Chronicler of 19th-Century Feminist Honored

John Matteson lauded for Margaret Fuller biography
 
Pulitzer Prize winner John Matteson, Ph.D., has been honored with the 2012 Ann M. Sperber Biography Prize, administered by Fordham University’s Department of Communication and Media Studies.

Matteson, a distinguished professor of English and legal writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was feted in a ceremony on Nov. 19 at the Lincoln Center campus for The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).

Fuller, a leading 19th century transcendentalist, feminist, radical writer, and journalist, was a fitting subject for the Sperber award, he said, because Edward R. Murrow—the subject of a biography written by Sperber herself— once declared that he’d always been on the side of the heretics because they were usually right.

“Margaret Fuller was one of the great heretics—heretical enough to believe that a woman could be the intellectual equal of a man,” said Matteson. “Heretical enough to suspect that one’s salvation might not depend on one’s conventional piety, but on one’s ceaseless striving toward enlightenment and earthly perfection.

“Heretical enough not to seek a small, cringing safety in the world, but a tremendously risky life of defiance, adventure, and love.”

Matteson recalled Fuller as a woman of many firsts: The first woman granted access to the Harvard College Library; first editor of America’s first avant-garde literary magazine, The Dial; writer of the first bestselling treatise in America on woman’s rights; and the first woman in the newsroom at The New-York Tribune. In 1846, she also became the first regular foreign correspondent, male or female, for an American newspaper.

Fuller would likely appreciate the fact that she was the first woman to be the subject of a biography awarded the Sperber prize, too, said Matteson.

Fuller deserved to be honored for her work as a journalist, he said. But that body of work was overlooked by her contemporaries, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who promoted her other endeavors after her tragic death at age 40 in 1850.

As a foreign correspondent, Fuller had traveled through Europe documenting the harsh lives of English coal miners and French weavers, Matteson said, while what other journalists “knew of Fuller’s impassioned efforts on behalf of the democratic revolutions that swept through Italy in 1848 and 1849 was literally [only] what they read in the papers.”

A daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller

“Emerson and his collaborators wrote chiefly about the Fuller they knew,” said Matteson.

“And that was not the Fuller who argued in the pages of the Tribune, who demanded better treatment for the poor and the insane of New York City. It was not the Fuller who, through her reviews of Typee and the 1845 Narrative, introduced countless Americans to the writings of Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass.”

He lauded Fuller for living several lives in a world that offered women few opportunities to earn a living with intellect.

“The work she performed and the lives she lived were often determined less by her preferences than by the unpredictable circumstances that, at a given moment, opened a way forward,” he said.

“In writing her way toward her own greater growth and freedom, Fuller also did what she could to open a path for others who were seeking freedom, too.”

The Sperber award was established by a gift from Liselotte Sperber in memory of her daughter Ann M. Sperber, author of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of Edward R. Murrow, Murrow: His Life and Times (Fordham University Press, 1998). It is presented annually to a writer who has demonstrated exceptional achievement in writing and research and has published a biography in the field of journalism or media studies.

Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to more than 15,100 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in West Harrison, N.Y., the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y., and the London Centre at Heythrop College in the United Kingdom.
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