JULIA WARD HOWE'S (AUTO)BIOGRAPHY OF MARGARET FULLER

Gary Williams
University of Idaho

Julia Ward Howe and Margaret Fuller may have met face to face as few as three times. A Fuller letter to her brother Eugene records their first meeting on June 7, 1839, in the morning, at Washington Allston’s gallery. The New York Wards were known by reputation in some Boston circles; Fuller notes that she had “heard so much” of the sisters and that their oldest brother Sam was “so cried up for talent.” In this encounter--and very possibly in all their encounters--Fuller wasn’t impressed. “[I]f I could judge from the little I saw of the well known Julie she is inferior to E. [Fuller’s younger sister Ellen] in mind and as affected as she can be.”

Howe’s Reminiscenses, written when she was eighty, describes another meeting at Eliza Farrar’s house two years later, on the day Frederic Henry Hedge delivered the year’s Phi Beta Kappa address. The two went together to Hedge’s lecture, after which Ward asked if Fuller hadn’t found the discourse very good. “Yes; it was high ground for middle ground,” Fuller is reported to have responded, but despite this condescending-sounding remark, Howe notes that she and Fuller “enjoyed a long walk and talk” on the Farrar piazza before George Ripley came to bear Fuller away for a visit with his wife (296). The only other record of the two women being together is in a letter from Julia to her sisters, about five months after this September 1841 occasion. This is late January 1842. “I have had hardly the least dash of Transcendentalism, and that of the very best description,” she wrote, “ a lecture and a visit from Emerson, in both of wh[ich] he said beautiful things--and tomorrow, don[’]t be shocked, a conversation at Miss Fullers,' wh[ich] I shall treasure up for your amusement and instruction--I have also heard, don[’]t go into hysterics, Dr Channing once.”

One other interaction, evidently not involving a meeting, occurred thanks to Julia’s friend Mary Ward’s having given Fuller some of Julia’s early poetry to read. Judith Mattson Bean a few years ago reproduced an overlooked letter from Fuller about this poetry, probably written to Mary with the understanding that Mary would pass Fuller’s views along to Julia. Bean reads Fuller’s response as essentially supportive and encouraging, as do I. Fuller says, “I can hardly realize that the Julia Ward I have seen has lived this life.” But though the appreciation seems sincere, it is embedded among passages that might be accused of undercutting with light irony the compliments she pays. Fuller's letter may have been the product of a desire not to offend their mutual friend by overtly disparaging these literary efforts. If Fuller had actually believed the poems worthy of publication, she was herself in a position to do so, in The Dial.

