Margaret Fuller, a woman of great talent and promise, had the misfortune to be born in Massachusetts in 1810, at a time and place in which the characteristics of what historians have termed “true womanhood” were becoming ever more rigidly defined. Well brought-up women like herself were to be cultured, pious, submissive and genteel. Fuller, by contrast, was assertive and freethinking. She was also — and to some extent, still is — a difficult person to like.
Arrogant, condescending and vain, Fuller was (as she knew altogether too well) the best-educated American woman of her time. In “The Lives of Margaret Fuller,” John Matteson tells us that Ralph Waldo Emerson thought she exhibited “an overweening sense of power, and slight esteem of others”; Nathaniel Hawthorne found her, as Matteson puts it, “exquisitely irritating”; and Edgar Allan Poe portrayed her acidly. Habituated to deference from others, she was unaccustomed to dealing with people on an equal footing, and she bristled when she did not receive the respect she thought was her due.
In youth, she had difficulty making friends among her peers; Matteson details a painful episode when she gave a party and few invitees chose to attend. In adulthood, though, she finally developed a coterie of faithful male and female associates with whom she exchanged copious letters and frequent visits. Matteson, the author of “Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father,” explains that intensive home schooling by her lawyer (and later congressman) father, ambitious for the success of his eldest child, meant that she had scant interactions with those of her own age until she was in her teens and had advanced far beyond them in learning. Appropriately enough the first woman given access to the Harvard College Library, Fuller initially found employment as a teacher of those not much younger than herself. Matteson comments that she found the role of teacher and mentor the most congenial throughout her...
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