An Outsize Intellect Tilting at Obstacles

By Garner, Dwight | International Herald Tribune, March 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

An Outsize Intellect Tilting at Obstacles


Garner, Dwight, International Herald Tribune


Megan Marshall's "Margaret Fuller," a biography of the 19th- century scholar, editor and feminist, has the texture of a serious novel.

Margaret Fuller. A New American Life. By Megan Marshall. Illustrated. 474 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $30.

When Margaret Fuller died in a shipwreck off Fire Island in 1850, her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was devastated. He sent a mutual friend, Henry David Thoreau, to the scene of the disaster.

Thoreau walked the beach and interviewed survivors and witnesses. What he discovered appalled him. While Fuller's ship had foundered on rocks only 300 meters from shore, spectators had gathered not to mount rescue efforts but to scavenge what floated from the wreckage.

One thing that was never recovered was the sole manuscript of Fuller's "great history" of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. What a waste, in a thousand ways.

Fuller, the formidable American editor, feminist, foreign correspondent and social crusader, was only 40. She was returning to America with her new husband and their 2-year-old son after several years in Europe. She couldn't swim.

Fuller's was a great life, flush with drama, and Megan Marshall's new biography rises to it in ways small and large.

Ms. Marshall is the author of one previous book, the sublime and sustaining "Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism" (2005). This new book proves that the earlier volume was no fluke. It pushes Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers.

She is comfortable with subtle intellection as well as the sweep of history. She captures the intricacies of Fuller's editorship of The Dial, the Transcendentalist literary journal, and her stints as a front-page columnist and foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.

Ms. Marshall is terrific on Fuller's composition of the feminist manifesto "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," which made her a celebrity. That groundbreaking and instructively peppery book argued that marriage should be "only an experience" for women, not the sole aim of existence. A house is "no home" for a woman, Fuller declared, "unless it contain food and fire for the mind as well as for the body."

Fuller knew everyone, not just Emerson and Thoreau but the young Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well. When she donated a cow to Brook Farm, the utopian commune founded in the 1840s in Massachusetts, Hawthorne liked to call it the "transcendental heifer."

Edgar Allan Poe reviewed one of her books; Walt Whitman pored over her columns. Abroad she met George Sand, Matthew Arnold and William Wordsworth, and stayed at the home of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Emerson called Fuller's "the most entertaining conversation in America." People wanted to be around her. The tragedy of her life is that she desired more of a career than a woman of her era was able to have. "A man's ambition with a woman's heart," she wrote in a journal. "'Tis an accursed lot."

"Margaret Fuller" is as seductive as it is impressive. …

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