Selected Criticism

Fuller, Margaret (1810–1850)
Mason, Julian
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Sarah Margaret Fuller, essayist, literary critic, magazine editor, teacher, foreign correspondent, translator, and social commentator, was born at Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, on 23 May 1810. She was educated primarily at home and by her own choice of readings. She taught briefly in Boston (1836) and Providence (1837–1838). She returned to the Boston area in 1838, where she privately taught languages and literature, wrote, and edited The Dial (1840–1842). In 1844 she moved to New York to write for the New York Tribune. In 1846 she went to Europe, where she became involved in the revolution in Italy and where in 1847 she met Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, who became the father of her son, Angelo, born on 5 September 1848. Whether they married or not is open to question, but she did take his name before they sailed for New York in 1850. All three drowned (19 July) when their ship went aground off Fire Island, just south of Long Island, an event which Walt Whitman remembered with sadness the rest of his life. Her principal books were Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844); Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845); and Papers on Literature and Art (1846).

Although Whitman never met Fuller nor corresponded with her, he was quite aware of and interested in her personality, ideas, concerns, and writings, and even more so after she moved to New York as a critic and fellow journalist for a paper which he read regularly. She had been the first woman participant in the Transcendental Club, first editor of its publication and strong contributor to it, and, of course, friend to one degree or another with all those involved in the ideas and endeavors of the transcendentalists. Fuller was also a forthright champion of equality and of women's rights and abilities (especially in her 1845 book). Whitman was generally sympathetic with these causes, as well as with transcendentalism and its various manifestations. The ideas about the relationship between man and nature in Fuller's 1844 book were also similar to his own. A case has been made for a direct influence of her dispatches to the Tribune about the revolution in Italy (with which Whitman was sympathetic) upon his poem "Resurgemus" (published in the Tribune on 21 June 1850).

However, it seems that Fuller's greatest impact on Whitman came from her ideas and challenges about American literature, what it was not yet, and what it could and should become, especially as expressed in her twenty-one-page essay "American Literature; Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future" in her 1846 book. Whitman mentioned the book briefly but enthusiastically in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 November 1846, welcoming it "right heartily" (qtd. in Chevigny 507). More importantly, he removed from the book the forty pages on American literature, including the essay and her reviews of works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Brockden Brown, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with his underlinings and marginal markings (primarily in the essay, but also some in the Longfellow review), and saved these pages for the rest of his life. From time to time in both print and conversation he mentioned, quoted, or paraphrased parts of the essay, particularly its first four pages. He especially noted its opening claim that there was not yet really an American literature because what was being written here was still too much dependent on European literature. He also noted Fuller's emphasis on "minds seizing upon life with unbroken power," "nationality and individuality," "frankness and expansion," and "abundant opportunity to develope a genius, wide and full as our rivers, . . . impassioned as our vast prairies" (Fuller 123) and her confidence that "such a genius is to rise and work in this hemisphere" (124). In her review of Longfellow he underlined various passages about poetry: poetry is "the fullest and therefore most completely natural expression of what is human" and is "for the delight of all who have ears to hear" (150); "the poets are the priests of Nature, though the greatest are also the prophets of the manhood of man"; "we need poets; men more awakened," with genuine vision and "expression spontaneous" (151). Clearly anyone who has read Whitman can see in these emphases at least parallels with, if not influence upon, his ideas, particularly about American culture and literature, as expressed in both his prose and poetry (particularly at those points where he actually cites Fuller). What he found must have given corroboration and encouragement, perhaps even direction and impetus, to his development as a poet in the years leading up to the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass.


Allen, Margaret Vanderhaar. The Achievement of Margaret Fuller. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1979.

Capper, Charles. Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life, The Private Years. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Chevigny, Bell Gale. The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1994.

Fuller, S. Margaret. Papers on Literature and Art. Vol. 2. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846.

Myerson, Joel. Margaret Fuller: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Burt Franklin, 1977.

———. Margaret Fuller: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1978.

Reynolds, Larry J. European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Stern, Madeleine B. The Life of Margaret Fuller. 2nd ed. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass". Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.


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