Margaret Fuller: A New American Life

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Overview

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography
 
From an early age, Margaret Fuller provoked and dazzled New England’s intellectual elite. Her famous Conversations changed women’s sense of how they could think and live; her editorship of the Transcendentalist literary journal the Dial shaped American Romanticism. Now, Megan Marshall, whose acclaimed The Peabody Sisters “discovered” three fascinating women, ...

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Overview

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography
 
From an early age, Margaret Fuller provoked and dazzled New England’s intellectual elite. Her famous Conversations changed women’s sense of how they could think and live; her editorship of the Transcendentalist literary journal the Dial shaped American Romanticism. Now, Megan Marshall, whose acclaimed The Peabody Sisters “discovered” three fascinating women, has done it again: no biography of Fuller has made her ideas so alive or her life so moving.

Marshall tells the story of how Fuller, tired of Boston, accepted Horace Greeley’s offer to be the New-York Tribune’s front-page columnist. The move unleashed a crusading concern for the urban poor and the plight of prostitutes, and a late-in-life hunger for passionate experience. In Italy as a foreign correspondent, Fuller took a secret lover, a young officer in the Roman Guard; she wrote dispatches on the brutal 1849 Siege of Rome; and she gave birth to a son.

Yet, when all three died in a shipwreck off Fire Island shortly after Fuller’s fortieth birthday, the sense and passion of her life’s work were eclipsed by tragedy and scandal. Marshall’s inspired account brings an American heroine back to indelible life.

Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
This [book] pushes Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers…Margaret Fuller is as seductive as it is impressive. It has the grain and emotional amplitude of a serious novel, especially in its first half. It delivers a lovely and bumpy coming-of-age story, one of the best such stories 19th-century America has to offer…an alert and elegant narrative. Ms. Marshall's rigorous book stands on the shoulders of earlier scholarship and many previous biographies of Fuller. It doesn't contain a vast amount of new material. But in Ms. Marshall, Fuller has found what feels like her ideal biographer.
Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize finalist Marshall (The Peabody Sisters) takes on the life of a lesser-known American writer in this biography of Margaret Fuller, whose book Women in the Nineteenth Century was merely the most successful among those she produced during a lifetime of impassioned intellectual discourse, both public and private. Marshall sticks closely to the primary documents of Fuller’s life. Though the biography reads as a narrative, the text is peppered with quotations from Fuller’s letters, essays, fiction, and personal diaries. This abundance of detail sometimes descends into tedium. Though organized around places Fuller lived, the book’s real driving force is her relationships, from the perfectionist father who gave her a thirst for education early on to the circle of academics and radicals over whom Fuller exerted her influence, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson. Marshall can’t avoid the romantic scandal of Fuller’s life—her accidental pregnancy by and secret marriage to the noble-born Giovanni Ossoli. The couple died in a shipwreck along with their newborn son soon after. But this scandal isn’t the focus of the book. Instead, Marshall seeks to render the plight of a female intellectual struggling to balance societal expectations with her lofty ambitions and ideals. The book’s success comes from the way that Marshall allows the reader to understand and empathize with Fuller in her plight. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Agency. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
"Megan Marshall's brilliant Margaret Fuller brings us as close as we are ever likely to get to this astonishing creature. She rushes out at us from her nineteenth century, always several steps ahead, inspiring, heartbreaking, magnificent." — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

"Megan Marshall gives new meaning to close reading—from words on a page she conjures a fantastically rich inner life, a meld of body, mind, and soul. Drawing on the letters and diaries of Margaret Fuller and her circle, she has brought us a brave, visionary, sensual, tough-minded intellectual, a ‘first woman’ who was unique yet stood for all women. A masterful achievement by a great American writer and scholar.” — Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World

"Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life is the best single volume ever written on Fuller. Carefully researched and beautifully composed, the book brings Fuller back to life in all her intellectual vivacity and emotional intensity. Marshall’s Fuller overwhelms the reader, just as Fuller herself overwhelmed everyone she met. A masterpiece of empathetic biography, this is the book Fuller herself would have wanted. You will not be able to put it down." — Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire

"Fuller’s was a great life, flush with drama, and Megan Marshall’s new biography rises to it in ways small and large . . . This one pitches Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers . . . 'Margaret Fuller' is as seductive as it is impressive . . . In Ms. Marshall, Fuller has found what feels like her ideal biographer."—New York Times
"A lively, intuitive study of a remarkable American character.”  — Kirkus Reviews

"The book's success comes from the way that Marshall allows the reader to understand and empathize with Fuller in her plight." —  Publishers Weekly
 
