The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism

The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism

by Megan Marshall


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618711697
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/11/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 262,520
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.44(d)

About the Author

MEGAN MARSHALL is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for Margaret Fuller, and the author of The Peabody Sisters, which won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Lynton History Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. She is the Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor and teaches narrative nonfiction and the art of archival research in the MFA program at Emerson College. For more, visit

Read an Excerpt



Aside from one stiffly posed silhouette, the only surviving likeness of Mrs. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody is a small pencil drawing Sophia made in one of her sketchbooks in the early 1830s. By this time Sophia and her sisters were all in their twenties and their mother was approaching sixty. Eliza, as she was known to her family, had given birth to four daughters (one died in infancy) and three sons, moved her family in and out of nearly a dozen different houses, never owning one of them, and devoted most of her waking hours to augmenting her husband's meager income by teaching or tutoring young girls. There are hints of that life of hard work in the set of Mrs. Peabody's jaw, in her tired eyes. But the "Mamma" Sophia chose to depict is a woman apparently free of daily burdens. We see her in profile, settled happily at a table, hair tucked back into a lace-trimmed cap, reading a book, with a vase of flowers to complete the tableau.

A hint of a smile plays about Mrs. Peabody's face, reminding us that she was not alone in the room. Was the affectionate look intended for Sophia or her sisters? Sophia manages to suggest a parlor scene with, perhaps, the rest of the family gathered outside the frame, reading or talking. The drawing could have been captioned with Mrs. Peabody's words of advice, written about the same time the sketch was made, when the family had come to believe that Sophia would never be well enough to marry or to leave home. "The love which settles down upon the household circle tho' more quiet, is deeper, steadier, more efficient than any other love," she counseled Sophia. "Anchor your soul on domestic love."

Sophia liked to draw spare, almost stylized sketches of her friends and family inspired by the English artist John Flaxman's illustrations of Greek myths, then popular with the Boston intelligentsia. She gives us just the out lines of her mother's short cape — it must have been a chilly New England spring day — and a long sleeve. But the simple props she selected for her mother's portrait were as significant as Diana's arrows or Pandora's box in a Flaxman line drawing. Both book and flowers were signs of high culture and feminine refinement. Yet Mrs. Peabody was no dilettante. She was a published poet and read widely and critically all her life, passing along her passion for literature to her daughters, who made books and learning the central focus of their own lives. She prized flowers and — when she had the time, when she had a garden, and when her husband's ridicule didn't stop her — took long walks in search of unusual specimens to transplant to her own flower beds. Sophia sketched her mother as she wanted to be seen, and as Sophia wanted to remember her: at peace and surrounded by the elements of her favorite occupations. A decade after she drew this sketch, a month after she left home with her new husband, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia was still trying to think of her mother this way. "I could see in you the image of a perfect woman," she wrote to her mother, recollecting her years at home. But she couldn't keep herself from adding: "through all the shadows of the world over you."

There were shadows. The family's longtime physician and friend Dr. Walter Channing, brother of the celebrated Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, once wrote of Mrs. Peabody that "in memory I always see her smiling," yet "her smile was always to me like the shining out of an angel's face from behind a mask where brave struggles with heavy sorrows had left deep imprints of mortality." Sophia and her sisters were called on throughout their lives to puzzle out and then to soothe their mother's heavy sorrows, to vindicate her defeats with their accomplishments, to compensate for her troubled marriage with grand passions of their own. Like many American women who extolled the virtues of female domesticity during the first half century following the Revolution, Mrs. Peabody sought to "anchor" her soul on "domestic love" because it had always been elusive.

