Reminiscences of a Journalist by Charles T. Congdon

It is easy to see what happened when a young person of no special natural ability and of small and fragmentary culture talked according to his own notion, as Novalis wrote. Margaret Fuller (not yet a marchioness, but a school-mistress) lived then and pursued her noble calling nobly in Providence. I saw her sometimes in company and heard her talk, — it would be hardly proper to say converse, for nobody else said much when she was in the Delphic mood. The centre of a circle of rapt and devoted admirers, she improvised not merely pamphlets, but thick octavos and quartos. Such an astonishing stream of language never came from any other woman’s mouth. “She brought with her,” said Mr. Emerson, “wit, anecdotes, love-stories, tragedies, oracles.”

She did not argue. I think she had a way of treating dissentients with a crisp contempt which was distinctly feminine. She had no taste for dialectics, as she took care to inform those who did not agree with her. She considered her own opinion to be conclusive, and a little resented any attempt to change it. Yet there was something eminently elevated in her demeanor, for it was that of a woman swaying all around her, not by fascinating manner, nor yet by personal beauty, of which she had none, but through the sheer force of a royal intellect. There were peculiarities in her ways and carriage which were not agreeable, — a fashion of moving her neck, and of looking at her shoulders as if she admired them; and her voice was not euphonious. Mr. Emerson says that personally she repelled him upon first acquaintance; but I was so astonished and spell-bound by her eloquence, by such discourse as I had never before heard from a woman, and have never heard from a woman since, that I sat in silence, and, if my ears had been fifty instead of two, I should have found an excellent use for them. I do not mean to say that I comprehended all that she said; I had not read the philosophers and poets of Germany as she had: but simply to listen was enough, without cheap understanding. Something like this fascination must have been exercised by Coleridge over the listeners who gathered about him at Highgate, and went away charmed but puzzled, — delighted they knew not why. Was it a pleasure analogous to that of music, — a suggestion too delicate for analysis?

While writing for “The Tribune,” Miss Fuller was, for a while, a member of Mr. Horace Greeley’s family, and I have sometimes thought that the table-talk of these peculiar persons must have been at once instructive and amusing, — instructive, I mean, in matter, and amusing in manner. Each was dogmatic and opinionative, and neither inclined to admit error or mistake. Each held personal convictions in high reverence, but Miss Fuller was especially disposed to resent any interference with her own methods of thought and action. I believe that Mr. Greeley has himself put upon record that it was impossible for him to agree with his guest about diet, and especially about tea, of which the lady was fond. He was wont to attribute her breakfast headaches to a consumption over night of that noxious beverage; but as he tells us amusingly, she soon let him know unmistakably that no discussion of her tastes would be tolerated; and he was too gentlemanly to say a word even of the deleterious effects of tea after that.

There was a habit once, which fortunately is not now so common, of comparing our American reputations with old staple fames. This poet was like Wordsworth; Mr. Emerson, I believe, was the American Montaigne; Miss Fuller was the American De Staël; Mr. Poe was the American Hoffmann. This prattle was especially silly when it was about Miss Fuller, who was no more like De Staël than she was like Bettina, with whom I have also heard her paralleled. Schiller wrote to Goethe of the brilliant Frenchwoman, “She insists upon explaining everything.” I am sure that Miss Margaret did not attempt to explain anything, for that would have been a condescension to which she was not prone. Schiller speaks also of De Staël’s “horror of the Ideal Philosophy, which she thinks leads to the mysterious and superstitious”: there was no likeness there, nor was the American lady, like the French, “passionate and rhetorical” If I remember rightly, she was calm in her speech, though occasionally swift; but she had a talent for summing up concisely, as when she said of Goethe, “I think he had the artist’s hand and the artist’s eye, but not the artist’s love of structure.” This compactness sometimes became almost comical, as when, in “The Dial,” she dismissed Mr. Longfellow’s latest work with only the remark, “This is the thinnest of all Mr. Longfellow’s thin volumes,” which was hardly kind and scarcely critical. It is remarkable that this noteworthy woman’s fame has already become traditional; she is remembered as a voluble talker, but much is not said of her books. She had colloquial habits of composition, and was rather a careless writer. The work upon which she had bestowed the greatest pains was lost with her in the remorseless sea; her literary contributions to “The Tribune” were not of permanent value. It was her task to deal mainly with the temporary and evanescent, and to be obliged to toil too much from day to day; but always, in American literature; she will remain a remarkable biographic phenomenon, while the tragic death of this Lycidas of women, a most painful personal story of shipwreck, was intensified by so many melancholy incidents that whoever, long years hence, may read of them, will wonder how the gods could have been so pitiless, and why the life of new happiness and of larger intellectual achievement which was before her should so suddenly have ended upon that savage and inhospitable shore.

Reminiscences of a Journalist
by Charles T. Congdon
(Boston: James R. Osgood, 188)