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Chapter 18: literary traits.

Looking the other day into a manuscript journal of a visit to London in 1878, I came upon a description of a London dinner-party with this remark in regard to Miss Helen Taylor, the adopted daughter of Stuart Mill: “She is the only woman I have happened to meet in England who seems to associate with intellectual men on terms of equality.” This same remark might have been made by a traveler in America, forty years ago, of Margaret Fuller. And it must be remembered that, whereas the men who were her companions had almost all been trained in the regular channels of school, college, and profession, had been stimulated by the hope of rank, aided by rewards, or incited by professional ambition, she accomplished whatever she attained by sheer zeal for knowledge. She was encouraged, no doubt, by her father, and helped by residence in a college town; but she was destitute of most of the advantages which her friends enjoyed. They fulfilled their career, whatever it was, in the capacity of men, and with men's facilities; she attained hers, so far as it was attained, under the disadvantages [282] of a woman. In spite of all this she associated with them as their equal at least, and was really for a time, as editor of the “Dial,” their organizer and their point of union.

Sharing their advantages, she also shared, to some extent, their drawbacks. If they, with all their more regular training, were yet apt to be discursive, unsystematic, with too much reliance on intuition and imagination,--if that in short was the habit of the time,--it was natural that she should share the fault. Her defects were those of Emerson and of Thoreau and yet, after her “Tribune” training, she learned to shorten her sword better than either of these; became more capable of precise concentration on a specified point. It is also to be noted that, unlike them, she cannot be judged by her maturest work; not a page of her history of the Roman republic of 1848 remains; we can only infer what it might have been from the progress already seen.

And sharing also the drawbacks, she also shared inevitably the prejudices that her companions inspired. These prejudices might be divided into two general heads; it was thought that they were unintelligible and it was said — if this was not indeed the same allegation — that they were German. It is now difficult to recall the peculiar suspicion that was attached to any one in America, forty years ago, who manifested much interest in German thought. Immanuel Kant is now claimed as a corner-stone of religion by evangelical [283] divines, but he was then thought to be more dangerous than any French novelist; and good Mrs. Farrar, as I have already indicated, traces the materialism of Miss Martineau's latter years partly to her early studies of this philosopher. “I have since thought,” Mrs. Farrar writes,

that her admiration of the philosophy of Kant may have been one of her first steps on that path which has conducted her to a disbelief in all revelation and the immortality of the soul — too melancholy a subject for me to dwell on here.

Recollections of Seventy years, p. 262.

If this feeling existed about Kant it was still stronger about Goethe. Even the genial Longfellow spoke of “that monstrous book, the ‘ Elective Affinities,’ ” although this story was written with a moral purpose, and would be far more leniently judged at the present day. Longfellow's friend Felton translated Menzel's “German Litature,” in which Goethe appears as a pretender and quite a secondary person. Yet Margaret Fuller, who has been lately censured by Professor Harris as not admiring the great German poet enough, was held up to censure in her day for admiring him too much. This ardent, slowly-tamed, and gradually-tempered feminine nature, yearning to be, to do, and to suffer, all at the same time, was supposed to model herself after the marble statue, Goethe. The charge was self-contradicting; and is worth naming only as being a part of that misconception which she, like all other would-be reformers, had to endure. [284]

In the most important period of her early life she wrote,

As to Goethe . . . I do not go to him as a guide or friend, but as a great thinker who makes me think. Ms. letter: Providence, R. I., July 3, 1837.

At this very time she was planning to write Goethe's biography and preparing to translate Eckermann's conversations with him. In her correspondence, here and there, she doubtless speaks of him as “the master,” but the light use of a trivial phrase is not to be set against her distinct disclaimer, as just quoted. She was indeed too omnivorous a reader, too ardent and fertile a thinker, to go through the successive bondages by which many fine minds — especially the minds of women — work their way to freedom. Miss Martineau, for instance, with all her native vigor, was always following with implicit confidence some particular guide or model; in early life her brother James, then Malthus, then Garrison, then Comte, then even Atkinson; but in Margaret Fuller's case, though there were many friendships, there was no personal and controlling ruler. Emerson came the nearest to this, and yet we see by her letters how frankly she could criticise even him. Her danger lay in the direction of originality, not of imitation ; of too much divergence, not too much concentration. Coming in contact, as she did, with some of the strongest men of her time; first the Boston Transcendentalists; then Horace Greeley in New York; then Mazzini in Italy: she was still her own mistress, still [285] nullius addicta jurare in verba magistri. This showed not merely a strong nature — for strength alone does not secure independence — but a rich and wise one.

