Visit The Old Manse
Find out more about Megan Marshall's biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism.
Megan Marshall’s biography The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism was awarded the Francis Parkman Prize by the Society of American Historians, the Mark Lynton History Prize, and the Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.
Or when I was married on the lawn at Long Hill in Beverly and couldn’t help but think that the summer retreat of Ellery Sedgwick, famed editor and publisher of the Atlantic Monthly,must have seen many far more significant gatherings than mine. Because Massachusetts existed first in my imagination, it was easy to go back there, with so many landmarks and touchstones still in place.
But when I read Dickinson’s poem again recently, I realized, of course, that what she meant by “seeing New Englandly” was something quite different from the mental time-travel I so often enjoyed. Her poem celebrated what was, for her, the here and now: the local, the provincial, the way a person, writer or not, is stamped with the sensory experiences of childhood. We should all proudly sing the “ode familiar,” Dickinson tells us.
Dickinson and the writers of her day were insisting on the validity of their New England experience in the face of a monolithic British culture – at a time when such insistence was radical and new. As Elizabeth Peabody, the oldest of the three sisters I wrote about, phrased it, a “more interior revolution” was taking place in American culture that would “give life” and meaning to the political freedom gained in the American Revolution. Midcentury New England was, Peabody wrote, a volatile time and place, in which “everything in the forms of society & almost in the forms of thought is in a state of flux.”Writers and artists “unfettered” by the “weight of custom” were poised to create a new and distinctively American aesthetic.
Hawthorne wrote about New England Puritans and Quakers to show that America had a past as rich as the history that made Sir Walter Scott’s novels so popular. Dickinson, Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson weren’t competing with anybody; they were American originals, ready to stand squarely on the ground of New England and proclaim its merits prima facie. Much of what they had to say derived from a deeply felt connection with nature, embedded in the new spiritual philosophy of Transcendentalism, which held that God was bodied forth in, and maybe even the same thing as, nature.
“We need the tonic of wildness,” Thoreau wrote near the end of Walden. Emerson’s first published book was called Nature; much of it written while living in Concord at the Old Manse, the family homestead later rented to the newlyweds Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody, who searched its grounds for arrowheads and paddled on the Concord River with their new friend Thoreau. In Dickinson’s poem, it was nature that told her she was an American, “Because I grow – where Robins do.” The painfully shy poet issued the boldest claim of all: seeing “New Englandly” made her the equal of the Queen of England, who, Dickinson argued, can’t help but see “Provincially” too.
“We can never have enough of nature,” Thoreau declared. And yet, of the writers of his generation, he was the one who foresaw our abuse of the wild and spoke up first for preservation. “Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth,” he wrote in a late journal entry. For Thoreau, “the West” was “but another name for the Wild.” Yet by the 1920s, New Englanders were building white clapboard houses there among the adobes and shingled bungalows and moving in for an uneventful retirement. By the 1960s, much of my southern California was an endless sprawl of tract homes, outdoor swimming pools, freeways, and parking lots. It took an immersion in the literature of New England, and a journey east, for me to find “nature” – the nature I had been seeing “New Englandly” all through my California girlhood, so lovingly preserved in Massachusetts by the grateful inheritors of its rich literary tradition.