American Literature Sophia Peabody Hawthorne
Jana Argersinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0063


In 1809, Sophia Amelia Peabody was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to an old and distinguished New England family, the third of seven children. The family was sustained largely by its women, who ran and taught in a variety of schools—providing an intellectually stimulating, if not economically thriving, environment. Her home studies spanned an unusual range for a woman of her time. Under the particular tutelage of eldest sister Elizabeth—who would become an education reformer, transcendentalist, and publisher—she read widely across such fields as history, theology, literature, art, science, and philosophy, acquiring a lifelong habit of self-education. A talent not only for writing but also for visual art emerged, and after the Peabodys moved to Boston, Sophia began informal apprenticeships with such prominent painters as Washington Allston and Thomas Doughty. The family’s circle also expanded to include such luminaries as Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1833, severe headaches that had long plagued Sophia prompted the Peabodys to send her, with older sister Mary (later an author herself), for an extended rest cure in Cuba. While there, she produced a letter-journal of over eight hundred pages and dispatched it in installments to New England, captivating family and friends with closely observed descriptions of unfamiliar landscapes and social scenes—which, however, tended to avoid Cuban slavery. Not long after returning to Salem, Sophia met the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who admired her as the “Queen of Journalizers,” and they married in 1842. At the Old Manse, the young couple became part of Concord life (the Emersons, Thoreaus, and Alcotts lived nearby) and had the first of three children; Nathaniel wrote short stories, while Sophia largely set aside her professional aspirations as an artist, embracing the roles of wife and mother with a passion that would define her well into the 20th century. Throughout life, however—through childbearing, financial strain, European travel, and widowhood—Sophia maintained sketchbooks and wrote profusely in letters, journals, and travel notebooks. Only one authored text saw publication before her death in 1871: the 1869 Notes in England and Italy. Until quite recently, Sophia’s main claim to recognition had been her marriage to the celebrated author and her editorial work on his notebooks for posthumous publication. In the 1990s, interest in her as both writer and artist began to accelerate, and the early 21st century has seen a vigorous upturn: two major biographies, the first essay collection on the Peabody sisters, a special journal issue, and numerous essays have helped recover a Sophia Peabody Hawthorne whose complexity extends well beyond her conventional persona. As these studies demonstrate, she is richly relevant to such vibrant areas of inquiry as literary and artistic marketplaces, epistolary cultures, gender politics, transnationalism, and travel writing.

General Reference Works

Attention to Hawthorne in general reference works is so far infrequent. Only three, the journal American Literary Scholarship, Pearson 1971, and Sterling 1997 are reasonably convenient to access.

  • American Literary Scholarship. 1998–.

    Provides useful annual surveys of new critical and biographical literature, including sections on Nathaniel Hawthorne, early-19th-century literature, and transcendentalism that have encompassed work on Sophia Peabody Hawthorne in recent years, especially since 1999. Entries are sometimes evaluative, sometimes straightforwardly descriptive, and often synthetic, helpfully relating studies to each other. The full text of American Literary Scholarship from 1998 through 2012 is available online at Project MUSE, a database of scholarship to which many academic institutions subscribe.

  • Pearson, Norman Holmes. “Hawthorne, Sophia Amelia Peabody.” In Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, 162–163. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

    A brief, early appreciation, preceding Badaracco 1978 (cited under Biographical Treatments), of Hawthorne’s individual talents by a distinguished editor and scholar of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Introduces her first as artist and writer and then as Nathaniel’s wife—an emphasis maintained throughout the engagingly written and well-informed entry.

  • Sterling, Laurie A. “Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne.” In American Travel Writers, 1776–1864. Vol. 183 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Edited by James Schramer and Donald Ross, 178–190. Detroit: Gale, 1997.

    A substantive, useful dictionary entry on both of the Hawthornes’ travel writing that compares their expressed attitudes to art and travel, among other matters, and that devotes considerable space to Sophia’s treatment of slavery in the “Cuba Journal” (cited under Travel Accounts). Available at Dictionary of Literary Biography Complete Online through institutional subscription.

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