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The Lives of Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller, problem child of American transcendentalism, gets fresh treatment from Pulitzer Prize-winner John Matteson.

By / February 23, 2012

The Lives of Margaret Fuller By John Matteson W.W. Norton & Co. 510 pp.

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“How can you describe a Force?” asked her friend Sam Ward after she was drowned. “How can you write a life of Margaret?”

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If writing a biography of Margaret Fuller was difficult at the moment of her premature death in 1850, it has become no easier in the decades since. Fuller, who has been described as “the mysterious, presiding ghost of American transcendentalism,” has faded rather quietly into the shadows of history – an ironic fate for a woman who was known for being anything but quiet during her life.

But Fuller may now be getting a bit more of the respect that she deserves. Award-wining biographer John Matteson has published The Lives of Margaret Fuller, a thorough, sympathetic examination of one of the more unusual figures of the 19th-century American intelligentsia – a woman who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with period geniuses such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amos Bronson Alcott; who alternately irritated and fascinated literary greats like Nathaniel Hawthone and Edgar Allan Poe; and who enjoyed rare pleasures such as a chance to drift down the Concord River with Henry David Thoreau.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in writing about Fuller is defining who she was and the contribution that she made. She was certainly a bright light and energizing presence of her time. A brilliant “conversationalist” (a calling perhaps best understood today as a type of interactive lecturer), Fuller was a figure of passion and conviction. Inspired by both the American transcendentalists and the German romantics, Fuller believed ardently in the individual integrity and potential perfection of each being. She advocated forcefully for the rights of women, abolitionism, and education and prison reform. She visited Sing Sing prison and took an active interest in the welfare of prostitutes – not exactly everyday activities for a woman of her time and place.

Although Fuller was also a prolific writer – she was an editor for The Dial (the influential publication that Emerson called his “antidote to narrowness); the acclaimed author of “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” (sometimes called the first serious work of American feminism); a columnist hired by Horace Greeley to work as the first literary editor at the New York Tribune; and one of American journalism’s first foreign correspondents – she is rarely read today. (Even in her time, some readers struggled to embrace her work. One unkind wag noted that the transcendentalists “read Dante in the original Italian, Hegel in the original German ... and perhaps the hardest task of all, Margaret Fuller in the original English.”)

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