from DAUGHTERS OF THE PURITANS By SETH CURTIS BEACH
SARAH MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI
At Cambridge, it is still possible to pick up interesting reminiscences of Longfellow and Lowell from old neighbors or townsmen, proud even to have seen these celebrities as familiar objects upon the street. “And Margaret Fuller,” you suggest, further to tap the memory of your venerable friend. He smiles gently and says, Margaret Fuller was before his time; he remembers the table-talk of his youth. He remembers, when she was a girl at dancing-school, Papanti stopped his class and said, “Mees Fuller, Mees Fuller, you sal not be so magnee-fee-cent”; he remembers that, being asked if she thought herself better than any one else, she calmly said, “Yes, I do”; and he remembers that Miss Fuller having announced that she accepted the universe, a wit remarked that the universe ought to be greatly obliged to her.
Margaret Fuller was born in 1810, a year later than Longfellow, but while Longfellow lived until 1882, Margaret was lost at sea thirty years before, in 1850. The last four years of her life were spent in Italy, so that American memories of Margaret must needs go back to 1846. Practically it is traditions of her that remain, and not memories. As she survives in tradition, she seems to have been a person of inordinate vanity, who gave lectures in drawing-rooms and called them “conversations,” uttered a commonplace with the authority of an oracle, and sentimentalized over art, poetry, or religion, while she seemed to herself, and apparently to others, to be talking philosophy. She took herself in all seriousness as a genius, ran a dazzling career of a dozen years or so in Cambridge and Boston, and then her light seems to have gone out. She came to the surface, with other newness, in the Transcendental era; she was the priestess of its mysteries; when that movement ebbed away, her day was over. This is the impression one would gather, if he had only current oral traditions of Margaret Fuller.
If with this impression, wishing to get a first-hand knowledge of his subject, a student were to read the “Works of Margaret Fuller”:–“Life Within and Without,” “At Home and Abroad,” “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” “Art, Literature, and Drama,”–he would be prepared to find eccentricities of style, straining for effect, mystical utterances, attempts at profundity, and stilted commonplace. He would, however, find nothing of this sort, or of any sort of make believe, but simply a writer always in earnest, always convinced, with a fair English style, perfectly intelligible, intent upon conveying an idea in the simplest manner and generally an idea which approves itself to the common-sense of the reader. There is no brilliancy, no ornament, little imagination, and not a least glimmer of wit. The absence of wit is remarkable, since in conversation, wit was a quality for which Margaret was both admired and feared. But as a writer, Margaret was a little prosaic,–even her poetry inclined to be prosaic,–but she is earnest, noble, temperate, and reasonable. The reader will be convinced that there was more in the woman than popular tradition recognizes.
One is confirmed in the conviction that the legend does her less than justice when he knows the names and the quality of her friends. No woman ever had better or more loyal friends than Margaret Fuller. Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke and William Henry Channing were among them and compiled her “Memoirs,” evidently as a labor of love. George William Curtis knew her personally, and called her “a scholar, a critic, a thinker, a queen of conversation, above all, a person of delicate insight and sympathy, of the most feminine refinement of feeling and of dauntless courage.” Col. Higginson, a fellow-townsman, who from youth to manhood, knew Margaret personally, whose sisters were her intimates, whose family, as he tells us, was “afterwards closely connected” with hers by marriage, and who has studied all the documents and written her biography, says she was a “person whose career is more interesting, as it seems to me, than that of any other American of her sex; a woman whose aims were high and whose services great; one whose intellect was uncommon, whose activity was incessant, whose life, varied, and whose death, dramatic.”
There still remains the current legend, and a legend, presumably, has some foundation. If we attempt to unite the Margaret Fuller of common tradition with Margaret Fuller as estimated by her friends, we shall assume that she was not a wholly balanced character,–that she must have been a great and noble woman to have had such friends, but that there may have been in her some element of foolishness which her friends excused and at which the public smiled.
Margaret was the fifth in descent from Lieut. Thomas Fuller, who came from England in 1638, and who celebrated the event in a poem of which the first stanza is as follows:
“In thirty-eight I set my foot
On this New England shore;
My thoughts were then to stay one year,
And then remain no more.”
The poetry is on a level with other colonial poetry of the period.
Timothy Fuller, the grandfather of Margaret, graduated at Harvard College in 1760, became a clergyman, and was a delegate to the Massachusetts State Convention which adopted the Federal Constitution. He had five sons, all of whom became lawyers. “They were in general,” says Col. Higginson, “men of great energy, pushing, successful, of immense and varied information, of great self-esteem, and without a particle of tact.” The evidence is that Margaret reproduced, in a somewhat exaggerated form, all these Fuller characteristics, good and bad. The saying is quoted from Horace Mann that if Margaret was unpopular, “it was because she probably inherited the disagreeableness of forty Fullers.”
