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Chapter 6: school-teaching in Boston and Providence. (1837-1838.)

For a young American woman who wishes to support herself and educate her younger brothers and sisters, the natural refuge is still the desk of a school-teacher. In Margaret Fuller's time this was even more true than now. After her father's death she must seek a shorter path to self-support than was to be found in those alluring ways of literature and philosophy which she would have much preferred. An opening offered itself in the school of Mr. A. B. Alcott, in Boston, where Miss Elizabeth P. Peabody had been previously employed. Mr. Alcott's unpublished diary gives the successive steps in the negotiation and enables me to present the beginning and the end together.

1836, August 2d. Emerson called this morning and took me to Concord to pass the day. At his house I met Margaret Fuller (I had seen her once before this), and had some conversation with her about taking Miss Peabody's place in my school.

December 17th. I have seen M. F., who, besides giving instruction in the languages, will report The conversations on the Gospels as they proceed. [76]

1837, January 8th. I resume the Conversations, which have been suspended since last July. Subject, The sermon on the Mount, for a beginning. Miss F. reports them; if she succeeds in seizing their form and spirit, we may add a third to the two published volumes.

1837, 12th January. This evening with M. F. Clearly a person given to the boldest speculations, and of liberal and varied acquirements. Not wanting in imaginary power, she strikes me as having the rarest good sense and discretion:--qualities so essential to success in any sphere, and especially to a woman ambitious of literary distinction, and relying solely on native work. She adopts the spiritual philosophy, and has the subtlest perceptions of its necessities and bearings.

February 8th. Miss F. succeeds, after some trial, in reporting the Conversations.

March 17th. An agreeable hour with M. F., in whose sympathy and insight I find great content. She takes large and generous views of things, and her dispositions are singularly catholic and liberal. She has great skill in discourse, too: few converse with the like freedom and elegance. I am pleased to learn of the interest taken in her behalf by persons here in our city whose favor is a passport to success. To her has been given with the gift of intellect that of prudence, and when these are united in one person, success must follow in their train.

April. Miss Fuller left town this week for Groton, where she intends passing a few weeks, for recruiting her health to enter the Green Street School at Providence. Here, during the last winter, she has been engaged in teaching the French, German, and Italian [77] languages to private classes, also Latin and French in my school.

Ms. by Mr. Alcott.

Her connection with Mr. Alcott's school, like the school itself, was destined to be short-lived. Mr. Alcott's characteristic methods of dealing with children through minute questioning, joined with some peculiar theories as to punishment, called out an amount of indignation which, at this distance of time, appears almost incredible. The little volume called “Record of a school,” followed by the two volumes called “Conversations on the Gospels,” roused this wrath to the highest point. The books and the school were bitterly denounced by the Daily Advertiser and “Courier,” the latter seriously urging that Mr. Alcott should be prosecuted for blasphemy, as Abner Kneeland had lately been. To this Mr. R. W. Emerson wrote an indignant reply, asserting that Mr. Alcott's only offense lay in his efforts to “make children think,” and that his experiment was one in which all the friends of education were interested. The editor of the “Courier,” Mr. J. T. Buckingham, rejoined by quoting the opinion of a Harvard professor that “one third of Mr. Alcott's book was absurd, one third was blasphemous, and one third was obscene.” 1

Such was the hornet's nest into which Margaret Fuller had unwarily plunged herself by following the very mildest-mannered saint who ever tried [78] his hand at the spiritual training of children. With what discrimination she viewed the whole affair — how well she saw defects on the practical side as well as moral excellence, is shown clearly in this letter, addressed to one of her most cultivated friends.

Boston, 6th April, 1837.
Why is it that I hear you are writing a piece to “cut up” Mr. Alcott. I do not believe you are going to cut up Mr. Alcott. There are plenty of fish in the net created solely for markets, etc. ;--no need to try your knife on a dolphin like him. I should be charmed if I thought you were writing a long, beautiful, wise-like article, showing the elevated air, and at the same time the practical defects of his system. You would do a great service to him as well as to the public, and I know no one so well qualified as yourself to act as a mediator between the two, and set both sides of the question in a proper light. But the phrase “ cutting up” alarms me. If you were here I am sure that you would feel as I do, and that your wit would never lend its patronage to the ugly blinking owls, who are now hooting from their snug tenements, overgrown rather with nettles than with ivy, at this star of purest ray serene. But you are not here, more's the pity, and perhaps do not know exactly what you are doing; do write to me and reassure me. 2

