Monday, June 26, 2017

Scholar Goes To Rest With Margaret Fuller

Some stuff you just can't make up and the final chapter, perhaps the epilogue, in the life of Marie Olesen Urbanski Whittaker is like that.  This being my blog and all, I'm going to tell it from my point of view, which may seem a bit improbable.

Let's Make A Movie

Some years ago, I became obsessed with the notion that the life of Margaret Fuller needs to be a major motion picture.  My vision of it is as the most romantic tragedy in American history - brilliant young woman associating with iconic intellectuals, smarter than all of them, leading women in discussion of empowerment, authors fundamental feminist text, uses a platform as a literary columnist to examine issues of class race and gender, covers a revolution, marries a man ten years her junior who probably couldn't read her books but worshiped her, participates in a revolution, dies in a tragic shipwreck with her husband and son.

When I first heard about Margaret Fuller in 1972, it was as a marginal literary figure.  Editor of a journal that had a short life and a short print run inspiration for Zenobia in Blithedale Romance.  That was pretty much it.

It took a virtual lifetime of random unsystematic reading focused on the ante-bellum social reform movements for me to rediscover her. Unlike most Margaret Fuller scholars I am much more interested in the Civil War, abolition and the womens rights movement than I am in literature. To many Margaret Fuller is kind of a marginal Transcendentalist.  To me the Transcendentalists, the whole lot of them, are mainly important as a launching platform for Margaret Fuller.

Regardless, my nonliterary background may be why I think the film treatment is so important.  As luck would have it I know  Jonathan Schwartz of Interlock Media.  He convinced me that we needed to do a documentary first.  That and the best bonus I had in my career launched the project which has been going on for quite a while.

The Talent Scout

I mention all this to explain the improbable assignment I had last year.  I was a talent scout for Interlock Media.  Me.  A CPA.  A writer of sorts, but one who writes mostly about taxes.  I count myself among the most literary of the tax bloggers.  I mean check out my coverage of JD Salinger's estate planning problems.  But really not much of a literary person.

At any rate my tax blogging has honed my otherwise pretty good research skills making me not so bad at finding experts in this or that to add color to my stories. We had interviews with two major Fuller biographers already shot and my mission was to find some other scholars.

An Elusive Scholar

One of the more elusive was Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski author of Margaret Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary Study of Form and Content, of Sources and Influence  which was published in 1980.

The work was Professor Urbanski's Ph.D thesis. She had gone after the degree when she was already in her late forties, but still managed to land a position at the University of Maine.  And it was there that she did the thing that really won my heart.  In a site called Walking Tour About UMaine Women, I found:
The university’s “Gender Equity Plan for Athletics” exists to guide UMaine in its continuing efforts to maintain gender equity in its intercollegiate athletics program. We have come a long way since the 1970s when an English professor by the name of Marie Urbanski led a group to demand that women be allowed to use the weight room.

I still couldn't find her though.

I knew Marie had a daughter Wanda Urbanska (the feminine of Urbanski).  Wanda is herself pretty famous.  Among other things she had a series of simple living that ran on PBS

I was having trouble finding her too, but I finally struck gold with a story in the New York Times - Three Generations, Two Comfy Homes a Few Steps Apart

For Ms. Urbanska, a media consultant and author, the economics of shared living have eased some of the financial pressures she faces as a single mother. Together, she and her mother, Marie Whittaker, bought the three-bedroom home for $370,000 last year. They each contributed $60,000 to the down payment, which consumed a considerable portion of their liquid savings, or money that was not tied up elsewhere.
Well - what can you say? Despite being the very model of a second wave feminist, Marie had apparently changed her name again when she remarried.

Hurry Up

From there it was not too hard to get Wanda on the phone.  Wanda was pretty impressed with the depth of my knowledge.  She told me her mother was still quite sharp, although she had some trouble hearing, but if we wanted to film her we shouldn't put it off, because she was pretty old.  Here is the note from our prospect file:
It turns out that Marie is still alive alert and very feisty and outspoken as reported by Wanda who is delighted that we called and impressed by the depth of our research. She was very much involved in her mother's work.
Marie is going strong. Wanda said that she is holding on so that she can vote for the first woman president.
Wanda is also familiar with production and could help with logistics on a North Carolina shoot.
Too Late

Sadly we could not get it together.  Not long after we talked I got a sad email from Wanda
It was so good to speak to you earlier this month about the scholarship of my mother, Marie Olesen Urbanski Whittaker, on Margaret Fuller. I had indicated that you should move quickly if you were planning to film her, but I didn't realize how quickly she would go. She died on Oct. 24.
Wanda included links to obituaries in the Raleigh News & Observer  and The Mount Airy News.  Best though was the story Wanda wrote for Glamour - The Last Thing My Mother Did Before She Died Was Vote For Hillary Clinton.  They have early voting in North Carolina, which Marie took advantage of. As Wanda relates it:
This Monday afternoon, when I returned from the post office, receipt in hand, I stepped into the bedroom where Mama was barely hanging on.
"Did Hillary make it?" she asked once more, her words trailing, her voice almost inaudible. Looking at the fading light in her eyes, as her boney hand stretched out from her hospice bed, I considered how to respond. Do I tell her the truth? Hillary's poll numbers are looking positive, but the election is not in the bag.
"Yes, Mama," I told her. "Hillary made it."
It was what Marie Urbanski Whittaker had been waiting for her entire life. Within minutes, she was gone.
The post went viral and is pretty well known, although it is little noted that the story was about a pioneer Margaret Fuller scholar.  I found that out a few months later.

