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Elizabeth Peabody's Views on Language and History

By Leslie Perrin Wilson Curator of the Special Collections of the Concord Public Library. Part III of a Three-Part Series. See Part I - Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Transcendentalist Activist and Part II - Elizabeth Peabody's Foreign Library.

Elderly Elizabeth PeabodyThe New England Transcendentalists devoted serious attention to the theoretical examination of language and of history. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody--Transcendentalist, teacher, social and educational reformer, author, publisher, and proprietress of a circulating library on West Street in Boston--thoughtfully studied and wrote about both of these topics. Moreover, her interest in them informed her selection of literary and historical works for her Foreign Library. She perceived language and history as powerful expressions of unity amidst diversity. In them, she found evidence of the all-inclusive Transcendental Oversoul, the fundamental oneness of divinity, humanity, and nature.

Miss Peabody was gifted with great facility for and interest in language learning. She was familiar to some degree with a dozen languages, among them Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, and Polish. She was committed to elevating the general level of foreign language study in America. But her fascination with language went far beyond the practical. Throughout her life, she recognized and attempted to impress upon others the importance of conscious thought about language as opposed to the routine memorization of vocabulary and rules of grammar. By exploring the symbolism of language and in the comparative study of languages, she sought to understand the interaction between nature and the human mind--in effect, to observe the workings of the Oversoul.

In her essay "The Dorian Measure," she wrote that philology "should be studied as the most important of sciences, not only for the sake of knowing the works of art and science that the various languages contain, but because words themselves are growths of Nature and works of art, capable of giving the highest delight as such; and because their analysis and history reveal the universe in its symbolic character."

Elizabeth Peabody believed that when mankind first attached words to objects in the natural world, the archetypal language from which all others developed was formed. At that stage of language development, she thought there was a vital relationship between language and nature, a vigor that time has weakened but the power of which might to some degree be recaptured through a knowledge of language and a proper understanding of linguistic change.

In her essay "Primeval Man," Miss Peabody rejected the idea that language is arbitrary (conventional) and affirmed its integral connection to what it expresses. She wrote: "[When man first] appeared on earth ... his unspoiled brain was in that perfect state for intuitive perception, classification, and all other mental action, of which we have partial example in every great original genius, whose proper action is always to name correctly sensuous things, and their relations to the whole, of which he has mystic knowledge ... the name the primeval man gave to every thing brought before him "was the name 'thereof'--that is, it expressed its nature and attributes, in short, articulate, significant language was the first creation of man ... " This inherent appropriateness of the first words to their corresponding objects meant that despite the modern multiplicity of languages, speech itself was the product of intuitive knowledge. Clearly, this was in accord with the Transcendental emphasis on intuition as opposed to rational understanding.

"Contemplation of Spirit" in Language

Peabody's thoughts on the subject of language echoed those expressed by Emerson in his Nature (1836). In the chapter entitled "Language," Emerson reflected on the symbolism of language. He wrote: "1. Words are signs of natural facts. 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. 3. Nature is the symbol of spirit." The premises underlying Peabody's approach to language were essentially those put forth by Emerson.

Miss Peabody worked in a variety of ways to instill in others a sense of the symbolism of language and the underlying relationship between languages. As Bronson Alcott's assistant at the Temple School in Boston (1834-1836), she and Alcott both encouraged students to explore the etymology of words, a process Alcott regarded as the "contemplation of spirit" in language.

She read and promoted the writings of others who supported the idea of the original organic connection between language and objects or emotions. She was impressed by T.G. Herder's Spirit of Hebrew Poetry (which she read in 1834), by Rowland Gibson Hazard's Language: Its Present Connection with the Present Condition and Future Prospects of Man (published 1836), and by Charles Kraitsir's The Significance of the Alphabet (which Peabody herself published in 1846).

Baylor, Ruth M. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: Kindergarten Pioneer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson. New ed. Edited by Carl Bode, in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin, 1981. (Nature, p. 7-50; "History," p. 115-137.)

Gura, Philip F. "Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and the Philosophy of Language." ESQ, v. 23, 3rd quarter, 1977, p. 154-163.

Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. Last Evening with Allston, and Other Papers. New York: AMS Press, 1975; facsimile reprint of 1886 ed. published in Boston by D. Lothrop. ("The Dorian Measure," p. 73-135; "Language," p. 138-152; "Primeval Man," p. 153-180; "Egotheism, the Atheism of To-day," p. 240-252.)

Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. Record of Mr. Alcott's School, Exemplifying the Principles and Methods of Moral Culture. 3rd ed., rev. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1874.

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

Wilson, John B. "A Transcendental Minority Report." New England Quarterly, v. 29, no. 2, June 1956, p. 147-158.

