Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Peabodys (and Suitors) Afresh ; Attaining 'A Decent Independence' Was Better Than Learning to 'Bake a Pudding'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Peabodys (and Suitors) Afresh ; Attaining 'A Decent Independence' Was Better Than Learning to 'Bake a Pudding'

Article excerpt

In the pantheon of notable 19th-century American women, Elizabeth Peabody is a particularly bright light. Her contributions to intellectual thought, educational methods, and literary culture are astonishing, especially in a age when most women were constrained by the demands of kitchen and cradle.

Elizabeth's writing on transcendental religious ideas preceded that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She developed her own classroom teaching techniques to foster individual learning and later joined with Bronson Alcott to start an innovative school that focused on drawing out the thoughts of each child. She also opened a foreign- language bookstore in Boston and promoted the writing of promising authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller.

Her most important contribution to American education was probably the establishment of kindergartens after the Civil War. Henry James immortalized her as the reformer Miss Birdseye in "The Bostonians." And to the end of her 90 years, she wrote - articles, books, journals, and letters, letters, letters. Her family and friends saved most of that correspondence and responded in kind.

All that writing is a mother lode that Megan Marshall has mined for details of the life Elizabeth Peabody shared with her two remarkable younger sisters, Mary and Sophia, dominating that life most of the time. They were Renaissance women as well. "The Peabody sisters ... were fortunate to arrive on an American scene in which women moved freely in intellectual circles and women's ideas were welcome in conversation, if not always in print," writes Marshall.

Mary was a gifted teacher, partnering Elizabeth in classrooms or creating her own. In later years, she helped to promote the kindergarten movement. Mary married Horace Mann, who reformed Massachusetts public schools and then moved on to be the first president of Antioch College in Ohio.

Sophia, the youngest, a talented painter and sculptor, became the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote his best-known books after they married.

Twenty years of meticulous effort went into writing "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism." In addition to known Peabody papers, Marshall found documents never before used for books on the sisters.

The resulting biography, studded with quoted phrases from all those letters and journals, unfolds in chronological order as Marshall charts the earlier Peabodys' family history of economic and social decline. The sisters were born to parents whose precarious finances forced them to move frequently, although they probably called Salem home more often than any other place. …

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