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The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (original 2005; edition 2006)
by Megan Marshall (Author)
The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall (2005)
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This book is super interesting and really inspiring. I was fascinated reading about these women who were so influential, yet I had never heard anything about them before. A really satisfying read. I feel like I should start writing people letters and keeping a journal. ( )
Megan Marshall basically lived with the Peabody sisters while writing this book (as much as someone can live with a trio of sisters who've been dead for more than 100 years), and it shows in her writing. She delved into their correspondence, their personal journals, their friends' letters to other friends about the sisters, news stories, census reports. And then she took all of this and turned it into the compelling story of three sisters at the center of a huge philosophical shift that took place in New England in the first half of the nineteenth century.
What's really interesting to me was how big an influence the Peabody women had on the men whose names are usually associated with the period: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, William Ellery Channing. I wasn't exactly surprised by this---I'd already read Megan Marshall's biography of Margaret Fuller---but it's still jarring to see just how easily otherwise enlightened men could brush off the accomplishments and intellectual lives of the women around them, and how readily so many women accepted their limited role in society.
I heard on the news today about some story of poor judgment (at best) on the part of a public figure in Boston, and the commentator said, "Why are we not taking to the streets about this?" I have the same feeling when I read about the Peabody sisters. Why aren't the women studying with Elizabeth Peabody and meeting in her book shop rising up and throwing off the restrictive roles their society has handed them? I can speculate about the reasons---all very good ones, too---but it still doesn't quite make sense to me how the granddaughters of those who fought to make the United States into an independent country didn't fight more dramatically on behalf of their own independence.
The other thing that I found interesting was the negative impression I was left with of Emerson, Mann, and Hawthorne. They so obviously used the intelligent women around them, toyed with their affections, pitted sister against sister, and still the sisters defended these men and fought amongst themselves (in a very genteel, epistolary, nineteenth-century way, but it was fighting nonetheless). It's just another reminder, I guess, that although men are placed on pedestals by the writers of history, they are still human beings. Once again, not surprising, just disappointing.
In addition to being an intimate story of the sisters as individuals and of their sisterhood, this is also an excellent history of the Unitarian church. I've often wondered how we got from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism in fewer than three centuries, and this book helped me make sense of it for the first time. It also sheds light on some of the ongoing friction points within the denomination.
Megan Marshall created a page-turner about the lives of three 19th century sisters, and also filled this biography with so much fascinating information about life in the 19th century, Boston, Salem, and Concord, Emerson, Alcott, Hawthorne, Transcendentalism, and all the Unitarian ministers, especially Channing and Parker, I'd give it more than 5 stars if I could. This is the way I enjoy learning about history. Bravo--wow, and thanks to the English teacher at my high school who recommended it for our library collection.
A somewhat complicated but revelatory story of 3 sisters whose lives spanned the 19th century, and who became associated with the new Transcendentalist movement. They were lucky in that their mother was a teacher who believed that women needed to be well educated, and so each received an unusually strong education for the time. In addition, because Elizabeth didn't marry and Mary and Sophia married later in life, they had quite a bit of time to pursue career interests in their lives. Elizabeth is a strong, likable central character, who becomes a central figure in the lives of many famous people in the Transcendentalist movement, including Channing, Emerson and Alcott. Perhaps because she is a woman, she embraces many roles: governess, teacher, publisher, bookstore owner, hostess for 'conversations', supporter of her family. It is interesting that just like Louisa May Alcott, whose father was also a founding member of the Transcendentalists, she understood that her father was not going to adequately support his family, and had to contribute earnings to keep the family afloat. I was struck by how many times each of the sisters (and their family) moved. It seems like their lives were quite transient, moving often to find opportunities for employment. It's also interesting to see a movement grow and develop, not in a straight line, but in fits and starts. These people seem like modern-day hippies, with the Fruitlands and Brook Farm communes as experimental living situations, each of which ultimately failed. The book also deals with the relatively complex relationships between the women and the men in their lives. Before mary marries Horace Mann and Sophia marries Nathaniel Hawthorne, each man has a close relationship with Elizabeth, the most dominant of the sisters. This book leaves me feeling grateful for the women who preceded me, and the work they did to make their lives meaningful.
And by the way, it's very well written. This is a very complicated story of 3 individuals and is somewhat a page-turner. I liked it very much.
I can’t resist books about sisters, I've read more by and about the Mitford sisters than I’d care to admit, and this thoroughly researched book about the Peabody sisters has all the charms that the best of such books can offer--fascinating personalities, in-depth observations of their family dynamics, and an intimate window into the history of their time. It’s just as informative and moving as author Megan Marshall’s more recent book on Margaret Fuller. Those two books complement each other since they are both about women who were leading thinkers and influential players during the pre-Civil War era when American Romanticism and Transcendentalism were flowering, a time mainly dominated by men.
Money was always an issue for the Peabody family, but that seemed to push each of the sisters to excel. Elizabeth had a voracious intellect and her ideas helped inspire the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. She published their early works, urged them to curb their individualistic philosophies to connect more with others, and has had a lasting impact by promoting the benefits of kindergarten. Mary was a compassionate reformer who married statesman and educator Horace Mann. Sophia, though sickly, was recognized as a talented artist and she married novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book’s tone is sympathetic, but honest, and the sisters come to life on the page to such an extent that it made me feel like I know them.
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Wikipedia in English (6)
Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody were in many ways our American Brontes. The story of these remarkable sisters -- and their central role in shaping the thinking of their day -- has never before been fully told. Twenty years in the making, Megan Marshall's monumental biograpy brings the era of creative ferment known as American Romanticism to new life. Elizabeth, the oldest sister, was a mind-on-fire thinker. A powerful influence on the great writers of the era -- Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among them -- she also published some of their earliest works. It was Elizabeth who prodded these newly minted Transcendentalists away from Emerson's individualism and toward a greater connection to others. Mary was a determined and passionate reformer who finally found her soul mate in the great educator Horace Mann. The frail Sophia was a painter who won the admiration of the preeminent society artists of the day. She married Nathaniel Hawthorne -- but not before Hawthorne threw the delicate dynamics among the sisters into disarray. Marshall focuses on the moment when the Peabody sisters made their indelible mark on history. Her unprecedented research into these lives uncovered thousands of letters never read before as well as other previously unmined original sources. The Peabody Sisters casts new light on a legendary American era. Its publication is destined to become an event in American biography. This book is highly recommended for students and reading groups interested in American history, American literature, and women's studies. It is a wonderful look into 19th-century life.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)974.4030922 — History and Geography North America Northeastern U.S. Massachusetts
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