The Weeds of Italy: Margaret Fuller
and the Dream of "Foreignhood"

by Charlotte Nekola

Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson were both New England women writers of the nineteenth century who were sure something important lay far beyond the landscape of America. Even as a girl, Fuller knew she must go abroad. Dickinson often wrote dreamily of what she called "foreignhood", a term she invented. Naples, Cashmere, Pompeii, Timbuctoo, Vesuvius, Borneo, Sicily, Venice, and Etna were only a few of the exotic places that Dickinson claimed in her poems, without ever seeing them. In a tribute poem on the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she asks if it might not have been better if "Ourself" had buried Browning in Italy. But Dickinson never sailed ship. Her voyage to a place of "foreignhood" remained only imaginary, as she spent her life composing more than 2.000 poems from a tiny writing desk in a house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Margaret Fuller actually took the trip, exploring foreignhood first hand, as a journalist, traveler, lover, mother, and revolutionary. For both Dickinson and Fuller, the foreign place certainly carried a personal metaphor: it was the place of otherness, the not-New England, the place beyond the self, among other meanings.

Dickinson's poems and letters are full of references to other contemporary women writers ­ Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Browning, and Helen Hunt Jackson ­ yet she only mentions Margaret Fuller fleetingly, as a translator of Goethe. Fuller was the one who lived out the fantasy of inhabiting the imagined landscape, and so it is Fuller, then, who may tell us what "foreignhood" meant to an American woman of letters in the nineteenth century, what the metaphor was, what the desired landscape meant and how close one could actually get, as a foreigner, to the desired landscape.

What did "foreignhood" mean to Margaret Fuller? I searched Fuller's letters and journalistic dispatches from Rome for a layer of commentary underneath the dramatic events of her travels, her meetings with artists and intellectuals, her romance with Ossoli, her plunge into nursing, the secret birth of her child, her flight from Rome. American intellectuals, as we know, had a hard time uniting Fuller's intellect with her gender: mind and body did not fit. In nineteenth century America, man was supposed to be mind and woman body. Fuller seemed to offend her contemporaries by leaping out of her body to become a mind. Edgar Allan Poe, for example, made his famous comment that «There are three kinds of people in the world ­ men, women, and Margaret Fuller». The public spectacle of Fuller's intellectual activities, speaking in public forums, working as a journalist in two major world cities, seemed to encourage a caricature of her as a mannish woman, or a woman who was not a woman. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, writing about Fuller thirty-four years after her death in a series called Great Men of Letters1, felt compelled to assure readers that Fuller had indeed been brimming with maternal desire and was therefore «with all her Roman ambition, "a very woman" at heart» (p. 233). Even Higginson, who cared enough about Fuller to include her in this series, must rectify the «very» or true woman with the monster of monumental «Roman ambition». (Higginson, we remember, was the same editor who turned down Dickinson's poems for publication).

The dominant ideology of gender in nineteenth century America favored domestic sainthood for women and predicted disaster for those who tried to live outside of this prescribed sphere. Degradation, abandonment, isolation, disease, and disgrace waited for women who strayed from their hallowed homes. Fuller was raised under exceptional circumstances by a father determined to create an intellectual child. But it is hard to believe she totally escaped the messages of the prevailing ideology, and did not, at some times, feel a foreigner herself in her own skin. Her deep involvement in transcendental circles somewhat solved the mind-body dilemma: she would just be a giant mind, like her colleague and mentor Emerson. Her writings strove to be monolithic. As Higginson said, «[...] she excelled in "lyric glimpses" or the power of putting a high thought into a sentence» (p. 288). These «high thoughts» after a while seemed to weigh Fuller down. Her writing was seldom lyrical and often leaden, pulled down by the need to live, speak, breathe and write «high thoughts». Her writing strained toward the abstract, striving for the transcendental or large general principles of Life with a capital "L". Yet to be a great man of letters it would still be necessary for Higginson to prove that she was a real woman, too. Perhaps Fuller felt that starting as a female, she must try harder than anyone to prove herself as a mind. We remember that her letters and even journalistic dispatches repeatedly bemoan hours and days of debilitating headaches.

