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Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Portrait of Peabody


Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born in Billerica, Massachusetts on May 16, 1804 to Elizabeth Parler and Nathaniel Peabody. Elizabeth Palmer had opened a boarding school and decided her husband's teaching career would be abandoned so he could become a doctor. It was important to her that she and her family regain a high social position. She believed they could achieve this through Nathaniel's career. The family moved to Cambridge so he would have the best opportunities for his new profession.

Mrs. Peabody gave birth to a second daughter, Mary, in 1806 and then a third, Sophia, in 1809. It seems Mrs. Peabody's desires for her husband's career were not his own and he was unhappy and not as successful as when he taught. The family moved again, this time to Salem, and Mrs. Peabody began to teach again to bring more money into the family. Here, Mr. Peabody established himself as a dentist. The family continued to grow with the birth of Nathaniel in 1811, followed by George two years later. The last Peabody child was born in 1815 and named Wellington. Mrs. Peabody seemed to enjoy living in the past, continually telling her children stories about her own upbringing and privileged childhood. "Sometimes Dr. Peabody felt that he had heard about as much of the Palmer family as he could stand"(Tharp 19).

The Peabodys moved to Lancaster to open a school for girls. Sophia and Mary were able to enjoy the old farmhouse, the students, and their last years of childhood, but Elizabeth could not. Her mother, quite promptly, turned the school over to her. At sixteen she became "an unusually gifted teacher…for she was able to communicate to her pupils some of her own passion for acquiring knowledge" (Tharp 25).

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's true desire was to go to Boston. She planned that Mary could take her place at the school in 1822 and Sophia could assist her. Elizabeth left for Boston and promised her sisters she'd one day open a school where they could all work together. She was able to make a living in Boston for herself, but she couldn't send for her sisters.

When Elizabeth became interested in studying Greek she began taking lessons from a young teacher named Ralph Waldo Emerson. When the sessions ended, he refused the payment she offered, but they did strike up a friendship. Peabody was enamored of him (Tharp 27-28). Later on in life, Peabody would seek Emerson's approval when she began publishing her own work (Ronda 118).

Unfortunately, Elizabeth had to leave Boston because she did not have enough students signed up for the new school year. She went to Maine rather than returning home. In 1823 she went to Hallowell, Maine to teach the youngest members of the Vaughan family. Later, she moved to the Gardiner's estate and Mary joined her. She was happy with her job and students and she liked spending time intellectualizing with her employer's mother-in-law. During this period of her life she apparently spent a lot of time with a lover only identified as L.B. (Tharp 29-34).

In 1825, at age twenty-six, Elizabeth decided to return to Boston after realizing her ideas differed significantly from her employer. She also missed the city itself. With Mary she opened an all girls school in the suburb of Brookline. The school was successful and Elizabeth was eager to open a school in Beacon Hill. The school did well and the two young women were able to bring the rest of their family to Boston in 1828. Elizabeth gave up the school when students were again hard to come by.

Elizabeth began "Historical School" in 1827, a precursor to Margaret Fuller's Conversations. Peabody's early attempt at gathering people to talk took the form of a series of lectures meant to help educate women (Tharp 87-88). "At first, Elizabeth read to her ladies from the books and said little. It pleased her when her adult class asked her to read less, to 'converse' more and to lead a discussion where they could all express their views"(Tharp 89).

It was as a governess to the Rice family that Elizabeth Palmer Peabody began to envision a school in Boston for boys. "She began to visualize the schoolroom, and the room of her own where she would soon live, beholden to no one, but in a position to help others.". When Bronson Alcott reconnected with the Peabody family in 1834, Elizabeth had the opportunity to turn her dreams for a school into reality (Tharp 90-91).

Temple School

Temple school developed out of the desires of both Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Their philosophies met and they "believed that truth came not only from intellectual learning, but also from nurturing the nonrational, intuitive powers as well..."(Ronda 114). Alcott showed Peabody examples of work from the school he previously had which helped convince her that she wanted to help him get the school in Boston started. Elizabeth said, "I told him I wanted to make an effort for a school here, and he said he wished to, but he thought he could not do it without a modification of his plan. He must have a school at different hours from other schools and for shorter sessions- two hours and a half, say. I told him there would be difficulty in this...I told Mr. Alcott that I would inquire about the children in town, and see whether there was not a chance for him. When he went away I took up the journals etc. and was amazed beyond measure at the composition"(Ronda 115).

