“I Find No Intellect Comparable To My Own”

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Margaret Fuller is usually remembered—if at all—because she is supposed to have told Thomas Carlyle in London, “I accept the universe.” The legend implies that she underwent a struggle to achieve this accommodation, and that the universe was to feel complimented. So posterity chuckles over Carlyle’s reputed comment, “By Gad, she’d better!” A more documented testimony to what many of her contemporaries sneered at as her “infinite me” is a remark she made at Emerson’s table: “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.” The heroine of such anecdotes is bound to seem to us a bit ludicrous, if not conceited, almost as much as she did to James Russell Lowell in the 1840’s. But the fact is that at Emerson’s table she was speaking the truth.

She was born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, in 1810, to a father who, in a pattern of domesticity especially practiced in New England, dominated the family with dictatorial masculinity; and to a mild, sweet, self-effacing blank of a mother. Timothy Fuller was a lawyer; from 1817 to 1825 he was in Congress as a Jeffersonian—which made him something of an oddity in Boston society where Jefferson was still viewed with alarm. Timothy, the story goes, wanted a boy, and when Margaret came instead, he set himself to educate her as though she were a boy. Later he had sons, but he never so ferociously drilled them; in fact, they received most of their elementary education from Margaret. Defenders of Mr. Fuller argue that he did not torture Margaret unduly, that he imposed on her only the sort of training which any boy preparing for college was then subjected to, and that the only irregular fact about his discipline was its being administered, in that day and place, to a girl.

Even if this be so, such an exoneration of the father leaves out of account the passionate, nervous, highly charged, and pathetically impressionable nature of the daughter. She had to recite her lesson when he came home from the office at night; she did not get enough sleep and awoke again and again, shrieking out of nightmares of horses tramping her to death, of forests with the trees dripping blood. What Timothy required of her does seem excessive, even had it been demanded of a healthy boy who could study at decent intervals and have the relaxation of an afternoon’s game on the common. And then, of course, there was no college to which Margaret could go, even though she was thoroughly at home in history, the works of Thomas Jefferson, several languages, English literature, and mathematics. She knew more than the boys of her age, the sons of her family’s friends who went as a matter of easy course to Harvard and to the Divinity School. She more than kept pace with them by reading prodigiously-at a rate, said Emerson, comparable to Gibbon’s. By the time she was twenty she was fabulously erudite—and was wracked every day by migraine headaches of excruciating severity.

Timothy Fuller, a caustic and saturnine man, did not prosper in his profession. In 1833, a misguided effort at economy induced him to move the family to a farm in Groton. In terms of the transport facilities of that year, Margaret in Groton was condemned to as rustic an exile as an Ovid sentenced to the Euxine. She had no society beyond the young brothers she was teaching; she wrote reams of letters, read even more frantically, and nearly died of brain fever. At the crisis of that seizure, Timothy came to her, after due deliberation, and straightforwardly informed her that though she had defects, she did not have a single fault that he could find. Margaret suffered unspeakable disappointment as the family crisis prevented her accepting an invitation to travel in Europe; upon Timothy’s death in 1835 she had further to confront the information that he left virtually no money. Though publicly Margaret would speak of him with reverence, to her journals—which she kept voluminously—she told how she had walked alone in hours of childish passion “and called for a Father, often saying the word a hundred times, till stifled by sobs.” To these journals she confided long apostrophes to Goethe and Beethoven, calling herself their daughter.

For an impoverished New England spinster who in 1835, had even a smattering of learning, there was only the one legitimate opening—teaching school. But Margaret had more learning than any man in the area. Alter teaching for two years in a sort of experimental school in Providence (where she aroused among the girl students a fervent, not to say feverish, devotion), she took her life, or at least her reputation, in her hands by proposing to conduct in Boston, for money, a series of “Conversations” for such women as, in the Athens of America, cherished intellectual as well as social aspirations. Clad in homemade dresses which her neophytes thought to be of an Oriental sumptuousness, she led those resolute thinkers through long explorations of classical mythology and sustained probings of such questions as “What is Life?” Soon she was widely celebrated, in tones either of breathless adoration or raucous derision, as the “American Corinne.”