The Lives of Margaret Fuller
Margaret Fuller, problem child of American transcendentalism, gets fresh treatment from Pulitzer Prize-winner John Matteson.
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But Fuller’s life, fortunately, is greater than the sum of her words. A born-and-bred New Englander, she was profoundly influenced by her rather bumptious father Timothy – later a US congressman – who homeschooled young Margaret so rigorously that Matteson calls her “in her time, the best read woman in America and the one most renowned for her intelligence.”Skip to next paragraph
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Matteson, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in biography for “Eden’s Outcasts,” his examination of the lives of Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson, presents Fuller with insight and nuance. In her own words, Fuller was an “odd and unpleasant girl” whose brilliance won her more rejection than acceptance. As a young woman, she became an earnest if often graceless seeker of truth, and Matteson is respectful as he chronicles her breakthroughs and her struggles as she urgently pursues both philosophical truths and personal acceptance.
“Fuller was both gifted and giving,” writes Matteson, “but she could be arrogant, irritable, and condescending.... She was capable of both stoicism and self-pity, of sublime insight and naive self-delusion. She could inspire. She could infuriate. She seldom soothed.”
In a dramatic final coda to her life, Fuller traveled to Italy, met with revolutionary leader Giuseppe Mazzini, and was caught up in the drama of that country’s Risorgimento. She also met a young Italian nobleman – Giovanni Ossoli – became pregnant with his child, and eventually married him.
While traveling back to the US in 1850, the boat carrying Fuller, Ossoli, and their young child, Angelino, was shipwrecked a short distance from New York’s Fire Island. Almost all the other passengers were saved but Fuller and her family drowned. (It is a horrendous bit of irony that Fuller had long nursed a nightmarish fear of drowning.)
Lost along with Fuller was a manuscript that she was bringing to New York to publish as a history of the Risorgimento. Might it have been her greatest work? Some who knew her say yes. We will never know.
Matterson divides his book into chapters with titles like: “Prodigy”; “Apostle”: “Ecstatic Editor”; “Seeker of Utopia”; “Internationalist”; and “Revolutionary”. He certainly proves his point that Fuller led many lives, crammed into 40 short years. And yet, underneath them all, in many ways, she remains always the same. Her earnestness, her striving, her brilliance, her passion, and even her awkwardness unite the different phases of Fuller’s life and make her the unique creature that Matteson’s biography proves her to be.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s Books editor.