44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2013
In the early 19th century, women had only a few possible careers -- they could be homemakers, teachers, prostitutes, factory workers, seamstresses, and slaves. All other jobs usually went to men. A woman -- especially a woman with physical disabilities -- was expected to live a hidden life. Margaret Fuller defied the social rules of her era to lead a full and exciting public life and advocated that other women be given the same opportunities.
Margaret had a malformed spine -- one shoulder was much higher than the other -- crippling migraines, painful nearsighted vision problems, short height (five feet, two inches), and occasional clinical depressions. She was also not pretty, so when she fell in love with men, they wanted to be "friends." Her family lost all their money when her father died in her late twenties, leaving her to support five siblings and her mother.
But instead of succumbing to her problems, Margaret simply tried harder. She eventually became the respected author of one of the first books on women's rights and a foreign correspondent in Europe for an American newspaper.
Once in Europe, Margaret fell in love with an Italian nobleman who adored her. They had an affair, a pregnancy, a marriage and a baby, in that order. It seemed as if Margaret had finally achieved all of her life goals, when she and her husband and baby were killed in a shipwreck on their way home to America shortly after Margaret's 40th birthday. I felt so badly losing her at a young age -- I was so happy for her successes. Her story will inspire anyone who has struggled with disabilities and prejudice.
The author has also written another text, "The Peabody Sisters," about three women from Margaret's social circles who also broke out of the confining roles that imprisoned women in that era.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
Fans have eagerly anticipated Megan Marshall's second book ever since they closed the back cover on her first one, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. Ms. Marshall is a thorough researcher, however; and such in-depth studies take time. She also hinted on at least one public occasion that she had compiled enough material on the Peabody sisters to be able to continue their story in another volume. Instead, she has chosen this time to approach the topic of Margaret Fuller. Interesting.
The life of Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) is not a tale that can be told simply. She was a complex and busy woman, and your head can start throbbing, just reading about her. Margaret was a voracious reader, a talented writer, a ground-breaking feminist, a colleague of the American transcendentalists, a magazine editor, a journalist bent on social justice, a foreign correspondent, a nurse, and an expatriate who spent her last years in Europe, where she eventually gained a husband (or at least, a lover) and nine months later, a son. This mostly home-schooled "professional character" (her own words) and self-taught formidable genius could not always conceal her super-sensitive soul. And for most of her adult life, she had to seek deliberate success with her writing / editing / teaching / conversing skills in order to make enough money for her family to survive. Intellectual creativity and financial security can indeed be tough masters to accommodate simultaneously.
Much can be learned about Margaret by studying her relationships: with her father, with her mother, with male friends, with female friends, with intimate companions, and even with herself. Megan Marshall's book pursues these connections through Margaret's words, as well as through those of the other people involved, thanks to the preservation of their letters and journals. Probably the most questioned and analyzed relationship is the one between Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Their he-said-she-said touch-and-go interactions seem to last far too long, in this and other published biographies. But that's evidently how the situation unraveled in real life. Maybe we should be glad we weren't in Concord at the time to witness it.
Megan's detailed book can certainly stand on its own, with the author's perspectives augmenting the narrative. But it will no doubt be compared by many to John Matteson's The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography, which was released in early 2012 and had been the most recent and complete Fuller biography. The two scholars test the pull of the Pulitzer. John won the Prize for Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father in 2008; Megan's The Peabody Sisters was a Pulitzer finalist in 2006. And each chose to follow up that first book with one about Miss Fuller. How many of their previous readers will decide to stand through their encores?
