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Chapter 20: Margaret Fuller.

  • Her writings in the Tribune
  • -- she resides with Mr. Greeley -- his narrative -- Dietetic sparring -- her manner of writing -- woman's Rights -- her generosity -- her independence -- her love of children -- Margaret and Pickie -- her opinion of Mr. Greeley -- death of Pickie.

Margaret Fuller's first article in the Tribune, a review of Emerson's Essays, appeared on the seventh of December, 1844; her [254] last, ‘Farewell to New York,’ was published August 1st, 1846, on the eve of her departure for Europe. From Europe, however, she sent many letters to the Tribune, and continued occasionally, though at ever-increasing intervals, to correspond with the paper down nearly to the time of her embarkation for her native land in 1850.

During the twenty months of her connection with the Tribune, she wrote, on an average, three articles a week. Many of them were long and elaborate, extending, in several instances, to three and four columns; and, as they were Essays upon authors, rather than Reviews of Books, she indulged sparingly in extract. Among her literary articles, we observe essays upon Milton, Shelley, Carlyle, George Sand, the countess Hahn Hahn, Sue, Balzac, Charles Wesley, Longfellow, Richter, and other magnates. She wrote, also, a few musical and dramatic critiques. Among her general contributions, were essays upon the Rights, Wrongs, and Duties of Women, a defence of the “Irish character,” articles upon “Christmas,” “New year's day,” “French Gayety,” “the Poor Man,” “the Rich Man,” “What fits a man to be a Voter ” —genial, fresh, and suggestive essays all. Her defence of the Irish character was very touching and just. Her essay on George Sand was discriminating and courageous. She dared to speak of her as one of the best exponents of the difficulties, the errors, the weaknesses, and regenerative powers of the present epoch. ‘Let no man,’ continued Miss Fuller, ‘confound the bold unreserve of Sand with that of those who have lost the feeling of beauty and the love of good. With a bleeding heart and bewildered feet she sought the Truth, and if she lost the way, returned as soon as convinced she had done so, but she would never hide the fact that she had lost it. “ What God knows I dare avow to man,” seems to be her motto. It is impossible not to see in her, not only the distress and doubts of the intellect, but the temptations of a sensual nature; but we see, too, the courage of a hero, and a deep capacity for religion. The mixed nature, too, fits her peculiarly to speak to men so diseased as men are at present. They feel she knows their ailment, and, if she finds a cure, it will really be by a specific remedy.’

To give George Sand her due, ten years ago, required more courage in a reviewer than it would now to withhold it.

Margaret Fuller, in the knowledge of literature, was the most [255] learned woman of her country, perhaps of her time. Her understanding was greater than her gift. She could appreciate, not create. She was the noblest victim of that modern error, which makes Education and Book-knowledge synonymous terms. Her brain was terribly stimulated in childhood by the study of works utterly unfit for the nourishment of a child's mind, and in after life, it was further stimulated by the adulation of circles who place the highest value upon Intelligence, and no value at all upon Wisdom. It cost her the best years of her life to unlearn the errors, and to overcome the mental habits of her earlier years. But she did it. Her triumph was complete. She attained modesty, serenity, disinterestedness, self-control. ‘The spirit in which we work,’ says Goethe, ‘is the highest matter.’ What charms and blesses the reader of Margaret Fuller's essays, is not the knowledge they convey, nor the understanding they reveal, but the ineffably sweet, benign, tenderly humane and serenely high spirit which they breathe in every paragraph and phrase.

During a part of the time of her connection with the Tribune, Miss Fuller resided at Mr. Greeley's house, on the banks of the East river, opposite the lower end of Blackwell's island. ‘This place,’ she wrote, ‘is to me entirely charming; it is so completely in the country, and all around is so bold and free. It is two miles or more from the thickly-settled parts of New York, but omnibuses and cars give me constant access to the city, and, while I can readily see what and whom I will, I can command time and retirement. Stopping on the Harlem road, you enter a lane nearly a quarter of a mile long, and going by a small brook and pond that locks in the place, and ascending a slightly rising ground, get sight of the house, which, old-fashioned and of mellow tint, fronts on a flower-garden filled with shrubs, large vines, and trim box borders. On both sides of the house are beautiful trees, standing fair, full-grown, and clear. Passing through a wide hall, you come out upon a piazza, stretching the whole length of the house, where one can walk in all weathers. * * The beauty here, seen by moonlight, is truly transporting. I enjoy it greatly, and the genius loci receives me as to a home.’

