May 16, 2004, marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the 19th century’s most remarkable woman, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody who lived from 1804 to 1894.
Elizabeth was the oldest of the three famous Peabody sisters of Salem. Through her schoolteacher mother, she was drawn into the world of education and moral improvement as a young woman. By the age of 30, Lizzie had opened and run two schools and worked at Bronson Alcott’s controversial Temple School in Boston. Elizabeth later opened the nation’s first kindergarten, on Beacon Hill in 1861, and was largely responsible for the spread of the kindergarten movement in America.
Throughout her long life, Elizabeth worked to improve the lives of women and minorities. She provided a forum for early women lecturers including Harriet Martineau and Margaret Fuller, and founded a school for the orphan children of southern slaves. After her death in 1894, Lizzie’s friends opened The Elizabeth Peabody House, a combination social service agency and kindergarten, in Boston to carry on her work. .
Elizabeth was also one of America’s first female publishers, and for a time served as editor of “Dial,” the journal of the Transcendentalists who sometimes gathered at her Boston bookstore on West Street. Her own writings reflect her connections to important men of the times: “Reminiscences of Rev. William Ellery Channing,” “Record of a School” (Alcott’s Temple School), and “A Last Evening with Allston” (painter Washington Allston).
One famous man Elizabeth chose not to write about was her brother-in-law, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables.”
The Peabody and Hawthorne families had been Salem neighbors for a time when Elizabeth and Nathaniel were children, but had lost track of each other over the years. Their acquaintance was renewed in 1837 when Elizabeth , shortly after Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales” was published in 1837, invited the author and his sisters to the Peabody home on Charter Street.
On subsequent visits to the Peabody home, the handsome Hawthorne met and fell in love with Elizabeth’s sister, Sophia. Despite her probable disappointment at not being his chosen one, Lizzie set out to to help the young author’s career.
In March 1838, she wrote a glowing review of “Twice-Told Tales” for The New Yorker published by Park Benjamin. In it she called Hawthorne “a first rate genius,” although she did chide the author for including in his book a number of sketches that she felt were written just to appeal to the popular audience.
Peabody then introduced Hawthorne to Susan Burley, a Salem women whose salons attracted the town’s cultural and literary elite. Ms. Burley immediately took to the young author, and financed the publication of a special edition of Hawthorne’s “The Gentle Boy,” a powerful story based on the persecution of Quakers that took place in Massachusetts in the late 1650s. The book was illustrated by Nathaniel’s beloved Sophia whom he would soon marry.
Elizabeth also tried to interest another of her famous friends in promoting Hawthorne’s work. But Ralph Waldo Emerson was unimpressed with the author’s writing, and chose to champion another of Lizzie’s Salem proteges, the poet Jones Very, instead.
When it became clear that Nathaniel and Sophia were going to marry, Elizabeth set out to find her future brother-in-law a job. Through her connections and lobbying, Hawthorne received a political appointment at the Custom House in Boston.
Nathaniel moved into the city in 1839, and the Peabody family followed a year later. Despite the fact that they were almost neighbors, and future in-laws, Hawthorne made little effort to socialize with Elizabeth. As she usually did in such cases, the young woman swallowed her pride and hurt, and continued to work to further his career.
Elizabeth turned publisher, and in the early 1840s brought out three Hawthorne books, “Grandfather’s Chair,” “Famous Old People,” and “Liberty Tree,” all of which were based on Massachusetts history.
Despite her efforts on his behalf, Hawthorne had little use for Elizabeth from this time forward. Their relationship was strained at best, and at various times Nathaniel took Elizabeth to task for meddling in his affairs and those of his growing family. The author at one point went so far as to tell his patroness quite bluntly that she, Lizzie, was definitely not marriage material and suggested that she concentrate instead on minding her own business.
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