So let's compare and contrast. John uses a chronological and thematic framework, following Margaret through 14 separate "lives." Megan's framework is chronological and geographical, and is based on the organization of the very first Fuller biography, "Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli," compiled by William Henry Channing, James Freeman Clarke, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both writers use the same facts and source material as foundation. Both are expert researchers and storytellers. But as should be expected, they emphasize different details and at times have slightly different interpretations, including about the Emerson-Fuller relationship. Another example can be seen in the subject of Margaret's brief stint at the Temple School in Boston, where she worked with Bronson Alcott. John gives more details about Bronson; Megan focuses more on Elizabeth Peabody's previous employment and departure from the school. These variations shouldn't be surprising, given the authors' backgrounds. Though both books cover common ground, I give John Matteson's book the edge. I believe it's more readable by a popular audience and that it provides more insights into the facts, philosophies, and settings that surrounded Margaret Fuller.
As for Megan's book: What does the "New American Life" in the title refer to? Is it the combination of the choices Margaret made during her forty years on earth? Or is it the life she was headed for as she returned to her homeland; the one tragically erased by the shipwreck of the Elizabeth? This would make a good topic for debate. I don't think Ms. Marshall sufficiently answers it.
As with almost all of the histories about this remarkable woman, "Margaret Fuller: A New American Life" requires a thoughtful audience. The story is by necessity long, and it won't appeal to everybody. The life of a thoroughly complex woman cannot be simplified further, without sacrifice. But it can be worth the trip.
This book is especially suggested for folks interested in feminist studies, the Transcendentalists, or the continuing realities of social reform and social justice. I believe that every library -- even the smallest public one, and even those outside of New England -- should make this or John Matteson's book available to its patrons. It is true that Miss Fuller deserves more press than she typically gets; and that young women may be inspired in some respects by her example of an independent spirit. Devoted fans of Transcendentalism will want to own both books: and not just to read, but also to use for reference. Subsequent scholars will be quoting both authors.
Now please: Can we all let Margaret alone for a while? I can't read much more. I've had my fill of Fuller.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2014
I have been interested in liberated women since Betty Friedan first published THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, but only lately have I explored the lives of such 19th century examples as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Susan B. Anthony. In reading books about them--and in the glowing LOUISA AND MARMEE--the name of Margaret Fuller kept coming up, and I knew I had to find out what I could about her to add to my list of unsung heroines and forgotten women of the early days of the Women's Rights movement, known then only as "the woman question."
Margaret Fuller was the lynchpin of the movement, being one of the only women to work outside the home, support her family of origin without the aid of a legacy, a university education, or a husband. She taught what she had learned--of the classics, of languages, and philosophy--in the days when a woman couldn't teach (or study) at the university level, through classes she called "Conversations," challenging her female students to engage their minds with more than needlework and household chores. She was a close friend and confidante of Ralph Waldo Emerson and helped to establish the Transcendentalist movement by being the first editor of THE DIAL, an intellectual magazine. When she was not paid for that work, she took a job as a reporter and writer on Horace Greeley's NEW YORK TRIBUNE, and paved the way for foreign correspondents by submitting articles to him after she moved abroad, even reporting on conditions in war-torn Italy in 1848.
She was courageous and wise, and lived the life of a "new woman" before the term had been coined. Megan Marshall's book is detailed and moving, giving us the insights that made Fuller what she was--a forerunner to the women who came a century later and probably don't even know her name. I found MARGARET FULLER an invaluable guide to life in the 19th century--from Margaret's exploration of the wilds in the U.S. and the Indian culture she was well aware was being ravaged, to her meetings with George Sand, the Brownings, and the revolutionaries in Italy. Her life was fraught with challenges and changes, but she remained committed to experiencing it all. Megan Marshall's way with words transports the reader to that life and to those times.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Margaret Fuller was the intellectual equal of her close friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, but while he was retiring she had a passionate, engage-the-world personality that makes Megan Marshall's thoroughly researched and engaging biography of her the most moving book I've read in a long time. The book opens with Margaret as a precocious child, who from an early age was driven to excel intellectually by her father in spite of the fact that she was a daughter not a son, and it ends with the heartbreaking ship wreck that killed Margaret and her new husband and child within sight of the Long Island shoreline.
