Gamaliel Bradford.

Portraits of American women online

. (page 7 of 14)
Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 7 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

composition. "Your daughter, sir." 37 "It was the
proudest moment of my life," she says. But she had
many proud moments afterwards. The storm of ap
plause and of equally intoxicating obloquy which
came to her from "Uncle Tom s Cabin" has not often
been surpassed in the history of literature. She was
praised and admired and reviled in America. In Eng
land the reviling was less, the praise and admiration
perhaps even greater. When she visited that country,
high and low crowded to gaze upon her, to touch her
hand, to hear her speak.

Nor was it all vague and impersonal glory which
flowed about her in the streets but left her alone on an
isolated pinnacle. What she asked of the world most
was love. In the full sweep of her success she wrote,
"It is not fame nor praise that contents me. I seem never
to have needed love so much as now." 38 Well, love came
to her. She made friends everywhere, friends with
wealth, friends with distinction, friends with titles, who
took her into their hearts just as nearly as those who had
grown up with her at home. The warm lining of her
fame was as rich and lasting as its glittering outside.

Through it all she was modest, put on no airs or vain


pretenses, did not seem to feel that she had done any
thing great, insisted, with apparent sincerity, that the
work was not her work, nor hers the glory. She moved
among those curious and applauding crowds, a little,
quiet, shrinking yet always dignified figure, with a half
smile of wonder what they were all making such a fuss
about. " It was enough to frighten a body into fits," says
her husband of one great occasion. " But we took it as
quietly as we could, and your mamma looked as meek
as Moses in her little, battered straw hat and gray cloak,
seeming to say, I did n t come here o purpose/ " 39

She enjoyed it; oh, there is no doubt about that. She
was eminently human, and few human beings have lived
who would not have enjoyed it. But through all the
tumult and hurly-burly there persisted that still, small
voice telling her that the triumph and the means that
won it were given her for a purpose. The instinct of
the missionary and preacher at once excused her joy in
her success and doubled it. Not hers was it to write
brilliant and cleverly turned stories for the fleeting en
chantment of an hour, but to stir hearts, to win hearts,
to push on the movement of great causes in a turbid

Lowell, writing as editor of the " Atlantic," of which
she was a pillar in those days, cautioned her to "Let


your moral take care of itself, and remember that an
author s writing-desk is something infinitely higher
than a pulpit/ 40

To her there was nothing higher than a pulpit, nothing
could be. " The power of fictitious writing, for good as
well as evil, is a thing which ought most seriously to be
reflected on," 41 she says. She never ceased to reflect
on it.


SHE reflected on it more than she did on her story,
her incidents, or her characters. In fact, fortunately,
these hurried her on without reflection. But plenty
of the reflection on the power of fictitious writing
for good and evil always got mixed up with them.
By temperament she was an interested and an acute
and exact observer of human nature, both external and
internal. Her stories, all her stories in greater or less
degree, are founded on an extensive study of character
and manners. This is true of her Southern novels,
and they show that she had made good use of her oppor
tunities in collecting material, both consciously and un
consciously. It is far more true of her New England
books ; and the fine and varied insight of " The Minis
ter s Wooing," "The Pearl of Orr s Island," especially


of " Oldtown Folks," has hardly been surpassed since.
In this line it must be remembered that Mrs. Stowe was
an originator, for Hawthorne s work was entirely differ
ent in spirit. If Miss Jewett, Mrs. Freeman, and Miss
Alice Brown have developed some sides more effec
tively, Mrs. Stowe deserves credit for having set the
great example. The shrewdness, the sympathy, with
which she depicted the New England farmer, and, above
all, his wife and daughter, are forever commendable
and delightful. That peculiar thing called the New
England conscience is especially fascinating to Mrs.
Stowe, and she is never weary of disentangling its curi
ous webs of subtle torment.