"Foreignhood" offered a possible escape from the mind-body, the male-female dilemma. Fuller's letters and dispatches during her Italian journey show her struggle to become someone who was not only a mind, to become someone who could simply be, without the necessity of naming, theorizing, grasping everything she saw. Increasingly, her life's work had taken her to more and more concrete situations, where she found herself in the middle of the world so feared in the ideology of true womanhood. She travelled first from her father's library to the transcendental circles of New England, to New York as a journalist writing on subjects as gritty as women's prisons. Her landscape was all the time becoming more of the world, less of the mind. As Larry Reynolds2 points out, even before Fuller came to Rome, she developed a novel idea for the genre of travel writing ­ that it should contain a personal voice, and that travel writing that was merely pictorial was already an overdone, hackneyed form (pp. 8-9). Even before she arrived in Italy, Fuller wanted to step beyond the pictorial, to involve and enmesh herself with the landscape. Perhaps with this innovation she further disburdened herself from the giant mind ­ she felt she must speak more personally, more individually, with the imprint of herself. It was also an affront to the cult of selflessness for women. She would speak for herself instead of the novel landscape.

Fuller's writing from the Italian period, both in letters and newspaper dispatches, not only wrestles with mind-body questions but becomes more concrete, more truly lyrical, more involved in the landscape around her. Fuller becomes more the poet, less the polemicist. If her work and writing continuously drove her into more and more worldly circles, it would seem in Italy that she became more deeply attached to that world ­ not only in the world, but of it. The woman who once said «I have no home on earth» (Fuller, Mss., i, p. 669, quoted in Higginson, p. 233) finally called Rome «my Rome» (Letters, v, p. 241)3. Her letters and dispatches use metaphors and images of roots, soil, paths, weeds to define her relationship to the "foreign" landscape, often at the same moments that she struggles with issues of mind and body. I believe these comments offer insight into what Fuller's immersion in "foreignhood" meant to her. Margaret Fuller seemed to be coming down to earth, allowing herself to connect with the world rather than hover above as a giant transcendental eyeball.

Early in her sojourn abroad, in May 1847, Fuller wrote in one of her Dispatches from Europe,

Yet I find it is quite out of the question to know Italy; to say anything of her that is full and sweet, so as to convey any idea of her spirit, without long residence, and residence in the districts untouched by the scorch and dust of foreign invasion, (the invasion of dilettanti I mean) and without an intimacy of feeling, an abandonment to the spirit of the place, impossible to most Americans; they retain too much of their English blood; and the traveling English, as a tribe, seem to me the most unseeing of all possible animals (p. 131).

One wonders if Fuller were speaking about herself: how close did Fuller feel she was getting to the landscape she so desired? Was she less foreign than the superficial foreigners, less of a dilettante, closer to its spirit than the unseeing English? Could she make the leap of spirit she said was necessary?

Fuller's statements about her adopted city of Rome swung to extremes ­ at times ecstatic, at times drenched with despair. Her early letters from her time abroad brim with enthusiasm, mounting with a growing sense that she was finally becoming something more than a real tourist, more than a surveyor of the picturesque. Gradually she comes to feel at home in Rome, though not without periods of wrenching darkness that seemed to find their objective correlative in the prolonged rain of the Roman winter. But for one plagued by schisms between mind and body, Rome itself offered a "transcendent" solution. By August of 1847, she writes to Caroline Sturgis:

I remember I wrote to you from Rome in the first weeks, when I was suffering terrible regrets and could not yet find myself at home in Italy [...]. Rome was much poisoned for me so, but, after a time, its genius triumphed and I became absorbed in its peculiar life. Again I suffered from parting, and have since resolved to return there and pass at least part of the winter. People may write and people may prate as much as they like about Rome, they cannot convey thus a portion of its spirit. It must be inhaled wholly, with the yielding of the whole heart. It is really something transcendent, both spirit and body. Those last glorious nights in which I wandered about amid the old walls and columns or sat by the fountains in the Piazza del Popolo, or by the river, seem worth an age of pain both after and before only one hates pain in Italy (Letters, iv, p. 290).

For once, Margaret Fuller did not have to dream up the transcendent solution herself; she just had to inhale it, live it, find transcendence made concrete: Rome. Her «one hates pain in Italy» is a fascinating remark: does it mean that one loves pain in America, or that the landscape of Italy deserves a different response than the harsh strictures of New England winters, Puritans, and transcendental think tanks? Or perhaps pain, that so plagued her with headaches, the site of the mind, should be dispensed with in Italy, where she might begin to leap the gap between mind and body, and become a three-dimensional Margaret Fuller instead of a cardboard relief of a determined transcendentalist. Her letter, however is not really free of the mind-body concern: she must elevate Rome to "genius" and "transcendent", not simply leave it as it was.

