April Bernard: The Thoreaus at home

The family had refused to be impressed when Miss Fuller had left for Europe in 1846. All right that she had lived in New York and written for the reformist Tribune about the city slums; all right that she had traveled to the Great Lakes and deplored the mistreatment of the resettled Indians on their tawdry “reservation.” But Europe? Mother, Helen, and Sissy were very clear on this: It was not the right thing to have done, to have gone to Europe; neither becoming nor patriotic. Her newspaper columns from London, Paris, and Rome; her interviews with Carlyle and George Sand and Mazzini the revolutionary and Mickiewicz the poet; her exhortations to aid the Italian cause and the causes of all the revolutions popping and fizzing, sometimes booming, over Europe—all went largely unread at their table, certainly unstudied. (Henry did read them, Anne knew, but he rarely spoke of them. One of the aunts had been living with them when Miss Fuller was writing from England and France, and the aunt had been an enthusiast, reading passages aloud. There was relief when she left.) Such a writer and talker should be at home, where they needed her, with the Abolitionist cause. Women’s rights, on which Miss Fuller had spoken and written so famously, were another distraction, not to be countenanced in the face of the great wrong of slavery that history had placed before the men and women of the United States. Anne’s family had been far angrier with the likes of Miss Fuller than with the plantation owners and their “stooges” in Congress—who, as she and Mother agreed, had not been bred to know better.

Anne had talked privately with Miss Fuller only once, and that was during one of those summers when Miss Fuller had been living in Concord, at the Emerson home. In large groups, such as the lemonade parties Mrs. E hosted, Miss Fuller was expansive, full of opinions, and only fell silent when Mr. E spoke. She made sheep’s eyes at Mr. E—everyone saw it, including Mrs. E though she would never say so. Anne guessed that was one reason Mrs. E was so gracious. Helen commented on Miss Fuller’s diminished figure, and Henry reported that she was attempting a “vegetary” regimen, some combination of something called the Graham System and one pressed upon her by friends from London who followed Oriental dietary laws. Mrs. E had been making a great effort to satisfy her guest’s appetite, but everyone could see she was looking thin and wan, and Mrs. E felt blamed.

One afternoon Henry took his sister along with Miss Fuller for a river jaunt in his skiff. This time Miss Fuller seemed a school-girl gawky. When she snagged her pink sateen dress in an oar-lock, Henry’s face registered for his sister’s benefit a comedy of exaggerated eye-rolling dismay unnoticed by their guest, who never stopped talking for a moment about a lecture she had attended the night before, not even when a length of sateen ripped into a kind of fringe that trailed into the water. At last catching her breath and looking about, she finally noticed the draggling finery and laughed easily, which made Anne like her after all. Then she quoted something in German and simpered and squinted, so she had liked her less. Naturally the laughing and the German, like everything else about her, were too loud for Henry.

As Henry headed down river on his own, Anne walked Miss Fuller back to the Emersons.

“Please, do call me Margaret, as your brother does. And we have in common as well that we are both editors for Henry.”

“No, I could not say I am his editor. I am a copyist, at times. We make the joke that I am his private secretary. We are all most grateful—I’m sure Henry is—that you have taken his pieces for The Dial.”

“He has the soul of a poet, and I applaud his verses. But his essays, although rich and clear, are not, somehow, always coherent. I’ve only taken the one, you know. Sometimes his poet’s soul wanders.”

“Do you really think so.”

They arrived at the garden gate. Anne flinched as the woman seemed about to embrace her; they settled for shaking hands.

***

[1850] Henry returned from his visit to the shipwreck in a thunderstorm. A crate of specimens came off the cart with him.

As Sissy made tea in the nearly empty kitchen Anne told Henry about the Monarchs—one had already taken wing, three more were still in chrysalid state; one pouch had fallen, black and dead, to the bottom of the case. The kitchen table and nearly all the china had gone to the new house, so they set their tea-cups, without saucers, on the broad lip of the stove. The rain stopped and the sun came through the dripping window of the kitchen. Henry excused himself to go take tea with the Emersons. Lidian, Mrs. E, had sent a note asking him to come right away.

“He has gone to his Maker,” said Anne to her sister.

“I don’t enjoy your jokes about Mr. E,” Sissy said.

“You mean God?”

“It is not amusing.”

“I will call him Jove, then, is that better?”

Henry walked the short path to the Emersons’, and at the gate Lidian saw him coming and rushed to embrace him. She was sniffing; he backed away so as not to encourage any real tears. Mr. E was in his study, but he was no longer morose. He was talking and pacing, almost preaching, to Ellery Channing, who seemed to be taking notes. “Henry! Ellery told me you had stayed to scavenge.”

“I was collecting specimens, yes.”

Henry then noticed James Freeman Clarke, standing over by the corner window, and they bowed slightly to one another. His reddish hair, backlit by the late afternoon sun, stood out in wisps from his pale head. Clarke looks like an old man, Henry thought. Years ago many of them had guessed he might marry Margaret; but Lidian had thought not, and she had been right.