In regard to unintelligibleness, she also shared the charge with others; and I do not know that she especially deserved it. She may be confused, rambling, sometimes high-flown, but she offers no paradoxes so startling as some of Emerson's, and is incomparably smoother and clearer than Alcott. Nor is her obscurity ever wanton or whimsical, but is rather of that kind which, as Coleridge has said, is a compliment to the reader. Note also that she is merciful to her public, and if she has a thought with which she struggles so that she can hardly get it into every day words, it is to be found in her letters, not in her publications. Such a statement as this, for instance, she would hardly have put into print; because it is not worked out so clearly that he who runs may read. Yet it is full of suggestion. She is speaking of what she calls “The Third thought.”

Cambridge, October 27, 1843.
... Your mind has acted with beneficent force on mine, and roused it now from a repose which it has long enough enjoyed. Let me try a little to note some results of my reflections.

The third thought which is to link together each conflicting two is of course the secret of the universe. It is sought alike by the fondest dream of love, the purest pain of thought; the philosopher exacts, the poet [286] expects it, the child believes it is already here. It is the beloved Son in whom both God and man will be well pleased ....

Faith and hope are gradually transmuted into knowledge, but very slowly is this mass of matter leavened by the divine wisdom. Yet the third thought is gradually taking possession of us; when we have at last become thoroughly possessed by, we may in turn possess it.1

This statement belongs upon the same plane with that made by Emerson in his essay on the “Over-soul,” that “In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made to a third party, to a common nature;” but Margaret Fuller's proposition is a somewhat different thing, and is even more suggestive. Scattered through her letters and journals everywhere there are passages of which this is an example; and it is such as these to which Emerson refers when he speaks of her “lyric glimpses.” But in her published writings she rarely attempted more than she felt herself able to state clearly; though her standard of clearness was not just that which now prevails.

Even in her printed essays, however, she suffered from an exuberance of mental activity, which she had not yet learned to control. Trained early to be methodical in her use of time, she had neither the leisure nor the health nor perhaps the impulse to be methodical in thought. In that teeming period when she lived, method was not [287] the strong point, nor did her friend Emerson set her, in this respect, a controlling example. The habit of conversation was perhaps bad for her, in this way, and may have tended, as does all extemporaneous speaking, toward a desultory habit of mind. Journalism, which was her next resource, leads in the same way; that is, the single editorial demands concentration, but two successive editorials are rarely linked together, and still more rarely give room for what she calls “the third thought.” Accordingly her “Tribune” articles had more symmetry than her previous writings, but it was symmetry within the restricted field of the newspaper column, which often unfits the best journalist for a more sustained flight. How far the maturer experience of Italy may have remedied this, in her case, we never shall know, since her book was lost with her; and her record as a writer remains therefore unfinished. Still it is something to know that on the whole she tended more and more to completeness of form, and to the proper control of her own abundant thoughts.

The evidence of this is not to be found in her “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” --which, while full of thoughts and suggestions, is yet discursive and unmethodical,--but in her “t Papers on Literature and Art.” The most satisfactory of these is the essay on Sir James Mackintosh, which still seems to me, as it has seemed for many years, [288] one of the very best critical essays yet written in America. Sir James was a peculiarly good subject to test her powers, because his temperament was wholly alien from hers. He stood to her in a clear light, as the man who by the consent of all contemporaries was best equipped for great deeds, yet never accomplished them; who must be judged by his results as against his promise; omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset. This has often since been pointed out, but no one stated it so early, or at least so clearly as Margaret Fuller. I know nobody else in American literature who could have handled the theme so well; Lowell would not have done the work so simply, or Whipple so profoundly, while Emerson would not have done it at all. If any reader of this book wishes to be satisfied that Margaret Fuller had her own place and a very high place among American prose-writers, they may turn to that essay.

