Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Megan Marshall's "The Peabody Sisters"

Megan Marshall worked for two decades on her award-winning biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, spending many years tracking down the sisters’ letters and journals.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her book and reported the following:
My first editor on The Peabody Sisters -- and there were five to see me through the twenty-year labor, all at Houghton Mifflin -- was Robie Macauley, novelist, acclaimed fiction editor at Playboy, and life-long friend of the poet Robert Lowell. Robie advised me that when writing a biography, I should never leave the consciousness of my subject for even so much as a page. That's a hard rule to follow when you're trying to establish context, flesh out the other characters in the story, detail the history of morphine use or of an upstart religion your subject happens to have joined. But p. 99 of The Peabody Sisters shows me rising to Robie's challenge, practicing the narrative technique that I think has caused the book's more enthusiastic readers to say "it reads just like a novel." Although much of the page describes the Peabody sisters' father's struggle to make a living as a doctor in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1820, digressing even farther to explain the tight economics in that region at the time, it begins with one of Elizabeth Peabody's characteristic pleas, in this case to a circle of teenaged friends, to pursue the life of the mind, to examine their beliefs, to persist in seeking spiritual enlightenment. "Every person who has talents time and opportunity should not rest contentedly with any creed however simple until they have discussed every article of it," she wrote to members of a writing group she'd organized called The Social Circle. "To sit still and pray for light is farcical when we have opportunity to search." And search she did, for the rest of her life, hectoring her two younger sisters Mary and Sophia (reformer and artist, wives respectively of Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne), along the way. The book concludes (p. 451) with a group of Cambridge intellectuals talking late into the night about the "perfecting of the character," and with the great American painter Washington Allston's benediction, uttered just days before his death: "God bless you," he said, placing his hands on her head and stooping to kiss her: "Go on to perfection, my child!" If there is one message I hope readers of my book will take in, it is that intellectual and spiritual seeking can be a way of life. If you are a like-minded person, you will find The Peabody Sisters a good companion in your search.
The Peabody Sisters was a Pulitzer finalist in biography and memoir in 2006, and has won the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Frances Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, and the Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction.

Read the publisher's description of The Peabody Sisters.

--Marshal Zeringue