Little-known fact: Margaret Fuller was the great-aunt of R. Buckminster Fuller, whose eccentric and humanistic idealism is so evocative of American Transcendentalism.
Margaret Fuller--she was called Ossoli long after the time we are concerned with, in a foreign land and amid foreign associations--Margaret Fuller died July 16th, 1850. In 1852 her Memoirs were published in Boston, written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing: each giving an individual and personal account of her. These three gentlemen--all remarkable for intellectual capacity, sympathetic appreciation, and literary skill--undertook their task in the spirit of loving admiration, and executed it with extraordinary frankness, courage and delicacy. No more unique or satisfactory book of biography was ever made. They had known Margaret personally and well; were intimately acquainted with her mind, and deeply interested in her character. They had access to all the necessary materials. The whole life--inward and outward--was open to them, and they described it with no more reserve than good taste imposed. Those who are interested to know what sort of a person she was, are referred to that book, from which the biographical materials for this little sketch have, in the main, been taken. Her place here is due to her association with the leaders of the Transcendental movement, and to the peculiar part she played in it.
Strictly speaking, she was not a Transcendentalist, though Mr. Channing declares her to have been "in spirit and thought pre-eminently a transcendentalist"; and Mr. Alcott wrote that she adopted "the spiritual philosophy, and had the subtlest perception of its bearings." She was enthusiastic rather than philosophical, and poetic more than systematic. Emerson's judgment is that--
"Left to herself, and in her correspondence, she was much the victim of Lord Bacon's idols of the cave, or self-deceived by her own phantasms. . . . Her letters are tainted with a mysticism which, to me, appears so much an affair of constitution, that it claims no more respect than the charity or patriotism of a man who has dined well and feels better for it. In our noble Margaret, her personal feeling colors all her judgment of persons, of books, of pictures, and even of the laws of the world. . . . Whole sheets of warm, florid writing are here, in which the eye is caught by 'sapphire,' 'heliotrope,' 'dragon,' 'aloes,' 'Magna Dea,' 'limboes,' 'stars,' and 'purgatory'--but one can connect all this or any part of it with no universal experience.
"In short, Margaret often loses herself in sentimentalism; that dangerous vertigo nature, in her case, adopted, and was to make respectable. . . . Her integrity was perfect, and she was led and followed by love; and was really bent on truth, but too indulgent to the meteors of her fancy."
She said of herself:
"When I was in Cambridge I got Fichte and Jacobi; I was much interrupted, but some time and earnest thought I devoted; Fichte I could not understand at all, though the treatise which I read was one intended to be popular, and which he says must compel to conviction. Jacobi I could understand in details, but not in system. It seemed to me that his mind must have been moulded by some other mind, with which I ought to be acquainted, in order to know him well--perhaps Spinoza's. Since I came home I have been consulting Buhle's and Tennemann's histories of philosophy, and dipping into Brown, Stewart, and that class of books."
This was in 1832, before the transcendental movement began. At the same period, writing to a friend on the subject of religious faith--a subject intimately allied with philosophy--she said:
"I have not formed an opinion; I have determined not to form settled opinions at present; loving or feeble natures need a positive religion--a visible refuge, a protection--as much in the passionate season of youth as in those stages nearer to the grave. But mine is not such. My pride is superior to any feelings I have yet experienced; my affection is strong admiration, not the necessity of giving or receiving assistance or sympathy. When disappointed, I do not ask or wish consolation; I wish to know and feel my pain, to investigate its nature and its source; I will not have my thoughts diverted or my feelings soothed; 'tis therefore that my young life is so singularly barren of illusions. I know I feel the time must come when this proud and impatient heart shall be stilled, and turn from the ardors of search and action to lean on something above. But shall I say it?--the thought of that calmer era is to me a thought of deepest sadness; so remote from my present being is that future existence, which still the mind may conceive; I believe in eternal progression; I believe in a God, a beauty and perfection, to which I am to strive all my life for assimilation. From these two articles of belief I draw the rules by which I strive to regulate my life; but though I reverence all religions as necessary to the happiness of man, I am yet ignorant of the religion of revelation. Tangible promises, well-defined hopes, are things of which I do not now feel the need. At present, my soul is intent on this life, and I think of religion as its rule; and in my opinion this is the natural and proper course from youth to age."
