BIOGRAPHY: "The Lives of Margaret Fuller," by John Matteson

  • Article by: CARL ROLLYSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 23, 2012 - 9:55 AM

An eloquent and inspirational biography of the only woman in the Concord circle of Emerson and Thoreau.

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Margaret Fuller (1810-50) was the only woman to be included in the Concord circle of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The author of the groundbreaking "Woman in the Nineteenth Century" and a war correspondent for the New York Tribune, Fuller returned home from her adventures in Italy only to drown 250 yards from the shore of her native land. She is a natural choice for biographers wanting to latch onto both a serious and sensational subject -- and several biographers have done so in recent years.

But as John Matteson shows in "The Lives of Margaret Fuller," it was not always so. By the early 20th century, Fuller had been largely forgotten. Even academics -- who can keep a reputation alive by teaching writers into the literary canon -- ignored her because she was a one-book author, and because much of her impact derived from a charismatic personality so powerful that when she died Emerson said he had lost his audience.

Right after her death her fellow writers assembled a volume devoted to her memory that was a surprise bestseller, eclipsed only by the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1852. But the kind of mostly pious, inspirational tributes that led to the proliferation of Margaret Fuller clubs in the decades after her death had played itself out by the 1920s, when scholars of all kinds were canonizing great writers, not great personalities.

Flash forward 50 years to the 1970s, with the revival of the women's movement and the desire in academia to revise the canon to give voice to the writings of women the male-dominated academy had discounted. Suddenly Fuller's writing and cultural influence became empowering -- to use a favorite academic word. And the culmination of this trend is surely Matteson's masterful biography, with chapter titles that emphasize the reasons his protean subject is likely to remain in the forefront of efforts to explore and dissect the American psyche: "Prodigy," "Misfit," "Apostle," "Conversationalist," "Ecstatic Editor," "Seeker of Utopia," "Advocate," "Lover and Critic," "Internationalist," "Inamorata," "Revolutionary," "Victim."

Pulitzer Prize winner Matteson expresses his significant debts to other biographers who have emphasized many of the "lives" that Fuller led as she was quite consciously breaking the mold her society wished to construct for women. His writing seems to derive palpable energy from Fuller's own dynamism. He does not downplay her arrogance and other faults, but in the end he discovers a Fuller that is startlingly modern in her contradictions and commitments.

Carl Rollyson is professor of journalism and author of several biographies, including forthcoming books on Dana Andrews and Sylvia Plath.

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