. But my point is that this is only one of the many plots that surface with and through her rhetorical strategies, intended as readerly bait, for us to catch and develop, often along the lines of hallowed clichés connected with a subject's use of space and spacing. The master narrative of the journey (with its ultimate dénouement of life after death) plays out, if we choose to negotiate it this way, the plots that intersect and compete for attention and further narrative space.

Take the bluestocking plot ­ one of the recurring interpretations of her emergence as a bluestocking ­ the Henry James plot of ambitious spinsterhood and seduction. Fuller's life sustains a tale of «congenital» singularity broadcast as the self-affermative talent of a genius. But this story of intellectual and cultural female empowerment gets translated (and not only by James) through constant slippages into that other cultural script featuring a spinster's lack, loss, and frustration redeemed by the providential encounter with the man. In this case the (anti)hero is Angelo Ossoli; the setting and time are Saint Peter's and Easter, of all the possible symbolic details. The story, however, is often told in punitive terms, with little dignity being assigned to Ossoli or to his role as younger partner, and with scarce understanding of his background and family situation. Another plot, involving social strictures and control, women's liberation and victorian ethics is also readily available.

This plot ­ we could call it the Zenobia plot ­ can also be seen as contiguous to the plot of the northern traveller blossoming under the Italian sun, looking for the experience and completion which the encounter with and absorbtion of the Other may provide. Since it is really concerned with a sexual definition of the body, I like to ask here a question asked by film critic Giuliana Bruno in a different context12. Which body organs does Fuller use to draw her map of Italy? Most of her body, I should answer. She looks, stares, sees, gazes and perceives; tastes and smells, hears, sits and walks, eats chestnuts, drinks wine. Her head, as usual, aches, so does her back, and her heart too. She gets headaches and toothaches, colds, chills, fever, nosebleeds and blood lettings; she gets pregnant; has milk fever; her breasts ache. Her shoes get wet, her dress soaked. Her strength waxes and wanes. There are days when she can walk 4 miles, others when she can barely drag herself across her terrace in Rieti. Now that she leads a double life, Italy and her body seem to become one, creating a screen which cannot hide her growing «foreigness» from the Margaret who left her mother country. Abroad, much more than she ever was at home, she is now an insider-outsider, both placed and displaced, and she speaks from the gap, a retrospective language13. Her public role, so unusual for a woman of her time, is that of foreign correspondent: the «objective observer» capable of mediating between cultures, the letter writer and go-between empathically (subjectively) relating to events. Her involvement in the events she is reporting is much more deeply personal than anyone may suspect. Fuller's position is not merely ideologically situated, but physically grounded.

Another intersecting plot is that of displacement. Despite her sense of having returned to a familiar place, Fuller is a stranger in a foreign land, especially so when she leaves the Spring family, with whom she was travelling in 1847, and makes her long way back to Rome as a single woman travelling alone in a country she is ready to cast her lot with. True, this is the land of sweet smelling lemon groves, classical antiquities and myth, churches, engravings, paintings and plaster casts, girls in costume and dirty street urchins, beggars, greedy landlords, priests, and the Pope walking the Campagna with purple-clad attendants. It is also the land of censorship, police control, senseless burocracy, a restless and miserable population crushed by foreign powers and absolute rulers, and a general revolution brewing along the fifty or so others being hatched in Europe. Travel has become a way of connecting and interacting with other people in their communities, finding affinities and sharing their living conditions. Nothing is quite as expected. But the difference fires the imagination, opens possibilities, fosters alternatives. And it's not just identity that can be made over, it is space itself. Fuller maps uncharted environments, assembles news reports, interprets the old world to the new and viceversa in a flux of translation. Through her writing she turns the exotic into commonplace and back again.

