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Dear father it is a heavy storm i hope you will not have to come home in it.” So begins the record of a life that will end on a homeward journey in another heavy storm, a life unusually full of words, both spoken and written.
Sarah Margaret Fuller is six years old when she writes this brief letter on a half-sheet of paper saved by the devoted and exacting father who receives it, next by his widow, then by their descendants. Which one of them thinks to label it “First letter”? All of her survivors understand that there are, or will be, biographers, historians, students of literature who care to know.
But first it is the father who treasures his daughter’s message of concern, this lurching unpunctuated parade of runes, from the moment he unfolds the page — a father nearing forty and eager to set his young daughter, already an apt pupil, to a “severe though kind” education. And the mother, just twenty-one at her daughter’s birth, only twenty-seven now: she is known to find any words her firstborn child scribbles on bits of paper “original,” worthy of preservation.
At seven, the little girl — a tall little girl with plain looks and auburn hair, whose height and imperious manner set her apart from her age mates — writes again to her father, Timothy Fuller, a brash and for the moment successful lawyer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a U.S. congressman whose career in politics takes him away to Washington half the year, in winter and spring. It is January of 1818. In the new year, the girl’s concern for her father has transmuted into the desire to earn his good opinion — and so into more words, into the wish to show off her inquiring mind.
“I have learned all the rules of Musick but one,” she writes now in a fine spidery script, and “I have been reviewing Valpy’s Chronology” (a verse narrative of ancient and English history). And: “I should have liked to have been with you to have seen the pictures gallery at NYork.”
Sarah Margaret’s claims of accomplishment, her carefully worded wish to join Timothy in New York, are meant to forestall what she has already come to expect from her overbearing father: the torrent of criticism — of her penmanship, of her rate of progress through his curriculum, of her “stile” of expression, as he prefers to spell the word — all intended to bring his precocious daughter “as near perfection as possible.” Timothy, proud to have been a “high scholar” at Harvard, has been her only teacher, starting her on Latin at age six, requiring that she recite her lessons only to him during his months at home, insisting she be kept awake until his return from work to stand before him on his study carpet late at night, her nerves “on the stretch” until she has finished repeating to him what she had learned that day. Already she has experienced more severity than kindness in her father’s pedagogy.
And so the anxious, eager-to-please seven-year-old Sarah Margaret Fuller apologizes to her father, a man with “absolutely no patience” for mistakes, as she will to no one else in the voluminous correspondence that follows after this second letter: “I do not write well at all,” and “I have written every day a little but have made but little improvement.” And: “I hope to make greater proficiency in my Studies.”
But the verbs tell all — she has learned and reviewed, she would like to see and to make improvement. These verbs are hers. The nouns also: music, art, chronology (the unfolding of world events, the progress of society). These are her concerns, her aims, her occupations at age seven. And they will remain so for the girl who, to her father’s and her own dismay, struggles through years of singing lessons, unable to shine at this one accomplishment. “To excel in all things should be your constant aim; mediocrity is obscurity,” Timothy will prod when he offers to buy her a piano. But she continues to write every day that she has paper and pen to hand, except in times of sickness, until she becomes a woman. And then too, when she will write of music, art, literature, politics, and travel for a nation of readers. She takes her father’s cue, embraces the discipline: she refuses to be mediocre, to be obscure.
The seven-year-old girl must stop writing this second letter, however, a letter that announces her intellect to her father even by way of apology, because her mother — Margarett Crane Fuller — has asked her to “hold the baby,” a new little brother, William Henry, the second after brother Eugene. Three-year-old Eugene “speaks of you sometimes,” the girl tells her father, but he is not old enough to write — or to hold the baby, which he would not have been asked to do anyway, as a boy. Sarah Margaret must hold the baby while her mother, Margarett — a head taller than her bluff, domineering husband, with a slender, elfin beauty; sweet-tempered, but not a woman of letters — writes her own letter to Timothy.