"[Marshall] inhabits Fuller’s dramatic, oft-told story with unique intimacy by virtue of her fluency in and judicious quoting of Fuller’s extraordinarily vivid letters . . . Marshall brings stirring historical and psychological insights to Fuller’s complicated relationship with Emerson and the other transcendentalists, her journey west and response to the horrific plight of Native Americans, her gripping dispatches on social ills as a front-page columnist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and her triumphs in Europe as 'America’s first female foreign correspondent.' How spectacularly detailed and compassionate Marshall’s chronicle is of Fuller’s scandalous love for an Italian soldier, the birth of their son, her heroic coverage of the 1849 siege of Rome, and her and her family’s tragic deaths when their ship wrecks in sight of the American coast. A magnificent biography of a revolutionary thinker, witness, and writer." —Booklist starred review

From the Publisher

"Megan Marshall's brilliant Margaret Fuller brings us as close as we are ever likely to get to this astonishing creature. She rushes out at us from her nineteenth century, always several steps ahead, inspiring, heartbreaking, magnificent." — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

"Megan Marshall gives new meaning to close reading—from words on a page she conjures a fantastically rich inner life, a meld of body, mind, and soul. Drawing on the letters and diaries of Margaret Fuller and her circle, she has brought us a brave, visionary, sensual, tough-minded intellectual, a ‘first woman’ who was unique yet stood for all women. A masterful achievement by a great American writer and scholar.” — Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World

"Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life is the best single volume ever written on Fuller. Carefully researched and beautifully composed, the book brings Fuller back to life in all her intellectual vivacity and emotional intensity. Marshall’s Fuller overwhelms the reader, just as Fuller herself overwhelmed everyone she met. A masterpiece of empathetic biography, this is the book Fuller herself would have wanted. You will not be able to put it down." — Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire

"Fuller’s was a great life, flush with drama, and Megan Marshall’s new biography rises to it in ways small and large . . . This one pitches Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers . . . 'Margaret Fuller' is as seductive as it is impressive . . . In Ms. Marshall, Fuller has found what feels like her ideal biographer." -- New York Times
"A lively, intuitive study of a remarkable American character.”  — Kirkus Reviews

"The book's success comes from the way that Marshall allows the reader to understand and empathize with Fuller in her plight." —  Publishers Weekly
 
"[Marshall] inhabits Fuller’s dramatic, oft-told story with unique intimacy by virtue of her fluency in and judicious quoting of Fuller’s extraordinarily vivid letters . . . Marshall brings stirring historical and psychological insights to Fuller’s complicated relationship with Emerson and the other transcendentalists, her journey west and response to the horrific plight of Native Americans, her gripping dispatches on social ills as a front-page columnist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and her triumphs in Europe as 'America’s first female foreign correspondent.' How spectacularly detailed and compassionate Marshall’s chronicle is of Fuller’s scandalous love for an Italian soldier, the birth of their son, her heroic coverage of the 1849 siege of Rome, and her and her family’s tragic deaths when their ship wrecks in sight of the American coast. A magnificent biography of a revolutionary thinker, witness, and writer." —Booklist starred review

Kirkus Reviews
A deeply sympathetic life of an exceptional mind, protofeminist and revolutionary. Embedded in the Emersonian milieu as biographer (The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, 2005) and professor (Emerson Coll.), Pulitzer finalist Marshall is perfectly suited to her material, so much so that she frequently takes on the highhanded, emotive tone of her subject. Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) was the close colleague of Ralph Waldo Emerson, fellow editor of the transcendentalist journal The Dial, teacher and author of the groundbreaking feminist study Woman in the Nineteenth Century. The oldest daughter of a tyrannical lawyer and congressman in Massachusetts, Fuller demonstrated early on her abundant intellectual gifts. However, instead of attending Harvard, she had to sublimate her "unfocused striving and rankling frustration over family obligations" and teach her smaller siblings. When her father died in 1835, it fell on Fuller to take care of her mother and siblings, as a teacher and fledgling writer, yet his death also freed her to pursue her personal journey. Initiated into reformist ideas while teaching at Bronson Alcott's Temple School and plunged into Emerson's circle, Fuller moved from Providence to Boston to New York, working on translations, leading a series of conversation classes with women and assuming editorship of the transcendentalist organ, before restlessly moving on to Horace Greeley's New-York Tribune. Marshall's discovery of a late-life journal reveals Fuller's last beatific years in Rome as a correspondent, when she met the younger Giovanni Angelo Ossoli during the perilous revolutionary era of 1848. Bound home with their young son, the family perished together in the wreck of the Elizabeth off the coast of Fire Island in 1850. Friend of intellectual lights of the day, cultural emissary and author in her own right, Fuller had finally attained her own destiny. Lively, intuitive study of a remarkable American character.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547195605
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/12/2013
  • Pages: 474
  • Sales rank: 194,866
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

