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Chapter 13: business life in New York. (1844-1846.)

The transfer of Margaret Fuller, at the beginning of December, 1844, to what she called her “business life” in New York, made a distinct epoch in her career. After this her mental maturity began; at any rate, her Wanderjahre, in the German sense, as distinct from mere apprenticeship. She had come to be the housemate and literary coadjutor of the man who, among all Americans, then stood closest to the popular heart. The name of his journal was no misnomer; he was a Tribune of the People in the old Roman sense. His newspaper office was just at that time the working centre of much of the practical radicalism in the country; but he was also a person of ideal aims and tastes, and was perhaps the first conspicuous man in America, out of Boston, who publicly recognized in Emerson the greatest of our poets. He brought Margaret Fuller to New York, not only that she might put the literary criticism of the “Tribune” on a higher plane than any American newspaper occupied, but that she might discuss in a similar spirit all philanthropic [206] questions. To investigate these subjects on the practical side she had two coadjutors besides Horace Greeley ;--her early fellow-student, Lydia Maria Child, then a resident of New York, and also a later and yet closer friend, William Henry Channing. This remarkable man, whose gifts and services have in some degree passed from the knowledge of the younger generation of Americans, through his long residence in England, was then the most ardent of social reformers, the loftiest among idealists, and — after Wendell Phillips — the most eloquent of orators upon the antislavery platform. But he was also the most devoted of city missionaries, in New York and elsewhere; and, under his guidance, Margaret Fuller could penetrate the very recesses of the Five Points, then the last refuge of poverty and crime. He had been one of her earliest colaborers on the “Dial;” he was the intimate friend of Horace Greeley; and his companionship thus bridged for her the interval between the old life and the new. He moreover preached on Sunday to a small congregation of cultivated reformers; and here she found the needed outlet for the religious element in her nature, always profound, sometimes mystical, but now taking a most healthful and active shape. It is a sign of her changed life when she keeps her New Year's vigils, not in poetic reveries, as at Boston and Brook Farm, but in writing such a note as the following to Mr. Channing: [207]

New Year's Eve [1845].
I forgot to ask you, dear William, where we shall begin in our round of visits to the public institutions. I want to make a beginning, as, probably, one a day and once a week will be enough for my time and strength.

Now is the time for me to see and write about these things, as my European stock will not be here till spring.

Should you like to begin with Blackwell's Island, Monday or Tuesday of next week?1

She was at this time living in full sight of that celebrated penitentiary of which she writes. At the suggestion of Mrs. Greeley, who had known Margaret Fuller in Boston, she was not only invited to become a writer in the “Tribune” but a member of the editor's family; Mr. Greeley expressly stating that he regarded her rather as his wife's friend than his own.2 He had lately taken up his residence in a large old wooden house, built as a country residence by a New York banker, on what New Yorkers call the East River, at Turtle Bay, nearly opposite the southernmost point of Blackwell's Island. The house had ample shrubbery and gardens, with abundant shade trees and fruit trees; and though the whole region is long since laid out in streets and covered with buildings, it was then accessible, as Mr. Greeley tells us, only by a long winding private lane, wholly dark at night and meeting the old “Boston Road” at Forty-Ninth Street. The only [208] regular communication with the thickly-settled parts of that city--two miles away — was by an hourly stage on the Third Avenue.3 In this suburban retirement Margaret Fuller must have been almost as much cut off from the evening life of the metropolis as if she had remained at Jamaica Plain; and this fact doubtless abbreviated her stay there; but meanwhile she reveled in its picturesqueness,--the wide hall, the piazza, the garden, the trees, the rocks, the gliding sails. She thus describes her position to her brother Eugene, in New Orleans:--

... For me, I have never been so well situated. As to a home, the place where we live is old and dilapidated, but in a situation of great natural loveliness. When there I am perfectly secluded, yet every one I wish to see comes to see me and I can get to the centre of the city in half an hour. The house is kept in a Castle Rackrent style, but there is all affection for me and desire to make me at home, and I do feel so, which could scarcely have been expected from such an arrangement. My room is delightful; how I wish you could sit at its window with me and see the sails glide by! As to the public part, that is entirely satisfactory. I do just as I please, and as much or little as 1 please, and the editors express themselves perfectly satisfied; and others say that my pieces tell to a degree I could not expect. I think, too, I shall do better and better. I am truly interested in this great field which opens before me, and it is pleasant to be sure of a chance at hall a hundred thousand readers. [209]

Mr. Greeley I like, nay more, love. He is, in his habits, a — plebeian; in his heart, a noble man. His abilities, in his own way, are great. He believes in mine to a surprising extent. We are true friends.

