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Aug/Sept '99
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Elizabeth Peabody's Foreign Library

By Leslie Perrin Wilson Curator of the Special Collections of the Concord Public Library. Part II of a Three-Part Series. See Part I - Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Transcendentalist Activist. Coming later: Part III - Elizabeth Peabody's Views on Language and History

foreign library label In 1839, Transcendentalist, activist, and reformer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894) leased a building at 13 West Street in Boston, where, at the end of July, 1840, she opened a circulating library and bookstore. Circulating libraries--privately owned collections of books and periodicals lent out for profit at fixed rates--had their heyday in America between 1800 and 1850, just before the rise of the public library movement. Miss Peabody, eager to meet a demand by her Transcendental associates for difficult-to-obtain foreign literature and mindful of the need to support herself, created in her Foreign Library a means of accomplishing both ends.

The Foreign Library at 13 West Street was very much a Peabody family enterprise. The library and bookstore were located in the front parlor. One section was allocated to Dr. Nathaniel Peabody--Elizabeth's father--for the sale of his homeopathic medicines. At the suggestion of Washington Allston, the shop was also stocked with imported art supplies. On its walls were displayed for sale paintings by Elizabeth's youngest sister Sophia. Both Elizabeth and her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, welcomed and assisted patrons.

Miss Peabody's Foreign Library quickly became a kind of salon for the New England Transcendentalists. Margaret Fuller's famous "conversations" were held at West Street in late 1839 and the early 1840s. Dr. William Ellery Channing, the "father of Unitarianism" and Elizabeth Peabody's mentor, came to read the newspaper. George and Sophia Ripley, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, John Sullivan Dwight, and others talked over the reform of society and planned the Brook Farm community there. The editors of and contributors to the Transcendental periodical the Dial met at West Street. Elizabeth Peabody, in fact, published the Dial for a time (1842-1843) and wrote for it as well. Her "A Glimpse of Christ's Idea of Society," a piece about Brook Farm, appeared in the October, 1841 issue, her "Fourierism" in the April, 1844 issue.

All in all, the Foreign Library was a vital place. Miss Peabody loved being at the center of intellectual ferment. In later years, she wrote about what it had meant to her: "I had ... a foreign library of new French and German books, and then I came into contact with the world as never before. The Ripleys were starting Brook Farm, and they were friends of ours. Theodore Parker was beginning his career, and all these things were discussed in my book-store by Boston lawyers and Cambridge professors. Those were very living years for me."

The New England Transcendentalists were drawn to and influenced by a number of foreign authors, among them the German writers Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schelling, Goethe, and Novalis, the French Cousin and Constant, the English Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth, Plato and the English Neoplatonic writers, the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, Confucius, and by the sacred texts of the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavadgita.

From about 1800, there was increasing American interest in foreign literature. Americans traveled and studied in Europe. Some of them brought books back with them when they returned home. In 1815, George Ticknor and Edward Everett went to Europe to study. They traveled extensively, studied at Goettingen, and returned to America to take up academic positions at Harvard, where Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of their pupils. Both also brought back large numbers of books, Ticknor for his personal library, Everett for Harvard.

European political turmoil contributed to the growing awareness of foreign literature. Charles Follen, a German political refugee, was another influential teacher at Harvard. The first professor of German literature there, he was familiar with the writings of Kant.

In the early 19th century, translations into English from European writings began to make the work of foreign authors more accessible. In 1813, Mme. de Stael's De L'Allemagne was translated into English under the title Germany. A favorite among the Transcendentalists, Mme. de Stael was seen as a kind of archetypical intellectual woman.


  • Bolton, Charles K. "Circulating Libraries in Boston, 1765-1865." Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 11 (Feb. 1907), p. 196-207.

  • Cooke, George Willis. A Historical and Biographical Introduction to Accompany The Dial. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961. "Elizabeth P. Peabody," Vol. 1, p. 140-157.

  • Frothingham, Octavius Brooks. Transcendentalism in New England: A History. Introduction by Sydney E. Ahlstrom. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965. (Facsimile reprint of the 1876 edition published in New York by G.P. Putnam's Sons.)

  • Kaser, David. A Book for a Sixpence: The Circulating Library in America. Pittsburgh: Beta Phi Mu, 1980.

  • Peabody books: remainder of a gift presented primarily in 1878/1879 to the Concord Free Public Library by Elizabeth Peabody (ca. 415 volumes, 1524-1878, bulk 1820-1850).

  • Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, American Renaissance Woman. Edited, with an introduction, by Bruce A. Ronda. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

  • Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. Reminiscences of Rev. Wm. Ellery Channing, D.D. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880.

  • Ronda, Bruce A. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

  • Rostenberg, Leona. "Number Thirteen West Street." Book Collector's Packet, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Sept. 1945), p. 7-9.

  • Stern, Madeleine B. "Elizabeth Peabody's Foreign Library (1840)." American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 20 Supplement Pt. 1 (Fall 1973), p. 5-12. (Includes facsimile of Catalogue of the Foreign Library, No. 13 West Street, Boston: S.N. Dickinson, 1840.)

  • Tharp, Louise Hall. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.

  • Vogel, Stanley M. German Literary Influences on the American Transcendentalists. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.

  • Wilson, Leslie Perrin. A Bibliography of Books Presented to the Concord Free Public Library by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (typescript), 1982.

