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Chapter 8: conversations in Boston.

It was in the suburban quiet of Jamaica Plain that the project of holding literary conversations first shaped itself. When Madame de Stael asked the Comte de Segur which he liked best, her conversation or her writings, he is reported to have replied, “Your conversation, madame, for then you have not the leisure to become obscure.” It was really in the effort to avoid obscurity and clarify her own thoughts that Margaret Fuller began by talking instead of writing. Conversations on literary and philosophical themes have since become such common things, that we can hardly appreciate the sort of surprise produced when she first attempted them. It fell in with the convenient theory of her vanity and presumption, while it is evident from her own diaries that the enterprise was undertaken in a very modest way. She felt a desire to do her part in the world, but knew herself not yet mature enough in intellect to write, even if there were any periodical to welcome her. Mere talking, which seemed to other people such an audacious enterprise, seemed to her the very easiest form of intellectual [110] action. Her general feeling on the subject is best to be seen in a letter written a few years later to the Rev. W. H. Channing, not on this express theme, but in regard to a sermon that she had just heard:--

Cambridge, February 27, 1843.
... Many thoughts had risen in my mind during the discourse. But when we cannot gratify these wishes to express ourselves, it is probably as well. If we are prevented from gathering and giving away the flower, it withers indeed unenjoyed, but leaves a seed on the stalk. My thoughts generally seem too slight or too much in need of more to be written down, so I like to speak them, but if they lie in the mind, they attract the more they want. Some degree of expression is necessary for growth, but it should be little in proportion to the full life.

As fire lays open, and the plow awakes a virgin soil, successions of seeds are called into development, which the powers of nature had generated in different moods and left there in the cold dark, perhaps for ages, quite forgotten. So shall it be with a mind that works lonely, unsolicited, unutterable; the destined hour of tillage shall find it rich.

I will rejoice in every gladsome spring day, eloquent with blooms, or autumn with its harvests, but the silent fields of stubble or snow shall be no less prized.1

In this letter she clearly defines the power of oral utterance, not as a sign of supreme strength, but as rather, in her case at least, a resource of [111] weakness. Longing for expression, she yet finds her thoughts, she says, too slight or inadequate to be written down; and therefore likes to speak them, though conscious that even this amount of expression may not always be an advantage. She is going through the experience, in short, which all thinkers have had, and which her favorite Goethe has best formulated “Thought expands, but lames; action animates, but narrows.”

It must be remembered that the feeling of desire to be among men and do her part, rather than linger in solitary self-culture, is still visible at this period. For instance, after spending some delicious days about this time with her friend Miss Sturgis on the Merrimack, she writes:--

I should not like such a life constantly. There are few characters so vigorous and of such self-sustained self-impulse that they do not need frequent and unexpected difficulties to awaken and keep in exercise their powers.

Fuller Mss. II. 645.

Still longing for action, conscious of her fitness for it, she took this method of conversation as her best way of bringing to bear some influence upon her age and time. How much more than this she desired is to be seen in this fine piece of aspiration occurring in a letter to the Rev. W. H. Channing:--

Like a desperate gamester I feel, at moments, as I cling to the belief that he [the Deity] cannot have lost [112] this great throw of Man, when the lesser hazards have ended so successfully. Men disappoint me so, I disappoint myself so, yet courage, patience, shuffle the cards, Durindarte. There was an Epaminondas, a Sidney,we need the old counters still.

I wish I were a man, and then there would be one. I weary in this play-ground of boys, proud and happy in their balls and marbles. Give me heroes, poets, lawgivers, Men.

There are women much less unworthy to live than you, Men; the best are so unripe, the wisest so ignoble, the truest so cold!

Divine Spirit, I pray thee, grow out into our age before I leave it. I pray, I prophesy, I trust, yet I pine.

Ms. (W. H. C.), Sunday, February 21 1841.

