Margaret Fuller: Writing and Social Activism in Massachusetts and Italy

July 30, 2021 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Fuller lived here during her early years.

Fireflies, Fourth of July, fireworks, family reunions–the month has flown by–with lots of U.S. memories-in-the-making for me. Meanwhile, I have had little time to think about “All Things Italy.” Earlier in the month, however, a trip to Boston brought Italy immediately to mind. And it wasn’t Boston’s North End, known for its Italian heritage and eateries. The trip was for the American Literature Association conference, where I participated in Margaret Fuller Society events. The Italian trigger was Margaret Fuller. Who is Margaret Fuller, you may ask? And the follow up question, as a Missouri friend recently asked–There’s an organization dedicated to her? 

Yes, there’s a thriving organization dedicated to the study, preservation, and celebration of all things related to Fuller. Her connection to Italy, you’ll see if you look at the Fuller Society webpage or any of the other information readily available about her, is that she lived in Italy for much of the last two years of her short life (1810-50).  

“By Adoption a Citizen of Rome”

Framed poster from an event celebrating Fuller. These words also appear on her memorial stone in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Massachusetts.

Fuller, often labeled the first female “foreign correspondent” from the US to send news home from abroad, did much more than travel to Europe to cover the revolutions of 1848 for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune. Her time in Italy has been romanticized, focusing on her relationship with Giovanni d’Ossoli, with whom she had a child. Ossoli was one of the young revolutionaries known as the Giovine Italia.

Fuller was unmarried and in her mid-thirties—an old maid by 19th-century standards—when she went abroad. Not long after the newly-established Republic of Rome failed in 1849, Fuller and Ossoli fled Italy with their young son. Just outside New York’s harbor, their ship crashed and the three, along with many other passengers, drowned.

Fuller memorial stone at Mt. Auburn Cemetery (photo from Creative Commons)

Unfortunately, this tragic romantic story of Fuller’s time in Italy and the shipwreck washes over so much of the intellectual energy and fervor for social change which drove her abroad. The “fuller” story of Fuller is what Fuller-lovers admire. Among the best accounts is Megan Marshall’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (2013). 

Fuller’s Fervor for Change

From a young age Fuller was driven by curiosity. She absorbed the world around her and the world of books. She excelled at languages—reading and translating Goethe from German. But her mind was never merely in books and in the clouds. As Fuller witnessed women and girls around her who did not have the opportunities she had (as the daughter of a driven, Harvard-educated lawyer and US Congressman), she began to push for change. She advocated for female education, led “Conversations” with women to help them learn, taught in Providence, Rhode Island’s progressive Greene Street school, as well as in Bronson Alcott’s experimental Temple School. 

Alcott, the Transcendentalist father to the more famous author of Little Women, Louisa May, represents the circle of philosophers and social reformers in which Fuller moved in the Boston area. Fuller wrote for and edited the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial–generally associated with her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Fuller’s most famous essay, “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men: Woman versus Women,” appeared there. It was later revised and expanded as Woman in the Nineteenth Century. The texts assert a fluidity of gender roles rather than a strict separation of men’s and women’s spheres. “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman,” Fuller wrote in 1843.  

“There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman,” Fuller wrote in 1843.

Opening page of Fuller’s essay in The Dial, which was expanded to become Woman in the Nineteenth Century (from Creative Commons)

Emerson, like many other men in her circle, admired Fuller’s intellect and energy. He, William Henry Channing, and James Freeman Clarke compiled Fuller’s memoirs soon after her tragic death. As many editors do, they shaped her story as they wished, repressing parts of her story they did not think appropriate for the larger public view—such as her relationship with Ossoli—and the intensity of her relationships with other men. 

Fuller put physical if not emotional distance between herself and Emerson and the Concord, Massachusetts, Transcendentalists, by leaving the area. In New York she began writing on social issues, such as women’s education and the condition of female prison inmates, for Greeley’s Tribune. Before that, when she had traveled “west” to the Great Lakes, she had written in Summer on the Lakes (1844) about women worn down by their physical burdens. Her concerns clearly focused on immediate needs in the world surrounding her. 

Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), From a frontispiece for Woman in the Nineteenth Century (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House Today

These concerns resonated at the conference in Boston earlier this month, as several of us in the Fuller Society took a morning trip across the Charles River to Cambridge (Cambridgeport neighborhood, specifically) to visit the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House (MFNH)–the house where Fuller first lived. The MFNH serves the area through several programs: the Peace Academy, which has been open throughout the Covid pandemic to help parents with their younger children’s online learning; a food pantry; and work preparedness assistance for adults entering (or re-entering) the workforce. 

Sign marking the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House and its foundation in 1902. Timothy Fuller bought the Cambridgeport House on Cherry Street in 1809, a year before his first child, Margaret, was born. The family moved to Old Cambridge in 1825.

The MFNH Director, Dr. Kimberly Massenburg, gave us a tour. Dr. Massenburg brought with her from previous positions in Chicago and Atlanta the vision and energy to grow the programs, which she has done during her less than two years there. Substantial and successful fundraising and increased visibility contribute to the growth. Our time together during a pouring rainstorm associated with Hurricane Elsa moved me to think about how Dr. Massenburg and her staff embody some of the same vibes Fuller carried with her around Cambridge and then elsewhere: in Concord, Providence, New York, and Europe.

Fuller Society members at the end of tour with Dr. Massenburg

You can learn more about the MFNH on the website. And you will be able to read more about Fuller abroad in my forthcoming book Engaging Italy. Her work abroad lays the foundation my discussion of three lesser-known American women who followed their callings in Italy: Emily Bliss Gould, who established an orphanage and industrial school in Rome; Anne Hampton Brewster, who wrote news correspondence from Rome for twenty-five years; and Caroline Crane Marsh, also an advocate for female education in Florence and Rome, who wrote and translated, prompted by her travels as wife of the US Ambassador and environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh. 

All these women found ways to act upon their callings living in the US and then later while living in Italy. They remind us of what reading travel and writing can do to help change individuals and the world for the better. 


The small group trips I have led to Italy with both university students and adults from off campus have focused on learning through travel. We have walked in Fuller’s footsteps, lodging near Rome’s Piazza Barberini, where she lived, and crossed the Tiber to climb the Gianicolo hill above St. Peter’s. In the small church of San Pietro in Montorio about halfway up, we have paused to consider it as a temporary hospital for the Revolution’s wounded soldiers, which Fuller witnessed, nursed, and wrote of. We have learned about ourselves even as we learn about other cultures and their history. Those like Fuller, who have gone before, have an impact on us as we journey. 

I’m thinking now about 2022 trips. I hope you will be thinking, too, and will share with me your interest in learning more about Americans in Italy. 


What’s the difference between this blog and the All Things Italy newsletter? In short, the blogs, published monthly, focus on one item (in this blog, for example, Margaret Fuller). The newsletter, sent quarterly, pulls together travel suggestions, book and/or movie reviews, and more about my latest research and writing.   

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As always, I’m happy to hear from you about your interests in Italy and/or requests for more information. It’s been a joy connecting with so many of you!

Etta Madden