Timothy Fuller, Margaret’s father, was the oldest of these brothers and, Col. Higginson says, “the most successful and the most assured.” He graduated at Harvard, second in his class, in 1801, lived in Cambridge, and represented the Middlesex district in Congress from 1817 to 1825. He was a “Jeffersonian Democrat” and a personal friend and political supporter of John Quincy Adams. He married Margaret, the daughter of Major Peter Crane. Mrs. Fuller was as gentle and unobtrusive as her stalwart husband was forceful and uncompliant. She effaced herself even in her own home, was seen and not heard, though apparently not very conspicuously seen. She had eight children, of whom Margaret was the first, and when this busy mother escaped from the care of the household, it was to take refuge in her flower garden. A “fair blossom of the white amaranth,” Margaret calls this mother. The child’s nature took something from both of her parents, and was both strong and tender.
Her father assumed the entire charge of Margaret’s education, setting her studying Latin at the age of six, not an unusual feat in that day for a boy, but hitherto unheard of for a girl. Her lessons were recited at night, after Mr. Fuller returned from his office in Boston, often at a late hour. “High-pressure,” says Col. Higginson, “is bad enough for an imaginative and excitable child, but high-pressure by candle-light is ruinous; yet that was the life she lived.” The effect of these night lessons was to leave the child’s brain both tired and excited and in no condition to sleep. It was considered singular that she was never ready for bed. She was hustled off to toss on her pillow, to see horrid visions, to have nightmare, and sometimes to walk in her sleep. Terrible morning headaches followed, and Margaret was considered a delicate child. One would like to know what Latin at six would have done for her, without those recitations by candle-light.
Mr. Fuller did not consider it important that a child should have juvenile books and Margaret’s light reading consisted of Shakspere, Cervantes, and Moliere. She gives an interesting account of her discovery of Shakspere at the age of eight. Foraging for entertainment on a dismal winter Sunday afternoon, she took down a volume of Shakspere and was soon lost in the adventures and misadventures of Romeo and Juliet. Two hours passed, when the child’s exceeding quiet attracted attention. “That is no book for Sunday,” said her father, “put it away.” Margaret obeyed, but soon took the book again to follow the fortunes of her lovers further. This was a fatal indiscretion; the forbidden volume was again taken from her and she was sent to bed as a punishment for disobedience.
Meanwhile, the daily lessons to her father or to a private tutor went on; Virgil, Horace and Ovid were read in due course, and the study of Greek was begun. Margaret never forgave her father for robbing her of a proper childhood and substituting a premature scholastic education. “I certainly do not wish,” she says, “that instead of these masters, I had read baby books, written down to children, but I do wish that I had read no books at all till later,–that I had lived with toys and played in the open air.”
Her early and solitary development entailed disadvantages which only a very thoughtful parent could have foreseen. When, later, Margaret was sent to school, she had no companions in study, being in advance of the girls of her age, with whom she played, and too young for the older set with whom she was called to recite. “Not only,” she says, “I was not their schoolmate, but my book-life and lonely habits had given a cold aloofness to my whole expression, and veiled my manner with a hauteur which turned all hearts away.”
The effects of her training upon her health, Margaret appears to have exaggerated. She thought it had “checked her growth, wasted her constitution,” and would bring her to a “premature grave.” While her lessons to her father by candle-light continued, there were sleeplessness, bad dreams, and morning headaches, but after this had gone on one year, Mr. Fuller was elected to Congress, spent most of his time in Washington, and a private tutor gave the lessons, presumably at seasonable hours. No one with a “broken constitution” could have performed her later literary labors, and she was not threatened with a “premature grave” when Dr. Frederick Henry Hedge made her acquaintance in Cambridge society. “Margaret,” he says, “was then about thirteen,–a child in years, but so precocious in her mental and physical development, that she passed for eighteen or twenty. Agreeably to this estimate, she had her place in society as a full-grown lady. When I recall her personal appearance as she was then, and for ten or twelve years subsequent, I have the idea of a blooming girl of florid complexion and vigorous health, with a tendency to robustness of which she was painfully conscious, and which, with little regard to hygienic principles, she endeavored to suppress and conceal, thereby preparing for herself much future suffering.” She had, he says, “no pretensions to beauty then, or at any time,” yet she “was not plain,” a reproach from which she was saved “by her blond and abundant hair, by her excellent teeth, by her sparkling, dancing, busy eyes,” and by a “graceful and peculiar carriage of her head and neck.” He adds that “in conversation she had already, at that early age, begun to distinguish herself, and made much the same impression in society that she did in after years,” but that she had an excessive “tendency to sarcasm” which frightened shy young people and made her notoriously unpopular with the ladies.
At this period Margaret attended a seminary for young ladies in Boston. Cambridge was then, according to Col. Higginson, a vast, sparsely settled village, containing between two and three thousand inhabitants. In the Boston school, Dr. Hedge says, “the inexperienced country girl was exposed to petty persecutions from the dashing misses of the city,” and Margaret paid them off by “indiscriminate sarcasms.”
Margaret’s next two years were spent at a boarding school in Groton. Her adventures in this school are supposed to be narrated in her dramatic story entitled “Mariana,” in the volume called “Summer on the Lakes.” Mariana at first carried all before her “by her love of wild dances and sudden song, her freaks of passion and wit,” but abusing her privileges, she is overthrown by her rebellious subjects, brought to great humiliation, and receives some needed moral instructions.
