“I stand in the sunny noon of life…what concerns me now is, that my life be a beautiful, powerful, in a word, a complete life.”
To say that Margaret Fuller was a woman ahead of her time would be an understatement. A born intellectual, she was educated in accordance with her father’s exacting standards; in a time when Harvard didn’t admit women, her father saw to it that she received the equivalent of a Harvard education anyway. Fuller grew up to be a quick-witted and worldly woman desperate to leave her mark. She was a talented conversationalist and considered herself an equal to — and in some cases, even smarter than — the well-educated men she encountered in her circles, encouraged women to speak their minds, was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited some of Henry David Thoreau’s early works, and wrote a book about women’s rights that far exceeded the reach of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Women.
Fuller would later work as a newspaper columnist under Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune. At a time when few women worked, Fuller was demanding pay equity, insisting she should be payed the same as her male counterparts. She advocated on behalf of prostitutes and the poor and eschewed the conventions of marriage. When she died in a shipwreck at the age of forty, the revelation that she had had a child with her Italian lover (both of whom also died in the shipwreck) caused a scandal.
In her introduction to Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, Megan Marshall writes about how Nathaniel Hawthorne preferred to call his works “Romances,” quoting him saying that romances allowed the writer to, “bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture.” (Imagine the Nathaniel Hawthorne of today — whoever that is — saying such a thing!) In that vein, Marshall explains that she also chose to write this biography as a “romance,” explaining that doing so allowed her to focus on parts of Fuller’s life more than others, all while incorporating Fuller’s words into the narrative, in order to better convey the complexities of Fuller’s life.
It’s an intriguing way to go about writing a biography. Personally, I thought that sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. The first third of the biography took a while for me to get into, though the more Marshall progressed into Fuller’s life, the more engaging the book became. Fuller was a fascinating woman with few other female peers — often, no female peers — who could truly understand what she went through. Instead, Fuller was the trailblazer to be admired and emulated, and it often led to a lonely life. She said the things that women might secretly be thinking, but dared not say. My problems with some of the book’s pacing aside, I do think Marshall succeeds in breathing new life into Fuller’s remarkable life story.
Margaret Fuller: A New American Life was published on March 12, 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.