Walden Once More: 20 Columns

The ship struck at ten minutes after four A.M., and all hands… made haste to the forecastle, the water coming in at once. There they remained; the passengers in the forecastle, the crew above it, doing what they could. Every wave lifted the forecastle roof and washed over those within. The first man got ashore at nine; many from nine to noon. At flood-tide, about half past three o’clock, when the ship broke up entirely, they came out of the forecastle, and Margaret sat with her back to the foremast, with her hands on her knees, her husband and child already drowned. A great wave came and washed her aft. The steward had just before taken her child and started for shore. Both were drowned.

–Henry David Thoreau in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, July 25,1850

I’m not broadcasting this fact to the Emerson Foundation, but I call this installation of columns, “Margaret Fuller’s Defiance.”

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This modest, chipped, strong, and elegant wooden column here represents Margaret Fuller. It stands alone, yet in aspect to all the columns surrounding it.

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This plain square gray column, stoic in design, with its back towards Fuller, yet looking as if it longed to revolve towards her, is Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I remember that she made me laugh more than I liked; for I was, at that time, an eager scholar of ethics, and had tasted the sweets of solitude and stoicism, and I found something profane in the hours of amusing gossip into which she drew me,” he wrote of her.

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We can sense this column’s longing for the life and vitality that came from her–and also the intense fear that one so strict would harbor towards a woman as ripe with life as Margaret. That combination in a woman of fierce intelligence and intense sexuality was not easy for a nineteenth century intellectual man.

And the square black column next to it is Hawthorne, also caught within that double-bind of intellectual and lusty attraction. Yet this black column is bound by the Puritanical trappings, not the proud asceticism of Transcendentalism.

These colorful columns are Hawthorne’s wife and sisters-in-law, Sophia, Elizabeth, and Mary Peabody, and this joyful circle are Margaret’s friends: Lidian Emerson, Sarah Bradford Ripley, Abigail Allyn Francis, Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Hoar, Eliza Farrar, Mary Channing, Sophia Dana Ripley and Lydia Parker. “She wore this circle of friends when I first knew her, as a necklace of diamonds about her neck,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “They were so much to each other that Margaret seemed to represent them all, and to know her was to acquire a place with them.” Yet look–Emerson and Hawthorne’s columns remain at a distance, scowling at this charmed cluster of bookshop conversationalists.

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Here is Bronson Alcott, and over here, Horace Greeley, Fuller’s professional acquaintances. She challenged both. She was forever and by most found to be impractical–not belonging to her time or place. “So long as she shall consider it dangerous or unbecoming to walk half a mile alone by night—I cannot see how the ‘Woman’s Rights’ theory is ever to be anything more than a logically defensible abstraction,” wrote Greeley.

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But Fuller would have none of it, challenging both the notion that she could not walk half a mile alone and that using her mind was an abstraction. For her, the logical, intuitive, passionate, creative, joyfully scholarly use of her mind was her birthright as a woman, as a human, as a conscious being.

This simple, straightforward, reliable and honest column represents my great, great, grand uncle. He turns towards her, providing the support and friendship of an openly acknowledged kindred spirit. He had her back, always.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning shine in her direction here in this sunny spot behind me, two tall and simple columns representing the expatriates who welcomed her and her family as true friends.

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These two ornate and playful columns–so full of beauty, joy, life, and the brightness of the Mediterranean–are her lover and her son, Count Giovanni Angelo Ossoli and young Angelo Eugenio Filippo Ossoli. The man who returned her heart, her experience of love fulfilled, and the son born from that love: these three were held together by those invisible string along which our thoughts, warm feelings, and dreams fly freely.

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And so our institute is surrounded with this history–this community of feuds and friendship, challenges and support, high ideals and soul-stirring passion. A place to grow, to learn, to create, to remember–to find our own true paths in spite of obstacles along the way and to rejoice in those few true friends we find among the naysayers, among all those who cannot fathom or stomach our own pulse and parry.

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Here, each day, we will remember the words of Margaret Fuller, who, perhaps even more than my great, great, grand uncle, is the ancestor of my heart: “Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow.”

Let us grow in shadows of those who came before, until our own great heights reach above these columns and cast great shadows of their own.

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