At fifteen, Margaret returned to Cambridge and resumed her private studies, except that, for a Greek recitation, she attended an academy in which Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was then fitting for college. Her day at this period, as she gives it, was occupied thus: she rose before five, walked an hour, and practiced at the piano till seven: breakfasted and read French till eight; read Brown’s philosophy, two or three lectures, till half past nine; went to school and studied Greek till twelve; recited, went home, and practiced till two; dined; lounged half an hour, read two hours in Italian, walked or rode, and spent her evenings leisurely with music or friends. Plainly she ought to have been one of the learned women of her generation.
A school composition of Margaret impressed her fellow pupil, Dr. Holmes, as he relates, with a kind of awe. It began loftily with the words, “It is a trite remark,” a phrase which seemed to the boy very masterful. The girls envied her a certain queenliness of manner. “We thought,” says one of them, “that if we could only come into school in that way, we could know as much Greek as she did.” She was accustomed to fill the hood of her cloak with books, swing them over her shoulder, and march away. “We wished,” says this lady, “that our mothers would let us have hooded cloaks, that we might carry our books in the same way.”
It is known that Margaret had several love affairs and, in a later letter, she refers to one which belongs to this period, and which appears to have been the first of the series. She meets her old adorer again at the age of thirty and writes to a friend who knew of the youthful episode. He had the same powerful eye, calm wisdom, refined observation and “the imposing _maniere d’etre_ which anywhere would give him influence among men”; but in herself, she says, “There is scarcely a fibre left of the haughty, passionate, ambitious child he remembered and loved.”
Though a precocious girl and in a way fascinating, there is evidence that Margaret was crude and unformed socially, due perhaps to the habit of considering her mother as a negligible quantity. Cambridge ladies preserved an unpleasant portrait of the child as she appeared at a grand reception given by Mr. Fuller to President Adams in 1826, “one of the most elaborate affairs of the kind,” says Col. Higginson, “that had occurred in Cambridge since the ante-revolutionary days of the Lechmeres and Vassals.” Margaret ought to have been dressed by an artist, but apparently, a girl of sixteen, she was left to her own devices. She appeared, we are told, with a low-necked dress badly cut, tightly laced, her arms held back as if pinioned, her hair curled all over her head, and she danced quadrilles very badly. This escapade was not allowed to repeat itself. Certain kind and motherly Cambridge ladies took the neglected child in hand, tamed her rude strength, and subdued her manners. Col. Higginson mentions half a dozen of these excellent ladies, among them his mother, at whose feet “this studious, self-conscious, overgrown girl” would sit, “covering her hands with kisses and treasuring every word.”
Chief among Margaret’s motherly friends was Mrs. Eliza Farrar, wife of a Harvard professor, an authoress of merit, “of uncommon character and cultivation, who had lived much in Europe, and who, with no children of her own,” became a kind of foster-mother to Margaret. She had Margaret “constantly at her own house, reformed her hairdresser, instructed her dressmaker, and took her to make calls and on journeys.” Margaret was an apt pupil, and the good training of these many Cambridge mothers was apparent when, ten years later, Mr. Emerson made her acquaintance. “She was then, as always,” he says, “carefully and becomingly dressed, and of lady-like self-possession.”
The seven years in Cambridge, from Margaret’s fifteenth to her twenty-third year, though uneventful, were, considering merely the pleasure of existence, the most delightful of her life. She was a school-girl as much or as little as she cared to be; her health, when not overtaxed, was perfect; her family though not rich, were in easy circumstances; her father was distinguished, having just retired from Congress after eight years of creditable service; and, partly perhaps from her father’s distinction, she had access to the best social circles of Cambridge. “In our evening reunions,” says Dr. Hedge, “she was always conspicuous by the brilliancy of her wit, which needed but little provocation to break forth in exuberant sallies, that drew around her a knot of listeners, and made her the central attraction of the hour. Rarely did she enter a company in which she was not a prominent object.” Her conversational talent “continued to develop itself in these years, and was certainly” he thinks, “her most decided gift. One could form no adequate idea of her ability without hearing her converse…. For some reason or other, she could never deliver herself in print as she did with her lips.” Emerson, in perfect agreement with this estimate says, “Her pen was a non-conductor.” The reader will not think this true in her letters, where often the words seem to palpitate. Doubtless the world had no business to see her love letters, but one will find there a woman who, if she could speak as she writes, must have poured herself out in tidal waves.
Dr. Hedge was struck by two traits of Margaret’s character, repeatedly mentioned by others, but to which it is worth while to have his testimony. The first was a passionate love for the beautiful: “I have never known one who seemed to derive such satisfaction from beautiful forms”; the second was “her intellectual sincerity. Her judgment took no bribes from her sex or her sphere, nor from custom, nor tradition, nor caprice.”
