Margaret Fuller (from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography)

In Margaret Fuller’s Memoirs there is a letter which she declared she sent to me, after copying it into her common-place book. It is a condemnatory criticism of my, “Society in America” and her condemnation is grounded on its being what she called “an abolition book.” I remember having a letter from her; and one which I considered unworthy of her and of the occasion, from her regarding the antislavery subject as simply a low and disagreeable one, which should be left to unrefined persons to manage while others were occupied with higher things: but I do not think that the letter I received was the one which stands in her common-place book. I wish that she had mentioned it to me when my guest some years afterwards, or that my reply had appeared with her criticism. However, her letter, taken as it stands, shows exactly the difference between us. She who witnessed and aided the struggles of the oppressed in Italy must have become before her death better aware than when she wrote that letter that the struggle for the personal liberty of millions in her native republic ought to have had more of her sympathy, and none of the discouragement which she haughtily and complacently cast upon the cause. 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 Göthe, and fancying themselves the elect of the earth 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. All that is settled now. It was over years before Margaret died. I mention it now to show, by an example already made public by Margaret herself, what the difference was between me and her, and those who followed her lead. This difference grew up mainly after my return from America. We were there intimate friends; and I am disposed to consider that period the best of her life, except the short one which intervened between her finding her real self and her death. She told me what danger she had been in from the training her father had given her, and the encouragement to pedantry and rudeness which she derived from the circumstances of her youth. She told me that she was at nineteen the most intolerable girl that ever took a seat in a drawing-room. Her admirable candour, the philosophical way in which she took herself in hand, her genuine heart, her practical insight, and, no doubt, the natural influence of her attachment to myself, endeared her to me, while her powers, and her confidence in the use of them, led me to expect great things from her. We both hoped that she might go to Europe when I returned, with some friends of hers who would have been happy to take her: but her father’s death, and the family circumstances rendered her going out of the question. I introduced her to the special care of R. Waldo Emerson and his wife: and I remember what Emerson said in wise and gentle rebuke of my lamentations for Margaret that she could not go to Europe, as she was chafing to do, for purposes of self-improvement. “Does Margaret Fuller — supposing her to be what you say, — believe her progress to be dependent on whether she is here or there?” I accepted the lesson, and hoped the best. How it might have been with her if she had come to Europe in 1836, I have often speculated. As it was, her life in Boston was little short of destructive. I need but refer to the memoir of her. In the most pedantic age of society in her own country, and in its most pedantic city, she who was just beginning to rise out of pedantic habits of thought and speech relapsed most grievously. She was not only completely spoiled in conversation and manners: she made false estimates of the objects and interests of human life. She was not content with pursuing, and inducing others to pursue, a metaphysical idealism destructive of all genuine feeling and sound activity: she mocked at objects and efforts of a higher order than her own and despised those who, like myself, could not adopt her scale of valuation. All this might have been spared, a world of mischief saved, and a world of good effected, if she had found her heart a dozen years sooner, and in America instead of Italy. It is the most grievous loss I have almost ever known in private history, — the deferring of Margaret Fuller’s married life so long. The noble last period of her life is happily, on record as well as the earlier. My friendship with her was in the interval between her first and second stages of pedantry and forwardness: and I saw her again under all the disadvantages of the confirmed bad manners and self-delusions which she brought from home. The ensuing period redeemed all; and I regard her American life as a reflexion more useful than agreeable, of· the prevalent social spirit of her time and place; and the Italian life as the true revelation of the tender and high-souled woman, who had till then been as curiously concealed from herself as from others.

If eccentricities like Margaret Fuller’s, essentially sound as she was in heart and mind, could arise in American society, and not impair her influence or be a spectacle to the community, it will be inferred that eccentricity is probably rife in the United States. I certainly thought it was, in spite (or perhaps in consequence) of the excessive caution which is prevalent there in regard to the opinion of neighbours and society. It takes weeks or months for an English person to admit the conception of American caution, as a habit, and yet more as a spring of action: and the freedom which we English enjoy in our personal lives and intercourses must find an equivalent in Americans somehow or other. Their eccentricities are, accordingly, monstrous and frequent and various to a degree incredible to sober English people like myself and my companion. The worst of it is, there seem to be always mad people, more or fewer, who are in waiting to pounce upon foreigners of any sort of distinction, as soon as they land, while others go mad, or show their madness, from point to point along theroute. Something of the same sort happens elsewhere. A Queen, or a Prime Minister’s secretary may be shot at in London, as we know; and probably there is no person eminent in literature or otherwise who has not been the object of some infirm brain or another. But in America the evil is sadly common. The first instance I encountered there was of a gentleman from the West who foretold my arrival in his country, and the time of it, before I had any notion of going, and who announced a new revelation which I was to aid in promulgating; and this incident startled and dismayed me considerably. I am not going into the history of the freaks of insanity in that case or any other. Suffice it that, in any true history of a life, this liability must be set down as one condition of literary or other reputation. The case of the poor, “High Priest” at Philadelphia was not the only one with which I was troubled in America; and I have met with others at home, both in London and since I lived at Ambleside.

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Margaret Fuller, who had been, in spite of certain mutual repulsions, an intimate acquaintance of mine in America, came to Ambleside while Professor and Mrs. Gregory and other friends were pursuing the investigations I have referred to. I gave her, and the excellent friends with whom she was travelling, the best welcome I could. My house was full: but I got lodgings for them, made them welcome as guests, and planned excursions for them. Her companions evidently themselves; and Margaret Fuller as evidently did not, except when she could harangue the drawing-room party, without the interruption of any other voice within its precincts. There were other persons present, at least as eminent as herself, to whom we wished to listen; but we were willing that all should have their turn: and I am sure I met her with every desire for friendly intercourse. She presently left off conversing with me, however; while I, as hostess, had to see that my other guests were entertained, according to their various tastes. During our excursion in Langdale, she scarcely spoke to any body; and not at all to me; and when we afterwards met in London, when I was setting off for the East, she treated me with the contemptuous benevolence which it was her wont to bestow on common-place people. I was therefore not surprised when I became acquainted, presently after, with her own account of the matter. She told her friends that she had been bitterly disappointed in me. It had been a great object with her to see me, after my recovery by mesmerism, to enjoy the exaltation and spiritual development which she concluded I must have derived from my excursions in the spiritual world: but she had found me in no way altered by it; no one could have discovered that I had been mesmerised at all; and I was so thoroughly common-place that she had no pleasure in intercourse with me. — This was a very welcome confirmation of my hope that I had, under Mr. Atkinson’s wise care, come back nearly unharmed from the land of dreams; and this more than compensated for the unpleasantness of disappointing the hopes of one whom I cordially respected for many fine qualities, intellectual and moral, while I could not pretend to find her mind unspoiled and her manners agreeable. She was then unconsciously approaching the hour of that remarkable regeneration which transformed her from the dreaming and haughty pedant into the true woman. In a few months more, she had loved and married; and how interesting and beautiful was the closing period of her life, when husband and child concentrated the powers and affections which had so long run to waste in intellectual and moral eccentricity, the concluding period of her memoirs has shown to us all. Meantime, the most acceptable verdict that she could pronounce upon me in my own function of housekeeper and hostess, while the medical world was hoping to hear of my insanity, was that I was “common-place.”

— Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography,
with Memorials by Maria Weston Chapman
(London: Smith, Elder, 1877)