Marshall does an incredible service to the wit, wisdom, passion, energy and drive of Margaret Fuller, earning her a Pulitzer Prize for Biography. A well-researched book is one thing, but to infuse it with the magic of its subject is another. Marshall judiciously sprinkles the text with quotes from Fuller, making the story come alive. Pushed by her father to study Greek, Latin, the classics, her mind was shaped according to the standards of a “male” education, but she found no quarter to hold forth with her talents. While she was known to be a powerful and engaging speaker, she dared not ascend the speaker’s podium for a living, but found space for her thoughts in writing and private conversations. Steadily, Marshall builds the picture of Fuller’s talents becoming well-defined and well-known, climaxing with the publication of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She finally heads to Europe, where she finds an abundance of others skilled in the art of conversation, feeling at home at last. I’ve forgotten to mention her role as Goethe scholar, Dial editor (and huge contributor), school teacher, Conversations leader.
Steady correspondence with Waldo Emerson fills the pages, her need for a connection to other brains almost desperate at times, causing him to shrink back and then expand. I appreciate Marshall’s positioning of this delicate relationship, that Fuller did not kowtow to Emerson, but gave it straight to him, needling him, and once she realized she’d never get the deep emotional support from him, moving on. After years of disappointments in love, she finds fellow minds to commune with in Europe, culminating in an Italian love affair that results in a pregnancy and child she hides for a few years. Fuller’s descriptions of her initial time in Italy are fantastic, suffused by the emotion of finally living on her own and being swept up in mutual adoration for the first time. After the failed revolution, she boards a ship with son and husband, only to drown in a shipwreck 300 yards from shore along with her family. Emerson sends Thoreau to scout out the scene, obtain any relics or manuscripts washed ashore. Precious little is found.
Fuller on progress (p 114):
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… the triumph over matter does not always or often lead to the triumph of Soul… when it is made over easy for men to communicate with one another, they learn less from one another.
Fuller’s loneliness (p 274):
In her diary that winter Margaret described an oppressive awareness that “I have no real hold on life, – no real, permanent connection with any soul.” She felt disembodied, like “a wandering Intelligence, driven from spot to spot.” Perhaps her fate was this: to live alone, to “learn all secrets, and fulfill a circle of knowledge,” but never to experience full communion with another being.
Reco’d by the inimitable Kate Bolick