Margaret was nineteen years old when Dr. James Freeman Clarke, then a young man in college, made her acquaintance. “We both lived in Cambridge,” he says, “and from that time until she went to reside in Groton in 1833, I saw her or heard from her almost every day. There was a family connection between us, and we called each other cousins.” Possessing in a greater degree than any person he ever knew, the power of magnetizing others, she had drawn about her a circle of girl friends whom she entertained and delighted by her exuberant talent. They came from Boston, Charlestown, Roxbury, Brookline, and met now at one house and now at another of these pleasant towns. Dr. Hedge also knows of this charming circle, and says, “she loved to draw these fair girls to herself, and make them her guests, and was never so happy as when surrounded in company, by such a bevy.”
With all her social activity, Margaret kept up her studies at a rate that would be the despair of a young man in college. “She already, when I first became acquainted with her,” says Dr. Clarke, “had become familiar with the masterpieces of French, Italian, and Spanish literature,” and was beginning German, and in about three months, she was reading with ease the masterpieces of German literature. Meanwhile, she was keeping up her Greek as a pastime, reading over and over the dialogues of Plato. Still there is time for Mr. Clarke to walk with her for hours beneath the lindens or in the garden, or, on a summer’s day to ride with her on horseback from Cambridge to Newton,–a day he says, “all of a piece, in which my eloquent companion helped me to understand my past life and her own.”
We cannot wonder that, at the age of twenty-three, Margaret reluctantly left Cambridge where there was so much that she loved, and went with her family to a farm in Groton where, with certain unpleasant school-girl memories, there was nothing that she loved at all. In 1833, at the age of sixty-five Mr. Fuller retired from his law practice and bought an estate in Groton, with the double purpose of farming his lands for income, and, in his leisure, writing a history of the United States, for which his public life had been a preparation, and towards which he had collected much material. Margaret’s most exacting duties were the education of the younger children, which left her much time for her favorite studies. She had correspondents by the score; her friends visited her; Cambridge homes were open to her; and Mrs. Farrar took her on a delightful journey to Newport, Hudson River and Trenton Falls. Still we cannot add the two years in Groton to her happy period, because she allowed herself to be intensely miserable. Six years later, in a moment of penitence, she said of this period, “Had I been wise in such matters then as now, how easy and fair I might have made the whole.”
She fought her homesickness by overwork, so that Emerson says, “her reading in Groton was at a rate like Gibbon’s,” and she paid the penalty of her excesses by a serious illness which threatened to be fatal, and from which perhaps she never fully recovered. It was some consolation that her father was melted to an unwonted exhibition of tenderness, and that he said to her in this mood, “My dear, I have been thinking of you in the night, and I cannot remember that you have any faults. You have defects, of course, as all mortals have, but I do not know that you have a single fault.”
Events were soon to make this remark one of her dearest memories. In a short time, death separated the father and child, who had been so much to each other. In 1835, Mr. Fuller fell a victim to cholera, and died in three days. For a year or more, Margaret’s heart had been set upon a visit to Europe for study; the trip had been promised by her father; it had been arranged that she should accompany her friends, the Farrars; but the death of Mr. Fuller dissolved this dream, and, in her journal, solemnly praying that “duty may now be the first object and self set aside,” she dedicates her strength to her “mother, brothers, and sister.” No one can read the “Memoirs” without feeling that she kept her vows.
The estate of Mr. Fuller finally yielded $2,000 to each of the seven children, much less, Margaret says, than was anticipated. With reason, she wrote, “Life, as I look forward, presents a scene of struggle and privation only.” In the winter, at Mrs. Farrar’s, Margaret met Mr. Emerson; the summer following she visited at his house in Concord. There she met Mr. Alcott and engaged to teach in his school in Boston.
Margaret Fuller’s visit at Mr. Emerson’s in 1836 had for her very important consequences. It was the first of many visits and was the beginning of an intimacy which takes its place among the most interesting literary friendships in the history of letters. To this friendship Col. Higginson devotes a separate chapter in his biography of Margaret, and in the “Memoirs,” under the title of “Visits to Concord,” Mr. Emerson gives a charming account of it in more than a hundred pages.
Mr. Emerson was by no means the stranger to Margaret that she was to him. She had sat under his preaching during his pastorate at the Second Church in Boston, and “several of his sermons,” so she wrote to a friend, “stood apart in her memory like landmarks in her spiritual history.” It appears that she had failed to come to close quarters with this timid apostle. A year after he left his pulpit, she wrote of him as the “only clergyman of all possible clergymen who eludes my acquaintance.”
When, at length, she was invited to Concord, it was as Mrs. Emerson’s guest, not as his: “she came to spend a fortnight with my wife.” However, at last she was under his roof. “I still remember,” he says, “the first half hour of her conversation…. Her extreme plainness,–a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids,–the nasal tone of her voice–all repelled; and I said to myself, we shall never get far…. I remember that she made me laugh more than I liked…. She had an incredible variety of anecdotes, and the readiest wit to give an absurd turn to whatever passed; and the eyes, which were so plain at first, soon swam with fun and drolleries, and the very tides of joy and superabundant life.”
