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thing, we cannot but accept it: "I had no idea that I
should esteem and, much more, love her. I found my
self in a new world of thought; a flood of light irradi
ated all that I had seen in nature, observed in life, or
read in books." 23

And all this adoration was not dumb", remote, or
incapable of personal transference. What strikes one



142 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

most of all in Margaret s relation to her fellows is her
unusual faculty of eliciting confession from the most
varying sources. One does not commonly expect this
in persons of such pronounced and self-assertive tem
perament. But it cannot be denied in her. Emerson
was immensely impressed by it: "She drew her com
panions to surprising confessions." 24 Another observer,
who had himself a similar experience, regards it as phe
nomenal : " I judge that she was the repository of more
confidences than any contemporary," he says. " Women
who had known her but a day revealed to her the most
jealously guarded secrets of their lives. . . . Nor were
these revelations made only by those of her own plane
of life, but chambermaids and seamstresses unburdened
their souls to her, seeking and receiving her counsel;
while children found her a delightful playmate and a
capital friend." 25

Various elements enter into the explanation of this
gift of Margaret s of drawing out others souls. As to
one of these elements all observers unite: she never
betrayed a confidence that had been placed in her. But
there was far more to it than that, she entered into
the lives and hearts of others with the widest imagina
tive comprehension. She does, indeed, in a moment of
discouragement, deny kerself sympathy: "a person all



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 143

intellect and passion, no loveliness of character; impetu
ous, without tender sympathy." 28 But even as to emo
tional sympathy she belied herself. And her power of
understanding souls of all colors and complexions, of
entering into quick passion and aspiration as well as
slow despair, was almost unlimited. Under the surface
that seemed dull and dead to others she saw the glow
ing spark and her breath kindled it into vital fire. She
made lives over. Especially she was "the interpreter
and savior of women," says Mrs. Cheney, "for there
was no questioning, no suffering, that had not passed
through the alembic of her imagination and thought,
if not of her actual experience. . . . The largeness of
her life and thoughts made her a great helper." 27



II

WITH this largeness of life and thought we may pass
from Margaret s social and external relations with
others to the inner activity of her intelligence. It may
be said at once that hers was not above all a logically
creative mind. She thought out no speculative systems,
nor even gave herself with slow industry to criticizing
the systems of others. But her intellect was keen, vivid,
illuminating, dashed right into the heart of a subject



i 4 4 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

or of a person, plucked out the essential nucleus for
herself and others to behold, and then passed on. She
hated prejudice and convention, wanted the primal ele
ments of things, even things distressing and hateful.
"With her," she said of a friend, "I can talk of any
thing. She is like me. She is able to look facts in the
face." 28 And again, with bitter ardor: "In the cham
ber of death, I prayed in very early years, Give me
truth; cheat me by no illusion. " 29 She had a splendid
analytical power, which shows more in brief touches
from casual writings than in her formal works. Thus,
of a conversation with Emerson : " He is a much better
companion than formerly, for once he would talk
obstinately through the walk, but now we can be silent
and see things together." 30 Or more generally: "We
need to hear the excuses men make to themselves for
their worthlessness." 31

As is natural and unavoidable, with a person who has
this gift of analysis, she applied it first of all and con
stantly to herself. True, she felt that she accomplished
little and got nowhere, and this recognition is the surest
mark of her power. " I know little about the mystery
of life, and far less in myself than in others." 32 Yet
she probed and probed, with inexhaustible, quiet, curious
diligence, and she is not one of the least profitable of



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 145

the anatomizers of soul. Hear her on the near ap
proach of death. "On this subject I always feel that
I can speak with some certainty, having been on the
verge of bodily dissolution. I felt at that time disen
gaged from the body, hovering, and calm." 33 Again
and again she speaks of herself with quiet detachment,
judging her own character and conduct, good and evil,
exactly as if she were appraising somebody else. One
who had long known her family says that they were
peculiar in speaking out openly all the things which we
commonly suppress about ourselves and express only
about other people. This was certainly true of Mar
garet. For instance, when she writes to her brother,
urging him to make sacrifices for the younger children,
she points out all that she had given up for him. "I
do not say this to pain you, or to make you more grate
ful to me (for, probably, if I had been aware at the
time what I was doing, I might not have sacrificed
myself so)/ 34