MEGAN MARSHALL is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Margaret Fuller , and the author of The Peabody Sisters , which won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. She teaches narrative nonfiction and the art of archival research in the MFA program at Emerson College. For more, visit www.meganmarshallauthor.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Dear father it is a heavy storm i hope you will not have to come home in it.” So begins the record of a life that will end on a homeward journey in another heavy storm, a life unusually full of words, both spoken and written.
   Sarah Margaret Fuller is six years old when she writes this brief letter on a half-sheet of paper saved by the devoted and exacting father who receives it, next by his widow, then by their descendants. Which one of them thinks to label it “First letter”? All of her survivors understand that there are, or will be, biographers, historians, students of literature who care to know.
   But first it is the father who treasures his daughter’s message of concern, this lurching unpunctuated parade of runes, from the moment he unfolds the page — a father nearing forty and eager to set his young daughter, already an apt pupil, to a “severe though kind” education. And the mother, just twenty-one at her daughter’s birth, only twenty-seven now: she is known to find any words her firstborn child scribbles on bits of paper “original,” worthy of preservation.
At seven, the little girl — a tall little girl with plain looks and auburn hair, whose height and imperious manner set her apart from her age mates — writes again to her father, Timothy Fuller, a brash and for the moment successful lawyer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a U.S. congressman whose career in politics takes him away to Washington half the year, in winter and spring. It is January of 1818. In the new year, the girl’s concern for her father has transmuted into the desire to earn his good opinion — and so into more words, into the wish to show off her inquiring mind.
   “I have learned all the rules of Musick but one,” she writes now in a fine spidery script, and “I have been reviewing Valpy’s Chronology” (a verse narrative of ancient and English history). And: “I should have liked to have been with you to have seen the pictures gallery at NYork.”
   Sarah Margaret’s claims of accomplishment, her carefully worded wish to join Timothy in New York, are meant to forestall what she has already come to expect from her overbearing father: the torrent of criticism — of her penmanship, of her rate of progress through his curriculum, of her “stile” of expression, as he prefers to spell the word — all intended to bring his precocious daughter “as near perfection as possible.” Timothy, proud to have been a “high scholar” at Harvard, has been her only teacher, starting her on Latin at age six, requiring that she recite her lessons only to him during his months at home, insisting she be kept awake until his return from work to stand before him on his study carpet late at night, her nerves “on the stretch” until she has finished repeating to him what she had learned that day. Already she has experienced more severity than kindness in her father’s pedagogy.
   And so the anxious, eager-to-please seven-year-old Sarah Margaret Fuller apologizes to her father, a man with “absolutely no patience” for mistakes, as she will to no one else in the voluminous correspondence that follows after this second letter: “I do not write well at all,” and “I have written every day a little but have made but little improvement.” And: “I hope to make greater proficiency in my Studies.”
   But the verbs tell all — she has learned and reviewed, she would like to see and to make improvement. These verbs are hers. The nouns also: music, art, chronology (the unfolding of world events, the progress of society). These are her concerns, her aims, her occupations at age seven. And they will remain so for the girl who, to her father’s and her own dismay, struggles through years of singing lessons, unable to shine at this one accomplishment. “To excel in all things should be your constant aim; mediocrity is obscurity,” Timothy will prod when he offers to buy her a piano. But she continues to write every day that she has paper and pen to hand, except in times of sickness, until she becomes a woman. And then too, when she will write of music, art, literature, politics, and travel for a nation of readers. She takes her father’s cue, embraces the discipline: she refuses to be mediocre, to be obscure.
   The seven-year-old girl must stop writing this second letter, however, a letter that announces her intellect to her father even by way of apology, because her mother — Margarett Crane Fuller — has asked her to “hold the baby,” a new little brother, William Henry, the second after brother Eugene. Three-year-old Eugene “speaks of you sometimes,” the girl tells her father, but he is not old enough to write — or to hold the baby, which he would not have been asked to do anyway, as a boy. Sarah Margaret must hold the baby while her mother, Margarett — a head taller than her bluff, domineering husband, with a slender, elfin beauty; sweet-tempered, but not a woman of letters — writes her own letter to Timothy.
   Baby, little brother, elder sister, mother, all crowd around a writing desk with the absent Timothy foremost in their minds — his demanding presence felt across the miles. Missing from this tableau is Julia Adelaide, the “soft, graceful and lively” much-adored second-born daughter who died four years ago, just past her first birthday, when Sarah Margaret was three years old. The abrupt loss, the never-forgotten moment when the baby’s nurse, tears streaming, pulled Sarah Margaret into the nursery to view her sister’s tiny corpse in all its “severe sweetness,” shocked the older girl into consciousness. “My first experience of life was one of death,” she will write years later — so that even now, as she takes her infant brother in her arms and cedes the pen to her mother, she feels alone.
   “She who would have been the companion of my life” was “severed from me”: Julia Adelaide might have been Sarah Margaret’s ally in their father’s more “severe” than “kind” school. Julia Adelaide’s death too was far more “severe” than “sweet,” for in the following months Margarett was also severed — or withdrew — from Sarah Margaret, growing “delicate” in health as her grief turned to depression. The sorrowing mother spent hours in her garden, working the flower beds or simply sitting among the fragrant roses, fruit trees, and clematis vines, turned away from her living daughter. And then the brothers came, first Eugene and then William Henry. In dreams, Sarah Margaret sees herself joining a procession of mourners “in their black clothes and dreary faces,” following her mother to her grave as she already has her sister. She has been told, but does not remember, that she begged “with loud cries” that Julia Adelaide not be put into the ground. She wakes to find her pillow wet with tears.
 
