Finding Margaret Fuller

Written by Allison Pataki
Review by Kristen McDermott

Margaret Fuller, friend and muse to Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and a host of other Victorian literary luminaries, is an ideal subject for a fictionalized biography, chiefly because she didn’t leave much personal writing behind. A prolific translator and journalist, Fuller turned her brilliant talents outward, offering the world deeply researched arguments in favor of abolition, education, female emancipation, and the rights of working-class people, as well as critical assessments of the greatest writers of her age.

Pataki creates a detailed narrative, from Fuller’s point of view, of her tragically short professional career from 1836-1850. This is a choice that helps the reader understand the decisions she made in her personal and professional lives, but we do lose a sense of just what made Fuller’s writing so powerful and influential. Louisa May Alcott is only one of the 19th-century American authors whom she inspired, but Pataki focuses mostly on the domestic details of Fuller’s life in Concord, Boston, New York and finally Rome. These details are lovingly rendered, particularly the beauties of nature that Margaret delighted in, which humanizes the heroine but keeps us at a distance from her unique mind and talent.

This is an absorbing read because Fuller herself was so fascinating, but it’s also a bit melancholy because the reader is aware of Margaret’s fate, detailed in the prologue. As a tour of the brilliance and innovation – as well as the personal foibles – of the Transcendentalists, however, it’s a gem.