Hale, Lucretia Peabody

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HALE, Lucretia Peabody

Born 2 September 1820, Boston, Massachusetts; died 12 June 1900, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of Nathan and Sarah Everett Hale

Lucretia Peabody Hale came from a distinguished New England literary family. Her mother was a writer; her father, nephew of the famous revolutionary-war patriot, was owner and editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser. Among Hale's six brothers and sisters were Edward Everett, Unitarian clergyman, abolitionist, and writer, best known for his "A Man without a Country" short story; Charles, consul general to Egypt at the time of the opening of the Suez Canal; and Susan, writer and traveler.

Hale gained a reputation as a bright student at the highly regarded George B. Emerson School for Young Ladies, the graduates of which had the equivalent of a contemporary Bachelor of Arts degree. There she and four other girls comprised a group called the Pentad, maintaining their friendship for many years. When the Pentad visited one another, Hale often made up stories for amusement when they were in bed at night. After her schooling, Hale remained at home helping with the housework, sewing, attending cultural events, and writing. The only one of her immediate group never to marry, she became known as Aunt Lucretia to the children of her friends. She often visited their homes, telling stories to their children as she had to their mothers when she and they were children.

After the deaths of her parents, Hale traveled in 1867 with her sister Susan to Egypt to visit Charles, then consul general. After enjoying the sights for some months, the two took a horseback trip through Palestine before returning home. In 1869 Hale settled again in Boston, where she involved herself in public affairs and in various educational and charitable causes. In 1874 she became the first woman elected to the Boston School Committee, a position she held for two years. She ran a dame school with Susan for a time, taught in correspondence school, promoted kindergartens and vacation schools, and introduced sewing and cooking into the public school curriculum.

A prolific writer, Hale began wielding a pen at a very early age, because the Hale children were often called upon to help out with editorials, book reviews, and translations. Although much of her work consisted of editorials and fillers for the journals her brothers published, she wrote texts and Sunday-school books, edited collections of games and needlework, and produced several novels and books of short stories, sometimes in conjunction with other writers. After the death of her father in 1863, Hale supported herself by her writings.

Her first venture into fiction, Margaret Percival in America (1850), written in collaboration with Edward, was a well-received religious novel and had modest sales. The first of her independent writings to attract attention was "The Queen of the Red Chess-men" (Atlantic Monthly, 1858), a short, fanciful tale in which a strong-willed red chess queen comes alive. A novel, Six of One by Half a Dozen of the Other (1872), a six-way collaboration with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edward, among others, is an amusing comedy of manners, and in The New Harry and Lucy (1892), another novel done with Edward, Harry and Lucy write letters home about how they spend their time in the big city and how they come to meet and marry. Although they did not last, these tongue-in-cheek lightweights are vivid with lively details of the times.

Hale's claim to literary distinction, though she never knew it, came through her stories about the Peterkin family. The first one, "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee" (1868), was made up to amuse Meggie, the daughter of Hale's old school friend, Mrs. Lesley. One summer vacation, when Meggie was sick and forced to miss the family fun, Hale sat down by her bedside and on the spot created the story about Mrs. Peterkin's problems with her cup of coffee. She later published it in the periodical Our Young Folks. Five more Peterkin stories were printed there, and still others followed in St. Nicholas, its successor. Some two dozen stories were first put out in book form in 1880, and 1886 saw a sequel of eight more, The Last of the Peterkins, with Others of Their Kin. The stories were called after Mr. Lesley, whose first name was Peter, his children forming the "kin," while Mrs. Lesley herself was the wise Lady from Philadelphia.

The first significant nonsense done for children in the U.S., the Peterkin stories became immensely popular throughout the nation, not only with children but with adults as well. Their gentle satire on American attitudes and ways tickled the national funny bone and helped people laugh at themselves. The lovable, foolish Peterkins of Boston consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin; Agamemnon, who had been to college; Elizabeth Eliza; Solomon John; and the three little boys, always nameless, but never without their India rubber boots.

The stories concern the family's efforts to cope with everyday problems, all of which develop into crises of major proportions because of their blundering attempts to deal with them. When the Peterkins get their new piano into the parlor, they discover the only way Elizabeth Eliza can play it is by sitting outside on the porch. The milk from the Peterkins' new cow develops a queer taste after they decide the best place to keep it is by the kitchen chimney. They raise the parlor ceiling to accommodate their too-tall Christmas tree, get lost repeatedly at the Philadelphia Centennial, and never have enough plates and cups to serve the large groups they enthusiastically invite to their home. The humor of the stories arises from the absurdity of their predicaments and the family's roundabout ways of attempting to come to grips. They are often assisted in extricating themselves from their dilemmas by the sensible and practical advice of the Lady from Philadelphia.

Although the stories reflect the manners and attitudes of their period, in their revelation of character they ring true yet today, and it is upon the droll, whimsical adventures of this winning family of bumblers, still favorites with children, that Hale's reputation as a writer rests.

Other Works:

Seven Stormy Sundays (1859). Struggle for Life (1861). The Lord's Supper and Its Observance (1866). The Service of Sorrow (1867). The Wolf at the Door (1877). Designs in Outline for Art-Needlework (1879). More Stitches for Decorative Embroidery (1879). Point-Lace: A Guide to Lace-Work (1879). The Peterkin Papers (1880). The Art of Knitting (1881). Fagots for the Fireside (1888). Stories for Children (1892). Sunday School Stories (with B. Whitman, n.d.). An Uncloseted Skeleton (with E. L. Bynner, n.d.).

Bibliography:

Hale, E. E., A New England Boyhood (1893). Hale, N., Introduction to The Complete Peterkin Papers (1960).

Reference works:

AA. DAB. Junior Book of Authors (1934). NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). WW of Children's Literature (1968).

Other references:

Horn Book (Sept.-Oct. 1940, April 1958). PW (28 Oct. 1957).

—ALETHEA K. HELBIG

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