The Conflicted Love Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller: How an Intense Unclassifiable Relationship Shaped the History of Modern Thought
We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.
By Maria Popova
“I had seen the Universe,” the revolutionary education reformer and entrepreneur Elizabeth Peabody recalled of first meeting the adolescent Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850), who had already mastered Latin, French, Italian, Greek, and pure mathematics, and was reading two or three lectures in philosophy every morning just for mental discipline. “I am determined on distinction,” Fuller wrote to her former teacher at fifteen. By thirty, this fierce determination would establish her as the most erudite woman in America.
In Fuller’s twenty-fifth year, she met the person with whom she would form her most intense lifelong bond and who would in turn come to consider her his greatest influence: Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882). “She bound in the belt of her sympathy and friendship all whom I know and love,” he would write upon her tragic and untimely death. “Her heart, which few knew, was as great as her mind, which all knew.” Occupying a significant portion of Figuring, from which this essay is adapted, Emerson and Fuller’s bond would challenge conventional relationship categories and shape the foundational philosophical, political, and aesthetic ideas and ideals of contemporary culture.
Immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of liberal New England, Fuller had long yearned to know the man revered as the country’s most daring intellect. But it was Emerson who made the first overture to the young woman whose reputation had rippled to Concord. He asked Elizabeth Peabody for a formal introduction. In early 1835, Peabody arranged for her young friend to visit Emerson in his home.
At first jarred by Fuller’s freely expressed strong opinions and lack of deference, Emerson was eventually won over — quite possibly by a poem she had recently written and published in a Boston newspaper, under the near-anonymous byline “F,” elegizing the death of Emerson’s beloved younger brother; or possibly by her countercultural proclamation that “all the marriages she knew were a mutual degradation,” which Waldo — as the Sage of Concord was known to his intimates — later reported to Peabody. He affirmed her admiration for Fuller’s intellect, writing that “she has the quickest apprehension.” Within two years, Fuller would become the first woman to attend Emerson’s all-male Transcendental Club — an occasional gathering of like-minded liberals, in which even Peabody was not included, despite the fact that she had coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England.
But Margaret and Waldo’s initial meeting of minds soon became a contact point magnetized by something beyond the intellect — something she hoped, at least for a while, would propel each toward the “fulness of being” she held up as the ultimate aim of existence, something that would prompt him to shudder in the pages of his journal: “There is no terror like that of being known.”
In 1839, having used her meager earnings as a teacher and writer to put her younger brothers through Harvard — an institution closed to women — Fuller founded a groundbreaking series of “Conversations” for women, which would seed the ideas harvested by the feminist movement of the twentieth century. Held at Elizabeth Peabody’s house in Boston on the mornings of Emerson’s successful Wednesday evening lectures, so that commuters could attend both in a single trip, these conversational salons explored subjects ranging from education to ethics, with session titles like “Influence,” “Mistakes,” “Creeds,” “The Ideal,” and “Persons Who Never Awake to Life in This World.”
After the staggering success of the first gathering, when a small group of Transcendentalists set out to do in print what Fuller was doing in conversation, Emerson proposed her for the editorship of a new periodical, promising her a share of the proceeds large enough to alleviate her ongoing financial struggles. Fuller accepted. They called this unexampled journal The Dial — the title that cofounder Bronson Alcott had given to his daily log of sayings by his two young daughters, Anna and Louisa May. Nothing like it had existed before — it was America’s first truly independent magazine, unaffiliated with any university or church, devoted not to a religious ideology or a single genre of literature, but to a kaleidoscope of intellectual and creative curiosity: philosophy, poetry, art, science, law, criticism. A century and a half before the TED conference claimed “ideas worth spreading” as a motto, Emerson envisioned The Dial as precisely that — a publication “so broad & great in its survey that it should lead the opinion of this generation on every great interest,” a sort of manual on “the whole Art of Living.” Fuller aimed even higher. On the prospectus printed on the back of the inaugural issue, published on July 4, 1840 — just after her thirtieth birthday — she vowed to aim “not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and more nobly, by letting him see how some minds are kept alive by a peculiar self-trust.”
In the course of their professional collaboration, Margaret and Waldo’s relationship swelled with complexity that strained the boundaries of friendship, of soul kinship, even of intellectual infatuation.
