American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Poems of Places 12

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From Poems of Places, vol. 27, America: Middle States (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Fire Island, N.Y.]

Alfred Leslie, The Telephone Call, 1970-71,
part of a cycle originally called The Killing
of Frank O’Hara
(image via Isola di Rifiuti;
see also Leslie’s website)

I am tempted to call Fire Island the most haunted spot in American literature: two notable writers met their end there, one at sea, the other on land — and these were gruesome deaths as well. In 1850, Margaret Fuller drowned just offshore. Her body was never recovered, but others from the same ship — including that of her son, Nino — washed onto the beach where Frank O’Hara would be struck by a jeep in 1966.

O’Hara died young — he was 40 years old — and before the great majority of his writing had seen print. This surely added to the sense of emergency that attended his loss. According to O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, three of the poet’s friends — Kenneth Koch, Frank Lima, Larry Rivers — took possession of the manuscripts in fear that they would be destroyed or disappear.

Fuller, also 40, had published more extensively than O’Hara (three books and a great many uncollected essays), but in her case an important manuscript did disappear: her history of the Italian revolution, in which she participated as a director of one of Rome’s hospitals during the street fighting. The copy of her book that Fuller carried across the ocean sank, and no other copy ever came to light, despite the assiduous searching of her friends. From letters, and from Fuller’s dispatches for the New-York Tribune (the same newspaper for which Marx would later write), we have a good sense of what she witnessed. But what she learned after, and what she withheld, and what she made of it all in hindsight, these are gone for good.

The gruesome facts of O’Hara’s death were not set aside or forgotten in the grief over his loss. His death came in a hospital after 40 hours of intense pain, and O’Hara’s friends were witness to that suffering. Larry Rivers was especially graphic in his eulogy, evoking O’Hara’s mangled body for the assembled mourners:

This extraordinary man lay without a pillow in a large bed that looked like a large crib. … He was purple wherever his skin showed through the white hospital gown. He was a quarter larger than usual. Every few inches there was some sewing composed of dark blue thread. Some stitching was straight and three or four inches long, others were longer and semicircular. The lids of both eyes were bluish black. It was hard to see his beautiful blue eyes which receded a little into his head. He breathed with quick gasps. His whole body quivered. There was a tube in one of his nostrils down to his stomach. On paper, he was improving. In the crib he looked like a shaped wound, an innocent victim of someone else’s war. His leg bone was broken and splintered and pierced his skin. Every rib was cracked. A third of his liver was wiped out by the impact. What can talking about it do. I don’t know.[1]

What talking of this sort does, of course, is make a private memory public, especially when the words are shared beyond a small circle of friends, as these were, printed in a memorial volume some twelve years after O’Hara’s death. Maurice Halbwachs famously declared that there is no private memory; that all remembering occurs within a social framework. O’Hara’s work. while insisting on the personal (which may or may not be the same thing as the private), is in effect an illumination of that framework: under the democratic sun of his imagination — the same sun with whom he held a conversation at Fire Island — the shadows of O’Hara’s social framework cast a beautiful, ever-shifting pattern across the  landscape of experience.

Margaret Fuller Ossoli Memorial Service, Mount Auburn Cemetery, July 18, 2010 (image via Friends of Mount Auburn)

With Fuller too the sharing of news and memories quickly converted the private shock of her friends into a shared experience of grief; and with Fuller too the spectacle of her death became part of a memorial volume. Edited by James Freeman Clarke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Henry Channing, that volume — Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852); a marriage to the Marquis d’Ossoli was assumed but never proven — concluded with a chapter entitled “The Wreck,” written by Channing, which gave an elaborate account of Fuller’s last hours. In brief, her ship — the Elizabeth — struck a sandbar in hurricane-force wind, and the hull was then breached by 150 tons of Carrara marble in the hold. (There was also a finished work: a statue of John C. Calhoun by Hiram Powers, commissioned by the city of Charleston. It was recovered from the wreck but later destroyed in the Civil War.) As the Elizabeth filled up with water, those who were able to swim made their way to shore, promising to send lifeboats. But no one on land was willing to launch the in the violence of the storm, which finally swept away those who remained behind. “When last seen, [Fuller] had been seated at the foot of the foremast, still clad in her white nightdress, with her hair fallen loose upon her shoulders.”[2]

Statue of John C. Calhoun by Hiram Powers, engraved from a daguerreotype taken in Florence, reproduced from The International Magazine. The last sentence on the page reads: “By the wreck of the ship Elizabeth, the left arm of the statue was broken off, and the fragment has not been recovered.” (Click on the image for a legible text; image courtesyYork Public Library Digital Gallery)

The Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli was frank about its subject’s death, but about her life a certain cautiousness was in play — to the point that Fuller’s letters were mutilated, so as to make a more respectable figure for the public. And that gambit was successful, however regrettable from our present point of view. Robert J. Scholnick, in a fine essay, notes that the Boston Post, though it savaged Fuller in 1845, was moved by the Memoirs to a reevaluation. A misogynist reevaluation that gave new credit to the woman, not the work, indicating that the work of her friends was well calculated, corroborating yet another declaration of Halbwachs, that memories are a function of the present, not the past. Here is an excerpt from the Post:

We never saw Margaret Fuller, but from such of her writings as came under our notice, we supposed her a merely literary woman — smart, dogmatic, arrogant and over laden with book knowledge — a woman of mark, who would have made a clever second or third rate man. And such, or nearly such, we find, was the opinion of most of those who did see her and know her, but not intimately.