There were two points in which no one exceeded her at the time and place in which she lived. First, she excelled in “lyric glimpses,” or the power of putting a high thought into a sentence. If few of her sentences have passed into the common repertory of quotation, that is not a final test. The greatest poet is not necessarily the most quoted or quotable poet. Pope fills twenty-four pages in Bartlett's “Dictionary of Quotations,” Moore eight, Burns but six, Keats but two, and the Brownings taken together less than half a [289] page. The test of an author is not to be found merely in the number of his phrases that pass current in the corners of newspapers — else would “Josh Billings” be at the head of literature ;but in the number of passages that have really taken root in younger minds. Tried by this standard, Margaret Fuller ranks high, and, if I were to judge strictly by my own personal experience, I should say very high indeed. I shall always be grateful to the person who fixed in my memory, during early life, such sentences as these--

Yes, 0 Goethe! but the ideal is truer than the actual. This changes and that changes not.

Tragedy is always a mistake; and the loneliness of the deepest thinker, the widest lover, ceases to be pathetic to us so soon as the sun is high enough above the mountains.

[In reading fiction] “We need to hear the excuses men make to themselves for their worthlessness.” [A better criticism never was made on the current villain of the drama and the novel.]

For precocity some great price is always demanded sooner or later in life.

Genius will live and thrive without training, but it does not the less reward the watering-pot and pruning-knife.

A man who means to think and write a great deal must, after six and twenty, learn to read with his fingers.

Man tells his aspiration in his God; but in his demon he shows his depth of experience; and casts light [290] into the cavern through which he worked his cause up to the cheerful day.

Other such passages might easily be added; indeed they are already to be found, here and there, distributed through this memoir. And her critical verdicts are often condensed into passages as compact as the following-as where she says of Coleridge, “Give Coleridge a canvas and he will paint a single mood as if his colors were made of the mind's own atoms;” or of Southey, “In his most brilliant passages there is nothing of inspiration;” or of Shelley, “The rush, the flow, the delicacy of vibration in Shelley's verse can only be paralleled by the waterfall, the rivulet, the notes of the bird and of the insect world ;” or when she speaks of the “balm” applied by Wordsworth to the public heart after the fever of Byron; or depicts the “strange bleak fidelity” of Crabbe; or says of Campbell that lie did not possess “as much lyric flow as force;” Papers, etc. p. 71, 77, 83, 93, 98. or of literary phases and fashions generally, “There is no getting rid of the epidemic of the season, however amazing and useless it may seem ; yon cannot cough down an influenza, it will cough you down; ” Papers, etc. p. 87. in all these statements she makes not merely a series of admirable points, but she really gives the condensed essence of criticism.

She seems to me to have been, in the second place, the best literary critic whom America has [291] yet seen. Her friend Ripley, who succeeded her in the “Tribune” and held such sway for many years, was not, in the finer aspects of the art, to be compared with Margaret Fuller. Passing from her single phrases and obiter dicta to her continuous criticisms, I should name her second paper on Goethe in the Dial; 2 as ranking next to that on Mackintosh; and should add, also, her essay on “Modern British poets” in “Papers on literature and Art;” and the “dialogue” between Aglauron and Laurie in the same volume. In this last there are criticisms on Wordsworth which go deeper, I venture to think, than anything Lowell has written on the same subject. I do not recall any other critic on this poet who has linked together the poems “A complaint” and the sonnet beginning

There is a change and I am poor,

and has pointed out that these two give us a glimpse of a profounder personal emotion and a deeper possibility of sadness in Wordsworth than all else that he has written put together. There are also admirable remarks on Coleridge and on Shakespeare; and how fine in thought, how simply and admirably stated, is this conclusion:--

