In the late summer of 1846, Margaret Fuller traveled to Europe as the foreign correspondent for the New-York Tribune. This was a trip that she had been planning to take on her own for years, but circumstances concerning her family (especially the sudden death of her father in 1835) had prevented her from doing so earlier. Her trip started with visits to England and Scotland, then she moved on to Paris, and finally to Italy where she would experience the revolutions that took place there in 1848-49.
In The Essential Margaret Fuller, editor Jeffrey Steele has included five of the letters that Fuller wrote to the Tribune during her stay in Europe, and which were in turn published in the paper. These letters were by far my favorite part of the whole book. The first letter (No. XVIII, dated Dec. 1847) is a “Happy New Year” of sorts and Fuller writes about the general feeling in Europe and how it compares (or doesn’t) to America. She also writes about the three types of American tourists she has found overseas most often: the servile American, the conceited American, and the thinking American. That section made me chuckle because she nailed all three of them.
The second letter (No. XXIII, dated March 29, 1848) finds Fuller in Rome, complaining about the rainy Roman winter and how it has affected her health. Although she blames her ill health on the weather there, she was really three months pregnant at the time and didn’t want to make her pregnancy public. This is also the letter in which she starts to write about the revolutions taking place. In 1848, Italy wasn’t a unified country and the states in northern Italy were ruled by Austria. You can click on the link in the first paragraph above for specifics, but basically the Italian people wanted to unify Italy and have a more liberal government, so they were rising up against Austria in an attempt to throw them out.
The last three letters (Dec. 1848, Jul. 1849, Jan. 1850) go on to document the rising violence that took place in Italy as a result of the revolutions. It was a complicated situation which led to the Pope being hated by his people and having to be reinstated in Rome–and protected–by France and Austria. In the end, France and Austria defeated the newly founded Roman Republic, Rome was devastated, and a bunch of oppressive laws were instated in order to try to control the Italian population.
Fuller was living in Rome during all of this; she was right in the thick of it. Even though I was upset by the images brought to mind by her letters, I was also fascinated reading about those revolutions from her first-hand perspective. When France and Austria invaded Rome to reinstate the Pope and break up the Roman Republic, explosions were happening all around her. She saw first hand the death and destruction that occurred in that beautiful city. She experienced the Italian people coming together and rising up against their oppressors and fighting for all they were worth. She felt the heartbreak when some of Rome’s troops were sent out to defend other parts of the country, which left Rome vulnerable to this awful attack. She felt the depression when inflation and other effects of war left the Italian people jobless and destitute. I really was enthralled reading about all of this written by someone who was actually there and who could be somewhat objective about everything that was happening.
She wrote about it so well, too. There was no skimming over anything in this last section of the book, and in fact, I read it twice. I’d like to leave you with the only passage that made me slow down and take the time to make a note. With the Arab Spring that has been taking place overseas and the Occupy movement happening in this country today, I found the following passage highly relevant and prescient. There were revolutions going on all over Europe in 1848, and in this particular passage Fuller is writing about the revolution taking place in France, a year after she had spent some time in Paris:
The news from France, in these days, sounds ominous, though still vague; it would appear that the political is being merged in the social struggle: it is well; whatever blood is to be shed, whatever altars cast down. Those tremendous problems MUST be solved, whatever be the cost! That cost cannot fail to break many a bank, many a heart in Europe, before the good can bud again out of a mighty corruption. To you, people of America, it may perhaps be given to look on and learn in time for a preventive wisdom. You may learn the real meaning of the words FRATERNITY, EQUALITY: you may, despite the apes of the Past, who strive to tutor you, learn the needs of a true Democracy. You may in time learn to reverence, learn to guard, the true aristocracy of a nation, the only real noble–the LABORING CLASSES.
I’d love to know what she would say about the world today…