When these two women met in 1839, Fuller was 29, Ward 20. Fuller, perhaps the best-educated woman in America at that moment, had the month before published Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe and was about to assume the editorship of The Dial. It isn’t surprising that Julia Ward, the oldest daughter of a wealthy, religiously conservative banker, bred to move easily in the highest New York social circles, probably a little giddy and full of herself on this first trip to Boston, made a poor impression. Yet the younger woman, had Fuller known her better, might have claimed a bit more of her esteem, for Julia Ward, too, was remarkably well educated and--for her age--remarkably well published. Three years before, at age 17, she had reviewed Lamartine’s Jocelyn for the Literary and Theological Review, and earlier in 1839 an essay on John Sullivan Dwight's Select Minor Poems of Goethe and Schiller, published in the New York Review, had exhibited her impressive command of German and German literature. She had had the good fortune to study privately with Joseph Cogswell, one of only three or four Americans in the 1830s who could claim extensive knowledge of Germany’s literature. Cogswell had spent time with Goethe and had persuaded him to donate copies of his works to Harvard’s library. Ward’s accomplishments under Cogswell’s tutelage had brought her, as well, into a very small circle. Very few U.S.-born women in the 1830s knew German well enough to read it easily. An unsystematic search has uncovered--beyond Fuller and Ward--only three others: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Lydia Maria Child, and Elizabeth Ellet. At the time of her first meeting with Fuller, Julia Ward was encountering Unitarian and Transcendental thought for the first time and was finding Boston (as she wrote to Mary Ward), “an oasis in the desert, a place where the larger proportion of people are loving, rational, and happy. I long for its green pastures and still waters, its pure intellectual atmosphere and its sunlight of kindness and truth.” Fuller was doubtless one of the clearest embodiments of this oasis, in spite of her private reservations about the younger woman’s talents..
But the two may never have met again and apparently did not correspond. In 1843 Julia Ward married Samuel Gridley Howe and left the country for a fifteen-month wedding voyage, during which her first child was born. The Howes returned to Boston less than a month before Fuller moved to New York, and thence to Europe. The ill-fated ship bearing the Ossolis back to the U.S. in 1850 passed one conveying the Howes to the Continent; they learned of the wreck and Fuller’s death when they reached England. Later that year, Julia Howe spent time with Sarah Clarke interviewing friends of Fuller’s in Italy, to help James Freeman Clarke write his sections of the Memoir, published jointly with Emerson and Channing in 1852. One might say this effort marked the beginning of Howe's biographical interest in Fuller.
Fuller had never been far from Howe’s mind, though. My book details the influence Fuller’s deep involvement in Italian revolutionary politics may have exerted on several of the strongest poems in Howe’s first published book, Passion-Flowers. I suggest, too, that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written in 1861, may have taken some impetus from Howe’s sense of unexpectedly finding herself in circumstances resembling those Fuller experienced during the French siege of Rome in 1849. If Howe in her Washington, D.C. hotel was not exactly under fire, as Fuller had been, her Reminiscences account of this day shows that she had strongly the visual and emotional sense of being a writer in the thick of an event of international importance, at a critical time. The “Battle Hymn” is her own dispatch from the front, her Fuller-like effort to galvanize opinion and cement commitment.

It was, however, not until the early 1880s that Howe's energies were marshaled to produce a biography. What prompted Howe to undertake this project at this moment? My explanation is provisional, speculative rather than grounded in documentary evidence. There is no reference to the work in Howe's Reminiscences, and the biography itself offers only a general justification: Through “growing interest felt in Margaret and her work . . . a demand seems to have arisen for a later word about her.” Howe makes clear that she has no thought of superseding the Memoir; she only intends to “borrow [from it] the inspiration for a new study and presentment” because “in the turning and perseverance of this planet, present soon becomes past, and that which has been best said asks to be said again”(1-2). According to Joan von Mehren, the Fuller family had considered a new biography as early as 1863, a project that foundered when Richard Fuller was unable to persuade James Nathan to return Margaret’s letters. In 1869 Horace Greeley published six volumes of Fuller’s Tribune writings, and the following year Howe and other members of the New England Woman’s Club sponsored a commemorative 60th birthday party for Fuller, at which James Freeman Clarke claimed that it was “in vain” to try to put her into words: “Try as one will, some fine aroma escapes us always, and we cannot make those who did not know her understand why she was nobler than all, and scarcely any one was worthy to be called second where she was first” [from a newspaper account reprinted by Kenneth Cameron in Transcendental Log (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1973)]. After this, aside from lecture-circuit presentations by Bronson Alcott and Ednah Dow Cheney, interest faded.

I suspect the flurry of biographical interest in 1869-70 (still a dozen years before Howe’s biography) had to do with the formation of the two chief 19th-century groups working toward women’s suffrage. The “first major political society that proclaimed votes for women as its goal,” says Ellen Carol DuBois [Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978)], was the New England Woman Suffrage Association, formed in November of 1868. Howe was its first president. The following spring Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the National Woman Suffrage Association, and in November of 1869, the New England group became the American Woman Suffrage Association. The groups differed in the scope of their goals. The Howe faction (with which were associated Lucy Stone and Thomas Wentworth Higginson) welcomed the membership of men and focused solely on voting rights. The Stanton-Anthony faction was overwhelmingly women and concerned itself with economic and sexual issues as well as voting rights. All the prominent post-war feminist leaders, Charles Capper notes, looked back on Fuller’s conversations as “the central precedent and model for many of their clubs and organizations through which they would seek to nurture American women’s intellectual autonomy and self-emancipation” (306).

