Margaret Fuller in a New Aspect

AN interesting little book — interesting for what it suggests rather than for what it is — has been published under the title Margaret and her Friends.1 Fifty years ago no explanation as to just which Margaret was meant would have been required, but to-day it is only the special student of American letters who will at once make out that it refers to the Margaret of the Transcendental circle, Margaret Fuller, the friend and inspiration of those who made the period between 1830 and 1860 famous.

The book is a report from stenographic notes of a series of Conversations inaugurated by Margaret Fuller in 1839. The original plan was to confine the membership to ladies, but the fame of the undertaking became so great that a mixed class was organized, and met at the house of the Reverend George Ripley in Boston. The subject chosen was mythology in its symbolical aspect. There seems to have been no attempt at serious study, probably because it would have been opposed to the purely conversational spirit of the meetings. The names of nearly all those who took part in the discussions are familiar to us as shining lights in the literature of the period ; Emerson, Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, Jones Very, and William W. Story were among the number.

Accepting as verbatim the notes of Mrs. Dall, who was one of the original members, it must be confessed they offer no solution in themselves to the mystery of Margaret Fuller’s charm, nor do they show any ground for her reputation for wit and learning. Indeed, if these notes were the only evidence of her intellectual ability, the conclusion would be forced upon us that the influence of this remarkable woman was purely physical; that her personality was of a nature so potent that she obliged people to regard her exactly as she wished them to regard her. But fortunately other evidence is in existence, and from her letters, journals, and reviews it is apparent that while her ability as a writer has been overrated, she possessed exceptional attainments, the most varied sympathies, and the deepest culture. Yet her power over those with whom she came in contact is a most important factor in any estimate of her genius, for the reason that in it is to be found an explanation of the many inconsistencies in her nature which so puzzled her friends and rejoiced her enemies.

Taken in connection with the various memoirs and letters of Margaret Fuller which have been given to the public, Mrs. Dall’s report becomes of value because of the data it unconsciously affords for a new interpretation of her character, and for the insight it gives into the life of that unique period in the history of this country — into that well-marked case of sociological atavism — when the reflective spirit was for the time being so completely in the ascendant that “ a woman whose powers and accomplishments found their best and most adequate channel in her conversation ” could achieve almost a national reputation. In order to appreciate the fact that in these arranged conversations is to be observed the clearest manifestation of Margaret Fuller’s power over the minds of those with whom she was associated, — of, in short, her possession of a wonderful dramatic gift, — it is first essential to have fresh in mind the peculiar psychologic history of this gifted and impassioned woman, an exotic sprung from Puritan soil.

It will be remembered that she was an exceptionally precocious child, early skilled in Latin and abstruse subjects; a creature of whimsies, of nightmares and terrors untold, and to the end of her life a believer in signs, omens, daemonology, and the fateful power of gems, — all the result of a vicious system of education, the lack of playmates and a natural child’s life.

Dowered with an exuberant emotional nature and a lively imagination, she found in her Own mind the companionship she craved, and made herself the centre of her little world. As the fancies of more fortunate children, bred on fairy lore, are cast in the fairy mould, so Margaret Fuller, whose acquaintance with works of the imagination was confined to the early dramatists, patterned hers after the heroic world of Shakespeare and Molière. In time she evidently came to regard herself as a combination of many such individualities, to whom in turn she referred the opinions of her other selves.

Toward the few children of her own age who came under her notice her precocity created in her a feeling of intellectual superiority, to which was joined an inordinate curiosity as to the workings of other minds. This trait in afterlife, under the guise of sympathy, came to be one of her greatest charms.

At the school where, at the age of fifteen, she was finally sent, an unfortunate experience with the merciless quality of youthful criticism still further increased the tendency of her mind to introspection and self-consciousness. In her story Mariane, which is a thinly veiled autobiography, she tells us that one of her favorite diversions at this time was to spin like a dancing dervish until the onlookers were giddy, then overwhelm them with improvisations, declamations, and whole plays, in which she sustained each character in turn. When her inspiration flagged she would spin again, and wind up, as it were, her imagination for fresh flights.