One could say that she had always done that. Even in the heart of New England one could travel much. And displacement ­ such a commonplace in people's experience ­ is engrained in immigrant experience. She could hardly miss noticing it when travelling westward to the lakes, or when living in the midst of New York's rapidly expanding society and city boundaries. I was fascinated recently by the traces she left of a covert plot connected with Jews, featuring cultural translation, social justice, danger and loss. It had slipped my mind that James Nathan, the recipient of her 1845-6 love letters, was a German Jew14. A business man her age, quite distant from the post-Enlightenment Jews in Rahel Varnhagen's correspondence, he captured her attention emerging from the motley crowd of Jewish immigrants, most of them young, single, and un-orthodox, actively pursuing a freer life in the new world15. Like Ossoli, who later came to embody for her Italy's Risorgimento, in a way Nathan was a contingency, a tangible sign of her interest in the pattern of oppression, resistance, liberation and self-affirmation connected with Jewish culture. In the article on "The Modern Jews" which Fuller wrote for "The NewYork Tribune" in April 1845, shortly after meeting Nathan, she combined excerpts from an essay by Samuel Miller Jr., just published in the "North American Review", with other excerpts translated from a book by the German historian Hermann Marggraff16. The piece seems to provide Nathan with a dramatic genealogy rooted in the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840, described as a not unusual example of the discrimination and persecution to which Jews were subjected throughout Europe and the Mediterranean countries. The names mentioned in the article point to the Jewish struggle for socio-political emancipation ­ with its dual strategies of (orthodox) separatism and (secular) assimilation. Moses Mendelssohn is there, as a representative of the organic Judaism of Kant, Lessing and Goethe; Rahel Varnhagen is featured as «the Queen of Berlin»; Heinrich Heine is mentioned as a friend of Carlyle (Fuller would later know him for a friend of Princess Belgioioso); Benjamin Disraeli appears, with his assimilated Young Europe, alongside the Rothschilds as examples of attainable excellence. Within the gamut of assimilated positions we also find Ridley Haim Herschell, a converted Jew from Prussian Poland then doing mission work on Edgeware Road in London. He was the editor of "The Voice of Israel", founded The British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews, and eventually wrote a popular travel book on Palestine. He is the source for the story of the tributes owed at the time by Jews to Catholics, like the yearly race run during Carnival by the Roman Jews in the Corso. This mention of Jewish Rome opens towards the future, to the episode reported in one of the letters from Ossoli to Margaret in Rieti, describing the three-day battle fought by the civic guard in the attempt to push the Jews back in the ghetto soon after they had received Pius ix's permission to leave it17. Fuller ends her New York article siding with Samuel Miller against fundamentalism and in favor of integration, not just for Jews, but for the Irish and black people as well. When in Rome she would, of course, endorse Adam Mickiewicz's Declaration of Faith adopted by the Polish Legion, which granted Jews equality in political and civil rights18. By that time she knew well the rhizome of connections that produces the social and political emplotment of identity. The purloined letter of this multiple identity plot is Angelino's cautiously worded birth certificate.

This «rooting» plot may slip into the «colonial» plot which type-casts the locals as exotic and exploits their resources. Marcus and Rebecca Spring can hardly be labelled conventional tourists since they are conducting a «politicized» tour, meeting radicals and visiting interesting sites. But still, travelling not cheaply and quite comfortably means «doing» Italy by a reliable Baedeker (or Goethe's Italienische Reise) and through the well-established Anglo-American circuits. Fuller is well aware of the cultural expectations of her travel experience, the constructed quality of her cultural quest. She is, in a sense, the unwilling captive of a colonial experience which she knows from her own roots, and of which she is reminded by the one-upmanship of the British she encounters. When she steps down from the protected environment of wealthy travellers ­ lured by the sublime beauty of Venice to turn back toward Rome, Ossoli and whatever future $600 can buy ­ she is almost one of the people, if she can pass as such. Unwell or downright sick, cheated at every turn by the greedy locals, she begins to go native, angrily refusing any possible identification with rich, overbearing English travellers. We may very well investigate how place and circumstances affect the negotiation of class, in this story. There are many small and great ironies in the unstable social position occupied by Fuller. I found sadly amusing her letter to Costanza Arconati of the great Visconti family in which she comes out to her as the wife of an impoverished papal nobleman. It seems to me that it was a great drop from her independent outsider's status of American intellectual.

This plot has affinities with the quest romance plot: the discovery of a new self beyond the limit ­ in this case perhaps beyond the pale. I feel a special sympathy for its main character: in this story, the impecunious, dignified and committed woman traveller who makes ends meet. Hers is really a different travel economy. Money guards the borderline between the expected and the unexpected. Without it, she is vulnerable, penetrable, open to the local, grounded. Eventually, as her country recedes in memory and interests, she becomes an expatriate. Eventually she will become, like Ossoli, an exile. Fuller's writings tell us that she is negotiating a new identity ­ testing the old, trying out the new. Her hesitant name change is indicative of a contested border-crossing ­ contested because the legitimacy of the passage itself is in question. Elizabeth Barrett Browing saw it as part of «an underplot» [«Nobody had even suspected a word of this underplot, and her American friends stood in mute astonishment before this apparition of them there»19]. This dismayed suspicion of the underplot may have prompted her friends' suggestion that she remain in Italy, but the argument of both Marcus and Rebecca Spring was that she could be useful to her country writing from Italy «somewhat as an "outside barbarian" or from the standpoint of a foreigner, with all the advantage of intimate knowledge of our needs, which a foreigner cannot have»20.

And here this plot dovetails with the plot of the double nostos: Fuller's return to her ideal homeland (and to a city on seven hills, not just one) for which she had been prepared through her select classical education. But Rome, she'll sum up in one of her last letters, though worth 10,000 times Florence, is not a city where she could live: its sadness saps one's strength. She would, however, remain in Italy if she had the financial means, but she hasn't21. And so the theme of the reluctant return takes over ­ the journey back to an alienated, unwelcoming community, embarrassed by her choices.

