Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Paul P. Reuben
October 17, 2016

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Source: Concord.Net

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was one of nineteenth-century America's most important Transcendental writers and educational reformers.  Unfortunately, she has also been one of the most scandalously neglected and caricatured female intellectuals in American history.  Peabody's ceaseless devotion to education was both broad and practical.  She saw the classroom as mediating between the needs of the individual and the claims of society.  In 1820 she opened a private school in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and two years later another in Boston.  She opened another school in 1825 in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she made the acquaintance of William Ellery Channing, with whom she shared a remarkable intellectual intimacy.  From 1825 to 1834 she served informally as his secretary, copying down his sermons and seeing them into print.  In 1834 she helped Amos Bronson Alcott establish his radical Temple School in Boston. Her Record of a School (1835), based on her journal of Alcott's methods and daily interactions with the children, did much to establish Alcott as a leading and controversial educator and thinker.

A member of Ralph Waldo Emerson's social circle and the Transcendental Club, Peabody introduced the Transcendentalists to the work of the Salem poet-mystic Jones Very and the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.  In 1839 she opened her West Street bookstore, which became a gathering place for the intellectual community of Boston.  She was probably the first woman book publisher in the United States.  On her own printing press she published translations from German by Margaret Fuller and three of Hawthorne's earliest books.  She published and wrote articles for the Transcendentalist Dial, as well as other periodicals.  In 1849 she published a single number of a Transcendentalist journal, Aesthetic Papers, which contained, among other essays, Henry David Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government."

Peabody's particular brand of Transcendentalism was anchored in the idea of a just society informed by liberal Christianity, and stressed the need for historical knowledge to balance the movement's focus on individual intuition.  Her great emphasis on the education of the young led her to embrace the kindergarten movement in 1859.  Inspired by Friedrich Froebel's kindergarten work in Germany, she opened the nation's first formal kindergarten in Boston in 1860.  Later she toured European kindergartens and wrote numerous books concerning kindergarten education.  In 1873 she founded the Kindergarten Messenger, of which she was editor during its two years of publication, and in 1877 she organized the American Froebel Union, of which she was the first president.  From 1879 to 1884 she was a lecturer at Alcott's famous Concord School of Philosophy.  She published Reminiscences of Reverend William Ellery Channing, D.D. in 1880 and Last Evening with Allston in 1886.  In addition, she championed antislavery, European liberal revolutions, Spiritualism, and, in her last years, the Paiute Indians. - Alcott Net

Primary Works

Key to History: First Steps to Study of History, 1832; The Hebrews, 1833; The Greeks, 1833; Moral culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide, 1863

Selected Bibliography

Elbert, Monika M. and others. eds. Reinventing the Peabody Sisters. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2006.

Avallone, Charlene. "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and the 'Art' of Conversation." 

Elbert, Monika M. "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's Problematic Feminism and the Feminization of Transcendentalism." 

Vasquez, Mark. "Declaration and Deference: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Mary Peabody Mann, and the Complex Rhetoric of Mediation." 

Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Neussendorfer, Margaret. "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody." in Mott, Wesley T. ed. The American Renaissance in New England: Second Series. Detroit: Gale, 2000.

Ronda, Bruce A. ed. Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: American Renaissance Woman. Middletown : Wesleyan UP, 1984.

- - -. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

| Top | Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Connie Owens 

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody wore many hats during her active lifetime. The text of Brook Farm describes Peabody as both student and teacher. As a teacher she instructed younger sisters Maria and Sophia when she was just sixteen. In 1834, she taught at A. Bronson Alcott's Temple School. As Alcott's assistant, she recorded transcripts of his lessons that she would eventually publish under the title Record of a School. She took on the role of student when she studied Greek under Ralph Waldo Emerson. Peabody was also very active in reform having supported black and Indian causes (Swift 260). She would go on to become a publisher, writer and found a school with her sister Mary in 1825. 

Peabody was born on May 16, 1804, to Nathaniel Peabody and Elizabeth Palmer in Billerica, Massachusetts. The eldest of seven children, Peabody was educated in a home school run by her mother, a teacher by trade. Peabodys's father was a doctor and dentist (Neussendofer 152).

In 1840, Peabody established the West Street Book Shop and publishing house. The shop became a place where intellectuals gathered to talk. Margaret Fuller also gave lectures there (Tharp 136-7). A group formed by Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Hedge's club or The Symposium also met at the shop to discuss various philosophies. Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody were the only women asked to join this club. The group established a philosophy called Transcendentalism. Due to the fact that most of the members of the group were writers they started a publication called the Dial (Tharp 140). Peabody's first article "A Glimpse of Christ's Idea of Society" appeared in the Dial in 1841. This was also the year in which Peabody briefly took over publication of the Dial.

Peabody had a great interest in the kindergarten. She was influenced by Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten. In the years of 1873-1877, Peabody edited The Kindergarten Messenger, as well as wrote several articles for the publication (Neussendorfer 153). The kindergarten is said to have taken up much of her time in the later years of her life. The Elizabeth Peabody House in Boston was established to educate disadvantaged children using kindergarten methods.

Works Cited

Neussendorfer, Margaret. "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody". Dictionary of Literary Biography, V.1, 1978.

Swift, Lindsay. Brook Farm. Secaucus: New jersey, 1973.

Tharp, Louise. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston, 1950.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your login).

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