"Megan Marshall's brilliant Margaret Fuller brings us as close as we are ever likely to get to this astonishing creature. She rushes out at us from her nineteenth century, always several steps ahead, inspiring, heartbreaking, magnificent." — Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity
"Megan Marshall gives new meaning to close reading—from words on a page she conjures a fantastically rich inner life, a meld of body, mind, and soul. Drawing on the letters and diaries of Margaret Fuller and her circle, she has brought us a brave, visionary, sensual, tough-minded intellectual, a ‘first woman’ who was unique yet stood for all women. A masterful achievement by a great American writer and scholar.” — Evan Thomas, author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World
"Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller: A New American Life is the best single volume ever written on Fuller. Carefully researched and beautifully composed, the book brings Fuller back to life in all her intellectual vivacity and emotional intensity. Marshall’s Fuller overwhelms the reader, just as Fuller herself overwhelmed everyone she met. A masterpiece of empathetic biography, this is the book Fuller herself would have wanted. You will not be able to put it down." — Robert D. Richardson, author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire
"Fuller’s was a great life, flush with drama, and Megan Marshall’s new biography rises to it in ways small and large . . . This one pitches Ms. Marshall into the front rank of American biographers . . . 'Margaret Fuller' is as seductive as it is impressive . . . In Ms. Marshall, Fuller has found what feels like her ideal biographer." -- New York Times
"A lively, intuitive study of a remarkable American character.” — Kirkus Reviews
"The book's success comes from the way that Marshall allows the reader to understand and empathize with Fuller in her plight." — Publishers Weekly
"[Marshall] inhabits Fuller’s dramatic, oft-told story with unique intimacy by virtue of her fluency in and judicious quoting of Fuller’s extraordinarily vivid letters . . . Marshall brings stirring historical and psychological insights to Fuller’s complicated relationship with Emerson and the other transcendentalists, her journey west and response to the horrific plight of Native Americans, her gripping dispatches on social ills as a front-page columnist for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and her triumphs in Europe as 'America’s first female foreign correspondent.' How spectacularly detailed and compassionate Marshall’s chronicle is of Fuller’s scandalous love for an Italian soldier, the birth of their son, her heroic coverage of the 1849 siege of Rome, and her and her family’s tragic deaths when their ship wrecks in sight of the American coast. A magnificent biography of a revolutionary thinker, witness, and writer." —Booklist starred review
Dear father it is a heavy storm i hope you will not have to come home in it.” So begins the record of a life that will end on a homeward journey in another heavy storm, a life unusually full of words, both spoken and written.
Sarah Margaret Fuller is six years old when she writes this brief letter on a half-sheet of paper saved by the devoted and exacting father who receives it, next by his widow, then by their descendants. Which one of them thinks to label it “First letter”? All of her survivors understand that there are, or will be, biographers, historians, students of literature who care to know.
But first it is the father who treasures his daughter’s message of concern, this lurching unpunctuated parade of runes, from the moment he unfolds the page — a father nearing forty and eager to set his young daughter, already an apt pupil, to a “severe though kind” education. And the mother, just twenty-one at her daughter’s birth, only twenty-seven now: she is known to find any words her firstborn child scribbles on bits of paper “original,” worthy of preservation.
At seven, the little girl — a tall little girl with plain looks and auburn hair, whose height and imperious manner set her apart from her age mates — writes again to her father, Timothy Fuller, a brash and for the moment successful lawyer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a U.S. congressman whose career in politics takes him away to Washington half the year, in winter and spring. It is January of 1818. In the new year, the girl’s concern for her father has transmuted into the desire to earn his good opinion — and so into more words, into the wish to show off her inquiring mind.
“I have learned all the rules of Musick but one,” she writes now in a fine spidery script, and “I have been reviewing Valpy’s Chronology” (a verse narrative of ancient and English history). And: “I should have liked to have been with you to have seen the pictures gallery at NYork.”
