Friday, March 15, 2013

On a windswept shore

OK, I know you are getting bored with Margaret Fuller, whose biography I have just read. But there is one other episode from the end of the book that sticks in my mind, involving my long-time mentor Henry David Thoreau.

I have read pretty much everything written about Thoreau, and nearly everything he wrote himself (not all, I suppose, of his voluminous journals). I am ashamed to say I knew very little about his acquaintance Margaret Fuller. I didn't even mention her when I wrote about "the flowering of New England" in an earlier post.

But Thoreau, although seven years younger, would have been very much aware of Fuller, as was Emerson, that demigod of the New England "enlightenment." Emerson, I suspect, was to the very end awed and jealous of her intellect and courage.

And "the end"; what was it?

All during her young adulthood, Fuller had crushes on many of her brilliant male friends. They admired her, and enjoyed her company, but only in a Platonic way. She tended to be smarter than they. And not "pretty." They married less bright, more beautiful woman.

In 1846, at age 36, Fuller went to Europe on assignment for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, where she would end up covering the revolutionary events of the late 1840s, including breathlessly and dangerously the siege of republican Rome. She also fell in love with a gentle, non-intellectual Italian ten years her junior (and he with her), and conceived a child out of wedlock. They married, or at least pretended to be, and after Rome was restored to reactionary rule, Fuller, with her lover and child, set sail for America.

Their ship ran aground off Fire Island, on Long Island. The bodies of Margaret and her husband Giovanni were never found. The child perished too and is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But all of that is by way of leading up to Thoreau, who Emerson sent to Fire Island to recover whatever scraps of Fuller's life might be found among the wreckage that washed ashore. It was an episode I had not previously considered -– the "hermit of Walden" scouring that desolate shore for fragments of a great life.