Tag Archives: Massachusetts

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.

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“Ceremonial Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

I don’t often read two works by the same author back to back. After reading Living at the End of Time, I wondered why John Mitchell’s earlier book Ceremonial Time (1984) was described as a “cult classic”. It didn’t take me long to figure it out.

At its most obvious, Mitchell’s description of his Native American friends and their ritual dance was intriguing and, to me, unexpected. He develops a definition of “ceremonial time” as a condition when people or things from different eras can in some fashion coincide or overlap, and discusses his experiences of this.

In more prosaic historical terms, Mitchell describes the ecological and human conditions on his chosen square mile of Massachusetts from the end of the last Ice Age to the present. Although he resists much of the contemporary change he describes (highways, shopping malls, businesses and the loss of farmland), he gradually accepts them as a small glitch in a long pattern.

It’s when Mitchell discusses “the future” that I really accepted that this book is thirty years old. Much of “the future” he spoke of has arrived. And no doubt Mitchell has adapted to the internet, cell phones and social media.

Mitchell posits several fates for his beloved neighborhood of Scratch Flats – nuclear annihilation (odd that we don’t think about that much in 2014), the asphalt apocalypse (my term, not his), tribalism with a modern twist, and the return of the Ice Age. After all, geologic history suggests that this in an interglacial era. In 1984, he had not apprehended the threat of global warming.

Would he have considered global warming if he had written in 1994? In 2004? I don’t know. When did I “pick up” on it? I often claim foreknowledge based on having watched the movie “Our Mister Sun” in 1960. I studied atmospheric chemistry in the 1970s, but that was oriented towards protecting the ozone layer and understanding photochemical smog. The climate impact of carbon dioxide was not on our agenda.

When did I BELIEVE that global warming would hit hard in my lifetime? Some time between five and ten years ago. And I am, after a fashion, both a scientist and an environmentalist.

Mitchell is an environmentalist and a story teller. He has important things to say in either idiom.

“Living at the End of Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

This memoir was published in 1990, a generation ago. Much of its appeal (for me) comes from the geographic setting – in Massachusetts, near the Boston beltway (aka Route 495). In this improbable spot, in the wake of a divorce, Mitchell built a rustic cabin on the land where his family and former wife lived.This book is an account of his first year in his relatively primitive, small (10’ by 16’) shack, which was located only half an hour from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau undertook to “live simply” in 1845.

Mitchell loves the natural world and studied Thoreau extensively, although (see blog post on Walden Warming, by Richard Primack dated June 23, 2014) he may not have realized how excellent a naturalist Thoreau was. (By now, he has probably met Primack and caught up with anything he missed. Massachusetts is fortunate in the quality of its writers.)

At the start of his sojourn, Mitchell also decided to spend time with journals he inherited from family members, most notably his father’s account of several years spent in Japan.

All this adds up to an unfocused but charming set of reflections. Mitchell’s rural retreat suffers impingement by the new headquarters of Digital, Inc. Land is developed, but he is still surrounded by an amazing amount of undisturbed nature. He also “senses” the impact of earlier occupants on the land.

Checking the usual sources, I learned that Mitchell has written extensively and also served the cause of conservation as an employee of Massachusetts Audubon. I look forward to sampling his other books, essays and blog posts.

The appreciation of nature which is not remote and exotic has more recently been carried forward by Lynanda Haupt in Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis, a more urban offering which I wrote about on June 7, 2013. My next trip to Massachusetts will be enhanced by my exposure to John Hansen Mitchell’s Living at the End of Time.