• Houghton Mifflin
  • The offending jacket

Margaret Fuller would have hated the cover of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall. It’s a blurry photo of a woman in a black Victorian dress standing with her back to the camera in a field of brown grass. She holds onto the corner of a red shawl that flaps in the wind. The blades of grass are in clearer focus than the woman. There are white doilies in each corner.

Fuller herself, as depicted in Marshall’s biography, was the sort of woman who would have demanded the standard treatment given to any male intellectual (and a few chosen females, such as Susan Sontag or Joan Didion): a close-up portrait of herself gazing pensively out at the viewer with clear, intelligent eyes. Fuller never turned away from anything, least of all anyone who would have respected her brains and talent, which were considerable.

It may seem ridiculous to harp on a book cover, but this is a cover that says, “This is a book for women.” Fuller would not have approved. Although her best-known book was called Women in the Nineteenth Century, it was actually a demand for gender equality, for women to have the same opportunities as men. Its signature line: “But if you ask me what office they may fill; I reply—any. I do not care what case you put: let them be sea-captains, if you will.”

Why shouldn’t men feel they, too, ought to read the story of one of the greatest American minds of the 19th century? It’s a damned good one, too. The last third even has some swashbuckling adventure, rare in biographies of intellectuals regardless of gender.