A review of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life | Bleader

Friday, April 26, 2013

A review of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

Posted By on 04.26.13 at 04:30 PM

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The offending jacket
  • Houghton Mifflin
  • The offending jacket
Margaret Fuller would have hated the cover of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall. It's a blurry photo of a woman in a black Victorian dress standing with her back to the camera in a field of brown grass. She holds onto the corner of a red shawl that flaps in the wind. The blades of grass are in clearer focus than the woman. There are white doilies in each corner.

Fuller herself, as depicted in Marshall's biography, was the sort of woman who would have demanded the standard treatment given to any male intellectual (and a few chosen females, such as Susan Sontag or Joan Didion): a close-up portrait of herself gazing pensively out at the viewer with clear, intelligent eyes. Fuller never turned away from anything, least of all anyone who would have respected her brains and talent, which were considerable.

It may seem ridiculous to harp on a book cover, but this is a cover that says, "This is a book for women." Fuller would not have approved. Although her best-known book was called Women in the Nineteenth Century, it was actually a demand for gender equality, for women to have the same opportunities as men. Its signature line: "But if you ask me what office they may fill; I reply—any. I do not care what case you put: let them be sea-captains, if you will."

Why shouldn't men feel they, too, ought to read the story of one of the greatest American minds of the 19th century? It's a damned good one, too. The last third even has some swashbuckling adventure, rare in biographies of intellectuals regardless of gender.

Fuller's life was one of mixed blessings. She was born in Boston in 1810, not necessarily the most hospitable time and place to be a smart girl. She had the advantage, though, of being the oldest child of a father who was a former schoolmaster who had read Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication on the Rights of Women and determined to make her, she later wrote, "the heir of all he knew."

Young Margaret did not disappoint him. By seven, she was reading and writing fluently. By ten, she was using her newly acquired Latin to push her way through the Aeneid and wrote an essay (in English) on the theme "They can conquer who believe they can." By the time she reached her 20s, she was considered one of the most brilliant minds in New England. If she had been a boy, she would have gone to Harvard. Instead, she miserably attended a finishing school for young ladies and helped educate her younger brothers.

A daguerreotype of Fuller in 1846
  • John Plumbe
  • A daguerreotype of Fuller in 1846
Margaret was not as good at attaining the accomplishments valued in young ladies at the time. She was not gentle or soft-spoken. As a teenager, she was chubby and suffered from acne. She intimidated other girls. Boys, too. (Don't you know boys don't like girls who act smarter than they are?) She once threw a party to which 90 people were invited and only nine came. Unlike her contemporaries Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody, she wasn't cushioned by a comforting circle of sisters: a sister three years younger, who she believed would have been the great companion of her life, died as a baby. (Peabody, by the way, is one of the subjects of Marshall's first excellent book, The Peabody Sisters.)

With the aid of Fuller's voluminous correspondence, Marshall recreates a young woman who feels achingly contemporary. She's had all the privileges of a male education, but how can she use it to support her family after her father's death? She casts about for a career. She searches for people with whom she can form meaningful relationships. She attracts men with her ability to discuss books and ideas, and then repels them with her emotional neediness when the conversations turn personal. These same men go on to marry her younger, prettier, more pliable female friends. Why can't she have their respect and their love?

"Men never, in any extreme of despair, wished to be women," Fuller noted sadly.

At least they let her into their club. Fuller became the only female member of the Transcendentalist Club, devoted to developing the American philosophical version of European romanticism. She also became editor of the club's journal, The Dial, which sounds glorious now given that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were among its contributors, but at the time amounted to spending a lot of time nagging at the men to get their work in on time. (After she quit and Emerson took over, the journal quickly folded.)

You want to cheer when Fuller finally publishes Women in the Nineteenth Century, in which she imagines a life for a single woman beyond the auxiliary old-maid auntie, and then takes her own advice and gets the hell out of Boston.

In New York, where Fuller took a job as a reporter and editor for Horace Greeley's Tribune, she experimented with living life as freely as a man. Although she couldn't live unchaperoned, Greeley gave her a room in his house where she could come and go as she pleased. She traveled around the city on reporting assignments, visiting prisons and insane asylums and mixing with other writers and intellectuals.

The only realm in which Fuller felt limited by her gender was sex. As a young girl, she once saw a young, unmarried woman die from a botched abortion. The memory haunted her. And yet, she was curious about sex, particularly after she met a seductive banker named James Nathan, and did someday want to have a child—but only if motherhood didn't trap her at home as it did to so many of her contemporaries.

Oh, if only Fuller had lived 150 years later and had access to the pill!

Megan Marshall
  • Eric Antoniou
  • Megan Marshall
But then, remarkably, she managed to find a way to satisfy her curiosity. In 1846 she traveled to Europe as Greeley's foreign correspondent. As an American in Rome, she could live independently, without a chaperone. She covered the 1848 revolution in Italy and the battle for Italian unification. She also met a young Roman nobleman named Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, who by all accounts was not her intellectual equal, but who loved her. They had an affair. The affair resulted in a child. The child may or may not have led to a marriage. (The historical record is not quite clear.) The child also led to some complicated life-work-balance arrangements.

In the summer of 1850, Fuller, Ossoli, their son, Nino, and Fuller's final book, a history of the Italian revolution, sailed for New York. Their ship got caught in a hurricane and sank a few hundred yards off of Fire Island. Fuller, her family, and her book all drowned. Emerson sent Thoreau to hunt for any effects. All was lost.

And yet, Marshall wonders, perhaps that was for the best. As one of Fuller's (female) friends wrote, "The waves do not seem so difficult to brave as the prejudices she would have encountered if she had arrived here safely."

The world wasn't ready for Margaret Fuller in 1850. Could the world handle her now, a brilliant woman who refused to accept that she would be forced to live her life any differently from an equally brilliant man?

It's a question that's worthy of your serious consideration, whether you're a woman or a man. Marshall's a wonderful writer, and her book is a good place to start.

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.

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