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

She dealt with the nature of language in several of her published essays. Her "Language" and "The Dorian Measure" were both published in Peabody's Aesthetic Papers (1849), republished in Last Evening with Allston, and Other Papers (1886). Her "Primeval Man" was written in 1854, published in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy in 1881, and republished in Last Evening with Allston.

Unity of All Languages

In the Foreign Library at 13 West Street, Elizabeth Peabody gave concrete form to her quest to understand the original unity of all languages. Significantly, one of the volumes included in her 1878/1879 gift to the Concord Free Public Library and possibly earlier in the Foreign Library was Alexander B. Johnson's A Treatise on Language: or the Relation Which Words Bear to Things (1836). Her ownership of this title suggests that the nature of language was very much on her mind as she planned and put together the Foreign Library in 1839/1840.

Miss Peabody concluded her essay "Language" with a quotation regarding a series of lectures delivered in Boston by Charles Kraitsir on his language theories: "The identity of roots presented by him affects the imagination with a sense of the closest fraternity, and recalled to my mind with new force the words of an eloquent advocate for the study of languages, who, in dwelling upon the sympathies it stirred up, exclaimed with the prophet, 'Have we not all one Father? hath not one God created us?'" She was drawn to approaches that gave God a central, unifying position.

Transcendentalist View of History

In her views on history, Miss Peabody shared certain basic beliefs with Emerson. Both voiced a strong sense of historical continuity, of the sameness of human impulse and action throughout all periods and across all cultures. In "Primeval Man," Peabody wrote of a recurrent cycle of perfection, fall, and striving for redemption as operative throughout all of human history. She also wrote of the individual as both an integral part of history and a being capable of intuitively understanding the political and social currents of the past as well as the present.

In these respects, her attitude was consistent with the Transcendental outlook expressed by Emerson in his essay history: "There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent. ... The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world."

Emerson's Views Differ from Peabody's

But Peabody was decidedly more conservative in her outlook on history than was Emerson. Emerson perceived the value of history primarily in relation to the individual. He wrote in "History," for example, "This human mind wrote history, and this must read it. The Sphinx must solve her own riddle. If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience." In the same vein, he wrote, "We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience and verifying them there. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history, only biography."

History was for Emerson a mirror of the individual and of his private experience, almost a means of conceptualizing aspects of the individual and his development. Miss Peabody's sense of the proper use of history, on the other hand, was focused on the divine rather than the human. In "Primeval Man," she wrote that the "Image of God must be sought and found ... by historical research." She developed the idea: "The mass of men, whether barbarous or civilized, are interested by nothing less than a story of social interaction; and they are so quick to infer a Divine factor in history, because every man personally realizes the need of Divine to supply the shortcomings of human Causality and Ideality. ... it is because men, considered in solidarity, can alone become the image of God, that the adequate form of a Revelation of God must needs be the total of human history."

This subordination of the human to the divine in history was her attempt to combat what she felt was one of the excesses of Transcendentalism--"EGOTHEISM, which denies other self-consciousness to God than our own subjective consciousness."

This difference in focus between Emerson and Peabody led to a major difference in the way each wrote about the physical remains and historical documents of the past. Emerson (in his writings, if not in his practice of historical research) downplayed the importance of records and monuments and asserted the inadequacy of history as written by historians. He wrote in the essay "History": "The primeval world--the Fore-World, as the Germans say--I can dive to it in myself as well as grope for it with researching fingers in catacombs, libraries, and the broken reliefs and torsos of ruined villas." But Peabody perceived symbolic evidence of the divine even in the dryest compendium of facts and catalog of antiquities, and consequently affirmed the significance of historical documents and artifacts. Her promotion of Bem's chronological charts during the 1850s and her inclusion of various historical compilations in her Foreign Library were witness to her belief in the importance of dates, facts, and documentation.

Optimism and Faith in Human Nature

Although Elizabeth Peabody saw history as a reflection of the divine, she was anything but fatalistic. The ultimate optimist, she had faith in man's ability to act in a positive, constructive fashion. For her, education was the key to developing the insight necessary to combat oppression and to break destructive historical patterns.

Although she took on many causes during her long life, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was guided by a remarkable constancy of belief and motivation. All of her many endeavors were founded upon a few enduring convictions, chief among them the omnipresence of God in all human activity, the perfectibility of individuals and of mankind collectively, and the power of education to affect this process of elevation. Profoundly spiritual and innately optimistic, she lived during a period--brief though it was--when her temperamental qualities were in harmony with a broader trust in the benevolence and accessibility of God and a broader faith in human nature and man's capabilities.

Text: ©1999 Leslie Perrin Wilson
Photo: Mrs. Daniel Lothrop (Margaret Sidney), Elizabeth Peabody, Daniel Lothrop, and daughter Margaret Lothrop, ca. 1886/1887. Courtesy of the Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library.
Artwork: Roxy's Autumn Web

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