Were I, despite the bright points so numerous in their history and the admonitions of my own conscience, inclined to despise my fellow-men, I should have found [292] abundant argument against it during this late study of Hamlet. In the streets, saloons, and lecture rooms we continually hear comments so stupid, insolent, and shallow on great and beautiful works, that we are tempted to think that there is no public for anything that is good; that a work of genius can appeal only to the fewest minds in any one age, and that the reputation now awarded to those of former times is never felt, but only traditional. Of Shakespeare, so vaunted a name, little wise or worthy has been written, perhaps nothing so adequate as Coleridge's comparison of him to the pine-apple; yet on reading Hamlet, his greatest work, we find there is not a pregnant sentence, scarce a word that men have not appreciated, have not used in myriad ways. Had we never read the play, we should find the whole of it from quotation and illustration as familiar to us as air. The exquisite phraseology, so heavy with meaning, wrought out with such admirable minuteness, has become a part of literary diction, the stock of the literary bank; and what set criticism can tell like this fact how great was the work, and that men were worthy it should be addressed to them?

Papers on literature and Art, p. 173.

In this conversation, as in all the imaginary conversations which were so in fashion at that period, there are traces of Landor; but Margaret Fuller achieved, both in “Aglauron and Laurie,” and in “The two Herberts,” what Landor rarely accomplished — what Lowell could not achieve in his “Conversations on the Dramatists,” or her other fellow-townsman, Story, in his more recent “He and she,” --the distinct individualization of [293] the two participants. Through the whole dialogue we see two persons, not merely one person speaking through two mouths. For instance, Laurie asks Aglauron:--

But have I not seemed heartless to you at times?

and Aglauron replies:--

In the moment, perhaps, but quiet thought always showed me the difference between heartlessness and the want of a deep heart.

Here we have not only an admirable glimpse into the recesses of human character, but we have a sharp demarkation between the two friends. Here and elsewhere, the conversation is a real interchange of thoughts and not a disguised monologue.

Margaret Fuller's career as a critic encountered, at two points, the sincere opposition and even hostility of many readers, especially in her own home; in relation, namely, to her fellow-townsmen Longfellow and Lowell. It may readily be admitted at this time that she did less than justice to them both. This admitted, the fact remains that there was not a trace of personal rancor or grievance in either case; her whole career, indeed, being singularly free from this lowest of literary vices. In regard to Longfellow, she in the first place, as Horace Greeley tells us, wished to be excused from reviewing him; and then stated without disguise why she criticised him so frankly: because he seemed to her over-praised, and because she thought him exotic. This she [294] says in her own words more distinctly than any one else can say it for her:--

We must confess to a coolness towards Mr. Longfellow, in consequence of the exaggerated praises that have been bestowed upon him. When we see a person of moderate powers receive honors which should be reserved for the highest, we feel somewhat like assailing him and taking from him the crown which should be reserved for grander brows. And yet this is, perhaps, ungenerous.

The italics are my own. Then she defends him from the special charge of plagiarism, which Poe was just trying to fasten upon him, and goes on--

He has no style of his own, growing out of his own experiences and observations of nature. Nature with him, whether human or external, is always seen through the windows of literature. There are in his poems sweet and tender passages descriptive of his personal feelings, but very few showing him as an observer, at first hand, of the passions within, or the landscape without.

This want of the free breath of nature, this perpetual borrowing of imagery, this excessive, because superficial, culture which he has derived from an acquaintance with the elegant literature of many nations and men, out of proportion to the experience of life within himself, prevent Mr. Longfellow's verses from ever being a true refreshment to ourselves. . ..

And now farewell to the handsome book, with its Preciosos and Preciosas, its vikings and knights and cavaliers, its flowers of all climes and wild flowers of [295] none. We have not wished to depreciate these writings below their current value, more than truth absolutely demands. We have not forgotten that, if a man cannot himself sit at the feet of the muse, it is much if he prizes those who may; it makes him a teacher to the people. Neither have we forgotten that Mr. Longfellow has a genuine respect for his pen, never writes carelessly, nor when he does not wish to, nor for money alone. Nor are we intolerant to those who prize hot-house bouquets beyond all the free beauty of nature; that helps the gardener and has its uses. But still let us not forget-Excelsior!!

