I met Megan Marshall in the spring of 2008, in a small classroom on the third floor of Emerson College's Ansin Building just across the street from the Boston Common.
She was teaching a class called "Writing the Non-Fiction Book." Her students were MFA grad students, all dedicated, ambitious writers -- and me, an interloper from the publishing department.
I didn't know that Marshall had recently published "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism" to critical and reader acclaim, or that it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir. I didn't know that she'd spent 20 years researching the book, or that she was regarded as an expert on the Transcendental Era in America and on biographical writing and archival research.
All I knew was this: I'd met someone whose mind made my own bigger. I never took a class from another professor again.
Marshall will speak about her newest book, "Margaret Fuller: A New American Life," and the art of biography as part of the Brattleboro Literary Festival on Friday, Oct. 4, at 7 p.m. at the Centre Congregational Church. Here she shares some thoughts on the astonishing 19th century writer and intellectual Margaret Fuller.
Becky Karush: Margaret Fuller's friend and intellectual colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson said talking with Fuller was "like being set in a large place. You stretch your limbs and dilate to your utmost size." Have you ever met anyone who had that same quality?
Megan Marshall: My friend Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher. She has a forceful mind, so brilliant, it's easy to be astounded by what she has to say. Her perceptions are so unlike anyone else's, and her frame of reference is broad ranging, like Margaret Fuller, who had an extraordinary and unique classical education. And while Fuller could be intimidating in conversation, she was more interested in drawing other people out. If she thought you worthy, she wanted to know you. With men, though, she enjoyed bantering and beating them at their own game a bit more.
BK: From every description of her, Fuller seems to be a singular entity. Was there really no one else like her at the time?
MM: Lydia Maria Child, the abolitionist and suffragette found her to be singular, an intellectual self-made woman in a man's world. Caroline Dall, who was a force in Boston anti-slavery politics, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another women's rights activist, also all found her to be extraordinary. Even during her time in Europe people thought her unique, perhaps because they were a little amazed to meet an American woman with such learning and facility with speech. In Europe a number of people had read her book, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century," which helped set her up as someone with something remarkable to say.
BK: Fuller's life story, thinking and writing feel so modern it's almost unbelievable. What makes this sense of modernity possible?
MM: In many ways, she was on the outside of her culture looking in. The education her father gave her was unique. She wasn't really raised in the liberal reform world, as her father's politics were different from the prevailing Unitarian Transcendentalism. She was unmarried while she lived in America, so she was on the outside of that institution, too. And there are ways her classical learning gave her a sense of the long-rangedness of thoughts and ideas. Somehow altogether this made for an extraordinary package.
Fuller, as well as Thoreau, also seemed to happen upon ideas that became more relevant 100 years later. People could finally get them at a later time.
BK: How do your Emerson students respond to Fuller?
MM: I teach "Literature of Transcendence," and students are just stunned by her modernity and continued relevance. Male and female students are drawn to the fluid boundaries of gender in her work -- the concept that male and female qualities are combined in different proportions in different people depending on who they are.
My non-fiction students are especially interested in the unorthodox form of her work. It's a combination of journalism, direct observation, research poems, memoir. All kinds of stuff are thrown in, which challenges their notion of non-fiction.
BK: At age 40, Margaret Fuller died with her husband and 2-year-old son in a shipwreck only 300 yards from shore. Was it difficult to write that scene?
MM: I do hear from a number of people who tell me they cried at that part. I am pleased that readers are so affected by it, in a "wow, I really did what I set out to do" kind of way, though that sounds a little cruel!
There were two other times writing the book that I cried. One was when I was researching the first time she left her son, Nino, with a family in the Italian countryside to cover the Roman Revolution as America's first female war correspondent. When she went back to Nino, she wrote to her husband, Giovanni, that he nestled in her arms and seemed to know her. Six months later she wrote a letter to her friend Carrie Sturgis in the States, admitting that while Nino did recognize her, he seemed to say to her, "How could you leave me?" She didn't share that part with Giovanni. It was a pain she could tell only a woman friend.
I had an experience like that when I was doing the early research for "The Peabody Sisters." My first daughter was around a year old, and at times I would be away for up to a week. I felt that reproach from her when I would return, what Margaret felt from Nino. Discovering that moment in her life, the poignancy of her not wanting to reveal it to Giovanni, made me teary.
BK: Your biographical writing is distinctive in that you integrate Fuller's quotes into your sentences, rather than use block quotes. What motivated that decision?
MM: I came to that method as I wrote "The Peabody Sisters." I don't like the use of the block quote -- I always skip over them and I find that they slow the pace of the book. Though I might fall in love with long passages of someone's work, I realize that the nuggets are what bring her closer to the readers and allow for a narrative flow. I wanted this book to read as much as possible like a novel. Fuller's life was so novelistic you really couldn't have made up a better story.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. Learn more about her writing services at www.lifestorycompany.com or follow her @beckykarush on Twitter.