The tone of this extract is negatively transcendental; that is, it implies that the writer did not belong to the opposite school, in any sense; and that her mind was in condition to accept the cardinal truths of a philosophy, the special doctrines whereof she did not apprehend or feel interested in. Had she entertained a philosophical creed, it would have been the creed of Schelling, more likely than any other.
Margaret Fuller was a critic, and a critic rather from natural gift than from trained perception. Her genius was her guide. Persons and things came to her for judgment, and judgment they received. Searching and frank, but hearty and loving, she judged from the inside. To her, so her biographers tell, with unanimous voice, "the secrets of all hearts were revealed." In private intercourse, in letters, in parlor conversations on books, pictures, statues, architecture, she was ever the judge. The most unlike minds and characters receive their dues with entire impartiality; Goethe, Lessing, Novalis, Jean Paul, were each in kind honored. The last is "infinitely variegated, and certainly most exquisitely colored, but fatigues attention; his philosophy and religion seem to be of the sighing sort." She is steeped to the lips in enjoyment by Southey, whom she was inclined to place next to Wordsworth. Coleridge, Heine, Carlyle, Herschel, attract her mind. She ponders before Michael Angelo's sibyls; displays a singular penetration in her analysis of them, and makes them all interpreters of the genius of woman. The soul of Greek art, as contrasted with Christian, is disclosed to her with a clear perception; the Greek mythology gave up to her its secret; emblems, symbols, dark parables, enigmas, mysteries, laid aside their vails. A friend said of her: "She proceeds in her search after the unity of things, the divine harmony, not by exclusion but by comprehension; and so no poorest, saddest spirit but she will lead to hope and faith. I have thought, sometimes, that her acceptance of evil was too great; that her theory of the good to be educed proved too much; but I understand her now better than I did." Atkinson, the "mesmeric atheist," struck her as "a fine instinctive nature, with a head for Leonardo to paint," who "seems bound by no tie, yet looks as if he had relatives in every place." Mazzini impressed her as one "in whom holiness has purified, but somewhat dwarfed the man." Carlyle "is arrogant and overbearing; but in his arrogance there is no bitterness, no self-love. It is the heroic arrogance of some old Scandinavian conqueror; it is his nature, and the untamable energy that has given him power to crush the dragon." Dr. Wilkinson, the Swedenborgian, is "a sane, strong, well-exercised mind; but in the last degree unpoetical in its structure; very simple, natural, and good; excellent to see, though one cannot go far with him." Rachel, Fourier, Rousseau--she has a piercing glance for them all; a word of warm admiration, all the more weighty for being qualified by criticism.
It was probably this keen penetration, this capacity to appreciate all kinds, this inclusiveness of sympathy, that prompted the selection of Margaret Fuller as chief editor of the "Dial," the organ of transcendental thought. Thus she regarded the enterprise:
"What others can do--whether all that has been said is the mere restlessness of discontent, or there are thoughts really struggling for utterance,--will be tested now. A perfectly free organ is to be offered for the expression of individual thought and character. There are no party measures to be carried, no particular standards to be set up; a fair, calm tone, a recognition of universal principles, will, I hope, pervade the essays in every form. I trust there will be a spirit neither of dogmatism nor compromise, and that this journal will aim, not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and more nobly, by letting him see how some minds are kept alive by a wise self-trust. We must not be sanguine at the amount of talent which will be brought to bear on this publication. All concerned are rather indifferent, and there is no great promise for the present. We cannot show high culture, and I doubt about vigorous thought. But we shall manifest free action as far as it goes, and a high aim. It were much if a periodical could be kept open, not to accomplish any outward object, but merely to afford an avenue for what of liberal and calm thought might be originated among us, by the wants of individual minds."