Waldo, sorrowing in an intellectually unriveting marriage, bonded with Margaret in a way that he would with no one else — not even his wife and children. “Most of the persons whom I see in my own house I see across a gulf,” he anguished in his own journal. “I cannot go to them nor they come to me.” He and Margaret found themselves on one side of an invisible wall, the rest of the world on the other. But neither knew what to make of this uncommon bond that didn’t conform to any existing template. The richest relationships are often those that don’t fit neatly into the preconceived slots we have made for the archetypes we imagine would populate our lives — the friend, the lover, the parent, the sibling, the mentor, the muse. We meet people who belong to no single slot, who figure into multiple categories at different times and in different magnitudes. We then must either stretch ourselves to create new slots shaped after these singular relationships, enduring the growing pains of self-expansion, or petrify.
Margaret Fuller experienced friendship and romance much as she did male and female — in a nonbinary way. A century before Virginia Woolf subverted the millennia-old cultural rhetoric of gender with her assertion that “in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female,” making her case for the androgynous mind as the best possible mind, “resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided,” Fuller denounced the dualism of gender and insisted that “there is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” The boundary, she argued far ahead of Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir in her groundbreaking Woman in the Nineteenth Century, is indeed porous, so that a kind of ongoing transmutation takes place: “Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid” as male and female “are perpetually passing into one another.” Fuller was highly discriminating about her intimate relationships, but once she admitted another into the innermost chambers of her being, she demanded of them nothing less than everything — having tasted Goethe’s notion of “the All,” why salivate over mere fragments of feeling?
But this boundless and all-consuming emotional intensity eventually repelled its objects — a parade of brilliant and beautiful men and women, none of whom could fully understand it, much less reciprocate it. Hers was a diamagnetic being, endowed with nonbinary magnetism yet repelling by both poles. Falling back on his trustiest faculty, Waldo tried to reason his way out of the emotional disorientation of his complex relationship with Margaret:
I would that I could, I know afar off that I cannot, give the lights and shades, the hopes and outlooks that come to me in these strange, cold-warm, attractive-repelling conversations with Margaret, whom I always admire, most revere when I nearest see, and sometimes love, — yet whom I freeze, and who freezes me to silence, when we seem to promise to come nearest.
To hold space for complexity, to resist the violence of containing and classifying what transcends familiar labels, takes patience and a certain kind of moral courage, which Waldo seemed unable — or unwilling — to conjure up. “O divine mermaid or fisher of men, to whom all gods have given the witch-hazel-wand… I am yours & yours shall be,” he told Margaret in a letter in the early autumn of 1840. But the following day, he lashed out in his journal, writing at Margaret what he wouldn’t write to her:
You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought & said?… 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?
This false notion of the body as the testing ground for intimacy has long warped our understanding of what constitutes a romantic relationship. The measure of intimacy is not the quotient of friction between skin and skin, but something else entirely — something of the love and trust, the joy and ease that flow between two people as they inhabit that private world walled off from everything and everyone else.
Perhaps Waldo did recognize that he and Margaret had an undeniable intimate partnership, and it was this very recognition that made him bristle at the sense of being coerced into coupledom. He was, after all, the poet laureate of self-reliance, who believed that for the independent man “the Universe is his bride.” And yet, although he experienced himself as an individual, he had somehow conceded to the union of marriage and wedded a human bride — one who had grown to depend on him for her emotional well-being, which Waldo now experienced as a dead weight. He called it a “Mezentian marriage” — a grim allusion to the Roman myth of the cruel King Mezentius, known for tying men face-to-face with corpses and leaving them to die. He raged in his journal:
Marriage is not ideal but empirical. It is not the plan or prospect of the soul, this fast union of one to one; the soul is alone… It is itself the universe & must realize its progress in ten thousand beloved forms & not in one.
Margaret, too, tried to figure the form of their relationship. She wrote to Waldo with unprecedented candor, accusing him of being unclear in his feelings for her and commanding him to clarify where he stood, with an awareness that she might be yearning for more from him than he could ever give her:
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.
Acknowledging the agitation that bedeviled them both as they tried to make sense of their relationship, she promised that “this darting motion, this restless flame shall yet be attempered and subdued.” She sensed between them an infinite possibility, but “the sense of the infinite exhausts and exalts; it cannot therefore possess me wholly.” The paradox, of course, is that there is always something irresistibly vitalizing about our irresolvable passions, about that which we can never fully possess nor can fully possess us — some potent antidote to the wearying monotony of our settled possessions. “People wish to be settled,” Emerson would write in one of his most famous essays, published just a few months later, “[but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” For now, he painted the dark contours of this recognition in his journal: “Between narrow walls we walk: insanity on one side, & fat dulness on the other.” Margaret, sensing the bipolar pull of his desires, demanded that he choose a pole:
Did not you ask for a “foe” in your friend? Did not you ask for a “large and formidable nature”? But a beautiful foe, I am not yet, to you. Shall I ever be? I know not.