Mr. Greeley has written a singularly interesting account of the rise and progress of his friendship with Margaret Fuller, which was [256] published, a few years ago, in her fascinating memoirs. A man is, in a degree, that which he loves to praise; and the narrative referred to, tells much of Margaret Fuller, but more of Horace Greeley. Whatever else should be omitted from this volume, that should not be; and it is, accordingly, presented here without abridgment.

My first acquaintance with Margaret Fuller was made through the pages of The Dial. The lofty range and rare ability of that work, and its un-American richness of culture and ripeness of thought, naturally filled the fit audience, though few, with a high estimate of those who were known as its conductors and principal writers. Yet I do not now remember that any article, which strongly impressed me, was recognized as from the pen of its female editor, prior to the appearance of “The great Law-suit,” afterward matured into the volume more distinctively, yet not quite accurately, entitled “ Woman in the Nineteenth Century.” I think this can hardly have failed to make a deep impression on the mind of every thoughtful reader, as the production of an original, vigorous and earnest mind. “Summer on the Lakes,” which appeared some time after that essay, though before its expansion into a book, struck me as less ambitious in its aim, but more graceful and delicate in its execution; and as one of the clearest and most graphic delineations ever given of the Great Lakes, of the Prairies, and of the receding barbarism, and the rapidly advancing, but rude, repulsive semi-civilization, which were contending with most unequal forces for the possession of those rich lands. I still consider Summer on the Lakes unequaled, especially in its pictures of the Prairies, and of the sunnier aspects of Pioneer life.

Yet, it was the suggestion of Mrs. Greeley—who had spent some weeks of successive seasons in or near Boston, and who had there made the personal acquaintance of Miss Fuller, and formed a very high estimate and warm attachment for her—that induced me, in the autumn of 1844, to offer her terms, which were accepted, for her assistance in the literary department of The Tribune. A home in my family was included in the stipulation. I was my self barely acquainted with her when she thus came to reside with us, and 1 did not fully appreciate her nobler qualities for some months afterward Though we were members of the same household, we scarcely met save at breakfast; and my time and thoughts were absorbed in duties and cares, which left me little leisure or inclination for the amenities of social intercourse. Fortune seemed to delight in placing us two in relations of friendly antagonism—or rather, to develop all possible contrasts in our ideas and social habits. She was naturally inclined to luxury, and a good appearance before the world. My pride, if I had any, delighted in bare walls and rugged fare. She was addicted to strong tea and coffee, both of which I rejected and condemned, even in the most homoeopathic dilutions; while, my general health [257] being sound, and hers sadly impaired, I could not fail to find in her dietectic habits the causes of her almost habitual illness; and once, while we were still barely acquainted, when she came to the breakfast-table with a very severe headache, I was tempted to attribute it to her strong potations of the Chinese leaf the night before. She told me quite frankly that she declined being lectured on the food or beverage she saw fit to take, which was but reasonable in one who had arrived at her maturity of intellect and fixedness of habits. So the subject was thenceforth tacitly avoided between us; but, though words were suppressed, looks and involuntary gestures could not so well be; and an utter divergency of views on this and kindred themes created a perceptible distance between us.

Her earlier contributions to The Tribune were not her best, and I did not at first prize her aid so highly as I afterward learned to do. She wrote always freshly, vigorously, but not always clearly; for her full and intimate acquaintance with continental literature, especially German, seemed to have marred her felicity and readiness of expression in her mother tongue. While I never met another woman who conversed more freely or lucidly, the attempt to commit her thoughts to paper seemed to induce a singular embarrassment and hesitation. She could write only when in the vein, and this needed often to be waited for through several days, while the occa---sion sometimes required an immediate utterance. The new book must be reviewed before other journals had thoroughly dissected and discussed it, else the ablest critique would command no general attention, and perhaps be, by the greater number, unread. That the writer should wait the flow of inspiration, or at least the recurrence of elasticity of spirits and relative health of body, will not seem unreasonable to the general reader; but to the inveterate hack-horse of the daily press, accustomed to write at any time, on any subject, and with a rapidity limited only by the physical ability to form the requisite pen-strokes, the notion of waiting for a brighter day, or a happier frame of mind, appears fantastic and absurd. He would as soon think of waiting for a change in the moon. Hence, while I realized that her contributions evinced rare intellectual wealth and force, I did not value them as I should have done had they been written more fluently and promptly. They often seemed to make their appearance “a day after the fair.”