I stop here. I suppose one could go on forever. There can be no identity without a narrative, and subjectivity is constructed through multiple plots and locations. Fuller's shifting sense of identity is the outcome of her claim to access as broad a range of narratives as she could muster. «Let them be sea captains, if they will» is a desiring sentence that establishes a material ground from which she herself could act. It is so very sad that such a glorious trope must inevitably recall the tragic ending of our story.


1. It is useful for this kind of assessment to look at what was being published on the subject in G. Lerner's, Bibliography in the History of America Women (3rd rev., Sarah Lawrence College, Spring 1978). Chevigny's revised and expanded edition of her critical anthology came out in 1994.

2. See the passage where he tells of his conversation with Fuller's friend Joseph Mozier in Florence, in April 1858, The French and Italian Notebooks, ed. Julian Hawthorne, 1884; quotation from the Ohio State University Press edition, ed. by T. Woodson, 1980, pp. 154-7.

3. "Antologia Vieusseux", 46-7 (luglio-dicembre 1977), pp. 80-4.

4. See K. Kirby, Re-mapping Subjectivity. Cartographic Vision and the Limits of Politics, in N. Duncan (ed.), Body Space, Routledge, London 1996, p. 46.

5. Introduzione, in R. Mamoli Zorzi (ed.), Margaret Fuller. Un'americana a Roma, Lettere 1847-1849, Studio Tesi, Pordenone 1986.

6. P. Brooks, Reading for the Plot. Design and Intention in Narrative, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1984. The quotes are from pp. 22 and 323.

7. See L. J. Reynolds, S. Belasco Smith's Introduction to M. Fuller, "These Sad But Glorious Days". Dispatches from Europe, 1846-1850, Yale University Press, New Haven-London 1991, where they point out this trait as typical of Transcendentalist travel writing, pp. 6-8.

8. There are also frequent passages where she veils reality in philosophical literariness, as in her many references to androgeny which cover both same sex love [«a man can be in love with a man, a woman with a woman»], and the boundaries of masculinity and femininity ­ as when she compares her own manliness to her brother Eugene's feminine loveliness (B. G. Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings, revised edition, Northeastern University Press, Boston 1994, p. 556).

9. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, R. N. Hudspeth (ed.), 6 vols., Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London 1983-1994, ii, pp. 47-8.

10. H. Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen. The Life of a Jewish Woman, Harcourt Brace, New York 1974, pp. 56-9.

11. I would however not rely on his book on metahistory but on The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1987.

12. G. Bruno, Viaggio in Italia. Vedute da casa, in P. Calefato (a cura di), Cartografie dell'immaginario: Cinema, corpo, memoria, Sossella, Roma 2000, p. 28. This essay is part of Bruno's Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film, Verso, London-New York 2000.

13. Bruno, Viaggio in Italia, cit., p. 25.

14. From the editorial notes we learn that Nathan (1811-88) came to the usa from Eutin, Holstein, in 1830, was in the commission business until 1850, in banking until 1862 when he retired to Hamburg. Love Letters of Margaret Fuller, 1845-1846, introduced by J. Ward Howe, D. Appleton, New York 1903, p. 190. The fact that Nathan had changed his name to Gotendorf at Horace Greeley's advice in 1855 speaks in itself for the discrimination which Jewish immigrants encountered even in the usa.

15. A. Barkai, Branching Out. German Jewish Immigration to the U. S. 1820-1914, Holmes & Meier, New York-London 1994, especially the chapter on «the first wave».

16. The article is reprinted in Margaret Fuller, Critic: Writings from the New York Tribune, 1844-1846, eds. J. M. Bean, J. Myerson, Columbia University Press, New York 2000. Margaret Lukens discusses it in Columnist of Conscience: Margaret Fuller's New York Years, in M. Mitchell Urbanski (ed)., Margaret Fuller: Visionary of the New Age, Northern Lights, Orono 1994, pp. 183-98.

17. Fuller answers Ossoli's letter on Wednesday 25th October 1848, the day after the fighting had ceased. «Questo odio dentro Ebrei e Romani deve produrre effetti molto cattivi qualche giorno, si non adesso». The Letters of Margaret Fuller, cit., v, pp. 136-7 and note 1.

18. Fuller's translation of the Declaration was published in the "New York Tribune", letter xxiv (April 19, 1848). I am grateful to Krzysztof aboklicki for his discussion of Fuller's friendship with Mickiewicz.

19. J. J. Deiss, The Roman Years of Margaret Fuller: A Biography, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York 1969, p. 288.

20. The Letters of Margaret Fuller, cit., vi, pp. 88-9.

21. Ivi, p. 87.