In making all these investigations she sometimes likes
to think of herself as the artist merely, who portrays
man s body and soul with scientific ardor and is more
concerned with truth than with moral efficacy. " I am
myself but the observer and reporter," she writes, " see
ing much, doubting much, questioning much, and be
lieving with all my heart only in a very few things." 42
She does herself infinite injustice. By comparison witK
some of us, she believed in a great many things. Espe
cially, she was filled with an overwhelming zeal to con
vey to others what beliefs she had. It is here that she
differs from the notable writers who have succeeded


her. They, for the most part, observe and report life
as it is, from scientific and artistic curiosity. But to
Mrs. Stowe every heart is a text and every tragedy a
fearful example. She probably was not aware herself
how furiously she preached. But no Beecher was ever
a mere observer, or could have been contented to leave
New England and the world without making them

And as her observation and material were affected by
her missionary spirit, so her artistic methods were
affected even more. Everywhere the illustration of
human truth is a secondary object; the first is to produce
an effect naturally, a moral effect. Now, in literature
the subordination of truth to effect, no matter for what
purpose, is melodrama. Dumas and the thousands like
him arrange effective incident merely to amuse, to
startle and excite the reader; Mrs. Stowe arranges it
to jolt the reader into the path of virtue. It is not a
question of violent sensation. Where are there more
violent sensations than are to be found in Shakespeare?
But, as Trollope admirably remarks, there is no objec
tion to sensation, no matter how violent, provided it is
always subordinated to the 3evelopment of character.
When character is subordinated to sensation, the proper
name is surely melodrama. It is amusing and profitable


to hear Mrs. Stowe herself on this subject. Some one has
accused her of being moved by melodrama. She is at
first appalled, though she has no very clear idea what
is meant. Then she concludes consolingly, "If, by
being melodramatic, as the terrible word is, he [the
painter] can shadow forth a grand and comforting reli
gious idea . . . who shall say that he may not do so
because he violates the lines of some old Greek artist? " 48
You see the point.

An entertaining side-issue of this preaching aspect of
the creator of Uncle Tom is her active part in the Byron
controversy. I have no wish to stir up a vexed and dis
agreeable question; but I do insist that Mrs. Stowe s
part in it was based upon the zealous desire to do good,
however much lack of tact she may have shown. When
she was a child, she adored Byron, and was deeply over
come by the announcement of his death. She heard it
from her father, who also adored him, with reserva
tions, and thought that, if Byron "could only have
talked with Taylor and me, it might have got him out of
his troubles." 44 Is n t that delicious ? Later, she became
intimate with Lady Byron, and, after her death, felt that
an effort to make clear her relations with her husband
was a necessary act of justice to the memory of a long
maligned woman. And what a magnificent theme it was


for moral edification! Still, you see, the preacher
Beecher. For it cannot be denied that there hung
always about Mrs. Stowe that light, vast aura of sancti-
fication which is, or was, so apt to emanate from the
New England ministerial being, and which is condensed
into a supernatural glow upon the countenance, even
pictured, of her distinguished brother, Henry Ward.

I do not mean, however, to stress this missionary
side of Mrs. Stowe with undue emphasis. As I have
before pointed out, she was a sunny, human person,
with large understanding of the weaknesses of others
and large allowance for them. She had an excellent
portion of humor in her composition, and indeed this
was as characteristic of her family as was preaching.
She says of her oldest sister that her " life seemed to be
a constant stream of mirthfulness ;" 45 and Harriet her
self often drifted into broad eddies of the same golden
river. From her father she inherited the faculty of
amusing people as well as that of admonishing them.
From him also she got a sense of the pleasant things of
this world, and a sort of eternal youth for enjoying
them. " Hearts never grow old, do they ? " cried the
Reverend Lyman; and his daughter could have said
the same.