Emerson said, “We are beginning—embarking—you know, Ellery is really the man in charge, on a book of memoirs of Margaret, selections of her own writings accompanied by recollections of those who knew her best—myself, Ellery, Clarke, Greeley—commemorating her genius.”

He paused, then announced: “ ‘Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli.’ You must contribute as well. Collecting her best words. Commemorating her genius.”

Henry took tea and sandwiches and waited for the others to leave. James inquired after Henry’s studies and said that while he was staying in town he would like to accompany him on a botanising walk or a river jaunt. Henry looked at James’s sleek brown boots and gave his usual shuffling answer about it all depending on the weather. Mr. E ate greedily and needed help to push his chair back from the table—one could not help but notice the girth he had added recently. Standing up to his nearly six full feet, however, he seemed in fine proportion.

After tea he and Henry took one of their usual paths, through the orchard and then on up the hill for a good view. Mr. E talked without ceasing about Margaret, her peculiar genius, her radical habits of mind, her place in the history of thought and action. Suddenly he sat down hard on a mossy rock, interrupting his own monologue, and softly wailed—

“Oh, have I done wrong?”

“What? Tell me.”

Mr. E did not want to go on; or he did, but he couldn’t. He pouted out his lips like a child. Henry was patient, staring out at the heavy trees that clustered along the curving river in the distance. The crown of one of the trees was yellower than the others—a hickory?

“I—I advised—I refused. She wanted money, months ago—she begged me for a loan and I did not answer, and she wrote to Greeley for an advance from the Tribune, for the book on the revolution—and I was in New York with Greeley at the time. He was short of ready money in any case, and I advised him not to make the sacrifice.”

Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New-York Daily Tribune, was Margaret’s employer and champion. She had written dozens and dozens of dispatches from Europe for him, all these years. He had published Woman in the Nineteenth Century and had promised to publish her book on the Italian revolution. Greeley and his wife and children were Margaret’s dear friends. This was incredible.

“Not to send her money he planned to pay her anyway?” Henry said.

“Not even a portion of it. I feared—we all feared—she would never come home. Such rumors we had been hearing, you know them yourself, from the Springs and that portrait painter—Ricks? Hicks?—and Hawthorne’s friend, the one who knows the Brownings. . . .”

“I did not believe the rumors,” said Henry stiffly. “If they did not have a marriage in a Protestant church that does not mean they were not married.”

“But marriage itself has been doubted, amongst people who knew—”

“Everyone would have doubted the marriage if it were in the Roman church as well. She explained all that, you told me yourself. They were married in late autumn of 1847, but the records were lost in the subsequent confusion of the war. These speculations are ridiculous and mean-spirited.”

“I confess I was at first shocked that she had married at all.” Two tiny green grass-hoppers leapt up from the grass and clung to Mr. E’s trouser leg. He brushed them away and continued:

“The domestic life, as wife and mother, always seemed to me something Margaret was too—noble, I think, yes, too noble for. She had too pure an intellect and character to. . . but the rumors—”

“We need not listen to slander,” Henry said.

“The only way to counter slander was for her and her husband and baby to come home, so we could see them all.”

Henry walked on ahead, to an old apple-tree that had just recently broken in two. The place where the break had happened was pale and mealy, and the center was hollow where the tree had been rotting from within. He plucked a green apple no bigger than a quail’s egg and polished it in his hands as Mr. E caught up.

“Are you angry, Henry?”

“Did you even think about how they would live here? On what income? Would her brothers have taken them in?”

“Or Elizabeth Peabody, or I. Our hands would have been open, once she was home. We would have found a place for them in Concord, or with her mother. Elizabeth proposed she begin a new series of Conversations. And naturally her book on the revolution would have been published. ”

“Do you know if she asked anyone else for money?” asked Henry.

“Her brothers. I think they had already sent her what they could spare. And she did ask Elizabeth, too. I told her not to send money, either. I persuaded her that Margaret must come home.”

Henry said, “You took a lot upon yourself.”

“It was for her own good! I know it was! But—I saw her brother Richard yesterday in Boston. He had only just received a letter she wrote in May, from Livorno, as they were waiting to board. A letter from the dead! Poor thing, he’s been ill enough. In the letter she wrote that they had borrowed money for food and boat fare, and that they were nearly starved.”

“No.”

“And that the only tickets home they could afford were on a merchant ship. They could not even afford the packet boat, which would have been safer—so many merchant ships are lost, so dangerous with the baby—And on another boat, they would have arrived much earlier. Don’t you see? And avoided the storm!”

Mr. E groaned and rubbed his face.

If sin existed, this was a sin; but who could grant absolution? Henry only said, “You could not have known.”

On their silent walk back down the hill, Henry absent-mindedly handed the green apple to Mr. E. He as absently took a little bite, then quickly spat it out and tossed the bitter fruit into the grass.

