Book Review

fullerThe Washington Post, February 3 2012.

By John Matteson
Norton. 510 pp. $32.95

IN “The Lives of Margaret Fuller,” the follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, John Matteson returns to the idealistic, intellectual, impractical world of Concord, Mass., in the 1830s. Yet although Margaret Fuller was a central figure in the transcendentalist movement — the editor of its journal of ideas, the Dial, and a close associate of Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and others — she is not fully explained by transcendentalism. Instead, it was just one of the incarnations through which she pushed herself in a lifelong battle between her spiritual yearnings and her feet of clay.

Matteson begins his story of Fuller’s “lives” at the premature end. Along with her 1-year-old son and his Italian father, she was killed in a shipwreck off Fire Island, N.Y., during a freak hurricane in July 1850. She was 40 years old. By beginning with Fuller’s death — as he puts it, “Think first of endings” — Matteson purposely overshadows the book with a sense of loss. It works to subtly emphasize Fuller’s own most passionate and important theme, that human potential wasted by social injustice is no less a tragedy than death. Lost in the wreck was the manuscript of a book that might have transformed her legacy: her eyewitness account of the failed revolution in Rome in 1848-49.

Fuller’s most famous and enduring work therefore remains “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” (1843), which is underpinned by the idea that all human beings, whatever body their souls chance to inhabit, have the ability, the right and the duty to strive toward perfection. Influenced by the Romantics, especially Goethe (whose biography Fuller once planned to write), the transcendentalists shared a belief in the potential divinity of human beings. Fuller thought that “for an earnest soul, to rise continually toward the celestial was a matter not just of destiny but of quasi-religious duty.” In privileging the soul over the body, this belief offered the basis for a radical new equality between the sexes.

Yet Fuller could never transcend the body and its needs. Her choices were constrained by the expectations heaped on her as a woman, by chronic ill health, by the obligation to earn money, and finally by an unplanned pregnancy that had to be smoothed over with a hasty wedding. Matteson vividly and sympathetically evokes the early stages of her lifelong battle between the body and the brain. Drilled in the classics from childhood by her exacting father, young Fuller behaved imperiously toward everyone but the most gifted Harvard undergraduates, until she learned painfully that even the most brilliant mind could not by itself inspire love and admiration — especially not in the body of an overweight, acne-plagued, socially awkward adolescent girl.

As she grew up, she enjoyed many close, emotionally complex friendships, but it is clear she was not easy to love. She could be a demanding and inspiring confidante who challenged her friends to better themselves, but she could also be a demanding and exhausting bluestocking who drew husbands away from their wives to discuss ideas at impolite length.

In another body, Fuller’s early training could have propelled her through a brilliant career at Harvard, but its doors were closed to her. After several years spent unhappily teaching, Fuller established her own intellectual community in Boston in the early 1840s through her “conversations,” in which intelligent women could discuss ideas of the largest existential importance. In Matteson’s story they are a turning point, allowing Fuller “to impart her own message, gaining in certainty and confidence with every session, that women had a new purpose to serve and a higher destiny to fulfill.”

The conversations also had a practical outcome: One of her “conversers” was Mary Greeley, wife of Horace, the editor of the New York Tribune, who invited her in 1844 to become the first female critic in America. The timing was ideal. As newspapers were gaining in power, respectability and reach, so New York was supplanting New England as the country’s cultural center. The Tribune later made her something new again: the first newspaper foreign correspondent of either gender, when she left America in 1846 to travel to a politically turbulent Europe.

In telling Fuller’s story, Matteson has to evoke a world that often seems to lie at an impossible distance from our own: one in which slavery was accepted, infant mortality was commonplace, and it was possible to live, as Horace Greeley did, on eight acres of land by Manhattan’s East River in a house nicknamed “the Farm.” Matteson skillfully fills in the political and cultural background to Fuller’s shape-shifting life, and sketches the biographies of the hundreds of renowned and obscure figures with whom she conversed, exchanged letters and shared ideas. The result is a substantial and satisfying biography, which brings Fuller’s life back into popular view without simplifying her diverse and extraordinary achievements.

Joanna Scutts , who teaches literature at Columbia University, is an editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.

© The Washington Post Company

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