We have become so used to seeing local bookstores disappear from our neighborhoods that is is difficult to remember how important these stores used to be. From the early days shortly after the American Revolution up until the end of the twentieth century many bookstores were meeting places and informal universities where people discussed politics and social issues as well as literature. And some of the most important bookstores have been run by women including Elizabeth Peabody.
We have no picture of Elizabeth Peabody as a young woman, although she was well-known in Boston. As her biographer, Megan Marshall, explains, Elizabeth’s portrait was painted in 1828 by Chester Harding, a well-known portrait artist in Boston. Elizabeth was 24 years old at the time and teaching at a school she had started for girls. Instead of being pleased by the portrait, her parents were scandalized. Women of that time did not have pictures of themselves hung on walls and displayed to others. Unlike men, women were supposed to live lives that were private and hidden from everyone except their families. Despite the prevailing customs, however, Elizabeth was destined to become a well-known and beloved figure in Boston and elsewhere during her long life. The portrait, incidentally, was destroyed years later in a warehouse fire so the only existing pictures show Elizabeth as an elderly woman.
Elizabeth was one of three Peabody sisters—the other two were Mary, who married Horace Mann, and Sophia, who became the wife of Nathanial Hawthorne. All three were born in the early 1800s and lived through most of that eventful century, but Elizabeth had the most lasting influence and left a legacy that is still with us.
But to return to the bookstore…in 1839 Elizabeth opened a small circulating library and bookstore in the family home. She knew Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of his friends who were interested in expanding the intellectual horizons for Americans. They were eager to learn about the new ideas being talked about in Europe and Elizabeth’s bookstore offered them a chance to read and discuss European journals and new books. Not only that, Elizabeth also opened a small publishing operation and published several articles and books written by members of the group including several of Nathanial Hawthorne’s early stories. She was probably the first woman publisher in the United States.
Elizabeth Peabody’s small bookstore in West Street was the place where the new Transcendental Club held meetings. Margaret Fuller offered her “Conversations” in the bookstore for the wives and friends of the Emerson circle. Elizabeth’s bookstore appears in my mystery story A Death in Utopia as a place where the Charlotte Edgerton and her friend Daniel Gallagher can follow up ideas for solving a mysterious death.
Running a bookstore and being a publisher were not Elizabeth Peabody’s only occupations. Later in life she opened the first kindergarten in America and her most lasting legacy remains the revolution in teaching young children which grew out of the kindergarten movement. Megan Marshall’s biography The Peabody Sisters; Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism gives a good start on learning about Elizabeth and her accomplished sisters.
Brook Farm, the first secular Utopian community to be established in New England, attracted the attention of most of the intellectuals in the area when it opened in 1840. Margaret Fuller, already a well-known writer and lecturer was one of them. As a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and others who supported the establishment of the community, she participated in discussions about whether a communal lifestyle would encourage people to write great books, paint beautiful pictures and develop an American culture. Many Americans wanted to develop a culture quite different from the European model. They did not believe that all art and culture should be created by aristocrats who did not need to work or earn money. The early 19th century was a time when many people were trying to discover how society could be structured to allow everyone to have a chance to become educated and creative even though they had to make a living.
Margaret Fuller toyed with the idea of joining Brook Farm as a member. Living in a community like that would free her from the necessity of supervising a household for herself and her mother. The reaction of Brook Farmers to Miss Fuller was mixed. Many of the young women considered her a model for what a brilliant woman could make of her life, but others (especially, perhaps, the young men) thought she was arrogant and talked too much. Some of them even called the most obstreperous cow in their barn the Margaret Fuller heifer.
In the end, Fuller decided she needed solitude to pursue her own work, but continued to visit often. She was determined to make her mark in the world, and she succeeded. She became one of the most influential literary figures in New England. Then she moved to New York to write for the New York Tribune. Later she traveled to Europe as a reporter and became a friend of men who were plotting revolutions in several countries.
Fuller’s book Women in the Nineteenth Century was considered revolutionary. She urged women to find their voices and express their own ideas. The book influenced women around the country and even though Margaret Fuller herself died at the age of 40, her work bore fruit in the early feminist movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were among the women who read her works and tried to follow her path.
The merry month of May has been a bright one for me because my mystery story A Death in Utopia is finally published and available on Amazon.com Two years ago when I started working on the story of Charlotte Edgerton and her life at the Brook Farm Community in 19th century Massachusetts, I wasn’t at all sure that the book would ever see the light of day. Now at last is has!
The impetus that kickstarted my story was the wonderful NaNoWriMo month of November 2012. Those of you who have never heard of National Novel Writing Month may not know of this online meeting place for writers. For those of us who sign up for NaNoWriMo the month of November becomes one long writing workshop. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month and to help the effort there are group forums, pep talks from successful writers, and general camaraderie along the way. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel, it’s a great place to make your dreams come true.
Of course one month of heavy-duty writing does not produce a novel. After November ended there was rewriting, editing, sharing drafts with friends and family, finding a book cover artist, and all those other chores that take so much time. I enjoyed every minute of it—well almost every minute. As the story of Charlotte Edgerton and her adventures as an immigrant from England in 1842 built in my mind, it became more vivid and real. I have long admired the real life people who built Utopian communities like Brook Farm in the hopes of finding a truly fulfilling and democratic life for Americans. Imagining the story of what might have happened in that struggling community with so many idealistic, but sometimes impractical, dreamers has been a joy. Now the story is ready for others to read. You will find a few more details on my Death in Utopia page on this blog and the book itself is available on Amazon.com. I hope you take a look.
For the next several weeks I will be posting blogs about some of the historical figures who appear in A Death in Utopia. It’s a gallery of men and women you might want to meet.