But whether the newspapers were right or wrong, their criticisms killed the school. Mr. Alcott's receipts, which during the previous year had been $1,395, sank to $549 during the year [79] after the attack; the forty pupils dwindled to ten, and in April, 1837, the school furniture and apparatus were sold, and the assistant necessarily discharged. The school itself lingered for two years more, until fresh wrath was kindled by the admission of a colored child; there was another withdrawal of pupils, leaving Mr. Alcott with nobody to teach but his own three daughters, the colored child, and one undismayed white pupil. “I earn little or nothing in this miserable school,” he writes in his unpublished diary, April 23, 1839, “nor am I laboring towards any prospective good in it.” During the same month (April 11), in a summary of his small income — for a period not stated — he credits the parents of his pupils with thirty dollars.3 The school closed finally in June or July, 1839, and left its projector free to adopt his favorite conversational methods of urging his thought, -methods with which he has been identified for forty years. This is not the place to discuss the merits or demerits of his theories of teaching, but the final close of his experiment certainly did him no discredit; he went down with his flag still flying.

The school in which Margaret Fuller was to teach at Providence was the Green Street Academy, founded by Colonel Hiram Fuller, a gentleman in no way her relative. He was a person of some force of character and a good deal of ambition, who perhaps showed both qualities in inviting [80] Miss Fuller to be his assistant. She wrote of him to Miss Peabody:

Mr. Fuller is as unlike as possible to Mr. Alcott. He has neither his poetic beauty nor his practical defects. Ms.

His offer to her, as stated in Mr. Alcott's diary, was a liberal one for those days, and I am assured by Miss Jacobs, who followed Miss Fuller in the school, that the thousand dollars were undoubtedly paid, though Horace Greeley, in his “Recollections,” states the contrary. Mr. Fuller taught the school for a few years only, then went to New York and became connected with the New York “Mirror,” edited by N. P. Willis and George P. Morris. This he abandoned after a time, “being tired,” as he said, “of supporting two poets,” and was afterwards editor of the London “Cosmopolitan.” In addition to his bold choice of an assistant, he invoked the rising prestige of Ralph Waldo Emerson, inviting him to give an address at the dedication of the Academy (Saturday, June 10, 1837), and suggesting to him, he being still in the ministry, to bring sermons and preach in the two Unitarian churches.

Margaret Fuller was ill for a time after reaching Providence, and wrote to Mr. Emerson in June, 1837: “Concord, dear Concord, haven of repose, where headache, vertigo, other sins that flesh is heir to, cannot long continue.” After this came a period of unusual health, during which she wrote in great exhilaration to her friends. To Miss Peabody, [81] for instance (July 8, 1837), she exulted in the “glow of returning health,” and then gave this account of the school:--

As to the school, . .. I believe I do very well there. I am in it four hours every morning, five days in the week; thus you see I can have much time, notwithstanding many casual interruptions. All Saturday and Sunday to myself. I rise so early that I often get an hour and a half before breakfast, besides two or three hours in the afternoon on school days. This is quite enough for health, and the time is good time, for the school rarely tires me at all. I feel so perfectly equal to all I do there, without any effort; my pupils, although miserably prepared, are very docile, their hearts are right, and I already perceive that I am producing some effect on their heads. My plan grows quietly and easily in my mind; this experience here will be useful to me, if not to Providence, for I am bringing my opinions to the test, and thus far have reason to be satisfied.


Her mode of life in Providence, during this period, she described in letters to her younger brother. She lived methodically, as she usually did; almost always rose at five,--it was in summer,--and sometimes at half-past 4; it took her till six to dress; she studied till half-past 7, the breakfast hour; school lasted from half-past 8 to half-past 12; she got home at one, dined at half-past 1; lay down till three; then wrote or studied till tea-time, probably at six; in the evening, walked or made calls till ten; this [82] was her day.4 Her task as to mere instruction was not difficult, and her letters everywhere show her to have had that natural love of children so essential to the teacher. She never leaves a house but some gay message, sent back to the youngest members, shows unerringly that they, at least, cannot have complained of her as haughty or supercilious.

