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“I Find No Intellect Comparable To My Own”
Margaret Fuller very possibly spoke the truth, and the literary men of the age both admired and shied away from her
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
Because Emerson is the central figure in the consociation her friendship with him has, naturally, been closely studied, by none more surgically than by Emerson himself when he joined with William Henry Channing and James Freeman Clarke to edit her Memoirs in 1852. By then, in retrospect, he could put it: “When I found she lived at a rate so much faster than mine, which was violent compared with mine, I forboded rash and painful crises, and had a feeling as if a voice cried, Stand from under!” Contemporaneous documents demonstrate that only by the most nimble skill did Emerson manage to stand from under, that on several occasions he was sucked, if not exactly into, then to the brink of, the maelstrom of her devouring hunger for both affection and domination. They worked together in businesslike partnership on The Dial (the strain became too great for her at the end of 1842 and he took over the editing, though she continued to expend time and energy on the magazine), yet every once in a while their emotions would slip out of control. He would write her what in any other land except New England would be called a love letter, and she would berate him in barely concealed rage as he would retreat into his impenetrable “egotism.” She interrupted the factual correspondence to tell him that he was hers and hers he would continue to be. Emerson took again to flight: “O divine mermaid or usher of men,” he answered, “you & I are not inhabitants of one thought of the Divine Mind, but of two thoughts.” They met, he informed her, as ambassadors of foreign states, she maritime, he inland. “I find or fancy in your theory a certain wilfulness and not pure acquiescence which seems to me the only authentic mode.” He may have supposed that he was thus putting their relation on a sale basis: to one who listens for emotional undertones, he seems to be cleverly encouraging the flirtation. At any rate, she would turn on him with devastating frankness, telling him that he failed her “when my soul, in its childish agony of prayer, stretched out arms to you as a father.” We may suspect that she was trying to lash him into reaction when she tells him, “You are not the friend I seek.” Still, she struggled hard not to give him up: “But a beautilul foe, I am not yet, to you. Shall I ever be? I know not.”
It all makes for a curious Yankee melodrama, wherein one suspects that they were toying with temptations they were both too virginal to recognize. On the other hand, they, like all the Transcendental group, stood for freedom—Emerson wanted The Dial to scare the bantlings of “Conformity”—and they may have dallied with these phrases in order to get a peep into regions where a Madame de Staël or a George Sand freely cavorted. But there comes a point, even in New England, when escapades that lead to nothing cease to yield any satisfactions whatsoever. Margaret reached that point in the autumn of 1844 and broke out of the mesh by an action which her New England associates could regard only as blackest treason: she went to New York.
One is tempted to imagine what Margaret Fuller might have become, say at the age of seventy, had she stayed in Boston. Would she, like Elizabeth Peabody, her only rival in the Transcendental Club, have ended up a dowdy eccentric, accepted at last by the community as harmless and even rather beloved as a local monument? We shall never know, for she not only removed to New York, but in that Babylon was the first female in America to join the working press. She wrote reviews and other columns for Horace Greeley’s Tribune. Boston regarded New York as a brawling, vulgar conglomeration, not worthy of being called a city except insofar as a few strayed New Englanders, notably William Cullen Bryant, kept alive a faint flicker of culture. Women of anything like Margaret’s distinction of mind could not be imagined as going there of their own free choice; for her to soil her hands with the ink of a Gotham newspaper was downright shocking. But for her to publish in that paper on August 1, 1846, a farewell to the city in which she brazenly reported that twenty months within it “have presented me with a richer and more varied exercise for thought and life, than twenty years could in any other part of these United States"—well, neither proper Boston nor Transcendental Concord could condone conduct so unbecoming her sex. Few in either locality bethought themselves that her journalism in the Tribune, an employment which Emerson said “is not satisfactory to me,” was literary criticism of a maturity that nothing else in the country, except perhaps some pieces by Edgar Poe, could equal. They were the less likely to think this because they held Poe’s critical efforts to be beneath contempt.