Reading the two volumes of Charles Capper’s marvelous biography of Margaret Fuller was a little bit like reading the first two volumes of an unfinished triple-decker novel. That’s not a knock on Capper, whose portrayal of Fuller and/in her milieus is perceptive and profound, thorough and enthralling. One just has the sense that Margaret Fuller’s life wasn’t finished when it ended. She was grappling all her life with the relationship between mind and body, intellect and gender, thought and love, carving out a space as a woman intellectual in a culture that by and large did not see the need for such spaces. And now she was coming back to America with her lover-husband and her child and her book manuscript, finding room in her life for all three and perhaps ready to find room in her own society for her increasingly capacious life and so make room for other women who might follow. As she was denied the chance to struggle and triumph, denied the (perhaps more likely) chance to struggle and succumb to the weight of convention, so we all are denied the chance to know what Margaret Fuller would have made of her life as a sensual Romantic maternal American intellectual.
But that’s a selfish and deeply unhistorical thought. Human lives are not novels, nor are people obliged to carry some plotline to its conclusion or some conception to its fulfillment. Plotlines, trajectories of development, ideas that shape lives, lives that advance ideas – these are how we frame and demarcate and resize our historical subjects so that they fit within the pages of a book. But even the most self-consciously literary lives are not so amenable to neat narration, nor can narrative encompass all that someone was or is. “A formula, a phrase remains – but the best is lost.”
In some ways, to say that “the best is lost” would be particularly true of Margaret Fuller – and not just in the sense of lost potential, a lost future. One of the motifs that emerges in both volumes of Capper’s biography is the image of Fuller as a brilliant conversationalist. Her most admiring friends and most astute intellectual companions found that her writing, as acute as it often was, rarely matched the virtuosity and range and exquisite perspicuity and pleasingly profound (or profoundly pleasing) beauty of insight and expression that characterized her conversation. She was a remarkable thinker, and she did her best thinking, it seems, off the cuff and on the fly, provoking others with her observations and responding to their provocations in turn.