PASS THE TEA AND CHIVALRY

Intimacy unripened

Stephen Bates

Born in 1810, the pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller broke one glass ceiling after another. In 1837, she was the first woman admitted to the circle of the New England Transcendentalists, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. In 1840, she was the first woman to edit a highbrow American journal, The Dial. In 1843, she was the first woman granted permission to use the Harvard College library. And in 1844, she was the first woman to join the newsroom of The New-York Tribune.

“Not one man, in the million, shall I say? no, not in the hundred million, can rise above the belief that Woman was made for Man,” Fuller wrote in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). But her new employer was one of those rare men. Tribune editor Horace Greeley “felt no challenge to his own authority from Margaret’s strong will,” the historian Megan Marshall writes in Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). “Instead, he admired her for it.”

Emerson thought Fuller was slumming by writing for the masses. She disagreed. After having spent years in “the depths” of literature, she wrote, “an abode of some length in the shallows may do me no harm.” Emerson also looked down his nose at Greeley, “no scholar” but a mere “mother of men.” Fuller, though, respected her boss for his “go-ahead, fearless adroitness.”

For his part, Greeley highly regarded Fuller’s intellect, her prose, and her courage — she wrote without regard to “what odium it might draw down on her own head,” he said. Nonetheless, he characterized their relationship as one of “friendly antagonism,” especially during her first months in New York, when she lived with him and his family. Fuller claimed that she could write only when inspired, a notion Greeley dismissed as “absurd.” He disapproved of her diet, too. When Fuller complained of a headache, he said it was no doubt brought on by her addiction to strong tea. She replied that she would prefer not to be lectured at the breakfast table.

More substantively, the two disagreed about the implications of equal rights for women. Greeley wrote that he “heartily acceded” to Fuller’s demand that all professions be open to both sexes. He also believed that men and women should be social equals: “So long as a lady shall deem herself in need of some gentleman’s arm to conduct her properly out of a dining or ballroom . . . I cannot see how the ‘Woman’s Rights’ theory is ever to be anything more than a logically defensible abstraction.” Fuller, however, expected precisely such chivalry. When she would wait for him to offer an arm or open a door, Greeley would recite a passage from Woman in the Nineteenth Century: “Let them be sea-captains if they will!” The practice, Greeley acknowledged, “did not tend to ripen our intimacy.”

In 1846, Fuller left New York to travel through Europe. For a time, she continued to write for the Tribune — the first female foreign correspondent for a major American newspaper. On her voyage back to the United States in 1850, her ship ran aground in a storm off New York’s Fire Island. The captain and some crewmembers and passengers struggled through heavy surf and reached the shore, but Fuller didn’t know how to swim. In the days that followed, Greeley, Thoreau, and others searched for her body and, equally important, her newly completed book manuscript. A week after the accident, partial and mangled human remains washed ashore; they may or may not have been Fuller’s. The manuscript was never found.

In the Tribune, Greeley published a tribute untainted by antagonism, friendly or otherwise. “A great soul has passed from this mortal stage of being,” he wrote, and added, “America has produced no woman who in mental endowments and acquirements has surpassed Margaret Fuller.”

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