Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall

Last year, I participated in Reading New England over at Emerald City Book Review. Two of the books I read for the challenge, Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne and American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever, had a connection to Margaret Fuller  (1810-1850) that made me want to know more about this writer and early women's' rights activist. Megan Marshall's Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (2013) took me right into Fuller's tumultuous, complex and ultimately tragic life.

Margaret Fuller had an unconventional childhood. Her father, an attorney, wanted Margaret to have the same education as a man. She spoke Latin at the age of 6. Her brilliant mind made her different from other people, and Megan Marshall does a great job of illustrating throughout the book the many ways in which Fuller tried to find her place in a society that didn't really value her contribution as an intelligent woman. 

Not wanting to take the traditional route to marriage, Fuller wanted to be a writer. To finance this endeavor, she worked for a time as a teacher at one of Bronson Alcott's schools. She was a confidante of Ralph Waldo Emerson and served as editor for his journal, The Dial, which showcased many of her writings. She also edited some of Henry David Thoreau's early work. She supported her mother and her siblings after her father died.  

What interested her was the role of women, and she hosted several events for women in which she led discussions about the plight of women. This led to Fuller's writing of her famous yet controversial work about equality for women, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1846).

Fuller didn't make the best decisions when it came to her love life. Although she moved to New York City and had a successful career as a newspaper reporter, she decided to follow a man who was her love interest to Europe. The love affair didn't last, but Fuller found the intellectual fulfillment she wanted in the artists and writers that she met. She felt a freedom she'd never known to live the artist's life that she wanted. 

In 1847, Fuller, now 37 years old, went to Rome where she became the first woman reporter to cover a war when she wrote about the conflict between Italy and Austria. It was in Rome that she met a handsome younger man, Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, and became pregnant. With Ossoli involved in the war, Fuller moved to a village in the mountains away from the war where she awaited the birth of the baby. She had a boy, Nino, but left him in the care of a village woman and soon returned to the action to cover the end of the war.

Fuller decided to return to America in 1850 with Ossoli and Nino. She brought a manuscript about the Italian Republic which she deemed to be her best work. Emerson along with her other friends and family were not happy about Fuller's return because of her unconventional lifestyle. Unfortunately, Fuller, Ossoli, and Nino died in a shipwreck during a violent storm off the shore of Fire Island, New York, on July 19, 1850. Her manuscript was never found.

Megan Marshall uses Margaret Fuller's letters, journals and writings to bring Fuller to life. I loved Marshall's writing and Fuller's writing as well. Fuller had a dynamic, larger than life personality and was so much more than one of the Transcendentalists. 

I find myself wondering sometimes what Fuller's life would have been like if she'd lived. Would she have been accepted back into the fold of her friends and family? Would she have stayed with Ossoli, described by friends as a charming man but one who'd never read a book? Was the manuscript she brought back her best writing? 

I highly recommend Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.


  1. This has been on my to-read list forever so I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it.

  2. Fuller sounds like a fascinating woman. One of my bookish goals this year is to read more non-fiction, and this one just made it onto my list. Great review! :)

  3. Sounds ery interesting. I am beginning to read more nonfiction these days.

  4. I really need to learn more about Margaret Fuller. This sounds like an excellent place to start.

  5. Wow, Monica, this sounds fantastic, her life reads like a dramatic novel in itself. This is a book that I shall have to read.
    Miss Cellany.