With these strong aspirations, she was not content to do nothing, and she could at least talk. The conversations did not begin with the blowing of a trumpet; there was not even a printed circular, but only a manuscript letter to her friend, Mrs. Ripley, of which the following is a part :--

My dear friend,--I feel it more difficult to give on paper a complete outline of my plan for the proposed conversations than I expected. I find so much to say that I cannot make any statement satisfactory to myself, within such limits as would be convenient for your purpose. As no one will wish to take the trouble of reading a long manuscript, I shall rather suggest than tell what I propose to do, and defer a full explanation till the first meeting. The advantages of a weekly meeting for conversation might be great enough to [113] repay attendance, if they consisted only in supplying a point of union to well-educated and thinking women, in a city which, with great pretensions to mental refinement, boasts at present nothing of the kind; and where I have heard many of mature age wish for some such place of stimulus and cheer; and those younger, for a place where they could state their doubts and difficulties, with a hope of gaining aid from the experience or aspirations of others. And if my office were only to suggest topics, which would lead to conversation of a better order than is usual at social meetings, and to turn back the current when digressing into personalities or commonplaces, so that what is most valuable in the experience of each might be brought to bear upon all, I should think the object not unworthy of the effort. But my ambition goes much farther. It is to pass in review the departments of thought and knowledge, and endeavor to place them in due relation to one another in our mind. To systematize thought and give a precision and clearness in which our sex are so deficient, chiefly, I think, because they have so few inducements to test and classify what they receive. To ascertain what pursuits are best suited to us, in our time and state of society, and how we may make the best use of our means for building up the life of thought upon the life of action. ....

I believe I have written as much as any one will wish to read. I am ready to answer any questions which may be put, and will add nothing more here except,

Always yours truly, S. M. Fuller.2

The conversations began November 6, 1839, at [114] Miss Peabody's rooms in West Street — those rooms where many young men and women found, both then and at a later day, the companionship of cultivated people, and the best of French, German, Italian, and English literature. The conversations continued for five winters, closing in April, 1844. Their theory was not high-flown but eminently sensible, being based expressly on the ground stated in the circular, that the chief disadvantage of women in regard to study was in not being called upon, like men, to reproduce in some way what they had learned. As a substitute for this she proposed to try the uses of conversation, to be conducted in a somewhat systematic way, under efficient leadership. Accordingly these meetings, although taking a wide range, were always concentrated, and with a good deal of effect, on certain specified subjects ; the most prominent of these being, perhaps, that of Mythology, or the reappearance of religious ideas under varying forms. It is a theme which has since assumed great importance and commanded a literature of its own; but it was then new, and had to be studied at great disadvantage. Through early versions of tile “Bhagvat Geeta” and the “Desatir,” Margaret Fuller had made advances into this realm: and for her, as for her early companion and life-long friend, Lydia Maria Child, it had great fascinations. She writes in her journal, for instance (February 21, 1841) :--

This Hindoo mythology is like an Indian jungle. [115] The growth is too luxuriant for beauty and leaves a lair for monsters. Being cleared away, here is an after. growth of fair proportioned trees, and beauteous flowers, the Greek myths.

Oh, Nature,--History of man, last birth of Nature,--how I see the fibres of God woven all through every part as far as the eye can stretch!


While Mrs. Child was making preparations to develop this new thought in her “Progress of religious ideas,” Margaret Fuller made it a frequent theme of her conversations; beginning with the Greek mythology, and following up with illustrations from other sources, the rich materials for which are scattered everywhere in her note-books. In later years, however, following the constant current which led her toward life and action, she had for her themes a variety of points in ethics and education.

