“How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? Is this what it means? What shall I do about it?”
The sixth chapter in Figuring is the inspiration for this essay..
“I am determined on distinction,” Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) writes to her former teacher. She is fifteen. The year is 1825 and she is ineligible for any formal education, so she has taken the reins of her character into her own hands, with resolute guidance from her father — a man who has tempered his disappointment that his firstborn child was not a son with the choice to treat his eldest daughter like a creature with a mind. He composed a poem about her head, in which he removed the first ringlets from her hair. Margaret began reading Latin at six years old. When she was twelve years old, Margaret began reading Latin and conversing with her father on philosophy and pure mathematics. She would come to describe herself as “the much that calls for more.” At fifteen, this is her daily routine:
After getting up around five in the morning, I walk for about an hour before starting to practice on my piano. We then have breakfast at seven. Next, I read French — Sismondi’s Literature of the South of Europe — till eight; then two or three lectures in Brown’s Philosophy. About half past nine I go to Mr. Perkins’s school, and study Greek till twelve, when, the school being dismissed, I recite, go home, and practise again till dinner, at two. Second, when I’m able to, I will read for two hours in Italian.
Many years later, she would write in response to the frequent criticism of her uncommon drive, often mistaken for arrogance, as women’s confident resolve tends to be:
My environment was one of the most challenging in my life. I had to be realistic and ambitious in order not to lose heart or give up on my passion.
Margaret, a precocious young girl, embarks on an investigation into what makes up the foundation of character. “Nothing more widely distinguishes man from man than energy of will,” she writes in a six-page essay, positing that a conquering will is composed of imagination, perseverance, and “enthusiastic confidence in the future.” But these elements are not weighted equally — she prizes above all perseverance, which fuels the “unwearied climbing and scrambling” toward achievement. “The truly strong of will,” she writes, having lived just over a decade, “returns invigorated by the contest, calmed, not saddened by failure and wiser from its nature.”
Over the next twenty-five years, this teenager animated by what she calls “the all-powerful motive of ambition” would persevere to write the foundational treatise of the women’s emancipation movement, author the most trusted literary and art criticism in the nation, work as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper and the only woman in the newsroom, advocate for prison reform and Negro voting rights, and become America’s first foreign war correspondent. All of this she would accomplish while bedeviled by debilitating chronic pain at the base of her neck — the result of a congenital spinal deformity that made it difficult to tilt her head down in order to write and was often accompanied by acute depression.
Again and again, she would rise to reach for “incessant acts of vigorous beauty,” signing her influential editorials not with her name but with a single star — at first a symbol imbued with deliberate anonymity, designed to disguise the author’s gender and thus avoid any bias as to the article’s credibility, but soon the widely recognized seal of Fuller’s authoritative voice. Literature would be her weapon of choice — “a medium for viewing all humanity, a core around which all knowledge, all experience, all science, all the ideal as well as all the practical in our nature could gather.”
Behind the public face of unprecedented distinction, Fuller would sorrow and struggle for private contentment — the same cerebral tidal force that swept away the barriers of prejudice and convention would end up drowning out her heart. Over and over, she would entangle herself in intellectual infatuations and half-requited loves that fell short of what she most fervently desired: “fulness of being” — the sublime integration of emotion, the intellect, and, as she would come to realize only at the end of her short life, the body. She was equally intent on her own inner journey as much as on the interconnectedness of all things. “I cannot live without mine own particular star,” Fuller wrote when she was the age at which her contemporary Maria Michell discovered the comet that made her America’s first professional female astronomer — “but my foot is on the earth and I wish to walk over it until my wings be grown. I will use my microscope as well as my telescope.”
At twenty-one, Margaret Fuller arrived at her “own particular star” through a transcendent experience she later described as one of eclipsing “the extreme of passionate sorrow” — a revelation that stripped all sense of self and, in that nakedness of being, made her all the more herself.
It is a revelation similar to how psychedelics unlock consciousness without the aid of any other substance.
A revelation the account of which defies, with Fuller’s virtuosity of language, the first of the four features of transcendent experiences — ineffability — that William James formulated a generation later.
In her journal, Fuller recounts being forced to go to church on Thanksgiving Day while feeling “wearied out by mental conflicts, and in a mood of most childish, child-like sadness” — the sorrow of her symphonic potential muted by those tasked with directing her life. Later, she would recall that:
It was a feeling of great power and kindness within me. However, I didn’t know how to recognize them all and it seemed impossible for them to be utilized in my life. I was only one-and-twenty; the past was worthless, the future hopeless; yet… my aspiration seemed very high.
Looking around the pews, this young woman who would later describe herself as having had “no natural childhood” now finds herself envying all the little children. Once liberated from the service, she heads into the fields and walks — almost runs — for hours, under “slow processions of sad clouds… passing over a cold blue sky.” She is unable to contain the thoughts that have seethed for years and have now erupted to the surface:
It seemed I could never return to a world in which I had no place… I could not act a part, nor seem to live any longer.
So she ceases to think and instead observes nature in its irrepressible aliveness — the trees “dark and silent”; the little stream “shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered leaves,” and yet “it did not quite lose itself in the earth.”
With that translucent sweetness it gave off, it was as if it had been unkind on a bitter autumn day. Even then, a light from the sun’s true sphere passed through my thoughts, and has not since left me.
She stops mid-step up the steps to look at how it all began.
What is the secret to my appearance as Margaret Fuller? It is what does this mean? How can I help it? The times and the different ways that this thought was recurrently repeated, I recalled. I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it must do it, — that it must make all this false true… I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the all, and all was mine.
A generation after her, the Canadian psychiatrist and outdoorsman Maurice Bucke would fall under Whitman’s spell and give this type of experience a name in his pioneering model of cosmic consciousness.
Complement with Fuller’s contemporary Coleridge on transcendence in nature and human nature after glimpsing the all in a storm, then leap two centuries forward with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence.
For other excerpts from Figuring, see Elizabeth Peabody (who was the first to recognize Fuller’s genius and stewarded her entry into the Transcendentalist universe) on middle age and the art of self-renewal, Rachel Carson on the ocean and the meaning of life, Charles Darwin on love, loss, and the beautiful banality of survival, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to the love of her life, and the striking story of how Kepler invented science fiction and revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.
Donating = Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.
Subscribe to our newsletter
MarginalianGet a weekly, free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.