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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

Finding Margaret Fuller

I cannot recall so eagerly anticipating the release of a book as I did while awaiting Finding Margaret Fuller by Allison Pataki. Margaret Fuller, the mid-nineteenth century American intellectual, has long fascinated me for the way she defied the rules of her time. Fuller became many things women were not supposed to become. She was learned, articulate, direct, and smart. Who would not admire such chutzpah?

Well, a lot of people, as it turns out. It is easy to look back now and recognize Fuller's brilliance, but during her lifetime, not many understood the magnitude of her genius. She had an assertive and intense personality, which to some was off-putting. And she was a woman.

I knew telling Margaret Fuller’s story through fiction would require Pataki to be selective regarding what aspects of Fuller’s life to bring to the page. There is simply too much to say about Fuller, who was born in 1810 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Her father had hoped for the birth of a boy. When she obviously was not, he educated her in the classical curriculum of the day, giving young Margaret access to books and knowledge few girls could hope to explore.

Margaret as a young woman (image in the public domain)

Pataki made the wise choice, however, to begin Chapter One in Concord, Massachusetts in 1836 when Fuller meets Ralph Waldo Emerson, presently the most celebrated intellectual in America. Emerson has invited Margaret to “Bush,” as his estate is known. Newspapers have just dubbed Fuller as “the most well-read woman in America,” sparking Emerson's curiosity. The connection between the two intellectuals is immediately apparent. So begins the novel, and so began the true lifelong friendship between Fuller and Emerson that dangerously teetered toward forbidden affection.

From there Pataki takes readers on Fuller’s journey as Fuller tries to find her way in a man’s world. Fuller knows she is different but does not care that people whisper about her. Inner knowing is the compass she follows as she seeks to further develop her mind—while also having to earn an income to support herself and her family. Men like Emerson (right; photo in the public domain) can spend their days philosophizing, but Fuller does not have family wealth on which to rely. She writes for publication, teaches, and lectures in a series of famous conversations for women in Boston until one day, Horace Greeley, founder, and editor of the New-York Tribune, invites her to come to Manhattan and become a newspaperwoman. Fuller says yes.

Shortly afterward, Margaret publishes a book that has been percolating in her for years. Women in the Nineteenth Century earns her a comparison to the eighteenth-century British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. (Wollstonecraft is the subject of my biographical novel Solitary Walker, due out in February 2025.) Today, historians consider Wollstonecraft the mother of feminism. Right behind her is Margaret Fuller.

Fuller’s story in Finding Margaret Fuller does not end with the publication of her book, however. The last half of the novel takes Fuller from New York to Italy, where she joins the Roman Revolution of 1848. In Rome, she also falls in love for the first time in her thirty-eight-year-old life.

You will have to read Finding Margaret Fuller to find out more. It is a delightful novel, one that I found compelling to read even though I had already consumed two biographies of Fuller and had read Women in the Nineteenth Century. One of the most enjoyable things for me was not just reading about Margaret and Emerson, who alone are fascinating people. I was also thrilled reading about the entire cast of characters. Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau are key figures in Pataki's novel, as they were in Margaret's real life. While the United States pushed West under the guise of Manifest Destiny, Concord was the epicenter of emerging intellectual thought in America.

After reading Finding Margaret Fuller, I urge you to consider several other biographical novels that will balance out Pataki’s narrative. I do not take issue with Pataki. But there is more to Lidian Emerson, Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau than one would expect to find in a novel about Fuller, particularly one told from Fuller’s point of view.

Mr. Emerson's Wife by Amy Belding Brown, a favorite author of mine like Pataki, tells Lidian Emerson's story. It isn't easy being married to a man like Waldo, who shows troubling disregard for his wife. Lidian, however, is a woman with her own intellectual abilities. Shadowed by Waldo's, they scarcely shine. But she is not without passion, especially for a young man by the name of Henry David Thoreau. When Waldo becomes negligent in caring for his wife's needs, Thoreau steps in. Don't miss this treasure of a story. Read my longer review on Goodreads here.

The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck, yet another favorite author, is a novel about the courtship and married life of Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Sophia is sickly, but not weak. A talented artist in her own right, she lives to create. But despite a passionate love that blazes between the couple, life with Nathaniel has its challenges. A descendant of a Salem judge who condemned women to death for witchcraft, the gorgeous Nathaniel is a haunted individual. Who knows what demons torment him? If Sophia only knew, she could comfort him. See my full blog post on this delicious book here.

In Followed by the Lark, Helen Humphreys takes readers into the psyche of Henry David Thoreau, a man of such unique character and insight, even someone as sharp as Ralph Waldo Emerson cannot fully understand him. The writing feels more like an homage to the naturalist in Thoreau, rather than a typical novel, but I loved it. I felt like I was walking alongside Thoreau in the woods. There's not just his affinity with nature. His personal relationships are complicated when all he wants is simplicity. This literary novel is so touching you will want to place it on your nightstand and keep revisiting the short vignettes that comprise its lush narrative.

Kudos to Allison Pataki for bringing Margaret Fuller to life for modern readers, most of all for prompting us to remember Fuller's radiant mind. Not only did Pataki do a stunning job staying true to the facts of Fuller’s life; she also reminds us that Fuller is a historical figure students in school should learn about. Yet they do not. The broader public did not embrace Fuller when she was alive. She was too smart. We know how intellectual women are despised—still. And she was too unorthodox. We know how being different invites scorn—still.

But Fuller rallied through the chauvinistic norms of her time. Her tenacity and foresightedness alone deserve our ongoing respect and admiration. It is Fuller’s contribution to women gaining the vote in America, however, and the way her writings have helped pave the way to women’s equality long after she died that earn her a special place in American history.

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For more on Margaret Fuller, visit The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy



2 comentarios

Mike Lee
Mike Lee
06 may

Wow, another wonderful, informative insight into a woman of the ages. Thank you, Nancy, for bringing Margaret Fuller to us.

Mike Lee

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N.J. Mastro
N.J. Mastro
06 may
Contestando a

Thank you, Mike! Margaret Fuller was such a fascinating figure. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about her!

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