April 30, 2009
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The Peabody Sisters

by Megan Marshall

A superb biographical portrait of the early years of three influential sisters: Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody. These are the famous Peabody’s, but they’re not closely related to the town of Peabody, the Peabody museums, or the Peabody expeditions: the bankers were a different and later branch of the family, and these Peabody’s had a tough time finding rent money.

Sophia, the youngest and most artistic sister, married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mary, the middle girl, married Horace Mann. Elizabeth never married, but from her teens she established a literary and intellectual reputation that made her the confidant, sounding board, and sometimes the editor and publisher of the leaders of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Transcendentalism. Her bookstore was the center for the movement that gave rise to abolitionism and feminism, and her book on Bronson Alcott's school became the touchstone of progressive education. Later, she became the great advocate for kindergartens.

This is a fine and thorough book. The 1830’s and 1840’s, alas, were not a great era for prose, public or private. A generation earlier and these women would have written racy, lively letters, and a generation later would replace their sometimes fussy pieties with Lincoln’s mixture of wit and grandeur. But they were born without much money in an outpost of the world, they all educated themselves, and all became great and influential teachers.