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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Notable new histories (tangentially Unitarian).

Readers who share my fascination with 19th-century Boston Unitarianism will want to note several recent scholarly books and some very fine reviews. (Yes, it's review week here at Philocrites.)

The Peabody SistersFor example, Christine Stansell writes a wonderful, captivating review for The New Republic of The Peabody Sisters, Margaret Marshall's new book about "our American Brontes" — as the dust jacket calls Elizabeth, Sophia, and Mary. Elizabeth is the most famous: She was an educational reformer, early feminist, Transcendentalist publisher, and female businesswoman in 19th-century Boston, among other things. She also managed not to marry Nathaniel Hawthorne (who married Sophia instead) or Horace Mann (the educational reformer who married Mary). A tale of triangulation, innovation, sexism, idealism, and more! I haven't started the book yet, but the review itself is definitely something you'll want to read.

Also worth noting: the publication of Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth Century Woman, Helen Deese's edition of the journals of the Boston Brahmin Caroline Healey Dall. Dall apparently kept a 45-volume diary between 1838 and 1912 (!) and participated in pretty much every happening Boston cause from Transcendentalism to abolition to women's rights, so her diaries are clearly an important resource for feminists and historians. Conveniently, Deese restricts the book's focus to the pre-Civil War period — just as Stansell's biography of the Peabody sisters does — so readers can see how the same things looked to the striving Peabodys and the entitled Dall. (Publisher's Weekly gossips that Dall says something snide about Elizabeth Peabody.) Daughter of Boston is a Beacon Press book — and the editor will be in Boston next week for several appearances and readings. She'll be speaking at the Old South Meetinghouse downtown at noon on Thursday, for example, and at the Harvard Coop that evening at 7.

Finally, James M. McPherson reviews two books about extraordinary officers of Massachusetts regiments in the Civil War — many of them Unitarian Brahmins. Sadly, McPherson's review in the New York Review of Books is available only to the journal's super-subscribers, so you'll either have to pony up $3 to read the article, or make a photocopy at the library. I urge you to do one or the other. I'd quote some tantalizing passages, but I've misplaced my copy already. Warning to the preachers among you: It's less sermon-ready than the Peabody sisters review because noblesse-oblige and duty aren't the sexy Unitarian themes these days that they were in the 1850s and 1860s: We're more likely to run from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" than to embrace it, and let's just say that the class position of these officers puts them on the far side of our contemporary political correctness. But if you wonder whether Unitarian ethics in the 19th century had teeth, you'll want to read McPherson's article. The books he reviews are Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry by Richard F. Miller and The Nature of Sacrifice: A Biography of Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., 183564 by Carol Bundy.

("Sister Act," Christine Stansell, New Republic 10.10.05; "Brahmins at War," James M. McPherson, New York Review of Books 52:15, 10.6.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 12 October 2005 at 11:00 PM

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Bill Baar:

October 13, 2005 08:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's sad we run from the Battle Hymm of the Republic. It's interesting to learn the stories of the Unitarian congregations in my neck of the woods during the Civil War and how it split the Churches.

I like Augustus Conant's story which I don't think is given full justice here in the Rockford Churches web page.

Conant had a hand in creating the Churches in Geneva, Rockford, and Elgin Illinois. I think he joined the service out of more that just failure to get paid by the Rockford congregation, and he died in Tenn from fever. His wife had just given birth to a son and the son's baptism and Conants funeral were conducted at the same time at the Geneva Church which had turned Conant away for being pro War, pro Union, and anti slavery. A story the current minister tells every so often and I think a story with a valuable lesson.

Roger Kuhrt:

October 14, 2005 02:28 AM | Permalink for this comment

For a very fair history of Liberal Religion in America I would also recommend: Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality from Emerson to Oprah by Leigh Eric Schmidt. A new book published by Harper.

Cheerfully, Roger Kuhrt

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