Henry had a sudden memory of one summer, many years earlier, when Margaret had come for her usual stay at the Emersons’ home. He had been living there too, as he often did, working as a carpenter and general handy-man in the house and garden in exchange for the peace of his study-hours at a desk in the barn. He was short of money then, and the Emersons were kind to him. Margaret had joined them in July, to Henry’s mild annoyance—she took up all of Mr. E’s best conversation, and seemed as well to make Lidian nervous.

But what he now remembered was something else: her quick look of sympathy that day when Mr. E had folded some coins in a paper and shoved it at him through the breakfast cups. It was called a “loan” but was really a gift; she knew so; she also knew that Henry must have needed it, and that he hated to receive it in front of her. The next week, she had bought two poems of his for The Dial—poems he knew for a certainty she did not like, he could tell well enough—and paid him more than he supposed poems usually merited. He angrily questioned her “charity,” she as angrily insisted it was nothing of the kind, and if he thought it was charity, well, he could give it to a charitable cause. So he did; the ten dollars she had paid him he gave to the First Parish Church fund for the new steeple.

“Since then,” said Margaret, who liked to repeat her own wit, “I always think of you when I hear the bell. The Dial paid the toll.”

It was a hard thing to need money, to have to ask for it. It might also be a hard thing to give it; but Mr. E and Greeley and the others had not, in this case, done that particular hard thing.

The light was low and the shadows long when they arrived at the back door of the Emersons’ house. Henry did not go inside, and he took his old friend’s hand in his.

“It was right that she should come home,” said Henry. “It’s contrary for any American to live in Europe. She needed to come home.” He meant those words; he was not lying. But he held some other words back.

Mr. E rubbed again at his face, making the skin ruddy and disarranging his side- whiskers, and heavily climbed the back steps. Henry found that he was not able to tell him about the letter he had discovered on Fire Island. Emerson was a man with money to give or not to give. He and Margaret were mice who darted for crumbs.

From Miss Fuller’s letter, discovered posthumously by Henry:
“As I already explained, I had met Giovanni Angelo Ossoli in Rome in early April of 1847. He escorted me home when I lost my way after vespers in St. Peter’s, & took to calling on me at the rooms we had taken on the Corso. Later in Grenoble, I told Mish [her lover, poet Adam Mickiewicz] all about him—& then by letter Mish continued to urge me to take the step of marriage & said that he prayed I might experience the joy of motherhood at last. I was so grateful. I had lost my “beloved” but I had not lost the Poet himself; my beloved had become like my father, advising & urging me to do what would make me happy & fulfill my place in the world.

“It is no insult to the Poet to say that he like all men perforce under-estimated the cost to my physical self that becoming a mother would mean. No doubt he also imagined, as indeed I did, that having a husband would mean I would be protected & could continue in my work. But as I am now circumstanced, with a small child & a war-scarred husband to support, how am I to take ‘my place in the world’? This is a puzzle I am yet working out, one that I hope my friends in America will not refuse to help me solve. I hope that Mr E will not gloat that he was right, that solitude & chastity & barrenness were the requisite conditions for me to be the New Woman & raise my beacon of education & action aloft. Minerva & her chaste moon are all very well for school-girls to emulate. But what World worth its salt will deny women the creature necessities of love & motherhood as the price for participation in its decisions & its future? The Associationists, I believe, have many practical solutions to offer, with their plans for community nurseries & schools. . . .

“But there are times when I long only for this: That my husband & child would venture on an excursion for a few days & leave me to my solitude. Would I write a newspaper column? A chapter? No. A letter begging for money from an old friend who is feeling less friendly with every letter he receives? No! Would I mount a platform & urge the rights of slaves not to be slaves, the rights of a free Europe, the rights of women? Not I. I would sit with Goethe’s poems, & attempt a translation. I would take a walk, a long city walk in which I could day-dream amidst the throng, their dreams & mine twining into the thick rope that is humanity . . . I would stand on a dock & watch the boats, I would dream in color & music but not in words . . . & then I would return to my desk, make a pot of tea, & try to make the German words come alive in English before me. This I would do for several days until I felt like myself once again.”

 

Margaret Fuller was drowned off the coast of Fire Ireland, returning from Italy with her husband Giovanni Ossoli and their two-year-old son. The manuscript of her history of the Italian revolution was lost at sea.

Miss Fuller, a novel by April Bernard based on the last years of Margaret Fuller’s life and the lives of her friends, will be published imminently by Steerforth Press.

April Bernard’s story “The Fixed Idea” appeared in Little Star #2 (2011). Read some of it here.

Writers:

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One Response to April Bernard: The Thoreaus at home

  1. [...] and then lies in wait for them, sometimes for years. In her recent novel Miss Fuller (a portion here in Little Star online), about nineteenth-century troublemaker Margaret Fuller, she wrote her way [...]