Margaret Fuller: Mother of the American Culture
You know where babies come from? They come from the mother, don’t they? You were too young to remember being inside your mother’s stomach as it got bigger and bigger. How many of you have younger brothers and sisters? Then you experienced them growing inside your mother’s stomach that got bigger and bigger. Suddenly, just as it seemed ready to burst, you had a new birth to celebrate!
Well, a culture is like that too. It begins with a seed, and that seed has to be planted in fertile ground, and be cared for and watered. It needs to gestate over time in a dark place, where there is little sunlight, but lots of maternal care and love, just like when you were a baby inside your mommy’s belly. Like a child being born, a new culture needs to gestate in a dark place before it can nourish the people who want to participate in it.
What do you see here? Yes, it is a stack of books. These books are the foundation of American literature. They were written when this country was still young and struggling to establish its own identity. Here we have the most famous names in American writing. This stack is Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister whose most famous book is called Self-Reliance. Here is another pile, Edgar Allen Poe, who was the first American writer of scary stories. There is also Henry David Thoreau whose book Walden depicted a new appreciation of nature on the land where the wilderness was seen as a threat. He established the myth of the self-sufficient American immersed in nature and whose Civil Disobedience continues to inspire our citizens to stand up for what is right, even if it means defying authority. And Nathaniel Hawthorne whose famous book The Scarlet Letter is about the dangers of romantic love
What do all these books have in common? They had the same mother who wrote in her autobiography: “Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow.” She grew from being a woman without even a formal education to a famous writer who fell in love with a prince who took her on an adventure.
This extraordinary woman’s name was Margaret Fuller. She was a genius. Do you know what a genius is? Yes, it is a term usually applied to men, but a genius is actually a female occupation, weaving together threads of a culture to formulate an entire tapestry.
Margaret was the daughter of a devout Unitarian and her early friends and mentors were Unitarian ministers named Emerson and Channing. And when Emerson wanted to start a publication that would spread a new spirituality shared among American writers in the community he started in Concord. he asked Margaret to be the editor. It was called The Dial, and it established the names and reputations of these writers around the world.
That is how American culture was born. After writing and editing for The Dial, and bringing the work of young geniuses like Hawthorne to recognition, she moved to New York to become the nation’s first newspaper critic. She also wrote about theater, music and even dance.
Do you know what genius is? Genius is an individual who makes connections between things that no one believed were connected. She tirelessly searched to nurture and elevate genius so she wouldn’t be so lonely in her vision of an authentic American culture that included even outsiders like the Indians, who she knew could teach us about growth. She found genius in these writers. They loved and hated her, sometimes at the same time.
Margaret was a very learned woman but she was also a woman of action. She had one belief that defined her life choices: the belief that it is the human purpose to grow. Margaret wasn’t satisfied with simply being the mother of a new American culture and being everyone’s choice of guest at a dinner party.
She also wanted to be the mother of a child, a divine child that would merge the old world of Europe and the new world of America. So, what did she do? She went on a tour of Europe where many famous people lined up to meet her. On Easter Sunday, she was walking through Vatican City after a service when she lost her patrons. A man came to her aid. He was very handsome, a nobleman from a family that served as protectors to the Pope. He was a gentleman but also a soldier, a living example of Margaret’s belief that the purpose of humans is to grow. He sought to grow beyond the limitations of his noble birth and Marquis who was fighting for Rome’s independence from the rule of the Catholic Church and the establishment of a republic, like Margaret’s, in which the people would responsibly chose their rulers. They fell in love and had a child that had to be hidden the mountains so Margaret could keep her job as a journalist writing about the pope leaving in fear and the French soldiers invading Rome to replace him on his throne. Having lost the revolution, Margaret knew her small family was in danger. She decided they would return to America where she could publish her book. It crashed into a sandbar off Fire Island. One was the baby she held in her arms. They sailed for months and finally were getting ready to land, when there was a terrible storm that caused the boat to crash on a sandbar off Fire Island. Margaret was terrified of water and she knew she was going to die before the wave crashed over the side of the boat, sweeping her and her beloved husband into the sea. But what made her death even more tragic was that her two children died as well. The baby drowned and so did the book she wrote about the Italian revolution. You see, nothing could stop Margaret from giving birth to her belief that their people were fighting for freedom just like the fathers of our country wore. So, she was about to give birth to a new culture there as well, when the revolution was lost. She only had the book she was writing as evidence of this “sacred marriage” of old and new worlds.
You read books about the father of this country, George Washington. Why is it that you have never read books about Margaret Fuller? Yes. Sometimes we forget mothers, simply because we know we can’t live, we can’t grow, without them. But remember children that everything that is born comes from a mother and we now can thank Margaret Fuller for being the Mother of this Country, the United States of America.
c. 2010 Lisa Paul Streitfeld