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The Lives of Margaret Fuller

By John Matteson; W.W. Norton

High school students read Emerson and Thoreau when they learn about the rise of transcendentalism. Americans intrigued by the history of women’s rights hear about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. And any study of the origins of American journalism incorporates a host of familiar names, from Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Pulitzer.

Behind all these movements is Margaret Fuller, a woman far less widely known yet an extraordinary influence. She was born in Massachusetts in 1810 to a father who saw brilliance in his daughter and was determined to cram a “man’s education” into her head. Though one can criticize his methods, which sometimes made his daughter miserable, Timothy Fuller nurtured her supple, wide-ranging mind. She became one of the most knowledgeable women of her generation, and emerged as a leader in an astonishing number of fields.

Fuller’s position as a proponent of transcendentalism, a philosophy that focused on individuality and the soul’s evolution toward greater progress, eventually led her to edit an avant-garde magazine called The Dial. To make a living, she also hosted intellectual salons for women; among her early subscribers was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She subsequently joined the New-York Tribune as a columnist, later becoming the nation’s first foreign correspondent when she reported from Italy on its war for independence. If that isn’t enough, she called for equal rights for women years before the Seneca Falls Convention and wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century, considered one of the first books of American feminism.

Even this rich material could fall flat in the wrong hands. But John Matteson shows the same finesse here that earned him a Pulitzer for his Louisa May Alcott biography Eden’s Outcasts. He combines the depth of a top researcher with the skills of a narrative journalist in his selection of detail, ability to immerse readers in a scene and psychological understanding. He is one of American history’s best storytellers.

Matteson divides the book into periods of Fuller’s life—“Ecstatic Editor,” “Advocate,” “Internationalist,” “Revolutionary” and others— that both give it shape and emphasize that Fuller was more than a transcendentalist. Though she began life brilliant and arrogant, by the end of her 41 years she empathized with the poor and understood how the politics of the time helped keep them that way. Matteson nicely balances sections on Fuller’s accomplishments with her interior and personal life. She met many of the leading thinkers of her day, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to George Sand, which makes time spent with her exciting.

The portrait is not always flattering, though, especially in Fuller’s choices as a mother. After she became pregnant out of wedlock in Italy and married the loving but slow-witted father, Giovanni Ossoli, the couple attempted to keep son Nino’s existence a secret by giving him to other families to care for. The quality of that care was evident from the family who threatened to abandon Nino if the Ossolis didn’t send more money.

The Ossoli family ended up dying in a disaster as dramatic as anything Hollywood has dreamed up. And this book breathes with such life that it can show someone who shies away from history just how enticing it can be.


Originally published in the June 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.