In the same letter, she describes a parting of the ways with the Springs, the American couple who first brought her to Europe: «At Venice, the Springs left me, and it was high time, for I had become quite insupportable I was always out of the body, and they, good friends, were in» (Letters, iv, p. 291). She is out of the body; they are in. Rome is both spirit and body; Rome must be inhaled wholly. The mind body dilemma is far from over; it must be delineated; it must be defined; one could be in or out of one or the other. These divisions are reflected in her approach to the Italian landscape. At first she is near it, only observing it. Then she is in it, she is of it, and she inhales it. She would have liked to have grown in its very soil, she will say. The sense that Italy is beyond description, beyond words, recurs in her letters. In September of 1847 she writes to a friend,

I cannot even begin to speak of the magnificent scenes of nature nor the works of art that have raised and filled my mind since I wrote from Naples. Now I begin to be in Italy. But I wish to drink deep of this cup before I speak my enamored words. Enough, to say Italy receives me as a long lost child (Letters, iv, p. 293).

Her comments are filled with oppositions: scenes of nature and works of art may raise and fill a mind (high thoughts), but that is a different matter than to «begin to be» in Italy. So different, in fact, that one would want to simply «Drink deep» or «inhale» as she said of Rome before trying to use the encumbrance of mere «enamored words». Here, as so often, a more sensual, concrete Fuller surfaces, in language that craves a visceral merging with the landscape: «Italy receives me as a long lost child» she asserts, drinking, inhaling, without words. By October her rhapsodies continue. To a friend she writes:

Italy alone will suffice you. Come with all your children and live quietly here! to any one who can feel, who is not very shallow, it must be torture to merely travel to Italy and give a passing stare at the beautiful body without ever having time or peace to come in contact with its soul (Letters, iv, p. 306).

The feeling person, then, entered Italy body and soul: Fuller's language suggests a headlong plunge unimpeded by high thoughts, raised thoughts, transcendent thoughts. Fuller goes on to place herself, in this letter, at the center of a concrete scenario, not in a miasmic transcendental fog:

For the present I drop all thought of the future seeking to take my share of what lies before me. It is a most beautiful day, so warm and bright, but I have been very busy; my head begins to ache; I must go on my walk, go to the villa Borghese. A troop of Trasteverini in those costumes we admire in Pinelli have just passed, colours flying, drums beating, five minutes earlier, a procession of Monks chanting a requiem (Letters, iv, p. 306).

Her busyness and aching head oppose the beautiful day, but there is hope in a cure from the landscape: the Villa Borghese, the colors and drums of the Trasteverini, the chanting monks. The cure involves being in the landscape, body and soul. In her correspondence, Fuller continued to distinguish herself from the casual visitor who rests on snap impressions, who might never really enter the landscape. To her brother, in September of 1847, she writes:

I am not surprized you are disappointed by my letter from Rome. But I did not feel equal then to speaking of the things of Rome and shall not, till more familiar acquaintance about them. It is a matter of conscience with me not to make use of crude impressions and what they call "coffee-house intelligence", as travelers in general do. I prefer skimming over the surface of things until I feel solidly ready to write (Letters, iv, p. 295).

Fuller, not content with the merely pictorial, says that Rome defies words, that she must wait, as if her body and soul relationship, her drinking and inhaling, cannot be subjected to the kind of translation that words require ­ a kind of egotism, a kind of mysticism ­ but also an assertion of the private, intimate nature of her relationship with "foreignhood". Still, the old habit of high thought pursued her, the nagging sense of its eminence. She becomes more and more ebullient in Rome, in October of 1847 writing her brother «I find myself so happy here alone and free» (Letters, iv, p. 310). But then in November she says «All day I dissipate my thoughts on outward beauty» (Letters, iv, p. 310), as if it were a crime, the inner pulled outward, the abstract wasted on the concrete.

Yet her letters continue to celebrate the concrete, to place herself firmly and happily in the streets of Rome. In December of 1847 she writes to her mother «[...] each day I am out from eleven till five, exploring some new object of interest, often at a great distance» (Letters, iv, p. 313). Her dispatches to the "Tribune" chronicle the processions of popes, bands of roving musicians in costume, carnival revelers, rain on the pavement, festivities by candlelight. «I have heard owls in the Coliseum by moonlight, and they spoke more to the purpose than I ever heard any other voice upon its subject», she wrote in a dispatch of May 1847. Perhaps she wished to be relieved of the job she had undertaken, to explain Rome with words, and would rather let the owls do the job. But Fuller wants her readers to know that she, Margaret Fuller, stood on the streets and heard them. One is reminded of the ebullient claims of radical American women journalists of the 1930s as they fixed themselves in places of extreme foreignhood: «I Went to the Soviet Arctic» wrote Ruth Gruber; «I Change Worlds» wrote Anna Louise Strong from Red China, and Margaret Fuller did write what she could have called «I Saw the Roman Republic».

