Margaret Fuller: A New American Life
Long before today's women wondered whether they could 'have it all,' nineteenth-century American writer Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) blazed her own trails in the male-dominated, intellectual whirlwind of transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that believed in the innate purity of people and nature.
In Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, biographer Megan Marshall weaves the story of Fuller's life as a public intellectual with the big questions facing nineteenth-century women. For instance, will men ever treat women as intellectual equals if their country won't even give them the right to vote? Is it easier for a woman to maintain a flourishing career if she foregoes marriage and children? Or, is it possible to 'have it all,' even in a society that has a very narrow view of women's rights and capabilities? Marshall's biography makes the case that these questions were a driving force for Margaret Fuller's life.
Margaret Fuller's Upbringing
Marshall highlights Fuller's youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, taking special care to show that Fuller was a bit of a child prodigy, thanks to her father's strict oversight of her education. Even with the intense educational discipline imposed on her by her father, there is a sense that Fuller always believed she was destined for something different than marriage and motherhood. In fact, when she was only twelve, she wrote a letter to a friend saying, 'From a very early age I have felt that I was not born to the common womanly lot.'
But she was nonetheless restricted by the fact that she was a woman and subject to her family's whims. For example, when her father decided to move the family to a farm in Groton, Massachusetts, and they realized their finances were strapped, Margaret was charged with acting as schoolmistress to her siblings (to save money on tuition), including her older brother who was then enrolled at Harvard.
Fuller's Voracious Writing Life
After the death of her father, Fuller needed cash of her own. Marshall reports that the twenty-something Margaret Fuller took a job teaching in a school run by Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women). This connection transported Fuller into the world of American transcendentalism, putting her in close contact with great minds like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her relationship with Emerson, in particular, would eventually earn her the inaugural editorship of The Dial, transcendentalism's flagship publication. Fuller found herself in the networking hotbed of American intellectualism in New England. This was the big leagues.
But even though Fuller was making incredible headway as a writer, eventually taking a position as the first female book reviewer at the New York Tribune, she wasn't gaining much ground in advocating for the intellectual equality of women. Marshall describes how Fuller put incredible effort into organizing 'conversations,' or female gatherings in which the participants would discuss history, literature, philosophy, or politics. These conversations gave women the space to explore the capacity of their intellects and gain confidence in themselves. But when Fuller invited her male friends to join in, they either rebuffed the invitation or dominated the conversation when they did attend. This disappointment, as well as her own rich experiences as a single, working woman, inspired her to take action with her words.
The Search for a Marriage of Equals
The core of Marshall's biography addresses Margaret Fuller's most prominent publication, Women in the Nineteenth Century, an early feminist tract that describes how women are raised in such a way that they are intellectually stunted. Imagine this work as Fuller's announcement to the world that she was sick and tired of the intellectual, social, and civil oppression of American women.
She argued that marriage, which dissolves all of a woman's rights, was often the biggest culprit, for it promised security even in spite of the loss of one's rights. Fuller went on to claim that the best marriages denied the typical separation of private and public spheres, which kept women at home and men in the workplace; instead, a more positive marriage would place husband and wife as equals, and both partners might work toward a common purpose, perhaps in the public sphere. In other words, if he's going to put a ring on it, then the husband has got to appreciate the full personhood of his wife.
Nearing age 40, it seemed that Fuller had finally found the marriage she spoke of in Women in the Nineteenth Century. Her editor at the New York Tribune gave her an international assignment, and she found herself on the European continent and in love with a young, Italian revolutionary named Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. They moved in together and had a child out of wedlock, keeping the secret from Fuller's family and friends until the couple married. Eventually, the couple and their young son made the journey back to New York, only to die in a shipwreck a few hundred yards from American soil.
Margaret Fuller's Legacy
Marshall ends her account of Fuller's tragic death by wondering whether or not Fuller would have had a warm welcome as a 'reform-woman' if she had made it home to America. In the end, did Margaret Fuller really 'have it all' if she was smeared by so many who disagreed with her cause and scoffed at her relationship with the foreign Ossoli? Marshall leaves us with a sense that Fuller seemed to have believed that she was living a full life, even in spite of people's jeers.
Megan Marshall's Margaret Fuller: A New American Life paints a portrait of a woman grappling with how difficult it was to 'have it all.' One of the first American women to make her living from writing, Margaret Fuller was also one of the first female representatives of transcendentalism. Fuller may have been a female, intellectual virtuoso (a rare thing during this time period), who made her mark on American history with prominent publications like Women in the Nineteenth Century, but she was also a person who longed for meaningful relationships with other humans.
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