But to her friends, she appears to have been an angel of light. Her biographers were among her dearest companions, and all three, without concealing one jot of her eccentricities or extravagances, write as of a miracle of a woman — large brained and larger souled, overflowing with masculine strength and feminine delicacy.

Indeed, we never saw a production in which there was less tawdriness or fulsomeness of praise, and more of genuine outpouring of a pervading belief, in the minds and hearts of the writers, as to the exceeding nobleness and grandeur of their subject. …

For a woman, and we say it with respect, Margaret Fuller wrote ably, and often most wisely. But we believe the present volumes will do more to preserve her name, and to make it sacred in public esteem, than all she ever wrote, within or without the Dial. To own the truth, and accepting the painting of her biographers, we were ashamed to think we had really known so little of so grand a heart.[3]

In “the painting of her biographers” we discern the shaping of a social memory — a shaping in dialogue, if not conflict, with Fuller’s own sense of the social that memory would serve. This is, perhaps, appropriate, since dialogue was the single most important form of the social in Fuller’s work (her first book was a translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, and she herself had a project of public conversation). By definition, the remembered cannot have the last word. Fuller had left the conversation, but continued to be discussed.

There is an element of the absurd in each of these writers’ deaths. One does not expect to be struck by a car on a beach, and, though shipwrecks are far from strange, Fuller’s ship was wrecked within sight of shore and took 12 hours to go down; there was ample time for her rescue. Indeed, she might have made it to shore on her own, as others did, but Nino could not be carried and Ossoli could not swim. Fuller refused to leave them and so died waiting for a rescue ship that was never launched.

The most dispassionate appraisal of Fuller’s death came from Henry David Thoreau, who was sent by Emerson to recover the body and search for her belongings, especially manuscript. The wreck had occurred on the 19th of July and Thoreau did not arrive until the 24th, by which time the debris had been well picked through. To Emerson he reported the story of Fuller’s death as told by the survivors, adding, with regards to property:

The broken desk in a bag — containing no very valuable papers — a large black leather trunk  — with an upper and under apartment — the upper holding books & papers — a carpet bag probably Ossolis and one of his? shoes — are all the Ossolis’ effects known to have been found.

Four bodies remain to be found — the two Ossoli’s — Horace Sumner — & a sailor.[4]

Horace was the brother of Charles Sumner, and when a partial skeleton washed onshore several days later, impossible to identify, Thoreau arranged for burial, apprising Sumner of the news. What Thoreau made of it all was shared a few weeks later with H. G. O. Blake:

I find that actual events, nothwithstanding the singular prominence which we allow them, are far less real than the creations of my imagination. … I have in my pocket a button which I ripped off the coat of the Marquis of ossoli, on the seashore, the other day. Held up, it intercepts the light, — an actual button, — and yet all the life it is connected with is less substantial to me, and interests me less, than my faintest dream.[5]

A more extensive rumination can be found in his journal:

I find the actual to be far less real to me than the imagined. Why this singular prominence and importance is given to the former, I do not know. In proportion as that which possesses my thoughts is removed from the actual, it impresses me. I have never met with anything so truly visionary and accidental as some actual events. They have affected me less than my dreams. Whatever actually happens to a man is wonderfully trivial and insignificant, — even to death itself, I imagine. He complains of the fates who drown him, that they do not touch him. They do not deal directly with him. I have in my pocket a button which I ripped off the coat of the Marquis of Ossoli on the seashore the other day. Held up, it intercepts the light and casts a shadow, — an actual button so called, — and yet all the life it is connected with is less substantial to me than my faintest dreams. This stream of events which we consent to call actual, and that other mightier stream which alone carries us with it — what makes the difference? On the one our bodies float, and we have sympathy with it through them; on the other, our spirits. We are ever dying to one world and being born into another, and possibly no man knows whether he is at any time dead in the sense in which he affirms that phenomenon of another, or not. Our thoughts are the epochs of our life: all else is but as a journal of the winds that blew while we were here.

I do not think much of the actual. It is something which we have long since done with. It is a sort of vomit in which the unclean love to wallow.

