Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms. By Bruce A. Ronda. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 391. Illustrations. $45.00.)

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody has long enjoyed the image of the eccentric educator and one of the more intriguing figures of the transcendentalist period. With that image she also has the reputation of being a "fuzzy thinker and an impractical activist" (4). Although recent scholarship has treated her more fairly as a source of insight into the lives of the many others with whom she intersected, the focus of attention has remained "away from Peabody and toward the others about whom she had so much to say" (3). It is this lack of familiarity and simplified understanding of her, argues Bruce Ronda, that makes a biography of Peabody so needed.

Ronda is no stranger to the life and writings of Elizabeth Peabody. His compilation of her writings, Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1984), made possible a reassessment of this complex and multifaceted woman. With Ronda's superb biography, we are given the most comprehensive analysis vet undertaken of her life, thought, and influence.

The blueprint of Peabody's life suggests her eclectic character. She was a "teacher, editor, publisher, translator, historian, bookseller, correspondent, essayist . . . was gifted in linguistics, literature, history, theology, philosophy, geography ... [and had] reading knowledge of ten languages" (3). Best known as the champion of kindergarten in the 1870s, Peabody had by that time taught in several of her own private schools and had assisted at Bronson Alcott's Temple School, putting her at the forefront of educational reform. In 1840 she opened a bookstore in Boston where she hosted Margaret Fuller's "Conversations" and published the periodicals the Dial and Aesthetic Papers as well as books by Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. During this time she advocated antislavery, European liberal revolutions, and Spiritualism, and she supported the Hungarian linguist Charles Kraitsir and Polish educator Josef Bem. By the 1850s Peabody divided her efforts among diverse enterprises, such as supporting Delia Bacon's attempt to challenge the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. According to Ronda, she "wandered in a wilderness of causes and issues, leaving in her wake a growing reputation as a warm-hearted, intrusive, scattered eccentric, in equal parts careless of her personal appearance and devoted to the well-being of others" (234). …

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