‘From a very early age,” Margaret Fuller wrote to a friend, “I have felt that I was not born to the common womanly lot.” In this thoroughly absorbing, lively new biography, Megan Marshall’s sympathy for Fuller — for the dilemma she faced as a powerfully intelligent woman whose time and place repeatedly thwarted her ambitions — nearly outpaces her admiration, though the book passionately evokes both. Fuller, so often misunderstood in life, richly deserves the nuanced, compassionate portrait Marshall paints.
Born in 1810 and raised in Cambridge, as a child Fuller’s brilliance was noticed and fostered by her father, whom she thanked for treating her “not as a plaything, but as a living mind.” His educational methods were rigorous and at times critical, an “unwearying scramble up the hill of knowledge,” according to Marshall, who also describes a family knotted in both affection and conflict; unable to appeal to her father as her mother did by great beauty, the young Margaret early on “made up my mind to be bright and ugly.” The rest of her life, she led with her brilliance (though friends saw also a noble heart and rock-like strength). As for ugliness, while that may have been a stretch (she was often described as plain), Marshall finds evidence that Fuller regretted it, envying her beautiful friends and suffering deeply when rejected by men.
Aside from her father, the most significant men in Fuller’s life were her friends, among them the “stars of Harvard’s brilliant class of ’29, the class that might have been hers, had she been a man.” In that class were James Freeman Clarke, William Henry Channing, and her first romantic disappointment, George Davis. All were to be ministers or lawyers — professions into which her sex denied her entry — as was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was preparing to leave the church when he and Fuller began what was her most complicated, important relationship with a man.
Fuller and Emerson wrote to and for and about each other from their first meeting – “[a]ll summer,” Marshall writes, “the two had traded views by letter on the possibilities of friendship in general and, by implication, theirs in particular” — writings that chronicle a heartbreakingly imperfect friendship. Fuller’s “aching wish for some person with whom I might talk fully and openly” was nearly met by Emerson, but not quite; years of encountering his cold reserve, his offhanded egotism, led Fuller to blame “a youthful ignorance in me which asked of you what was not in your nature to give.”
Fuller found herself in speaking, writing, and editing. She led conversations among groups of Boston women, challenging the limited orthodoxies by which their lives were constrained, and for two years edited The Dial, the Transcendentalist journal. She extended an essay she wrote for The Dial into a book, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” expanding on these early feminist ideas. As a columnist for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, she became the first American woman foreign correspondent, traveling to Europe in 1847 to cover a landscape of roiling revolution. All of this she did while supporting her mother and younger siblings and enduring the scorn of a society that found female brilliance — especially her “manly” sort — distasteful at best.
Marshall makes good use of her subject’s own writings and that of her contemporaries, especially in the book’s earlier sections, when Fuller was living and writing in New England, and later, New York. It’s in the book’s final section, set in Italy, that Marshall most ardently argues for our reappraisal of a woman inadequately remembered as too smart, too bossy, ill-tempered. Fuller’s Marshall, seen in the round, was flawed and human and magnificent.
It was in France, then Italy that Fuller at last found romantic possibility and joy (although intellectually a prodigy, in love she was a late bloomer). In Rome she met and fell in love with Giovanni Ossoli, a decade her junior, uneducated, handsome, and kind. Ossoli’s inability to match her intellectually seemed to upset some of her friends (the rumors flew that he was “wholly unfit”), but a more compassionate reading by her biographer is that Fuller “had chosen Giovanni for pleasure, the most radical act of her life so far.” Margaret, Giovanni, and their toddler son, Nino, all died in a shipwreck when returning to America in 1850, the year Fuller turned 40. If she had lived, what more might Fuller have accomplished, as a writer, a scholar, an activist for human rights? Having grown to know the woman Marshall so stirringly portrays, it’s impossible not to mourn her early death.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.