Fuller's identification of self with landscape can also be viewed through her comments on the female landscape in Italy. "Foreignhood" allowed her to create a complicated picture of a new woman. At Perugia, she visited Etruscan tombs, and remarked in a dispatch that one excavation was «beyond my expectations; in it were several female figures, very dignified and calm as the dim lamp-light fell on them by turns. The expression of these figures shows that the position of woman in these states was noble»4. In the same dispatch she says «a woman should love Bologna, for there has the spark of intellect in Woman been cherished with reverent care» and goes on to praise a monument erected for Clotilda Tambroni, a Greek professor, a woman professor of anatomy, and three woman painters5. In a later dispatch, St. Cecilia receives her praise.

These women are all monumental ­ saints, ancient queens, scholars ­ and some literally monumental, cast in marble, certainly worthy of high thought. Italian women of the street, however, she found of «low intellect» but «warm-hearted»6. Fuller again stretched between hierarchies of mind and body: the marble women of intellect, the street women of warm hearts. Where was she?

One of Fuller's most empathetic, passionate passages portrays a woman about to be removed from the worldly world and taken into a convent. Apparently it was common for visitors to Rome to take in the rites and rituals of the church as part of their pictorial itinerary, including the induction of novitiates into a convent. For Fuller, this proves deeply disturbing:

It was a much less effective ceremony than I expected from the descriptions of traveler and romance-writers. There was no moment of throwing on the black veil; no peal of music, nor salute of canon. The nun, an elegantly dressed woman of five or six and twenty, pretty enough, but whose quite worldly air gave the idea that it was one of those arrangements made because no suitable establishment could otherwise be given her, came forward, knelt and prayed; her confessor, in that strained, unnatural whine [...] praised himself for having induced her to enter on a path which would lead her fettered steps [...] from [...] "triumph to triumph". Poor thing! she looked as if the domestic olives and poppies were all she wanted; and lacking these, tares and wormwood must be her portion. She was taken behind a grating, her hair cut, and her clothes exchanged for the nun's vestments; the black-robed sisters who worked upon her, looking like crows or ravens at their ominous feasts. All the while the music played, first sweet and thoughtful, then triumphant strains. The effect on my mind was revolting and painful to the last degree. Were monastic seclusion always voluntary [...] I should have nothing to say against it [...] but where it is enforced or repented of no hell could be worse [...]7.

Fuller's emotions run in high relief here: the effect on her mind was «revolting and painful to the last degree», she says. The nuns looked like feasting crows or ravens. And the poor woman probably only wanted «domestic olives and poppies». From this strong reaction we might read the novitiate as a projection of Fuller herself. First, she breaks from the writing tradition of her colleagues and compatriots, the travellers and romance writers who might find this ceremony merely pictorial. The novitiate was "worldly" as Fuller was striving more and more to be, less of the mind, more of the body. Perhaps Fuller was arriving at a point where poppies and olives were all she wanted, a thorough connection, breathing and inhaling of the world in front of her.

The spectacle of a woman forced into monastic reclusion is devastating, perhaps as wrenching as it would be for Fuller to force hereof away from the world she had come so far to embrace ­ no longer only a monumental woman of high thought herself, but also a woman of olives and poppies, perhaps even a warm-hearted woman, with roots in the soil of her adopted land.

The opposition of the idea of the mind with roots and soil surfaces repeatedly in Fuller's metaphors. Sometimes it shows the distance between where she would like to be and where she feels she is: «Now my life must be a failure», she writes to Emerson in December of 1847, «So much strength has been wasted on abstractions, which only came because I grew not in the right soil» (Letters, iv, p. 315). Italy, where one hates pain, would not be the place where one wastes a life on abstractions, on high thoughts. Yet she can't simply remain there, despite her feelings of belonging, of having been received as a child in Italy, almost, of regaining a lost birthright. «I am so simpatica» she brags to Emerson in July of 1848. «I think wholly in Italian». In one of her grandiose moments, she claims that she is a «divine visitant» to the Italians. But her real American birthplace confounds her again: «[The Italians] are people whom I could love and live with. Bread and grapes among them would suffice me, but I have no way of earning these from their rich soil» (Letters, v, p. 86). She cannot earn bread and grapes from the land of poppies and olives, where an owl says as much as needs to be said about the Coliseum.

