Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After you read my review, read my friend Lori’s take on the book in her post, “A woman’s life (and what history will make of it)”.

Although I’ve found the name Margaret Fuller familiar probably since my women’s studies classes in college, I didn’t really learn about her until our minister gave a sermon about her this spring. After the sermon I asked the minister for suggestions for further reading, and she recommended The Lives of Margaret Fuller by John Matteson. I bought the book because I like our minister and trust her opinion, but I procrastinated starting it. I wanted a book about Margaret Fuller that was written by a woman. I was pretty sure there was one because I’d heard a radio interview with a woman on the subject of Margaret Fuller, and when I went to investigate, I found Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, which had just won a Pulitzer.

A Pulitzer and a woman author? Clearly this was the biography I wanted to read first.

I didn’t have to read far into the book to decide that I really like Marshall’s book, and I love Margaret Fuller. I feel like I can relate to her. I, like her, was taught from a young age by a father delighted by my precociousness and tickled at the idea of seeing what the brain of this child of his could absorb. I, too, received detailed critical commentary from my father on my essays and stories. I, too, was left directionless when my father for stopped directing my education.

Fuller’s father worried he was making her unmarriageable by promoting her masculine intellect, so he stopped her classical education and sent her to finishing school. I don’t know my father’s reasons for abandoning my at-home math and science education, but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with my marriageability. I do blame him in part for my somewhat stilted social style. His no-nonsense model of critique gave me both the ability to handle criticism and the inability to recognize that others might want me to pull a few punches when I critique their work. This hasn’t negatively impacted my ability to marry (although it’s possible it’s part of the reason I’m married to a scientist rather than a writer).

I also relate to Fuller as she moves into adulthood, great responsibility thrust upon her due to family circumstances, tremendous doubt assailing her at every turn. She’s pulled between her passions and her intellect, what’s expected of her and what she wishes to do (I say as my five-year-old whines at me and the clock flashes annoyingly, reminding me that I need to start dinner instead of trying to write a book review).

As she reaches her 30’s, her growing success highlights our differences. We both started a discussion group, we both have rather sensitive constitutions, and for both of us motherhood was a catalyst for a more balanced union between intellect and heart, but Fuller’s genius and ambition and bravery and clear sense of purpose take her places that I’m unlikely ever to go. She becomes the first woman war correspondent (although she has to take a governess job because her newspaper doesn’t pay enough to support her), while it’s a major accomplishment for me to go into Boston for the day. She feels comfortable and confident hanging out with the big thinkers of her time, and impresses them in the process with her poise and her clear, logical thinking, while I stretch and strain and stumble about for the right words to express the thought I’m trying to form.
A nineteenth-century sybil, Fuller speaks for an America nearly 200 years in the future. This opinion, expressed in 1837, is just one of many examples of the ways in which Margaret Fuller was ahead of her time:

She allowed that society as a whole may have improved, but what of the individual? The very signs of progress others pointed to—innovations such as the railroad and the steamship—created or exacerbated “immense wants” in the individual: “the diffusion of information is not necessarily the diffusion of knowledge,” she explained, and “the triumph over matter does not always or often lead to the triumph of the Soul.” And “when it is made easy for men to communicate with one another, they learn less from on another.” (p 114)

This is an idea that could be—and frequently is—expressed in the 21st century. In fact, it’s a big reason I started my own discussion group.

I wish to see my surroundings with Fuller’s clarity and to express my thoughts about them in a way that touches people as much as Fuller’s words have, effecting change even when her name is eclipsed in national memory by her male counterparts.

Marshall’s biography has been a pleasure to read and has given me not only a lot to think about but a role model of sorts to encourage me as I make my own way.

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