I just read this biography for my nonfiction book club and we had such a great discussion—one of our most memorable. Only a few of us had known about Fuller beforehand and one of our burning questions at the end of the evening was why she isn’t better known.
Fuller was associated with the Transcendentalist movement and was closest with Emerson from that group, but also William Ellery Channing, Thoreau, and Hawthorne. Fuller’s father, a frustrated Intellectual if there ever was one, tutored her in Latin and Greek as a young child, and taught her how to think on her feet and express herself in well-reasoned arguments. Equipped with such an unusual education for a woman of the time, and craving intellectual companionship, she was fit only for the company of her equals, all of whom were male. They acknowledged that she was often the smartest person in the room, but didn’t know what to make of her—women in the 1840s just didn’t behave the way she did, full of confidence in her own abilities. She had an on-again-off-again intense friendship with Emerson–was he jealous of her abilities or was he just unable to sustain close relationships?
Margaret was often deeply unhappy with a life of such apparently limited opportunities but always came back to the belief that she was mistress of her own destiny and forged on. She was a terrific writer, often prescient about social and political issues in the U.S.; there were many quotes in the book that stopped us in our tracks for their timeliness. Horace Greeley (bless him!) hired her to write a cultural column in the New York Tribune; it ran on the front page and was often her sole source of income. She eventually traveled to Europe where she became good friends with Mazzini, who was spearheading the Italian independence movement; she married an Italian soldier and had a child. The end is sad—she died at an early age, along with her husband and child when their boat sank off Fire Island on their return voyage to the U.S.
What would her life have been like on her return? Her family and peers would certainly have felt that she married below her station—would they have accepted her barely literate Italian husband? The organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention were eager to have her there to address the delegates; unfortunately her death prevented that, but they recognized her importance to the fledgling suffrage movement. Maybe she would have found acceptance and a new cause there. We’d like to think so; she deserves to be a heroine.
I’ve only scratched the surface here in describing this excellent biography. You may find the book a little slow at the beginning as Marshall describes Fuller’s early years, but that’s not to criticize the writing. We need the description of Fuller’s sad and lonely childhood to understand where she came from; once she’s out on her own, by her mid-teens, it’s a riveting narrative.
Margaret Fuller’s historiographical stock has risen and fallen several times. In 1850 she was the most famous woman in the United States. She had a bit of resurgence in the 1970s with her “Let them be sea captains” quote.
I knew about her only from the speculation that she was the model for Xenobia in the Blithedale Romance. (Interestingly she is also supposedly the basis for Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter and Dorethea Brooke in George Elliot’s Middlemarch) I developed a much deeper interest from studying one of her biographers Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Both Fuller and Higginson have a Zelig like quality. You see them popping up all over the place but never at center stage.
I think there needs to be a movie. It will be the perfect date night movie. A highly empowered woman making waves, who flouts convention to take up with a young handsome Italian nobleman wrapped up with a war and a shipwreck. It is really the most romantic story in American history,