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Social and Political Reform

Elizabeth Peabody and Fuller's "Conversations"

Dana Moriarty, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2002

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody opened a bookshop in July 1840 on West Street in Boston. She lived upstairs with her family who moved to Boston to be with her. Besides selling and loaning books, Peabody also sold her father's homeopathic medicines and art supplies. The bookshop became a center for intellectuals in Boston. The shop seemed to fill a niche as it carried foreign books and a large body of transcendental literature (Ronda 185). She and Fuller were the only women founding members of the Transcendental Club (1837).

Margaret Fuller held her first Conversations at Peabody's shop, which was now a hub of Transcendentalism. The Dial, a Transcendentalist quarterly, was also published here for a time. "Twenty five women were willing to commit to thirteen weeks of Conversation, meeting once a week from noon to two." The basis of the first Conversation was purportedly about the advantage men have in terms of education over women. Fuller proposed a number of Conversations on Greek mythology to combat this inequity (Ronda 187). ". . . Peabody, along with Fuller, helped keep Alcott's extreme version of transcendentalism alive in 'conversations' which searched for a 'mother tongue'"(Warren 86).

The Conversations were very successful and gave Peabody's bookshop a lot of publicity. "One woman wrote that 'I know not where to look for so much character, culture, and so much love of truth and beauty, in any other circle of women and girls'. Not everyone liked the Conversations, to be sure, or participated very conscientiously: Elizabeth Hoar went mostly to see her friends and complained that one session she attended was 'too much like a performance' on Fuller's part no doubt; Caroline Sturgis 'quietly disposed herself to sleep on the arm of the sofa' at the same meeting"(Ronda 188).

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was one of the women who enthusiastically participated in the Conversations keeping a journal and entering the discussion. The fifth Conversation was about the myth of Psyche and Cupid and later sessions were about definitions of beauty (Ronda 188-189). Fuller's Conversations were "'a point of union to well-educated and thinking women' giving them the opportunity to educate themselves in 'thoughts and language'…the reform of culture is predicated upon the reform of language and thought"(Warren 97).

The second series, concerning the fine arts, began in the spring of 1840. "Here, although records are scanty, Fuller seemed to be at the top of her form. Beautifully dressed, she would begin each session with some extended remarks of her own and then invite others to comment. . . whatever was said, Margaret knew how to seize the good meaning of it with hospitality, and to make the speaker feel glad, and not sorry, that she had spoken"(Ronda 190).

Because the past two sessions had been so successful, Fuller decided to hold a third Conversation, again on fine arts. This Conversation was well attended also. The participants seemingly fed off of Fuller's "enthusiasm, 'glowing' and 'kindling' with excitement. . . Many of these Conversations, to judge by Peabody's notes, were extended monologues, some successful, others, like the one on painting, not so successful"(Ronda 191).

Caroline Healey, the daughter of a banker, began attending the Conversations when she was nineteen. Healey was a well-educated young woman who recorded her experiences. Fuller didn't like Healey's confidence and appearance, but Peabody helped pull her into the Conversation. "Caroline had mastered short hand, and after each session she wrote out a transcript of the Conversation. In 1895 she published these transcriptions as Margaret and Her Friends"(Ronda 192).

According to Healey, Peabody's participation in the Conversations was the opposite of her own reserved and insightful participation (Ronda 192). She called her a "boundless, tireless talker" who would "go on for hours in monologue"(Ronda 193). The Conversations were a unique opportunity for women to express themselves and assert feminist views. They could speak freely in this forum about everything from religion to art without having to worry about "the usual limits of marriage and family… This was Elizabeth Peabody's milieu, without a doubt, a place of intellectual freedom and personal liberation"(Ronda 193).