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Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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737406.pngAn English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, John Matteson won a Pulitzer Prize for his dual biography of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father ( 4 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2007).

The Topic: In an age that required passivity and self-sacrifice from the fairer sex, brilliant but haughty Margaret Fuller, born in 1810, was widely recognized as "the best-read woman in America and the one most renowned for her intelligence." Her father, a U.S. congressman, zealously tutored his eldest child in subjects traditionally reserved for boys, and Fuller eventually became a leading figure in New England transcendentalism, the first female editor at the New York Tribune, and after traveling to Europe, the first foreign correspondent—male or female—of an American newspaper. Tragically drowned at the age of 40, Fuller left behind her greatest literary legacy, a fervent appeal for women’s rights, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which is considered by many as the first major work of American feminism.
Norton. 528 pages. $32.95. ISBN: 9780393068054

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"He certainly proves his point that Fuller led many lives, crammed into 40 short years. And yet, underneath them all, in many ways, she remains always the same. Her earnestness, her striving, her brilliance, her passion, and even her awkwardness unite the different phases of Fuller’s life and make her the unique creature that Matteson’s biography proves her to be." Marjorie Kehe

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"As with [Eden’s Outcasts], Matteson infuses his research with an unparalleled comprehension, sensitivity and empathy. … Matteson’s knowledge of American history and culture is unmatched, and through Fuller’s life he tells us about Transcendentalism, feminism, politics and New England values." Anne Trubek

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"His writing seems to derive palpable energy from Fuller’s own dynamism. He does not downplay her arrogance and other faults, but in the end he discovers a Fuller that is startlingly modern in her contradictions and commitments." Carl Rollyson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Matteson skillfully fills in the political and cultural background to Fuller’s shape-shifting life, and sketches the biographies of the hundreds of renowned and obscure figures with whom she conversed, exchanged letters and shared ideas. The result is a substantial and satisfying biography, which brings Fuller’s life back into popular view without simplifying her diverse and extraordinary achievements." Joanna Scutts

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Matteson deftly describes Fuller’s milieu and times while tracing her footsteps as she comes of age in Cambridge, Mass., travels through the Midwest (a trip that resulted in her travelogue Summer on the Lakes) and moves to New York City (where she completed the incandescent book Woman in the Nineteenth Century) and to Europe, where she witnessed and supported Giuseppe Mazzini’s failed Italian revolution. … There is the sense, in reading this litany—to borrow from Edith Wharton—that we are ‘human sightseeing’ without necessarily getting under Fuller’s skin." Laura Skandera Trombley

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Fuller’s story is a gripping one, worthy of a romance novel or Merchant-Ivory film. Yet this readable and meticulously researched biography at times feels not just exhaustive, but exhausting." Nancy D. Kates

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"John Matteson performs a service in producing a readable, if somewhat overlong, biography that will introduce this learned, prolific and eccentric American to a wider audience. … He is less assured in describing her sojourns in New York and Europe, and the narrative lags when she leaves Boston." Melanie Kirkpatrick

Critical Summary

Matteson successfully introduces readers to a long-overlooked pioneer of social reform in this highly readable and thoroughly researched biography. Fuller springs vividly to life in her own words, culled from letters, diaries, and published writings, and Matteson deftly evokes the distant era to which she belonged. While some critics had trouble sympathizing with the overconfident author, they acknowledged that Matteson steeps his narrative with sensitivity and insight to paint a portrait of a complex, if deeply flawed, individual. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal criticized the book’s exhaustive detail, length, and occasionally tedious moments. Nevertheless, Matteson returns Fuller to her rightful seat among America’s prominent writers and thinkers.