One other point of tacit antagonism between us may as well be noted. Margaret was always a most earnest, devoted champion of the Emancipation of Women from their past and present condition of inferiority, to an independence of Men. She demanded for them the fullest recognition of Social and Political Equality with the rougher sex; the freest access to all stations, professions, employments, which are open to any. To this demand I heartily acceded. It seemed to me, however, that her clear perceptions of abstract right were often overborne, in practice, by the influence of education and habit; that while she demanded absolute equality for Woman, she exacted a [258] deference and courtesy from men to women, as women, which was entirely inconsistent with that requirement. In my view, the equalizing theory can be enforced only by ignoring the habitual discrimination of men and women, as forming separate classes, and regarding all alike as simply persons,—as human beings. So long as a lady shall deem herself in need of some gentleman's arm to conduct her properly out of a dining or ball-room,—so long as she shall consider it dangerous or unbecoming to walk half a mile alone by night, —I cannot see how the ‘Woman's Rights’ theory is ever to be anything more than a logically defensible abstraction. In this view Margaret did not at all concur, and the diversity was the incitement to much perfectly good-natured, but nevertheless sharpish sparring between us. Whenever she said or did anything implying the usual demand of Woman on the courtesy and protection of Manhood, I was apt, before complying, to look her in the face and exclaim with marked emphasis,—quoting from her “ Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” — “let them be sea-Captains if they will!” Of course, this was given and received as raillery, but it did not tend to ripen our intimacy or quicken my esteem into admiration. Though no unkind word ever passed between us, nor any approach to one, yet we two dwelt for months under the same roof, as scarcely more than acquaintances, meeting once a day at a common board, and having certain business relations with each other. Personally, I regarded her rather as my wife's cherished friend than as my own, possessing many lofty qualities and some prominent weaknesses, and a good deal spoiled by the unmeasured flattery of her little circle of inordinate admirers. For myself, burning no incense on any human shrine, I half-consciously resolved to “ keep my eye-beam clear,” and escape the fascination which she seemed to exert over the eminent and cultivated persons, mainly women, who came to our out-of-the-way dwelling to visit her, and who seemed generally to regard her with a strangely Oriental adoration.

But as time wore on, and I became inevitably better and better acquainted with her, I found myself drawn, almost irresistibly, into the general current. I found that her faults and weaknesses were all superficial and obvious to the most casual, if undazzled, observer. They rather dwindled than expanded upon a fuller knowledge; or rather, took on new and brighter aspects in the light of her radiant and lofty soul. I learned to know her as a most fearless and unselfish champion of Truth and Human Good at all hazards, ready to be their standard-bearer through danger and obloquy, and if need be, their martyr. I think few have more keenly appreciated the material goods of life,—Rank, Riches, Power, Luxury, Enjoyment; but I know none who would have more cheerfully surrendered them all, if the well-being of our Race could thereby have been promoted. I have never met another in whom the inspiring hope of Immortality was so strengthened into profoundest conviction. She did not believe in our future and unending existence,— she knew it, and lived ever in the broad glare of its morning twilight. With [259] a limited income and liberal wants, she was yet generous beyond the bounds of reason. Had the gold of California been all her own, she would have disbursed nine-tenths of it in eager and well-directed efforts to stay, or at least diminish, the flood of human misery. And it is but fair to state, that the liberality she evinced was fully paralleled by the liberality she experienced at the hands of others. Had she needed thousands, and made her wants known, she had friends who would have cheerfully supplied her. I think few persons, in their pecuniary dealings, have experienced and evinced more of the better qualities of human nature than Margaret Fuller. She seemed to inspire those who approached her with that generosity which was a part of her nature.

Of her writings I do not propose to speak critically. I think most of her contributions to the Tribune, while she remained with us, were characterized by a directness, terseness, and practicality, which are wanting in some of her earlier productions. Good judges have confirmed my own opinion, that while her essays in the Dial are more elaborate and ambitious, her reviews in the Tribune are far better adapted to win the favor and sway the judgment of the great majority of readers. But, one characteristic of her writings I feel bound to commend,—their absolute truthfulness. She never asked how this would sound, nor whether that would do, nor what would be the effect of saying anything; but simply, “Is it the truth? Is it such as the public should know?” And if her judgment answered, “Yes,” she uttered it; no matter what turmoil it might excite, nor what odium it might draw down on her own head. Perfect conscientiousness was an unfailing characteristic of her literary efforts. Even the severest of her critiques,—that on Longfellow's Poems,— for which an impulse in personal pique has been alleged, I happen with certainty to know had no such origin. When I first handed her the book to review, she excused herself, assigning the wide divergence of her views of Poetry from those of the author and his school, as her reason. She thus induced me to attempt the task of reviewing it myself. But day after day sped by, and I could find no hour that was not absolutely required for the performance of some duty that would not be put off, nor turned over to another. At length I carried the book back to her in utter despair of ever finding an hour in which even to look through it; and, at my renewed and earnest request, she reluctantly undertook its discussion. The statement of these facts is but an act of justice to her memory.

