William Greene’s Small World

I haven’t posted much recently because the research for the chapter on William B. Greene suddenly blossomed into the makings of a book on its own. So I’m running with it, and hope to have a basic manuscript together around the first of the year. There are a few things I probably won’t be able to do in that time, some research travel I doubt that I can fit in, and this will hardly be a finished or definitive account–but it will be substantially more than we’ve had in the way of a biography of Greene, and I think it will give an adequate, and very different, picture of him.

The Boston area in the mid-19th century was in many ways a very small place, where everyone knew (or knew someone who knew) pretty much everyone else. Greene’s arrival in Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore simply ensured that his world would be that much smaller, and crowded, sometimes uncomfortably, with other brilliant and difficult characters. Anarchist accounts have tended to treat Greene as a bit isolated and aloof, but just a dip into the research pool reminds us that:

  • Greene’s initial champion, Elizabeth Peabody, was the sister-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann.
  • The Yankee beauty, Anna Shaw, whom he eventually married, was a student of Margaret Fuller, and a participant in her “conversations,” as well as being a friend of Sophia Hawthorne. Apparently, her beauty impressed Emerson, on one of his visits with the Hawthornes, just as she impressed Theodore Parker, whose subsequent bad blood with William B. Greene seems to have be based in mutual jealousy.
  • Greene was of the “Bachiler” line and had “the Bachiler eyes,” a trait he shared with “the Whittiers, … Daniel Webster, Caleb Cushing, [and] Nathaniel Hawthorne.” [see Annie Fields, Authors and Friends] John Greenleaf Whittier was a friend, and Frank Preston Stearns recalls a talk with Greene as the only time he heard Whittier “speak on a religious question.”

Greene plays a role in all sorts of marvelous moments. The Hawthornes visited the Greene’s in Paris. A framed print in the Greene’s home occasioned an epiphany about same-sex desire for Margaret Fuller. Louisa May Alcott included “Will Greene” among the models to be incorporated in one of the character illustrations for Little Women. Greene is supposed to have talked Julia Ward Howe into giving her first public address, while she was visiting his troops during the Civil War, where he served in the defense of Washington. His nephew was Robert Gould Shaw, whose letters became the basis of the film Glory. And so on. . .

It also appears that one of the most significant influences on Greene was Orestes Brownson, who introduced him to French social thought. It will be necessary to account for a strong dose of Saint-Simonian influence in Greene’s work–something that has only been addressed a bit in the literature on transcendentalism.

I’ll blog the nice bits as they arise. This is pretty exciting stuff–at least for an anarcho-nerd like me.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.