One even divines in Mrs. Stowe pagan possibilities


that are really delightful. She reproaches George Eliot
with too much self-abnegation, and wishes that she could
get her into the Beecher household, where "we some
times make the rafters ring with fun, and say anything
and everything, no matter what." 46 She has occa
sionally an obscure feeling that something is wrong in
the preaching attitude; that there are interests in life
besides being good and the effect to make others so.
" With all New England s earnestness and practical effi
ciency/ she writes, "there is a long withering of the
soul s more ethereal part, a crushing out of the
beautiful, which is horrible. Children are born there
with a sense of beauty equally delicate with any in the
world, in whom it dies a lingering death of smothered
desire and pining, weary starvation. I know, because I
have felt it." 47

What charms me most in this connection is Mrs.
Stowe s conversion to Rubens. In all the wide spiritual
world can you imagine temperaments more different?
She knew it as well as you do. She begins by hating
him. Yet even then she feels the power. "Rubens,
whose pictures I detested with all the energy of my soul,
I knew and felt all the time, by the very pain he gave me,
to be a real living artist." 48 Afterwards, when she sees
the gorgeous Medici group in Paris, she is almost, if


not quite, converted. That starved childish spirit which
hungered for earthly loveliness in the barren New Eng
land desert found something to thrill it in the Rubens
flesh, so splendidly redolent of the glory of this world.
In fact, if she had been a pagan suckled in a creed out
worn, she would have followed it with the same proselyt
ing ardor that she gave to Christianity; and the image
of Mrs. Stowe, a thyrsus in her hand, undraped in a
dainty, if limited, garment of fawnskin, careering over
the pastures by the sea, at the head of a Bacchic squad
ron of middle-aged New England matrons, does not lack
a certain piquant, if indecorous, exhilaration.

But she was to descend to posterity, not as a votaress
of Bacchus, but as an ardent expositor of the New Eng
land conscience. All her books are saturated with it. In
every one of them nature and human nature, passion and
hope, good and ill, are used to illustrate the goodness of
God, the importance of virtue, the absolute necessity of
making over the world on the New England model.
Perhaps "Uncle Tom s Cabin" is no better than some
of the others ; but it has the characteristics of all of them,
and a fortunate conjunction of circumstances gave it an
enormous success which none of the others could have
achieved. Read everywhere in America and Europe,
translated into all languages, a mighty instrument in


the extinction of slavery, it was far more than a
novel, it was one of the greatest moral agencies the
world has seen; and Mrs. Stowe will be simply the author
of it to millions who know, and care to know, nothing
else about her. Few teachers or preachers anywhere can
ever hope to accomplish such results as she did.

Undeniably, with Mrs. Stowe, as with others of her
type, there are times when one wearies intensely of this
missionary endeavor. After all, the sky is blue, the
winds blow, and life is pleasant. Why not let it go at
that? Yet, when the hours and days of anguish come,
for the individual or for the world, as they are
coming now, we realize that perhaps we need these little,
fragile, insinuating, indomitable things with curls to
drive or wheedle us into the fold of God.




Sarah Margaret Fuller

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, May 23, 1810.

Grew up in Cambridge and Groton.

Taught and talked in Boston and elsewhere, 1837-1844.

Edited the " Dial," 1840-1842.

Literary Life in New York, 1844-1846.

In Europe, 1846-1850.

Married the Marquis Ossoli, December, 1847.

Drowned off Fire Island, July 19, 1850.





SARAH MARGARET FULLER brought the thrill of life
wherever she went, though she was often only half alive
herself. As a child, from 1820 to 1830, she stirred her
Cambridge playmates. As a teacher and talker she
stirred the transcendental circles of Boston. As a writer
in New York she moved men and women with her soul
more than with her pen. She went to Italy in the forties
and the Italians loved her, and one of them made her
a marchioness and a mother. Then the stormy sea
engulfed her, as it did Shelley.

Mrs. Cheney, writing in 1902, fifty years after Mar
garet s death, says : " She is the woman of America who
is moulding the lives and the characters of her country
women more than any other. It is for her that in the
new West, which she was among the first to understand,
the women s clubs are named, and both in the East and
West audiences gladly listen to all that can be told of
her." 1 I wonder if this is as true to-day as it was then.

The best way to understand Margaret will be to ana-


lyze her in three distinct phases, to unfold, as if were,
one wrapping after another, until we reach the essential
secret of her heart. And first we should see her in that
social contact with others which, at any rate in the
earlier part of her life, was her ambition and her despair.
No one has striven harder than she to accomplish in hu
man relations what those who strive hardest recognize
most clearly in the end to be impossible.

