All Things Peabody

The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism
Megan Marshall
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, 602 pp., $28.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Rebecca Steinitz

Peabody is a familiar name here in Boston. As a child I attended the Peabody School, on weekends we visited the Peabody Museum, nearby was Peabody Square, and whenever we drove south on Route 128, we passed signs for the town of Peabody. But I knew nothing of Elizabeth, Mary, or Sophia Peabody.As a readerly Boston child fascinated with history, I was well aware of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I’d heard of Brook Farm, the transcendentalist commune, and we regularly went swimming at Walden Pond, Thoreau’s natural haven turned summer heaven for urban children. But as far as I knew, the transcendentalists were all men—and Margaret Fuller, whom I discovered only when I got to college and took a women’s studies class.Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters definitively rearranges my childhood worldview. While there may be Peabody aficionados who consider George--benefactor of museums at Harvard and Yale--or Endicott--founding headmaster of Groton--the preeminent bearer of the name, Marshall makes a convincing case for Elizabeth, backed up by her supporting cast of sisters. Marshall also makes it quite clear that women played a crucial role in transcendentalism, and that many of those women were named Peabody.

So who were these Peabody sisters? The eldest, Elizabeth (1804-1894), was a teacher, editor, and writer. A precocious intellect, she read the Bible thirty times during the summer she was thirteen, trying to decide whether Christ was human or divine—human, she determined, and became an increasingly radical Unitarian, to the dismay of her mother, who had embraced the more mystical Swedenborgian sect. Elizabeth started working as a teacher at age seventeen to help support her family. Over a decade and many schools later, she became Bronson Alcott’s assistant at the Temple School, one of the most famous nineteenth-century experiments in progressive education, about which she published the popular Record of a School (1835), an account of Alcott’s pedagogical methods. The Boston bookshop she ran in the 1840s was a hub of transcendentalist activity; and she capped her career by bringing the German institution of kindergarten to America.

Mary (1806-1877) and Sophia (1809-1871) are perhaps best identified by the men they married—Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne, respectively—but they too were accomplished and productive. Like Elizabeth, Mary was a teacher and writer, in her case of textbooks. After marrying in 1843, she supported Mann’s educational reform efforts and played an active role at Antioch College, where he was founding president in the 1850s. Despite a childhood and youth of debilitating ill health, Sophia was a well-respected artist before her marriage.

Marshall’s decision to write a biography of all three sisters is an interesting one, especially given how often Elizabeth seems to be both the engine of her family’s life and the focus of Marshall’s narrative. A significant piece of Sophia’s story has already been told in T. Walter Herbert’s Dearly Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family. Mary, though admirable, is the least interesting of the trio.

Still, sister biographies are a perennial favorite. Sometimes this subgenre seems motivated by the old-fashioned notion that an individual woman’s life may not have enough substance for a biography, but a group of sisters is worth a book, especially if they are all connected to well-known men—see, for example, the Macdonald sisters, subjects of Judith Flanders’ A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter, and Louisa Baldwin, who were noteworthy for being, respectively, mother of Rudyard Kipling, wife of Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, wife of Royal Academy president Edward Poynter, and mother of three-time prime minister Stanley Baldwin. At other times, as in Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, the impetus is a particularly robust archive. In the days before telephones and e-mail, letter-writing sisters could produce boatloads of correspondence. When augmented by a familial habit of diary-writing, their papers provide material perhaps even better suited for a portrait of the group than of any one of the individuals within it.Each of these motivations is apparent in The Peabody Sisters, though I suspect its author might disavow the first. While Marshall aims to show the importance of the Peabodys themselves, as heralded in the book’s subtitle, The Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, one significant rationale for their importance is surely their close connection not only to Alcott, Mann, and Hawthorne, but also to William Ellery Channing and, especially, the ur-transcendentalist himself, Emerson. Elizabeth’s life, in particular, often seems measured as much by which man she was most involved with at a particular moment as by where she was living or what she was doing (only slightly facetiously, my notes on the book read “294 - enter Alcott” and “352 - enter Hawthorne”).The archive, by contrast, explicitly underpins the sister theme. Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia’s letters and journals, as well as those of their families and friends, were so copious--and often so difficult to decipher--that it took Marshall twenty years to write this book. In an article, she describes the horror of discovering yet another cache of letters just after she finally turned in the manuscript. Luckily, once she read them, she was pleased to find that they confirmed what she had already written.

