THREE } Gender, Reform, and Ridicule
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} 61 The reporters exaggerated the seriocomic qualities of the Con‑ cord School to make their stories appealing to editors and readers, even when they weren’t mocking its philosophical pretensions: Elizabeth Peabody doz‑ ing during lectures, suddenly awakening as her papers and handbag went fly‑ ing; Tom Davidson’s glass slides projected onto the white dresses of his young viewers, causing a little frisson of excitement among the young men. If they had known about it, they might also have observed Frank Sanborn seething as Harris muscled his way into the premier leadership role of the school, to say nothing of moving into the Alcott house itself. While the anecdotes were amusing and sometimes revealing, they also mask both the limitations and the contributions of the school. With the exception of William James’s lecture there in 1883, the school’s leadership steered away from substantive engagement with the emerging physical and biological sciences and with the work of professional philosophers. On the other hand, given the yearly attendance, the return of many attendees, and the distance some traveled from the South and the Midwest, the school clearly met a need for a kind of adult edu‑ cation not found elsewhere. With few amenities and no attractions of musical or theatrical performances like Chautauqua offered, the Concord School persisted in offering its subscribers a rigorous, extended series of lectures on philosophy, religion, ancient history, and the arts. Even more, as Tiffany Wayne points out, the school engaged important ques‑ tions of vocation, self-­ culture, and continuing education, all issues crucial to middle-­ class women insistent on their own intellectual and social growth. In‑ deed, making fun of the school, rendering it through a series of anecdotes, asso‑ ciating it with female attendees and feminized presenters, and diminishing the radical nature of transcendentalism were equivalent strategies for the school’s detractors.1 As educational possibilities for women expanded in the postwar years, the Concord School made a distinctive contribution to those opportu‑ nities. Despite their absence from the roll of “professors,” Elizabeth Peabody, Ednah Dow Cheney, and Julia Ward Howe all made significant contributions to the lectures and discussions at the school. In February 1884, while the organizers of the Concord School of Philosophy were planning yet another session, Henry James traveled to Paris, hoping to see Three } Gender, Reform, and Ridicule 62 { Chapter Three the writers who had inherited the literary tradition of his boyhood idol Honoré de Balzac. It had been nine years since James had visited the French naturalists, and now he was returning as an established novelist. James was put off by the frank portrayals of what he considered sordid material, but he greatly admired the skill shown by Alphonse Daudet, Émile Zola, and Edmond de Goncourt in conveying that material: “there is nothing more interesting to me now than the effort and experiment of this little group,” he wrote to William Dean Howells, “with its truly infernal intelligence of art, form, manner—its intense artistic life. They do the only kind of work, today, that I respect; and in spite of their fe‑ rocious pessimism and their handling of unclean things, they are at least serious and honest.”2 Henry never lost his respect for this circle, especially Zola. In a let‑ ter of 1902, James described Zola as an “unseductive, ungarnished grand homme of art,” and he followed that assessment with an article on Zola that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1903.3 James’s visits with the naturalists reinforced his desire to portray Boston as Zola and the others had captured Paris or the way Dickens had delineated Lon‑ don, in a domestic social novel with the same richly dense texture of material and cultural life. “The whole thing as local, as American, as possible, and as full of Boston: an attempt to show that I can write an American story. . . . Daudet’s Evangéliste has given me the idea of this thing. If I could only do something with that pictorial quality!” James fulfilled his desire to paint a domestic drama on a large social canvas in the novel he first called Verena, and then The Bostonians.4 Like his French masters, James located that drama in a jumbled and disordered material world. Looking out Olive Chancellor’s drawing room window, James’s protagonist Basil Ransom observes “something inexorable in the poverty of the scene, shameful in the meanness of its details, which gave a collective impres‑ sion of boards and tin...