Winter in Boston.

From: Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1874).
Author: R.W. Emerson, W.H. Channing, J.F. Clarke
Published: Roberts Brothers 1874 Boston


  In the autumn of 1836 Margaret went to Boston, with the two-fold design of teaching Latin and French in Mr. Alcott’s school, which was then highly prosperous, and of forming classes of young ladies in French, German, and Italian.

  Her view of Mr. Alcott’s plan of education was thus hinted in a journal, one day, after she had been talking with him, and trying to place herself in his mental position:—

  Mr. A. O for the safe and natural way of Intuition! I cannot grope like a mole in the gloomy passages of experience. To the attentive spirit, the revelation contained in books is only so far valuable as it comments upon, and corresponds with, the universal revelation. Yet to me, a being social and sympathetic by natural impulse, though recluse and contemplative by training and philosophy, the character and life of Jesus have spoken more forcibly than any fact recorded in human history. This story of incarnate Love has given me the key to all mysteries, and showed me what path should be taken in returning to the Fountain of Spirit. Seeing that other redeemers have imperfectly fulfilled their tasks, I have sought a new way. They all, it seemed to me, had tried to influence the human being at toe late a day, and had laid their plans too wide. They began with men; I will begin with babes. They began with the world; I will begin with the family. So I preach the Gospel of the Nineteenth Century:

  M. ‘But, preacher, you make three mistakes.

  You do not understand the nature of Genius or creative power.

  You do not understand the reaction of matter on spirit.

  You are too impatient of the complex; and, not enjoying variety in unity, you become lost in abstractions, and cannot illustrate your principles.

  On the other hand, Mr. Alcott’s impressions of Margaret were thus noted in his diaries:—

  “She is clearly a person given to the boldest speculation, and of liberal and varied acquirements. Not wanting in imaginative power, she has the rarest good sense and discretion. She adopts the Spiritual Philosophy, and has the subtlest perception of its bearings. She takes large and generous views of all subjects, and her disposition is singularly catholic. The blending of sentiment and of wisdom in her is most remarkable; and her taste is as flue as her prudence. I think her the most brilliant talker of the day. She has a quick and comprehensive wit, a firm command of her thoughts, and a speech to win the ear of the most cultivated.”

  In her own classes Margaret was very successful, and thus in a letter sums up the results:—

  I am still quite unwell, and all my pursuits and propensities have a tendency to make my head worse. It is but a bad head,—as bad as if I were a great man! I am not entitled to so bad a head by anything I have done; but I flatter myself it is very interesting to suffer so much, and a fair excuse for not writing pretty letters, and saying to my friends the good things I think about them.

  I was so desirous of doing all I could, that I took a great deal more upon myself than I was able to bear. Yet now that the twenty-five weeks of incessant toil are over, I rejoice in it all, and would not have done an iota less. I have fulfilled all my engagements faithfully; have acquired more power of attention, self-command, and fortitude; have acted in life as I thought I would in my lonely meditations; and have gained some know ledge of means. Above all,—blessed be the Father of our spirits!—my aims are the same as they were in the happiest flight of youthful fancy. I have learned too, at last, to rejoice in all past pain, and to see that my spirit has been judiciously tempered for its work. In future I may sorrow, but can I ever despair?

  The beginning of the winter was forlorn. I was always ill; and often thought I might not live, though the work was but just begun. The usual disappointments, too, were about me. Those from whom aid was expected failed, and others who aided did not understand my aims. Enthusiasm for the things loved best fled when I seemed to be buying and selling them. I could not get the proper point of view, and could not keep a healthful state of mind. Mysteriously a gulf seemed to have opened between me and most intimate friends, and for the first time for many years I was entirely, absolutely, alone. Finally, my own character and designs lost all romantic interest, and I felt vulgarized, profaned, forsaken,—though obliged to smile brightly and talk wisely all the while. But these clouds at length passed away.

  And now let me try to tell you what has been done. To one class I taught the German language, and thought it good success, when, at the end of three months, they could read twenty pages of German at a lesson, and very well. This class, of course, was not interesting, except in the way of observation and analysis of language.

  With more advanced pupils I read, in twenty-four weeks, Schiller’s Don Carlos, Artists, and Song of the Bell, besides giving a sort of general lecture on Schiller; Goethe’s Hermann and Dorothea, Goetz von Berlichingen, Iphigenia, first part of Faust,-three weeks of thorough study this, as valuable to me as to them,—and Clavigo,—thus comprehending samples of all his efforts in poetry, and bringing forward some of his prominent opinions; Lessing’s Nathan, Minna, Emilia Galeotti; parts of Tieck’s Phantasus, and nearly the whole first volume of Richter’s Titan.

  With the Italian class, l read parts of Tasso, Petrarch,—whom they came to almost adore, Ariosto, Alfieri, and the whole hundred cantos of the Divina Commedia, with the aid of the fine Athanæum copy, Flaxman’s designs, and all the best commentaries. This last piece of work was and will be truly valuable to myself.

  I had, besides, three private pupils, Mrs. ——, who became very attractive to me, ——, and little ——, who had not the use of his eyes. I taught him Latin orally, and read the History of England and Shakspeare’s historical plays in connection. This lesson was given every day for ten weeks, and was very interesting, though very fatiguing. The labor in Mr. Alcott’s school was also quite exhausting. I, however, loved the children, and had many valuable thoughts suggested, and Mr. A.’s society was much to me.

  As you may imagine, the Life of Goethe is not yet written; but I have studied and thought about it much. It grows in my mind with everything that does grow there. My friends in Europe have sent me the needed books on the subject, and ram now beginning to work in good earnest. It is very possible that the task may be taken from me by somebody in England, or that in doing it I may find myself incompetent; but I go on in hope, secure, at all events, that it will be the means of the highest culture.

  In addition to other labors, Margaret translated, one evening every week, German authors into English, for the gratification of Dr. Channing; their chief reading being in De Wette and Herder.

  ‘It was not very pleasant,’ she writes, ‘for Dr. C. takes in subjects more deliberately than is conceivable to us feminine people, with our habits of ducking, diving, or flying for truth. Doubtless, however, he makes better use of what he gets, and if his sympathies were livelier he would not view certain truths in so steady a light. But there is much more talking than reading; and I like talking with him. I do not feel that constraint which some persons complain of, but am perfectly free, though less called out than by other intellects of inferior power. I get too much food for thought from him, and am not bound to any tiresome formality of respect on account of his age and rank in the world of intellect. He seems desirous to meet even one young and obscure as myself on equal terms, and trusts to the elevation of his thoughts to keep him in his place.’

  She found higher satisfaction still in his preaching:—

  ‘A discourse from Dr. C. on the spirituality of man’s nature. This was delightful! I came away in the most happy, hopeful, and heroic mood. The tone of the discourse was so dignified, his manner was so benignant and solemnly earnest, in his voice there was such a concentration of all his force, physical and moral, to give utterance to divine truth, that I felt purged as by fire. If some speakers feed intellect more, Dr. C. feeds the whole spirit. O for a more calm, more pervading faith in the divinity of my own nature! I am so far from being thoroughly tempered and seasoned, and am sometimes so presumptuous, at others so depressed. Why cannot I lay more to heart the text, “God is never in a hurry: let man be patient and confident”?’

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