When Margaret Fuller died in a shipwreck off Fire Island in 1850, her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was devastated. He sent a mutual friend, Henry David Thoreau, to the scene of the disaster.
Thoreau walked the beach and interviewed survivors and witnesses. What he discovered appalled him.
While Fuller's ship had foundered on rocks only 300 yards from shore, spectators had gathered not to mount rescue efforts but to scavenge what floated from the wreckage.
One thing that was never recovered was the sole manuscript of Fuller's "great history" of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.
What a waste, in a thousand ways.
Fuller, the formidable American editor, feminist, foreign correspondent and social crusader, was only 40. She was returning to America with her new husband and their 2-year-old son after several years in Europe. She couldn't swim.
Fuller's was a great life, flush with drama, and Megan Marshall's new biography rises to it in ways small and large.
Marshall is the author of one previous book, the excellent "Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism" (2005). Her "Margaret Fuller: A New American Life" proves that earlier volume was no fluke. This one pitches Marshall into the front rank of American biographers.
Fuller knew everyone, not just Emerson and Thoreau but the young Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well.
When she donated a cow to Brook Farm, the utopian commune founded in the 1840s in Massachusetts, Hawthorne liked to call it the "transcendental heifer."
Edgar Allan Poe reviewed one of her books; Walt Whitman pored over her columns.
Abroad she met George Sand, Matthew Arnold and William Wordsworth, and stayed at the home of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.
Emerson called Fuller's "the most entertaining conversation in America." People wanted to be around her.
The tragedy of her life is that she desired more of a career than a woman of her era was able to have. "A man's ambition with a woman's heart," she wrote in a journal. "'Tis an accursed lot."
"Margaret Fuller" is as seductive as it is impressive. It has the grain and emotional amplitude of a serious novel, especially in its first half. It delivers a lovely and bumpy coming-of-age story, one of the best such stories 19th century America has to offer.
Now that the new season of "Girls" is winding down, this book is an entertainment that ambitious and literate young women should turn their attention toward.