What she has written is a remarkable portrait of a family. The book begins with Eliza Palmer’s difficult childhood during and after the American Revolution. Witnessing her father’s economic and emotional weakness made the sisters’ mother determined to support herself and to endow her daughters with the same ability. In early nineteenth-century America that meant teaching, a profession Palmer followed for much of her life and into which she inculcated her daughters. Her determined self-reliance was only bolstered by her marriage to Nathaniel Peabody, a hapless doctor whose failure to command either his business enterprises or his family laid the groundwork for the female-dominated household in which the sisters grew up.

Marshall moves back and forth between the events of each sister’s life, but she also pays particular attention to their relationships with each other, their parents, and their three brothers, who proved almost as hapless as their father. While the women of the family were deeply connected, working together, writing to each other incessantly, and often living together as adults, their interactions were often fraught. The book traces Elizabeth’s religious conflicts with her mother, Eliza’s codependent interactions with the chronically ill Sophia, Mary and Sophia’s frequent frustration with Elizabeth’s domineering ways, and Elizabeth’s intimate, even competitive, friendships with the men her sisters eventually married.

But Marshall aims to do more than just to memorialize the three sisters or to provide new information about the men in their lives. Rather, she sets out to capture an era. In this, her book resembles less a typical sister biography than some of the great biographies of the past decade, like Amanda Foreman’s Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire; Alice Echols’ Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin; or Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. Such works fully situate the lives of their subjects geographically, historically, politically, economically, and socially.Hence, Marshall delineates the social geography of early nineteenth-century New England to explain both the rationales for and implications of the Peabodys’ frequent moves among Boston and an array of suburban and country towns: that Jamaica Plain, now an urban neighborhood, was once a suburb explains why it was less intellectually satisfying than Boston; that Lancaster, now a sleepy little town, was once a rural hub, justifies Dr. Peabody’s belief that he might finally make some money there. Similarly, Marshall deploys nineteenth-century medical history to explain Sophia’s illness as a combination of mercury poisoning, migraine, and psychological defense. Topics like the financial fluctuations of the 1830s, the conflicts between Calvinists and Unitarians, and the influence of British Romanticism on American thought receive equally meticulous treatment.Such contextualization is a particular hallmark of feminist biography, and The Peabody Sisters is an exemplary feminist biography. Marshall at once makes individual women central and illuminates the systemic effects of gender. The sisters’ dilemmas still resonate today: “The problem the sisters posed themselves was one that could only partly, and perhaps never satisfactorily, be answered by marriage: what could women of fierce energy, intellect, and determination do with their talents when they could not enter the public realm by any conventional means?”

At the same time, however, the book occasionally falls prey to the weakness of some feminist scholarship, namely overstating the case. Marshall repeatedly elevates the sisters’ efforts over those of male transcendentalists, claiming, for instance, that Elizabeth’s “words anticipate Emerson’s rally cry, the ‘American Scholar’ address of 1837”; and that Sophia’s “Cuba Journal” uses “a formulation anticipating both Emerson and Thoreau.” It would have been enough to reveal the Peabodys’ impressive accomplishments; too often these comparisons seem forced.The book’s other weakness is in actuality a testimony to its strength. Marshall ends her narrative with Sophia’s marriage to Hawthorne in 1842, at barely the halfway point of the sisters’ lives. This reader, at least, wished for more—although this endpoint does make thematic sense, for Sophia’s and Mary’s marriages put an end to the Peabody sisters per se. Yet ironically, it also privileges marriage, when the book is largely about the survival of women outside marriage.Pragmatically, however, the choice is absolutely forgivable, for if it took Marshall twenty years to arrive at 1842, imagine how long it would have taken her to get to Elizabeth’s death in 1894. So, rather than complaining that she did not write more, I’ll appreciate the informative and engaging book she did produce, which has transformed my understanding of its subject matter and given me a new attachment to all things Peabody.

Rebecca Steinitz is a Senior Program Officer at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where she coordinates the Initiative for the Humanities and Culture.  She has published articles, essays, and reviews on a range of topics, from nineteenth-century British diaries to raising feminist daughters.

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