It’s surprising, therefore, to discover in the two weighty volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, compiled in 1881 by Stanton, Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage as “an arsenal of facts for those who are beginning to inquire into the demands and arguments of the leaders of this reform,” almost no reference to Margaret Fuller. The “Preface” to the volumes suggests that the editors’ decision to undertake this task generated tension of several sorts. Some unnamed people evidently declined to contribute, for reasons not clearly set forth. But it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that two of the primary figures associated with the other faction should, within two years, publish full-scale biographies of the movement’s “central precedent.”

The relation of Higginson’s 1884 biography to Howe’s is a bit beyond the scope of this paper, but I might note that contemporary scholars view the Higginson work as generally better--”better” meaning more trustworthy regarding the facts of Fuller’s life. Joel Myerson says Howe is “overly sympathetic”; Capper regards her book as intellectually uninteresting. Anna Mary Wells, a Higginson biographer, speculates that Higginson felt Howe’s account needed correction but was unwilling to say so very clearly, lest he jar their friendship. (The friendship had, in fact, undergone a recent shake-up when Higginson publicly chastised Howe for welcoming Oscar Wilde into her home during his 1882 visit. She, in response, has spiritedly argued her right to serve a meal to whomever she pleased.) Whatever the case, Higginson’s claim to authority on the basis of personal knowledge certainly outdid Howe’s: Higginson had grown up with Fuller’s younger siblings, and as he was writing had access to “‘five bulky manuscript volumes’ recorded by her brother Arthur after her death, her letters to Emerson, William Henry Channing, the Marquis Ossoli, and a number of others, and several of her own and Bronson Alcott’s diaries” (Wells 264)--none of which Howe probably used.
Whatever its deficiencies as a window on Fuller’s life, and Howe’s demurrer about the work’s originality notwithstanding, the biography does offer material for speculation about Fuller’s particular significance for Howe herself. This text--as Zwarg has remarked about the Emerson sections of its predecessor--is “an odd medley of biography and autobiography” [Feminist Conversations 245], a story of both Fuller and Howe. A reading of it in these terms might take its cue from a comment Howe makes about--coincidentally--Fuller’s reaction to Washington Allston’s paintings. Fuller had expected, Howe says, to be “greatly a gainer by her study of this exhibition,” but had gone away somewhat disappointed. Howe’s reflection seems equally applicable to her own early interactions with Fuller: “Possibly her expectations regarded a result too immediate and definite. [Handout: 79] Sights and experiences that enrich the mind often do so insensibly. They pass out of our consciousness; but in our later judgments we find our standard changed, and refer back to them as the source of its enlargement” (79).

I’ve already mentioned the obviously-important model of political involvement and champion of human rights Fuller was for Howe in Fuller’s work for the Italian revolution. The biography demonstrates Howe’s admiration, of course, and beyond that, in its detailed and thoughtful reflections on the political situations Fuller witnessed, it illustrates how completely the biographer absorbed her subject’s exemplary significance. Howe clearly wished to show herself Fuller’s equivalent in her grasp of people and issues driving European politics in the 1840s (and afterwards, for that matter), and so she interjects, for example, an analysis of a letter from Mazzini to Pope Pius that had been the focus of one of Fuller’s Tribune dispatches. Similar moments occur when Howe sets her own literary perceptions adjacent to those of Fuller. But this is perhaps the least interesting sense in which the biography is autobiographical. In the time that remains, I want to focus attention on several passages that may echo some aspect of the tensions among women’s rights advocates in the 1880s and then to conclude by speculating about the more purely personal meaning Fuller may have held for Howe.

Howe, in language polite but possibly barbed, finds several occasions to remark on Fuller’s continuing usefulness as an inspiring image. [Handout: 22-23] The biography offers no hint at what circumstances in Howe’s day might be obliquely referred to here, or whether in fact any particularity at all is intended. Yet the sense that some specific antagonism lies beneath Howe’s words is strong, especially when we read them in the light of the next passage on the handout, twenty pages further on. [Handout: 43] The emphasis here is on Fuller’s unselfishness, the disinterested quality of her affections; she was valued for her ability to sustain non-self-aggrandizing friendships. The first two sentences of this passage are cast in general terms, but they may easily be read as describing Howe’s own sense of benefit from her acquaintance with Fuller: her life was modified, and her own powers multiplied, through Fuller’s kind attentions. The balance of the passage implies that such has not been the case in latter days from others who might have been expected to perform a like function.

