Emerson professor publishes biography on Margaret Fuller

by Emily Murphy / Beacon Staff • March 21, 2013

Professor Megan Marshall's book was published last Tuesday
courtesy of Megan Marshall
Professor Megan Marshall's book was published last Tuesday
courtesy of Megan Marshall

Six years of work on a biography by Assistant Professor Megan Marshall about women’s rights activist and journalist Margaret Fuller came to a close last Tuesday, when the finished product was released.

“I started writing this book the same year I started teaching at Emerson,” Marshall, 58, said. “It’s been about six years, which is not unusual for a biography. There’s just so much to find out.”

The book, titled Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, is the third written work by Marshall. The biography follows Fuller from child to adult, emphasizing her journey toward becoming a present historical figure. Born in 1810, Fuller was associated with the likes of Henry David Thoreau. She wrote for The New York Tribune and The Dial, a journal started by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Marshall said she thinks Fuller is one of the greatest women in American literature. One of her most notable contributions has been the Boston “conversations” — discussions for women about their opportunity for higher education.

“There's a lot of drama to [her] story and a lot of intellectual interest, interesting characters … and all of these revolutionary heroes,” Marshall said.

Anne Gray Fischer, who graduated Emerson with an MFA in 2010, had Marshall as an advisor during her time at the college.

“I helped her do a teeny bit of research,” Fischer said. “It was wonderful because I was researching for my own project, so it was really fun and helpful to see the research process through Megan's expert eyes.”

Fischer said that while she has bought the biography, she hasn’t had the chance to read it yet.

“Megan’s been working on this book since I started at Emerson, so it’s really thrilling to finally have the book finished, and it looks lovely. It’s just really exciting,” Fischer said.

According to Marshall, the inspiration for the project started when she was a student herself.

“I learned about [Margaret Fuller] in college as the one woman in this group with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville, and all these great American Renaissance writers,” she said. “At the time that I was in college, she was the only woman that was ever mentioned in these courses. The fact that she was able to hang in there at all shows you how prominent she had been in her time.”

However, Fuller’s large presence in history brought on a challenge, Marshall said.

“There have been a lot of biographies written about her since she died,” she said. “So it was in itself a good challenge to write about someone fairly well-known, who had been written about before. I wanted to see if I could do something different with her story.”

One thing Marshall said she did differently with her book was emphasize Fuller’s early life, focusing the first half on the story of how she grew up. This is also something The New York Times Book Review noticed.

The review, written by Dwight Garner, was published the day after Marshall’s book was released.

“ Margaret Fuller is as seductive as it is impressive,” Garner wrote in the review. “It has the grain and emotional amplitude of a serious novel, especially in its first half. It delivers a lovely and bumpy coming-of-age story, one of the best such stories 19th-century America has to offer.”

To promote the new book, Marshall has attended book readings around Boston, and has been featured on the radio show On Point with Tom Ashbrook.

Marshall said that while her book seems to have been well-received, she doesn’t like to focus on numbers.

“I don’t like to pay a lot of attention to [sales],” Marshall said, “I don’t know, I don’t like to look, but I know that my publishers have been very happy with the reception it’s gotten.”

Marshall has published one other biography, about the Peabody Sisters, entitled The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. Marshall said the main difference between the two books was how she approached to the subject matter.

“[The Peabody Sisters] was about bringing people out of the shadow and into the light, whereas here we have someone who really was in the light,” Marshall said.

With regards to the sort of topics Marshall writes about, she said she draws inspiration from the concept of women in the past battling contemporary issues. 

Marshall’s first book, The Cost of Loving: Women and the New Fear of Intimacy, focused on women balancing relationships with careers. While doing research, Marshall said she often got the response that women felt they were the first generation to experience this particular problem.

“I wanted to know if that was true,” Marshall said. “So I started looking into historical figures, and became fascinated with the lives of certain women.”

In the future, Marshall said she plans to write about Elizabeth Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eccentric sister.