Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Impersonal Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Problem of Biography

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

The Impersonal Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Problem of Biography

Article excerpt

This review essay proceeds from considering two most recent biographies of Margaret Fuller--John Matteson's The Lives of Margaret Fuller (2012) and Megan Marshall's Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (2013)--as commendable contributions to Fuller scholarship that productively urge us to translate the multifariousness of Fuller's life onto her work. In the second part, this essay offers one such translation: by unfolding the consequences of Marshall's and Matteson's initial premise, according to which the singleness of Margaret Fuller is dissolved into her many faces, it investigates the instrumental role this impermanence of identities plays in engendering Fuller's most original philosophical project--her theory of ecstatic impersonality.

John Matteson, The Lives of Margaret Fuller (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), xvi + 520 pages, $32.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), xxi + 474 pages, $30 cloth; $16.95 paper.

In 1852, two years after Margaret Fuller's death, Emerson, Charming, and Clarke published her first biography, and arranged the text in such a way that it could be read as her autobiography. The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli is a pastiche of Fuller's journal entries, letters, and excerpts from her published and unpublished works, interspersed by the editors' explanatory commentary, and supplemented by their own lengthy impressions and memories of her. The Margaret Fuller that emerges from this patchwork is a sickly, asexual woman, confused about her religious allegiances, intellectually stellar, but often misunderstood. In 1884, Fuller's brother Arthur added an Appendix and a Preface to the second edition of the Memoirs in which he claimed that "[Margaret] never would have published the sketch [which portrays their father as a "stem and exacting" disciplinarian] without such modifications as would have shown our father to have been a most judicious and tender one." (1) The editorial method of the Memoirs, which compiles Fuller's life narrative from her first-person material and offers it as the personal memoirs she never wrote (and would have probably "modified") raises an important question about genre: should the titular memoirs refer to Margaret's own memories of her life, or to the editors' and her brother's memories of Margaret?

The question has become emblematic in the field of Fuller biographies: which Margaret Fuller is given in the Memoirs or in any of her subsequent biographies? (2) As John Matteson, one of Fuller's recent biographers, points out, Emerson, Channing, and Clarke "had access to innumerable documents that either vanished or were destroyed after they used them," hence "some of their well-meant obfuscations are now permanent," and have become "the accepted version of Fuller's life." (3) The tendency toward biographical reductionism, characteristic of the Memoirs, is especially problematic given the many and mutually contradictory aspects of Fuller's life. A child prodigy, the first woman editor, one of the first reporters on the expansion of the American West, an activist, and a war correspondent from the revolutionary Europe of 1848, Fuller comes across as a strong and ambitious figure. Yet, her journals and letters introduce a person often overwhelmed by poor health and paralyzed by the pain of violent headaches. In her writings she was as versatile: in some she advocates for the emancipation of women; in others she calls for the dissolution of any form of identity. In order to tame this psychological and intellectual abundance into a coherent narrative, Fuller's biographers commonly follow Emerson, Clarke, and Channing, and emphasize one aspect--Fuller's feminism or ill health for example--at the expense of others. (4)

The two most recent biographies, John Matteson's The Lives of Margaret Fuller and Megan Marshall's Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, stand out in this regard. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.