Pulitzer Prize finalist and biographer Megan Marshall depicts the vivid life of lesser-known American writer Margaret Fuller in her book Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.
reads as a story in its own right, following a distinct narrative, but is peppered with quotations from Fuller’s letters, essays, fiction, and personal diaries. Through her detailed account of the writer’s life, Marshall seeks to express the struggle of a female intellectual attempting to balance societal expectations with her lofty ambitions and ideals.
Marshall’s depiction of Fuller, who is best known for her book Women in the Nineteenth Century,
follows the history of her personal relationships, starting with Fuller’s perfectionist father who sparked in her a love of education from the start, to the entourage of academics and radicals who were mystified by her, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson. She goes into detail about Fuller’s torrid romances, including her accidental pregnancy and secret marriage to noble-born Giovanni Ossoli. A shipwreck claimed both their lives in the end, along with their infant son.
Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850. Throughout the short forty years of her life, she challenged perceptions about female intellectuals specifically in the male-dominated arena of Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that believed in the innate purity of people and nature. At a time when women did not even have the right to vote, Fuller had to be one of the pioneering women to address issues of equality and defy gender norms simply by living life her own way.
From the time she was born, Fuller’s father, a congressman, was determined to push his first-born daughter along her path to greatness. He believed he detected a genius in her, and for this, he rewarded her with an education as fine as any young boy’s. By the time she was six, Fuller was speaking Latin. Her father often told her, “Mediocrity is obscurity.” At twenty-five, Fuller’s father passed away, leaving her and her immediate family in the charge of his younger brother. Fuller balked at the idea of being transferred from one man to another, like a piece of property. She decided that she would assume the role of breadwinner of the family, taking a teaching job and selling her writing, working herself to the bone in the process.
Fuller was eventually asked to be the editor of The Dial
, after her essays and criticism received wide acclaim. In her role as editor, she decided to steer the magazine away from its original intention of popularizing Transcendentalism. Fuller firmly believed that aesthetic culture was a means to personal development. She wrote and published an essay on the topic, which she titled “The Great Lawsuit” and was praised as one of the magazine’s most important contributions to American thought. The essay was a critique on personal relations between men and women, inspired by Fuller’s own experiences out in the world, living a life with a wealth of experiences thought to be quite scandalous for a woman of the time.
She took it upon herself to mingle with members of other social classes, investigating the lives of the local poor. This included a visit to the deathbed of a young woman who had botched her own abortion. This encounter haunted Fuller, causing her to have a dark realization about the lives and futures of most married women, for which the institution of marriage was nightmarish and essentially translated into a life of thankless servitude.
After this essay was published, Fuller gained a new level of notoriety. She was thought of as one of the women at the forefront of a movement, though it was little understood by some. She was criticized as attempting to pontificate on a subject with which she had very little life experience: marriage. Nevertheless, it remains a milestone in Fuller’s career, after which she was hired by Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune
, who also suggested expanding the essay into her first book, Woman In The Nineteenth Century
, which was to become a ground-breaking work in American feminism.
As the new editor of the New York Tribune
, Fuller dove head-first into the role, writing exposés on the multitude of criminal abuses in asylums and prisons, essays in support of suffrage for blacks as well as women and biting editorials with the aim of transforming New York into a model society.
Fuller left the United States in 1846, a year after her book was published, which many celebrated feminists of the time cited as an inspiration. Margaret Fuller died on July 19, 1850, in a shipwreck off Fire Island. She was at the height of her career and her intellectual prime. She was returning home to the United States after spending time in Europe with her Italian husband and their child.