Probably a better question is: Why did I write my long narrative poem Stranger in My Own Land about her? An even better question is: Why write poetry at all when the audience for poetry is small? The answer to both questions is because I wanted to.
Margaret Fuller, who was born in 1810 and drowned tragically in 1850, was an early American feminist and the first woman journalist to work as a foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune newspaper. Mary Wollstonecraft, the British feminist, is known for her groundbreaking work A Vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792, and Margaret Fuller deserves to be as well known as Wollstonecraft.
I care about Fuller because of her similarly important feminist manifesto Women in the Nineteenth Century published in 1845, and because she recounted her travels to Illinois, my native state, in her book Summer on the Lakes in 1843, in which she described how the country looked before it was heavily populated. She visited places familiar to me, such as the Rock River and Eagle’s Nest where Blackhawk’s statue now stands. Fuller traveled overland in a covered wagon from Chicago, a town of a few thousand, to the Rock River Valley. In her rambles through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan she encountered Potawatomi and Ojibwe people, bearing witness to the devastation caused by white settlement.
Margaret Fuller belonged to the circle of prominent New England transcendentalists, enjoying a close friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson over the course of fifteen years, even spending weeks at a time as his house guest in Concord, Massachusetts. I connected with her story on a cerebral and emotional level to the extent that I felt compelled to have Margaret Fuller recount her life in her own voice. Aboard the Elizabeth, homeward bound from Italy, she begins with her girlhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and ends as he she goes down in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.
Doubtless, if she had survived, she would have participated with Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, in October of 1850. She would have assumed an important role in the literary, intellectual, and political life of the nation. During her three years in Europe she had met such luminaries as Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, George Sand, Joseph Mazzini, and Elizabeth and Robert Browning. She had come to realize in the ferment of the Italian independence movement that the education of women alone would not produce change. Women’s liberation required radical social reform.
Like other nineteenth-century women educated by their fathers, she was frustrated that women could not serve in a public position and struggled to find an avenue to use her talents in a male-dominated society. Emerson gave her opportunity when he enlisted her to serve as editor of The Dial. She held what she called “Conversations,” regular meetings where women gathered to discuss issues, philosophical ideas, and literary topics. As a columnist for the New York Tribune, she reported on prostitution, women’s prisons, and Irish immigrants – as well as reviewing cultural events and books.
These remarkable facts make for a fascinating biography of one woman’s struggle to forge a place during a period when women were supposed to use what education they had to become better wives and mothers. But primarily I wrote my verse-novel because I have felt divorced from my native country just as Margaret Fuller often did. She used the word stranger to express her feeling of being out of the mainstream. She wanted her life to have purpose and meaning, while at the same time she had to acknowledge her own sexuality and desire for motherhood. Too often the men she loved did not want to marry a brainy woman.
If she, a woman born before her time, had lived, she would have continued to be a stranger in her own land. Shipwrecked on a sand bar, Margaret Fuller was forbidden re-entry into the land of her birth.
The image of Margaret Fuller is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.