Fuller Mss. II. 765-767.

It was one result of the absorbing cares of her New York life that they left her, from the beginning, no space for the letters and diaries which before were so abundantly produced. Instead of soliloquizing or talking to her friends, she had to deal with the larger public of the “Tribune.” She indeed almost ceased letter-writing, as we know from this brief note to the younger brother to whom she had heretofore written so freely:--

I am very busy, and I receive, now I am separated from all my friends, letters in great number, which I do not attempt to answer, except in urgent cases. Nor do they expect it, but write to me again and again. They know that if I had the time and strength, which I have not, I must not fritter away my attention on incessant letter-writing. I must bend it on what is before me, if I wish to learn or to do.

Fuller Mss. II. 749.

We are therefore left to know her, at this period, mainly through the testimony of Horace Greeley, her chief and her first host. He never could overcome a slight feeling of professional superiority to the woman who could not write more than a column of matter to his ten; and who was sometimes incapacitated from work by headaches, whereas he plodded on, ill or well, doing always his daily share. But to her public spirit, her love [210] of children, her generous attitude to all comers, he bears explicit testimony in his “Recollections.” He describes the involuntary testimony paid to her by the women who visited the Greeley house; the naturalness with which she took the lead among them without exciting jealousy, and the “almost oriental adoration” which she often inspired among them. He expresses constant amazement at the way in which those who had known her but a day insisted on telling her their secrets and asking counsel. “I judge,” he says, “that she was the repository of more confidences than any contemporary, and I am sure no one had ever reason to regret the imprudent precipitancy of these trusts.” Chambermaids and seamstresses came to her and unburdened their souls; and all children loved her. “As the elephant's trunk,” Mr. Greeley says, “serves either to rend a limb from the oak or pick up a pin, so her wonderful range of capacities, of experiences, of sympathies, seemed adapted to every condition and phase of humanity.” He speaks especially of her “marvelous powers of personation and mimicry;” thinks she might, had she chosen, have been the first actress of the century, but declares that she seemed quite absorbed, while living, in the simple effort to leave some small corner of the world better than she found it.4

She did not, however, dwell permanently at the house of Horace Greeley, but afterwards at several [211] different abodes, nearer the “Tribune” office. She resided, for a month or two, in the family of Mr.Cranch and Mrs. Cranch; having, during a part of this time, the companionship of a favorite friend, Miss Caroline Sturgis, with whom she enjoyed to the utmost the social and artistic delights of New York. We find her writing in the “Tribune” about picture-galleries, the theatre, the Philharmonic concerts, the German opera, Ole Bull's performances on the violin, and Mr. Hudson's lecture on Shakespeare. Later she had lodgings for a long time at the house of Mrs. McDowell, where she had opportunity to give receptions to her literary friends and to preside as a gracious hostess with a white japonica in her hair. She did most of her writing and proof-reading at home, not keeping regular office-hours: and she evidently worked very hard in her own way, which was not always Mr. Greeley's method. Her researches into poverty and crime took many of her leisure hours; and she sometimes, in the prosecution of these researches, stayed a day or two with Mrs. Child, who, like herself, was equally ready to be absorbed in the music of the spheres and in the sorrows of the streets. Her practical aims were at this time well described in a letter written to her old friend Miss Mary Rotch of New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of those saints who are “Aunt Mary” to a wide circle:-- [212]

New York, January 15, 1845.
always dear aunt Mary,--... This stopped me, just as I had begun to visit the institutions here, of a remedial and benevolent kind. So soon as I am quite well, I shall resume the survey. Mr. Greeley is desirous I should make it, and make what use of it I think best, in the paper. I go with William C. [Channing]. It is a great pleasure to us to cooperate in these ways. I do not expect to do much, practically, for the suffering, but having such an organ of expression [the “ New York Tribune ” ], any suggestions that are well grounded may be of use. I have always felt great interest for those women who are trampled in the mud to gratify the brute appetites of men, and wished I might be brought naturally into contact with them. Now I am so, I think I shall have much that is interesting to tell you when we meet.