As I have suggested earlier, it is to this exceptional
instinct of analysis and calm-eyed candor that we are
to attribute largely those violent expressions of egotism
which are so astonishing. When Margaret sighs, " Oh
that my friends would teach me that simple art of not
too much ! How can I expect them to bear the cease-



146 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

less eloquence of my nature?" 38 she is really sighing
and not posing at all. Indeed, with the perfectly candid
recognition of her powers, she combined often a yearn
ing humility, a deep desire to correct herself of many
faults. How charming is the comment, in her earlier
love letters, on a friend who was inclined to criticize
her weaknesses or excess of strength: "I think, too,
with one whose judgment I valued, I should receive
fault-finding in the spirit in which it was meant, and
if it gave me pain, should be more likely to mend than
many who take it more easily." 36 While perhaps some
thing even nobler and larger than humility permeates
the royal sentence, so often quoted but not too often,
" I feel as if there was plenty of room in the universe
for my faults, and as if I could not spend time in think
ing of them, when so many things interest me more." 3T
It is in connection with the profound study of her
own nature as well as of the nature of others that we
should consider her interesting and elaborate theories
of self -development, self-culture, constant spiritual
progress. In this she was no doubt greatly influenced
by Goethe, who was more of a force in her mental life
than any other figure of the past. It is easy to make
fun of such deliberate preoccupation with one s self, and
most of us will maintain that action rather than reflec-



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 147

tion is the true means of self -development. The greater
part of Hawthorne s savage and absurdly exaggerated
attack on Margaret is based upon a ludicrous over
estimate of her attempts to revolutionize herself. "It
was such an awful joke, that she should have re
solved in all sincerity, no doubt to make herself the
greatest, wisest, best woman of the age. And to that
end she set to work on her strong, heavy, unpliable,
and, in many respects, defective and evil nature, and
adorned it with a mosaic of admirable qualities, such
as she chose to possess ; putting in here a splendid talent
and there a moral excellence, and polishing each sepa
rate piece, and the whole together, till it seemed to shine
afar and dazzle all who saw it. She took credit to her
self for having been her own Redeemer, if not her own
Creator." 38

No one who has carefully studied Margaret s own
letters or other writings, or the testimony of those who
knew her best, will for a moment accept seriously either
these or any other of Hawthorne s severe strictures
for more than an outburst of ill-temper. No two char
acters could have been more different than Hawthorne s
and Margaret s, or, if they had some points of resem
blance, they would have clashed on those resemblances
more than on their differences. As to the self-culture,



148 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

too elaborate theories in this line have again and again
defeated themselves in their most intelligent and con
scientious exponents. Margaret came to see this in the
end. Yet it cannot be denied that no effort was ever
more conscientious than hers. Nor can it be denied
that the effort was intelligently controlled and that it
effected probably as much as has ever been effected by
any human being. The constitutional disagreeableness
which I have suggested in beginning this study dimin
ished constantly with the progress of years. The nar
rowness of egotism, largely fostered in youth by seclu
sion and excessive reading, yielded more and more to
the mellowing influences of wider contact with human
ity. In her own noble phrase, she "unlearned con
tempt " ; 39 and what positive learning can be finer or
more difficult than that ? While both positive and nega
tive advancement are summed up in the earnest motto
which she adopted in her youth and clung to always,
however differently she may have come to interpret it:
"Very early I knew that the only object in life was to
grow." 40

It is hardly necessary to say that Margaret s theories
of culture included much more than mere book-learning.
Yet her achievements in this line were remarkable. Or
perhaps I should say that her powers were even more



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 149

remarkable than her achievements. She herself, in a
moment of unusual discouragement, declares : " I have
long thought my mind must be as shallow as it is
vapid." 41 But it was certainly neither vapid nor shal
low. A good judge, who knew her well, speaks of " the
rapidity with which she appropriates all knowledge,
joined with habits of severe mental discipline (so rare
in women, and in literary men not technically men of
science )." 42 She could grasp the meaning of a book
swiftly, fit it to its place in the great scheme of thought
and spiritual movement, then hasten to something else,
perhaps quite different, and accomplish the same result
with equal ease and equal sureness.

