Book Review:
Margaret Fuller

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, is one of those books that can truly be hard to put down. The author, Megan Marshall, was also a Pulitzer-Prize finalist for her previous book, The Peabody Sisters. Marshall’s biography of Margaret Fuller recounts the extraordinary tale of a woman who lived in the 19th century and who was way ahead of her time.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 in Massachusetts and was initially taught by her father, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She then attended various schools between the ages of 9 and 15. As a young adult, she was known as a superb conversationalist, and as someone who could hold her own in discussions of weighty topics. She was so adept at such discussions that she eventually held a number of series of Conversations in Boston that a group of women would pay to attend. There the women could discuss a range of topics such as Greek mythology and the roles of women.

Fuller is known nowadays to numerous people because of her connection to Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to whom she was a friend and colleague. She was the first editor of The Dial, the journal of the Transcendental Club; both Emerson and Thoreau contributed works that were published in that journal.

During the course of her lifetime, Margaret Fuller was also an author and a journalist. Her best-known book is called Woman in the Nineteenth Century. In it, she put forth her view that there is not a wholly masculine man or a wholly feminine woman. Everyone is a combination of masculinity and femininity. She advocated that all kinds of occupations should be open to women, when very few were. The most famous line of hers from this book is “let them be sea-captains, if you will.” I think she would be delighted that as of this year, the U.S. Navy has its first female 4-star admiral!

With respect to journalism, Fuller worked for the New-York Tribune as a columnist. She wrote about social and cultural issues, and the paper sent her to Europe in 1846 as a foreign correspondent. She ended up being a war correspondent, reporting on attempts at revolution in Italy. She tried to return to the United States in 1850 after about four years abroad. She was attempting to get to the U.S. with her Italian husband and their son, who was about 2 years old, when tragically they all perished in a shipwreck just off Fire Island, New York.

This biography of Margaret Fuller is very well-documented with many quotations from source materials. Yet it manages to flow along like a novel. This was certainly a case in which the Pulitzer Prize was well-deserved.

See more features from the October 2014 issue