I go on very moderately, for my strength is not great, and I am now connected with a person who is anxious I should not overtask it; yet I shall do more for the paper by and by. At present, beside the time I spend in looking round and examining my new field, I am publishing a volume of which you will receive a copy, called “ Woman in the Nineteenth Century;” a part of my available time is spent in attending to it as it goes through the press; for really the work seems but half done when your book is written. I like being here; the streams of life flow free, and I learn much I feel so far satisfied as to have laid my plans to stay a year and a half, if not longer, and to have told Mr. G. that I probably shall. That is long enough for a mortal to look forward and not too long, as I must look forward in order to get what I want from Europe. [213]

Mr. Greeley is a man of genuine excellence, honorable, benevolent, of an uncorrupted disposition, and, in his way, of even great abilities.5

The breadth of her work in practical directions -the proof that she was now obtaining what she had always sought, a working-place for something beyond self-culture — is to be seen in the very titles of her papers in the “Tribune.” She wrote, Mr. Parton tells us, about three articles a week, these discussing such themes as “The rich man,” “The poor man,” “Woman in poverty,” “What fits a man to be a Voter?” “The condition of the Blind,” “Prison discipline,” “Appeal for an Asylum for discharged Female Convicts,” “Politeness to the poor,” “Capital punishment.” Then there are Meditations for special days, as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, St. Valentine's Day, the Fourth of July, the first of August; these having always some practical bearing. Thus her St. Valentine's Eve was passed at the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, and she describes it. Mr. Greeley thus testifies in regard to this practical tendency of her work:--

For every effort to limit vice, ignorance, and misery she had a ready, eager ear, and a willing hand; so that her charities — large in proportion to her slender means — were signally enhanced by the fitness and fullness of her wise and generous counsel, the readiness and emphasis with which she, publicly and privately, commended to those richer than herself any object deserving [214] their alms. She had once attended, with other noble women, a gathering of outcasts of their sex; and, being asked how they appeared to her, replied, ‘As women like myself, save that they are victims of wrong and misfortune.’ No project of moral or social reform ever failed to command her generous, cheering benediction, even when she could not share the sanguine hopes of its authors: she trusted that these might somehow benefit the objects of their self-sacrifice, and felt confident that they must. at all events, be blessed in their own moral natures. I doubt that our various benevolent and reformatory associations had ever before, or have ever since received such wise, discriminating commendation to the favor of the rich, as they did from her pen during her connection with the ‘ Tribune.’

Greeley's Recollections, pp. 179, 180.

Her sympathy was strong for these women, betrayed into a life of crime by the sins of others; and Mr. Greeley expresses confidently his belief that

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. Parton's Greeley, p. 260.

And to show the strength and discrimination with which she handled another difficult class of questions, I will quote a passage that particularly pleased Mr. Greeley, in regard to the vexed question of Irish immigration:--

