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Chapter 4: country life at Groton. (1833-1836.)

In removing with her family to Groton, a village nearly forty miles from Boston, and then rather difficult of access,--for this was long before the building of the Fitchburg Railroad,--Margaret Fuller felt a natural depression. If even the Boston of those days afforded but a limited supply of books and intellectual companionship, what would Groton offer? She gave up Cambridge with its youthful society on one side, Boston with its books on the other; and this for a young woman of twenty-three, overflowing with energy and ambition, was quite a trial. She saw in advance what it would be, and she found what she expected. But her letters are enough to show that her mind was still actively employed; and that a life more wholly rural gave a new and strong development to her love of out-door nature.

She wrote to Dr. Hedge from Groton, July 4, 1833:--

I highly enjoy being surrounded with new and beautiful natural objects My eyes and my soul were [44] so weary of Cambridge scenery, my heart would not give access to a summer feeling there. The evenings lately have been those of Paradise, and I have been very happy in them. The people here are much more agreeable than in most country towns; there is no vulgarity of manners, but little of feeling, and I hear no gossip.


Again she writes to him that she keeps “Uhland's poems for some still and lovely afternoon,” and there is henceforth a blending of natural objects with literature and art in all she writes.

Cordial letters from her friends also removed the natural dread of dropping out from her old circle, and finding herself not missed. In the same note to Dr. Hedge she wrote thus:--

Your letter was very grateful to me, and I confess I had not expected such a token of remembrance. Since I came here I have had much reason to believe that there exists more warmth of feeling in the little world wherein I have been living than I had supposed. I expected that my place would immediately be filled by some person i about my age and height. I have not found it so. My former intimates sigh at least, if they do not pine, for my society.

In Groton she read profusely, borrowing her books chiefly from Dr. Hedge, then, as always, a fountain of knowledge in the way of German. It was a period, we must remember, when the mere perusal of German books was considered [45] dangerous; and even Mrs. Farrar records in her “Recollections” the pious but extraordinary suspicion that Harriet Martineau's final materialism was due to her early study of Kant. Margaret Fuller wrote at twenty-three, t “I have with me those works of Goethe which I have not read and am now perusing, ‘ Kunst und Alterthum’ and ‘Campagne in Frankreich.’ I still prefer reading Goethe to anybody, and, as I proceed, find more and more to learn.” 1

She read also at this time Uhland, Novalis, Tieck, and some volumes of Richtel. She dipped a good deal into theology and read Eichhorn and Jahn in the original. She was considering what were then called “the evidences of Christianity,” and wrote to Dr. Hedge that she had doubted the providence of God, but not the immortality of the soul. During the few years following she studied architecture, being moved to it by what she had read in Goethe; she also read Herschel's “Astronomy,” recommended to her by Professor Farrar; read in Schiller, Heine, Alfieri, Bacon, Madame de Stael, Wordsworth, and Southey; with “Sartor Resartus” and some of Carlyle's shorter essays; besides a good deal of European and American history, including all Jefferson's letters. Mr. Emerson says justly that her reading at Groton was at a rate like Gibbon's.

All this continuous study was not the easy amusement of a young lady of leisure; but it was [46] accomplished under such difficulties and preoccupations that every book might almost be said to have cost her a drop of life-blood. “Teaching little Fullers,” as she called it, occupied much of her time; she had the sewing of four children also on her hands; her mother was often ill, her grandmother always; often they had no domestic; and she sometimes had pupils not of her own family. Three evenings in the week and odd hours during the day were all that this omnivorous student could command for herself. She worked herself ill at last, desperately ill; her life was saved with difficulty; and her father spoke to her, as she came back to life, such words of praise as his reticent lips had never before uttered. From this time the relation between her and her father grew tenderer, and that with her mother more intimate.

The earliest specimen of Margaret Fuller's composition, so far as I have seen, is a single school exercise, corrected by her father and preserved by her for the sake of those corrections. It is upon the Latin motto, “Possunt quia posse videntur,” and it certainly has the vigor of the Roman temperament that she loved. It was written probably between the ages of twelve and sixteen, and her father's few corrections are all in the direction of terseness and strength. The position she takes is that while men can, up to a certain point, do what they will to do, they are yet so liable to be overruled by the pressure of [47] events that the only thing surely moulded by their efforts is their own character. This she thus illustrates:--

Leonidas saved his country by a strong exertion of will, inspired by the most generous sentiment. Brutus nerved his soul to break those ties most sacred to one like him — and failed. Resolved, united hearts, freed America. The strongest exertion, the most generous concentration of will, for a similar purpose, left Poland in blood and chains at the feet of a tyrant.

