When a Poet Tragically Dies: The story of Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Nineteenth century poet Margaret Fuller died in a tragic way in 1850. And it was the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson who was perhaps most devastated by the loss. Here Edward J. Vinski looks at the fascinating relationship between them and what happened after Fuller’s passing.

Margaret Fuller

“On Friday, 19 July, Margaret dies on the rocks of Fire Island Beach within sight of & within 60 rods of the shore. To the last her country proves inhospitable to her.” (Emerson, 1850/1982, p. 511)

The Margaret to whom Ralph Waldo Emerson referred is Margaret Fuller, a writer and poet associated with American transcendentalism in the nineteenth century. Born in 1810, Fuller was educated under her father’s direction. Timothy Fuller’s tutelage was both intense and, in its own way, fortuitous. He began her instruction in Latin when she was but six years of age. Her lessons would last throughout the day, and young Margaret was often sent to bed overtaxed and unable to sleep. In spite of the nausea, bad dreams and headaches she incurred, Margaret appreciated that he held her to the same standards to which he would have held a son (Richardson, 1995).

Although they had mutual friends, Fuller and Emerson did not meet until the summer of 1836 when Fuller paid a three-week visit to the Emerson home in Concord, Massachusetts. Prior to this, she had attended some of Emerson’s talks and had wished to meet him for some time, but it was only after he read her translation of Goethe’s Taso that Emerson returned the interest and offered her the long-awaited invitation (Richardson, 1995). Thus began a relationship between the two that would have a profound effect on both of them.

Fuller and Emerson

Richardson (1995) has remarked that “Fuller took less from Emerson than either Thoreau or Whitman, and she probably gave him more than either of them” (p. 239-240). Perhaps more than any person other than his deceased first wife, Ellen, Fuller knew best how to pierce the armor of his innermost life. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the fact that following their initial meeting, Emerson finished his book Nature which had been drifting toward theoretical idealism. Fuller, according to Richardson (1995), pushed him toward an “idealism that is concerned with ideas only as they can be lived […] with the spiritual only when it animates the material” (p. 240).

Fuller, however, took from Emerson as well.  “From him,” she wrote, “I first learned what is meant by an inward life” (Fuller, n.d., as cited in in Bullen, 2012, Chapter V, para 4). She had long searched for an intellectual mentor and by the time of her first visit to Emerson, she was fearful that she may never find one. In Emerson, she found someone with whom she could share her ideas as well as her intimacies. As their relationship developed, however, it became clear that she was requiring even more from Emerson. Since no written record of her requests survive, precisely what she asked of him is difficult to discern. Although married, he was clearly conflicted by his feelings for her. In his journal, he confessed that she was someone “Whom I always admire, most revere and sometimes love” (Emerson, 1841/1914, p. 167), and in a later entry recorded a nighttime river walk with her. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Emerson’s second wife, Lydian, saw Fuller as a threat (Allen, 1981).

After editing The Dial, a transcendentalist magazine, for several years, Fuller left America for Europe in the summer of 1846 as a correspondent for the New York Tribune. After some time in England, she relocated to Italy with her husband, Giovani Ossoli[1], a marquis who supported the Italian revolution. Fuller and her husband both took an active role in the revolution, and she chronicled its events in a book she had hoped to publish. When the revolt finally failed, the family, which now included a young son, was forced to return to America. Their ship, the Elizabeth, met with bad luck almost immediately. At Gibraltar, the captain died of smallpox, leaving the ship under the direction of its first mate. In the early morning of July 19, 1850, the ship ran aground on a sandbar a few hundred meters off Fire Island, NY. The following day, Margaret Fuller, her husband, and her child drowned when the ship broke up.

Thoreau’s Mission

News of the disaster reached Concord some days later. On or about July 21, Emerson made the journal entry indicated above. In a letter to Marcus Spring, dated July 23, Emerson wrote:

At first, I thought I would go myself and see if I could help in the inquiry at the wrecking ground and act for the friends. But I have prevailed on my friend, Mr Henry D. Thoreau, to go for me and all the friends. Mr Thoreau is the most competent person that could be selected and […] he is authorized to act for them all (Emerson, 1850/1997, p. 385).

