In the summer of 1840, at the height of Transcendentalism’s influence, the idealistic and intellectual Elizabeth Palmer Peabody opened a bookstore at 13 West Street in Boston. Three months later, she began operation of a circulating library of foreign books and periodicals on the premises. (Circulating libraries—privately owned collections of books and periodicals lent for profit at fixed rates—had their heyday in America between 1800 and 1850, just before the rise of the public library movement.) From foreign merchants and other sources, Peabody gathered books in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and English, exploring the intellectual roots of New England Transcendentalism and at the same time offering her customers titles by members of the Transcendental circle, which included Peabody herself. Her library was one of several prominent collections of foreign works assembled by members of the coterie, but it was the only one available to readers on business terms. Other Transcendental libraries—Theodore Parker’s and George Ripley’s strong collections of German books, for instance—were private, accessible personally through the collector. Financial considerations notwithstanding, the Foreign Library served as a medium for expressing the deepest interests and concerns of Peabody and her colleagues. Since foreign books were then difficult to obtain in America, her library filled a market niche.
The Foreign Library was the timely product of a confluence of intellectual and social currents, market forces, and the enormous learning and enthusiasm of its proprietress. Informed by Peabody’s Transcendentalism, it provided a venue for disseminating radical ideas and reform values and promoting the work of authors who influenced and directly voiced them. It was a place where reading, discussion, and action coalesced. Some of Margaret Fuller’s famous conversations were held there. Dr. William Ellery Channing—the “father of American Unitarianism” and Elizabeth Peabody’s mentor—was drawn to 13 West Street to read the newspapers and converse with fellow patrons. George and Sophia Ripley, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, John Sullivan Dwight, and others explored the transformation of society and planned the Brook Farm community there. The editors of and contributors to the Transcendental periodical The Dial met there. Looking back years later, Peabody wrote, “I had . . . a foreign library of new French and German books; and then I came into contact with the world as never before. The Ripleys were starting Brook Farm, and they were friends of ours. Theodore Parker was beginning his career, and all these things were discussed in my book-store by Boston lawyers and Cambridge professors. Those were very living years for me.”
As Peabody’s printed catalogues show, the Foreign Library on West Street encompassed literature (including poetry), drama, history, biography, natural science, sermons, social and political commentary, theology, philosophy, and travel narrative. The impressive array of authors it featured included recognized Transatlantic influences on New England Transcendentalism (Coleridge, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Constant, Cousin, de Gérando, Goethe, Richter, Schiller, Schlegel, and de Staël among them) and a broad range of other European and American writers, as well. The work of Dr. William Ellery Channing—who paved the way for Transcendentalism—held a place on the Foreign Library’s shelves, as did Emerson’s Nature, Alcott’s Conversations with Children on the Gospels, and Ripley’s Letters on the Latest Form of Infidelity. The Dial figured prominently among the periodicals in the Foreign Library. Like The Dial, Peabody’s collection was deliberately shaped for the elite and limited audience of the Transcendentalists themselves. It is therefore not surprising that its management was marked by tension between trade considerations and loftier cultural goals. It thrived for only a few years and closed in the early 1850s.
Simultaneously a collector and a purveyor of foreign books, Elizabeth Peabody was well-informed about the reading matter her clientèle wanted and deliberate in acquiring books that fit her sense of the library she hoped to create. She developed her Foreign Library with an eye toward content and interrelationship rather than broad popularity or elegance of production. Perpetually strapped for cash, she preferred inexpensive editions to pricier specimens of fine design, presswork, paper, and binding. (However, there is evidence to suggest that her bookstore stock—which was purchased for retail sale rather than as part of her permanent collection—was more luxe.) The limitations of her pocketbook reinforced her inclination toward thoughtful collecting.
Living briefly in Concord in the late 1870s, Peabody decided to donate what then remained of her Foreign Library collection to the Concord Free Public Library. Emerson himself had delivered the keynote address at this library’s dedication on October 1, 1873, and served on its Library Committee as well. Throughout the 1870s, those connected with the town (Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Sophia Thoreau, for example) gave freely from their personal collections to enrich the town’s library, thereby ensuring that New England Transcendentalism would become an institutional collecting strength. Encouraged by this local trend and by the sense of intellectual democracy underlying the public library movement, Peabody donated 839 volumes and 155 pamphlets, effectively giving her Foreign Library collection a second life.
Although the Peabody books were originally scattered throughout Concord’s circulating collection on the basis of subject classification, eventually those that survived circulation were identified and withdrawn to form a discrete collection within the Special Collections, which in the late 1970s had become a separate library department with an established collecting mission that included documenting New England Transcendentalism. At the time of their donation, the Peabody books enhanced the library’s role as a public repository for circulating reading matter in a wide range of subjects. Now reunited, the Peabody books are valued again for their influence on the development and expression of Transcendental thought, as they were when the Foreign Library was first assembled. Their history clearly reflects the impact of shifting perspectives and agendas on the formation and maintenance of book collections.
2. Photographic portrait of Elizabeth Peabody at mid-life, seated at table, reading book, [undated].
3. Richard Stevenson. Photograph of set from Peabody’s Foreign Library, .
4. George Ripley. Letters on the Latest Form of Infidelity, Including a View of the Opinions of Spinoza, Schleiermacher, and DeWette . . . (Boston: James Munroe, 1840).
5. François Auguste René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand. Génie du Christianisme . . . Livre Quatrième . . . (Brussels: Adolphe Weissenbruch, 1827).
6. Jósef Straszewicz. The Life of the Countess Emily Plater. Translated by J. K. Salamonski, a Polish Exile (New York: John F. Trow, 1842).