  • Wilson, Leslie Perrin. Introduction to a Bibliography of Books Presented to the Concord Free Public Library by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (typescript thesis), 1982.
  • Many in England and America were exposed to German thought through the writings of Coleridge and Carlyle. Coleridge's Aids to Reflection, first published in 1825, was edited in 1829 by James Marsh, who added a lengthy introduction elucidating German philosophy for the American reader. Carlyle wrote a life of Schiller and translated from Goethe. Between 1838 and 1842, George Ripley edited and published, in fourteen volumes, Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, which included translations from French and German authors.

    The inspiration and confirmation that the New England Transcendentalists found in foreign literature, coupled with the limited availability of foreign books, presented an opportunity tailored to Miss Peabody. With her considerable linguistic attainments, broad and deep reading, and love of intellectual pursuit toward the end of perfection of self and society, she combined knowledge, enthusiasm, and idealism in setting up the Foreign Library.

    The contents of Elizabeth Peabody's Foreign Library are wonderfully documented. In 1840, Miss Peabody issued the first of two printed catalogs of her collection. (Copies of both are available in Boston area repositories.) Moreover, the Concord Free Public Library holds a significant percentage of volumes from the Foreign Library collection--as far as can be determined, the only remnants of that collection to have survived (photo bottom of a small portion of that collection).

    In 1878, five years after the founding of the Concord Free Public Library, Elizabeth Peabody was living on Hubbard Street in Concord with her brother Nathaniel. The 1878/1879 library report in the printed Concord town report records a gift of of 994 items (839 volumes, 155 pamphlets) from Miss Peabody. The Peabody books were added to the circulating collection. Over the decades, some were worn out, some lost. About a century after their donation, those remaining on the circulating shelves were systematically gathered together and made part of the Special Collections. About 415 volumes from Miss Peabody's gift survive today. This represents a sufficient portion of the total gift accurately to indicate the donor's interests and the general characteristics of her donation.

    Because many of the surviving volumes bear evidence (bookplates like the one above or inscriptions) of having been part of the Foreign Library, the Peabody books, together with the two printed Foreign Library catalogs, provide a clear view into a part of 19th century Boston intellectual history.

    Elizabeth Peabody stocked her library and bookstore with the foreign books and periodicals that her clientele sought. She offered volumes in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Greek, and Latin, as well as English translations of foreign titles and works written in English. The subject areas represented in the Foreign Library were wide-ranging, including strong holdings in literature and history (with some emphasis on revolution, reform, and reformers), biography, sermons, social and political commentary, theology, philosophy, education, linguistics, travel narrative, and natural history.

    Specifically, she made available such titles as Menzel's German Literature, Anna Cabot Lowell's Theory of Teaching (published by Miss Peabody herself), Lamartine's History of the Girondists and Travels in the East, Michelet's Mémoires de Luther, Emerson's Nature, Ripley's Letters on the Latest Form of Infidelity (a response to Andrews Norton's attack on Transcendentalism), Robespierre's Mémoires, and Rosini's Luisa Strozzi. Her collection included the work of many writers, among them Aeschylus, Ariosto, Balzac, Bancroft, Byron, Carlyle, Cervantes, Dr. Channing, Chateaubriand, Coleridge, Cousin, Dante, Dumas, Euripides, Gerando, Goethe, Hawthorne, Hesiod, Homer, Hugo, Mirabeau, Molière, Petrarch, Plato, Racine, Richter, Rousseau, George Sand, Schiller, Schlegel, Shakespeare, Mme. de Stael, Tocqueville, Voltaire, Wordsworth, and Xenophon.

    some of the peabody collection at the library Miss Peabody also kept an impressive selection of periodicals, both foreign and American. Foreign Library patrons could find on the shelves of 13 West Street the Annales des Sciences Naturelles, for example, Blackwood's Magazine, the Boston Quarterly Review, the Dial, the Edinburgh Review, the Journal des Literarische Unterhaltung, the London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine, the Musical Journal, the New York Review, the Revue des Deux Mondes, and the Western Messenger.

    The Foreign Library collection was clearly ambitious in scope, geared toward an educated, thoughtful reader. The intellectual level of the collection contrasted strikingly with other circulating libraries of the period. The strongest area of such collections in the first half of the 19th century was typically fiction, with some emphasis on biography and history. It is telling that when, in 1840, Elizabeth Peabody informed Dr. Channing of her intention to open a circulating library, he encouraged her but could not help commenting: "The only objection that I have to a circulating library is the corrupt taste of readers, who often want books which one would not like to circulate." The Foreign Library was designed for quite a different kind of reader.

    The Foreign Library flourished as a center of Transcendental activity for several years. Although it was kept open until 1851, business was slow by the mid-1840s. Miss Peabody's customers were gradually drawn away to new projects and concerns and no longer came to 13 West Street on a regular basis. Her two sisters had married and left West Street, diminishing the family and social circle there. (Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne at West Street in 1842 and went to live at the Old Manse in Concord; Mary married Horace Mann in 1843.) The proprietress herself began to focus her energy and thought in other directions. Moreover, she was no businesswoman. She lacked the hard-headed singularity of purpose necessary for long-term success in the commercial world.

    Through the Foreign Library as much as through her educational and other reform efforts, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody expressed her own form of applied Transcendentalism. Temperamentally disinclined to act as a prophet of the movement, she found great satisfaction in bringing together its proponents at West Street and in encouraging, promoting, disseminating, and living Transcendental philosophy.

    Text: ©1999 Leslie Perrin Wilson
    Top: Label on the front cover of a volume Miss Peabody donated to the Concord Free Public Library. Courtesy of the Concord Free Public Library's Special Collections.
    Bottom: A small portion of the Peabody collection in our library's Special Collections. ©1999 Richard Stevenson.
    Sweetpeas: ArtToday

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