In a letter to James Freeman Clarke in 1833 Margaret Fuller declared, “All biographies…make me sick at heart and make it hard to realize that there is a Heaven.” Our age shows no such distaste. We clamor for biographies, believing that the lives of our thinkers, statesmen, artists, and scientists hold the secret to their contributions to culture. In this we are deluded. The aspirations that lie behind a person’s achievements transcend the sum of days that makes up a life. Judged by its inner incentive, every life is a failure.
Ever since Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Channing, and James Freeman Clarke published Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli—an instant best seller when it came out in 1852—Fuller’s life and personality have received far more attention than her work. The two books under review come on the heels of several other biographies of Fuller published in the past two decades, among them the two-volume opus by Charles Capper (1992, 2007), as well as the sterling biographies of Meg McGavran Murray, Joan von Mehren, Bell Gale Chevigny, and numerous earlier ones as well. Add to this mix the recent semi-biographical novel by April Bernard, Miss Fuller (2012), and we now have a huge surplus of riches to choose from if we want to make ourselves sick at heart over Margaret Fuller’s fate.
In The Lives of Margaret Fuller—a worthy successor to his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father—John Matteson speaks for most of her biographers when he declares that “Margaret Fuller’s life was her most remarkable creation.” Megan Marshall, author of the lively triple biography The Peabody Sisters (2005), writes that Fuller’s published books “were hybrids of personal observation, extracts from letters and diaries, confessional poetry.” The absence of a clear line of demarcation between Fuller’s private and public life inspired Marshall “to write the full story—operatic in its emotional pitch, global in its dimensions.” Whether or not one shares the view that Fuller’s life and work are inseparable, it’s hard to imagine someone beginning a book or a course on her the way Martin Heidegger reportedly began a seminar on Aristotle: “Aristotle was born, he worked, and he died. Now let’s move on to his thought.”
With the same baritone eloquence that informs the rest of his excellent book, John Matteson opens his prologue with a synopsis of Fuller’s major achievements and the role her death played in our nation’s memory of her. It is worth quoting at length:
Margaret Fuller was, in her time, the best-read woman in America and the one most renowned for her intelligence. She was the leading female figure in the New England movement known as transcendentalism. She edited the first avant-garde intellectual magazine in America [The Dial]. She was the first regular foreign correspondent, male or female, for an American newspaper. As a literary critic, she was rivaled in her era only by …