In between Margaret wrote books that challenged the status quo regarding women, culture, and politics. While she was part of the Transcendentalist school of thought she traveled far from New England. During a trip to the Great Lakes region she spent time with Native Americans, afterwards writing about the plight of their culture, and she was in Europe as a correspondent during the continent wide upheavals of 1848. It took me a long time to finish this biography because I kept pausing to read some of Margaret's own works, which are available for free on sites like Project Gutenberg and Google Books.
Margaret was brilliant in a time when smart woman made men uncomfortable. Gender limited her options, but Margaret tried to use her well developed intellect to play an important role in the world like the heroes of America's Revolutionary War that she admired. In spite of her antipathy to marriage as it was practiced in the mid-1800's, Margaret longed for a full life with love and a child of her own, yearnings that were not fulfilled until a few years before her death.
This biography by Megan Marshall held me rapt because it brought both Margaret Fuller and the post-Revolutionary, pre-Civil War era in the United States and Europe to life for me. The book's pages are full of the intellectual, revolutionary and literary leaders of the time, and Margaret's own words, quoted throughout the text, are so well put and insightful even now that I found myself underlining almost all of them.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I think what I enjoyed most about this book is its honesty. Not merely historical accuracy (which is different from emotional honesty), but the way in which Marshall portrays Fuller as being an often unpleasant and unpopular person. I particularly enjoyed reading about how, in Fuller's youth, she was often shunned by both male and female peers -- males, because Fuller was intelligent, and females because she was "plain," unfashionable, and precocious... and knew it. When I first read Fuller as a student, I was so used to hearing/reading about her involvement with guys like Emerson and Hawthorne... her intelligence seemed to be a given. So, I never really bothered to think about the hardships Fuller faced during her intellectual development *as a woman* during this period. I think this is something Marshall highlights quite well in this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2014
I'm not yet done with this book, but I swear I am going to finish it, even though I am finding it a fairly painful read. On the positive side... I didn't know anything about Margaret Fuller before. The subject is incredibly well researched. It gives one a truly eye-opening view of life of the intellectually elite in the early to mid-1800's in the northeastern U.S. The issues I am having with it are: (1) There are so many choppy (and somewhat repetitive) quotes that swift readers will find that the flow of the prose is adversely affected. (2) What is not in quotes is written in a similar stilted, overly verbose, old-fashioned voice. This is affecting my ability to relate to and appreciate Margaret Fuller from my contemporary perspective.
I like history, but this book is a heavy, ponderous read. I regret taking it on.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2013
I went into this book with the barest knowledge of Margaret Fuller. I'm now a bit more educated as to this remarkable woman born into the wrong time. But perhaps she was needed then to help enlighten those who would take the spark of an idea that women were more than mothers, more than housewives and bring it forward to a time where such an idea could burst into a flame.
In reading of her early life, where her father "homeschooled" her and expected learning from a six year old that was nothing short of extraordinary I felt sorrow for the girl who never felt the love of a father, only his scorn when she did not live up to almost impossible expectations. She had something wrong with her spine - scoliosis maybe? - that led to one shoulder being markedly higher than the other and she had migraines. I understand how debilitating they can be. But she pushed through. When he father died leaving the family with no income or savings it was up to her to provide and she did. In a time when women were not wage earners.
Margaret Fuller was also a woman of experiment; she belonged to the Transcendentalists where she had an ongoing give and take with Ralph Waldo Emerson. She ultimately worked for Horace Greeley and ended up in Italy where she may or may not have married the father of her one and only child. As she was coming home to the United States they were all killed in the shipwreck off of Fire Island, NY.
Ms. Marshall makes extensive use of Ms. Fuller's writings to make her biography come together. How better to bring a person to life than through her own words? My issues were with the Margaret Fuller "might have, would have" suppositions that I suppose are the only way to suggest assumptions but they were too many for me. That being written, this was a well researched, fascinating look at a woman who was scorned in her time for behaviors that wouldn't rate barely a smirk today. It's a shame that Ms. Fuller didn't know how much she truly was worth.