Her actual possession of learning was far less than
Mrs. Ripley s. She had a less broad and exact com
mand of languages; she took little interest in science,
and even in philosophy she could not be called an ex
haustive student. To her, and more and more as she
grew older, books were but the interpreters of life,
and her keenest and most thoughtful study was given to
the hearts of men.

But the most interesting thing about her studies, as
about all her pursuits, is the passion with which she
threw herself into them. Her intellectual effort was
not a calm and steady flame, like Mrs. Ripley s, burn-



150 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

ing unaltered and unshaken through all sorts of disturb
ance and difficulty. She could not turn quietly and
serenely from astronomy to botany, from German to
mathematics, as convenience suggested and opportunity
offered. There were moments of spiritual exaltation
and enthusiasm. " I am living like an angel, and I don t
know how to get down/ 43 But these times were paid
for in exhaustion and depression and disgust. " I never
can do well more than one thing at a time, and the least
thing costs me so much thought and feeling; others
have no idea of it." 44 Above all, she lived in perpetual
distraction. A thousand cares were ever crowding upon
her, and when it was not external cares, it was spiritual
vexations and questions and perplexities. "I have
learned much and thought little," she complains, "an
assertion which seems paradoxical and is true. I faint
with desire to think . . . but some outward requisition
is ever knocking at the door of my mind and I am as
ill placed as regards a chance to think as a haberdasher s
prentice or the President of Harvard University." 45 So
she struggled onward in a constant turmoil of effort
and aspiration, and if her mental kingdom was in some
respects ill-coordinated and ill-regulated, at least she
was always mentally alive.

Alive, too, in other aspects of spiritual sensibility,



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 151

besides the merely intellectual. In painting and music,
as in thought, what strikes one is rather the effort and
passion of her appreciation than its amplitude and se
curity. She touched the great artists widely and sought
and fought to make their achievement part of her soul,
but she never seems to have entered quite fully into
their calm perfection. The same is true of religion. It
is interesting and often pathetic to see her humble, earn
est desire for the passion of the mystic and the Chris
tian hope. "My mind often burns with thoughts on
these subjects and I long to pour out my soul to some
person of superior calmness and strength and fortunate
in more accurate knowledge. I should feel such a quiet
ing reaction. But generally I think it is best I should
go through these conflicts alone." 46 She went through
many of them and they resulted in the formulation of the
curious "Credo/ not printed until very recently,
which aims at an exactness of definition such as neither
Emerson nor Goethe would ever have attempted. Doc-
trinally it has little interest. As throwing psychological
light on Margaret it has much, for example in the
splendid and characteristic phrase: "For myself, I be
lieve in Christ because I can do without him." 47

But the charm of Margaret s sensibility and depth of
spiritual emotion shows much better in simpler things



152 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

than in these more pretentious regions of art and
thought. She felt the natural world with peculiar so
lemnity and intensity. This is evident in her own curi
ous account of the experience of being lost alone for
a whole night amid the Highland mountains. It is
much more evident in briefer references to New Eng
land woods and flowers and fields. You could not find
a better antidote to Hawthorne s harsh judgment than
this delicate picture of open-air life: "Many, many
sweet little things would I tell you, only they are so
very little. I feel just now as if I could live and die
here. I am out in the open air all the time except about
two hours in the early morning. And now the moon
is fairly gone late in the evening. While she was here,
we staid out, too. Everything seems sweet here, so
homely, so kindly; the old people chatting so contentedly,
the young men and girls laughing together in the fields
not vulgarly, but in the true kinsfolk way, little
children singing in the house and beneath the berry-
bushes." 48 Or take another in which the sense of
natural beauty rises into passion: "One night when I
was out bathing at the foot of the tall rock, the waters
rippling up so gently, the ships gliding full-sailed and
dreamy-white over a silver sea, the crags above me with
their dewy garlands and the little path stealing away