When we consider all the fire which glows so untamably [215] in Irish veins, the character of her people,--considering the circumstances, almost miraculous in its goodness,--we cannot forbear, notwithstanding all the temporary ills they aid in here, to give them all a welcome to our shores. Those ills we need not enumerate; they are known to all, and we rank among them what others would not, that by their ready service to do all the hard work they make it easier for the rest of the population to grow effeminate and help the country to grow too fast. But that is her destiny, to grow too fast; it is useless talking against it. Their extreme ignorance, their blind devotion to a priesthood, their pliancy in the hands of demagogues, threaten continuance of these ills; yet, on the other hand, we must regard them as a most valuable element in the new race. They are looked upon with contempt for their want of aptitude at learning new things, their ready and ingenious lying, their eye-service. These are the faults of an oppressed race which must require the aid of better circumstances through two or three generations to eradicate. Their virtues are their own,--they are many, genuine, and deeply rooted. Can an impartial observer fail to admire their truth to domestic ties, their power of generous bounty and more generous gratitude, their indefatigable good-humor (for ages of wrong which have driven them to so many acts of desperation could never sour their blood at its source), their ready wit, their elasticity of nature? They are at bottom one of the best nations in the world.-Would they were welcomed here, not to work, merely, but to intelligent sympathy and efforts, both patient and ardent, for the education of their children. No sympathy could be better deserved, no efforts wiselier timed.


But while her articles on public questions, signed always with an asterisk (*), were those most read in New York, it was her literary criticism that traveled farthest and brought forth most praise or blame. Her first paper in the “Tribune” was a review of Emerson's “Essays,” which appeared December 7, 1844.6 Here she was, in a manner, on her own ground; but she soon had to plunge, so far as literature was concerned, into a sea of troubles. She entered on her work at a time when the whole standard of literary criticism, not only in America but in England, needed mending. The tomahawk theory still prevailed among editors and even among authors; men revenged literary slights by personal abuse; the desire to “make an example” of a person or to “get even with him” had not then vanished from literature, as it has not yet disappeared from politics. Poe's miscellaneous writings were full of this sort of thing; Lowell's “Fable for critics” was not at all free from it. At such a time it was no easy thing for a woman to pass from a comparatively secluded life in Boston and her circle of personal friends in the “Dial,” to what then seemed the metropolitan life of New York and the hand-to-mouth existence of a daily newspaper.

To the bad tendencies of the time her work furnished an excellent antidote. From some experiences of the daily journal she recoiled at first and perhaps always; the break-neck speed, the [217] necessity of reviewing every book while fresh, no matter though the calm reflection of many days may be needed to do it justice. Horace Greeley, a born gladiator, whose words came swift and hard as blows, records his own impatience at her too cautious habits. If an author's case was pressing, he thought she should sit up an hour later that night and give him the finishing stroke; and the papers that brought her most criticism were those in which she yielded to these importunities, against her own better judgment.

The editorial “we” brings its temptations alike to women and men; and sometimes her very utterances of deprecation were ill-expressed and taken for new assertion of herself. When she denied to Lowell the genuine poetic gift and said that she must assert this “although to the grief of many friends and the disgust of more,” it was unquestionably meant as a bit of sincere humility, and she must have been amazed to find it taken as a phrase of conceit. But she kept higher laws than she broke. In that epoch of strife which I so well remember, that storm-and-stress period, that Sturm-und-Drangzeit, she held the critical sway of the most powerful American journal with unimpaired dignity and courage. By comparing a single page of her collected works with any page, taken almost at random, of Edgar Poe's, we see the difference more clearly than it can be expressed in words. On this we have the distinct testimony of the most mercilessly honest of all critics, Horace Greeley:-- [218]

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 by 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.

Parton's Greeley, p. 259.

Meanwhile, she was always saving up money for her long-desired trip to Europe; though this fund was again and again depleted by the needs of her family and friends. Several hundred dollars went at once, for instance, to publish for a Danish [219] exile, Harro Harring, a novel called “Dolores,” which the publisher had been frightened out of issuing at the last moment, on theological grounds, and which never yielded a dollar to anybody. At last, receiving an invitation from her friends, Marcus and Rebecca Spring, to accompany them and their young son on their voyage, she left New York after twenty months of residence; “modifying but not terminating her connection with the ‘Tribune,’ ” --in Mr. Greeley's phrase,--and sailed for England on the first of August, 1846.

1 Ms. (W. H. C.)

2 Parton's Greeley, p. 258

3 Greeley's Recollections of a busy life, p. 177.

4 Greeley's Recollections, p. 181.

5 1 Fuller Mss. i. 43.

6 Parton's Greeley, p. 255.

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