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ELH 67.3 (2000) 801-818

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Dangerous Acquaintances: The Correspondence of Margaret Fuller and James Freeman Clarke

Barbara Packer

The correspondence of Margaret Fuller and James Freeman Clarke, which began early in 1830 and lasted almost to the end of Fuller's life, was a determined experiment in conducting friendship across gender lines. 1

Could a sensitive young Harvard student innocently carry on a candid correspondence with a brilliant young woman to whom he was not engaged? Could a brilliant woman reveal her intimate thoughts to a young man without fear of compromising her reputation? Could both of them discuss life, self, ambition, sensibility, and moments of despair with one another as if the obvious differences between them did not exist or at least did not matter? When Margaret Fuller visited the Emersons in 1837 she spoke on the subject of "Woman" in a way that seemed to dismiss the notions of separate roles or separate spheres for women: "Who would be a goody that could be a genius?" 2

Yet Fuller would discover during the course of her correspondence with Clarke that traditional roles were not so easily abandoned, while Clarke, who wanted to address Fuller with masculine frankness yet still find in her feminine receptiveness, blundered repeatedly into cruelties he did not even know that he was committing. These painful moments form only a small part of a correspondence that is overwhelmingly brave, generous, and high-spirited. But they seem all the more significant for that. With genuine affection on both sides, with mutual esteem, with the boundaries of their relationship apparently agreed upon from the start, Fuller and Clarke could not help arousing feelings that drew them away from camaraderie into displays of malice, into mutual lacerations and then into shamefaced apologies. To witness them try to regain their composure after one of these lapses is both moving and disturbing: moving, because their determination to treat one another simply as friends is so important to both of them; saddening, because they keep being warped away from high-mindedness toward the deviousness and reproachfulness of ordinary erotic life. [End Page 801]

The correspondence began in the form of notes passed between a pair of intellectually ambitious nineteen-year-olds when they both lived in Cambridge. James Freeman Clarke, a graduate of the Harvard class of 1829 who was just beginning studies at the Divinity School, met Margaret Fuller at social gatherings in Cambridge where he quickly became impressed by the brilliance of her conversation and by the range of her reading. While Clarke had been plodding through the prescribed curriculum at Boston Latin and then at Harvard, where the Greek professor forced students to wade through the Iliad as if it were a bog, Fuller had been educated by a series of tutors. 3 Her first tutor was her father Timothy, a lawyer who in Margaret's youth had been a congressman from Cambridge. He started her out when she was six with lessons in Latin and English grammar. He continued to direct her progress by letter when he was absent in Washington during congressional sessions. Her first letter to him there, written when she was seven-and-a-half, suggests the ambitiousness of the program he expected her to follow. She dutifully reports: "I have been reviewing Valpy's Chronology. We have not been able to procure any books on either Charles 12th of Sweden or Philip IId of Spain but Mama intends to send to Uncle Henry. I hope to make greater proficuncy [sic] in my Studies I have learned all the rules of Musick but one." 4 Later she had periods of formal schooling--at the new Cambridge Port Private Grammar School, at Dr. John Park's Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies, at Miss Susan Prescott's Young Ladies' Seminary at Groton. But since the age of fifteen she had conducted her own ambitious program of self-improvement. Though Harvard's classes were closed to her she used all its resources--books, friendly professors, lecturers--to learn more about the Romantic writers who increasingly fascinated...