Yet though Fuller bemoans not being born on the right soil and not being able to live from it, there are moments when the gap between her desire ­ to merge with the landscape, to be in it ­ and its unreachable distance seems to dissolve. In August of 1848, she says, «It is useless to try and write of these things, volumes would hardly begin to tell my thoughts». But she goes on to invent a new language for herself, a new mind: «I do not know whether of any worth or not, but the Italian sun has wakened a luxuriant growth that covers my mind; this green may be all of weeds; I hardly care, ­ weeds are beautiful in Italy» (Letters, v, p. 100). Fuller's green and beautiful head of weeds, "luxuriant", replaces at least for a moment the mind that is always in opposition, always opposing. Here she seems closest to identifying herself with the landscape, figuratively taken over by its beautiful weeds. Still, she cannot stop evaluating the meaning of those weeds, whether they are of "worth" or not, and must assert, «I hardly care». The mind-body debate still simmers within. With those weeds, she says, «In Rome, one has all the free feeling of the country [...]». The «free feeling» may have been that which was finally free of the need to impart high thoughts, to be a monumental woman. But later in the same letter she upbraids herself for not being a more prolific writer: «Oh how much I might write ­ if only I had force» (Letters, v, p. 101) as if merely resting in the luxuriant weeds were not enough.

Fuller's quest for the landscape ­ as if it were some new identity, some new information about herself she must reach ­ was greatly assisted by her relationship with Ossoli. It was he, she remarks towards what was to be the end of her life, who walked with her through the ruins of Rome at night ­ a privileged tour with one whose birthright was intact, who could take her safely in Eve's forbidden night walk. Her involvement with the revolution, the birth of her child, her work as a nurse drew her closer to the Italian horizon and thus to her own. By the time the republic was quashed, her child born, she had little time left to worry about what her mind was doing or to listen to the nagging struggle between mind and body.

In 1849, as she contemplates returning to America with Ossoli, she says «I expect that to many of my friends, Mr. Emerson for one, he will be nothing, and they will not understand that I should have life in common with him» (Letters, v, p. 291). She singles out Emerson as looking at Ossoli as «nothing», as if the man who steered her life of the mind could never understand the one who drew her more deeply, body and soul, into the life of Italy. Or that Margaret Fuller might, as her letters show, wait with coffee for such a man. In the same letter, she tells her life story in a way that now merges mind, body, soil, roots, path, weeds: «I acted on a strong impulse. I could not analyze at all what passed in my mind. I neither rejoice nor grieve, for bad or good I acted out my character. Had I never connected myself with any one my path was clear, now it is all hid, but in that case my development must have been partial» (Letters, v, p. 292).

By this time, Fuller's path is "hid", perhaps obscured by even more than the luxuriant, beautiful green weeds of Italy ­ turmoil as she must leave the Rome she came to call «my Rome», unclear financial future, a husband who might not withstand a New England winter, a child whose health had only recently been restored. Yet by now she throws up the need to judge; she cannot analyze, she neither rejoices nor grieves. Now she is not separating mind from body, not yearning for a landscape she can not inhabit, but simply asserts that her life would have been only "partial" without Ossoli, without the path she had taken. Finally, she has chosen and taken a path; she has finally cut through the landscape of foreignhood. Once, as a journalist, she had remarked how poppies "ornamented" the hillside, and grieved as she watched a woman denied what she called the life of olives and poppies. But now she is neither pictorial nor projecting, having stepped into her own life that is more than partial.

Emily Dickinson once remarked that her brother Austin, who had been to Boston and walked through the world, had certainly been «Through the whole» ­ the whole big bad world that the cult of true womanhood advised women to shun for the true values of home. One remarkable feature of Fuller's life as a woman of the nineteenth century is her willingness to put herself through the whole ­ to leave home, earn her living, report on New York, cross the ocean, walk the streets of Rome, nurse men with her own hands, bear a child in a foreign place. Perhaps she had gotten close to what Dickinson must have dreamed of when she invented the wistful "foreignhood". Fuller had begun to make a home out of the world in a life she refused to call partial, as if mind and body were no longer parts, but part of a whole, to be covered with beautiful weeds, to be inhaled.


1. T. Wentworth Higginson, Margaret Fuller Ossoli, in American Men of Letters, ed. C. D. Warner, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston 1884.

2. M. Fuller, "These Sad But Glorious Days": Dispatches from Europe, 1846-1850, eds. L. J. Reynolds, S. Belasco Smith, Yale University Press, New Haven 1991.

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

4. M. Fuller, "These Sad But Glorious Days", cit., p. 141.

5. Ivi, p. 143.

6. Ivi, p. 171.

7. Ivi, p. 179.