Book Review: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
Book Review: A New American Life
A Book Review by Taylor Griggs
All in all I always thought myself a fairly well read person and fairly well informed person. I’ve read Shakespeare — ok, mostly the Cliffnotes, but I did read a good part of Macbeth. I usually score better than average on those Facebook tests of reading, even when I admit I only purchased A Tale of Two Cities to get through sophomore year English. Still, when I picked up a copy of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, I have to admit I had never even heard of her. Here was a woman who was editor to Henry David Thoreau, an intimate of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a war nurse even before Florence Nightingale, and yet, I had never even heard her name.
Megan Marshall’s tale of Fuller makes every part of this amazing life seem almost commonplace. Marshall begins her tale with the story of an essay assigned by Maragret’s father. The theme was Virgil’s idea of possibility — ‘possunt quit posse videntur,’ “they can because they think they can.’ Fuller’s determination to succeed in a world of male dominance fills the book, inspiring as well as convicting all. Fuller’s life was both made possible and made challenging by her gender. Had she been born a boy, her life might well have been simply that of a lawyer in New England. Instead she pushed and became a formidable intellect challenging the boundaries of the time.
It is the relationships, both intimate and tragic, that pervade the whole of Fuller’s life. Fuller and Emerson shared a deep and profound relationship, in some ways more important than marriage, and in some ways less. Eventually, Emerson’s wife, Lidian confides in Fuller the challenge of being married to a man such as Emerson. Fuller came to realize that pain of Lidian, even as she knew, “the wives of her close male friends ‘don’t see the whole truth about one like me . . . . They have so much that I have not, I cant (sic) conceive of their wishing for what I have.’” (p. 196) There is in her friendships both intimacy and pain. Fuller is, after all, a woman of her age.
Marshall brings out the friendships that defined this life of the mind and that were such a feature of the Antebellum Era. The correspondence referenced throughout the book give witness to the depth of conversation present in an era of profound contemplation. Fuller continually gathered a community to discuss the great ideas of life, made all the more possible by the relative intimacy of New England. Thoreau and Emerson, Hawthorne and Channing all crossed paths allowing for a unique exchange of ideas, all witnessed and nurtured by Margaret Fuller.
Hanging over the whole account is the shadow of tragedy, both the tragic and untimely death of Fuller and the tragic quality to all of Fuller’s relationships. Marshall says of Fuller, “Margaret believe that she and Giovanni ‘could have a good deal of happiness together in what remains of life,’ once they reached America. Tragically, Fuller drowned within sight of the coast of America. Several of the passengers of the Elizabeth braved the currents and swam to shore, the six remaining on the boat, “could see figures moving about on shore.” Fuller seems never to found the happiness that seemed so easy for her male counterparts. Every part of her life was a struggle. Like the ship in which she died, she seemed always just off shore able to see her desires and yet unable to reach them. Margaret Fuller was so close to fame in so many ways, and tragically unknown. If only she had been a man, and yet, maybe not.