When this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners were announced at 3 p.m. on April 14, Megan Marshall was in her Belmont apartment, working on the first chapter of her next book, a biography of poet Elizabeth Bishop. “I didn’t know it was the [Pulitzer] day,” she says.
At 3:01, her editor called. “She sounded so solemn, I thought it was bad news,” Marshall says. “But it was great news.”
Marshall had just won one of the nation’s most prestigious literary awards for her biography of Margaret Fuller, the 19th-century writer, editor, war correspondent, and women’s rights activist whose close friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and scandalous liaison with a younger Italian man added to her reputation as a woman way ahead of her time.
Marshall notes that only seven times since the Pulitzers were first awarded in 1917 have women been the sole subject of the winning biography. “And that amounts to only six women, because [books about] Harriet Beecher Stowe won twice,” she says.
“Margaret Fuller: A New American Life” took Marshall six years to complete, a breeze compared with the 20 years it had taken her to finish her previous book, “The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism,” a biography of Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody, prominent New England reformers and intellectuals. Published in 2005, it was a Pulitzer finalist and won other literary awards.
But more important, the Peabodys led Marshall back to the life of their friend Fuller. From a women’s history class at Harvard, Marshall had become a Fuller fan. “I thought of her as very famous, but when I told people I was working on her biography, I got these blank looks,” she says. “I felt it was absolutely a tragedy if people didn’t know about her.”
If Marshall’s biography helped rescue Fuller from the dustier shelves of history, Fuller in her own way helped save Marshall too. “I started writing Margaret Fuller in a big house in Newton and finished it here, in a two-bedroom apartment in Belmont,” says Marshall, 59, looking around her small, book-filled living room.
At the time, Marshall was undergoing a difficult separation from writer John Sedgwick, with whom she has two daughters. In 2007, the year they divorced, Sedgwick’s memoir, “In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family,” was published.
“Margaret Fuller’s story captivated me again,” says Marshall. “It was a story I needed as I was restarting my own life. She was someone who was so heroic, so independent, and so often remaking herself in the face of adversity. Immersing myself in her was very empowering.”
Marshall’s channeling of ambitious 19th-century women who made compromises to ensure their domestic tranquillity was not dissimilar to her own life 200 years later. The timeless balancing act of work and family is one that Marshall’s subjects — and she herself — all struggled with.
A native Californian, Marshall brings a convert’s passion to New England and its rich history, particularly its pioneering women intellectuals. Her parents had spent happy years in Cambridge from 1946 to 1953 when her father attended design school at Harvard and her mother worked as a designer for the City of Cambridge. The couple returned to California to raise a family, but the East Coast held an almost mythic allure for their daughter.
“The East Coast was civilization to them,” she says. “We had a house full of New England stuff.” As a child, she was enraptured by Louisa May Alcott’s books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. “I read them over and over and over again,” she says. The books all had strong girls or women at the center of historical events.
After graduating from high school in Pasadena in 1971, Marshall headed east to Bennington College, where she studied music and literature. A talented pianist and harpsichordist, she nonetheless recoiled at the thought of becoming a performing musician.
“I had a mid-college crisis,” she says. She left Bennington after 2½ years and moved to Cambridge, where she took a job as a secretary at Harvard.
Marshall appealed to Robert Lowell to take his poetry class, and took two other classes as a “special student,” including poetry with Elizabeth Bishop, before enrolling at Harvard full time. In 1977, she graduated, Phi Beta Kappa key in hand. Her senior year, she met Sedgwick, a fellow student, and they married in 1980.
In 1984, Marshall had her first baby and published her first book: “The Cost of Loving: Women and the New Fear of Intimacy,” based on interviews she did with single working women throughout the country. The book examined the fact that these women, among the first to succeed professionally alongside men, were sacrificing personal relationships to do so.
But her childhood love of history, nurtured by both of her grandmothers — one who had lived through the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and told wondrous stories, the other a children’s librarian — exerted its pull.
Her next project would be the Peabody sisters. “Unwittingly,” she says, “I had chosen the hardest kind of biography to write, a group biography.”
Daughter Sara was a year old when Marshall began the book and 21 when she finished. The Sedgwicks’ second daughter, Josie, arrived seven years after Sara, and both girls were very active in sports and music. Family life cut into writing time.