The practical outcome of the visit was an engagement to teach in Mr. Alcott’s school. Under date of August 2, 1836, Mr. Alcott writes, “Emerson called this morning and took me to Concord to spend the day. At his house, I met Margaret Fuller … and had some conversation with her about taking Miss Peabody’s place in my school.” That is to say, Mr. Emerson had in his house a brilliant young lady who, by stress of circumstances, wanted a situation; he had a friend in Boston in whose school there was a vacancy; Mr. Emerson, at some pains to himself, brought the parties together. Nor was this the last time that Mr. Emerson befriended Margaret.
It appears from Mr. Alcott’s diary that Miss Fuller began her engagement with January, that she taught Latin and French at the school, and French, German, and Italian to private classes. For a class of beginners, she “thought it good success,” she says, “when at the end of three months, they could read twenty pages of German at a lesson, and very well.” An advanced class in German read Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea, Goetz von Berlichingen, Iphigenia, and the first part of Faust, “three weeks of thorough study,” she calls it, “as valuable to me as to them.”
The class in Italian went at an equal pace. At the same time she had three private pupils, to one of whom, every day for ten weeks, she taught Latin “orally,”–in other words, Latin conversation. In her leisure, she “translated, one evening every week, German authors into English for the gratification of Dr. Channing.” It is to be hoped that she was paid for this service, because she found it far from interesting. “It is not very pleasant,” she writes, “for Dr. Channing takes in subjects more deliberately than is conceivable to us feminine people.”
In the spring of 1837, Margaret accepted an invitation to teach in a private academy in Providence, R. I.–four hours a day, at a salary of $1,000. We are not told how this invitation came to her, but it is not difficult to detect the hand of Mr. Emerson. The proprietor of the school was an admirer of Emerson, so much so that he brought Emerson from Concord in June following, to dedicate a new school building. His relation to both parties makes it probable that Margaret owed her second engagement, as she did her first, to the good offices of Mr. Emerson.
She taught in this school with success, two years, “worshipped by the girls,” it is said, “but sometimes too sarcastic for the boys.” The task of teaching, however, was irksome to her, her mind was in literature; she had from Mr. Ripley a definite proposition to write a “Life of Goethe,” a task of which she had dreamed many years; and she resigned her position, and withdrew from the profession of school-teacher, at the end of 1838. Her life of Goethe was never written, but it was always dancing before her eyes and, more than once, determined her course.
In the following spring, Margaret took a pleasant house in Jamaica Plain, “then and perhaps now,” Col. Higginson says, “the most rural and attractive suburb of Boston.” Here she brought her mother and the younger children. Three years later, she removed with them to Cambridge, and for the next five years, she kept the family together, and made a home for them. In addition to the income of the estate, she expected to meet her expenses by giving lessons. Two pupils came with her from Providence, and other pupils came for recitations, by whom she was paid at the rate of two dollars an hour.
With these resources the life in Jamaica Plain began very quietly and pleasantly. To be quiet however was not natural to Margaret. Besides, she had fallen upon what, intellectually, were stirring times. It was at the high tide of the Transcendental movement. William Henry Channing who, like Margaret, was a part of it, says, “the summer of 1839 saw the full dawn of this strange enthusiasm.” As he briefly defines it “Transcendentalism, as viewed by its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the living God in the soul.” Its disciples, says Mr. Channing, “were pleasantly nick-named the ‘Like-minded,’ on the ground that no two were of the same opinion.” Of this company, he says, “Margaret was a member by the grace of nature…. Men, her superiors in years, in fame and social position, treated her more with the frankness due from equal to equal, than the half condescending deference with which scholars are wont to adapt themselves to women…. It was evident that they prized her verdict, respected her criticism, feared her rebuke, and looked to her as an umpire.” In speaking, “her opening was deliberate, like the progress of a massive force gaining its momentum; but as she felt her way, and moving in a congenial element, the sweep of her speech became grand. The style of her eloquence was sententious, free from prettiness, direct, vigorous, charged with vitality.”
It was a saying of hers that if she had been a man, she would have aspired to become an orator, and it seems probable she would not have aspired in vain. The natural sequel to the occasional discussions of the summer was the formation of a class of ladies for Conversation, with Margaret as the leader. This class contained twenty-five or thirty ladies, among whom were Mrs. George Bancroft, Mrs. Lydia Maria Child, Mrs. Horace Mann, Mrs. Theodore Parker, Mrs. Waldo Emerson, Mrs. George Ripley, and Mrs. Josiah Quincy. The first series of thirteen meetings was immediately followed by a second series; they were resumed the next winter and were continued with unabated interest for five years.
