Margaret Fuller: Saying in the 19th Century What Still Needs to Be Said

Photo by Joshi RadinPhoto by Joshi Radin

After its release a few months ago, Megan Marshall’s follow-up to The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) drew praise far and wide. Dwight Garner, of the New York Times said, “Margaret Fuller is as seductive as it is impressive. It has the grain and emotional amplitude of a serious novel . . . [and] pushes Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers.” Judith Thurman wrote in the New Yorker, “Marshall is a gifted storyteller steeped in the parochial society of 19th century Boston and Concord.” And Elaine Showalter, writing in the New Republic, said, “Marshall brings the reader as close as possible to Fuller’s inner life and conveys the inspirational power she has achieved for several generations of women.”

Margot Livesey, the acclaimed author of seven novels and the Evelyn Green Davis Fellow at Radcliffe, is among Marshall’s fans. Here the two writers—both of whom held Radcliffe fellowships and both of whom teach at Emerson College in Boston—discuss Marshall’s latest.

MARGOT LIVESEY: Could you describe what drew you to Margaret Fuller and what surprised you the most as you worked on the biography?

MEGAN MARSHALL: Margaret Fuller has long been a heroine to second-wave feminists like me. I wrote The Peabody Sisters partly to prove that the New England Transcendentalists included other brilliant women besides Fuller. Then I discovered that during the 20 years I’d spent researching the Peabodys, Fuller had been largely forgotten. No one recognized her name anymore. This was a shock to me, and a loss I wanted to repair.

But frankly, I was intimidated by Fuller—her intellect, her prodigious learning, her unabashed ambition. It took a kind of daring to match wits with her in the role of biographer. I can’t say I was surprised, but I was genuinely thrilled by how frequently I found her expressing ideas that sounded so modern: “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

Portrait of Margaret Fuller, ca. 1830-1840. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPortrait of Margaret Fuller, ca. 1830-1840. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

You portray Margaret as rigorous in her thinking about women and social issues, yet often confused in her relationships with friends and mentors. Was she aware of this contradiction?

Fuller did have a habit of falling for men, whether as friends or as potential romantic partners, who weren’t nearly as open to the fluidity of gender roles as she was, and she was repeatedly disappointed. But these experiences inspired ever better ideas, and spurred her on to wider realms of experience. If she’d been more satisfied by Ralph Waldo Emerson as a friend, she might not have left Boston for New York, where she became a front-page columnist for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, which led to her tour of Europe as a foreign correspondent—a first for women.

Margaret took great pleasure in her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century and talked about continually revising it. Did she do this? What is it like to read her words today?

It would have been interesting to follow Fuller’s revisions of Woman in the Nineteenth Century over the course of that century, like Walt Whitman’s successive editions of Leaves of Grass. But soon after its publication, she was in Italy espousing another sort of revolution. When my students read the essay on which the book was based, “The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men, Woman vs. Women,” they find it lively and relevant. And they’re astonished to learn that she was saying then what still needs to be said now: “We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to woman as freely as to man.”

Margaret’s last years were tumultuous. I was impressed by the sympathetic view you took of her much younger lover and eventual husband.

Most previous biographers haven’t known quite what to make of Giovanni Ossoli. A legacy of incomprehension has come down from her friends. What had the brainy, homely Margaret Fuller done, taking up with a young, handsome, revolutionary soldier? But they hadn’t seen how comfortable Margaret was in Europe, befriending George Sand in Paris and the exiled revolutionary intellectuals Giuseppe Mazzini and Adam Mickiewicz. Of course they had to think Ossoli was a fool.

But I looked at what Fuller said about him, his character and instinctive intelligence, as well as her changing view of what could make her happy. Her own words show just how delighted she was with him in Rome, and afterward when they set up housekeeping in Florence. If she chose him, and chose to stay with him, he must have been worthy.

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2013