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In the earliest of the biographies of Margaret Fuller, Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled that during his days as a student at Harvard College he had "seen Miss Fuller sitting, day after day, under the covert gaze of the undergraduates who had never before looked upon a woman reading within those sacred precincts."(1) The image of a solitary Fuller sitting amid books at America's most famous seat of learning tells us much about a century in which an intellectual woman was considered an oxymoron. It also signals an approach that has been typical since Higginson's volume appeared in 1884. In a biography published in 1940, Mason Wade approvingly cited Van Wyck Brooks's patronizing comment that Fuller was "'not so much a great writer, but a great woman writing.'" Casting Fuller in the womanly role of the muse, he described her as a "whetstone of genius." Fuller, Wade said, "possessed the gift of bringing out the brilliance of her friends, and where they lacked talent she made them rise above their natural limitations."(2) Two decades later Perry Miller took a slightly different tack. He acknowledged Fuller as the equal of male intellectuals in antebellum America. Yet he simultaneously insisted that she could not be "dissociated from the hyperbolically female intellectualism of the period, the slightest invocation of which invites our laughter." Miller's disparaging statement had a still nastier edge. If the intellect was blemished, so too was the body. Fuller, in fact, was "monumentally homely." The evidence was there for all to see: "her hair was stringy and her neck abnormally long."(3)
Charles Capper's Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life takes us well beyond these still familiar stereotypes. There are none of the invidious distinctions that measure intellectual women as lesser. There are none of the reckonings that made Fuller a deviant. Instead, this subtly nuanced biography presents Fuller in her many dimensions. The sharply edged wit, the gift for friendship, the passion for matters intellectual and cultural, the intense ambition, the lingering insecurity, all that complicated Fuller are here. In the first of his two-volume biography, Capper explores these dimensions in the context of Fuller's exceptionally demanding education, the strategies she invented to support herself with teaching, Fuller's apprenticeship for a career as a woman of letters, and the opening chapter of that career with her decision to edit the Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. Simultaneously, Capper locates Fuller in her larger historical context. In this richly textured narrative, he interweaves Boston's standing in America's literary life, shifting gender roles, European Romanticism, teaching as a woman's profession, social reform movements, and Transcendentalism.
Born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts in 1810, Fuller …