Trailblazing Writer and Feminist Margaret Fuller on the Social Value of Intellectual Labor and Why Artists Ought to Be Paid
“The circulating medium… is abused like all good things, but without it you would not have had your Horace and Virgil.”
By Maria Popova
By the end of her thirties, Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) — one of the central figures in Figuring — had shaped her young nation’s sensibility in literature and art as founding editor and prolific contributor to the visionary Transcendentalist journal The Dial, advocated for prison reform and African American voting rights as the only woman in a New York newsroom, trekked through war-torn Rome seven months pregnant as America’s first foreign war correspondent, and composed the foundational treatise of American women’s emancipation movement. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would come to admire “the truth and courage in her, rare in woman or man.” Emerson would come to consider her his greatest influence.
Fuller alone among the Transcendentalists left the sanctuary of nature to test her ideas and ideals against the real world. She alone used her work as a journalist and literary artist to bring life as it was being lived a little closer to life as she believed it ought to be lived in a just society — pacing the periphery of Walden Pond while philosophizing is not quite the same thing as marching into prisons, asylums, and orphanages to uncover abuse and incite the public to demand change. She alone relinquished the Transcendentalist disdain for material means as an antithesis to the creative life and the life of the mind, instead insisting that artists and those engaged in intellectual labor ought to get paid the way other laborers do.
With her hard-earned income as a teacher and writer, Fuller had put her brothers through Harvard — an institution closed to her and other women for decades to come. In a letter penned in her thirty-third year, she lovingly exhorted her younger brother:
Even your frugality does not enable you wholly to dispense with the circulating medium you so much despise and whose use, when you have thought more deeply on these subjects, you will find to have been indispensable to the production of the arts, of literature and all that distinguishes civilized man. It is abused like all good things, but without it you would not have had your Horace and Virgil stimulated by whose society you read the woods and fields…
Two years later, Fuller set sail for Europe to report on the Roman Revolution for the New-York Herald Tribune, where she had been working as the first female editor at a major American newspaper. There, she met and fell in love with a young revolutionary, whose baby she bore at the age of thirty-eight in a willow-hedged cottage by a rapid river in the mountains of Italy. That she survived the birth at all was miracle enough for Fuller, whose health had been hazardously frail since childhood, so she was hardly surprised when her body reached its limit and failed to produce milk. As the young father returned to Rome to resume his duties in the Risorgimento, she hired a local wet nurse. Throughout her time in Europe, she had struggled to make ends meet, writing tirelessly for the Tribune for only $10 per column and constantly negotiating various loans and literary advances. Having supported her mother and brothers since her young adulthood, she was now once again the sole breadwinner for a family — for the baby, for the wet nurse and her own infant, and for her partner, who was unemployed and had relinquished support from his father on account of their political differences.
Frugality took on a new meaning for Fuller as she began working on her ambitious chronicle of the Revolution. In the mountain cottage, which she rented for nine dollars a month, she could feast on “a great basket of grapes” for one cent and a day’s worth of figs and peaches for five. She didn’t hesitate to let her brother know, at the end of a three-page letter, that getting a single page to him cost her eighty cents. In another letter to him penned in the first months of her pregnancy, as she was facing the reality of providing for her new makeshift family, Fuller crystallized her sober philosophy of making a living in a life of purpose:
It is not reasonable to expect the world should pay us in money for what we are but for what we can do for it. Society pays in money for the practical talent exerted for its benefit, to the thinker, as such, only the tribute of materials for thought… We cannot have every thing; we cannot have even many things; the choice is only between a better and worser.
Fuller grew convinced that the most she could do for society lay in her chronicle of the revolution she saw as an exalted reach for better over worse, with implications not only for Italy but for the whole of humanity in upholding the ideals of liberty and equality she had long considered vital to human flourishing. And yet, in a letter to her mother penned upon returning to Rome, she articulated a profound recalibration of her sense of contribution:
In earlier days, I dreamed of doing and being much, but now am content with the Magdalen to rest my pleas hereon, “She has loved much.”
Couple with Fuller on what makes a great leader, then revisit Amanda Palmer, invoking another great Transcendentalist, on how artists can learn to ask for support and accept love.
For other excerpts from Figuring, see Emily Dickinson’s love letters, environmental pioneer Rachel Carson’s timeless advice to the next generations, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his neighbor and literary hero Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a stunning astrophysical reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.