The usual hour for these conversations was eleven in the morning. The persons present were usually twenty-five or thirty in number, rarely less, sometimes more; and they were among the most alert and active-minded women in Boston. Ten or a dozen, besides Miss Fuller, usually took actual part in the talk. Her method was to begin each subject with a short introduction, giving the outline of the subject, and suggesting the most effective points of view. This done, she invited questions or criticisms: if these lagged, she put questions herself, using persuasion for the [116] timid, kindly raillery for the indifferent. There was always a theme, and a thread. One whole winter was devoted — through thirteen conversations — to the Fine Arts; another to Ethics, in different applications; another to Education, in various respects; another to the proper influence of women on family, school, church, society, and literature. On some of these subjects she had, in her circle, undoubted experts, who knew on certain particular points more than she did. Of these she availed herself, but kept the reins in her own hands. We all know that the best-planned talk is a lottery; to-day blanks, to-morrow prizes; and there were times when the leader could bring out no cooperation, and had to fall back on monologue. But this was not common, and even the imperfect fragments in the way of report given by Mr. Emerson in the “Memoirs” 3 are enough to show the general success of these occasions. When the subject was “Life,” and she called upon one of her favorite pupils to answer, “What is life?” the lively girl replied, “It is to laugh or cry, according to our constitution.” In such a repartee, we can see that the most philosophic teacher met her match and had original minds to deal with. Yet, after all, reports of conversation are failures; and in this case their defects can only be supplied by more general reminiscences from pupils or friends, trying to give the secret of her acknowledged power. Two of these testimonials [117] I shall cite; the first from one of her lifelong intimates,--an artist by profession and a woman of singularly clear and dispassionate nature,--Miss Sarah Freeman Clarke:

In looking for the causes of the great influence possessed by Margaret Fuller over her pupils, companions, and friends, I find something in the fact of her unusual truth-speaking power. She not only did not speak lies after our foolish social customs, but she met you fairly. She broke her lance upon your shield. Encountering her glance, something like an electric shock was felt. Her eye pierced through your disguises. Your outworks fell before her first assault, and you were at her mercy. And then began the delight of true intercourse. Though she spoke rudely searching words, and told you startling truths, though she broke down your little shams and defenses, you felt exhilarated by the compliment of being found out, and even that she had cared to find you out. I think this was what attracted or bound us to her. We expected good from such a new condition of our relations, and good usually came of it.

No woman ever had more true lovers among those of her own sex, and as many men she also numbered among her friends. She had an immense appetite for social intercourse. When she met a new person she met him courageously, sincerely, and intimately. She did not study him to see beforehand how he might bear the shock of truth, but offered her best of direct speech at once. Some could not or would not hear it, and turned away; but often came back for more, and some of these became her fast friends. [118]

Many of us recoiled from her at first; we feared her too powerful dominion over us, but as she was powerful, so she was tender; as she was exacting, she was generous. She demanded our best, and she gave us her best. To be with her was the most powerful stimulus, intellectual and moral. It was like the sun shining upon plants and causing buds to open into flowers. This was her gift, and she could no more help exercising it than the sun can help shining. This gift, acting with a powerful understanding and a generous imagination, you can perceive would make an educational force of great power. Few or none could escape on whom she chose to exercise it. Of her methods of education she speaks thus simply :--

I have immediate and invariable power over the minds of my pupils; my wish has been more and more to purify my own conscience when near them, to give clear views of the aims of this life, to show them where the magazines of knowledge lie, and to leave the rest to themselves and the spirit that must teach and help them to self impulse.

The best that we receive from anything can never be written. For it is not the positive amount of thought that we have received, but the virtue that has flowed into us, and is now us, that is precious. If we can tell no one thought, yet are higher, larger, wiser, the work is done. The best part of life is too spiritual to bear recording.


Another friend equally warm, and also of judicial nature, has borne her testimony to the value of these conversations in terms so admirable that they must be cited. This is the late Elizabeth [119] Hoar, of whom Emerson once wrote: “Elizabeth consecrates; I have no friend whom I more wish to be immortal than she.” A letter has already been quoted from this noble woman, describing her first impressions of Margaret Fuller at Concord; and the following fragment gives her maturer opinion:--

Her friends were a necklace of diamonds about her neck. The confidences given her were their best, and she held them to them; the honor of the conversations was the high tone of sincerity and culture from so many consenting individuals, and Margaret was the keystone of the whole. She was, perhaps, impatient of complacency in people who thought they had claims, and stated their contrary opinion with an air. For such she had no mercy. But, though not agreeable, it was just. And so her enemies were made.


