Margaret Fuller, the only female member of the brilliant Emerson, Thoreau, et al. circle, is not an easy subject to write about, and Margaret Fuller, An American Romantic Life, Vol. II, The Public Years (Oxford University Press, $40, 649 pages, illus.), Charles Capper’s detailed account of the last 10 years of her short life, is not for the faint of heart.
Mr. Capper, who won the Bancroft Prize for “Vol. I,” has read and digested everything that remains on paper relating to Fuller and the literary lights who (mostly) admired her. This distillation of her (mostly) sad life is masterly, if exhausting.
Readers who wish to sample excellent writing need only start with the last chapter, in which the author gives a minute-by-minute account of the shipwreck some 400 yards off Fire Island that took the lives of Margaret, her young Italian husband (a fallen aristocrat) and their 2-year-old son. Yes, Mr. Capper concludes that the couple was married (practically a whole chapter is devoted to proving just when) and that they were so devoted that they chose not to try to swim on planks ashore with the help of sailors, as some survivors did, lest one not survive.
The notorious thieves of Fire Island stole what possessions drifted to shore; no trace of the last manuscript Margaret had produced on the Roman revolution of 1848 was found. Potential rescuers insisted that it was too dangerous for them to take the lifeboat out from shore, though one was subsequently quoted as saying, “Oh, if we had known there were any such persons of importance on board … we should have tried our best.”
“Vol. II” begins in 1840 when, with Emerson’s help, Fuller became the first editor of the Dial, a Transcendentalist quarterly that focused on literature rather than religion. Money was always a problem for Fuller, and after two years of working for no pay on the Dial, she concentrated on conducting, for pay, “Conversations” for women in Unitarian Boston’s Transcendentalist and radical reform elite.
In the book that grew out of these Conversations, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” Fuller “articulated an original liberal Romantic vision of intellectual freedom and spiritual growth. Combining a Transcendentalist argument for women’s self-reliance and a largely androgynous conception of gender, Fuller marked out a powerful feminist tradition whose influence would grow.”
In 1844 Horace Greeley hired Fuller as literary editor of his New-York Tribune and, in 1846, sent her to Europe as a foreign correspondent, where she was welcomed as an established author and a cosmopolitan American. In Paris she polished her French so that she could converse with French Romantics like George Sand; in Italy she learned Italian, eventually becoming swept up, with her patriotic husband, in the struggle for Italian unity and independence.
Mr. Capper tends to lapse into feminist jargon: “If America had a modernist forerunner before the twentieth century, it was surely Margaret Fuller, who had managed to slip more completely than any other intellectual of her generation the leash of proto-Victorian repressions and evasions that modernist authors revolted against. Certainly, her two primary intellectual constructs of formalist-organicist criticism and rights-minded androgyny suggest that.”
At the same time, the author sheds new light on Fuller’s many passionate friendships and yearnings, her ill health and depressions, and her family relationships. It’s a rich treasury — start with that last chapter if you want to get hooked.
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For a more stark contrast in biographic subjects it would be hard to beat C. David Heymann’s American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy (Atria, $27.95, 592 pages, illus.). The author has plowed much of this ground before in “A Woman Named Jackie,” and apparently has read and dissected every publication, frivolous or serious, that has mentioned the young Kennedys.
In addition, he appears to have interviewed everybody who has so much as glimpsed Caroline or John Kennedy outside a restaurant or met a cousin of theirs — and each gets to tell his or her story here. By midbook, particularly after Jackie’s death, the story gets increasingly sordid and the reader’s attention begins to flag. Even beach-book readers have their limit.
Mr. Heymann’s book opens with a gripping account of John Kennedy’s fatal decision to fly his wife and her sister in his own plane to Martha’s Vineyard at nightfall, without an instructor. The account encapsulates the young man’s habitual self-indulgence and determination to take unnecessary risks for the thrill of life on the edge.
Just six weeks before, John had crashed his Buckeye ultralight powered parachute into a tree, breaking his ankle. As for his qualifications to fly his Saratoga, John’s instructor reported that his pupil had had great difficulty in mastering high-frequency radio ranges and transmissions.
Only a few minutes into the flight to Martha’s Vineyard, John’s plane invaded the air space assigned to a commercial jetliner. Because air traffic controllers could not identify or contact the Saratoga, they had to divert the jetliner to avoid a collision.
In the approach to Martha’s Vineyard in the fog, John apparently made multiple piloting errors that took his two passengers’ lives along with his own. The sober sibling Caroline, whom he loved, had little influence on John’s life choices.
Mr. Heymann fully explores the Kennedys’ disparate educational experiences (Caroline was a good student, John was not), reactions to the stress of being always in the public eye (John often cheerfully accommodated autograph seekers while Caroline generally froze), choice of marital partner (neither cared for the other’s spouse) and management of the Kennedy legacy (the author characterizes Caroline as greedy, while speculating that John might well have entered public life and been elected president).
Mr. Heymann is a good writer and he organizes his material well. If there are people out there who have never read anything about the Kennedy children, this book may well be the last word.
Other readers may find the book repetitious and far too detailed — for example, all those very public fights of John and Carolyn Bessette get analyzed to a fare-thee-well, since everybody in New York seems to have witnessed them. In essence, John seems to have exhibited all the foolhardiness of his father and other Kennedy males in their personal lives, and whether John could have channeled his energy into public service remains an open question.
As for Caroline, who can fail to sympathize with the challenges posed by her mother’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis and the paparazzi’s intrusion at every turn, not to mention persistent threats against any Kennedy’s life? If Caroline, whose fortune is estimated at more than $400 million, wants to sell off family-associated memorabilia or trade on her mother’s name in anthologizing poetry and the like, who’s to blame her? But no amount of money can guarantee her family’s privacy, and that’s the one thing Caroline really wants.
John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.