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Margaret Fuller, Pioneering Feminist Author and Journalist

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The 19th century writer and journalist Margaret Fuller was brilliant, bold, feminist, and on her way to making a mark on par with her famous friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau when both her final manuscript and her life were lost in a tragic accident.

Born on May 23, 1810, in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, Fuller was destined for greatness. The first-born of an ambitious lawyer, she was educated at the same level as boys of her social standing, and barred from wasting her time on the books of etiquette and romance typically given to girls. She later wrote of her father, "He hoped to make me the heir of all he knew."

Fuller could read by age 4, write by 6, and grew to be a voracious bookworm comfortable with both Greek and Latin. This made her a misfit among her peers, who often saw her as a pompous know-it-all. But Fuller eventually blossomed in Cambridge and in Harvard's culture of intellectualism, which inspired and embraced her. There, her wit and outspoken nature were largely valued over her marital prospects or looks.

American colleges did not yet accept female students, so further education was no option for this highly intelligent young woman. No matter. She'd begun drafting a biography of Goethe, and even taught herself German to better research his writings. But her father's unexpected death from cholera spurred the then 25-year-old Fuller to take work as teacher, so she might help support her widowed mother and younger siblings. Teaching led her to Boston and Providence, where she made friends who shared her passion for philosophy. Among these pals was Emerson, who famously described Fuller's company as "like being set in a large place. You stretch your limbs & dilate to your utmost size." 

By 1840, Fuller was writing and editing Emerson's transcendentalist journal The Dial. Her reputation in New England's intellectual community grew thanks to both this effort and the "conversations" (popular public discussions on art and female empowerment) that she hosted in the posh homes of Boston's intellectual elite from 1839 to 1844. These “conversations” drew the notice of New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who hired Fuller as a literary critic for his newspaper, which was then on its way to becoming one of the most-read in the nation. But Fuller's greatest success was yet to come. // Public Domain

In 1845, Fuller made history with Woman in the Nineteenth Century, often considered the first major feminist work published in the United States. This groundbreaking book began as a series of Dial essays called "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," where Fuller argued that men and women must see each other as equals before they can transcend to divine love. Fuller reasoned that ignoring our commonality was the base of much of America's sins, from the slaughter of Native Americans to the slavery of African-Americans. 

While her unapologetic politics ruffled the feathers of critics like poet Rufus Wilmot Griswold and soon-to-be Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Woman in the Nineteenth Century won praise from some of Fuller's most respected colleagues.

Thoreau heralded her accessible style, writing: "Miss Fuller's is a noble piece—rich, extempore writing, talking with pen in hand." And Edgar Allan Poe—a fearsome literary critic in his own right—declared Woman in the Nineteenth Century's politics "unmitigated radicalism," yet called her a "genius" and proclaimed: "[It's] a book which few women in the country could have written, and no woman in the country would have published, with the exception of Miss Fuller … I need scarcely say that the essay is nervous, forcible, thoughtful, suggestive, brilliant, and to a certain extent scholar-like."

Between her work for the Tribune and her book, Fuller had emerged as America's most respected female intellectual. But the time was ripe for a new adventure, and in 1846 she traveled to England and France, becoming the first female American foreign correspondent. During this time, she befriended Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle and French novelist Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known by her masculine pen name George Sand. The following year, Fuller became America's first female combat reporter, heading south to cover the Italian revolutions. There, she fell in with the Italian Independence movement, publishing stories from their base while helping out at their hospitals. And she fell for the dashing aristocrat revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. 

Giovanni Angelo Ossoli,Harvard University, via // Public Domain

Theirs was a romance that rocked the New England intellectual elite for several reasons. For one thing, Fuller's love life was littered with "amorous friendships"-turned-heartbreaks. Often jilted, she'd lamented that no man nor woman could appreciate both her "woman's heart" and "man's ambition." Never regarded for her beauty, she was 37, essentially a spinster by the day's standards. More alarming, her beau was a penniless patrician who barely spoke a word of English, had no career to speak of, and was about 10 years Fuller's junior. But most shocking of all: Fuller gave birth to his illegitimate baby, Angelo "Nino" Ossoli, in September 1848. No marriage record has ever been found, although Emerson has suggested the two tied the knot in late 1847. However, it's possible he lied to protect the reputation of the friend he admired.

Yet revolution and romance were not all that occupied Fuller's time in Italy. She'd written a history of the short-lived Roman Republic, the Italian independence cause to which her partner was dedicated. Having been embedded in its rebellion, Fuller had a unique perspective on this republican state that she was eager to share with the world. In a letter to her brother, she confessed that she hoped her book could be "something good which may survive my troubled existence." But once the short-lived republic crumbled, the Fuller-Ossoli family decided to depart for America, hoping to find a home for their child, and a publisher for Fuller's manuscript.

But this would never be.

Without two pennies to rub together, Fuller couldn't afford steamship passage, and so scraped together enough to buy their way onto the merchant ship Elizabeth. It left Livorno in May 1850, setting out for a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. In a letter penned before they boarded, Fuller divulged her fears about this big move, and all the change it brought. Read in the wake of what was to come, it sounds like a grim premonition. She wrote

"I am absurdly fearful, and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling … I have a vague expectation of some crisis, I know not what … Yet my life proceeds as regularly as the fates of a Greek tragedy, and I can but accept the pages as they turn." 

On July 19, 1850, a heinous hurricane hit the Atlantic seaboard, running the Elizabeth aground a few hundred yards from the shore of Fire Island, New York. While much of its crew and captain scrambled ashore, Fuller and her family were last seen aboard. Accounts of their last moments differ, though all include ghastly descriptions of snapped masts, vicious waves, and lovers faced with impossible choices. Yet each version shares the same tragic end: Fuller and Ossoli drowned. Their bodies were never recovered. 

Urged by Emerson, Thoreau traveled to the small New York island to search for any sign of their dear friend, her family and—failing all else—her final work. Thoreau (years away from publishing Walden) tirelessly interviewed survivors and locals, desperate for a sign of hope. Instead, he found himself face-to-face with the body of Fuller's 20-month-old son in the back of a local's buffalo-pulled cart. He recalled in his heartbreaking notes, "The child had nothing but its night gown on at first it never cried at all When found it was quite naked."

Thoreau was furious, not only for the loss of his friend, but also because her death could have been prevented. His notes railed against the locals, calling them "wreckers on shore who were more concerned with recovering belongings than actually saving people from the ship." Thoreau believed these men "with their hats decked out with the spoils of the drowned" could have used their oyster boats to rescue the shipwrecked. Instead, Fuller, who could not swim, was robbed of hope by those who gladly robbed her trunks and possibly her greatest work. 

A drawing of Fuller's cenotaph in Mount Auburn Cemetery, via Flickr // Public Domain

Though Fuller's life and work was cut short when she was just 40 years old, this daring author won the respect not only of many distinguished contemporaries, but also of advocates who are still inspired by her message more than 150 years later. In 1860, fellow feminist writer and transcendentalist Caroline Healey Dall declared Fuller's Woman in the Nineteenth Century "doubtless the most brilliant, complete, and scholarly statement ever made on the subject." As second wave feminism hit in 1976, the book was rediscovered, and Fuller was recognized as a feminist pioneer, working woman, activist, and intellectual far ahead of her time. 

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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps

The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller


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