“I learned to be patient,” Marshall says. “I learned that relationships with your family and your friends really matter more than what you accomplish as a writer.” She herself had been a latchkey kid at a time when few mothers worked. “I felt very strongly I needed to be there for my kids.”
Besides the joy and chores of motherhood, Marshall also experienced tragedy while working on the book. In 1991, her mother slipped on a newly waxed lobby floor in her Pasadena apartment building and died after striking her head. She was 68 and was on her way to work as a book designer. Josie was a year old.
“I was in the long slog of ‘The Peabody Sisters,’ and I stopped for a while to cope with things,” says Marshall.
She’s a recently tenured professor at Emerson College, where she teaches in the writing, literature, and publishing program, including a course on archival research and another on “Writing the Lives of Others.” She’ll spend the next academic year as a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library, where she will work on a biography of Elizabeth Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s older sister.
Marshall had begun researching the “brilliant recluse” after her book on the Peabodys but switched to Fuller. In the midst of rebuilding her own life after her divorce, she decided against immersing herself in Hawthorne’s “solitary, eccentric life.”
Instead, she focused on Fuller: “When I left my marriage, I didn’t know how to function on my own and she taught me that you just keep doing what you do.” So Marshall kept writing and began teaching at Emerson.
“I was drawn to Margaret Fuller’s more active and courageous life that took place on a global stage,” says Marshall. “She got out there and did things, changed people’s minds, lived a large and daring life, the only one of the Transcendentalists really to do so.” Including, she adds, Emerson and Thoreau, who “stayed home.”
Fuller declared that women should be ambitious and follow their passions, whether personal or professional — a radical notion in the mid-19th century. “At age 15, she writes to a teacher: ‘I am determined on distinction.’ She wanted to be someone. She knew she had something to offer,” says Marshall.
“I felt I had to live up to her example. She was always doing too much. She was teaching and working on a book and editing ‘The Dial,’ (the Transcendentalist publication) and covering the revolution in Italy.” Before being sent to Rome, Fuller wrote front-page columns for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in which she chronicled the appalling conditions of the city’s mental hospitals and prisons.
In Italy, Fuller would fall in love with an officer in the Roman Guard.
After her divorce, Marshall also found happiness with a new partner, someone she knew from Robert Lowell’s class. She and Scott Harney, who works in financial services, have been living together since “2010 or 2011” she says, and he went to Rome with her on research trips. A collector of antique postcards and prints of Italy, he was able to find images of places where Fuller lived and artwork she loved while she was stationed in Rome for the Tribune.
Some of those images decorate the couple’s apartment. Her grandfather’s Steinway dominates the front parlor, with Bach and Schumann sheet music on it; Marshall still loves playing.
Fuller led a full life, but it was not a long one. In Rome, her lover was a handsome, uneducated man 10 years her junior. Her intellectual circle back home sniffed with disapproval, but she married Giovanni Ossoli and in May 1850 they set sail for America with their 2-year-old son, Nino.
Lacking the money for steamship passage, they took a smaller cargo ship that wrecked in a storm near Fire Island, N.Y. Fuller was barely 40 when she died, along with her husband and son.
Nino is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, but his parents’ bodies were never found. Five years after her death, Fuller’s family built a stone monument near the baby’s grave. The cemetery is a short walk from Marshall’s apartment, and she’ll visit on Fuller’s birthday, May 23, or the day of her drowning, July 19, or whenever she feels like “reaching back to her past in a more tangible way.”
She’s not the only one. People come and leave mementos: stones, a small Easter daffodil, a pinecone. They’re left, Marshall says, by “Fullerenes,” as ardent followers call themselves.
In 1987, ten years after she graduated, Marshall wrote in the Harvard class reports about her book on the Peabody sisters, saying she hoped to have it done by the 15th anniversary class notes. She didn’t.
She also wrote of her then 3-year-old daughter: “She slows me down, but she also shows me what life is. And that, after all, is the hidden subject of any book worth writing or reading. Without her, I’d never have known.”
About that 3-year-old: Sara Sedgwick Brown is 30 now and working for Google in Kendall Square. And her own deadline approaches: In June, she’s having a baby boy, and Marshall will become a grandmother. She says she can’t wait to read to him, just as her grandmothers read to her.