Review

The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography

by John Matteson

John Matteson won a Pulitzer Prize for EDEN’S OUTCASTS: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Now he has mined a similar vein, the biography of Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), a contemporary of Bronson Alcott, whose life was deeply influenced by her own father and who herself influenced some of the best known thinkers of her time.

"Matteson’s aim in creating a portrait of greater depth and breadth was to give [Margaret Fuller] back not just her 40 years but also her “many lives.” And in that task, he has succeeded."

Timothy Fuller “had not yet dreamed that one could ever have too much instruction, or receive it too early.” Not surprisingly, his first-born daughter Margaret identified with Shakespeare’s sheltered and father-dominated Miranda. She learned Greek almost as soon as she learned to read, in toddlerhood. Timothy, in short, raised her as though she were the intellectual equal of boys, a far-sighted strategy at the time (though oddly enough,  later when he had sons, he reined in his pedagogical zeal). In later life, Margaret suffered from headaches, which she attributed to her father’s overbearing discipline and rigid scheduling.

One of Margaret’s defenses against Timothy’s regimen was her retreat into an imaginary, romantic inner world. Matteson notes that as editor of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s magazine, The Dial, Margaret realized that “being a member of what she called ‘the breadwinning tribe who serve the clock’ plainly revolted her, and she gave way to fantasy as she had done when pressed too hard at her studies as a child.” After teaching at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School, Margaret lamented that she had not been raised in a fashion similar to the children at this famously liberal establishment. The contrast between the practical “good girl” and the amorous dreamer resulted in a woman who, though passionate in affairs of the heart, set unusually high standards for herself and judged others stringently. This latter attitude garnered her a certain amount of critical scorn.

Among Margaret’s many “lives” that Matteson describes in scholarly detail are prodigy, misfit, utopian, lover and internationalist. She was an abolitionist as well as a proponent of Native American rights, two unpopular causes, and her book THE GREAT LAWSUIT (later titled WOMAN IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY) came to be considered the first major American feminist manifesto. In it, she wrote this simple but radical statement of unalienable human rights: “If a negro be a soul, if the woman be a soul, appareled in flesh, to one Master only are they accountable.”

She was employed by Horace Greeley as a journalist, and, going to Europe to research a book about her literary hero, Goethe, she became our first female foreign correspondent.

It was on her travels that she met Giovanni Ossoli, an Italian revolutionary with whom she had a son, Angelino. When the family was on its way to America, they were victims of a terrible tragedy. Their ship, already struck with woe at the smallpox death of its captain, hit a sandbar scant feet from shore off Fire Island. Margaret watched helplessly as Ossoli and then her baby were swept away on the tide, while a crowd gathered on shore to loot the ship but not to save those left on board. Margaret’s last words were, “I see nothing but death before me.”

After Margaret’s death, urged by newspaperman Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others hastily published a biography of Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Since then, there have been other attempts to encapsulate the life of this remarkable woman. Matteson’s aim in creating a portrait of greater depth and breadth was to give her back not just her 40 years but also her “many lives.” And in that task, he has succeeded.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 2, 2012

The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography
by John Matteson

  • Publication Date: January 21, 2013
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393343596
  • ISBN-13: 9780393343595