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Peabody, Josephine Preston (1874–1922)

Peabody, Josephine Preston (1874–1922)

American poet and dramatist. Name variations: Josephine Marks. Born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 30, 1874; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 4, 1922; second of the three daughters of Charles Kilham Peabody (a merchant) and Susan Josephine (Morrill) Peabody; attended Radcliffe College as a special student, 1894–96; married Lionel Simeon Marks (a professor of mechanical engineering at Harvard University), on June 21, 1906; children: Alison Marks (b. 1908); Lionel Marks (b. 1910).

Born in Brooklyn in 1874 and raised in a home where intellectual and cultural activities were valued and encouraged, Josephine Peabody was immersed in literature and the arts from an early age. However, her idyllic environment was shattered with the death of her younger sister in 1882, and the death of her father two years later, events that left her mother Susan Morrill Peabody financially and spiritually bereft. Susan took Josephine and her older sister to live with their maternal grandmother in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where Josephine finished her elementary education. She enrolled in Girls' Latin School in Boston in 1889 but was forced by ill health to leave in her junior year. Meanwhile, from an early age, she had spent her spare time reading, and writing verses, short stories, and plays. In 1894, she had a poem published by Horace Scudder, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who also became her mentor. With his help, and that of another local philanthropist, Peabody was able to enroll at Radcliffe College for two years of study as a special student.

She began writing in earnest in 1896, and had her first volume of poetry, The Wayfarers, published in 1898. It was followed by Fortune and Men's Eyes, a one-act play built around Shakespeare's sonnets, and Marlowe, a play in verse about Christopher Marlowe. All of Peabody's early work reflected her intense interest in Shakespeare, Browning, and the Pre-Raphaelites and was marked by a delicate beauty, refinement, and otherworldliness.

To help support her blossoming literary career, Peabody held a lectureship in poetry and literature at Wellesley College from 1901 to 1903. During the summer of 1902, with help from a friend, she was able to travel in Europe, after which she published another collection of poems, The Singing Leaves (1903), and a choric idyl entitled Pan, which was performed in Ottawa in 1904.

In 1906, Peabody married Lionel S. Marks, an engineering professor at Harvard; after a year's tour of Europe, they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The coupled celebrated the arrival of a daughter, Alison Marks , in 1908, a year which also saw the publication of Peabody's The Book of Little Past, a volume for children. It was followed a year later by The Piper, a poetic play on the Pied Piper legend, which won the Stratford Prize Competition and was produced in the summer of 1910 at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. (The year 1910 also marked the arrival of her second child, a son, Lionel.) Peabody's play was subsequently produced in London that same year, and at the New Theater, New York, in 1911.

During her later years, Peabody embraced a number of liberal and radical reform movements, a change of course which was reflected in her writing. In 1909, she joined the Fabian Society and in 1911 published The Singing Man, a collection of poems dealing with human rights. Her later works included another volume of poems, Harvest Moon (1916), and three more plays: The Wolf of Gubbio (1913), a drama about St. Francis of Assisi, The Chameleon (1917), a comedy, and Portrait of Mrs. W. (1922), a prose play about British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft . During the last ten years of her life, Peabody struggled with hardening of the arteries, enduring surgery in 1912 and 1915, and lapsing into a two-week coma in January 1922. She died the following December, age 48.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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