Profoundly religious,—though her creed was, at once, very broad and very short, with a genuine love for inferiors in social position, whom she was habitually studying, by her counsel and teachings, to elevate and improve,—she won the confidence and affection of those who attracted her, by unbounded sympathy and trust. She probably knew the cherished secrets of more hearts than any one else, because she freely imparted her own. With a full share both of intellectual and of family pride, she pre-eminently recognized and responded [260] to the essential brotherhood of all human kind, and needed br<*> know that a fellow-being required her counsel or assistance, to render her, not merely willing, but eager to impart it. Loving ease, luxury, and the world's good opinion, she stood ready to renounce them all, at the call of pity or of duty. I think no one, not radically averse to the whole system of domestic servitude, would have treated servants, of whatever class, with such uniform and thoughtful consideration,—a regard which wholly merged their factitious condition in their antecedent and permanent humanity. I think few servants ever lived weeks with her, who were not dignified and lastingly benefited by her influence and her counsels They might be at first repelled, by what seemed her too stately manner and exacting disposition, but they soon learned to esteem and love her.

I have known few women, and scarcely another maiden, who had the heart and the courage to speak with such frank compassion, in mixed circles, of the most degraded and outcast portion of the sex. The contemplation of their treatment, especially by the guilty authors of their ruin, moved her to a calm and mournful indignation, which she did not attempt to suppress nor control. Others were willing to pity and deplore; Margaret was more inclined to vindicate and to redeem. She did not hesitate to avow that on meeting some of these abused, unhappy sisters, she had been surprised to find them scarcely fallen morally below the ordinary standard of Womanhood,—realizing and loathing their debasement; anxious to escape it; and only repelled by the sad consciousness that for them sympathy and society remained only so long as they should persist in the ways of pollution. Those who have read her “ Woman,” may remember some daring comparisons therein suggested between these Pariahs of society and large classes of their respectable sisters; and that was no fitful expression,—no sudden outbreak,—but impelled by her most deliberate convictions. I think, if she had been born to large fortune, 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.

Her love of children was one of her most prominent characteristics. The pleasure she enjoyed in their society was fully counterpoised by that she imparted. To them she was never lofty, nor reserved, nor mystical; for no one had ever a more perfect faculty for entering into their sports, their feelings, their enjoyments. She could narrate almost any story in language level to their capacities, and in a manner calculated to bring out their hearty and often boisterously-expressed delight. She possessed marvellous powers of observation and imitation or mimicry; and, had she been attracted to the stage, would have been the first actress America has produced, whether in tragedy or comedy, Her faculty of mimicking was not needed to commend her to the hearts of children, but it had its effect in increasing the fascinations of her genial nature and heartfelt joy in their society. To amuse and instruct then [261] was an achievement for which she would readily forego any personal object; and her intuitive perception of the toys, games, stories, rhymes, &c., best adapted to arrest and enchain their attention, was unsurpassed. Between her and my only child, then living, who was eight months old when she came to us, and something over two years when she sailed for Europe, tendrils of affection gradually intertwined themselves, which I trust Death has not severed, but rather multiplied and strengthened. She became his teacher, playmate, and monitor; and he requited her with a prodigality of love and admiration.

I shall not soon forget their meeting in my office, after some weeks' separation, just before she left us forever. His mother had brought him in from the country, and left him asleep on my sofa, while she was absent making purchases, and he had rolled off and hurt himself in the fall, waking with the shock in a frenzy of anger, just before Margaret, hearing of his arrival, rushed into the office to find him. I was vainly attempting to soothe him as she entered; but he was running from one end to the other of the office, crying passionately, and refusing to be pacified. She hastened to him, in perfect confidence that her endearments would calm the current of his feelings,—that the sound of her well-remembered voice would banish all thought of his pain,— and that another moment would see him restored to gentleness; but, half-wakened, he did not heed her, and probably did not even realize who it was that caught him repeatedly in her arms and tenderly insisted that he should restrain himself. At last she desisted in despair; and, with the bitter tears streaming down her face, observed:— “Pickie, many friends have treated me unkindly, but no one had ever the power to cut me to the heart as you have!” Being thus let alone, he soon came to himself, and their mutual delight in the meeting was rather heightened by the momentary estrangement.