Fuller Mss. II 249.

Her conclusion is that, although all outward results may fail, “it is not in the power of circumstance to prevent the earnest will from shaping round itself the character of a great, a wise, or a good man.” It was strong meat, surely, for a young girl to be feeding on such thoughts as these; such is not the diet on which mere sentimentalists and dreamers are reared.

It is a striking fact in the development of her mind, that when we next find her writing something to please her father, she is still harping on Brutus. The first composition ever published by her, so far as I know, was in the “Daily Advertiser,” in 1834. She had wished during the previous autumn to print her translation of Goethe's “Tasso,” but had failed; and this newspaper communication was called forth by something written by George Bancroft. In a letter to Dr. Hedge (March 6, 1835), she thus describes the occurrence:-- [48]

Your ci-devant tutor, Mr. Bancroft, has been delivering a curious (as we say in Groton) address at Deerfield. If I thought you would care for it I would send you the account in Cousin George's paper. My father requested me to write a little piece in answer to Mr. B.'s attack on Brutus in the ‘North American Review,’ which he published in the ‘ Daily Advertiser’ some time since. It was responded to (I flatter myself by some big-wig) from Salem. He detected some ignorance in me; nevertheless, as he remarked that I wrote with ‘ability,’ and seemed to consider me as an elderly gentleman, I considered the affair as highly flattering, and beg you will keep it in mind and furnish it for my memoirs as such after I am dead.


Mr. Bancroft's paper on “Slavery in Rome” appeared in the North American Review for October, 1834,2 and contained a very low estimate of Brutus. For some reason, although this number of the review was then considered important enough to be elaborately criticised in several successive issues of the “Advertiser,” yet the indignation of Mr. Fuller and his daughter was not brought to bear until nearly two months had passed. On November 27, however,--Miss Fuller being then twenty-four,--there appeared in the leading Boston journal a communication in small print, signed “J.” and filling nearly a column. It handled Mr. Bancroft firmly though respectfully, but disputed his view in regard to Brutus, and showed a good deal of care in consulting [49] original authorities. Plutarch was largely quoted, in an English version, and Velleius Paterculus in the original Latin,--one extract filling five lines. Upon these grounds the writer defends Brutus successively from the charges of sycophancy, time-serving, cruelty, and avarice; and modestly adds: “I doubt not an infinity of similar authorities might be quoted by one of more extensive reading and accurate memory.” The conclusion is the only part that can be called ambitious in tone, but it is written with a wholly generous fervor, and without conceit:

The hearts of the dead are now tranquillized . . But the faith of the young bleeds, and young ambition droops when the shades of the just are summoned back from the Elysium to which their appropriate judges had consigned them, and appear before some revolutionary tribunal of modern date. Let us not be too hasty in questioning what is established, and tearing to pieces the archives of the past. There are other sorts of skepticism, and not less desolating in their tendencies, than that of religion. That keen observer, Dr. Spurzheirn, warned the people of this country that their great danger lay in want of reverence. Those most distinguished among us for talent and culture should rather check than encourage this delay.

Boston daily Advertiser, November 27, 1834.

For one who was to help in organizing, six years later, the most formidable party of literary iconoclasts yet brought together in America, this was beginning pretty well. The protest closes [50] with courteous expressions toward “the accomplished gentleman said to be the author of the. article in question ;” and the only thing about the whole communication that suggests a woman's pen is the delicate adroitness with which she turns against Mr. Bancroft, in closing, two lines from one of his own juvenile effusions:--

Was it for this that Brutus left a name
Bright with the beams of freedom's holiest flame?

A few days later, Mr. Bancroft found a defender, as Miss Fuller indicates, in a correspondent signing “H.,” and giving Salem as his residence. He in turn is courteous and complimentary,--probably not being at all aware that it is a young woman of twenty-four to whom he is replying,and says of the first communication that it is written “with ability and candor, but I think without fully investigating the subject.” Nevertheless, as he can only cite Gibbon and Middleton's Cicero, while she had brought up Plutarch and Velleius Paterculus, the heavier ordnance was certainly with the defender of Brutus. But it was quite a triumph to be gravely answered; and the father and daughter in that quiet Groton farm-house must have taken great delight in cutting out for preservation those two momentous extracts from the “Daily Advertiser.”