The subjects considered in these celebrated Conversations ranged over a very wide field, from mythology and religion, poetry and art, to war, ethics, and sociology. If Margaret had not been brilliant in these assemblies, she would have fallen short of herself as she has been represented in the Cambridge drawing-rooms. As reported by one of the members of the class, “Margaret used to come to the conversations very well dressed and, altogether, looked sumptuously. She began them with an exordium in which she gave her leading views,”–a part which she is further said to have managed with great skill and charm, after which she invited others to join in the discussion. Mr. Emerson tells us that the apparent sumptuousness in her attire was imaginary, the “effect of a general impression made by her genius and mistakenly attributed to some external elegance; for,” he says, “I have been told by her most intimate friend, who knew every particular of her conduct at the time, that there was nothing of especial expense or splendor in her toilette.”
Mr. Emerson knew a lady “of eminent powers, previously by no means partial to Margaret,” who said, on leaving one of these assemblies, “I never heard, read of, or imagined a conversation at all equal to this we have now heard.” Many testimonies have been brought together, in the “Memoirs,” of the enthusiasm and admiration created by Margaret in these Conversations. They were probably her most brilliant achievements, though, in the nature of the case, nothing survives of them but the echo in these recorded memories of participants.
Mr. Emerson says that “the fame of these conversations” led to a proposal that Margaret should undertake an evening class to which gentlemen should be admitted and that he himself had the pleasure of “assisting at one–the second–of these soirees.” Margaret “spoke well–she could not otherwise,–but I remember that she seemed encumbered, or interrupted, by the headiness or incapacity of the men.” A lady who attended the entire series, a “true hand,” he says, reports that “all that depended on others entirely failed” and that “even in the point of erudition, which Margaret did not profess on the subject, she proved the best informed of the party.” This testimony is worth something in answer to the charge that Margaret’s scholarship was fictitious, that she had a smattering of many things, but knew nothing thoroughly. She seems to have compared well with others, some of whom were considered scholars. “Take her as a whole,” said Mr. Emerson’s informant, “she has the most to bestow on others by conversation of any person I have ever known.”
For these services, Margaret seems to have received liberal compensation, though all was so cordial that she says she never had the feeling of being “a paid Corinne.” For the conversations with ladies and gentlemen, according to Mrs. Dall who has published her notes of them, the tickets were $20 each, for the series of ten evenings.
It appears from his account that Mr. Emerson saw much of Margaret during these years and that she was frequently his guest. “The day,” he says, “was never long enough to exhaust her opulent memory; and I, who knew her intimately for ten years,–from July, 1836, till August, 1846, when she sailed for Europe,–never saw her without a surprise at her new powers.” She was as busy as he, and they seldom met in the forenoon, but “In the evening, she came to the library, and many and many a conversation was there held,” he tells us, “whose details, if they could be preserved, would justify all encomiums. They interested me in every manner;–talent, memory, wit, stern introspection, poetic play, religion, the finest personal feeling, the aspects of the future, each followed each in full activity, and left me, I remember, enriched, and sometimes astonished by the gifts of my guest.”
She was “rich in friends,” and wore them “as a necklace of diamonds about her neck.” “She was an active and inspiring companion and correspondent, and all the art, the thought and nobleness of New England seemed, at that moment, related to her and she to it. She was everywhere a welcome guest…. Her arrival was a holiday, and so was her abode … all tasks that could be suspended were put aside to catch the favorable hour, in walking, riding, or boating to talk with this joyful guest, who brought wit, anecdotes, love-stories, tragedies, oracles with her, and, with her broad relations to so many fine friends, seemed like the queen of some parliament of love, who carried the key to all confidences, and to whom every question had been finally referred.”
At a later day, when Margaret was in Italy, reports came back that she was making conquests, and having advantageous offers of marriage. Even Mr. Emerson expressed surprise at these social successes in a strange land, but a lady said to him, “There is nothing extraordinary in it. Had she been a man, any one of those fine girls of sixteen, who surrounded her here, would have married her: they were all in love with her.”
“Of personal influence, speaking strictly,–an efflux, that is, purely of mind and character,” Mr. Emerson thinks she had more than any other person he ever knew. Even a recluse like Hawthorne yielded to this influence. Hawthorne was married to Miss Sophia Peabody in 1842, and began housekeeping in the Old Manse in Concord. The day following their engagement Miss Peabody wrote Miss Fuller addressing her “Dear, most noble Margaret,” and saying, “I feel that you are entitled, through our love and regard to be told directly…. Mr. Hawthorne, last evening, in the midst of his emotions, so deep and absorbing, after deciding, said that Margaret can now, when she visits Mr. Emerson spend part of the time with us.” A month after the marriage, Hawthorne himself wrote to Margaret, “There is nobody to whom I would more willingly speak my mind, because I can be certain of being understood.” Evidently he is not beginning an acquaintance; he already knows Margaret intimately and respects her thoroughly. There is no evidence, I believe, that during her life, he held any different opinion of her.
These facts have become of special interest because, in Italy, eight years after her death, he wrote in his Note-Book, that Margaret “had a strong and coarse nature” and that “she was a great humbug.” The most reasonable explanation of this change of view is that Margaret was dead, poor woman, and could not speak for herself; that she had fought with all her might in an Italian Revolution that had failed; that having failed, she and her party were discredited; that her enemies survived, and Hawthorne listened to them. However his later opinions may be explained, the quality of her friends in America, among whom had been Hawthorne himself, is evidence that Margaret was not of a “coarse nature,” and it is incredible that a “humbug” could have imposed herself for five years upon those ladies who attended her conversations, not to speak of James Freeman Clarke who was a fair scholar and Dr. Hedge who was a very rare scholar.