They had one more meeting; the last on earth! “Aunty Margaret” was to embark for Europe on a certain day, and “ Pickie” was brought into the city to bid her farewell. They met this time also at my office, and together we thence repaired to the ferry-boat, on which she was returning to her residence in Brooklyn to complete her preparations for the voyage. There they took a tender and affecting leave of each other. But soon his mother called at the office, on her way to the departing ship, and we were easily persuaded to accompany her thither, and say farewell once more, to the manifest satisfaction of both Margaret and the youngest of her devoted friends. Thus they parted, never to meet again in time. She sent him messages and presents repeatedly from Europe; and he, when somewhat older, dictated a letter in return, which was joyfully received and acknowledged. When the mother of our great-souled friend spent some days with us nearly two years afterward, “ Pickie” talked to her often and lovingly of “Aunty Margaret,” proposing that they two should “ take a boat and go over and see her,” —for, to his infantile conception, the low coast of Long Island, visible just across the East River, was that Europe to which she had sailed, and where she was unaccountably detained so [262] long. Alas! a far longer and more adventurous journey was required to reunite those loving souls! The 12th of July, 1849, saw him stricken down, from health to death, by the relentless cholera; and my letter, announcing that calamity, drew from her a burst of passionate sorrow, such as hardly any bereavement but the loss of a very near relative could have impelled. Another year had just ended, when a calamity, equally sudden, bereft a wide circle of her likewise, with her husband and infant son. Little did I fear, when I bade her a confident Good-bye, on the deck of her outward-bound ship, that the sea would close over her earthly remains ere we should meet again; far less that the light of my eyes and the cynosure of my hopes, who then bade her a tenderer and sadder farewell, would precede her on the dim pathway to that “Father's house” whence is no returning! Ah, well! God is above all, and gracious alike in what he conceals and what he discloses;—benignant and bounteous, as well when he reclaims as when he bestows. In a few years, at farthest, our loved and lost ones will welcome us to their home.

Margaret Fuller, on her part, was fully sensible of the merits of him who has so touchingly embalmed her memory. ‘Mr. Greeley,’ she wrote in a private letter, ‘is a man of genuine excellence, honorable, benevolent, and of an uncerrapted disposition. He is sagacious, and, in his way, of even great abilities. In modes of life and manner he is a man of the people, and of the American people.’ And again: ‘Mr. Greeley is in many ways very interesting for me to know. He teaches me things, which my own influence on those who have hitherto approached me, has prevented me from learning. In our business and friendly relations, we are on terms of solid good — will and mutual respect. With the exception of my own mother, I think him the most disinterestedly generous person I have ever known.’ And later she writes: ‘You have heard that the Tribune Office was burned to the ground. For a day I thought it must make a difference, but it has served only to increase my admiration for Mr. Greeley's smiling courage. He has really a strong character.’

In another letter, written at Rome in 1849, there is another allusion to Mr. Greeley and his darling boy. ‘Receiving,’ she said,

a few days since, a packet of letters from America, I opened them with more feeling of hope and good cheer, than for a long time past. The first words that met my eye were these, in the hand of Mr. Greeley: “ Ah, Margaret, the world grows dark with us! You grieve, for Rome is fallen; I mourn, for Pickie is dead.” [263]

I have shed rivers of tears over the inexpressibly affecting letter thus begun. One would think I might have become familiar enough with images of death and destruction; yet somehow the image of Pickie's little dancing figure, lying, stiff and stark, between his parents, has made me weep more than all else. There was little hope he could do justice to himself, or lead a happy life in so perplexed a world; but never was a character of richer capacity,—never a more charming child. To me he was most dear, and would always have been so. Had he become stained with earthly faults, I could never have forgotten what he was when fresh from the soul's home, and what he was to me when my soul pined for sympathy, pure and unalloyed.

A few months after these words were written, Margaret Fuller saw her native shores; but she was destined never to tread them again. The vessel in which she was a passenger was wrecked on the coast of Long Island. The body of her infant son was washed on shore, but she and her husband found death, burial, requiem, all in the deep.

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