“Between narrow walls we walk: insanity on one side, & fat dullness on the other.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal entry (September ? 1840)

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Two for Tuesday: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller

Tuesday afternoon, sunny and very windy, 61 degrees.

Today I’m tackling two people as opposed to two poems or two passages, and in so doing, I realize fully that I am barely moving beyond the surface layer of two very complex individuals. It is not hard to find a plethora of books and essays about the life and works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803April 27, 1882), the so-called “Sage of Concord,” and while available research on Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810July 19, 1850) has not been as prolific as that on Emerson, the last 40 years have seen a resurgence in interest on the feminist icon.

Fuller, a well-known name in Women’s Studies, died tragically at the age of only 40. However, Fuller was noted for her groundbreaking achievements, including being the first female American foreign correspondent, as well as the first female combat reporter, as well as being first woman to attend Emerson’s all-male Transcendental Club. In 2013 Judith Thurman reviewed Megan Marshall’s biography on Fuller in an article titled “An Unfinished Woman,” which you can find here.

I recently read an article on Brain Pickings by Maria Popova called “The Conflicted Love Letters of Emerson and Fuller.” Admittedly, I am not an Emersonian scholar, knowing only the basics—a la Wikipedia—about the American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet; the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century is often attributed to Emerson. I also know little about Emerson’s relationship with Fuller, who was once considered the “best read woman in America.” Fuller was a prominent female intellectual renowned for her literary criticism and feminist writing, most notable of which was her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845, which advocated more independence for woman and broader lives beyond the traditional hearth and home.

“Ask me what I think of you & me, — & I am put to confusion.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, from a letter to Margaret Fuller

The article led me to peruse some of Emerson’s journal entries, such as some from the 1840s in which he reacts to the paradoxical nature of his relationship with Fuller. One entry is quoted in the Brain Pickings’ article:

You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought & said? Well, whilst you were thinking & saying them, but not now. I see no possibility of loving any thing but what now is, & is becoming; your courage, your enterprize, your budding affection, your opening thought, your prayer, I can love—but what else? (September 26, 1840)

More from  Emerson’s journal:

. . . When I write a letter to any one whom I love I have no lack of words or thoughts: I am wiser than myself & read my paper with the pleasure of one who receives a letter, but what I write to fill up the gaps of a chapter is hard & cold, is grammar & logic; there is no magic in it; I do not wish to see it again. Settle with yourself your accusations of me. If I do not please you, ask me not to please you, but please yourself. What you call my indolence, nature does not accuse; the twinkling leaves, the sailing fleets of waterflies, the deep sky like me well enough and know me for their own . . . You do not know me If my debts, as they threaten, should consume what money I have, I should live just as I do now. (October 7, 1840)

I do not give you my time, but I give you that which I have put my time into, namely my letter or my poem, the expression of my opinion, or better yet which in solitude I have learned to do. (October 1840)

For her part, Fuller opined regarding their relationship: more than friends, but exactly what, neither could discern:

We are to be much to one another. How often have I left you despairing and forlorn. How often have I said, this light will never understand my fire; this clear eye will never discern the law by which I am filling my circle; this simple force will never interpret my need to manifold being.

I think that what I and others find most relatable in their relationship is its very duality, the “emotional confusion” that abounded in their intimacy.


Music by Pomplamoose, featuring Sarah Dugas, “Sweet Dreams + Seven Nation Army”

Thoughts, opinions, ideas?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.