Margaret had her weaknesses, which her friends do not conceal. It was a weakness, not perhaps that she overestimated herself; that might be pardoned; but that she took no pains to conceal her high opinion of her abilities and worth. One likes to see an appearance of modesty, and that little deceit Margaret did not practice. On the contrary, Mr. Emerson says, “Margaret at first astonished and then repelled us by a complacency that seemed the most assured since the days of Scaligar…. In the coolest way, she said to her friends, ‘I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.’… It is certain that Margaret occasionally let slip, with all the innocence imaginable, some phrase betraying the presence of a rather mountainous ME, in a way to surprise those who knew her good sense.” Col. Higginson quotes a saying about the Fullers, that “Their only peculiarity was that they said openly about themselves the good and bad things which we commonly suppress about ourselves and express only about other people.” The common way is not more sincere, but it is pleasanter.
In 1840, the second year of Margaret’s Conversations, appeared the first number of _The Dial_, a literary magazine of limited circulation, but destined to a kind of post-mortem immortality. In 1841, the Community of Brook Farm was established. An interesting account of both enterprises, and of Margaret’s part in them, is given by Mr. Emerson in a paper found in the tenth volume of his collected Works. In the preliminary discussions leading to both enterprises, Margaret participated. Like Mr. Emerson, she did not have unqualified faith in the Brook Farm experiment and did not join the community, though she had many friends in it, was a frequent visitor, and had the honor to sit for the portrait of “Zenobia” in Mr. Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance.
Her part in _The Dial_ was more prominent. She edited the first two volumes of the magazine, being then succeeded by Mr. Emerson, and she wrote for it a paper entitled “Man vs. Men: Woman vs. Women,” afterward expanded and published in a volume under the title, “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” her second and most famous book. Her first book, “Summer on the Lakes,” is an account of a charming journey, with the family of James Freeman Clarke and others, by steamboat and farm wagon, as far as the Mississippi. It was a voyage of discovery, and her account has permanent historic interest.
In 1844, Margaret accepted an advantageous offer to become literary editor of the _New York Tribune_, a position which she was admirably qualified to fill. A collection of papers from _The Tribune_, under the title of “Literature and Art,” made up her third book, published in 1846, on the eve of her departure for Europe.
During her residence in New York, she became greatly interested in philanthropies, especially in the care of prisoners of her own sex. She visited the jails and prisons, interviewed the inmates, gave them “conversations,” and wrought upon them the same miracle which she had so often performed in refined drawing-rooms. “If she had been born to large fortune,” said Mr. Greeley, “a house of refuge for all female outcasts desiring to return to the ways of virtue would have been one of her most cherished and first realized conceptions.”
Early in her New York residence must also have occurred that rather mysterious love affair with the young Hebrew, Mr. Nathan, who seems first to have charmed her with his music and then with his heart. After nearly sixty years, the letters which she wrote him, full of consuming fire, have at last seen the light. From a passage in one of them, it would seem that marriage was not contemplated by either party, that in theory at least they took no thought of the morrow, the bliss of the moment being held sufficient. Evidently there was no engagement, but no one can doubt that on her part there was love. Of course in this changing world, no such relations can be maintained for ever, and in the end there will be an awakening, and then pain.
In 1846, Margaret realized her life-dream and went to Europe. Destined to a life of adventure, she was accidently separated from her party, and spent a perilous night on Ben Lomond, without a particle of shelter, in a drenching rain, a thrilling account of which she has written. She visited Carlyle and, for a wonder, he let her take a share in the conversation. To Mr. Emerson he wrote, Margaret “is very narrow sometimes, but she is truly high.”
On her way to Italy, the goal of her ambition, she visited George Sand and they had such a meeting as two women of genius might. She sailed from Genoa for Naples in February, 1847, and arrived in Rome in May following. There is much to interest a reader in her Italian life, but the one thing which cannot be omitted is the story of her marriage to the Marquis Ossoli. Soon after her arrival in Rome, on a visit to St. Peter’s, Margaret became separated from her friends, whom she did not again discover at the place appointed for meeting. A gentleman seeing her distress, offered to get her a carriage and, not finding one, walked home with her. This was the young Marquis Ossoli, and thus fortuitously the acquaintance began, which was continued by occasional meetings. The summer Margaret spent in the north of Italy, and when she returned to Rome, she took modest apartments in which she received her friends every Monday evening, and the Marquis came very regularly.
It was not long however before he confessed his love for her and asked her hand in marriage. He was gently rejected, being told that he ought to marry a younger woman, and that she would be his friend but not his wife. He however persisted, at length won her consent, and they were privately married in December. I follow the account of Mrs. William Story, wife of the artist, then residing in Rome. The old Marquis Ossoli had recently died, leaving an unsettled estate, of which his two older sons, both in the Papal service, were the executors. “Every one knows,” says Mrs. Story, “that law is subject to ecclesiastical influence in Rome, and that marriage with a Protestant would be destructive of all prospect of favorable administration.”
