Distant Relations: A Dramatic Dialogue Between Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson
NARRATOR: We know Ralph Waldo Emerson. We know the sage of Concord who gave us the doctrine of “self‐reliance” and the belief in the “Oversoul.” He was the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, and is remembered as one of the most important cultural figures of the nineteenth century. The son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson followed in his father’ footsteps, but resigned his pastorate at the Second Church of Boston, where he liked the preaching but not the sacramental rituals or the daily interchanges with parishioners. Then he launched a career as a lecturer. His fame began to grow with the publication in 1836 of Nature, which outlines a philosophy based upon intuitive experiences of the divine in nature and the human soul. Two years later he caused a storm of controversy with his Divinity School Address, which attacked historical Christianity.
We know Margaret Fuller less well. That is unfortunate. She was one of the brightest intellects of antebellum America and the editor of the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial. As a child she endured the rigid intellectual disciplines of her father. What she gleaned from this was what few of her female peers possessed: self‐respect and self‐reliance. Every step she took proved something about feminine potential, and the restrictions of masculine privilege. Her “Conversations” for women from 1839 to1844 were important forums on culture, politics and women’s rights. Her friendship with Emerson had a profound impact on both of them, intellectually and personally. Their attempts at forging a friendship were a frequent subject of discussion between them and a source of inspiration and irritation to both. Margaret visited Waldo and his wife, Lidian, many times in their Concord home. During one of these visits in October 1841, they communicated by sending letters back and forth from their respective chambers, using Waldo’s son as their courier. Their long standing debate about friendship once moved Waldo to reflect upon his “strange, cold‐warm, attractive‐repelling conversations with Margaret.” If we return to the 1840s, we might hear them right now in the Emerson parlor.
(RWE is sitting, reading a book)
(MARGARET ENTERS) (RWE rises to meet her and clasps her hand)
RWE: Margaret, I am pleased that you have come to lay siege to my chicken coop. You are great refreshment to me. We are beginning to become acquainted,
though it might be a couple of centuries before we are the best of friends.
MF: I have received much sustenance from my visits here. (RWE shows her sofa, and she sits) I especially like to be in your library when you are out of it. There is so much soul there I do not need a book. When I come to you, I cannot receive you, and you cannot give yourself; it does not profit. But when I cannot find you the beauty and permanence of your life comes to me.
RWE: Do you prefer the ghosts I leave behind, over my own presence? I am aware of my imperfect discourse, but it is not due to any deficiency of affections. I would gladly spend the remainder of my life in your society, why you can confide in me at any time and I would gladly be as true a brother as ever blood made.
MF: Despite what you say dear R, you are a minister who eludes my acquaintance. I expect a friend to provide a clue to the labyrinth of my being.
RWE: I left the ministry because I could not speak or feel freely, I could not be a man quiet and whole.
MF: Show me! Your neighbors say that you are always on stilts except when perched on the lecture rostrum. You speak of the god‐head or Oversoul that dwells in everyone. Where is yours?
RWE: I seek honest convictions and deep religious affections, and the churches I knew seemed to prefer conformity, complacency and lip service in their religion.
MF: We must be willing to grow into God. Others would enforce God’s presence by a spell. They are not willing to learn by the slow processes of their own. They want to bind God in a word, that they might wear it around their neck like a talisman.
RWE: Our worship too often knows no real life, speaks not of laughter and tears. (RWE turns to audience) There are some people on Cape Cod who are so dispirited by the church that they are known as the Come‐outers. They assemble in front of the church on Sunday morning during the time of service and yell to the throng inside ‐”Come Out.” Sometimes I am told they enter the church and trample across the cushions during the sermon. My gods may not be found in church, but neither are they with these buffoons. I cannot abide these tactics.
MF: Are they not expressing honest disaffection with the church as you do?
RWE: This is the work of crowds ‐ in church, on the street. Man is stronger than a city, his solitude is more prevalent and beneficial than the concert of crowds.
MF: (MF stands) You depend so on yourself, that you fail to comprehend the power of the city, of relations. I take great pleasure in what you say about a living presence of beauty in nature. You prefer the country, your woods, your gardens, and I doubt not that there is a better condition of life there in some degree. But one may also be vulgar and idle in the country, and earnest, wise and noble in the city.
RWE: We meet and treat each other like foreign states, one maritime, one inland, whose trade and laws are essentially unlike.
MF: I must die if I do not burst forth in genius and heroism. I cannot nourish my life by traveling widely in Concord. I am starved by wise restraint. I have an appetite for the actual not the rhetorical.
RWE: Is this not living to you?
MF: I was not born to the common womanly lot. There is no being who can keep the key to my character. I knew I should be a pilgrim and a sojourner on earth. You like a sure place to lay your head, but as for me, such being can only find their homes in hearts.
