Reminiscences by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

From: Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller, 1845-1846
Published: 1903 New York


  I still remember the half hour of Margaret’s conversation. She was twenty-six years old. She had a face and frame that would indicate fulness and tenacity of life. She was rather under the middle height; but her complexion was fair, with strong fair hair. She was then, as always, carefully and becomingly dressed, and of ladylike self-possession. For the rest, her appearance had nothing prepossessing. Her extreme plainness-a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids, the nasal tone of her voice–all repelled, and I said to myself we shall never get far. It is to be said that Margaret made a disagreeable first impression on most persons, including those who became afterward her best friends, to such an extreme that they did not wish to be in the same room with her. This was partly the effect of her manners, which expressed an overweening sense of power and slight esteem for others, and partly the prejudice of her fame. She had a dangerous reputation for satire, in addition to her great scholarship. The men thought she carried too many guns, and the women did not like one who despised them. I believe I fancied her too much interested in personal history; and her talk was a comedy in which dramatic justice was done to everybody’s foibles. I remember that she made me laugh more than I liked; for I was at that time an eager scholar of ethics, and had tasted the sweets of solitude and stoicism, and I found something profane in the hours of amusing gossip into which she drew me, and, when I returned to my library, had much to think of the cracking of thorns under a pot. Margaret, who had stuffed me out as a philosopher in her own fancy, was too intent on establishing a good footing between us to omit any art of winning. She studied my tastes, piqued and amused me, challenged frankness by frankness, and did not conceal the good opinion of me she brought with her, nor her wish to please. She was curious to know my opinions and experiences. Of course, it was impossible long to hold out against such urgent assault. She had an incredible variety of anecdotes, and the readiest wit to give an absurd tum to whatever passed; and her eyes, which were so plain at first, soon swam with fun and drolleries, and the very tides of joy and superabundant life.

  This rumour was much spread abroad that she was sneering, scoffing, critical, disdainful of humble people, and of all but the intellectual. I had heard it whenever she was named. It was a superficial judgment. Her satire was only the pastime and necessity of her talent, the play of superabundant animal spirits. . . .

  When she came to Concord she was already rich in friends, rich in experiences, rich in culture. She was well read in French, Italian, and German literature. She had learned Latin and a little Greek. But her English reading was incomplete, and while she knew Moliere and Rousseau, and any quantity of French letters, memoirs and novels, and was a dear student of Dante and Petrarch, and knew German books more cordially than any other person, she was little read in Shakespeare; and I believe I had the pleasure of making her acquainted with Chaucer, with Ben Jonson, with Herbert, Chapman, Ford, Beaumont and Fletcher, with Bacon, and Sir Thomas Browne. I was seven years her senior, and had the habit of idle reading in old English books, and, though not much versed, yet quite enough to give me the right to lead her. She fancied that her sympathy and taste had led her to an exclusive culture of southern European books.

  She had large experiences. She had been a precocious scholar at Dr. Park’s school; good in mathematics and languages. Her father, whom she had recently lost, had been proud of her, and petted her. She had drawn, at Cambridge, numbers of lively young men about her. She had had a circle of young women who were devoted to her, and who described her as a “wonder of intellect who had yet no religion.” She had drawn to her every superior young man or young woman she had met, and whole romances of life and love had been confided, counselled, thought, and lived through, in her cognizance and sympathy.

  These histories are rapid, so that she had already beheld many times the youth, meridian, and old age of passion. She had, besides, selected from so many a few eminent companions, and already felt that she was not likely to see anything more beautiful than her beauties, anything more powerful and generous than her youths. She had found out her own secret by early comparison, and knew what power to draw confidence, what necessity to lead in every circle, belonged of right to her. Her powers were maturing, and nobler sentiments were subliming the first heats and rude experiments. She had outward calmness and dignity. She had come to the ambition to be filled with all nobleness. . . .

  She wore this circle of friends, when I first knew her, as a necklace of diamonds about her neck. They were so much to each other that Margaret seemed to represent them all, and to know her was to acquire a place with them. The confidences given her were their best, and she held them to them. She was an active, inspiring companion and correspondent, and all the art, the thought, and the nobleness in New England seemed at that moment related to her, and she to it. She was everywhere a welcome guest. The houses of her friends in town and country were open to her, and every hospitable attention eagerly offered. Her arrival was a holiday, and so was her abode. She stayed a few days, often a week, more seldom a month, and all tasks that could be suspended were put aside to catch the favourable hour, in walking, riding or boating, to talk with this joyful guest, who brought wit, anecdotes, love-stories, tragedies, oracles with her, and, with her broad web of relations to so many fine friends, seemed like the queen of some parliament of love, who carried the key to all confidences, and to whom every question had been finally referred.

  Persons were her game, especially if marked by fortune or character or success-to such she was sent. She addressed them with a hardihood -almost a haughty assurance-queen-like. Indeed, they fell in her way, where the access might have seemed difficult; by wonderful casualties; and the inveterate recluse, the coyest maid, the waywardest poet, made no resistance, but yielded at discretion, as if they had been waiting for her, all doors to this imperious dame. She disarmed the suspicion of recluse scholars by the absence of bookishness. The ease with which she entered into conversation made them forget all they had heard of her; and she ~as infinitely less interested in literature than in life. They saw she valued earnest persons, and Dante, Petrarch, and Goethe, because they thought as she did, and gratified her with high portraits, which she was everywhere seeking. She drew her companions to surprising confessions. She was the wedding guest to whom the long-pent story must be told; and they were not less struck, on reflection, at the suddenness of the friendship which had established in one day new and permanent covenants. She extorted the secret of life, which cannot be told without setting heart and mind in aglow, and thus had the best of those she saw whatever romance, whatever virtue, whatever impressive experience–this came to her; and she lived in a superior circle, for they suppressed all their commonplace in her presence.

