The Art of Constructive Criticism: Trailblazing Feminist Margaret Fuller Rejects Young Thoreau and Helps Him Improve His Writing
By Maria Popova
Few things reveal your intellect and your generosity of spirit — the parallel powers of your heart and mind — better than how you give feedback, especially if it is to a friend and especially if the work in question leaves something to be desired. Evidence like Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of tough love and poet Thom Gunn’s role in Oliver Sacks’s evolution as a writer further impresses how rare the masters of this delicate, monumental art of constructive criticism are.
But there is no greater genius at it than trailblazing journalist, essayist, editor, and feminism founding mother Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850), whose 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century endures as a foundational text of feminism. It originated as an essay titled “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” published two years earlier in the influential Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, of which Fuller had become founding editor — elected over Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also being considered for the position — in 1839.
In the fall of 1841 — shortly after moving into Emerson’s house and around the time he was contemplating the true measure of meaningful labor in his famous diary — 24-year-old Henry David Thoreau, urged by Emerson, submitted one of his poems to The Dial. What he received from Fuller was a rejection on the surface but an enormous and generous gift at its heart — in a lengthy and immeasurably beautiful letter, she delineated the reasons for the poem’s rejection and offered caring constructive feedback on how to improve not only his writing but the very soul from which it springs.
Fuller’s masterpiece of constructive criticism is preserved in the original by Project REVEAL at Harry Ransom Center and was included in the 1907 volume Heralds of American Literature: A Group of Patriot Writers of the Revolutionary and National Periods (public library) by essayist and literary culture champion Annie Russell Marble.
On October 18, 1841, Fuller — herself only thirty-one — writes:
I do not find the poem on the mountains improved by mere compression, though it might be by fusion and glow. Its merits to me are, a noble recognition of Nature, two or three manly thoughts, and, in one place, a plaintive music.
With great sensitivity to every artist’s vulnerable tendency to take criticism of his or her work as criticism of his or her character, Fuller envelops her critique of Thoreau the poet in great warmth for Thoreau the person, assuring him that behind his mediocre poem lies great potential — but making clear that he must work diligently at it in order to attain it:
Yet, now that I have some knowledge of the man, it seems there is no objection I could make to his lines (with the exception of such offenses against taste as the lines about the humors of the eye…), which I would not make to himself. He is healthful, rare, of open eye, ready hand, and noble scope. He sets no limits to his life, nor to the invasions of nature; he is not willfully pragmatical, cautious, ascetic, or fantastical. But he is as yet a somewhat bare hill, which the warm gales of Spring have not visited… He will find the generous office that shall educate him…
Although she is only seven years Thoreau’s senior, barely in her thirties herself, Fuller brims with precocious wisdom. More than a century before Grace Paley asserted in her advice to aspiring writers that “in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world,” Fuller gently points Thoreau to the greatest education for a writer — life itself, the richness of experience amassed by living it, and the enlarging effects of human relationships:
The unfolding of affections, a wider and deeper human experience, the harmonizing influences of other natures, will mould the man and melt his verse. He will seek thought less and find knowledge the more. I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, “He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.” She is not yours till you have been more hers. Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture. Say not so confidently, all places, all occasions are alike. This will never come true till you have found it false.
After encouraging him to keep submitting his work and to write to her, Fuller — a century before George Orwell’s famous admonition against “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” — adds:
Will you finish the poem in your own way, and send it for the ‘Dial’? Leave out
“And seem to milk the sky.”
The image is too low; Mr. Emerson thought so too.
She ends with the kind of signature that embodies what Virginia Woolf meant in calling letter-writing “the humane art” and makes one wistful for its death:
Farewell! May truth be irradiated by Beauty! Let me know whether you go to the lonely hut, and write to me about Shakespeare, if you read him there. I have many thoughts about him, which I have never yet been led to express.
Thoreau did go to the lonely hut to be owned by Nature, sequestering himself in the humble cabin he built with his own hands to write the very work for which he is remembered today. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” he reflected in Walden — the most enduring masterwork of his meditations on those essential facts of life learned during his time in that lonely hut. There, he clearly took Fuller’s invaluable advice to heart — the shift she encouraged in his writing and his way of being is palpable both in Walden and in the beautiful journals he kept while living in the woods.
As for Shakespeare, he did read and admire him: “A genius — a Shakespeare, for instance — would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world,” Thoreau wrote in the very journals that made the history of his interior parish more interesting than any history of the world.
Published June 30, 2015