In her recent New York Times essay, “Tipped Off,” Emerson College professor and author Megan Marshall writes about a “man from Idaho” who approached her at a conference with a tantalizing bit of information about her latest subject, the journalist and early feminist Margaret Fuller. The man said he knew of a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson about Fuller. Was she interested?
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Definitely, she said.
She gave the man her email address and waited. And waited.
Then, Marshall writes, “Two years later, after I’d turned in the book to my editor, a subject line screamed out from my inbox: “Found! Emerson Letter.”
It turns out the slightly-late-to-the-files tipster was Elton Hall, a retired professor of philosophy and world religions at Moorpark College in California, who now lives in Boise.
“I’m very good at saving things, but not about knowing where they are,” jokes Hall.
A Unitarian Universalist, Hall had been teaching a course with Rev. Elizabeth Greene of the UU Church in Boise on the liberal religious movements of the 19th century. Unitarian Universalists consider Margaret Fuller, the first editor of the transcendentalist journal “The Dial,” to be one of their own, so her life and accomplishments were part of the course.
One of Hall’s friends, Alan Thomsen, had come across an 1850 letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson about Fuller while appraising the archives of the Swedenborgian House of Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. Knowing that Hall was teaching a course on Fuller, Thomsen sent him a photocopy of the letter.
In it, Emerson, a longtime friend of Fuller’s, pleads with the Collector of the Port of New York (essentially the chief customs officer) to look for any belongings of hers that might have washed ashore after the boat she had taken from Europe foundered off Fire Island, NY.
Fuller, her Italian husband and their child had all drowned in the wreck, which Marshall calls one of the most famous tragedies in American literary history.
In particular, Emerson was desperately looking for any remnants of Fuller’s manuscript about the 1848 Italian Revolution, the research for which “she enjoyed advantage not shared by any other person,” he wrote. Emerson had already dispatched a young Henry David Thoreau to walk to the beaches to see if he could find any of Fuller’s papers.
The letter, in which Emerson shares a list that Thoreau had drawn up of Fuller’s belongings, was what Hall finally sent on to Marshall. And even though her book was finished, she was so excited by the letter that she went to the Pacific School of Religion to see the original.
“The only thing worse than learning about potentially explosive information at the 11th-and-a-half-hour is having another writer get to it first,” writes Marshall, who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for The Peabody Sisters.
She wasn’t disappointed. “By finding an unknown manuscript in Emerson’s hand, I felt I’d moved into American Lit’s big leagues,” Marshall writes.
“The four pages that I held in my hands brought together in a moment of palpable crisis three 19th-century geniuses whose ideas still challenge us today.”
While it didn’t change anything she had written, Marshall did include some of the letter in her book, and thanked Thomsen in the acknowledgements.
The letter’s main importance, she said, was that it confirmed the “quirks” of some of her subjects and “allowed me to hold a link to Fuller’s final days in my hands.”
Hall, who is most of the way through Marshall’s book, calls it “marvelous.”
“It was one of those chance things,” he says about his opportunity to help her. “I have discovered that most of the things that have happened in my life that are the most interesting are pure chance.”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.