"Mr. Emerson best knows what he wants; but he has already said it in various ways. Yet this experiment is well worth trying; hearts beat so high, they must be full of something, and here is a way to breathe it out quite freely. It is for dear New England that I want this review. For myself, if I had wished to write a few pages now and then, there were ways and means enough of disposing of them. But in truth I have not much to say; for since I have had leisure to look at myself, I find that, so far from being an original genius, I have not yet learned to think to any depth, and that the utmost I have done in life has been to form my character to a certain consistency, cultivate my tastes, and learn to tell the truth with a little better grace than I did at first. For this the world will not care much, so I shall hazard a few critical remarks only, or an unpretending chalk sketch now and then till I have learned to do something. There will be beautiful poesies; about prose we know not yet so well. We shall be the means of publishing the little Charles Emerson left as a mark of his noble course, and, though it lies in fragments, all who read will be gainers."
That these modest anticipations were justified and more, need not be said. The "beautiful poesies" came, and so did the various, eloquent, well-considered prose. The people who expected the whole gospel of Transcendentalism may have been disappointed; for the editor gave the magazine more of a literary than philosophical or reformatory tone. That she looked for from others, and was more than willing to welcome. She had a discerning eye for the evils of the time, and a sincere respect for the men and women who were disposed to counteract them. Another extract from her correspondence at this time--1840--taken, like the former, from the second volume of the memoirs, leaves no doubt on this point. After speaking of "the tendency of circumstances," since the separation from England, "to make our people superficial, irreverent, and more anxious to get a living than to live mentally and morally," she continues:
"New England is now old enough, some there have leisure enough to look at all this, and the consequence is a violent reaction, in a small minority, against a mode of culture that rears such fruits. They see that political freedom does not necessarily produce liberality of mind, nor freedom in church institutions, vital religion; and, seeing that these changes cannot be wrought from without inwards, they are trying to quicken the soul, that they may work from within outwards. Disgusted with the vulgarity of a commercial aristocracy, they become radicals; disgusted with the materialistic working of 'rational' religion they become mystics. They quarrel with all that is because it is not spiritual enough. They would, perhaps, be patient, if they thought this the mere sensuality of childhood in our nation, which it might outgrow; but they think that they see the evil widening, deepening, not only debasing the life, but corrupting the thought of our people; and they feel that if they know not well what should be done, yet that the duty of every good man is to utter a protest against what is done amiss. Is this protest undiscriminating? Are these opinions crude? Do these proceedings threaten to sap the bulwarks on which men at present depend? I confess it all, yet I see in these men promise of a better wisdom than in their opponents. Their hope for man is grounded on his destiny as an immortal soul, and not as a mere comfort-loving inhabitant of earth, or as a subscriber to the social contract. It was not meant that the soul should cultivate the earth, but that the earth should educate and maintain the soul. Man is not made for society, but society is made for man. No institution can be good which does not tend to improve the individual. In these principles I have confidence so profound, that I am not afraid to trust those who hold them, despite their partial views, imperfectly developed characters, and frequent want of practical sagacity. I believe, if they have opportunity to state and discuss their opinions, they will gradually sift them, ascertain their grounds and aims with clearness, and do the work this country needs. I hope for them as for the 'leaven that is hidden in the bushel of meal till all be leavened.' The leaven is not good by itself, neither is the meal; let them combine, and we shall yet have bread."
"Utopia it is impossible to build up; at least, my hopes for the race on this one planet are more limited than those of most of my friends; I accept the limitations of human nature, and believe a wise acknowledgment of them one of the best conditions of progress, yet every noble scheme, every poetic manifestation, prophesies to man his eventual destiny; and were not man ever more sanguine than facts at the moment justify, he would remain torpid, or be sunk in sensuality. It is on this ground that I sympathize with what is called the 'Transcendental Party,' and that I feel their aim to be the true one. They acknowledge in the nature of man an arbiter for his deeds--a standard transcending sense and time--and are, in my view, the true utilitarians. They are but at the beginning of their course, and will, I hope, learn to make use of the past, as well as to aspire for the future, and to be true in the present moment."