A lady who was, when a child, a housemate of Margaret Fuller while in Providence, has lately told me an anecdote which thoroughly illustrates the noble and truthful way in which she habitually dealt with children. My informant, who was then a little girl, says that there were beautiful books and other curiosities upon Miss Fuller's table, and that the children in the house were allowed to see them sometimes, on condition that they would not touch them. One day, in Miss Fuller's absence, a young visitor came, and insisting on taking down a microscope, despite the little girl's remonstrances, dropped and broke it. My informant was found in an agony of tears amidst the wreck; all her protestations of innocence were unheeded, and she was shut up as a prisoner, not merely for disobedience, but for falsehood. No one would even listen to her story, the circumstantial evidence seemed so overwhelming. Miss Fuller returned, and was told the incident; she came instantly to the room and took the weeping child upon her knee. “Now, my dear little girl,” [83] she said, “tell me all about it, only remember that you must be careful, for I shall believe every word you say.” Thus encouraged, the innocent tale was told; investigation followed, and complete acquittal. My informant, herself to this day an eminently successful teacher, told me that she then learned the life-long lesson of treating children with a noble confidence.

It is impossible for a teacher to write about teaching without disclosing her own theories and revealing her own experience. The year after Margaret Fuller left Providence, we find her writing to her brother Arthur, then teaching a district school in Massachusetts; and never had young teacher a better counselor. She tells him, for instance (December 20, 1840),--

The most important rule is, in all relations with our fellow-creatures, never forget that if they are imperfect persons they are immortal souls; and treat them as you would wish to be treated by the light of that thought.

Beware of over-great pleasure in being popular or even beloved. As far as all amiable disposition and powers of entertainment make you so, it is a happiness, but if there is one grain of plausibility, it is a poison.

This last maxim seems to me simply admirable; and she has an equally good passage in which she warns him against flattery, which, as she keenly points out, is even more injurious to children than to grown people. She adds:--

For to the child, the parent or teacher is the representative of justice, and as that [i. e., the justice] of life [84] is severe, an education which in any way excites vanity is the very worst preparation for that general and crowded school.

Fuller Mss. i. 643-645.

It would be easy to transcribe many more of these admirable aphorisms, which prove as clearly as if one had seen her in school, that she who wrote them had rare gifts for the work of education. With all this, I do not suppose that Margaret Fuller was a perfect teacher; her health was variable, and her heart was set on something else; she did not accept this as her life-work. The teacher who followed her has told me that she was worshiped by the girls as in her earlier school-days, but was sometimes too sarcastic for the boys; and yet they certainly gave every evidence of attachment when she left them. Outside the school, too, her personal qualities or her exceptional attainments brought on her some of those criticisms from which educated men are not exempt, and which are quite sure to visit highly-educated women. One lady said to her successor, Miss Jacobs, soon after her arrival at the school: “Miss Fuller says she thinks in German; do you believe it?” It was a discourteous question to a new-comer, who would naturally wish to keep clear of the feuds and the claims of her predecessor; but fortunately Miss Jacobs had ready tact, if Miss Fuller had not. “Oh, yes!” she said, “I do not doubt it; I myself dream in Cherokee;” which left her assailant discomfited. [85]

James Freeman Clarke has lately said in a sermon that he once went to see Margaret Fuller when she had been teaching in Providence for a year or two. She showed him two packages of letters which she had received from her pupils. “These letters,” said she, “if you should read them, would show you the work I have been doing for my scholars. The first package contains the letters which they usually write to me after they have been in the school two or three months. They say, ‘ O Miss Fuller, we did not know, till we came to you, how ignorant we were. We seem to know nothing at all, and not to be able to learn anything. We might as well stop, and give up. We are sure we shall never be able to study to any purpose.’ This package of letters,” said their teacher, “I have labeled, Under conviction.”

“This other package,” she continued, “holds the letters they write some time afterward. In these they say, ‘We owe you ever so much for showing us how we can become something better. We are still very stupid, but we now feel as if we were in the right way, and were making some progress. Pray help us to do more and better. You have given us courage, and taught us how to go forward!’ This package,” said she, “I label, obtained a hope.”

She went for occasional brief visits from Providence to Boston, and it may be well to insert a passage from one of her letters to Mr. Emerson, [86] in which she gives a glimpse of the gay world of that city forty-seven years ago. The picture of Daniel Webster and Theodore Parker moving among the jeunesse doree in a ball-room seems like one of the far-fetched improbabilities of an historical novel. The “Gigman” allusion is to Carlyle's afterwards hackneyed phrase about the respectability that keeps a gig. It is possible that the entertainment may have occurred just before her actual removal to Providence.