I am so glad that I chose to read this book. It was well organized, very well written and it has left me marveling over a woman wanting what was right for people, trying to find love and seeking the respect of family. Isn't that what we all want?
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Margaret Fuller definitely needs notoriety and then some! I read her words and life many years ago and often have wondered why she isn't at least as well known as other women who believed in female equality and are now practically household names (depending on the house).
But as Megan Marshall, her biographer, points out, the times were ultimately not with Margaret. She ended her life in a disreputable manner and that colored people's thinking about her, especially those who exalted her. Today, no one would think twice about a woman who had a baby, whose father she may or may not have been married to. And yet it was Margaret Fuller who placed the first major bricks in that yellow brick road to freedom of choice and equality for women in America.
Today's young women have, I think, little idea of how it used to be. There's controversy at the moment because Pres. Obama made the misjudgment of telling a woman she was the "best looking Attorney General in the country." The sometimes amazingly unenlightened women on The View all agreed that "People can't seem to take a compliment these days." Well, guess what? The struggle for women, to be taken seriously in this world, to have respect and a little power, particularly in this nation is still a huge battle. Interestingly another Margaret made headlines today as Britain's Margaret Thatcher died -- the first female head of state in the Western world. To our shame, NOT America! I see a connection here.
Less than 100 years ago learned gentlemen were still arguing over whether women had souls. Fifty years before that, says a woman of Fuller's era, "As long as man 'has the physical power, as well as the conventional' to treat a woman 'like a play-thing or slave, woman must wait until the lion shall lie down with the lamb before she can hope to be the friend and companion of man.'" She would be most gratified to hear today's young women speak of wanting a husband who was "her best friend." But the road has been long and hard and we aren't there yet. I wish every young woman today could read this book.
If you love a book with many, many quotes or are looking for quotes for a paper, you won't go wrong here. In fact, there are few paragraphs without quotes and, honestly, I felt they impeded the flow of the prose. It was almost as if Marshall didn't trust her own paraphrasing or interpretations. Many are entirely superfluous, as in, "For the 'first time,' Margaret admitted in her diary, she could understand Cary's 'position.'" Because of all the intruding quotations, sometimes the meaning goes awry.
As Marshall engages with the facts and stories of Fuller's life, she thrusts unnecessary evidence under our noses and parries imaginary attacks she feels we might hurl back, all the while tilting at the windmills of supposition. She supposes Fuller might have felt . . . She supposes Fuller might have seen . . . She supposes Fuller might have been . . . etc.
Marshall also gets a bit carried away, although sometimes it is admirable and sometimes it is funny, with the style of prose in which she writes. It's as if she has absorbed so much of Margaret's words that she now must speak her own in 1850's form. "even for reasons of familial devotion? Anyone who had been close to Margaret knew her occasions of despair, her recurring wish in extremis for release." Surely Marshall does not talk or write like this on a daily basis? This can be offputting, but of course, it can also feel intelligent in an old school way. I toyed with the idea that Marshall was subconsciously writing this book for Margaret's peers, trying to make things right at long last.
All in all this is a well-considered book with Index and 50 pages of notes. I'd say it is more of a scholar's book than an interested reader's book -- unless you truly enjoy numerous quotations heavy-handedly distributed thoroughout.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2014
Margaret Fuller was a fascinating woman who led a fascinating life. She absolutely deserves a detailed biography -- but maybe not this detailed? I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't finish the book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2013
I read this book because of a long-standing interest in Thoreau and the Concord of his time. I visited Walden regularly when I lived in the area, and always felt that 19th century Concord was a time and place which respected ideas and intelligence much more than our own time does.
I hoped there would be more about Thoreau in this book, but his main appearance comes at the end as he searches for Margaret's body and possessions after the shipwreck which took her life. I can't say I was disappointed, however; this was a highly enjoyable book which had me living in those days of Concord and the rest of Fuller's life. A very interesting woman, and a very good book.