History Book Blitz

The Spirit of the Letter

What biographers find in other people’s mail.

A “cross-written” letter from the Peabody sisters

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It was July of 2004, and I had just turned in the 765-page manuscript of my biography of the Peabody sisters—three women at the center of New England’s Transcendentalist movement of the 1830s and ‘40s—a project that had taken me nearly 20 years to complete. Free at last—or so I thought—I was on vacation in New Hampshire when a family friend asked me, hesitantly, over gin-and-tonics at a cocktail party, “Have you finished your book yet?” For once, I sensed, this question didn’t carry the usual subtext: Why haven’t you finished your book yet? She’d been poking around in her attic, my friend told me, and found a trunk full of letters that had belonged to her husband’s great-grandmother. One thick packet, tied in pink ribbon, was labeled “Mary T. Peabody”—the middle of the three sisters.

Would I be interested in reading more letters? Or was it, finally, too late?

After a certain point in the research, as any biographer will tell you, such information induces a shudder of dread. Letters take a long time to read, especially handwritten ones like those I’d plowed through by the hundreds for my book. A good number of them were “cross-written” to save on postage: The writer would fill an entire sheet, then turn the paper ninety degrees and write back across it, doubling the length of the letter and straining the eyes of her recipient (or a latter-day researcher like me). Yet those cross-written letters always excited me. Something more than everyday news had kept the writer at her desk, cramming that single sheet with words. It was in a cross-written letter that Elizabeth Peabody, the oldest of the sisters, had told Mary she’d been rebuffed by the widowed politician Horace Mann, with whom both sisters were smitten. Attempting to save face, Elizabeth asserted she’d never really loved him. “I know what the feeling of love is, for I have been sought and all but won.” And this wasn’t it—she protested, perhaps too much. She had been put off all along, she claimed, by the 38-year-old Mann’s “grey hair and his sorrow.”

But with the excitement of fresh discovery could also come disaster. There was the all-too-real possibility that some new information in these letters would throw off everything I’d written. What if I had to start over again—as I’d already done once before? That was after a manuscript find at the 10-year mark turned up Elizabeth’s adolescent diary, the daily journals she’d kept while visiting Ralph Waldo Emerson in the late 1830s. The same material yielded my greatest scoop, Elizabeth’s confession of love for Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer who ended up marrying her youngest sister, Sophia, a landscape painter, in 1842.

In truth, far more of the material I uncovered in the Peabody sisters’ letters had to do with intellectual disputes than with love triangles. Yet the confessional nature of the manuscripts I was working with seemed to bother some people when I talked about them. “Don’t you feel guilty, reading all that private mail and then quoting from it in your book?” my friends would ask. It’s a common attitude: What was written in private is meant to stay that way. A few years ago I had a tough time trying to convince my own aunt not to pitch a diary my grandmother kept as an Army bride in Paris during WWI, which gave a rare glimpse of civilian life in wartime; she was only trying to protect my grandmother’s privacy, my aunt protested.

For 19th-century women, though, letter-writing and even journal-keeping were quasi-public activities. The “black art,” as Mary Peabody referred to the skills required in correspondence, was practiced intensively by schoolgirls and young women, who frequently commented in their letters on both the form and substance of the mail they received as they worked to develop a mature style. Travel journals served as entertainment at “reading parties” for groups of women friends eager for news of the world, before they were passed by hand among a wider network of acquaintances and eventually down through the generations. When Elizabeth Peabody wrote of “my long-tongued pen,” she was referring not only to the length of her letters, but to their reach—no letter, unless explicitly marked so, could be considered safe from the eyes of a recipient’s friends, family members, or even random house guests. For most women, letter-writing was a form of publication, albeit for a specialized readership. After all, few dared to consider polishing pieces for the press (or would have had the time, given lives filled with domestic cares). And even for women like Elizabeth Peabody and her sisters, who did publish, writing letters for a sympathetic audience of friends and family—perhaps not so much smaller in number than the audience for Transcendentalist tracts—often produced a more assured and fluent voice.

As I read the Peabody sisters’ private letters and journals, collected in more than a dozen archives across the country, I was regularly struck by expressions of thought or feeling that seemed to me meant to be read by a later generation. In the spring of 1835, Elizabeth Peabody wrote eloquently of her need for “a chamber to myself” in order to pursue her ambition to become a writer, nearly a century before Virginia Woolf issued her plea for “a room of one’s own.” Embarking on what she called “my first retreat into solitude” in rural Dedham, Mass., where she had rented a room of her own in the fall of 1830, Sophia Peabody wrote in her journal of a morning spent with her sketchbook, seated on a boulder in a stand of virgin pines: “I held my breath to hear the breathing of the spirit around me.” Under the spell of the German romantics, whose writings she’d been deciphering with the aid of a dictionary, Sophia concluded that, “Man has a universe within him as well as without.” This was two decades before Henry Thoreau made a similar retreat into nature, kept a journal, and then revised it as Walden: Or, Life in the Woods.

“Does the becoming interest the human heart more than the arrived?” Elizabeth Peabody asked in a journal entry written while on vacation with the Emerson family in 1838, as she puzzled over her intimate friendships with Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—three men whose “genius,” in Elizabeth’s view, had yet to fully emerge. Her question struck to the heart of my biographical enterprise. It was my curiosity about “the becoming” of the Peabody sisters that held me from the start—and that drew me to accept my friend’s offer to read what turned out to be 83 letters, written not just by Mary Peabody, but her two sisters as well, to a former student who had become a close friend. I simply needed to know more, if there was more to be known.

Unlike the neatly catalogued letters I’d read in archives over the past 20 years, these were all in a jumble. A letter by Elizabeth, the most scholarly of the highly literate trio, outlining the history of philosophy was followed by another from Sophia, a sometime invalid, making excuses for filling only half a sheet with writing. Despite my fears, many of the hunches I’d made were confirmed rather than disproved. Yes—Mary had met her first suitor at this friend’s wedding, as I had guessed, a man whose ardent proposal of marriage she flatly rejected. The incident filled several letters, in which Mary denied that her heart was already taken by anyone else. As her biographer, I found Mary’s protestation—”I would never accept a heart unless I knew I could give full measure”—subtly revealing. This was shortly after she’d met the widower Horace Mann, whose sorrowing voice “penetrated the inmost recesses of my being”—and whom she would marry 10 years later.

Perhaps most biographers are plagued with the worry, as they near the completion of their books, that they haven’t been as faithful to the facts as they might have been. As a first-time biographer, anxiously proofreading nearly a hundred pages of documentary endnotes, I certainly was. The farther a biographer is removed from research in the archives, the more she suspects the characters in the historical drama she is constructing may have become her own creations—not invented out of whole cloth, as in a novel, but shaded to make certain personality traits more vivid and to fit a larger narrative. But reading these new letters, I was struck by how distinct each sister’s voice was, emerging from the clutter of pages, and how true to the characters I’d put forward in the book. I could almost predict what each one would say as I pulled her letter from the pile. It was as if the Peabody sisters were speaking to me, one last time, across the centuries.