Emerson doubted that any manuscripts would have survived the wreck, but knowing that Fuller would have had with her the manuscript to her History of the Italian Revolution, he was willing to pay whatever costs Thoreau might incur in his attempt to salvage it.

Thoreau, for his part, set out immediately. On July 25, he wrote to Emerson describing what details he had learned of the disaster:

…the ship struck at ten minutes after four A.M., and all hands, being mostly in their nightclothes, made haste to the forecastle, the water coming in at once […] The first man got ashore at nine; many from nine to noon. At flood tide, about half past three o’clock, when the ship broke up entirely, they came out of the forecastle, and Margaret sat with her back to the foremast, with her hands on her knees, her husband and child already drowned. A great wave came and washed her aft. The steward had just before taken her child and started for shore. Both were drowned (Thoreau, 1850/1958a, p. 262).

Margaret Fuller’s remains and those of her husband were never found. Her son’s body washed ashore, dead but still warm. A desk, a trunk, and a carpet bag were recovered from the scene, but none of Margaret’s valuable papers were found. Thoreau promised to do what he could, holding out some hope that, since a significant part of the wreckage remained where the ship ran aground, some items might still be salvaged, but it is clear that he was not confident.

In a letter to abolitionist and future Senator Charles Sumner, whose brother Horace was also aboard, Thoreau wrote

I saw on the beach, four or five miles west of the wreck, a portion of a human skeleton, which was found the day before, probably from the Elizabeth, but I have not knowledge enough of anatomy to decide confidently, as many might, whether it was that of a male or a female (Thoreau, 1850/1958b, p. 263).[2]

After visiting nearby Patchogue, New York, where many of those who scavenged the wreckage instead of attempting a rescue were thought to reside, he returned to Fire Island empty handed.

In all, Thoreau’s mission was unproductive. “I have visited the child’s grave,” he wrote to Emerson. “Its body will probably be taken away today” (Thoreau, 1850/1958, p. 262). The corpse of her son, a few insubstantial papers, and a button pried from her husband’s jacket by Thoreau himself were essentially Margaret Fuller’s only relics that would return to Massachusetts.


The relationship between Emerson and Margaret Fuller is enigmatic. She was not only his intellectual equal, but their interactions suggest “an only slightly erotic relationship, about which he clearly fretted” (Sacks, 2003, p. 51). Although Emerson’s life had been scarred by the losses of many loved ones, Fuller’s death clearly devastated him on many levels. The intellectual impact is obvious in a journal entry around the time of her death. “I have lost in her my audience,” he wrote (Emerson, 1850, p. 512). No longer would the two be able to exchange ideas with one another. It impacted him socially as well.  “She bound in the belt of her sympathy and friendship all whom I know and love,” (p. 511) he wrote. Perhaps he wondered what would happen now that the belt had been broken. But was there, in fact, something deeper? “Her heart, which few knew, was as great as her mind, which all knew,” (Emerson, 1850, p. 511-512). Emerson clearly knew her heart more intimately than most.

Why did Emerson dispatch Thoreau to Fire Island and not go himself as he had initially planned? Ostensibly, he wanted to begin work, at once, on a memorial book in Fuller’s honor. We may, however, speculate that there were deeper reasons as well. Years earlier, Emerson had opened the coffin of his first wife, Ellen, who had died of tuberculosis fourteen months before. While he gave no explanation for his action, it seems that he needed to view her decomposing corpse to somehow convince himself of the soul’s immortality (Richardson, 1995). This event marked a turning point in his life. His focus shifted from death to life, from the material to the ideal.

The death of Margaret Fuller marked another profound turn. Ellen’s death due to illness, while tragic, was predictable. Fuller’s death was unexpected, and he would struggle mightily to recover from it. He became acutely aware of his own mortality. “I hurry now to my work admonished that I have few days left,” he wrote (Emerson, 1850/1982, p. 512). Fuller, who had pushed Emerson to focus on the spiritual as it animates the material was now, herself, inanimate. Emerson might well have stayed in Concord because he somehow sensed that the trip would be fruitless. It might also be that he could not bear the thought of once again standing over the lifeless body of a woman he loved.


Years later, a small monument to Margaret Fuller was erected on the Fire Island beach not far from the wreck site. It stood as a memorial to a remarkable woman for 10 years. Then, it too was claimed by the sea (Field, n.d.).

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