Sarah Margaret’s claims of accomplishment, her carefully worded wish to join Timothy in New York, are meant to forestall what she has already come to expect from her overbearing father: the torrent of criticism — of her penmanship, of her rate of progress through his curriculum, of her “stile” of expression, as he prefers to spell the word — all intended to bring his precocious daughter “as near perfection as possible.” Timothy, proud to have been a “high scholar” at Harvard, has been her only teacher, starting her on Latin at age six, requiring that she recite her lessons only to him during his months at home, insisting she be kept awake until his return from work to stand before him on his study carpet late at night, her nerves “on the stretch” until she has finished repeating to him what she had learned that day. Already she has experienced more severity than kindness in her father’s pedagogy.
And so the anxious, eager-to-please seven-year-old Sarah Margaret Fuller apologizes to her father, a man with “absolutely no patience” for mistakes, as she will to no one else in the voluminous correspondence that follows after this second letter: “I do not write well at all,” and “I have written every day a little but have made but little improvement.” And: “I hope to make greater proficiency in my Studies.”
But the verbs tell all — she has learned and reviewed, she would like to see and to make improvement. These verbs are hers. The nouns also: music, art, chronology (the unfolding of world events, the progress of society). These are her concerns, her aims, her occupations at age seven. And they will remain so for the girl who, to her father’s and her own dismay, struggles through years of singing lessons, unable to shine at this one accomplishment. “To excel in all things should be your constant aim; mediocrity is obscurity,” Timothy will prod when he offers to buy her a piano. But she continues to write every day that she has paper and pen to hand, except in times of sickness, until she becomes a woman. And then too, when she will write of music, art, literature, politics, and travel for a nation of readers. She takes her father’s cue, embraces the discipline: she refuses to be mediocre, to be obscure.
The seven-year-old girl must stop writing this second letter, however, a letter that announces her intellect to her father even by way of apology, because her mother — Margarett Crane Fuller — has asked her to “hold the baby,” a new little brother, William Henry, the second after brother Eugene. Three-year-old Eugene “speaks of you sometimes,” the girl tells her father, but he is not old enough to write — or to hold the baby, which he would not have been asked to do anyway, as a boy. Sarah Margaret must hold the baby while her mother, Margarett — a head taller than her bluff, domineering husband, with a slender, elfin beauty; sweet-tempered, but not a woman of letters — writes her own letter to Timothy.
Baby, little brother, elder sister, mother, all crowd around a writing desk with the absent Timothy foremost in their minds — his demanding presence felt across the miles. Missing from this tableau is Julia Adelaide, the “soft, graceful and lively” much-adored second-born daughter who died four years ago, just past her first birthday, when Sarah Margaret was three years old. The abrupt loss, the never-forgotten moment when the baby’s nurse, tears streaming, pulled Sarah Margaret into the nursery to view her sister’s tiny corpse in all its “severe sweetness,” shocked the older girl into consciousness. “My first experience of life was one of death,” she will write years later — so that even now, as she takes her infant brother in her arms and cedes the pen to her mother, she feels alone.
“She who would have been the companion of my life” was “severed from me”: Julia Adelaide might have been Sarah Margaret’s ally in their father’s more “severe” than “kind” school. Julia Adelaide’s death too was far more “severe” than “sweet,” for in the following months Margarett was also severed — or withdrew — from Sarah Margaret, growing “delicate” in health as her grief turned to depression. The sorrowing mother spent hours in her garden, working the flower beds or simply sitting among the fragrant roses, fruit trees, and clematis vines, turned away from her living daughter. And then the brothers came, first Eugene and then William Henry. In dreams, Sarah Margaret sees herself joining a procession of mourners “in their black clothes and dreary faces,” following her mother to her grave as she already has her sister. She has been told, but does not remember, that she begged “with loud cries” that Julia Adelaide not be put into the ground. She wakes to find her pillow wet with tears.
Two years later, Sarah Margaret starts again: “My dear father.” By now, January 16, 1820, she has written many more letters to Timothy, signed them “Your affectionate daughter, Sarah M Fuller” or “S M Fuller” or “Sarah-Margaret Ful...