Reading the Peabody sisters' letters.

How we interpret the past.
May 17 2005 7:22 AM

The Spirit of the Letter

What biographers find in other people's mail.

(Continued from Page 1)

Perhaps most biographers are plagued with the worry, as they near the completion of their books, that they haven't been as faithful to the facts as they might have been. As a first-time biographer, anxiously proofreading nearly a hundred pages of documentary endnotes, I certainly was. The farther a biographer is removed from research in the archives, the more she suspects the characters in the historical drama she is constructing may have become her own creations—not invented out of whole cloth, as in a novel, but shaded to make certain personality traits more vivid and to fit a larger narrative. But reading these new letters, I was struck by how distinct each sister's voice was, emerging from the clutter of pages, and how true to the characters I'd put forward in the book. I could almost predict what each one would say as I pulled her letter from the pile. It was as if the Peabody sisters were speaking to me, one last time, across the centuries.

Megan Marshall is the author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism. She teaches nonfiction writing and the art of archival research at Emerson College.

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