Vivian Gornick: Review of John Matteson's "The Lives of Margaret Fuller"

Roundup: Books

Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. Her biography of Emma Goldman is forthcoming from Yale.

The Lives of Margaret Fuller
A Biography.
By John Matteson.

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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