Two years later, Sarah Margaret starts again: “My dear father.” By now, January 16, 1820, she has written many more letters to Timothy, signed them “Your affectionate daughter, Sarah M Fuller” or “S M Fuller” or “Sarah-Margaret Fuller.” She has sent him compositions in which “I assure you I . . . made almost as many corrections as your critical self would were you at home.” Obedient to Timothy alone (her mother finds her difficult, “opinionative”), she has let him know she is translating Oliver Goldsmith’s long poem of rural decline, The Deserted Village, into Latin, as he has asked; she is pushing herself through the Aeneid in answer to his challenge — wasn’t she yet “profoundly into” the work? Within six months she will have puzzled out the entire savage-heroic tale in the original Latin.
   It is a greater pleasure, almost easy, for the girl to accomplish such intellectual feats during the half-year her father is away. Even though she quarrels with Margarett, is unable to feel her love, she will at times, whether to imitate her mother or to seek her mother’s distilled essence or simply to please herself, sit alone in the garden, at ease among the violets, lilies, and roses: “my mother’s hand had planted them, and they bloomed for me.” Like Persephone, she is free above ground during the two seasons her father is away, when her mother’s “flower-like nature” prevails, when she need answer only to Timothy’s exhorting letters.
   In this third letter she begins to test Timothy’s strictures. Twice before she has written asking his permission to read an Italian thriller, Zeluco, and twice she has recommended for his own reading a novel — “Do not let the name novel make you think it is either trifling or silly,” she urges — called Hesitation: or, To Marry, or Not to Marry? In the pages of Hesitation she has encountered, along with the novel’s pair of indecisive lovers, the extraordinary comtesse de Pologne, a witty conversationalist, happily single, with the “power to disengage herself from the shackles of custom, without losing one attribute of modesty”: a woman whose personal magnetism draws both men and women to her circle. Does she hope Timothy will find the comtesse too and approve?
   Sarah Margaret is writing fiction herself, “a new tale called The young satirist,” she tells her father, in the loose rolling hand she has acquired only recently, which will be recognizably hers from now on. Despite Timothy’s criticisms, she is beginning to feel how bright she is, even brilliant, a commanding presence in her mind’s eye, if not in daily life — the tall girl will soon reach five feet two inches and stop growing, becoming short, plump, and awkward as an adolescent. She too can play the critic, the provocateur, the “young satirist,” when she wishes. She is nine years old. Her mother, Margarett, just thirty, is newly pregnant with a fifth child. She closes her letter:
 
 P S I do not like Sarah, call me Margaret alone, pray do!

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xiii
Prologue xv

Part I: Youth
   1.   Three Letters 5
   2.   Ellen Kilshaw 10
   3.   Theme: “Possunt quia posse videntur” 20
   4.   Mariana 28

Part II: Cambridge
   5.   The Young Lady’s Friends 39
   6.   Elective Affinities 51

Part III: Groton and Providence
   7.   “My heart has no proper home” 71
   8.   “Returned into life” 89
   9.   “Bringing my opinions to the test” 105

Part IV: concord, boston, jamaica plain
   10.   “What were we born to do?” 127
   11.   “The gospel of Transcendentalism” 142
   12.   Communities and Covenants 163
   13.   “The newest new world” 202

Part V: New York
   14.   “I stand in the sunny noon of life” 223
   15.   “Flying on the paper wings of every day” 235
   16.   “A human secret, like my own” 244

Part VI: Europe
   17.   Lost on Ben Lomond 269
   18.   “Rome has grown up in my soul” 282
   19.   “A being born wholly of my being” 315

Part VII: homeward
   20.   “I have lived in a much more full and true way” 353
   21.   “No favorable wind” 369
 
Epilogue: “After so dear a storm” 379
Acknowledgments 393
Notes 397
Index 451

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