Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Margaret Fuller

Detail of group portrait engraving showing woman looking down seated next to man looking in profile right
Margaret Fuller, seated next to Richard Henry Dana Sr. Detail from "Authors of the United States," engraved by Alexander Hay Ritchie after Thomas Hicks, 1865.

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Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), a contemporary of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), was also one of his most vocal critics. In recent years Fuller has drawn significant interest. For decades dismissed as a somewhat antagonistic friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson or minor Transcendentalist, she has since taken her place as an important figure of women’s history, literature, reform movements, and literary criticism.

Sarah Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, now the far eastern part of Cambridge itself, in a home still standing which now serves as the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House. She was rigorously educated by her Congressman father Timothy Fuller and somewhat erratically also attended private schools; For a brief period, one of her classmates was young Oliver Wendell Holmes, the future poet and professor. For a brief period between September 1831 and April 1833, young Margaret (she refused to go by her first name “Sarah” as of age 9 ) lived on Brattle Street at the former William Brattle House.1 Only a few years later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would move to the same street.

After a brief stint as a teacher in Providence, Rhode Island, Fuller returned to the Boston area and, beginning in November 1839, she began her series of “Conversations.”2 These informal gatherings intended to make up for the lack of access to higher education for women. For pay, Fuller led discussions on fine arts, history, mythology, literature, and nature.3 Among those in attendance was Maria White, who would marry Longfellow’s neighbor James Russell Lowell five years later. These gatherings were held most often at the West Street bookstore operated by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, soon to become Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister-in-law.

Peabody’s bookstore also produced The Dial, a literary journal intended as a showpiece for the Transcendentalists and their movement. Under the direction of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fuller served as the journal’s first editor. Longfellow was a subscriber from the outset–his bound copies are still in the collection today–though he himself was never a Transcendentalist.4 The journal reviewed his book Poems on Slavery with moderate praise, though it is unclear who wrote the review.5

Fuller also translated, particularly the work of German writer Johann von Goethe–a man Longfellow admired enough to have a statuette of him standing on his writing desk. Longfellow was at least aware of Fuller’s work and acknowledged her translation of Johann Peter Eckerman’s Conversations with Goethe, though his notes imply he did not know the translator personally.6 The future Mrs. Longfellow, Fanny Appleton, was also familiar with Fuller’s writings on Goethe. In 1839, she wrote to a friend, “Miss Fuller’s Conversations with Goethe I have also been enlightening myself with,” though she admitted it was “hard to read.”7 Not long before her marriage to Longfellow, Appleton also attended a party that also included Fuller: “I had an amusing peep at the Transcendental strata,” she wrote in January 1842. As she recalled: “Miss Fuller and Emerson sat like old philosophers in the groves, each with a swarm of disciples as a halo.”8

Women on Woman

In addition to her editorship of The Dial and, later, her work as a critic and journalist, Fuller’s contribution to literary history rests on two books: Summer on the Lakes (1844) and Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). The former is a travelogue about a visit to the Great Lakes region, and the latter is now considered to be among the first significant books on feminist thought in American history.9

The book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is, by today’s standards, hardly radical. In it, She Fuller argues that women should have equal freedom over their own lives, and suggesteds that women should be educated, work for a living, and define themselves by their own accomplishments beyond their associations with men–and she used various female figures from history and folklore to prove the potential for success.

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man. Were this done and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres would ensue. Yet, then and only then, will mankind be ripe for this, when inward and outward freedom for woman as much as for man shall be acknowledged as a right, not yielded as a concession.10

Not all women agreed with her assessments. Among her detractors was Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, who had previously attended Fuller’s conversations prior to her marriage to Nathaniel Hawthorne. As she wrote of the book, “The impression it left was disagreeable. I did not like the tone of it—& did not agree with her at all about the change in woman's outward circumstances... Neither do I believe in such a character of man as she gives. It is altogether too ignoble... I think Margaret speaks of many things that should not be spoken of.”11 No copy of the book exists in the Longfellow collection and it is unclear if anyone in the family read it.

Fuller’s criticism of Longfellow

When critic Edgar Allan Poe launched a series of well-publicized critiques of poetry in general and Longfellow in particular, several other critics chose sides. Poe’s major point of attack was that Longfellow was a plagiarist. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley encouraged Fuller to get involved, though she was initially reticent to do so.12 She admitted that the type of poetry he wrote was not one with which she had much sympathy. Not surprisingly, then, Fuller’s review of Longfellow was not very positive. Fuller admitted in the beginning of her review that she might have felt the need to be so harsh in order to balance what she perceived as unmerited praise which was then raining down on Longfellow. She suggested that publishers had paid “undiscerning reviewers” to puff his reputation (a practice not uncommon at the time), and. She wondered if his popularity was due to this excessive and unwarranted acclaim:

We must confess to a coolness toward Mr. Longfellow, in consequence of the exaggerated praises that have been bestowed upon him. When we see a person of moderate powers receive honors which should be reserved for the highest, we feel somewhat like assailing him and taking from him the crown which should be reserved for grander brows. And yet this is, perhaps, ungenerous…13

Further, she backed Poe in his accusation of Longfellow as a plagiarist. In the context of the period, this meant that he was an imitator who, lacking in originality, relied on the works of others for inspiration:

Mr. Longfellow has been accused of plagiarism. We have been surprised that any one should have been anxious to fasten special charges of this kind upon him, when we had supposed it so obvious that the greater part of his mental stores were derived from the work of others. He has no style of his own growing out of his own experiences and observation of nature. Nature with him, whether human or external, is always seen through the windows of literature.14