To show that Margaret Fuller encountered among her friends and pupils natures as heroic as her own, I will yield to the temptation of quoting a passage from another letter of this same lady; a bit of philosophy as fine as any that one finds in Epictetus or Antoninus,--stoicism in this case softened and enriched by Christianity without losing a fibre of its force:--

When I was a little one I suffered agonies of terror at the barking of a dog, yet was ashamed to run away and avoid passing him. It suddenly occurred to my thought, “What is it to fear? That the dog should bite me — should inflict just so much pain as a dog's bite [120] can, upon me. Well, I can bear so much pain bravely, I am sure, so I will take no further thought about it, but walk boldly on, and be ready for the bite when it come”-and my fear was gone. The story sounds trifling, but it is not so in my life, because the philosophy I learned from that moment's thought has been of so much use to me since, in carrying me straight up to the ghosts of possible evils, showing their real power. And better than this philosophy is the trust which, by “ always thinking unto it,” we hope to make our home--the assurance that we might and surely shall be so cared for as we could not care for ourselves.


It is evident, from Margaret Fuller's letters, that the effect of these occasions on herself varied with mood, health, and external influences. She enjoyed with eagerness the intellectual exercise; she felt that she was, perhaps, doing some good; and the longing for affection, which was one of the strongest traits of her nature, was gratified by the warm allegiance of her pupils. She went back to Jamaica Plain, every now and then, to rest, and, while rejoicing in that respite, still felt that her field was action, and that she could not, like Mr. Emerson, withdraw from the world to a quiet rural home. She wrote thus, on one occasion, to the Rev. W. H. Channing:--

10th December, 1840
Two days in Boston; how the time flies there and bears no perfume on its wings,--I am always most happy to return to my solitude, yet willing to bear the contact of society, with all its low views and rash blame, [121] for I see how the purest ideal natures need it to temper them and keep them large and sure. I will never do as Waldo [Emerson] does, though I marvel not at him.4

The tone of this passage is saddened, no doubt, by some ungenerous criticisms upon herself and one of her favorite pupils, which she goes on to refute in detail, ending in the following high tone of aspiration:--

How, when I hear such things, I bless God for awakening my inward life. In me, my Father, thou wouldst not, I feel, permit such blindness. Free them also, help me to free them, from this conventional standard, by means of which their eyes are holden that they see not. Let me, by purity and freedom, teach them justice, not only to my individual self,--of that small part of myself I am utterly careless,--but to this ever-flowing Spirit. Oh, must its pure breath pass them by?

Ms. (W. H C.)

The criticisms which her conversations brought upon themselves, in their day, were mostly so trivial that they are not now worth recalling; but there has been one curious effort to pervert these occasions from their true character, and this occurs in the posthumous autobiography of a woman of great prominence, who had, at one time, a distinct influence over Margaret Fuller. Posthumous attacks are always the hardest to meet, because in them the accuser still lives and testifies without cross-examination, while it often happens that the accused and his witnesses are alike dead. [122] In this case the charge has an especial interest, because Margaret Fuller lived in the day when a great moral agitation was beginning to sweep over the land, and she, like all her contemporaries, must be judged in part by the test it applied.

It is a point never yet wholly cleared up, either by her printed memoirs or private letters, why she entered with somewhat tardy sympathy into the anti-slavery movement. Her personal friends were identified with it, including Dr. Channing, and more especially Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Gray Loring; also her nearest intimates of her own age, Messrs. Clarke and Channing. Miss Martineau, whom she admired, had entered ardently into it; but it was not until the agitation in regard to the annexation of Texas in 1844 that Miss Fuller was strongly aroused in regard to the encroachments of slavery. It is possible that the influence of her father, as a Jeffersonian Democrat, worked the other way; yet he had opposed the Missouri Compromise of 1820; and the antislavery tradition was strong in the family. It certainly was not the social influence of those who belonged to her classes and came to her conversations, for their influence tended, as will be presently shown, in a different direction.

In her diary of 1844, she wrote as follows:--

Mrs. Loring here. They want something of me about Texas. Went to walk, but could not think about it. I don't like to do anything else just yet, don't feel ready. I never can do well more than one thing, at [123] a time, and the least thing costs me so much thought and feeling; others have no idea of it.

