Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

  • Megan Marshall
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 496 pp.

The life of Margaret Fuller, whose 19th-century struggles and triumphs still resonate today.

Historical figures rarely come in entirely admirable packages. Aside from the personal foibles to which all flesh is subject, people from the past often prove to be frustratingly unmodern in their attitudes. Just when we think we’ve found a soul mate from across the centuries, we find out that our new idol harbored some views that are anathema to most of us 21st-century folk (the freedom-loving Thomas Jefferson’s position on slavery comes to mind). And so we struggle to place our newfound idol “in context,” to find a way to excuse those feet of clay.

And then there are figures like Margaret Fuller, the subject of Megan Marshall’s new biography. Given an unusually rigorous education by her father (unusual, at least, for a female in the early 19th century), Fuller became a restless intellectual gadfly, challenging not only the received wisdom on women’s place in society but a host of other contemporary assumptions as well. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising to find that she was an opponent of slavery and a passionate advocate for democracy during the European revolutions of 1848. But she was also “modern” enough to believe that the American Indians she encountered on a trip out West had a culture worthy of respect, and that the prostitutes incarcerated at New York’s Sing Sing prison were victims of the same societal forces that oppressed all women at the time. These views might have raised some eyebrows even a hundred years after Fuller’s death in 1850.

Fuller had a remarkable and productive life, editing the transcendentalist magazine The Dial and becoming a columnist and foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century was acclaimed in both the United States and Europe, and her wide circle of friends included everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini and the British poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

And yet, as Marshall’s highly readable biography makes clear, it isn’t always easy being ahead of one’s time. Fuller’s intellectual self-confidence (some might say arrogance) didn’t go over well with many of her contemporaries, especially the male ones. She was “leaning in” long before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase, and doing so at a time when it was unlikely to advance her up the career ladder.

Not that there was a career ladder for women in the 1830s, of course. Although few women received the kind of education Fuller had, female “seminaries” had been sprouting up around the country since the late-18th century, producing a surge in the number of literate women. Like Fuller, many of these women yearned to make use of their talents, but — aside from a few who went into teaching or writing — could find no way to do so. As the young Margaret confided to a friend, she had feelings of “infinite capacities unsatisfied, powers unemployed & wasting, wants & burning desires unmet.”

Fuller did eventually find satisfaction in both teaching — her first career — and writing. But some of her “burning desires” continued to go unmet. A series of intense friendships with men failed to result in a satisfying emotional connection, let alone marriage. In her mid-30s she confided to her journal that she “so craved” the experience of motherhood “that it has seemed that the want of it must paralyze me.” And yet at the same time she realized that she had benefited greatly from her freedom, at one time declaring marriage to be a “miserable mistake.”

Then, in her late 30s, while in Rome as a correspondent for the Tribune, Fuller met the 26-year-old Giovanni Ossoli , the younger son of a noble family of modest means. By Fuller’s own account, Ossoli was “ignorant of great ideas, ignorant of books,” a man unlikely to win the respect of her highly intellectual friends back home — or, one might have thought, her own. And yet it was to him that Fuller surrendered not only her heart but also her closely guarded virginity. When she found herself pregnant, she entered into marriage with some reluctance, having apparently abandoned the notion that it made sense for people to bind themselves to one another for life.

Marshall speculates on the possible reasons for Fuller’s attraction to Ossoli: the liberating example of such Europeans as George Sand, whom Fuller had met in Paris and who lived openly with her lover, the composer Frederic Chopin; or perhaps, since he knew no English and presumably nothing of Fuller’s reputation, the knowledge that Ossoli loved her for herself and not her celebrity. Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that the couple’s affection deepened after the birth of a son — and the dangers that all three managed to survive during the crushing of the short-lived Roman republic in 1849. Wrenched by the need to leave her baby in the countryside while covering events in Rome for the Tribune, Fuller realized that it was motherhood alone that could “break the spell” of her loneliness.

At this juncture the story truly becomes, to use Marshall’s own term, “operatic.” Having decided to return to the United States to promote her book on the Roman republic, Fuller, along with her husband and two-year-old son, drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Long Island. Just at the moment Fuller seemed to have it all (to interpolate another 21st-century phrase), it was all cut short.

Had she survived, would Fuller have gone on to lead the nascent women’s movement in her home country? The Seneca Falls conference that kicked off that movement had taken place only two years before, and Fuller had been asked to chair another similar convention in 1850. Or, as Marshall suggests, might she have been uncomfortable at the helm of a mass movement? It’s impossible to know, and Marshall doesn’t attempt a definitive answer. In any event, Fuller’s advocacy of women’s rights clearly paved the way for what followed.

Marshall’s account is not without its flaws. The book could be better at placing Fuller within the context of 18th- and 19th-century women’s history. The “Conversations” Fuller presided over — discussion groups designed to expand women’s intellectual capabilities — were not so much an innovation as the culmination of a tradition of women’s reading circles that began in the 1760’s. On the other hand, it is difficult for the modern reader to appreciate the radicalism of Fuller’s view that there was no essential difference in the capacities of men and women without understanding that the proto-feminists who preceded her had always stopped short of such a declaration. And it is not entirely clear that another account of Fuller’s life was needed. In addition to the fairly recent scholarly tomes cited by Marshall, another popular biography of Fuller appeared just over a year ago, to critical acclaim.

Still, Marshall’s biography is an enlightening and absorbing portrait of a woman whose struggles and triumphs reflect the constraints of a bygone era and yet resonate today. In these pages, liberally enriched with quotations from her own vivid prose, Margaret Fuller comes to life. It’s not unusual to find, at the end of a biography, that its subject meets with death. But it’s rare that the reader comes upon that expected ending with tears in her eyes.

Natalie Wexler is working on a novel based on the life of a woman who edited a magazine in early 19th-century Baltimore. She is also the author of A More Obedient Wife, a novel based on the lives and letters of two women in the 1790s, both of whom were married to early Supreme Court Justices.

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