August 21, 2010

The pleasures of getting lost in the woods

Margaret Fuller was visiting Concord, Massachusetts, staying at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She paid a visit to Nathaniel Hawthorne, recently married to Sophia Peabody, at what is now called The Old Manse. Fuller later noted that, while the two were walking together, they paused to look at the moon: "H[awthorne] said he should be much more willing to die than two months ago, for he had had some real possession in life, but still he never wished to leave this earth: it was beautiful enough." She accidentally left a book at Hawthorne's house, however.

The next day, August 21, 1842, she went to retrieve her book (though she got sidetracked). Hawthorne had already returned it to Emerson's house by then. Returning home, he came upon Fuller herself, sitting in Sleepy Hollow (not yet a cemetery). Despite Hawthorne's characteristic shyness and general avoidance of other people, he decided to join her.

They talked "about Autumn," Hawthorne recorded, "and about the pleasures of getting lost in the woods... and about other matters of high and low philosophy." Another voice interrupted them, and Emerson emerged from the trees. The conversation did not continue for too long after. "It being now nearly six o'clock, we separated," wrote Hawthorne, "Mr. Emerson and Margaret towards his house and I towards mine." Fuller's version of the day: "What a happy, happy day... all clear light. I cannot write about it."

The incident is certainly an obvious exception to Hawthorne's reclusive reputation. Fuller, renowned for her natural ability for conversation, must have been equally impressed by Hawthorne (who, you'll note, referred to her by her first name). It has been suggested that Hawthorne based the character of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter at least partially on Fuller; a character in The Blithedale Romance is more obviously inspired by her. In fact, Fuller is mentioned in that 1852 novel:

"Priscilla," I inquired, "did you ever see Miss Margaret Fuller?"
"No," she answered.
"Because," said I, "you reminded me of her, just now..."

The author's wife, Sophia, was a participant in Fuller's "Conversations" (held at the bookstore owned by her sister Elizabeth Peabody; the Hawthornes were married in the same place) and was strongly impressed by her. In fact, Hawthorne got a bit jealous that his "Dove" (as he called his wife) was listening to Fuller more than himself: "Would that Miss Margaret Fuller might lose her tongue! — or my Dove her ears."

Speaking of wives, Emerson's wife Lidian grew to be concerned over how much time her husband spent with Fuller. She burst into tears at one point while hosting Fuller at the house. Fuller calmed her down by assuring her: "He has affection for me, but it is because I quicken his intellect."

*Much of the information from this post comes from Hawthorne in Concord by Philip McFarland and Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller by Joan Von Mehren.


  1. Do you think they in any way had a sense that in the future these chance meetings would be of intense interest to well at this point maybe scores of people ?

  2. Good question... It's really hard to tell. Neither Fuller nor Hawthorne had yet achieved their major popularity or influence and both had significant self-doubt. Certainly, this chance meeting has inspired a fair amount of speculation but I leave that for the fringe theorists.

  3. I always think of Margaret Fuller as being extremely articulate and with a quick and ever present mind. That she could not express her obviously intense feeling about this meeting is made all the more meaningful.

  4. It is possible to meet a kindred spirit in a total stranger with whom you can enjoy a precious moment.