The part of my life I am now going to relate was a serious one, though too active for much melancholy and not uncheckered by merry hours. What is pleasant to look back upon is more fresh in my memory than trials which have not been pleasant enough to be often recalled. Only those shadowy passages which have done a good work in moulding my character have been gratefully kept in remembrance. My youthful course has been more diversified by ups and downs, and I have become as I have advanced happier and have attained a better equilibrium. My childhood was indeed blest with rare and precious friends who have now gone to the better country; but the seed they sowed in me — at least some of it — is now in flower or fruit; and what their absence takes from the present it lends to the attractiveness of that future toward which my passing years are rapidly hastening. After Father’s death Mother sadly but resolutely applied herself to the dairy and the economies of a farmer’s household. Margaret regularly instructed the younger children. Arthur was bright and Ellen was diligent, but I was rather slow of apprehension. Margaret tried to stimulate us to a noble ambition. In the study of history she would dwell upon what was excellent in distinguished characters, and try to incite us to emulation. I was deliberate in my judgment and not impressible. I remember discouraging her after one of her historical talks in which she urged us to be ambitious of attaining what was really valuable in life by remarking that I would never be ambitious. Caesar was ambitious, and I knew it was not right. She despaired at that time of enlightening my slow as well as obstinate understanding and left me to my obscure fate! Herself of great quickness and astonishing rapidity in the acquisition of knowledge, dullness on the part of her pupils wounded her sensibilities more, I really believe, than acts of unkindness could have done. I put her to the torture, but she controlled her nerves, and thus she really gained as well as imparted, for she received from us a discipline to her patience in return for the learning which she could only slowly impart. Arthur, though quick, was at this period of his life very active in the region of fancy, and air castles were more attractive to him than the solid structures of history, mathematics, etymology, and grammar could be. So on the whole we were by no means superior scholars, and being the first Margaret taught she measured us principally by her own achievements. She could not conceal from us, even if she tried, that our progress was unpromising and unsatisfactory. She openly reproached me with mediocrity of understanding; and she found this, like a goad with a sluggish animal, more effectual than the inducements of ambition that she had held before me to lure me on. This “mediocrity” always troubled me, and I could not forget it till, years afterward, I induced her to reconsider and mitigate the sentence. When we recited we had certain nervous ways of twitching about which annoyed her inexpressibly. I laughingly remember a habit of incessant movement of the hands, as if catching at succor, in our recitations when we were drowning in the deep places of Virgil. It was absolutely impossible for us to think of our hands and keep them still while agonized with classical difficulties and trembling in dread of the doom of a bad recitation. Sometimes our bright answers in geography or history made her laugh outright. She preferred to laugh rather than weep, which was her only alternative. Some of these responses she recorded at the end of the geography textbook. I have in mind one passage which may still be seen by anyone who can obtain access to that book: “Richard, being asked where Turkey in Asia was, replied that it was in Europe!”
I remember that as Margaret was packing for her Providence school I expressed my thanks to her for her faithful teaching. She replied pleasantly that she hoped it had done us some good in the way of learning how to study, though she did not suppose we remembered much of the textbooks. I endeavored to give her a more encouraging view on the last point by repeating a good deal of grammar to her. She expressed herself thankful that I remembered so much. This was like Father’s “praise,” and agreeably perpetuated that little interview in my recollection.