The birth of a child a year later, at Rieti in the Appenines, whither Margaret had retired, made secrecy seem more imperative; or, as Margaret said, in order to defend the child “from the stings of poverty, they were patient waiters for the restored law of the land.” The Italian Revolution of 1848 was then in progress. Ossoli her husband, was a captain in the Civic Guard, on duty in Rome, and the letters which she wrote him at this period of trial, were the only fragments of her treasures recovered from the wreck in which she perished.
Leaving her babe with his nurse, in April following, she visited Rome and was shut up in the siege by the French army which had been sent to overthrow the provisional government and restore the authority of the pope. “Ossoli took station with his men on the walls of the Vatican garden where he remained faithfully to the end of the attack. Margaret had entire charge of one of the hospitals…. I have walked through the wards with her,” says Mrs. Story, “and seen how comforting was her presence to the poor suffering men. ‘How long will the Signora stay?’ ‘When will the Signora come again?’ they eagerly asked…. They raised themselves up on their elbows to get the last glimpse of her as she was going away.”
In the midst of these dangers, Margaret confided to Mrs. Story the secret of her marriage and placed in her hands the marriage certificate and other documents relating to the affair. These papers were afterward returned to Margaret and were lost in the wreck.
The failure of the Revolution was the financial ruin of all those who had staked their fortunes in it. They had much reason to be thankful if they escaped with their lives. By the intervention of friends, the Ossolis were dealt with very leniently. Mr. Greenough, the artist, interested himself in their behalf and procured for them permission to retire, outside the papal territory, to Florence. Ossoli even obtained a small part of his patrimony.
Except the disappointment and sorrow over the faded dream of Italian Independence, the winter at Florence was one of the bright spots in Margaret’s life. She was proud of her husband’s part in the Revolution: “I rejoice,” she says, “in all Ossoli did.” She had her babe with her and her happiness in husband and child was perfect: “My love for Ossoli is most pure and tender, nor has any one, except my mother or little children, loved me so genuinely as he does…. Ossoli seems to me more lovely and good every day; our darling child is well now, and every day more gay and playful.”
She found pleasant and congenial society: “I see the Brownings often,” she says, “and love them both more and more as I know them better. Mr. Browning enriches every hour I spend with him, and is a most cordial, true, and noble man. One of my most prized Italian friends, Marchioness Arconati Visconti, of Milan, is passing the winter here, and I see her almost every day.” Moreover she was busy with a congenial task. At the very opening of the struggle for liberty, she planned to write a history of the eventful period, and with this purpose, collected material for the undertaking, and already had a large part of the work in manuscript. She finished the writing in Florence, and much value was set upon it both by herself and by her friends in Italy. Mrs. Story says, “in the estimation of most of those who were in Italy at the time, the loss of Margaret’s history and notes is a great and irreparable one. No one could have possessed so many avenues of direct information from both sides.”
When the spring opened, it was decided to return to America, partly to negotiate directly with the publisher, but chiefly because, having exhausted her resources, Margaret’s pen must henceforth be the main reliance of the little family. It is pathetic to know that, after their passage had been engaged, “letters came which, had they reached her a week earlier, would probably have induced them to remain in Italy.”
They sailed, May 17, 1850, in a merchant vessel, the only other passengers being the baby’s nurse and Mr. Horace Sumner, a younger brother of Senator Sumner. After a protracted and troubled voyage of two months, the vessel arrived off the coast of New Jersey, on July 18. The “weather was thick…. By nine p. m. there was a gale, by midnight a hurricane,” and at four o’clock on the morning of July 19, the vessel grounded on the shallow sands of Fire Island. The captain had died of smallpox on the voyage; his widow, the mate in command of the vessel, and four seamen reached the shore; Mr. Sumner and the Ossolis perished. The cruel part of the tragedy is that it seems probable every soul on board might have been saved. Life-boats, only three miles away, did not arrive until noon; that is, after eight precious hours had passed. Moreover, in a moment of penitence, one of the life-boat crew said, “Oh, if we had known that any such persons of importance were on board, we should have done our best.”
Margaret, the name by which she will always be known, had passed her fortieth birthday at sea on this voyage. It seems a short life in which to have crowded so much and such varied experience. She had some trials even in her youth, but for two-thirds of her existence, she might have been considered a favorite of fortune. In later life, she had some battles to fight, but her triumphs were great enough to dazzle a person with more modesty than was her endowment. She suffered in Italy, both for her child left to strangers in the mountains, and for her adopted country, but they were both causes, in which for her, suffering was a joy. She did not desire to survive her husband and child, nor to leave them behind, and, we may say, happily they all went together. “Her life seems to me,” says Col. Higginson, “on the whole, a triumphant rather than a sad one,” and that is a reasonable verdict, however difficult to render in the presence of such a tragedy as her untimely death.