During her stay at this school some theatricals were arranged, in which Margaret took part. She found herself at once in her native element, and for days she continued to personate, as far as she was able, the character which she had taken in the play.

Years afterward, Horace Greeley, writing of her, said: “ She possessed marvelous powers of observation and imitation or mimicry, and had she been attracted to the stage would have been the first actress America has produced, whether in tragedy or comedy.” Channing, in his Memoir, also speaks of her great ability in this direction, and her assured success had her lot been cast in a time and country congenial to the tragic muse. But the traditions of the society in which she lived were in every way antipathetic to such a development. Consequently Margaret Fuller’s dramatic genius spent itself in a vain and wasted effort to find in real life the ideal characters which it required for its satisfaction. In her women friends she sought the passion or the tenderness of a Lady Macbeth or a Juliet; in her men friends, the emotional force, the power, or the will of a Hamlet, a Cæsar, or a Coriolanus.

It was, however, in Goethe that she came nearest to finding satisfaction for her longings for the ideal character. “ The effect on Margaret was complete,” writes Emerson. . . . “ She found in him the same climate of mind ; . . . the religion, the science, the Catholicism, the worship of art, the mysticism and dæmonology, and withal the recognition of moral distinctions as final and eternal. ... It was very obvious at the first intercourse with her . . . that this mind had been her teacher, and of course the place was filled, nor was there room for any other.”

As she had from time to time taken on in like manner the nature of all those beings, whether real or imaginary, who appealed to her understanding or her fancy, so she became by natural affinity Goethe and his creations.

By this long road do we arrive at the origin of the series of Conversations which Margaret Fuller inaugurated and led in 1839. In the same year she translated and published The Conversations of Goethe. As the one legitimate expression of her great dramatic gift lay in conversation, and as it was an instinct of her mind to absorb the personality of those who interested her, therefore it was but the natural working of a lifelong habitude that she also should hold Conversations, — that, in fact, she should play at being Goethe, showering down upon less favored mortals the wonderful God-given gifts of eloquence and wisdom. The testimony of all those who assisted at these circles bears out this conclusion. Many referred to her sumptuous appearance, — when in fact she wore her usual gown, —to her inspired looks, her power over the mind and imagination of those who listened to her. “ Her mood applied itself to the mood of her companions in the most vital, sinuous way, and drew out the most extraordinary narratives. . . . Ah! she applied herself to the mood of her companions like a sponge to water.”

This is not the record of sober participants in an “ improving ” conversation, but the testimony of men and women forced under the spell of a great histrionic genius to take part, willy-nilly, in the curious subjective drama improvised for the occasion.

It is not for us to pity a nature so brilliant, so gifted, and so strong ; yet that, from the first, it was hampered and perverted from its true development may command a sentiment which has in it no such humiliating element. She had indeed reason to write to a friend in 1838, — a significant date in this regard, as showing how deeply rooted had become her habit of assuming a personality not her own, before the Conversations were projected : “ I take my natural position always ; and the more I see, the more I feel that it is regal. Without throne, sceptre, or guards, still a queen ! ”

The vague and unsatisfactory title of Mrs. Dall’s book turns out also to be a bit of driftwood from that far-off Utopia. Emerson tells us that it was the title originally intended for The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller d’Ossoli, edited by him in conjunction with William Henry Charming and James Freeman Clarke. The title was rejected for reasons which Mrs. Dall, at least, does not find sufficiently obvious. Bald as it is, this report of the Conversations remains a document which must increase in interest as time goes on, when posterity has relieved Puritan Margaret Fuller from her false position as a Transcendental “ bluestocking,” and ranked her among the list of brilliant women who have swayed their little world by the power of their individuality.

  1. Margaret and her Friends, or Conversations with Margaret Fuller. Reported by CAROLINE W. HEALY (Mrs. Dall). Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1895.