... Last night I took my boldest peep into the ‘Gigman’ world of Boston. I have not been to a large party before, and only seen said world in half-boots; so I thought, as it was an occasion in which I felt real interest, to wit, a fete given by Mrs. Thorndike for my beautiful Susan, I would look at it for once in satin slippers. Dr. Channing meant to go, but was too weary when the hour came. I spent the early part of the evening in reading bits of Dante with him, and talking about the material sublime till half-past 9, when I went with Mrs. C. and graceful Mary. It was very pretty to look at. So many fair maidens dressed as if they had stepped out of their grandmothers' picture frames, and youths with their long locks, suitable to represent pages if not nobles. Signor Figaro was there also in propria [persona] la et al. And Daniel the Great, not, however, when I saw him, engaged in an operation peculiarly favorable to his style of beauty, to wit, eating oysters. Theodore Parker was there, and introduced to me. I had some pleasant talk with him, but before I could get to Spinoza, somebody seized on me and carried me off to quite another S,--to supper. [87] On the whole, it all pleased my eye; my fashionable fellow-creatures were very civil to me, and I went home, glad to have looked at this slide in the magic lantern also.


Writing from Providence, August 14, 1837, she lays plans for her summer vacation, which is to begin with unmerciful tardiness on August 19. For her three weeks vacation she plans to visit, with her friend Caroline Sturgis, that delicious land of lotus-eating, Artichoke Mills, on the Merrimack, “there to be silent and enjoy daily wood-walks or boat excursions with her,” --or else to go to Concord. As to Providence, she writes:--

I fear I have not much to tell that will amuse you. With books and pens I have, maugre my best efforts, been able to do miserably little. If I cannot be differently situated, I must leave Providence at the end of another term. My time here has been full of petty annoyances, but I regret none of them, they have so enlarged my practical knowledge. I now begin really to feel myself a citizen of the world. My plan lies clearer before my mind, and I have examined almost all my materials, but beyond this I have done nothing. I shall, however, have so soon an opportunity to tell you all that I will not now take time and paper. I attended last week, somewhat to the horror of Mr. Fuller, the Whig Caucus here, and heard Tristam Burges. It is rather the best thing I have done.


Jefferson's correspondence bearing fruit again! With that impressed upon her, and her businesslike father in her mind, she shrank from a merely [88] intellectual life, while she yet felt its charms. Her residence in Providence had made her “a citizen of the world,” and the “best thing she had done” there was to defy the disapproval of her employer and attend a caucus,--in those days a rare exploit for a woman. We see the same half-conscious impulse toward action manifested in one of her letters to her younger brothers, in which she describes with great fullness a visit to a French man-of-war, the Hercules, which had anchored in Narragansett Bay. She says, incidentally,

I thought I much should like to command such a vessel, despite all the hardships and privations of such a situation. Fuller Mss. i. 635.

When she wrote, years after, the oft-quoted passage in “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” “Let them be sea-captains, if they will,” it may have been with this reminiscence in her mind.

On March 1, 1838, she wrote to Mr. Emerson one of her most characteristic letters. I reproduce it from the manuscript, because it shows what Mr. Emerson was to her,--a saint in her oratory,--and because it puts what was often called, in her case, self-consciousness and vanity, in their clearest light. She was sometimes said to despise her fellow-creatures, and all that passed for contempt in her is frankly uttered here. Yet behind it, if I understand it rightly, is a profound and even self-torturing humility. Always dissatisfied with herself, she finds to her dismay that [89] other people share the same condition, or worse. “I see no divine person; I myself am more divine than any one I see. I think that is enough to say about them.” To a lower depth, that is, she can scarcely assign them than to say that they seem to be accomplishing even less than she does. The woman who wrote this was but twenty-seven, poor, a martyr to ill-health, and with a desperate hungering of the soul to do her appointed work in the world, and make full use of the talents confided to her. When we consider that she was writing to her father-confessor, in absolute freedom and in an almost fantastic mood of depression,--with her supposed profession of teaching crumbling beneath her feet, and nothing before her but an intellectual career, which in a worldly way was then no career; her plans uncertain, her aims thwarted, her destiny a conundrum,--what man of intellectual pursuits, looking back on the struggles of his own early years, can throw a stone at Margaret Fuller?

Providence, 1st March, 1838.
My dear friend,--Many a Zelterian 5 epistle have I mentally addressed to you, full of sprightly scraps about the books I have read, the spectacles I have seen, and the attempts at men and women with whom I have come in contact. But I have not been able to put them on paper; for, even when I have attempted it, you have seemed so busy and noble, and I [90] so poor and dissipated, that I have not felt worthy to address you.