RWE: Your heart unceasingly demands all. I know there is some inhospitality of soul in me. Yet you live in a sea that never seems to ebb. You visit me at my house, and would have me love you. But what shall I love?
MF: Give me truth; cheat me by no illusion. (MF moves toward RWE. He moves back, and turns away)
RWE: Though I prize my friends I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions lest I lose my own. It would give a certain household joy to quit this lofty seeking, this spiritual astronomy, and come down into warm sympathies with my friends, but then I know well I shall mourn always the vanishing of my mighty gods.
MF: You live in your own way. You would not soothe the feelings of a friend because you would not wish for anyone to do it for you.
RWE: You are too superior to the rest of your sex to be the object of romantic affections. I have always admired your energy, your insight, your intellect.
MF: (MF moves away) I now know all the people worth knowing in America; and I find no intellect comparable to my own.
RWE: Margaret, you seem to be destitute of that virtue commonly called modesty.
MF: I love best to be a woman, but womanhood is at present too straightly-bounded to give me scope. You have inspired me greatly, but even your dear wife comes to me, and moans, where is the living soul I can grasp? Why is he not there for me?
RWE: Margaret, you make everybody restless by always wanting to grow forward. How can I be your friend?
MF: You say elevate the individual. Would you let me elevate myself? I would have my friends tender of me not because I am frail and uneducated, or lacking passion, but because I am capable of strength.
RWE: Let us live as we have always done. You expect me to explain myself; do not expect it of me again. (RWE turns away)
MF: You frustrate me in my attempts to know you. With all your faith in man, you have but little faith in men. The higher we rise in conversation, the sadder I feel.
RWE: I am uncomfortable that you seek such a shocking familiarity. I cannot be productive if I am subjected to emotional excitement. I know I may from you, but I cannot help myself.
MF: Is your life real? Do you mean what you say, or is it merely metaphor?
RWE: I am frustrated with my inability to communicate. I want to live with people who love and hate, who have muses and furies. Pommel me black and blue with sincere words. Electrify me by your eloquence. Part of me longs for this passion, but I also dread how it may drain me.
MF: Waldo how can you expect the muse to come to you? She hovers near; I have seen her several times, especially near night. Sometimes she looks in at your study windows, when she can get a chance, for they are almost always shut.
RWE: Our friendship sadly is based on the truism that you have something to give that I am unable to receive. I am better able to tell people how they must want to live, rather than in showing people true living.
MF: This light will never understand my fire; this clear eye will never discern the law by which I am filling my circle; this single force will never interpret my need of manifold being.
RWE: I may seem insensitive, but I must live by the laws I comprehend, and they are completely self‐contained. The only source of divining truth is what each of us hears when God speaks through us in our own conscience. No one can change you; I must be true to myself. (RWE sits)
MF: I would have woman lay aside all thought, such as being taught and led by men. I would have her, like the Indian girl, dedicate herself to the sun, the sun of truth, and go nowhere if his beams did not make clear the path. I would have her free from compromise, complaisance, from helplessness, because I would have her good enough and strong enough to love one and all beings, from the fullness, not the poverty of being. (MF sits)
NARRATOR: Fuller never quite achieved her dream of relating to Waldo out of the full depth of her being. He later recorded his fear that he lacked the courage to confront her life, a life whose activity, audacity and integrity made his seem cowardly and trifling. Waldo was comfortable with the pastoral life in Concord, but Margaret had to live life to its fullest.
Margaret Fuller went on to work for Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune, becoming the first woman reporter. Her early discovery of the oppression of woman led her to write the first comprehensive feminist book in the United States, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Her spirit of adventure and romance led her to Italy, where she became involved with the revolution, fell in love with a radical named Ossoli and gave birth to a child. She attempted to return to America with her family in 1850, but she died in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York. Henry David Thoreau, that other Transcendentalist voice and friend of Emerson, searched on the beach in vain for her body. Only recently have we begun to understand her influence as a pioneering feminist, literary critic, and central figure in the Transcendentalist movement.
As for Emerson, his reputation grew and grew as he continued to speak and to publish. Today he is acknowledged as one of the two or three most important authors of the nineteenth century. The story of Emerson and Fuller’s friendship makes us ask how we can reconcile the inward life of growing one’s own soul versus the outward life of relationships and struggles for freedom in society. Emerson and Fuller struggled with this dilemma. We remember the beauty of Emerson’s words and thought, but may we also remember the beauty of Margaret’s thought, her dream of what friendship could be, and her courageous life.
This dramatic dialogue between Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson was written for a worship service in Milton, MA. Much of the dialogue consists of passages from the writings of Emerson and Fuller woven together with Rev. Harris’s own words.