It often happens that young people, when banished from society to what seems solitude, find compensation in being anew introduced to parents, brothers, and sisters. This was eminently true of [51] Margaret Fuller. To be sure, her brother Eugene, who was her nearest companion, was now absent. “Eugene and I,” she writes in a later diary, “were near of an age, and loved to wander out together, over the streams and through the woods, walking and talking or oftener silent.” 3 Eugene Fuller was not the most intellectual of her brothers, but the most winning and attractive; he had graduated at Harvard in 1834, and was at this time private tutor at the plantation of my uncle, Colonel Samuel Storrow, at Farley, Culpeper County, Virginia. This explains an allusion in the following letter, written by Margaret Fuller to her father during a temporary visit in Cambridge,--which I give to show how cordial a tie really united them, in spite of her criticisms. The “dearest” and “most affectionate” mean a good deal.

Boston, June 2, 1835.
Dearest father,--I was very glad to receive your letter although 't was but brief. You have of late omitted to write to me when I was absent, and I have felt as if you thought of me less than I wished you should.

I have been passing ten days at Cambridge, with Mrs. Farrar, and indeed they were most happy. Everybody so kind, the country so beautiful, and my own spirits so light. We made little excursions almost every day. Last Thursday I rode twenty-two miles on horseback without any fatigue. Mrs. F. had a most agreeable party the day before I came away. But of [52] all these things, Ellen will give you the particulars, if you are interested to hear them. The Higginsons say that Eugene's pupils love him extremely, and that Colonel Storrow, too, seems much pleased with him. I think we ought to feel satisfied that he should secure so much love and esteem after five or six months close scrutiny. W. H. is still very good, and as well-disposed as ever. They seem much pleased with him at Avon-Place. He passed yesterday with us,--being excused from the store, as it was Marsylvia's wedding-day. I believe it is the first amusement he has allowed himself since he left us. I saw a good deal of your former ward, Thornton Davis, while in Cambridge, but prefer giving you the account viva voce.

And now I have something to tell you which I hope, oh, I hope will give you as much pleasure as it does me. Mr.Farrar and Mrs. Farrar propose taking me, with several other delightful persons, to Trenton Falls this summer. The plan is to set out about the 20th of July, go on to New York, then up the North River to West Point,--pass a day there; then to Catskill,--pass a day there; then on to Trenton, and devote a week to that beautiful scenery. I said I had scarcely a doubt of your consent, as you had said several times last winter you should like to have me take a pleasant journey this summer. Oh, I cannot describe the positive ecstasy with which I think of this journey! to see the North River at last, and in such society! Oh, do sympathize with me! do feel about it as I do! The positive expenses of the journey we have computed at forty-seven dollars; I shall want ten more for spending-money,--but you will not think of the money, will you? I would rather you would take two hundred [53] dollars from my portion, than feel even the least unwilling. Will you not write to me immediately, and say you love me, and are very glad I am to be so happy??

It was very unkind in Mr. Robinson to have Mr. Emerson [preach] during my absence. I think I shall join Richard and Arthur in attending Mr. Kittredge's [church]. I must write a few words to mother, so adieu, from

Your most affectionate daughter, M.4

Fathers are fortunately so constituted as rarely to refuse appeals like this, and Margaret Fuller had her journey. It was her first experience of a pleasure which then, perhaps, had a greater zest than now, as being rarer, and involving more adventure. She went to Newport, then dear to her as the summer home of the Rev. Dr. Channing, -to New York, and to Trenton Falls, accounted one of the glories of America in the simple days when the wonders of Colorado and the Yosemite Valley were unknown. In the autumn she met Miss Harriet Martineau at the house of Professor Farrar, and a new delight opened before her vision. It was proposed that she should make a voyage to England with the Farrars; and under the guidance of her kind friends, long resident in England, she hoped to meet the larger intellectual circle of which she had dreamed. But suddenly a blow fell which crushed this hope and brought the profoundest emotions. Her father was taken ill of cholera, September 30, 1835, and [54] died October 1. His widow used to tell the story, to the end of her days, how Margaret brought the younger children together around the lifeless form of her father, and, kneeling, pledged herself to God that if she had ever been ungrateful or unfilial to her father, she would atone for it by fidelity to her brothers and sisters. This vow she surely kept.