Baby, little brother, elder sister, mother, all crowd around a writing desk with the absent Timothy foremost in their minds — his demanding presence felt across the miles. Missing from this tableau is Julia Adelaide, the “soft, graceful and lively” much-adored second-born daughter who died four years ago, just past her first birthday, when Sarah Margaret was three years old. The abrupt loss, the never-forgotten moment when the baby’s nurse, tears streaming, pulled Sarah Margaret into the nursery to view her sister’s tiny corpse in all its “severe sweetness,” shocked the older girl into consciousness. “My first experience of life was one of death,” she will write years later — so that even now, as she takes her infant brother in her arms and cedes the pen to her mother, she feels alone.
“She who would have been the companion of my life” was “severed from me”: Julia Adelaide might have been Sarah Margaret’s ally in their father’s more “severe” than “kind” school. Julia Adelaide’s death too was far more “severe” than “sweet,” for in the following months Margarett was also severed — or withdrew — from Sarah Margaret, growing “delicate” in health as her grief turned to depression. The sorrowing mother spent hours in her garden, working the flower beds or simply sitting among the fragrant roses, fruit trees, and clematis vines, turned away from her living daughter. And then the brothers came, first Eugene and then William Henry. In dreams, Sarah Margaret sees herself joining a procession of mourners “in their black clothes and dreary faces,” following her mother to her grave as she already has her sister. She has been told, but does not remember, that she begged “with loud cries” that Julia Adelaide not be put into the ground. She wakes to find her pillow wet with tears.
Two years later, Sarah Margaret starts again: “My dear father.” By now, January 16, 1820, she has written many more letters to Timothy, signed them “Your affectionate daughter, Sarah M Fuller” or “S M Fuller” or “Sarah-Margaret Fuller.” She has sent him compositions in which “I assure you I . . . made almost as many corrections as your critical self would were you at home.” Obedient to Timothy alone (her mother finds her difficult, “opinionative”), she has let him know she is translating Oliver Goldsmith’s long poem of rural decline, The Deserted Village, into Latin, as he has asked; she is pushing herself through the Aeneid in answer to his challenge — wasn’t she yet “profoundly into” the work? Within six months she will have puzzled out the entire savage-heroic tale in the original Latin.
It is a greater pleasure, almost easy, for the girl to accomplish such intellectual feats during the half-year her father is away. Even though she quarrels with Margarett, is unable to feel her love, she will at times, whether to imitate her mother or to seek her mother’s distilled essence or simply to please herself, sit alone in the garden, at ease among the violets, lilies, and roses: “my mother’s hand had planted them, and they bloomed for me.” Like Persephone, she is free above ground during the two seasons her father is away, when her mother’s “flower-like nature” prevails, when she need answer only to Timothy’s exhorting letters.
In this third letter she begins to test Timothy’s strictures. Twice before she has written asking his permission to read an Italian thriller, Zeluco, and twice she has recommended for his own reading a novel — “Do not let the name novel make you think it is either trifling or silly,” she urges — called Hesitation: or, To Marry, or Not to Marry? In the pages of Hesitation she has encountered, along with the novel’s pair of indecisive lovers, the extraordinary comtesse de Pologne, a witty conversationalist, happily single, with the “power to disengage herself from the shackles of custom, without losing one attribute of modesty”: a woman whose personal magnetism draws both men and women to her circle. Does she hope Timothy will find the comtesse too and approve?
Sarah Margaret is writing fiction herself, “a new tale called The young satirist,” she tells her father, in the loose rolling hand she has acquired only recently, which will be recognizably hers from now on. Despite Timothy’s criticisms, she is beginning to feel how bright she is, even brilliant, a commanding presence in her mind’s eye, if not in daily life — the tall girl will soon reach five feet two inches and stop growing, becoming short, plump, and awkward as an adolescent. She too can play the critic, the provocateur, the “young satirist,” when she wishes. She is nine years old. Her mother, Margarett, just thirty, is newly pregnant with a fifth child. She closes her letter:
P S I do not like Sarah, call me Margaret alone, pray do!