Alcott thought Peabody was brilliant and she also had a lot of contacts in the Boston Unitarian society. Peabody rounded up the families to participate in the school. Alcott's school would allow Peabody the opportunity to stay in Boston and make a living from something she really believed in (Ronda 116).

Temple School opened on September 22, 1834 with eighteen students. Alcott started each day by talking to the kids and Elizabeth taught them Latin, math, and geography until the early afternoon. She began to keep a journal in December of 1934 chronicling the evolution of the school. "...Alcott swiftly blended a pedagogy of conversation and collective learning with Coleridge's theory of the imagination in a way that…echoed Peabody's own first efforts at teaching language"(Ronda11 7).

The philosophy that Alcott taught at school is best explained in the following quote. "Words are signs of thoughts, he taught, not simply markers for external objects and events. Language is imagery and images awaken our sense of the congruence between inner thought and outer thing. The real work of the school lay in the children's' self-exploration, the study and expansion of their own native powers of imagination....The children were required to think about ideas, to articulate their views, to write their thoughts in journals"(Ronda 117).

The school was not just innovative fun. The kids were not used to Alcott's strict discipline "which centered on complete silence and motionless, on strict attention and on full participation"(Ronda 118). Some parents also had a problem with the way Alcott ran Temple School. They thought his methods were "dogmatic". Alcott wanted to maintain such stringent order amongst the students "so that the entirely mental work of expressing imagination might go forward"(Ronda 118). Parents also worried about the fact that their children's education lacked the natural sciences and the traditional practice of studying from books. Peabody's views "mirrored Alcott's". In fact, her schools in Maine and Massachusetts "sought to combine rigorous training in academic subjects with efforts to draw out and shape students' moral natures. Indeed, much of the intellectual rigor at Temple came from Peabody herself as she trained the older students…"(Ronda 119).

Peabody's life did not revolve solely around the school. "By 1836 she was increasingly critical of some aspects of Alcott's teaching method and offended by the treatment she received from the Alcotts while she boarded with them (Ronda 120). Alcott's pedagogy intensified and her relationship with the Alcotts took a downward spiral after continual arguments with Bronson and the discovery that his wife had been opening her mail. The arguments wound up revolving around the school and eventually completely broke the relationship down (Ronda 127-129). "It had all become too much- the personal hostility with the Alcotts, the disagreements over private versus common conscience, probably her own dissatisfaction at not having her own school, Alcott's inability to pay her and a looming scandal with Conversations with Children on the Gospels. Elizabeth resigned from the school"(Ronda 129).

Peabody wrote Alcott a letter less than a week after she left that has since become well known. In the letter, she attacked his Conversations and "his plan to publish the children's comments on sex and birth"(Ronda 130). She also "defended her departure from the school: 'Whatever may be said of the wisdom of pursuing your plan as you have hitherto done in the schoolroom…I feel more and more that these questionable parts ought not go into the printed book, at least that they must be entirely disconnected with me'" (Ronda 130).

In a surprising move, Peabody came to defend Bronson Alcott when he came under fire with the publication of the first volume of Conversations. "If she had been solely concerned about her reputation or status as a single woman, she might well have decided not to call attention to her close association with Bronson Alcott and Temple School. Nonetheless, she defended her old colleague in the pages of the Christian Register and Observer." Her basic defense was that critics could not see that the purpose of the conversations was to reach a "profound expression of deep, spiritual truth"(Ronda 132).

Palmer and Fuller's "Conversations"

Palmer and the Anti-Slavery movement

"Plan of the West Roxbury Community." Dial article, January 1842.

Works Cited

Ronda, Bruce A. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer On Her Own Terms. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
Tharp, Louise Hall. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.
Warren, James Perrin. Culture of Eloquence. University Park: Penn State UP, 1999.

Dana Moriarty, Virginia Commonwealth University

Biographical Readings

Texts and Criticism

Web Site Record of Mr. Alcott's School . Making of America site.

Nature: A Prose Poem, 1838

Elizabeth Peabody and her Aesthetic Papers by Clarence Gohdes.


Web Site Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Paul Reuben, Perspectives in American Literature.

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