At present I am not at all Zelterian in my mood, but very sombre and sullen. I have shut the door for a few days, and tried to do something; you have really been doing something. And that is why I write. I want to see you, and still more to hear you. I must kindle my torch again. Why have I not heard you this winter? I feel very humble just now, yet I have to say that being lives not who would have received from your lectures as much as I should. There are noble books, but one wants the breath of life sometimes. And I see no divine person. I myself am more divine than any I see. I think that is enough to say about. them. I know Dr. Wayland now, but I shall not care for him. He would never understand me, and, if I met him, it must be by those means of suppression and accommodation which I at present hate to my heart's core. I hate everything that is reasonable just now, “wise limitations” and all. I have behaved much too well for some time past; it has spoiled my peace. What grieves me, too, is to find or fear my theory a cheat. I cannot serve two masters, and I fear all the hope of being a worldling and a literary existence also must be resigned. Isolation is necessary to me, as to others. Yet I keep on “ fulfilling all my duties,” as the technical phrase is, except to myself. But why do I write thus to you who like nothing but what is good, that is, cheerfulness and fortitude? It is partly because yours is an image of my oratory,6 and if I do not jest when I write to you, I must pray. And partly as a preliminary to asking you, [91] unsympathizing, unhelpful, wise, good man that you are, to do several things for me. I hear you are to deliver one of your lectures again in Boston. I would have you do it while I am there. I shall come on Wednesday next, and stay till the following Monday. Perhaps you will come to see me, for, though I am not as good as I was, yet, as I said before, I am better than most persons I see, and, I dare say, better than most persons you see. But perhaps you do not need to see anybody, for you are acting, and nobly. If so, you need not come yourself, but send me your two lectures on Holiness and Heroism. Let me have these two lectures, at any rate, to read while in Boston.

But her prediction was fulfilled; if she followed her literary longings she must leave Providence, and so she did. Mr. Ripley had suggested to her to write a life of Goethe, but it ended in a translation of Eckermann's “Conversations” with that great man, prefaced by one of her “Dial” essays on the subject and published in Ripley's series of “Specimens of German authors,” probably without compensation. Her plans and purposes on retiring from her school are best stated in a letter to the Rev. W. H. Channing, not before published :--

Providence, 9th December, 1838.
I am on the point of leaving Providence, and I do so with unfeigned delight, not only because I am weary and want rest, because my mind has so long been turned outward and longs for concentration and leisure for tranquil thought, but because I have here been always in a false position and my energies been consequently [92] much repressed. To common observers I seem well placed here, but I know that it is not so, and that I have had more than average difficulties to encounter, some of them insurmountable. But from these difficulties I have learned so much that I cannot but suppose my experience is to be of further use.

I do not wish to teach again at all. If I consult my own wishes I shall employ the remainder of my life in quite a different manner. But 1 foresee circumstances that may make it wrong for me to obey my wishes.

Mother has sold her place at Groton, and as she is to leave it in April, I shall go home and stay three months at least. I dream of Elysian peace, of quiet growth, and other benefits no doubt well-known to your imagination. Then I hope to prevail on her to board with Ellen and me, and send the boys to school for some months. But after that we must find a sure foothold on the earth somewhere and plan anew a home.

But this leaves me nearly a year for my own inventions. If at the end of that time it should seem necessary for the good of all concerned that 1 should teach again, I wish to do it, and by the success I have already attained, and by the confidence I now feel in my powers, both of arrangement of a whole and action on parts, feel myself justified in thinking I may do it to much greater pecuniary advantage and with much more extensive good results to others than I have yet done.

A plan suggested by Cincinnati friends for a school in that city came to nothing, and she left Providence for Boston in December, 1838. This was the end of her school-teaching, though she continued to take occasional private pupils in languages [93] and other matters; for whom she was paid, as she wrote to her younger brother, at the rate of two dollars an hour, or, rather, half a dollar for quarter-hour lessons. That winter, however, as she tells him, she is too tired to take them at any price; she must rest; but she will give her younger sister lessons in German, and will teach Latin and composition to himself. This was her idea of resting, and thus she rested at Groton for the remainder of that winter.

1 Biographical Sketch of A. B. Alcott, p. 15.

2 Ms.

3 Alcott's Ms. Diary, vol. XII

4 Fuller Mss. i. 619.

5 A phrase suggested by the correspondence between Goethe and Zelter, which she had been reading.

6 “I suppose you will not know what this means, whether you come or no. Do not disappoint me.”

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