For Mrs. Peabody there were private troubles to contend with, but these were also years when men and women jockeyed for power in households throughout the thirteen states after independence was declared. During the 1780s, the decade of Eliza Peabody's childhood, families were reunited and women took control of the home as their "sphere." But for some women, authority in the home seemed a good deal less than the reward American men had given themselves for wartime service: the exclusive right to rule in public life. It was possible for a woman to convince herself that raising the sons of the Republic was a worthy task; and women used the ideology of "Republican Motherhood" to win new privileges, particularly the right to an education, and later the opportunity to work as teachers and reformers. But for some daughters of independence — girls who, like Eliza, grew up as the children or sisters of soldiers, who had helped run farms and businesses while the men of the family fought the war — power at home was never quite enough, and the very domestic tranquility they later espoused as wives and mothers proved hard to come by.

Mrs. Peabody once wrote to her daughter Mary, "I long for means and power ... but I wear peticoats and can never be Governor ... nor alderman, Judge or jury, senator or representative — so I may as well be quiet — content with in treating the Father of all mercies." Yet Mrs. Peabody could never silence her longings, and she passed them on to her daughters in the form of stories about her ancestors — stories intricately entwined with the early history of the nation, told and retold until they became touchstones for the three girls who would grow into women of extraordinary energy and influence. Through her "patriotic mother," her oldest daughter, Elizabeth, liked to say that she had been "educated by the heroic age of the country's history." Not a little of that heroism was her mother's, as she struggled to overcome a family heritage of betrayal and loss.



Like the smile on her face in Sophia's drawing, there was a surface history, a tale of brave deeds in grander times, that Mrs. Peabody recited proudly, usually omitting the sorry ending. She even wrote a novel adapting and improving on the events of her family's past. The novel was never published, but it remained part of the Peabody family's treasured papers for a century after it was written, keeping alive for each new generation the stories that guided this embattled family of women through the early decades of the American Republic.

She was born Elizabeth Palmer, the third of nine children of wealthy Massachusetts colonials. The wealth came from her grandfather, General Joseph Palmer, whom she remembered from early childhood as "more like an old fashioned English country gentleman, than any one" of his time and place. The general was so beloved by all who knew him, even animals, it was said that when he was away from home his cat tried to climb onto the shoulder of the John Singleton Copley portrait of him that hung in his library.

Yet Eliza scarcely knew the luxury she might have inherited. Family life was so fractured by the time she was born that neither birth nor baptism, if there was one, was ever recorded. The month was February, but the year might have been 1776, 1777, or 1778, according to conflicting family documents. These were the war years — soon to be the dark years of the war for the Palmer family — when town records were unevenly kept.

In sunnier times, the Palmers lived in a large square house made of oak and stone, with four enormous chimneys rising up at each corner, perched on a hill above a pretty cove known as Snug Harbor in Germantown, thirteen miles south of Boston. Not quite a mansion, the house nevertheless became known as Friendship Hall in the decades at midcentury when the benevolent General Palmer oversaw "a settlement of free and independent artisans and manufacturers" who operated his chocolate mills; spermaceti, salt, and glass works; and a factory for weaving stockings. In fact, Palmer owned all of Germantown, which occupied a small peninsula jutting out into Boston Harbor at the northernmost corner of Braintree, a town that would later become famous for its native sons John Hancock and John Adams.

Emigrating from England in 1746, the visionary Palmer had seen fit to house his workmen and their families — most of them newly arrived from Europe as well — in several stone buildings near his factories, making the Ger mantown settlement a commercial version of the Puritans' earlier "city upon a hill." And he realized his plan nearly a century before the founding of New England's model industrial towns at Lawrence and Lowell. Although she never lived there, Eliza would remember Friendship Hall best of all the Germantown buildings, with its polished mahogany floors and banisters, its wallpaper painted with scenes of classical ruins, its hillside planted with fruit trees leading down to Snug Harbor. There, she knew, "Grandpapa Palmer" had once entertained an emerging local aristocracy made up of Adamses, Palmers, and Quincys — the family that would produce three mayors of Boston, one of whom went on to become a president of Harvard College, and for whom this portion of Braintree was later renamed.

