Over at The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, I take the Thoreau passages in Shane Carruth’s sci-fi movie Upstream Color very, very seriously.
It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! . . .
Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. . . .
These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watchtower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.
From “The Transcendentalist, a Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842.”
Yesterday the online discussion group of Scholars of the History of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) published a review by Anne C. Rose of Megan Marshall’s book The Peabody Sisters, as well as a response by Marshall herself. The Peabody Sisters was published two years ago, and as it happens, I wrote a review of it at the time, which, like my review of Grodzins’s biography of Theodore Parker, was killed. But if it isn’t too late for SHEAR to publish a review, it isn’t too late for this blog to.
Herewith, then, is my review of Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters. Be warned that, as with Grodzins’s Parker, this is more a review-essay than a review, and it’s probably too long to read without printing out.
ELIZABETH PALMER PEABODY WAS DOWDY. In 1819, when she was young and still marriageable, her mother reminded her that "neatness is a duty." But Elizabeth confessed to her younger sister Mary in 1834 that "I do not feel able to promise that you will ever see me more than barely tidy." After she gave up on marriage, she seems to have let herself go to seed. The essayist and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who admired her greatly, found her touring Switzerland in 1867 with her eyeglasses on her chin and a nightgown peeping out from under her day clothes. Henry James Sr. thought she looked "dissolute," and Henry James Jr. elaborated the adjective into a metaphor in his 1885 novel The Bostonians, where he caricatured her as Miss Birdseye, a spinster philanthropist whose face "looked as if it had been soaked, blurred, and made vague by exposure to some slow dissolvent." [Click for more]