And yet she told Waldo that with him alone she felt “so at home” that she couldn’t imagine finding another love as quenching: “I know not how again to wander and grope, seeking my place in another Soul.”
But Emerson was not looking to be “at home” in anyone other than himself. Already feeling his independent nature stifled by his marriage, he could not — would not — let himself be trapped in a second relationship, his soul cemented and Mezented with a second weight of expectations. After nearly a month of stupefied silence, he finally responded to Margaret in a lengthy and conflicted letter:
My dear Margaret,
I have your frank & noble & affecting letter, and yet I think I could wish it unwritten. I ought never to have suffered you to lead me into any conversation or writing on our relation, a topic from which with all my persons my Genius ever sternly warns me away. I was content & happy to meet on a human footing a woman of sense & sentiment with whom one could exchange reasonable words & go away assured that wherever she went there was light & force & honour. That is to me a solid good; it gives value to thought & the day; it redeems society from that foggy & misty aspect it wears so often seen from our retirements; it is the foundation of everlasting friendship. Touch it not — speak not of it — and this most welcome natural alliance becomes from month to month, — & the slower & with the more intervals the better, — our air & diet. A robust & total understanding grows up resembling nothing so much as the relation of brothers who are intimate & perfect friends without having ever spoken of the fact. But tell me that I am cold or unkind, and in my most flowing state I become a cake of ice. I feel the crystals shoot & drops solidify. It may do for others but it is not for me to bring the relation to speech… Ask me what I think of you & me, — & I am put to confusion.
Four days earlier, he had entreated her: “Give me a look through your telescope or you one through mine; — an all explaining look.” Now he argues that they can neither be fully explained to the other, nor fully seen — they are as constitutionally different as if they “had been born & bred in different nations.” Inverting Margaret’s accusation of his withholding, he points out her own opacity:
You say you understand me wholly. You cannot communicate yourself to me. I hear the words sometimes but remain a stranger to your state of mind.
Yet we are all the time a little nearer. I honor you for a brave & beneficent woman and mark with gladness your steadfast good will to me. I see not how we can bear each other anything else than good will.
This undulating emotional confusion runs through the entire letter as Waldo struggles to reconcile his seemingly irreconcilable desires — not to lose his uncommon and electrifying bond with Margaret, but not to be trapped in bondage. He tells her that a “vast & beautiful Power” has brought them into each other’s lives and likens them to two stars shining together in a single constellation. He urges her to let things be as they have been, to savor their uncommon connection without demanding more:
Let us live as we have always done, only ever better, I hope, & richer. Speak to me of every thing but myself & I will endeavor to make an intelligible reply. Allow me to serve you & you will do me a kindness; come & see me… let me visit you and I shall be cheered as ever by the spectacle of so much genius & character as you have always the gift to draw around you.
We suffer by wanting different things often at odds with one another, but we suffer even more by wanting to want different things.
In their early correspondence, Waldo had articulated to Margaret a sentiment about the problem of translation in poetry, which now seemed to perfectly capture the problem of translating their interior worlds to each other:
We are armed all over with these subtle antagonisms which as soon as we meet begin to play, and translate all poetry into such stale prose!… All association must be compromise.
A decade later, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would limn this central paradox of intimacy in the philosophical allegory of the porcupine dilemma: In the cold of winter, a covenant of porcupines huddle together seeking warmth. As they draw close, they begin wounding each other with their quills. Warmed but maimed, they instinctually draw apart, only to find themselves shivering and longing for the heat of other bodies again. Eventually, they discover that unwounding warmth lies in the right span of space — close enough to share in a greater collective temperature, but not so close as to inflict the pricks of proximity.
How Margaret and Waldo negotiated that elusive optimal distance, how she finally found unreserved love elsewhere when she was least expecting it, and how her rich and enduring intellectual bond with Emerson shaped both of their bodies of work and the entire history of American letters, unfolds throughout the rest of Figuring.
For more excerpts from it, see Fuller on what makes a great leader, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to her own unclassifiable beloved, Rachel Carson’s timely advice to the next generations, Nobel-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning, the story of how the forgotten sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his neighbor and literary hero Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a stunning astrophysical reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.