Reading Margaret: In Dismal Nooks


The book was here when I arrived. The apartment was otherwise empty.

My stuff hadn’t been delivered yet. Not that I expected much, but the few boxes my parents were shipping contained the things that would make this dingy apartment feel like home: A tapestry from Peru; a dozen CDs of jazz and folk; my own log-cabin quilt made by my own grandma; and books of poetry and botany that my dad wanted me to read.


I smiled to see that this book, forgotten on the table by the previous tenants, was by Margaret Fuller. We read her in American Lit. The T.A., a tall gaunt bearded man who reminded us all of Thoreau, leaned over me and whispered, “You look like her.”

I took it as a compliment, even after I saw her 1850 daguerreotype.

An intelligent woman, bent over a book, possesses her own charm.


I took the old volume to the couch, opened it at random, and read:

The candlestick set in a low place has given light as faithfully, where it was needed, as that upon the hill. In close alleys, in dismal nooks, the Word has been read as distinctly, as when shown by angels to holy men in the dark prison. Those who till a spot of earth scarcely larger than is wanted for a grave, have deserved that the sun should shine upon its sod till violets answer.”

Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century


When I was in college, the professor and the Thoreau-look-alike T.A. warned us of “The Walden Effect.”

“Don’t do your term paper on Walden,” they said. “No student ever does–because it can’t be done. It can’t be completed. You’ll get suck in and disappear. Don’t even read it. Save it. If you read it, your head will turn, you’ll try ‘to live deliberately,’ and that’s the last we’ll see of you. Another drop-out. Courtesy of H.D.T.”

But no one warned us of Fuller.

She didn’t make me want to drop out. But she did make me want to shine.


Her words conveyed a combination of outright arrogance and blazing confidence mixed with an authentic humility that I seldom encountered, anywhere. That combination seduced me.

I dreamt of doing great things, and I imagined that anything I would do would be great, simply by virtue of coming from me.

But here I was now, graduated, with a job in the city that, in my field, was about as low as one could go. My dad said, “You’re starting out, honey. That’s all that matters. You’ll get your foot in.”

In two days, I start my professional writing career as a reviewer for a city-life blog which gets maybe 750 hits a day, on a really good day. And that’s on the home page. So, maybe 25 readers will find their way to my column. No matter. It’s a start. And it pays enough for the rent in this dismal nook.


This dismal nook looks out on the alley, where the brick and the brownstone block the light.

But Margaret’s words say it doesn’t matter: High or low, close or wide, the light can shine. The word can be read.


It’s the spirit that she’s talking about. And that’s what seduced me when I first read her.


That’s where she gets her swagger and her shrug.


But what’s she really saying?

“The candlestick set in a low place has given light as faithfully, where it was needed, as that upon the hill.”

Where it was needed…

When they offered me this job, they said, “We know it doesn’t pay much. We know you’re starting out low. But it’s where you’re needed. We need good writers here, covering what’s happening on the streets, just as much as we need them covering what’s happening in the capitol. And maybe even more.”

Give us a shot, they’d said. And that was what seduced me. My little light, in a low corner, brightening up the place, where it’s needed.


Author’s note: Yeah, it’s a new story. I’m on vacation! What can I say? Really, though, this new work is inspired by mastressalita’s Photo Friday #26, which she based around a quotation by Margaret Fuller, which reminded me of how much I love Margaret Fuller, and how I’ve always wanted to become more familiar with her writing. And, what better way than to write a story about a young woman reading Fuller, and finding that her words help her make sense of her life, just as she’s starting out on her own?