Papers on literature and Art, pp. 330-335.

This is, no doubt, overstated, but who will now deny that there was a certain force in it? As Longfellow underwent deeper experiences and mellowed into his beautiful old age, this criticism seemed plainly inadequate; and Margaret Fuller herself, had she lived, would have been the first to recognize the deepening Americanism of his tone -this being what she chiefly demanded of him. The poems that she had singled out for praise in his early volumes were those like “The village Blacksmith” and “The Driving cloud,” which had a flavor of the soil; and as he grew older, this quality became unmistakable. But hers was at any rate legitimate literary criticism, and would perhaps have left no sting behind but for the single fact that she compared the weak portrait of him, prefaced to the first illustrated edition of his poems (Philadelphia, 1845), to “a dandy Pindar.” [296] Any one who will look to-day at that picture will see that there could hardly be a more felicitous characterization of it than in these three words; but it was fancied at the time, most gratuitously, that she meant it for a hit at Longfellow himself; and hence followed a very needless irritation, which fortunately the amiable poet did not greatly share.

In regard to Lowell, the case was a little different, and her tone was blunter, though equally free from all personal grudge. She had welcomed very cordially his first volume of poems in the “Dial ;” and again in 1845, when reviewing his “Conversations” in the “Tribune,” had taken pains to do him justice while pointing out, as in the case of Longfellow, that she felt bound to resist a certain tone of exaggeration in his admirers. She wrote of him:--

He shows great justness of feeling, delicacy of perception, comprehensive views; and, for this country, an unusual refinement and extent of culture. We have been accustomed to hear Mr. Lowell so extravagantly lauded by the circle of his friends, that we should be hopeless of escaping the wrath of his admirers, for any terms in which our expressions of sympathy could be couched, but for the more modest and dignified tone of his own preface, which presents ground on which the world at large can meet him. With his admirers, we have often been reminded of a fervent Italian who raved at one of our country-women as “a heartless girl,” because she would not go to walk with him alone at midnight. But Mr. Lowell himself speaks of his work as becomes one conversant with those of great and accomplished minds.


Later in the same year (1845), however, in that essay on “American literature” which appeared for the first time in her “Papers,” she wrote the words which created so much indignation, and which simply show that no critic can look forward with infallible judgment to the future development of a poet. She wrote of Lowell, as has already been said, that he was “absolutely wanting in the true spirit and tone of poesy,” adding:--

His interest in the moral questions of the day has supplied the want of vitality in himself; his great facility at versification has enabled him to fill the ear with a copious stream of pleasant sound. But his verse is stereotyped; his thought sounds no depth, and posterity will not remember him.

Papers on literature and Art, p. 308.

This last is very nearly what Coleridge said of Scott. He said, “Not twenty lines of Scott's poetry will ever reach posterity; it has relation to nothing.” Alsop's Letters, conversations, etc. Of Coleridge, Am. ed. p. 116. Coleridge erred as to Scott, and Margaret Fuller as to Lowell; but we must remember that Scott's poetry was all published when Coleridge's criticism was made; while Margaret Fuller wrote when Lowell had printed only his “Class poem” and two early volumes; the “Biglow papers” and “Sir Launfal,” and all the works by which he is now best known being still unwritten. It was simply a mistaken literary estimate, not flavored with the slightest personal sting ; and it [298] would be hardly possible, in these milder days, for such a criticism to call out the kind of retaliation that is to be found in the “Fable for critics.” But that was a period, as has already been intimated, of great literary truculence; a time when, as Heine says of the Germans, an author, like an African chief, felt bound to moisten the base of his own throne with the blood of his slain foes. Lowell, probably, also thought that, in the case of Margaret Fuller, he was immolating the good-natured Longfellow's literary enemies with his own.

1 Ms. (W. H. C.)

2 Dial, II. I (July, 1841, reprinted in Life without and life within, p. 23).

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