Speaking at the 2018 SSAWW Conference
I recently spoke at the 2018 Society of American Women Writers (SSAWW) Triennial Conference in Denver, Colorado, where I presented part of a dissertation chapter that I am writing on nineteenth-century Transcendentalist reformer and writer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. I was also invited to participate in a roundtable on Louisa May Alcott and the public humanities, in which I spoke about an exhibit that I am curating for the UCLA Library celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women.
“The Aesthetic Vision of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody” was presented as part of the panel, “Recovering Nineteenth-Century Women Writers: New Readings.” My paper comes from my dissertation on “affective Transcendentalism” which reexamines Transcendentalism as both a religious and a literary movement within Unitarianism in the early nineteenth century. This includes reasserting what Phyllis Cole and Jana Argersinger have called the “female genealogy of Transcendentalism”—specifically the contributions of writers such as Peabody. My dissertation chapter on Peabody, a recovery of what I call her “aesthetic vision,” discusses how her idea of aesthetics shapes her own Transcendentalist view of history and social progress. Unlike the writings of Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, comparatively little had been said about Peabody’s writings despite her status as a major figure in the Transcendentalist movement. The most neglected of all of Peabody’s writings is perhaps her most provocative, most personal, and most imaginative, a piece simply titled “A Vision.” Most critics have dismissed this mystical mediation as vague and idiosyncratic. But what generations of Transcendentalist scholars have failed to see is her allusions to the work of Dante—an important literary model for both Fuller and Emerson, with whom Peabody engages in a dialogue that challenges their Transcendental ideas.
I also had the honor of being invited to speak as part of the Louisa May Alcott Society’s roundtable, “’Reforms of All Kinds’: Louisa May Alcott and the Public Humanities.” This was one of several highlighted sessions in the program and was chaired by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis and Daniel Shealy. For my part, I spoke about an exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of Little Women which I have organized for the UCLA Library. The exhibit features six display cases of original publications, historical documents, and other materials that tell us the story of Louisa May Alcott and her novel about the March Sisters. The exhibit’s themes include: Alcott and woman’s rights; Alcott and reform movements; Little Women’s cultural legacy; and the influence of Little Women, featuring some of the many women writers and leaders who have been inspired by the novel, such as Ursula K LeGuin, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ann Petry, Sonia Sanchez, and Patti Smith.