We employed at this time a young man whose portrait ought to be introduced here. He was overgrown and muscular, and had a certain heavy gait which induced Arthur to call him” the elephant,” by which name we boys always spoke of, not to, him. Margaret’s literary superiority exerted a certain dazzling influence over him, and he conceived the ambition — not to obtain her moral excellence, to which he never aspired, nor her discipline of thought, of which he had no conception, nor even her deep erudition — but only to imitate her power of language. The result was, of course, to acquire — so far as he gained any thing — only a pompous verbosity and pretentious style. He would read Scott’s Napoleon and mark all the long words he found. Then he would write, and, looking for these words, weave them together in his manuscript. One production which he concocted in this way he placed in Margaret’s hands and asked her to show it to her friends and ask them what they thought of it. Margaret accordingly showed it to Mrs. Farrar who was then engaged in her book on letter-writing, where this letter, with a little disguise of names, afterwards appeared in print — not indeed as a model for imitation but as a striking specimen of shoals to be avoided. As the elephant had not consciously embodied any joke in the epistle, we think that his sagacity would have been sadly puzzled by the peals of laughter and the tumult of applause with which the ladies frequently interrupted its perusal. I can remember something of it, running thus: “Dear Mother: My pen, which has long lain in idleness, has at length resumed its original important task. This will arrive in time to inform you that I have been and still am at work upon Mrs. Fuller’s farm. Were I called upon to demonstrate in behalf of my eyes, I should say they were poor, etc.” “Dear Mother” on receipt of this letter must have been afflicted by the learning as well as affectionate remembrance of her promising offspring.
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Margaret’s rule was to study winters, and to spend the summers mainly in outdoor life. She thought this accorded with the plan of Providence. When we studied it was less work than farm labor. I desired particularly to eschew Greek, which I declared was a dead, useless language, and nothing but a weariness to the flesh. Other friends were not strenuous, but Margaret would not allow the point to be yielded to me. She was equally firm, too, in inducing Mother to refuse the offer of a farming relative of considerable property and no children to adopt me as heir and make me a farmer. My special disgust for Latin grammar made me urge the acceptance. How grateful I have since been to this good sister as I have enjoyed the delights of an enlarged education, and felt that I had acquired treasures which would be precious even in eternity instead of spending my strength in what Carlyle describes with disdain as “making a little earth greener.”
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Debating clubs were a valuable aid to me at college in cultivating both thought and expression. A greater aid was the society of my beloved family. During my last two years in college Margaret rented a house on Ellery street, Dana Hill, Cambridge, and Mother also made the house bright with her presence. Margaret’s society was very valuable — or rather, it was invaluable — to me. Independently of the family tie which she never disregarded, the kindest friendship subsisted between us. This mode of speech implies that I was not solely the beneficiary; that I conferred as well as received. This was true. With all her intellect and all its rich stores she could not dwell on the isolated heights of the mind alone. Her heart was equally large, and craved friendship with a yearning which would not yield to intellectual ambition. She depended on the reciprocal sentiment of those she loved. She was at least once cruelly disappointed in friendship. I was the witness as well as the confidant of what she suffered. Her heart had gone out for years to some lady friends of beautiful artistic taste and rare culture. But this did not prevent them from being selfish in their intellectual beauty, and the scanty current ran icily through their shrunken hearts. Some signal illustration of this cold selfishness brought it into sudden light and shocked and repelled Margaret’s friendship. Her heart had become so much knit to them that it was a long and cruel work to disengage her affection. She endured the trial with fortitude, but she told me she should make no such costly friendships; they could not satisfy her heart. Her large requirements demanded a better, even a heavenly, friend; and He afterwards vouchsafed her a heart’s fullness even of earthly affection in a noble husband and a darling child.
