Assistant Professor Megan Marshall, of the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, recently released the new biography, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, which received rave reviews from the New York Times and The New Yorker.
Marshall delves into the true story of Margaret Fuller, the Cambridge native who became a prominent member of the Transcendentalist circle with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The pioneering journalist and writer died in a shipwreck in 1850 while returning from Europe with her much younger Italian husband and their 2-year-old son.
“Writing a biography that captured the drama yet was true to the facts and conveyed the full complexity of Fuller’s ideas was the challenge I set myself,” Marshall said on her website.
Judith Thurman, who reviewed Marshall’s work for The New Yorker, wrote in her piece that Fuller “was once the best-read woman in America,” and the first American female foreign correspondent, who did not give up her career when she gave birth to a child.
Several biographies have been written about Fuller, but Marshall said she wanted to create a more satisfying version.
“Margaret Fuller has long been a heroine to me,” Marshall said, “and although there were many other biographies, dating back to just a few years after her death in 1850, I wasn't fully satisfied by any of them as a reader.
“I set myself the goal of writing a biography that felt as much like reading a novel as possible, without distortions, fictional scenes, or invented dialogue,” she continued. “Fortunately there are so many letters and diaries and published works easily available that it was possible to assemble a vivid account of her life told almost in her own words and from her point of view, without stretching.
“Fuller's ideas about gender are so modern, her own life choices so absolutely contemporary,” Marshall said, “I felt she needed to be resurrected as a heroine for our time. I couldn't have planned it better to have this book come out the same month as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In, which owes a great debt to the rhetoric of empowerment Margaret Fuller invented in the 1840s.”
Marshall’s biography examines Fuller’s personal struggles, including romance, raising a child, and her somewhat abusive father, more than previous biographies of the writer. Why was it important to focus on that?
Margaret Fuller's aim for herself, and her hope for all women and men, was to achieve ‘fullness of being,’ by which she meant people should use all their capabilities to their fullest extent in both domestic and public life. I didn't feel I could separate the private drama from her professional ambitions, they so often intertwined. Her life may be an early example of the saying, ‘The personal is the political.’ Still, I was astonished by Fuller's clear-sighted choices, once she had a child. She knew she had to find a way to keep working as a journalist during the Italian Revolution and that it wasn't possible to bring her baby into a war zone. She went anyway, and found care for him outside Rome. She hadn't worked all her life for such an opportunity only to give it up when she became a mother. The pain she felt at separation was considerable, and something working women experience in varying degrees today—another reason I felt this was an important story to tell now.
How much research was involved in writing this book?
I research all my books as fully as possible. Since many of Fuller’s private papers are in print, it wasn’t as arduous a task as researching The Peabody Sisters [Marshall’s first biography, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006], which took 20 years. But I spent many months doing archival work, looking for things people may have missed or that I could put to new use. There were some childhood essays Fuller wrote, archived at the Houghton Library, which were quite revealing of her personality and early ambitions. There were also documents about Fuller that I’d discovered that shed new light, and some exciting material about the shipwreck that no one had seen. That’s all in the book.
Are you happy with all the media, literary, and academic attention the biography has received?
I’m extremely pleased that Fuller’s life has captured the attention of such a wide-ranging audience of readers and critics. She seems to be speaking right to us with lines like, ‘There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.’ You could put that on an LGBTQ T-shirt. This is what I wanted for her, and if my book is helping to accomplish that, I'm proud and grateful.