Independent Scholar And Margaret Fuller Fan Boy

By May Interlock had a fifteen minute version of the documentary ready.  I had moved from talent scouting to finding images and quotations.  A delightful part of that process was rereading Margaret Fuller Ossoli by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. You literary types will think of Higginson as a bad guy in the Emily Dickinson story whose reputation was helped by the recent White Heat.

Somebody like me though is a lot more interested in his role as one of John Brown's Secret Six and commander of the First South Carolina Volunteers (33rd United States Colored Troops).  It was Higginson's biography that drove home the Margaret Fuller story to me.
And as for Margaret Ossoli, her life seems to me, on the whole, a triumphant rather than a sad one, in spite of the prolonged struggle with illness, with poverty, with the shortcomings of others and with her own. In later years she had the fulfillment of her dreams; she had what Elizabeth Barrett, writing at the time of her marriage to Robert Browning, named as the three great desiderata of existence, “life and love and Italy.” She shared in great deeds, she was the counselor of great men, she had a husband who was a lover, and she had a child. They loved each other in their lives, and in their death they were not divided. Was not that enough?
At any rate the fifteen minute version of the documentary was shown at the American Literature Association conference.  Lacking any academic affiliation my ID badge denominated me an "Independent Scholar", which struck me as a little grandiose.

At Margaret Fuller's Home

There was a meeting of the Margaret Fuller Society  scheduled to coincide with the conference with a bus to take us from the conference in Copley Square to the Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House.  Margaret's childhood home in what was then called Cambridgeport has been a community center since early in the twentieth century (Thomas Wentworth Higginson, kind of the last of the Transcendentalists, was there at its original dedication).

As I talked to various Fuller scholars at the conference I found that although most of them were familiar with Marie's work, none of them seem to know her.  This is not entirely shocking.  She retired around the time that the Margaret Fuller Society was founded twenty five years ago.  And few were aware of her connection to the Glamor story.

So I ended up having the honor of making a little presentation on her at the meeting.  I of course included the story about the weight room.  If I didn't say "let them be weight lifters, if you will", I should have, so let's just say I did.  I concluded with something to the effect that she had gone to a better place where we have a different president.

One of the members dubbed me a Margaret Fuller fan boy and I think I might use that if I ever go to ALA again, but it gets better.

Resting With Margaret Fuller

I let Wanda know about the event and she was really pleased and then she asked if we could meet up.  She was going to be hanging out at Logan Airport to meet up with her sister to go to a wedding on Martha's Vineyard.

We worked it out and she met with me, Jonathan and one of his interns.  We were able to show her the fifteen minutes on one of our computers and had a great dinner.  Most interesting was that she had Marie with her.  Her ashes that is.  Jonathan figured she was going to divide them with her sister.  But that was not the plan.

Wanda and her sister, Jane Robbins, had a road trip planned.  After the Vineyard wedding, they were off to Fire Island where they would scatter Marie's ashes.  You and I both know that is where the Elizabeth went down with Margaret Fuller and her husband and son, but you have to consider the other readers.

I asked Wanda how it went and she wrote me:
We scattered the vast majority of Mama's ashes off of Fire Island, as was her lifelong wish. We saved a smattering of ashes to scatter in Seneca Falls, NY, at the base of the monument to those who organized the Women's Rights Convention.

Peter J Reilly CPA, Independent Scholar, Margaret Fuller Fan Boy is looking forward to the full length documentary and the feature length biopic that is sure to follow.  Tom Hanks will narrate as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, but we still don't know who should play Margaret Fuller..


  1. Peter, I am moved by this blog and your fair, caring and detailed account of Mama and her contributions. Thank you so much for having written this. I will share widely. All best, Wanda

  2. Thanks. I bet she is proud of all that you have achieved.

  3. So many amazing threads here -- Margaret Fuller and the connection with two modern feminists, Marie Whittaker and Wanda Urbanska -- all worth a deeper look.

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  5. I would love to see a movie/documentary made on the subject. Marie Whittaker would be so honored to know her lifes passion and ambition was being recognized.

  6. Peter, you have beautifully woven together the legacy of two brilliant women's rights activists. I knew Marie personally and she was a tireless, passionate advocate who has left an indelible mark on me as she has with so many others along her life's journey. Margaret Fuller and her impact on civic engagement and communities influenced my work in affordable housing. These two women would make a very interesting film. thank you for your rememberance and dedication to them both.

    1. As it happens a lot my career was focused on affordable housing. The initial involvement was not at all idealistic but it grew on me as time went on.

  7. What a wonderfully told story of three generations of inspirational, remarkable women and their unique contributions to women's rights and more broadly, a more just and tolerant world -- a story certainly worthy of both a documentary and feature film!

  8. I met Marie about 9 years ago or so. She was feisty and bossy and independent at an elderly age, so I cannot even imagine her ferocity as a young women. I loved her dearly as she reminded me somewhat of my own grandmother. We had a special bond that is hard to describe. I think it was just two strong women from different generations that got each other. While we didn't agree on all topics, we agreed to disagree. I drive by her mountain house and always smile at her memory. My heart was called to her in her last days, but I resisted going to see her. I kick myself regularly for not going to visit. But she knew I loved her, and I'm sure she's up there bossing around anyone that will listen. She'd be so pleased to know her women's activist stances are being praised and shared with future generations. Thank you for including her in your work!!

  9. My name is Susan Anthony and I grew up minutes from the
    Susan B Anthony home (Rochester NY), yet, astonishingly, though I went to an all girls High School in Rochester in the early 1970s, we barely heard peep about the suffragette, or any women and politics and economic power issues.

    I am just this last decade ramping up firey passion for the profound shoulders we alive today stand on. Much gratitude for this article. I love lifting weights! .