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 153

in shadow, oh, it was almost too beautiful to bear and
live." 49

When one reads these things, one wonders why Mar
garet did not leave a greater name in actual literature,
why her very numerous writings are not more read
to-day. This is partly owing, no doubt, to the ephem
eral nature of her subjects, travel pictures, controver
sial essays, criticisms of authors who have not lived
themselves. Even in these buried articles there is much
shrewd observation that deserves better than to be for
gotten. Still, it must be admitted that her formal,
printed works do not do her justice. She was better
than any of them, and she knew it. She would have
liked literary glory and success, none more so. But
she had a proud assurance that there was something
finer in her than had ever come out. She would not,
indeed, have used of herself, nor would we quite have
her use, her own words as to a minor writer: "What
he does is bad, but full of a great desire/ 50 But she
does say, as pathetically as justly: "I feel within my
self an immense power, but I cannot bring it out." 51
And even better is the noble prophecy which we still
believe that the future will maintain: "My health is
frail; my earthly life is shrunk to a scanty rill; I am
little better than an aspiration, which the ages will re-



154 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

ward, by empowering me to incessant acts of vigorous
beauty." 52 It was as such an inspiration that she es
tablished her conspicuous place among the writers for
the "Dial" and the group of transcendentalists who
made New England famous in the middle of the nine
teenth century.

Ill

WE have yet to uncover Margaret s heart, to pass deeper
from her social and worldly aspect and her intellectual
and literary interests to the passion and the struggle
of the woman.

To begin with, she was a lover, always a lover, even
from her childhood. In her own family, her father,
stern like herself with Puritan self-restraint, though he
was proud of her and taught her and developed her, did
not give her all the tenderness she needed. How much
she needed it appears in the passionate words she wrote
long after his death : " I recollect how deep the anguish,
how deeper still the want, with which I walked alone
in hours of childish passion and called for a Father,
after saying the word a hundred times." 53 The same
depth of tenderness she gave in full measure to her
brothers and sisters.

And the tenderness was not mere sentiment but



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 155

showed in practical action. Mr. Fuller s death left his
family much cramped financially, and Margaret was
forced to deny herself, and did deny herself without
hesitation, the spiritual opportunities she so much craved
that her brothers and sisters might have proper educa
tion and advantages. "Let me now try to forget my
self and act for others sakes," 54 she wrote, and she
acted as she wrote. She taught the younger children;
she did the mending and the cooking; she took care of
her mother, who was often ill, and of her grandmother,
who was so always.

She was not only a zealous manager, but a prudent
and intelligent one. She understood extremely well the
value of money, knew how to husband it, and how to
spend it so as to make it go farthest and buy most.
She supplied her brothers with caution, yet with wide
liberality, considering her limitations. Above all, she
stinted herself that she might give, not only in her
family but far without. " Her charities, according to
her means, were larger than those of any other whom I
ever knew/ 55 writes one who had much experience of
Margaret and of others. Even the bitter words
wrung from her in the anguish of the last miserable
years show only what her generosity had been and what
we are sure it was still. "My love for others had



156 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

turned against me. I had given to other sufferers what
I now needed for myself so deeply, so terribly; I shall
never again be perfectly, be religiously generous; I
understand why others are not. I am worse than
I was/ 56

And her human tenderness extended far beyond her
own family. We have seen that she wanted to be ad
mired and praised and worshiped. She wanted to be
loved, also, and perhaps this was really at the root of
the less commendable instinct. Amidst all the popu
larity and social compliment she keenly appreciated what
affection was, just common affection. "Around my
path how much humble love has flowed. These every
day friends never forget my heart, never censure me,
make no demands on me, load me with gifts and serv
ices, and, uncomplaining, see me prefer my intellectual
kindred." 57 She wanted to give love, too, as well as
get it. She knew well at all times of her life that
aching emptiness which only an overpowering devotion
can fill. Do we not get a glimpse of it in the quiet
words describing one contact with youth and beauty?
" She was a lovely child then, and happy, but my heart
ached, and I lived in just the way I do now." 58