She wrote thus to her friend Mrs. Barlow, after her father's death:--

Groton, February 1, 1836.
... I returned into life to bear a sorrow of which you know the heaviness. But my hard-won faith has not deserted me, and I have so far preserved a serenity which might seem heartlessness to a common observer. It was indeed sad when I went back, in some sort, into the world, and felt myself fatherless. Yet I gave no sign, and hope to preserve more or less fortitude.5

Her father had made no will; his property was sorely involved, and she has told her keen regret at that absence of business education which left her unable to take direct charge of the family affairs. They were placed finally under the care of her uncle Abraham, the narrowest and most arbitrary of all the paternal race. The estate was probably well managed, as it finally yielded two thousand dollars to each of the children; but this success was bought at a great cost of dictatorial domineering on the part of the bachelor uncle.--the same man who gave my mother lessons [55] in darning stockings,--and there is extant much correspondence which throws light on this. Margaret Fuller fought like a lioness for the proper education of her younger brothers and sisters, and especially for Ellen, whom the uncle would evidently have brought up in old-fashioned feminine ignorance, rather than let a dollar be spent upon her schooling. The elder sister insisted that she should be sent to a suitable school, offering, if necessary, to sacrifice her own share of the family income, or even of the estate itself, for this purpose. Every New England farm-house has been the scene of some touching tale of sisterly devotion, but nowhere more genuine than in that old homestead at Groton.

And, with other hopes, the dream of Europe must go. Her family begged her to take in advance her share of the family property and carry out her purpose; but she made, early in 1836, what she called “the last great sacrifice,” and decided to remain. Feeling no immediate strength, as she records, to carry out her literary plans, she planned to help her mother by teaching. “Circumstances have decided,” she wrote, “that I must not go to Europe, and shut upon me the door, as I think, forever, to the scenes I could have loved. Let me now try to forget myself and act for others' sakes.” 6

Her mind recovered its tone, and deeper experience gave her profounder sympathy. During [56] her last summer in Groton she wrote this letter to her friend Samuel G. Ward, showing at once how external nature had made her a student and observer of itself, and how penetrating and imaginative were her powers of mind. I know of no more delicate analysis of one of the most recondite and elusive aspects of nature.

Groton, 20th April, 1836.
You have probably just received a packet from me, (oh! what wild work makes a female pen!) yet I feel tempted to scribble to you, my fellow votary, on the subject of this morning's devotions to our common shrine.

I strolled languidly far and far over the dull-brown fields, and not an attempt at a life-like tint could I see. Some tawny evergreens and oaks, with their last year's leaves lingering, “ like unloved guests,” in vain attempted to give animation to the landscape. The sweetest southwest wind was blowing, but it did not make the heavens very blue, and was not enough for me, who wanted something to look at, and had not vital energy enough to be made happy through the pores of my skin. I was returning homeward quite comfortless and ill-paid for my time and trouble, when I suddenly came upon just what I wanted. It was a little shallow pool of the clearest amber. The afore-mentioned southwest was at work to some purpose, breaking it into exquisite wavelets, which flashed a myriad of diamonds up at each instant.

Why is it that the sight of water stirs and fills the mind so much more than that of any other thing in nature?--why? Is it that here we see the most subtle force combined with the most winning gentleness, or the most impetuous force with the most irresistible subtlety? [57]

I used to love, at Trenton, to go to that place where the water seemed collecting its energies so quietly, gliding on so stealthily, you could scarcely believe it was firmly resolved to display such vehemence in one more moment of time and rood of space.

I love the force of water much, but its subtlety is magic in its effects. Perfectly do I comprehend what I have heard of gazers on a river-side being tempted to drown themselves by sight of the water, and all those tales of mermaid enchantments which embody this feeling. This morning I felt a sort of timidity about standing quite at that point to which the undulatory motions (of all earthly things most lovely) seemed to tend. I felt that, unless I had an arm of flesh and blood to cling to. I should be too much seduced from humanity.

These undulations I have seen compared in poesy to the heaving of the bosom, and they do create a similar feeling,--at least, I, when I see this in the human frame, am tempted to draw near with a vague, instinctive anticipation (as far as ever I could analyze the emotion) that a heart will leap forth, and I be able to take it in my hand.