Women were a powerful presence at Friendship Hall gatherings as well. Palmer's brother-in-law Richard Cranch, a fellow emigrant who was also his cousin, had married one of the three talented Smith sisters of nearby Weymouth, and settled in Braintree, where he eventually became a judge. Cranch's bride was Mary, the oldest; the middle sister, Abigail, married John Adams; the youngest, Elizabeth, would later play a pivotal role in Eliza Palmer's life. The Friendship Hall circle was a close-knit group of practical idealists: intellectuals with solid financial underpinnings and multiple kinship ties. Even as dissatisfaction with British rule crept into conversation, Friendship Hall seemed sure to remain a reliable sanctuary.

General Palmer raised three children in Germantown: two daughters, Polly and Elizabeth, and a son, Joseph Pearse Palmer, Eliza's father. When young Joseph graduated from Harvard in 1771 and married Betsey Hunt, one of the famously beautiful daughters of a preacher turned distiller in Watertown, just west of Cambridge, General Palmer set him up with an importing business in Boston. Eliza's oldest brother, the third Joseph Palmer, was born there in 1773. But her father had little enthusiasm for business ventures, preferring to be known chiefly as a man of high principles and keen intellect. And Boston in the mid-1770s was a difficult place for a man of principle to pay attention to anything besides the increasingly tense relations between New and Old England. Joseph Pearse Palmer's ideals led him, even though he was only a first-generation American, to join the Patriot cause.

Eliza's mother, Betsey, liked to tell about the December night in 1773 when she was home alone "sitting rocking the baby when I heard the gate and door open." Betsey looked up, expecting to find her husband returning from a night at his club, only to find "three stout Indians" standing in her front parlor. The young mother "screamed out and would have fainted of very fright" had she not recognized her husband's voice as one of the Indians, saying "Don't be frightened, Betsey, it is I. We have only been making a little salt water tea." Betsey was calmed by her husband's words, but within days Joseph Pearse Palmer and his fellow Indians were found out and declared traitors for their part in the Boston Tea Party. In retaliation, British soldiers looted and burned the Palmer warehouses on Boston's Long Wharf, and the young family fled to Watertown to take refuge with Betsey's family, the Hunts.

Both Joseph Palmers, the father then almost sixty and the son in his twenties, continued to protest British rule, first serving in the Provincial Congress and then assisting at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, where the first shots were fired in the Revolution, and later at Breed's Hill. For his active role in the Congress — he was president of the body for a term and helped organize the tea boycott — for his donations of money and supplies to the Patriot army, and for his assistance in key battles, the senior Palmer was eventually made brigadier general, and his son quartermaster general. But if the Battle of Lexington marked the birth of a new nation, it also signaled the decline of the Palmer family fortune. General Palmer's Boston warehouses had already been plundered, and after war broke out one of his ships carrying a valuable cargo of spermaceti candles from Germantown was captured by the British. As more men joined the cause, the senior Joseph Palmer was forced to close his factories for lack of workers, and he continued to spend on the Patriot cause. In the first two years of the war, Palmer contributed as much as 5,000 pounds sterling, nearly $750,000 in today's currency.

Then came the disastrous Rhode Island campaign — or "Burlesque," as it was later called. General Palmer proposed the surprise attack on Newport, Rhode Island, in the fall of 1777, but he never expected to serve as chief commanding officer for the invasion. In his sixties and a man of business, Palmer had largely confined his military service to mustering troops and overseeing the construction of fortifications. Still, his new superior officer, General Joseph Spencer, approved the plan and then left Palmer to lead the attack, promising him a militia of 9,000 to confront the 3,600 British and German soldiers camped near Newport.

A comedy of errors ensued. Spencer promised "boats and everything ready" in Newport, but Palmer and his troops arrived to find only a motley collection of dories and fishing vessels greatly in need of repair. The few skilled carpenters among his Patriot recruits refused to turn "artificers," and quit rather than help with the repairs. Angered by the delay, a handful of soldiers defected and revealed Palmer's plans to their new British officers. Mishaps followed in rapid succession: reconnaissance parties lost their way, heavy rains further delayed the attack, and then a bright moonlit sky exposed the Patriot forces to the enemy. Finally Palmer was forced to recommend a retreat. Comedy turned to tragedy when General Spencer, anxious to escape blame, ordered Palmer to face a court-martial on charges of "Neglect and Disobedience" for failing to carry out the attack as planned.