Margaret Fuller's power lay in her faith in this spiritual capacity. The confidence began with herself, and was extended to all others, without exception. Mr. Channing says:
"Margaret cherished a trust in her powers, a confidence in her destiny, and an ideal of her being, place and influence, so lofty as to be extravagant. In the morning hour and mountain air of aspiration, her shadow moved before her, of gigantic size, upon the snow-white vapor."
Mr. Clarke says:
"Margaret's life had an aim, and she was, therefore, essentially a moral person, and not merely an overflowing genius, in whom impulse gives birth to impulse, deed to deed. This aim was distinctly apprehended and steadily pursued by her from first to last. It was a high, noble one, wholly religious, almost Christian. It gave dignity to her whole career, and made it heroic.
"This aim, from first to last, was self-culture. If she was ever ambitious of knowledge and talent, as a means of excelling others, and gaining fame, position, admiration--this vanity had passed before I knew her, and was replaced by the profound desire for a full development of her whole nature, by means of a full experience of life."
Speaking of her demands on others, her three biographers agree that they were based on the expectation in them of spiritual excellence:
"One thing only she demanded of all her friends--that they should have some 'extraordinary generous seeking'; that they should not be satisfied with the common routine of life--that they should aspire to something higher, better, holier, than they had now attained. Where this element of aspiration existed, she demanded no originality of intellect, no greatness of soul. If these were found, well; but she could love, tenderly and truly, where they were not.
"She never formed a friendship until she had seen and known this germ of good, and afterwards judged conduct by this. To this germ of good, to this highest law of each individual, she held them true.
"Some of her friends were young, gay, and beautiful; some old, sick, or studious; some were children of the world, others pale scholars; some were witty, others slightly dull; but all, in order to be Margaret's friends, must be capable of seeking something--capable of some aspiration for the better. And how did she glorify life to all! All that was tame and common vanishing away in the picturesque light thrown over the most familiar things by her rapid fancy, her brilliant wit, her sharp insight, her creative imagination, by the inexhaustible resources of her knowledge, and the copious rhetoric, which found words and images always apt and always ready."
"Margaret saw in each of her friends the secret interior capability, which might be hereafter developed into some special beauty or power. By means of this penetrating, this prophetic insight, she gave each to himself, acted on each to draw out his best nature; gave him an ideal, out of which he could draw strength and liberty, hour by hour. Thus her influence was ever ennobling, and each felt that in her society he was truer, wiser, better, and yet more free and happy than elsewhere. The 'dry light,' which Lord Bacon loved, she never knew: her light was life, was love, was warm with sympathy and a boundless energy of affection and hope. Though her love flattered and charmed her friends, it did not spoil them, for they knew her perfect truth; they knew that she loved them, not for what she imagined, but for what she saw, though she saw it only in the germ. But as the Greeks beheld a Persephone and Athene in the passing stranger, and ennobled humanity into ideal beauty, Margaret saw all her friends thus idealized; she was a balloon of sufficient power to take us all up with her into the serene depth of heaven, where she loved to float, far above the low details of earthly life; earth lay beneath us as a lovely picture--its sounds came up mellowed into music."
"Margaret was, to persons younger than herself, a Makaria and Natalia. She was wisdom and intellectual beauty, filling life with a charm and glory 'known to neither sea nor land.' To those of her own age, she was sibyl and seer,--a prophetess, revealing the future, pointing the path, opening their eyes to the great aims only worthy of pursuit in life. To those older than herself, she was like the Euphorion in Goethe's drama, child of Faust and Helen,--a wonderful union of exuberance and judgment, born of romantic fulness and classic limitation. They saw with surprise her clear good sense, balancing her flow of sentiment and ardent courage. They saw her comprehension of both sides of every question, and gave her their confidence, as to one of equal age, because of so ripe a judgment."