She did not believe Longfellow’s borrowings were willful but, instead, a result of his substantial scholarship and lack of originality. “It is his misfortune that other men’s thoughts are so continually in his head as to overshadow his own,” she surmised. She did admit that Longfellow was capable of great poetry – if only he would allow himself to be moved emotionally, rather than to be so exacting in his crafting of verse. “Twenty years hence when he stands upon his own merits,” she predicted, “he will rank as a writer of elegant, if not always accurate taste, of great imitative power, and occasional felicity in an original way, where his feelings are really stirred.”15

She included this criticism in her 1846 book Papers on Literature and Art.16 The poet himself was very aware of the review. “Miss Fuller makes a furious onslaught upon me in The New York Tribune,” he wrote in his journal two days after the article was published. He dismissed it as a bad-tempered, “bilious attack.”17

The “attack,” if it was one, was thorough. As Longfellow biographer Charles Calhoun summed up, “Longfellow had never lacked critics – no one has ever done so thorough a job on him as Margaret Fuller did in the 1840s.”18 She did, however, offer good examples of his work, including one memorable stanza from “The Day is Done.” She ultimately concludes her review somewhat positively: “Mr. Longfellow has a genuine respect for his pen, never writes carelessly, nor when he does not wish to, nor for money alone… But still let us not forget – Excelsior!!”19

Longfellow scholar Christoph Irmscher suggests that Fuller’s criticisms were partly inspired by uneasiness over the poet’s appeal to broad classes of audiences.20 Such an assessment is an odd one, however, and implies Fuller considered herself an elitist. In fact, she appealed to the learned class in her writings while still visiting condemned prostitutes in prison. More likely, she, just as Poe often did, was offering a type of excessive criticism bordering on satire to balance the excessive praise bordering on insincere that other critics were publishing. Incidentally, both Poe and Fuller, in part due to their vitriolic assessment of Longfellow, also earned an enemy in fellow Cambridge poet James Russell Lowell.

Her Tragic Death

Not long after her review of Longfellow, Fuller moved to Italy. After some time there, Fuller (now Marchesa Ossoli) was returning to the United States with her husband and infant son in July 1850 when the boat on which they were sailing hit a sandbar. All three members of the family were presumed drowned in the shipwreck, though they were within sight of shore. Only the baby–Angelino–was found; he was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery with a cenotaph that commemorates all three. Also on board was Horace Sumner, brother to Senator Charles Sumner, one of Longfellow’s closest friends. “What a sad tragedy is the wreck of the Elisabeth,” wrote Fanny Longfellow. “The poor Marchioness’ fate is in keeping with her romantic history, but very sad for her mother & friends.”21 Her husband noted, “What a calamity! A singular woman for New England to produce; original and somewhat self-willed; but full of talent and full of work. A tragic end to a somewhat troubled and romantic life.”22

The tragedy elevated Fuller’s celebrity status. Greeley hoped to take immediate advantage and contacted Emerson about publishing a biography “before the interest excited by her sad decease has passed away.”23 Ultimately, the two-volume book was a collaborative effort by Fuller’s friends Emerson, William Henry Channing, and James Freeman Clarke. The Longfellows read this book not long after its publication. “It is deeply interesting,” wrote Fanny Longfellow, “& shows forth a woman of nobler heart & brain than I had supposed. There was so much distasteful in her manners we evidently did her no justice, though her friends were of the most devoted kind.”24 The two volumes of the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli remain in the collection today, signed by Henry W. Longfellow.25


1. Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life: The Private Years (New York: Oxford University press, 1992), 119–120. Joan Von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 10.
2. Abby Slater, In Search of Margaret Fuller (New York: Delacorte Press, 1978), 43.
3. Philip F. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 134.
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5. See Samuel Longfellow, ed., Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), Volume I, 425.
6. Henry Longfellow referred to her as “A Miss Fuller” in his letter to George Washington Greene, July 23, 1839. See Samuel Longfellow, ed., Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), Volume I, 327.
7. Letter, Fanny Appleton to Emmeline Austin, June 19, 1839, in the Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow (1817-1861) Papers, 1825-1961 (LONG 20257), Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters NHS.
8. Letter, Fanny Appleton to Emmeline Austin, January 2, 1842, quoted in Edward Wagenknecht, ed., Mrs. Longfellow: Selected Journals and Letters of Fanny Appleton Longfellow (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1956), 81.
9. Joan Von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 166.
10. Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Greeley & McElrath, 1845), 26.
11. Edwin Haviland Miller, Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 235.
12. See Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 226.
13. Margaret Fuller, At Home and Abroad (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, 1856), 119, quoted in Paula Blanchard, Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1987), 233. Originally published in the New York Daily Tribune, December 10, 1845.
14. ibid.
15. See Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 226.
16. See Margaret Fuller, Papers on Literature and Art (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846), 150-159. The book also includes her essay on “Modern Drama,” which briefly refers to Longfellow’s The Spanish Student.
17. Journal, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, December 11, 1845, quoted in Samuel Longfellow, ed., Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), Volume II, 26.
18. Charles C. Calhoun, Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 253.
19. Fuller would not survive to see Longfellow’s retirement form Harvard to become a professional poet in 1854.
20. See Christoph Irmscher, Public Poet, Private Man: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at 200 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 2.
21. Letter, Fanny Longellow to Harriot Sumner Appleton, July 24, 1850, in the Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow (1817-1861) Papers, 1825-1961 (LONG 20257), Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters NHS.
22. Journal, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, July 23, 1850, quoted in Samuel Longfellow, ed., Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886), Volume II, 173.
23. Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 340.
24. Letter, Fanny (Appleton) Longfellow to Emmeline (Austin) Wadsworth, February 18, 1852, in the Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow (1817-1861) Papers, 1825-1961 (LONG 20257), Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters NHS.
25. LONG 10426-7

Longfellow House Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site

Last updated: March 24, 2023