The Letters of Sophia Peabody: A Miniature Edition: Five Letters from the Peabody Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Article excerpt


Some years ago, thanks to a grant designed to encourage Smith faculty members to bring the remarkable holdings of the Sophia Smith Collection, one of the country's best women's history archives, into their classes, I found myself reading the letters of Sophia Peabody and her sisters Elizabeth and Mary. My purpose at the time was to try to get to know, through the resources of the Collection, the kind of people who would have been or become Hawthorne's readers. As the reader will infer, I began this enterprise in the most obvious possible way, by looking for materials that might be linked to Hawthorne himself, or to the literary culture of his time. What I discovered in these file folders full of cross-hatched manuscript letters and (miraculously) some very accurate typescripts struck me as both a treasure and a revelation, and I have looked for years for a way of doing something with them. This cache of materials is, of course, well known to scholars who work on the Peabody sisters, and Megan Marshall makes adroit use of this collection in her magisterial The Peabody Sisters, but my hope has been to offer to readers something like the experience I had when I first encountered Sophia Peabody's writing during my accidental sojourn in the archives. This special edition of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review seemed to provide a perfect occasion to share with other readers my earlier experience of "overhearing" Sophia, and to invite them to begin their reading of this special issue about Sophia Hawthorne with the sound, so to speak, of her own voice.

The collection itself consists of letters between Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody and two close friends, the sisters and Salem neighbors Maria and Rebecca Chase. The Chases were a large, lively Quaker family--and Sophia's letters are full of greetings to various Chase siblings and cousins. Maria, the oldest sister (born in 1798), was the recipient of the great majority of the letters; Rebecca, twelve years younger, would marry Nathaniel Kinsman, a merchant engaged in the China trade, in 1835, and later travel with him to Macau. The letters were donated to the Sophia Smith Collection by Rebecca Kinsman Monroe, Smith class of 1895, Maria Chase's great-niece. For the "miniature edition" I present here, I have chosen two of Sophia's letters from Boston (one from 1827, one from 1829), and three of her letters from Cuba (1834), where Mary Peabody had found work as a governess, a job she took in the hope that the change in climate might cure Sophia's chronic migraines. I have provided thematic titles for both parts of the edition, emphasizing in the case of the Boston letters Sophia's eager participation in that city's intense culture of self-creation in the era of the "Newness" (the local term for transcendentalist cultural ferment), and in the Cuban letters her celebration--no less a form of self-making--of the sensory experience her tropical sojourn offered.

Apart from this thematic organization, my method as the minor editor of this miniature edition has mainly been to stay out of the way. In my head-notes and annotations, I have tried to help the reader with the large cast of characters that populate Sophia's social and intellectual worlds; indeed, the range of cultural figures and books referred to in the letters (especially those from Boston) in itself provides vivid testimony to the stunning richness of Sophia's daily experience and of the historical moment she permits us to witness. In my presentation of the text of the letters themselves, I have stayed as close as I could to the originals, leaving Sophia's sometimes idiosyncratic spelling uncorrected and dispensing altogether with the many iterations of "[sic]" that would otherwise interrupt the flow of her words; readers will need to trust me when I say that these letters have been carefully proofread.

Though I have sworn myself to interpretive reticence, let me nevertheless offer a few comments on what I take to be the value of these letters. …


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