As a woman, if we are to consider her socially, we
must begin by thinking of her appearance. She had a
passionate longing to be beautiful ; but apparently no one
thought her so. She was rather short, rather heavy,
had a lofty but not attractive carriage, opened and shut
her eyes oddly, poised her head oddly. Emerson says
that she "made a disagreeable first impression on most
persons ... to such an extreme that they did not wish
to be in the same room with her." 2 She grew aware of
this with time, though perhaps she did not wholly un
derstand the causes. I " made up my mind," she says,,
" to be bright and ugly." 3

She was bright enough, but there was too much mak
ing up the mind about it, and it did not please strangers,
nor even, in the early days, people who knew her well.
A tradition of intense dislike still surrounds her name
for many who can never get over it. Horace Mann,


suggesting a popular impression about her family, said
that "she had the disagreeableness of forty Fullers," 4
and certainly at times she did appear to concentrate a
large dose of the unattractive. "To the multitude she
was a haughty and supercilious person," 5 says one who
admired and loved her. However much she may have
prized attention and applause, she would not stoop for
them. It is doubtful whether the records of history
show a woman who began life by declaring, to herself
and others, a larger and more sweeping sense of her
own power and importance. Her mighty and four
square egotism teased the shy and self-distrustful Haw
thorne till he had immortalized it in the Zenobia of the
" Blithedale Romance." It disconcerted the grave Emer
son. It annoyed Lowell, "A very foolish, conceited
woman." 6 It amused Horace Greeley, who was not
without his own fair share of the same quality. The
pleasant interplay of the two egotisms together is de
lightfully illustrated in Margaret s comment on Horace:
" His abilities, in his own way, are great. He believes
in mine to a surprising extent. We are true friends." 7
But nothing can equal Margaret s own words about
herself. "There are also in every age a few in whose
lot the meaning of that age is concentrated. I feel that
I am one of those persons in my age and sex. I feel


chosen among women." 8 And again, " I now know all
the people worth knowing in America, and I find no in
tellect comparable to my own." 9 She was fully de
veloped and mature when she said this, and I do not
know where you can surpass it. With all her brilliancy
and all her wit, perhaps she lacked the sense of humor
that might have saved her from the worst excesses of

To be sure, more think these things than say them,
and we must accredit Margaret with a royal candor
which is not without charm. She said what she thought
about herself, and she said what she thought about others
right to their faces. Those who were large enough
came to appreciate the spirit in which she did it. But
many were not large enough, and her best friends admit
that she combined candor with a singular and unfortu
nate tactlessness.

It must not be supposed, however, that Margaret
nursed, or wished to nurse, her self-esteem in private.
I have said that she sought society. She did, and with
the wish to dominate and control it, to be the leader,
if anything at all. In this respect, as in some others,
she recalls Lady Holland, who for so many years main
tained a salon by sheer force of will. Margaret "had
an immense appetite for social intercourse/ 10 says one


who knew her intimately, and she threw herself into
this, as into everything, with the furious ardor which
she herself understood so well. " There is no modesty
or moderation in me." 11 Wherever she came, she
wished to lead, and to dominate whomsoever she met.
Yield to her, and she would love you if she thought
you worth while. Resist her, and you became an object
of interest, whether she thought you worth while or
not Emerson says : " When a person was overwhelmed
by her, and answered not a word except Margaret,
be merciful to me, a sinner/ then her love and tender
ness would come like a seraph s." 12