Already regretful of his own part in the botched invasion, Palmer was devastated when he learned that his honor had been called into question. He appealed to his one-time Braintree neighbor John Hancock, now president of the Continental Congress, to provide him with a copy of the charges filed against him. Hancock refused, putting the older man in the untenable position of being tried — possibly for his life — with no chance to prepare his own defense. Ultimately the case was thrown out of court, but a congressional commission then spent six months collecting testimony and studying the evidence before clearing Palmer of all charges; he remained the unofficial scapegoat for what turned out to be one of the Continental army's more notable blunders. Palmer had appointed his son, Eliza's father, to lead one of the Rhode Island battalions, and both men seem never to have recovered from the humiliation.

By the time the war was won, the disgrace that shadowed the Palmer men was compounded by financial losses. Like many members of the colonial gentry, the Palmers had fallen deeply into debt. With currency values fluctuating wildly, General Palmer was forced to pay off his creditors by selling his Germantown land and Friendship Hall. Within three years of the war's end, the aging general was begging for credit from the same neighbors and friends who had once been his houseguests, and his son was suffering the first of many depressions that would ensure his continued business failures. The Revolution so crippled the Palmer men that when Eliza turned her grandfather's hard luck into fiction in her novel, she described his downfall as the result of an outright attack by the British on Germantown and Friendship Hall. "The sun rose on a scene of havoc indescribable," she wrote. "Every house & cabin was level with the ground. Choccolate, glass, salt, candles, were scattered along the beach and spread over the extensive grounds and pastures. ... In a few hours, the friend and benefactor of all who lived near him was thus made a comparatively poor man." Of course the truth was more complex and disturbing. The Palmers had been betrayed by their own countrymen even as they gave all they had to the Patriot cause.


Excerpted from "The Peabody Sisters"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Megan Marshall.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of IllustrationsIX
The Peabody Family GenealogyXII
Prologue: July 9, 18421
Part IOrigins, 1746-1803
5Flight into Union48
Part IIThe Family School, 1804-1820
6"My Hopes All of Happiness"59
7Salem Girlhoods64
8The Doctor and His Wife82
9"Heretical Tendencies"88
10"Beginning to Live"94
Part IIIElizabeth, 1821-1824
Part IVMary and Elizabeth, 1825-1828
14"I Am Always My Own Heroine"147
15"There Is No Scandal in Brookline"153
16"Life Is Too Interesting to Me Now"171
17An Interior Revolution179
Part VSophia, 1829-1832
18Dr. Walter189
19"My Soul Steps Forth upon the Paper"201
20"First Retreat into Solitude"213
Part VISomerset Court and La Recompensa, 1833-1835
23Blind Fair257
24Cuba Journals271
Part VII"Before the Age in Salem," 1836-1839
25Temple School Revisited307
26Little Waldo, Jones Very, and the "Divinity School Address"327
27The Sister Years349
Part VIII13 West Street, Boston, 1840-1842
29"Mr. Ripley's Utopia"399
30Two Funerals and a Wedding422
Epilogue: May 1, 1843441

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Outstanding . . . Marshall has distilled 20 years of research into a book that brings the sisters to life." Publishers Weekly, Starred

"An engrossing account, replete with both penetrating insights and interesting details."—Mary Ellen Quinn Booklist ALA, Starred Review

"An excellent biography...a colorful and sympathetic portrait of these remarkable women."—Francine Prose The New York Times Book Review

"A stunning work of biography and intellectual history. . .the intellectual equivalent of a triple axel."—William Grimes The New York Times

"This monumental biography answers every question about its subjects but one: Why aren't the Peabody sisters famous? . . . Vibrant."—Sue Corbett People Magazine