Ms. Diary, 1844.

Afterwards she wrote:--

Might not we women do something in regard to this Texas annexation project? I have never felt that I had any call to take part in public affairs before; but this is a great moral question, and we have an obvious right to express our convictions. I should like to convene meetings everywhere and take our stand.

Memoirs, i. 141.

I wish to dwell especially on this aspect of Margaret Fuller's position, because it has been so very unjustly dealt with in that singularly harsh and unfair book, the “Autobiography of Harriet Martineau.” At the time when Miss Martineau's “Society in America” was published, Margaret Fuller wrote her a letter on the subject — a letter of great dignity and courage. There is in it no conceit, no arrogance, but only courteous, deferential protest. It is not written de haut en bas, but de bas en haut. In it she points out that one may criticise even one's superiors:--

There are many topics treated of in this book of which I am not a judge; but I do pretend, even where I cannot criticise in detail, to have an opinion as to the general tone of thought. . . . When Webster speaks on the currency, I do not understand the subject, but I do understand his mode of treating it, and can see what a blaze of light streams from his torch. When Harriet Martineau writes about America, I often cannot test that rashness and inaccuracy of which I hear so much, [124] but I can feel that they exist. A want of soundness, of habits of patient investigation, of completeness, of arrangement, are felt throughout the book, and, for all its fine descriptions of scenery, breadth of reasoning, and generous daring, I cannot be happy in it, because it is not worthy of my friend; and I think a few months given to ripen it, to balance, compare, and mellow, would have made it so.

Memoirs, i. 193.

And when Miss Fuller came to touch the vexed question of the anti-slavery movement in America, as treated by Miss Martineau, she simply wrote thus:

I do not like that your book should be an ‘abolition’ book. You might have borne your testimony as decidedly as you pleased; but why leaven the whole book with it? This subject haunts us on almost every page. It is a great subject, but your book had other purposes to fulfill.

Memoirs, i. 194.

This was the head and front of Miss Fuller's offending. But Miss Martineau's reference to this letter gives her the opportunity for one of those curious examples of failing memory and unfailing self-confidence which were pointed out, by the reviewers of her “Autobiography,” at the time of its publication. She describes the communication as a letter which Miss Fuller “declares she sent her,” but she can only recall having received a very different letter and one “quite unworthy of the writer.” Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, i. 381. Yet Miss Martineau had herself [125] made an entry in her own diary for November, 1839,--quoted by Mrs. Chapman in her appendix ; and this record says of the letter then received :--

Tuesday. An immense letter from Margaret Fuller. Sad about herself, and very severe on my book; -righteously so, but with much mistake in it. The spirit is very noble. Do I improve in courage about learning the consequences of what I do? I commit myself boldly, but I suffer a good deal. But I do not think I go back. I suffered a good deal from her letter.

Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, II. 319.

Now if the letter thus described was not the letter which Margaret Fuller “declared she sent,” what was it? It certainly was not that “unworthy” letter which Miss Martineau imputes to her, or it would not have been praised so highly. The fact is that the letter which Miss Martineau had characterized at the time as “very noble” she afterwards so far forgets as to insinuate that it never was really sent; but she remembers an “unworthy” letter, about which she gives no particulars and of whose existence there is no other memorial.

As to the letter itself, there is nothing unreasonable in it; nothing which history has not confirmed. Miss Martineau's self-identification with the abolitionists was courageous and noble, but the habitual exaggeration of her mental action, and her liability to error through her temperament and her deafness, followed her into this [126] sphere also. Her “Martyr age in the United States” will always remain the most dramatic picture of the whole period she depicted. The difficulty is that it is not only dramatic but slightly melodramatic; there is a theatrical tinge in it all; every man she describes is faultless, every woman a queen; and even those who, like myself, knew and reverenced these heroes and heroines, must admit this tone of excess. It was the same with her larger book. She saw the sin which was nearest, and painted it; but she saw little else. Now that slavery is abolished “Society in America” is obsolete; while De Tocqueville's work, written earlier, is still a classic, and is frequently cited in regard to the questions that are before us to-day.