The means she used to ensnare and captivate were
as varied as they were startling. She would adapt
herself to every one, be all things to all men and women,
if the fancy seized her. Persuasion was just as much
at her command as force. Her powers of imitation and

mimicry were unlimited. " Had she condescended to j

appear before the footlights, she would soon have been

recognized as the first actress of the Nineteenth Cen- I
tury," 13 says Greeley. We have often heard before of
ladies who would have been, if they had condescended.
Nevertheless, the tribute is important for the study of
Margaret. Read, also, her own autobiographical story,
"Mariana," with its extraordinary account of her at-


tempts as a child 1 at boarding-school to control and
dominate her fellow pupils, the arts and wiles and de
ceptions she cunningly practiced only to overthrow her
influence in the end by her impatient haughtiness and
eccentricity. She had, she says of herself, "the same
power of excitement that is described in the spinning
dervishes of the East. Like them she would spin until
all around her were giddy, while her own brain, instead
of being disturbed, was excited to great action." 14
Read, also, Emerson s description of the means she used
to overcome his original prejudice: "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." 15

So others found it besides Emerson. For it must be
recognized that this singular creature, who had such
a power of making enemies and arousing distaste, Had
also such immense mental and spiritual resources that
her talk was admired and her society sought by the
wisest and the wittiest persons who came! near her. To
begin with, she had a belief in conversation, its delights
and possibilities, which seems pathetic to those who


have pursued the ideal of it through an Odyssey of
failure. She loved to talk, to make others talk, even
to try to make others talk. It must be confessed that,
by universal testimony, she had an extraordinary power
of stimulation, of taking what seemed to be dull clods
and making hearts of them. Madame Arconati wrote
Emerson that she had known no woman with a mind
plus vivifiant. 1 * The word seems final. Her soul
touched others and made them live.

All records of these wonderful talkers, all attempts
to transmit them to posterity, are more or less unsuc
cessful. But Margaret has been fortunate in her in
terpreters. They rarely note her words, but, wisely, the
impression she made upon them. And it is easy to
gather what her power of adaptation was in different
surroundings. For instance, Horace Greeley found her
serious, in the main. "She could be joyous and even
merry; but her usual manner, while with us, was one
of grave thoughtfulness, absorption in noble deeds, and
in paramount aspirations." 17 How different is Emer
son s picture! He does not, indeed, deny the gravity.
She could and would talk with ravishing earnestness, and
with a frankness, as from man to man, which no man
could excel. But what sudden and surprising changes
from gravity to mirth, what echoing gayety, what swift


and stinging satire, what instant gift of adjustment to
the call of circumstance! "She sympathizes so fast
with all forms of life, that she talks never narrowly or
hostilely, nor betrays, like all the rest, under a thin
garb of new words, the old droning cast-iron opinions
or notions of many years standing." 18 And the same
excellent judge sums up her talk as "the most enter
taining conversation in America." 19 Again, he says of
her power over those she met: "Of personal influence,
speaking strictly, an efflux, that is, purely of mind
and character, excluding all effects of power, wealth,
fashion, beauty, or literary fame she had an extraor
dinary degree; I think more than any person I have
known." 20 That this could be said of one who had the
exceptional elements of repulsion noted in the begin
ning of this portrait shows that we are dealing with a
soul of unusual and fascinating interest.

Nor was Margaret s power over the hearts of others
merely an external, temporary, and social one. She
could not only startle and stimulate; where she chose,
she could inspire profound and lasting attachment. " I
at least," says Colonel Higginson, " have never known
any woman who left behind an affection so deep and!
strong. It is now thirty years since her death, and
there is scarcely a friend of hers who does not speak


of her with as warm a devotion as if she had died yes
terday." 21 During a part of her life Margaret was a
teacher. She taught in various schools and in different
places. Under her teaching should also be included her
curious attempt to combine the methods of Greek acad
emies and French salons in the public assemblies, held
in Boston, which she called conversations. It would be
easy to cite abundant ridicule of these latter perform
ances. Miss Martineau and many others found them
terribly pedantic, and the element of pedantry was not
lacking in them. Yet it is incontestable that those who
came most under Margaret s influence, either in this
way or in her more formal teaching, found an inspira
tion that lasted them for life. Her own comment on
her gifts hits us like a cold-water douche: "My great
talent at explanation, tact in the use of means, and im
mediate and invariable power over the minds of my
pupils." 22 But when one of the pupils says the same

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14

Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 7 of 14)