There was nothing at all remarkable about them. They were simply some bones lying on the beach. They would not detain a walker there more than so much seaweed. I should think that the fates would not take the trouble to show me any bones again, I so slightly appreciate the favor.[6]

And again in his journal, several months later:

I once went in search of the relics of a human body — a week after a wreck — which had been cast up the day before on to the beach, though the sharks had stripped off the flesh. I got the direction from a lighthouse. I should find it a mile or two distant over the sand, a dozen rods from the water, by a stick which was stuck up covered with a cloth. Pursuing the direction pointed out, I expected that I should have to look very narrowly at the sand to find so small an object, but so completely smooth and bare was the beach — half a mile wide of sand — and so magnifying the mirage toward the sea that when I was half a mile distant the insignificant stick or sliver which marked the spot looked like a broken mast in the sand. As if there was no other object, this trifling sliver had puffed itself up to the vision to fill the void; and there lay the relics in a certain state, rendered perfectly inoffensive to both bodily and spiritual eye by the surrounding scenery, — a slight inequality in the sweep of the shore. Alone with the sea and the beach, attending to the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to the ears of the departed, — articulate speech to them. It was as conspicuous on that sandy plain as if a generation had labored to pile up a cairn there. Where there were so few objects, the least was obvious as a mausoleum. It reigned over the shore. That dead body possessed the shore as no living one could. It showed a title to the sands which no living ruler could.[7]

With retrospect he allowed a greater sense of awe, though his dispassion about the drowning itself remained.

Longfellow’s  Poems of Places makes space for Fire Island, marking the spot with a poem for Fuller’s drowning. When I first opened to that page, I was a little shocked, and even thought for a moment that the choice was tinged with revenge. Fuller had bonded with Poe over their mutual disdain for Longfellow’s poetry, and her harsh review was in fact more wounding to him than Poe’s. But revenge was not in Longfellow’s nature. After Poe’s death, he sent money to the widow; and after Fuller’s, he read her friends’ Memoirs with great interest. Moreover, Longfellow’s closest friend was Charles Sumner, who died at just about the time the Poems of Places volumes began to appear; it’s hard to imagine him making such crass use of the wreck that drowned Sumner’s brother.

Fuller, in any case, herself would have been pleased by the poem’s inclusion. It was written by her favorite living author, Walter Savage Landor, a fact noted by Emerson, rather crassly, in a letter to Thomas Carlyle, upon the poem’s original appearance in 1852:

She had such reverence and love for Landor that I do not know but at any moment in her natural life she would have sunk in the sea, for an ode from him.[8]

Landor was also a favorite poet of James Russell Lowell, and Ezra Pound, and Emerson himself had a great fondness for the man, with whom he had stayed in Florence.

On the Death of M. D’Ossoli and His Wife Margaret Fuller.

OVER his millions Death has lawful power,
But over thee, brave D’Ossoli! none, none.
After a longer struggle, in a fight
Worthy of Italy to youth restored,
Thou, far from home, art sunk beneath the surge
Of the Atlantic; on its shore; in reach
Of help; in trust of refuge; sunk with all
Precious on earth to thee, — a child, a wife!
Proud as thou wert of her, America
Is prouder, showing to her sons how high
Swells woman’s courage in a virtuous breast.
She would not leave behind her those she loved:
Such solitary safety might become
Others; not her; not her who stood beside
The pallet of the wounded, when the worst
Of France and Perfidy assailed the walls
Of unsuspicious Rome. Rest, glorious soul,
Renowned for strength of genius, Margaret!
Rest with the twain too dear! My words are few,
And shortly none will hear my failing voice,
But the same language with more full appeal
Shall hail thee. Many are the sons of song
Whom thou hast heard upon thy native plains
Worthy to sing of thee: the hour is come;
Take we our seats and let the dirge begin.

— Walter Savage Landor

Notes

1 [Back to text] Larry Rivers, “Speech Read at Frank O’Hara’s Funeral, Springs, Long Island, July 27, 1966,” Homage to Frank O’ Hara, ed. Bill Berkson and Joe LeSueur (Bolinas: Big Sky, 1978), 138 (ellipsis in original).

2 [Back to text] Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Company, 1852),  2:349.

3 [Back to text] Quoted from Robert J. Scholnick, “‘The Ultraism of the Day’: Greene’s Boston Post, Hawthorne, Fuller, Melville, Stowe, and Literary Journalism in Antebellum America,” American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 18.2 (2008): 169-70.

4 [Back to text] The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York: New York University press, 1958), 262. Horace was the brother of Charles Sumner, and when a partial skeleton washed onshore several days later, impossible to identify, Thoreau arranged for burial, apprising Sumner of the news.

5 [Back to text] The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, 265.

6 [Back to text] Henry David Thoreau, Journal, ed. Bradford Torrey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1906), 2:43-44.

7 [Back to text] Thoreau, Journal, 2:80.

8 [Back to text] The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, ed. Joseph Slater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 482.

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