"An interview with her was a joyous event; worthy men and women who had conversed with her, could not forget her, but worked bravely on in the remembrance that this heroic approver had recognized their aims. She spoke so earnestly, that the depth of the sentiment prevailed, and not the accidental expression, which might chance to be common. Thus I learned the other day, that in a copy of Mrs. Jameson's 'Italian Painters,' against a passage describing Coreggio as a true servant of God in his art, above sordid ambition, devoted to truth, 'one of those superior beings of whom there are so few'; Margaret wrote on the margin: 'And yet all might be such.' The book lay long on the table of the owner, in Florence, and chanced to be read there by an artist of much talent. 'These words' said he, months afterwards, 'struck out a new strength in me. They revived resolutions long fallen away, and made me set my face like a flint.'"
"'Yes, my life is strange'; she said, 'thine is strange. We are, we shall be, in this life, mutilated beings, but there is in my bosom a faith, that I shall see the reason; a glory, that I can endure to be so imperfect; and a feeling, ever elastic, that fate and time shall have the shame and the blame, if I am mutilated. I will do all I can,--and if one cannot succeed, there is a beauty in martyrdom.'"
"'Would not genius be common as light if men trusted their higher selves?'"
"She won the confidence and affection of those who attracted her, by unbounded sympathy and trust. She probably knew the cherished secrets of more hearts than any one else, because she freely imparted her own. With a full share both of intellectual and of family pride, she preëminently recognized and responded to the essential brotherhood of all human kind, and needed but to know that a fellow being required her counsel or assistance, to render her not merely willing, but eager to impart it. Loving ease, luxury, and the world's good opinion, she stood ready to renounce them all, at the call of pity or of duty. I think no one, not radically averse to the whole system of domestic servitude, would have treated servants, of whatever class, with such uniform and thoughtful consideration--a regard which wholly merged their factitious condition in their antecedent and permanent humanity. I think few servants ever lived weeks with her, who were not dignified and lastingly benefited by her influence and her counsels. They might be at first repelled, by what seemed her too stately manner and exacting disposition, but they soon learned to esteem and love her.
"I have known few women, and scarcely another maiden, who had the heart and the courage to speak with such frank compassion, in mixed circles, of the most degraded and outcast portion of the sex. The contemplation of their treatment, especially by the guilty authors of their ruin, moved her to a calm and mournful indignation, which she did not attempt to suppress nor control. Others were willing to pity and deplore; Margaret was more inclined to vindicate and to redeem.
"'In the chamber of death,' she wrote, 'I prayed in very early years: "Give me truth; cheat me by no illusion." O, the granting of this prayer is sometimes terrible to me! I walk over burning ploughshares, and they sear my feet; yet nothing but truth will do; no love will serve that is not eternal, and as large as the universe; no philanthropy, in executing whose behests I myself become unhealthy; no creative genius which bursts asunder my life, to leave it a poor black chrysalid behind; and yet this last is too true of me.'"
Margaret Fuller did justice to the character of Fourier, admired his enthusiasm, honored his devotion, acknowledged the terrible nature of the evils he gave the study of a life-time to correct, and paid an unstinting tribute to the disinterested motives that impelled him; but with his scheme for refashioning society she had no sympathy. William H. Channing was an intimate friend, whose sincerity had her deepest respect, whose enthusiasm won her cordial admiration; she listened to his brilliant expositions of socialism, but was not persuaded. Practical difficulties always appeared, and she never could believe that any rearrangement of circumstances would effect the regeneration of mankind. She was acquainted from the first with the experiment of Brook Farm; knew the founders of it; watched with genuine solicitude the inauguration of the scheme and its fortunes; talked over the principles and details of it with the leading spirits; visited the community; examined for herself the working of the plan; gave her talent to the entertainment and edification of the associates; discerned with clear eye the distinctions between this experiment and those of European origin; but still questioned the practical wisdom of the institution, and declined to join the fraternity, even on the most flattering terms, for the reason that, interested as she was in the experiment, it was, in her judgment, too purely an experiment to be personally and practically sanctioned by one who had no more faith in its fundamental principles than she.
She was not to be thrown off from her essential position, the primacy and all sufficiency of the soul. No misery or guilt daunted her, no impatience at slowness tempted her to resort to artificial methods of cure. Her visit to Sing Sing, and her intercourse with the abandoned women there was exceedingly interesting in this view.
