The Peabody Sisters of Salem, by Louise Hall Tharp

The stories of Elizabeth Peabody, Mary Peabody Mann, and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne — the Peabody Sisters of Boston — whose lives interwined with most of the great names of 19th century American literature and culture, have retold in such recent books as Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury, and the essay collection Reinventing the Peabody Sisters. As a subject, the sisters seem too good to pass up: Elizabeth’s 13 West Street bookshop in Boston was, if you will, the Shakespeare and Co. of the Transcendentalists; Mary was married to the pioneering educator Horace Mann, after whom one in six middle schools in the U.S. is named; and Sophia to the great novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Peabody Sisters of Salem'Louise Tharp Hall first celebrated the remarkable sisters in her 1950 collective biography, The Peabody Sisters of Salem, now out of print, which at the time was received with great acclaim. Here is a small sample of its many enthusiastic reviews:

• Jane Volles, San Francisco Chronicle

Generously Mrs. Tharp has filled in the background of that golden age in which the sisters lived. At one time or another, you meet all of the ‘Olympians’. She gives an interesting treatment to the young crowd of Transcendentalists parading the Boston streets in smocks and tasseled caps…. Mrs. Tharp evokes rather than probes in her presentation of the Peabodys. Her portraits have that quality we call inspired which defies the wreckage of time and catches certain aspects that remain in the mind of the reader: Elizabeth at her happiest when she was giving more than she could afford; Mary, always stimulating to the mind; Sophia, filled with irrepressible buoyancy. Mrs. Tharp’s manner of presentation is summed up perfectly in certain words of Mary Peabody’s: “It is not enough to cultivate the memory or even to enlighten the understanding. Out of the heart are the issues of life.”

• Henry Steele Commager, New York Herald Tribune, 8 January 1950

Mrs. Tharp has re-created the Peabody girls and the circle in which they moved with consumate skill. It would be easy to make the Peabodys objects of fun, but Mrs. Tharp writes of them with sympathy and affection and understanding…. [The criticisms of the book] are minor matters. What is important is that one of the exciting families of our middle period should be rescued from oblivion and made to live again.

• Clorinda Clarke, Catholic World, March 1950

Wit and pathos, respect and scholarship are the ingredients of this book. In it we meet afresh, Alcott and Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Mrs. Browning. It achieves that blend of history and humanity that makes a first-rate biography.

• Edward Weeks, The Atlantic, February 1950

In style and technique the book is a blend, and a very good one, or letters and diaries and Mrs. Tharp’s reanimation of the past. In its scenes, in its conversation, in its detailed knowledge of the background, it is an invigorating, honestly recaptured chronicle. These people mattered largely in their day, and we enjoy that day and feel their vitality in this leisurely and attractive book.

• Cleveland Amory, New York Times, 8 January 1950

Mrs. Tharp has a narrative ability and an affection for her subject which is contagious. Her scholarship is extensive and, while one wishes she had included a list of her sources as well as a complete list of the writings of the Peabodys themselves, it is convincing.

• Edward Wagenknecht, Chicago Sunday Tribune, 8 January 1950

Judged by any standard you like, this is absorbing biography. The year 1950 is not likely to offer any more exciting reading experience.

Copies of The Peabody Sisters of Salem can be picked up on Amazon for as little as 15 cents. A bargain like that is hard to pass up.

Most of Tharp’s other books were biographies written for young readers, but her 1965 biography of the Boston heiress and art patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose museum is one of the finest art collections from the “Robber Baron” era, Mrs. Jack was a best-seller and received reviews equal to that of The Peabody Sisters of Salem. It was reissued in 2003 by the museum.

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