We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we believe that the Divine would ascend into nature to a height unknown in the history of past ages, and nature, thus instructed, would regulate the spheres not only so as to avoid collision, but to bring forth ravishing harmony . . .
The American activist and journalist Margaret Fuller began to serialize “The Great Lawsuit,” excerpted above, in the July 1843 issue of The Dial, the journal of Transcendentalism she edited. Published in 1845 as Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller’s impassioned argument for gender equality is regarded as a seminal text for American feminism and the cornerstone of her legacy. “I had put a good deal of my true self in it,” she later wrote a friend, “as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth.” Five years later, on July 19, 1850, Fuller, her husband, and her infant son drowned when their storm-tossed boat ran aground just off Fire Island, New York.
Fuller’s pioneering and fervent personality put her in the spotlight throughout her life, but her last years, spent in Rome supporting the short-lived Roman Republic, reached an operatic level of passion and poignancy. In her dispatches for the New York Tribune — she was the newspaper’s first female foreign correspondent — Fuller argued the cause of the Italian revolutionists, one of whom she had married.
With the ramparts fallen and her husband at risk for his politics, Fuller had set aside her premonitions of disaster (and warnings from Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Concord friends that her socialist leanings and out-of-wedlock son would provoke public disfavor) and sailed for home.
Emerson sent Thoreau to Fire Island to help look for Fuller’s body and for any personal belongings he might find. In the historical record, Thoreau came back empty-handed; in April Bernard’s novel Miss Fuller, he returns with a letter-journal, addressed to Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. Part biography and part manifesto, Fuller’s letter ranges across her unconventional life and provocative thoughts. As Thoreau’s younger sister Anne (imagined for the novel) peruses the document, she begins her own voyage toward understanding why Fuller’s life was so provocative, and her death almost welcomed:
Everyone was — relieved. Not actually glad that she was dead, perhaps. But surely relieved, relieved of the burden of this impossible woman. Relieved that they no longer would have to read her exhortations to do good, to send money, to think more broadly, to consider the poor and the powerless, to worry over their place in history, to follow her difficult sentences, to wonder if women after all should be allowed to pester them in this way, and to do such things as Miss Fuller did and imagined.
She made everybody angry. Such a terrible talent.
”I neither rejoice nor grieve,” Fuller says in one of her late letters from Rome, “for bad or good I acted out my character.” This insistence on self-realization, says Megan Marshall in her Pulitzer-winning Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, may be the most indelible principle of her message-in-a-bottle to the modern world:
In a time when “self-reliance” was the watchword — one she helped to coin and circulate — Margaret had, by her own account, a “mind that insisted on utterance.” She insisted that her ideas be valued as highly as those of the brilliant men who were her comrades. She refused to be pigeonholed as a woman writer or trivialized as sentimental, and her interests were as far-ranging as the country itself, where, as she wrote in a farewell column for the Tribune when she sailed for Europe, “life rushes wild and free.”
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