THE LIVES OF MARGARET FULLER: A Biography. By John Matteson. Norton. 510 pages. $32.95.
The mother of transcendentalism, a leading light of American feminism, the most well-read person in early 19-century America, the first woman to edit a literary journal, the first full-time female book reviewer and foreign correspondent.
These are just a few of the labels that Margaret Fuller deservedly wears.
All of which, brilliant as they are in their own right, threaten to continually eclipse and omit the myriad lives lived by Fuller, as John Matteson painstakingly and lovingly shows in “The Lives of Margaret Fuller.”
Born to the overbearing but remarkably open-minded Timothy Fuller, Sarah Margaret received the type of personalized and privileged education that only the most wealthy and socially connected young men could hope to attain.
At her father's hand and direction, Fuller learned Latin, Greek, the natural sciences and philosophy, surpassing even her master.
A feedback loop that never quite unfurled, Fuller related to the world and the folks therein first and foremost intellectually, and never could quite understand why she fell just short of easy friendship and alliance. In Matteson's words: “she … learn(ed) to identify love and acceptance with her intellectual performance.” Winning arguments and flaunting one's learning to all and sundry doesn't always auger well for one's popularity, and Matteson is careful to pay ample due to Fuller's oftentimes trying interactions with her contemporaries and members of her Cambridge social set.
But her education and willingness to take on any and all over the slightest intellectual provocation did indeed make her stand out and left her free to wander cultural and social paths that would otherwise have been completely cordoned off from the typical young woman of mid-1800s America. Her philosophical meetings, the famed “conversations” with the leading women of Cambridge and Boston society, gained her an intellectual notoriety that few others, women or men, enjoyed.
Yet Fuller's deep-rooted unsettledness would never quite work itself into abeyance.
The brilliance of Fuller, as Matteson's careful and attentive readings suggest, is that she didn't simply accept a static answer to the questions that dogged her; rather, her entire life consisted of courageous and intellectually brilliant forays into finding better answers, answers tempered by both triumphs and travails.
Fuller's gradual acceptance “that her essence lay in changefulness” hides beneath her mythologized persona.
Matteson may not have known Fuller as well as her first biographer, but one could argue that he proves himself to be a much more sympathetic and careful reader of both her writing and the tremendous act of invention and erudition that was her all-too-brief life.