‘Margaret Fuller,’ by Megan Marshall
By KATHRYN HARRISON APRIL 19, 2013
Margaret Fuller died on July 19, 1850, in a shipwreck off Fire Island. In her intellectual prime and at the height of her influence as a social reformer, she was returning home from Europe with her Italian husband and their child. A major advocate for the rights of women, Fuller had left the United States in 1846, just a year after the publication of her influential book, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” which both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton cited as an inspiration. Having accomplished her mission, as Megan Marshall puts it in this new biography, “to meet the writers and radicals whose work she’d admired from afar and test their minds in conversation,” Fuller was coming home to the United States, having flagrantly acted out the freedoms she demanded as every woman’s right.
“Margaret Fuller: A New American Life” returns Marshall to the Boston Brahmin salons of her earlier and deservedly praised biography, “The Peabody Sisters,” whose three subjects, Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia, campaigned with Fuller against the sexist double standards that starved women’s intellects and denied them agency in any but the domestic sphere. It was at Elizabeth Peabody’s West Street bookstore that Fuller conducted many of her celebrated “conversations,” unorthodox gatherings of female intellectuals who looked toward “a changed world, with women as powerful as men.” Most of those who conversed about women’s rights ended by sacrificing their noble ideals to the comforts of marriage. Not Fuller, who walked her talk, endorsing “scandalous living arrangements” over what she termed a “corrupt social contract” that, Marshall adds, “cheated wife far worse than husband.”
From the time he perceived his daughter’s genius, Fuller’s father, Timothy, a congressman from Massachusetts, determined to push his firstborn “as near perfection as possible.” He lavished an education as fine as any boy’s on Margaret, who was reciting in Latin by the age of 6 and who, under a “torrent of criticism,” mastered her father’s greatest lesson: “Mediocrity is obscurity.”
As Marshall observes, Fuller’s success in wooing her father’s attention away from her much prettier mother by gratifying his need for an “intellectual consort” inspired her later headlong rushes into one feverish cerebral consummation after another. A template for love based on a brilliant outspoken female sparring with a man of less acute intelligence was likely to yield an anguished romantic career. In the mid-19th century, even a high-minded man who supported women’s rights usually opted for a domesticated wife, preferably one prettier than Fuller. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the pre-eminent thinkers with whom she would spend her life in discourse both on and off the page, judged her emotionally voracious, looking for an “absolute, all-confiding intimacy between her and another.”
A sure-footed biographer, Marshall admits to devoting disproportionate attention to a subject that was catalytic to Fuller’s emotional as well as intellectual development, the “circle of young ‘lovers’ who were drawn to the flame of her intelligence” and were invariably left blistered, eager for gentler company. No one likes a conceited genius, and Marshall seems to know that she can’t hold her readers for long without countering the arrogance Fuller’s accomplishments inspired. How better to summon sympathy than to highlight the romantic disappointments that attended the bluestocking’s homeliness and lack of social grace? Fuller may have been sharing the opinion of others when she observed that “there was no intellect comparable to her own” — not in the United States, anyway — but even friends who railed against the highhanded superiority of “Queen Margaret” relented in the face of her often abject loneliness.
Fuller was 25 and looking forward to the freedoms of unfettered adulthood when her father died, proving as great an influence in absentia as he’d been when drilling her on the classics. Transferred, along with her immediate family, to the custody of Timothy Fuller’s younger brother, Abraham, she balked at being herded from one man’s control to another’s. Instead, she took it upon herself to support her mother and younger siblings. She taught school, wrote and then sold what she wrote, working to the point of exhaustion and sometimes collapse.
Fuller’s friendships with Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott and other outspoken dissidents may have amounted to what Marshall terms “a public alliance with the members of the Transcendental Club,” but by the time she was asked to be the editor of The Dial (Emerson having “claimed to be too busy for the job”), her essays and criticism had been widely discussed and praised, and she felt secure enough in her authority to steer the magazine away from its original mission to popularize Transcendentalism. For her, “aesthetic culture” was to be seen as a means toward “personal transformation,” and with that agenda she wrote and published an essay that would become what Marshall calls the magazine’s “most enduring contribution to American thought.”
“The Great Lawsuit” was a “critique of ‘personal relations’ among men and women” inspired by Fuller’s forays into a world far from the comfortable drawing rooms of well-heeled Yankees. Her “investigations” into the lives of the local poor, including a visit to the deathbed of a young woman who had botched her own abortion, had inspired a “dark epiphany” about the “nightmarish destiny” of most married women, who lived lives of grueling, thankless servitude.
The publication of “The Great Lawsuit” lifted Fuller to a new notoriety. Even an intimate like Sophia Peabody thought she had gone too far in pontificating on something she had not experienced herself: marriage. But others paid attention to Fuller’s indictment of an institution she termed a “miserable mistake.” Horace Greeley, the editor of The New York Tribune, not only hired her but suggested expanding “The Great Lawsuit” into what would become a groundbreaking work of American feminism, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century.”
With Greeley’s blessing, his new literary editor — more partner than employee — undertook the task of exposing the criminal abuses rife in asylums and prisons, supported suffrage for blacks as well as women and wrote biting editorials in hopes of transforming New York into a model society. When she sailed for Europe, the journey was partly funded by Greeley’s advance for her future dispatches from the Old World. Alas, the manuscript in her travel desk drowned with her, only 300 yards from land. Fuller could navigate the turbulence of public opinion, but she didn’t know how to swim.
“The waves” would not have been as “difficult to brave as the prejudices she would have encountered” had she arrived home safely, one mourner noted of Fuller’s necessarily controversial and divisive return. In what Marshall identifies as “the most radical act of her life so far,” this towering genius hadn’t chosen an “intellectual consort” but an apparent sybarite dismissed by her friends as “half an idiot,” a person who had most likely never read a book all the way through. She’d left America alone, a spinster, and was bringing home a penniless partner who gave her pleasure, saw to her comfort and knew better than to interrupt her at her desk: in other words, a wife who happened to be a man. The rest of the world might take its time arriving at equal rights, but Margaret Fuller had evened things up for herself.
MARGARET FULLER: A New American Life
By Megan Marshall
Kathryn Harrison is writing a biography of Joan of Arc. Her most recent book is “Enchantments,” a novel.