Nothing throws more light on this human craving
than Margaret s relation with the good Emerson. They



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 157

sought and admired 1 each other and got and gave much.
But Emerson, who so abounded in kindness, was per
haps somewhat limited in the blind longings of the heart.
He speaks of "the romantic sacrifice and ecstatic
fusion " 59 of Margaret s friendships, with a humorous
acceptance of incomprehension. Margaret herself com
plains of his coldness, of his incapacity for the highest
surrender. "He met men, not as a brother, but as a
critic." 60 And it would be amusing, if it were not
pathetic, to see her dissatisfaction reflected in Emer
son s account of it. She called his friendship commer
cial, he says, felt that he could not prize affection unless
it chattered, weighed love by what he got from it only.
He quotes her very words : " The deepest love that ap
proached you was, in your eyes, nothing but a magic
lantern, always bringing out pretty shows of life." 61
Some of us to-day feel too keenly what Margaret meant.
But, all the same, how noble and beautiful is the humil
ity of Emerson s comment: "As I did not understand
the discontent then, of course, I cannot now." 62

The question naturally arises, how about love with
Margaret in the ordinary sense, how about her relations
with men who were not simply friends and philosophers ?
In her earlier years there is no definite trace of any
thing of the sort. She had few of the attractions which



158 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

draw young men and none of the coquetry which seeks
to draw them. Her youthful letters and reminiscences
do not indicate any affection, requited or unrequited.
Then, in 1844, when she was well over thirty, she fell
in with a brilliant member of the Jewish race, and for
a year she kept up a correspondence with him, which
has been printed by Mrs. Howe, and which shows Mar
garet as deeply and sentimentally in love as any school
girl

It is true that the old egotism still hangs about her.
Her dear companion is the first she " ever had who could
feel every little shade of life and beauty as exquisitely
as myself/ 63 But she relishes even the shock to ego
tism which comes with the self-abandonment of this
new tenderness. She finds a strange thrill of pleasure
in the lover s admonition, "You must be a fool, little
girl." 64 She indulges in all the fantastic freaks of
amorous imagination, the ardor for an impossible union,
the frantic questionings, the idle self-tormentings, not
one of the old, well-known symptoms is missing. And
to complete all, she assumes, as usual, that they are first
known to her. As the gay French comedy puts it, En
voila encore une qui croit avoir invente I amour.

Yet even these love-letters, earnest as they are, genu
ine as they are, and most important in the light they;



MARGARET FULLER OSSOLI 159

throw upon Margaret s character, are not wholly free
from a suggestion of literature. When the infatuation
is over, her characteristic comment is: "I shall write
a sketch of it and turn the whole to account in a lit
erary way, since the affections and ideal hopes are so
unproductive." 65 There had been more head than heart
in the matter, and to touch the deepest secrets of her
nature required a different temperament from that of
the brilliant Jew. After a few months sojourn in Italy,
she found such a temperament, certainly very different,
in the Marquis Ossoli, whom she married secretly at
the close of the year 1847. Judgments about Ossoli are
somewhat varying. The utter brutality of a comment
recorded by Hawthorne defeats itself and suggests some
obscure ground of prejudice. According to this view
the marquis had no claim even to good-breeding, let
alone intelligence, " in short, half an idiot, and without
any pretension to be a gentleman," 66 and Margaret mar
ried him simply from curiosity and weariness. Such
an extreme statement cannot stand a moment against
other evidence. It is clear that Margaret s husband was
not literary or a scholar. She had doubtless seen quite
enough of that sort of gentry in her varied career. But
there is no doubt that he was a high-minded, dignified
gentleman, and that he was devoted to her with an at-



160 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

tachment which, coming from a temperament like his, is
in itself strong testimony to the nobleness of her char


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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 8 of 14)