A similarly pointed series of remarks appears a few pages later. [Handout: 47-48, 48-49] Howe has been contrasting the “inspired maiden” bodied forth in Fuller’s letters and journals with the woman disparaged in fashionable circles as the epitome of the ungraceful and unfeminine. Julia Ward’s letter to her sisters, which I quoted earlier, advising them not to be shocked when she informed them that she had attended a Fuller Conversation, suggests that Howe had heard not a few such disparaging observations first-hand within her New York circle. Yet the woman describing Margaret Fuller here is one who--my book lays out--had herself suffered scorn precisely for believing in her moral and intellectual powers, for having assumed her full height against the censure of a disapproving husband and an earlier age’s strictures on women’s activities. She may also be one who has continued to experience disdain and rejection, both from women of “good society” who still claim women’s alleged weakness and from the very women one might have believed would be the first to honor independence of thought and action. Although she speaks of Fuller, she seems to speak of herself as well. The last sentence may be a quiet reminder that there are many kinds of work to be done in the cause of women’s rights; each laborer must be given leave to explore her particular gifts, define her own tasks.

Finally, I want to suggest that in her narration of two periods in Fuller’s life, Howe’s personal circumstances equipped her especially well to understand and interpret the value of Fuller’s experience. First, Howe appreciated Fuller because she managed to accept gracefully the deferral of her intellectual development when family duty called her. Howe’s account of the move to Groton in 1833 and of Fuller’s severe disappointment when her father’s death made impossible her planned trip to Europe resonates with the compassion of a woman who also had been obliged to postpone intellectual work to take up domestic responsibilities. “Of all the crownings of Margaret’s life,” says Howe, “shall we not most envy her that of this act of sacrifice? So near to the feast of gods, she prefers the fast of duty, and recognizes the claims of family affection as more imperative than the gratification of any personal taste or ambition. . . . We may all be glad to remember this example, and to refer to it those who find themselves in a maze of doubt between what they owe to the cultivation of their own gifts, what to the need and advantage of those to whom they stand in near relation” (58). Knowing this about her female mentor had helped Howe at earlier moments bear a similar trial.

And second, Fuller seems to have been for Howe the model of a woman who in the end managed successfully to conflate her romantic and domestic interests. When writing the biography, Howe was evidently unaware of Fuller’s attachment to James Nathan (although she was later prevailed on to contribute an introduction for the 1903 publication of the letters, on the subject of which I urge on you Zwarg’s provocative reading in a 1991 article in Cultural Critique). Still, she understood that Fuller’s attraction to Ossoli, a man utterly unlike her, was both deep and reciprocal. The biography emphasizes Ossoli’s devoted constant attendance on Fuller, a phenomenon that clearly evoked envy from a woman whose husband during their 33 years together had left her alone most of the time and who therefore felt driven to form strong emotional alliances with men other than Mr. Howe.

In her Reminiscences, written 16 years later, Howe identifies the moment of her coming-to-consciousness regarding women’s place in culture: it happened in 1868 at the convention that created the New England Women’s Suffrage Association, and it had nothing obvious to do with Margaret Fuller: “During the first two thirds of my life I looked to the masculine ideal of character as the only true one. . . . In an unexpected hour a new light came to me, showing me a world of thought and of character quite beyond the limits within which I had hitherto been content to abide. The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood,--woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances” (373-74). The road-to-Damascus rhetoric notwithstanding, the groundwork for this moment of conversion had begun to be laid in Washington Allston’s studio in 1839. The biography is Howe’s repayment of a debt. It suggests, in ways apparent to those aware of Howe’s own trials, the unique sense in which she regarded Fuller as “a permanent value in the community” (biography 94).