Dealing with a Historian's Worst Nightmare
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Our partners at slate.com are publishing a series of articles this week about history books, including one essay about what must be an historian's worst nightmare, and this actually happened. Megan Marshall had written about women's issues for various magazines for a long time, and then she started on a biography. This was 20 years ago. She finished it last summer. It's just published now. It's called "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism." But about a year ago, just after she'd handed in the manuscript to the publisher, she came across a fresh pile of unread letters from these sisters. Megan Marshall joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.
Megan, first, help us out a little. Who are the Peabody sisters? When did they live? What did they do?
Ms. MEGAN MARSHALL: Well, there were three Peabody sisters--Elizabeth, Mary and Sophia Peabody. They lived in the 1800s, and they were at the center of the transcendentalist movement in New England. Elizabeth Peabody, the oldest, was a mover and shaker, and she managed to befriend people like Emerson and Thoreau, Horace Mann, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, in particular. And then her sisters, who were a bit more conventional, tended to marry off to these guys. There was--Mary married Horace Mann. And Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne. But each, in their own right, was an important woman. Sophia was the painter. Mary was an educator. And they brought women's voices into that very male world of transcendentalism.
CHADWICK: OK, so you've written this manuscript about these women who were fairly pivotal to all these guys who were writing and philosophers and really making something of the American spirit in the middle 1800s. Now in the course of this, you have a friend who approaches you, last summer, and says, `Hey, I found this stuff in my attic, a whole series of letters from the Peabody sisters.' This must have been an absolutely thrilling and horrifying moment for you.
Ms. MARSHALL: Exactly. My heart sank because after 20 years, I had polished this manuscript as best I could, and made what I thought was a complete story out of it. It occurred to me not to read them. And I went to my friend's house. And it was a lovely little packet tied in pink ribbon and, you know, I hesitated even to untie that ribbon. But the thing was I had lived with the sisters for 20 years, and I needed to hear what they were going to tell me.
CHADWICK: Well, so you do read through this stack of--What?--83 letters, and what did you discover?
Ms. MARSHALL: Well, what I felt most of all was that the characters I had set up in the book were true to life. Many biographers, when they come to the end of a project are--begin to worry that they've gotten sort of so far away from the original materials that they've kind of invented characters just to make a great story. Well, these letters were speaking to me across the years, saying, `You got us right.'
These letters--you know, people tend to ask me as I was working on the book, they said, `Don't you feel guilty reading all this private stuff, private journals and private letters and then quoting from them in your book?' But I really felt that these were women who, you know, had they had more time in their lives or not felt so constrained by convention they would have been publishing just as much as Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. Instead, what I had were these letters, and what I was doing in writing this book was liberating their words for an audience today.
CHADWICK: Megan Marshall is author of the new book "The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism." You'll find her article on the biographer's art of snooping in other people's mail at slate.com.
Megan, thank you.
Ms. MARSHALL: Thanks. It's great to be here.
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