"The real fascination is in [the Peabody sisters'] linked lives, and those have now been ably re-created."—Michael Kenney Boston Globe

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Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Like a gourmet meal, The Peabody Sisters is a book to savor, even by a fast reader. The author reveals the lively intellectual curiosity and the profound influence of American women in the post-Revolutionary period when Transcendalism and American Romanticism blossomed. Her skillful writing incorporates the correspondence among the three sisters and their distinguished beaus and reveals a family and a community rich in intellect and ambition.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Group biographies are in fashion, and that seems to be a great thing for today's readers. In THE PEABODY SISTERS, I had the pleasure not only of getting to know three fascinating individuals, but of coming to understand their group dynamic and their powerful collective influence on American culture. While I'm not usually a follower of literary fads, this type of multi-dimensional portrait really does seem to provide a more accurate, 'true,' and by all means more captivating portrait than traditional birth-to-death biographies of single individuals. A captivating book, based on many years of solid research.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fascinating and inspiring glimpse into the lives of three post-revolutionary women who had tremendous influence in the shaping of religious and educational ideals in early America. Eclipsed in history by the highly visible men of that time period such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and many others, the story of the Peabody sisters is incredible. A reminder that the struggle for equal rights, for women's place in intellectual and artistic life, did not start recently, but has been part of our history from the very founding of this nation. This is a long book--well over 500 pages plus appendixes and such--but I found it absolutely riveting.
susanamper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A combined biography of Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody. Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary married Horace Mann (educator). I really enjoyed it; it had a fun combination of literary info and gossip. It was a good way to tell a biography. I even read all the notes. I know a few things about the 19th c. and boring dead white males. It's nice to be reaffirmed in my belief that behind every one of them is a once vibrant dead white woman.I did not know that Eliz. Peabody was such an intellectual. I find it not surprising at all to learn that R. Waldo Emerson lifted her ideas for his sermons (I never have liked him) and also William Ellery Channing. I was also not aware of her own ideas about transcendetalism and how foresighted and on the cutting edge she was.The stuff about Hawthorne was great. I love that he romanced both Elizabeth and Sophia and could not entirely give up on E.P. because she was good for his career. Looks like she was good for the careers of lots of people. It's too bad Poe didn't set up shop in Boston or Salem; she could have found him a job or patrons as she did for Hawthorne.Very readable. I recommend it.
theaelizabet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An excellent, intelligent rendering of life in the Northeastern U.S., post-Revolutionary War/pre-Civil War. Although the book focuses on the lives of the talented Peabody Sisters (middle sister Mary was a teacher and essayist who married and influenced education innovator Horace Mann, youngest sister Sophia was an artist who married and served as muse to Nathaniel Hawthorne) it's through oldest sister Elizabeth--the glue, fulcrum and primary breadwinner of the Peabody family--that we come to understand the societal limits placed on women of that era. Elizabeth was a brilliant, disciplined thinker who taught and founded groundbreaking schools, wrote essays and books, and established and ran a Boston-based bookstore and small publishing house. Yet her primary purpose was in prodding, nurturing and supporting men who saw the world as she did: men such as Mann, Hawthorne (she was one of his earliest publishers, and found the infamous Customs House job for him, which is described in the beginning of The Scarlett Letter), Emerson, the Reverend Ellery Channing and Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson.I have a couple of minor quibbles. Margaret Fuller (chosen by Emerson to edit his transcendental journal "The Dial") appears a couple of times in the book before we are told who she is and her friendship with Elizabeth Peabody is never fully explored. Also Fuller's close relationship to Hawthorne and its effect on his and Sophia's marriage is never mentioned. The book ends prematurely with Mary and Sophia's marriages to their more-famous husbands (Elizabeth never married), which leads me to hope that a part II is in the works.
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But plain living and high thoughts never meant much unless you had health money and security and could afford a book when a dollar a day was good wage. Alcott wrote dozens of books but only his daughter is read now emerson for a couple poems the short ones no one cares much about any of the group now and the one most remembered died of t b and didnt have much to do with women