I dislike the comparison, as I always do illustrating so-called inanimate nature by man or any shape of animal life. Byron's comparisons of a mountain splendor to the “light of a dark eye in woman,” the cataract to a tiger's leap, etc., displease my taste. Why, again? am not sure whether it is because man seems more than nature, or whether less, and that the whole is injured in illustrating it by a part, or whether it is that one hates to be forced back upon personalities when one is getting calmed by meditations on the elemental manifestations. Yet, though these comparisons displease my taste, they [58] throw a light on the sympathies between the human mind and nature. I feel as if I should some time attain a precise notion of the meaning of Nature's most beautiful display, the undulatory motion.7

Margaret Fuller made great sacrifices for her own household while living in Groton; and showed a self-devotion that undoubtedly told severely on her health. She not only had the courage to do this, but the courage to let it be known by those for whom it was done, when it was best that they should know it. Feminine self-sacrifice is a very common fruit on every soil, and certainly on that of New England; but it often spoils its object by leading to selfishness and then dying unrevealed, -all from a mistaken sense of duty. To make this devotion, by revealing it, a means of elevating the person for whom it is made,--this is a far rarer thing, and requires absolute frankness and a wholly generous heart. To stimulate the brother to do the work which the sister for his sake left undone is to extract the very finest aroma of gratitude. He to whom the following letter was addressed-the Rev. Arthur Fuller-did not adopt that literary career to which his sister would fain have led him; but his was a life of unwearied labor and great practical usefulness; and when, after the resignation of his army chaplaincy, he took a musket from the hands of a wounded soldier, saying, “I must do something for my country,” and went forward to his death at the battle [59] of Fredericksburg, he showed that his sister's influence had not been exerted in vain.

You express gratitude for what I have taught you. It is in your power to repay me a hundred-fold, by making every exertion now to improve. I did not teach you as I would; yet I think the confinement and care I took of you children, at a time when my mind was so excited by many painful feelings, have had a very bad effect upon my health. I do not say this to pain you, or to make you more grateful to me (for, probably, if I had been aware at the time what I was doing, I might not have sacrificed myself so); but I say it that you may feel it your duty to fill my place, and do what I may never be permitted to do. Three precious years, at the best period of my life, I gave all my best hours to you children; let me not see you idle away time, which I have always valued so much; let me not find you unworthy of the love I felt for you. Those three years would have enabled me to make great attainments, which now I never may. Do you make them in my stead, that I may not remember that time with sadness.

Fuller Mss. i. 623.

In another letter to her younger brother, Richard, four years later, she thus sums up their life at Groton, and pictures the position of the household after the father's death.

Father's removal there was ill-judged, at least as regarded himself, your mother, and myself. The younger ones were not violently rent from all their former life and cast on toils for which they were unprepared. There your mother's health was injured and mine destroyed; [60] there your father died, but not till the cares of a narrowed income, and collision with his elder sons, which would not have ended there, had so embittered his life and made him so over anxious, that I have never regretted that he did not stay longer to watch the turning of the tide: for his life up to 1830 had been one of well-earned prosperity, which, after that time, was rapidly ebbing from him, and I do not think adversity would have done him good; he could not reconcile himself to it; his feeling was that after thirty years labor and self-denial he was entitled to peace, and he would not have had it.

You were too young to feel how trying are the disorders of a house which has lost its head, the miserable perplexities which were in our affairs, the wounds your mother underwent in that time of deep dejection from the unfeeling and insolent conduct of many who had been kept in check by respect for your father, her loneliness and sense of unfitness for the new and heavy burden of care. It will be many years yet before you can appreciate the conflicts of my mind, as I doubted whether to give up all which my heart desired for a path for which I had no skill, and no call, except that some one must tread it, and none else was ready. The Peterborough hills and the Wachusetts are associated in my mind with many hours of anguish, as great, I think, as I am capable of feeling. I used to look at them, towering to the sky, and feel that I, too, from my birth had longed to rise, but I felt crushed to earth; yet again a nobler spirit said that could never be; the good knight may come forth scarred and maimed from the unequal contest, shorn of his strength and unsightly to the careless eye, but the same fire burns within and [61] deeper than ever, and he may be conquered, but never subdued.

But if these beautiful hills, and wide, rich fields saw this sad lore well learned, they also saw some precious lessons given too, of faith, of fortitude, of self-command, and of less selfish love. There, too, in solitude, heart and mind acquired more power of concentration, and discerned the beauty of a stricter method. There the heart was awakened to sympathize with the ignorant, to pity the vulgar, and hope for the seemingly worthless; for a need was felt of realizing the only reality, the divine soul of this visible creation, which cannot err and will not sleep, which cannot permit evil to be permanent or its aim of beauty to be eventually frustrated in the smallest particular.

Fuller Mss. II. 721.

Before these last letters were written, she had left Groton, for a time, and had entered on the life of a teacher, first in Boston and then in Providence.

1 Ms. letter to Dr. Hedge, July 4, 1833.

2 XXXIX. 413.

3 Ms. Diary, 1844.

4 Fuller Mss. i. 153.

5 Fuller Mss. i. 21.

6 Memoirs, i. 161.

7 Ms.

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