  She was perfectly true in this confidence. She never confounded relations, but kept a hundred fine threads in her hand, without crossing or entangling any. An entire intimacy, which seemed to make both sharers of the whole horizon of each other’s and of all truth, did not yet make her false to any other friend; gave no title to the history that an equal trust of another friend had put in her keeping. In this reticence was no prudery and no effort. For so rich her mind that she never was tempted to treachery by the desire of entertaining. The day was never long enough to exhaust her opulent memory; and I, who knew her intimately for ten years (from July, 1836, till August, 1846, when she sailed for Europe), never saw her without surprise at her new powers. . . .

  Her talents were so various and her conversation so rich and entertaining that one might talk with her many times by the parlour fire Wore he discovered the strength which served as foundation to so much accomplishment and eloquence. But concealed under flowers and music was· the broadest good sense, very well able to dispose of all this pile of native and foreign ornaments, and quite able to work without them. She could always rally on this, in every circumstance and in every company, and find herself on a firm footing of equality with any party whatever, and make herself useful, and, if need be, formidable. . . .

  I regret that it is not in my power to give my true report of Margaret’s conversation. She soon became an established friend and frequent inmate of our house, and continued thenceforth for years, to come once in three or four months to spend a week or a fortnight with us. She adopted all the people and all the interests she found here. Your people shall be my people, and yonder darling boy I shall cherish as my own. Her ready sympathies endeared her to my wife and my mother, each of whom highly esteemed her good sense and sincerity. She suited each and all. Yet she was not a person to be suspected of complaisance, and her attachments one might say were chemical.

  She had so many tasks of her own that she was a very easy guest to entertain, as she could be left to herself day after day without apology. According to our usual habit, we seldom met in the forenoon. After dinner we read something together, or walked or rode. In the evening she came to the library, and many and many a conversation was there held whose details if they could be preserved would justify all encomiums. They interested me in every manner-talent, memory, wit, stern introspection, poetic play, religion, the finest personal feeling, the aspects of the future-each followed each in full activity, and left me, I remember, enriched and sometimes astonished by the gifts of· my guest. Her topics were numerous, but the cardinal points of poetry, love, and religion were never far oft’. She was a student of art, and, though untravelled, knew much better than most persons who had been abroad the conventional reputation of each of the masters. She was familiar with all the field of elegant criticism in literature. Among the problems of the day, these two attracted her chiefly: mythology and demonology; then, also, French socialism, especially as it concerned women; the whole prolific family of reforms, and, of course, the genius and career of each remarkable person. . . .

  I said that Margaret had a broad, good sense, which brought her near to all people. I am to say that she had also a strong temperament, which is that counter-force which makes individuality by driving all the powers in the direction of the ruling thought or feeling, and, when it is allowed full sway, isolating them. These two tendencies were always invading each other, and now one and now the other carried the day. This alternation perplexes the biographer, as it did the observer. We contradict on the second page what we affirm on the first, and I remember how often I was compelled to correct my impressions of her character when living; for after I had settled it once for all that she wanted this or that perception, at our next interview she would say with emphasis the very word.

  I think, in her case, there was something abnormal in those obscure habits and necessities which we denote by the word temperament. In the first days of our acquaintance I felt her to be a foreigner, that, with her, one would always be sensible of some barrier, as if in making up a friendship with a cultivated Spaniard or Turk. She had a strong constitution, and, of course, its reactions were strong; and this· the reason why in all her life she has so much to say of her fate. She was in jubilant spirits in the morning, and ended the day with nervous headache, whose spasms, my wife told me, produced total prostration. She had great energy of speech and action, and seemed formed for high emergencies. . . .

  She was all her lifetime the victim of disease and pain. She read and wrote in bed, and believed that she could understand anything better when she was ill. Pain acted like a girdle, to give tension to her powers. A lady who was with her one day during a terrible attack of nervous headache, which made Margaret totally helpless, assured me that Margaret was yet in the finest vein of humour, and kept those who were assisting her in a strange, painful excitement, between laughing and crying, by perpetual brilliant sallies. There were other peculiarities of habit and power. When she turned her head on one side, she alleged she had second sight, like St. Francis. These traits or predispositions made her a willing listener to all the uncertain science of mesmerism and its goblin brood, which have been rife in recent years. . . .

  I have inquired diligently of those who saw her often, and in different companies concerning her habitual tone, and something like this is the report: In conversation, Margaret seldom, except as a special grace, admitted others upon an equal ground with herself. She was exceedingly tender when she pleased to be, and most cherishing in her influence; but to elicit this tenderness, it was necessary to submit first to her personally. When a person was overwhelmed by her, and answered not a word except “Margaret, be merciful to me, a sinner,” then her love and tenderness would come like a seraph’s, and often an acknowledgment that she had been too harsh, and even a craving for pardon, with a humility-which, perhaps, she caught from the other. But her instinct was not humility-that was always an afterthought.

  This arrogant tone of her conversation, if it came to be the subject of comment, of course, she defended, and with such broad good-nature, and on grounds of simple truth, as were not easy to set aside.

1 From Memoirs of Margaret Fuller (Ossoli), by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others.

All Sub-Works of Love-Letters of Margaret Fuller, 1845-1846:
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.