The characteristic of Margaret just referred to made her seek my friendship quite as much, and in the beginning even more, than I did hers. Her distinction and consideration among those about her did not dazzle nor even attract my eye, for my disposition was obstinately op- posed to following others in their admiration unless my own judgment led me to it. I overheard a conversation between her and a friend visiting the house in which the latter remarked that my manner did not indicate that regard for my sister which so many others felt. Margaret replied that I should do her justice in the sequel, and she added a favorable opinion of me which I well remember. A magnanimity like this, which dispensed its regard without exacting a return, was peculiarly winning. A friendship grew up of which I retain delightful memories. Margaret was confidential, and she led others to be so. In her society the heart spoke as it hardly did even in secret and solitary meditation, and the mind developed in consciousness fair surprises of thought. She could not bear the distances of conventualism, nor those walls which we build around ourselves insulating ourselves from God and man. I have never known other conversation like hers either in degree or kind. It was not merely that it was superior; it was of a different type from other discourse. The mind soared, the heart expanded, the cheek glowed, and the eye was filled with light. Invigorating mountain air may affect the body as her conversation did the soul. She did not so much display herself as ourselves in her inspiring discourse, while the influence of her mind fell on us like genial sunlight, quickened a conscious joy and life which in itself half forgets the luminary to which it is indebted. The thought in leaving her company was much less” How remarkable she is! “than” How remarkable I am!” I had no idea my mind had such powers, my tongue such eloquence, and my heart such ardor! But when afterwards, in solitude, our thoughts were dispersed, disconnected, and ineffectual, or when conversation in ordinary life seemed like miserable degradation compared to hers, then we said to our- selves, “Margaret must have a magnetic power, and a certain elevation in discourse, more akin to a better world than to this.” She had, to be sure, great eloquence and unrivalled words; but these powers were so much less than the effect she wrought with them that they attracted little comparative notice. They were too perfect to permit us to escape their influence sufficiently to be spectators and admirers of their working. Much as I am willing to concede to her power of discussion, developed by very great culture in many languages and varied schools of thought, I yet believe she had superadded a greater power than these -love of truth. It was the latter more than the former that wrought her wonders in conversation, and that makes her to be spoken of as remarkable beyond any talker in remembrance. She believed in the truth and was sincere. She spoke directly to the heart and the interior consciousness, with no devotion to the idolatries of custom either in thought or life. Every mind was thus enabled in her society to throw off the shackles of habit and the long prejudice of years and to rise for the time to the true godlike stature of man and breathe the better natal air of the soul. There was religion in this; for Margaret was eminently religious. Her life was in exalted and eternal things while she walked upon the earth, and she reached out a hand to lead us in discourse to that elevation where her thought habitually dwelt.
I had the help of Margaret’s rare critical powers in all my studies. She pointed out the merits and demerits and the relative place of each writer in the great structure of literature. I was thoroughly satisfied with her reasoning and its results respecting books, and might have rested in her opinions with perfect confidence had she not habitually stimulated me to test them by my own thought. Since I have lost her society I have found her critical writings doubly precious, not only as furnishing a complete and impartial view of favorite authors and keeping their characters and works fresh in mind, but as recalling those genial hours when she introduced me to the classic friendship of great and good books. It is with pleasure and admiration of her kindness that I recall the sacrifices she made to put me in the path of the beautiful and good. Her literary efforts, especially the “conversations” which she conducted in Boston, produced almost invariably torturing headaches in which her nervous agony was so great that she could not always refrain from screaming; yet she could not remit these efforts without giving up a home for Mother and me, and she bravely endured them. She would besides stint herself to give me tickets to concerts of Beethoven’s Symphonies, which she regarded as very elevating. I accepted the tickets: nor can I think it too chivalrously generous in her to bestow, or unsuitable for me to receive at her hands an entertainment which could not but have a lasting influence on my character. She would sometimes give me a very favorite book, though depriving herself of it by the means; and there could have been no more expressive token of her sisterly regard. She did not bestow books that she had done with or found very dispensable; but only such as she loved as her own benefactors would she deign to give. I remember once when I was discussing a present I was proposing to make and declared my purpose to have it costly of its kind she expressed approbation, and said if the thing were done it should be done handsomely and well, though of course not out of proportion to the occasion or my circumstances. One book she gave me was Elizabeth Barrett’s poems, which were very dear to her. She accompanied the gift by saying she was glad she could believe me worthy of the book. She knew I should