"'They listened with earnest attention, and many were moved to tears. I never felt such sympathy with an audience as when, at the words "Men and Brethren," that sea of faces, marked with the scars of every ill, were upturned, and the shell of brutality burst apart at the touch of love. I knew that at least heavenly truth would not be kept out by self complacence and dependence on good appearances. . . . These women were among the so-called worst, and all from the lowest haunts of vice. Yet nothing could have been more decorous than their conduct, while it was also frank; and they showed a sensibility and sense of propriety which would not have disgraced any society.'"
"She did not hesitate to avow that, on meeting some of these abused, unhappy sisters, she had been surprised to find them scarcely fallen morally below the ordinary standard of womanhood,--realizing and loathing their debasement; anxious to escape it; and only repelled by the sad consciousness that for them sympathy and society remained only so long as they should persist in the ways of pollution."
Margaret Fuller's loyalty to principles was proof against bad taste; which is saying a good deal, for many a reformer is of opinion that blunders are worse than crimes, and that vulgarity is more offensive than wickedness. She found the Fourierites in Europe terribly wearisome, and yet did not forget that they served the great future which neither they nor she would live to see. At home she could not endure the Abolitionists--"they were so tedious, often so narrow, always so rabid and exaggerated in their tone. But, after all, they had a high motive, something eternal in their desire and life; and if it was not the only thing worth thinking of, it was really something worth living and dying for, to free a great nation from such a blot, such a plague." In Europe she was disgusted at hearing Americans urging the same arguments against the freedom of the Italians that they urged at home against the emancipation of the blacks; the same arguments in favor of the spoliation of Poland that they used at home in favor of the conquest of Mexico. With her, principles were independent of time and place. She always believed in liberty as a condition of enlightenment, and in enlightenment as a condition of progress. This practical faith in the intellectual and moral nature is the key to all her work. Every chamber that opened she entered and occupied, fearless of ghosts and goblins. The chambers that opened not she was content to leave unopened altogether.
On the table where the writer pens this poor tribute to a most remarkable woman, are the bulky volumes of her unpublished letters and diaries, revealing some things too personal for the public eye, but nothing in the least incongruous with the best things recorded by her biographers and suggested here; and how much they tell that illustrates and confirms the moral nobleness and sweetness of her nature. They contain a psychometric examination from two letters, given after the manner familiar to those interested in such things, by one of the chief of these spiritual vaticinators. We shall not transcribe it, for it is long and indistinct. The indistinctness is the one interesting feature of the sketch. The sensitive reporter confessed herself put out by the singular commingling of moods and dispositions, and seemed to be describing several persons in one. But through them all the same general impression was clear; the impression of a fascinating, lovable, earnest and lofty spirit, which, whether sad or gay, intellectual or sentimental, bore itself like a queenly woman.
When the news of her death reached Boston, one of Boston's eminent men in letters and public affairs quietly remarked: "it is just as well so." He was thinking of the agitation she might cause by her brilliant conversations and her lightning pen, if she brought back from her Italian heroisms the high spirit of liberty. The times were growing dark in America. The Slave Power was drawing its lines closer about the citadel of freedom. The brave voices were few and fewer; the conservatives were glad when one was hushed by death. The movement she had encouraged was waning. The high enthusiasm was smouldering in breasts that anticipated the battle which came ten years later. The period of poetic aspiration and joy was ended, and the priestess, had she survived, would have found a deserted shrine.
No accessible portrait of Margaret Fuller exists, that worthily presents her. Thomas Hicks painted a likeness, of cabinet size, in Rome, which her friends approved. The daguerreotype was too painfully literal to be just; the sun having no sentiment or imagination in his eye. She was not beautiful in youth, nor was she one of those who gain beauty with years. Her physical attractions were of the kind that time impairs soon, and though she died at forty, her personal charm was gone. Intellect gave her what beauty she had, and they saw it who saw her intellect at play. Her image, therefore, is best preserved in the memory of her friends. They cannot put it on exhibition.