When Margaret Fuller died in a shipwreck off Fire Island in 1850, her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was devastated. He sent a mutual friend, Henry David Thoreau, to the scene of the disaster.
Thoreau walked the beach and interviewed survivors and witnesses. What he discovered appalled him. While Fuller’s ship had foundered on rocks only 300 yards from shore, spectators had gathered not to mount rescue efforts but to scavenge what floated from the wreckage.
One thing that never was recovered was the sole manuscript of Fuller’s “great history” of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. What a waste, in a thousand ways.
Fuller, the formidable American editor, feminist, foreign correspondent and social crusader, was only 40. She was returning to America with her new husband and their 2-year-old son after several years in Europe. She couldn’t swim.
Fuller’s was a great life, flush with drama, and Megan Marshall’s new biography rises to it in ways small and large.
Marshall wrote one previous book, the excellent Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (2005). Her Margaret Fuller: A New American Life proves that earlier volume was no fluke. This one pitches Marshall into the front rank of American biographers.
She is comfortable with subtle intellection as well as the sweep of history. She captures the intricacies of Fuller’s editorship of The Dial, the Transcendentalist literary journal, and her stints as a front-page columnist and foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.
Marshall is terrific on Fuller’s composition of the feminist manifesto Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which made her a celebrity. That peppery and groundbreaking book argued that marriage should be “only an experience” for women, not the sole aim of existence. A house is “no home” for a woman, Fuller declared, “unless it contain food and fire for the mind as well as for the body.”
Fuller knew everyone, not just Emerson and Thoreau but the young Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well. When she donated a cow to Brook Farm, the utopian commune founded in the 1840s in Massachusetts, Hawthorne liked to call it the “transcendental heifer.”
Edgar Allan Poe reviewed one of her books; Walt Whitman pored over her columns. Abroad she met George Sand, Matthew Arnold and William Wordsworth and stayed at the home of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.
Emerson called Fuller’s “the most entertaining conversation in America.” People wanted to be around her. The tragedy of her life is that she desired more of a career than a woman of her era could have. “A man’s ambition with a woman’s heart,” she wrote in a journal. “ ’Tis an accursed lot.”
Margaret Fuller is as seductive as it is impressive. It has the grain and emotional amplitude of a serious novel, especially in its first half. It delivers a lovely and bumpy coming-of-age story, one of the best such stories 19th-century America has to offer.
Fuller grew up near Cambridge, Mass. Her father was a lawyer and congressman who had been a serious scholar at Harvard. He wanted to fill her with his own learning, and did.
He started her on Latin at 6. She devoured The Aeneid at 8. By 10 she was translating Cicero and Virgil. Holmes, who was around her age and lived nearby, found evidence of her “superiority” to be a “crushing discovery.”
Fuller had a sharp tongue and a certain hauteur, and she wasn’t always popular at school. She was “exposed to petty persecutions,” a contemporary said. When she gave a dance party at her home, it was a humiliation. Almost no one came.
Her teen years were, physically, a horror show. She was short, plump and awkward, with a congenitally curved spine and a nearsighted squint. She had bad hair and acne. Fuller wrote that she “made up my mind to be bright and ugly.” (As an adult, she lost weight and according to some became almost swanlike.)
Fuller should have been part of the brilliant Harvard class of 1829, but the college did not enroll women. She realized that, intellectually and emotionally, she must learn to “be my own priest, pupil, parent, child, husband and wife.”
Her family did not have money, and Fuller had to struggle her entire life to make ends meet. She worked as a tutor and schoolteacher before beginning to publish essays and to make a name for herself as a larger-than-life human being.
Fuller could seem all brain, zero body. Her infatuations with various intellectual men went mostly unrequited. To them she seemed more rival than muse. Marshall’s book suggests that she was a virgin until meeting, in her late 30s, the man she would marry. He was Italian and not her intellectual equal. Their son was conceived out of wedlock, a scandal to many. (Her husband and son would also die in the shipwreck.)
Margaret Fuller slackens in its final third, when Fuller is living in Italy. Too much is made of her lack of sexual experience; the author lingers too long over suggestive phrases from Fuller’s writing like “earthly union” and “mutual tenderness” and “full communion.” Marshall’s prose, usually so crisp, edges toward the overripe. About Fuller’s husband, we read, “Did the shade of melancholy in his eyes vanish when he looked into hers?”
These are rare slips in an alert and elegant narrative. Marshall’s rigorous book stands on the shoulders of earlier scholarship and many previous biographies of Fuller. It doesn’t contain a great deal of new material. But in Marshall, Fuller has found what feels like her ideal biographer.