read it and reverence it as her book, which she had well read, and now bestowed because not able to buy a new one. She particularly spoke at that time of the poem called “The Swan’s Nest.” How much I have loved Mrs. Browning’s poetry since, not only for its benefit to me but for what it did for Margaret. She spoke to me of Mrs. Browning with love and reverence, and she seemed especially pleased when an author she admired was a woman. She often pointed out to me intellectual and moral excellencies of her sex, and trained me to a respect for women as the equal of man which I have never lost. Books which she did not think it necessary to give she would place in my hands as tenant-in-common with her, and speak of leaving them to me when she should be no more. Thus she did with Shakspeare, a fine edition which her Providence scholars had presented to her and Wordsworth, made precious by her marks of emphatic approbation. These books I now have. Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats she also sought to interest me in. The first in his beauty was too disordered for my ap- probation. I admired a good deal of Coleridge, though I thought him sometimes needlessly subtle and occasionally bordering on the garrulous. She had a lady relative of Keats as one of her pupils — a girl who possessed the splendid eyes of the poet, and resembled the likeness in the frontispiece of his poems. The moral element transfused Margaret’s whole character. Brilliancy, success, achievement had yet one test which they must undergo before admission within the pale of her approbation: were they noble in their purpose, character and aim? With-out a moral grandeur which conforms the human to the divine, many things and many people esteemed great among men were in her view pitiably small. All the energies of her life were bent to a high aim, and she wished others to form and follow out a noble purpose in life. Candor distinguished her intercourse, and the sincere words of truth were always to be expected from her undissembling lips. It was on this account that the self-deceived who avoided the searching of their hearts did not find themselves pleasantly or comfortably situated in Margaret’s society. To her own family she was as frank as affectionate. She told me that I was selfish in the then state of my development: but she hoped and believed that bye and bye I should attain true disinterestedness. This reproach struck me with surprise; I did not think of being indignant at what she said. I endeavored to try my heart; but I found it hard to realize that the criticism was just. I have since acknowledged it to be so.
Margaret herself had indeed a disinterestedness which indeed made the greatness of her character. When she was in Europe a person here whom I considered as troublesome and who had no claims upon her precious time wished me to request her to select some engravings for him. I communicated the message, at the same time writing that I hoped she would not trouble herself about it. In her answer she gently reproved me for want of interest in this person’s project, and reminded me that “mankind is one.” This maxim was her watchword and formed the key to her life. The grand interests of mankind were the theme of her constant study and thought. She was intimate with current events, made herself familiar with her own and past times and sought out the laws of man’s development as a social being. She was an ardent patriot, and often sought to rouse me to a just appreciation of my privileges in this free, expansive country and my corresponding duties. But no narrower tie than universal brotherhood could limit her interest in the welfare of her race. There was and still is a band of generous hearts fired with the same noble sentiment. I cannot tell whether this common flame has been communicated from one to the other, or fallen like the fire of Pentecost directly from heaven. Dr. Channing’s nobleness of devotion not only to the first and great commandment but to the second, which is like it, has seemed to me so strictly akin to hers that I cannot tell how much he may have influenced her. She often spoke of him. In his college life he had resided on Dana Hill, which was traversed by Ellery street, and Margaret pointed out to me the spot where in retirement “the great doctor,” as she called him, had first settled in his mind that view of the noble capacity and possible destiny of every individual man which afterward prompted the efforts of his useful life. I had many pleasant walks with Margaret in Cambridge. A grove on the river side, where the Cambridge cemetery is now located, was a favorite resort with us. Here I shared the sisterly confidence of one who I knew was bound to the whole human family with that same kindred feeling and tender benevolence which rendered her useful to me. On this account regarding her as everybody’s sister I have spoken of her here more warmly and fully than might otherwise have been prudent. What I say, however, can do very little justice to her merits. I have met no one in life who had her inspiring influence on me and on others. I do not expect the like again in the narrow and conventional limits of our social state.
With regard to Margaret’s personal appearance I did not share the opinion which has been occasionally expressed, and which she herself intimated. Personal beauty had indeed been assigned to Ellen as more particularly her earthly gift. But so far as the form of the head, the face, and the eye speak the mould of the mind, Margaret, I thought, had a classic dignity and grace. Her head in particular was most symmetrically proportioned, and of the fair oval which expresses a balanced mind and heart. The language in her large eye, and the soul which animated her glance, were perhaps too dazzling for a common admiration, but I regarded them as proudly expressive of a might which seldom falls to the lot of woman.