All this prepares us for Miss Martineau's curious and — as the facts prove — utterly unfair criticisms upon Margaret Fuller's conversations. She thus describes them:--

The difference between us was that while she was living and moving in an ideal world, talking in private and discoursing in public about the most fanciful and shallow conceits which the Transcendentalists of Boston took for philosophy, she looked down upon persons who acted instead of talking finely, and devoted their fortunes, their peace, their repose, and their very lives to the preservation of the principles of the republic. While Margaret Fuller and her adult pupils sat ‘gorgeously dressed,’ talking about Mars and Venus, Plato and Goethe, and fancying themselves the elect of the earth [127] in intellect and refinement, the liberties of the republic were running out as fast as they could go, at a breach which another sort of elect persons were devoting themselves to repair; and my complaint against the ‘gorgeous’ pedants was that they regarded their preservers as hewers of wood and drawers of water, and their work as a less vital one than the pedantic orations which were spoiling a set of well-meaning women in a pitiable way.

Autobiography of Harriet Martineau, i 381.

To those of us who recall the plain Boston of those days there is something quite unexpected in thus fastening upon Margaret Fuller's circle the sin of gorgeousness. Whence came this vehement epithet, so hopelessly inconsistent with the well-kept black silk or modest alpaca of that period. It apparently came from the exuberant phrase of one young admirer quoted in the “Memoirs” of Margaret Fuller, who went so far as to say of her idol, “Margaret used to come to the conversations very well dressed, and altogether looked sumptuously.” Memoirs, i. 336. Even sumptuousness, it might be said, is not gorgeousness; and there were, moreover, young girls in Boston to whom what has since been called “the gospel of good gowns” was then very imperfectly revealed, and who so adored their teacher that she would have looked superbly in her oldest Groton wardrobe; just as when she was fifteen, the younger school girls admired her way of coming into school and her halfshut [128] eyes. So much for the gorgeousness; and as to the real charge, it requires only the very plainest comparison of Miss Martineau's own statements to correct them. She says that while Margaret Fuller and her pupils were doing so and so, another sort of elect persons, whom the first set despised, were saving the nation. The curious fact is that all this antagonism lies wholly in Miss Martineau's imagination, and that the two sets were almost identically the same. It is easy to show that the “spoiled women” of Margaret's classes were the very women who were fighting Miss Martineau's battles.

The only list known to me of any of these classes is that given in Miss Fuller's Memoirs. 5 It contains forty-three names. Among these are to be found the two women who taught Miss Martineau her first lessons in abolitionism on her arrival in America: Mrs. Lydia Maria Child and Mrs. Ellis Gray Loring. The list comprises the wives of Emerson and Parker and the high-minded Maria White who afterwards, as the wife of Lowell, did much to make him an abolitionist; it includes the only daughter of Dr. Channing; it comprises Miss Littlehale, now Mrs. Ednah D. Cheney; it includes many family names identified with the anti-slavery movement in Boston and vicinity from its earliest to its latest phase; such names as Channing, Clarke, Hooper, Hoar, Lee, Peabody, Quincy, Russell, Shaw, Sturgis. These [129] names form, indeed, the great majority of the list, while not a person appears on it who was conspicuously opposed to the anti-slavery agitation. Miss Martineau's extraordinary mistake simply calls attention to the fact that it was not upon pedants or dreamers, but upon the women who led the philanthropic thought and action of Boston, that Margaret Fuller's influence was brought to bear. She did not at this time appreciate Garrison; she afterwards lamented in Italy that she had not appreciated him better; but she helped to train many of the women who learned his lessons and stood by his side. That these conversations served as a moral — even more than as a mental — tonic is the uniform testimony of all who took part in them; and the later career of these participants shows how well the work was done.

1 Ms. (W. H. C.)

2 Ms.

3 Memoirs, i. 324.

4 Ms. (M. W. C.)

5 i. 338, note.

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