In America, celebrated public intellectuals who are women have, most often, been admitted to the ranks of high cultural regard only one at a time, and never without qualification. In the last century, for instance, the spotlight fell on Mary McCarthy in the 1940s and Susan Sontag in the 1960s, each of whom was smilingly referred to by the public intellectuals of their times as the “Dark Lady of American Letters.” In the first half of the nineteenth century, although a fair number of her sex among abolitionists and suffragists were brilliant, it was Margaret Fuller, world-class talker and author of the influential treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), who stood in the allotted space, alone in a sea of gifted men, most of whom chose to denature her—she thinks like a man—as they could not believe they had to take seriously a thinking woman. This was a great mistake, thought a former student of Fuller’s. “With all the force of her intellect,” said Ednah Dow Cheney in 1902, “all the strength of her will, all her self-denial and power of thought she was essentially and thoroughly a woman, and she won her victories not by borrowing the peculiar weapons of man, but by using her own with courage and skill.”
Some 160 years after her death, Fuller remains a haunting figure not so much for the one important book she committed to paper as for the exceptional life she lived, the significance it had in its own moment as well as the one it might have had, if it had not been cut severely short in 1850 when she was 40. Within that short span of time, however, Fuller underwent the kind of dramatic transformation that calls attention to one of moral philosophy’s great conundrums: Is it nobler to spend one’s time on earth devoted to the spiritual elevation of one’s own individuality, or to bond with the eternal struggle for equality in the belief that to serve the greater good is to elevate the spirit life of humanity? This question provides John Matteson’s new book, The Lives of Margaret Fuller, with its organizing principle, and has helped him write a biography that tracks Fuller’s internal journey with a degree of informed sympathy that does full honor to a uniquely American woman who was never more American than when she went abroad in search of large answers to this large question.
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Margaret Fuller, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1810, was the offspring of a family of Unitarian rationalists who believed that, as children of God, we are obligated to develop the intelligence within. Her father, Timothy Fuller, a prominent lawyer and Congressman, exhibited a shared temperament of snotty self-assurance on this score. The enthusiasm, Matteson tells us, with which Timothy and his brothers published the fact that they “knew everything” made people grateful for the information and stunned by the nerve. “Contentious, confident, and possessing not a ‘particle of tact’ among them, the brothers were admired more than they were liked.”
Margaret, the eldest of six children, grew up her father’s daughter: she was the one born brilliant and soon made scornful. To a large degree, she had the childhood of John Stuart Mill. Once her father saw—and this, almost in Margaret’s infancy—that he had a child of prodigious mental ability, he drilled her mercilessly. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her for her own particular self; it was that he loved more the opportunity to satisfy both duty and inclination through the cultivation to the utmost of the remarkable brain he had at his disposal.
Thus, at 4 Margaret could read and understand stories written for grown-ups; at 6 she was studying grammar, both English and Latin; at 9 she was reading major works, again in English and in Latin. History, modern languages and literature were not far down the road; when she got to them, she swallowed them whole. Under her father’s influence, Matteson notes, she came to revere the German Romantics—Goethe, especially—all of whom held the idea that the world was ever evolving toward a higher level of consciousness, and that to pursue consciousness through learning “was a matter not just of destiny but of quasi-religious duty.” To this ideology Fuller consecrated herself, and in her eyes all who did not do likewise deserved her contempt.