Boy as I was, Margaret thought a good deal of my judgment in practical affairs. I smile to recall a difficulty which she had, in leaving Jamaica Plain, as to disposing of the furniture, and which I told her I would clear away. “Ah,” she exclaimed, “if you can adjust this I shall always consult you in practical affairs!” I solved the difficulty, and she really did afterwards resort to me for advice. While residing on Ellery street Hon. Horace Greeley of New York, himself a leading mind among the noble band of American philanthropists, invited her to come to New York and take part in the “Tribune” as literary critic. Margaret asked my advice, and I told her the proposal seemed to me a leading of Providence which she ought to follow. Accordingly she went to New York on my graduating, and there she had freer scope for her genius than ever before. She found happiness in the broad field of usefulness which was opened to her on the “Tribune,” and she filled it well.
There are one or two minor themes in my college career which perhaps it is well to touch upon before I come to its close. I adopted a system of daily cold-water bathing, while in college, which is worthy of notice because I think it has been very useful to my health. I was induced to do it by the reasoning in the medical lectures which were given to the students. Learning the scale-like structure of the epidermis, and its almost daily renewal, I could readily perceive the advisability of constantly removing that which had become obsolete to prevent its obstructing the pores of the skin; and its accumulation in the hair as dandruff occasioning headache was a proof by way of illustration. After the bath I applied friction by horse-hair mittens. This system of bathing in its commencement caused a dangerous illness. I wet my hair, and then repairing to morning prayers in the chapel where there was no fire I caught a very violent cold. I found it would not answer for me to wet my head except in summer, though some persons may do it with impunity. My observation has led me to believe that though a reasonable amount of habitual friction is always useful the application of cold water may sometimes prejudice a constitution. This is so when there is not sufficient latent heat in the system so developed by reaction from the cold application as to cause a glow. I hope my reader will pardon this digression upon hygiene, whoever he or she may be, for my hope is that it may furnish a useful hint. I attribute to this regular bathing my almost entire freedom from co ids which used previously to be very trouble- some. My Mother commenced this system when between fifty and sixty, and regularly practiced it afterward. One habituated to it feels as uncomfortable without the bath as another person does without wash- ing the face and hands. Our medical lecturer also advised us to wash the eyes, by putting the face in water and opening and rolling the eyes; also by injecting water into them with a little syringe. The latter especially seems difficult at first; but it is easy after some practice, and refreshing to the eyes, and must tend to preserve them.
Here, too, the rule is not absolute; tepid water may be more useful for some eyes. Indeed, in the matter of hygiene I believe only quacks prescribe absolute rules, without reference to diversities of constitution. What suits one may not another. Under the head of ablutions I will refer to my regular care of my teeth. At the time of this writing I have never lost a tooth nor had a toothache. Margaret pursuaded me to use soap as the best dentifrice.
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I come now to the winding up of my college career, which closed with a very unpleasant reverse. The students who were to receive parts were notified to attend on the president, and cards were handed to them containing their subject with its order in the exercises, and in one corner the number of minutes assigned to each. As soon as we had received them the head scholar stepped up to me and asked to look at my card, on which all I had observed was” An English oration.” He took the card and said, “Silent! I thought so.” At the same time pointing out to the mates some blank marks where the figures for time ought to be. This at once excited a sensation, and it was bruited through the college halls. To me it was an “unexpected stroke,” and, if not” worse than death,” a good deal worse than I ought to have permitted it to be. I had gone through exhausting labors to vindicate our family name, to realize what had been my Father’s wish as to his children’s rank in college, to gratify my family who were anxiously looking forward to the success of the “ boys” — and it must be owned also stimulated by an all-too-wordly ambition of my own; and now just as the cup was at my lips it was rudely dashed from me and disgrace substituted in its stead. If my name had not been mentioned at all on Commencement Day I might at least have escaped scorn. But now, when my part and name were placarded in the papers, and I did not appear, would not the whisper be circulated, “A silent part? And why silent if the university were not ashamed of him?” All at least who cared about me would inquire into it, and I should be pitied rather than honored. I believe the pain I suffered from this rebuff has prevented me from ever setting my heart much on popular honors.
My sister Margaret sympathized with me deeply, for I confided enough in her to pour into her ear my sorrow and my shame.
— The Reminiscences of Richard F. Fuller
(Privately Printed: Boston, 1936)