Elizabeth’s form of genius; Beth’s power in Little Women (guest post by Kristi Martin)

Warning: this is a long post but I believe, well worth the time. I was so fascinated when I first heard the presentation at the Summer Conversational Series that I opted not to take notes and just enjoy it!)

560 kristi martin

Kristi Martin

At the recent Summer Conversational Series, Kristi Marti (tour guide de force; she has been a guide at nearly every major historical home in Concord) presented her paper on the genius exhibited in each of the Alcott sisters. Normally we don’t think of genius extending to the quieter sisters Anna and Elizabeth; Kristi presented a compelling argument in favor of Lizzie’s form of genius which extends in the character of Beth March in Little Women. Kristi was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper, a portion of which I am presenting here as a guest post.

From “Beth’s Stage-Struck!”: The Alcott Sisters and “the Difference Between Talent and Genius,” presented on Monday, July 14, 2014 at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House:

Surrounded by genius

560 kristi teaching2The daughters of Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott were no strangers to “Genius.” Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May were immersed within a community of New England’s most renowned literary and artistic intellects, with Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and artist Washington Allston among their parents’ dignified and intimate friends. Indeed, Hawthorne and Emerson were the Alcott family’s sometime neighbors in Concord, with Thoreau living in the same town. Like the four muses, each of the four sisters possessed striking talents in different branches of the arts: Anna possessed a passion for theater, Louisa had a gift of words and expression, which took a literary bent; Elizabeth was a musician; and, the youngest, May, was an accomplished artist …

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kristi weaves her discussion of the Alcott sisters in with the fictional March sisters. Here she begins her discussion of Beth’s importance to the story, and the real life young woman Beth was based upon:

Beth’s unsung role in Little Women

jo and beth… But Jo does have a conscience. As Beth lay ill with scarlet fever, Jo tells Laurie, “Beth is my conscience, and I can’t give her up.” (Little Women, pg. 188) With Beth confined to her sick bed it becomes clear that quiet, shy, and domestic Beth has perhaps the largest sphere of influence in the novel. “Everyone missed Beth. The milkman, baker, grocer, and butcher… even those who knew her best were surprised to find how many friends shy little Beth had made.” (Little Women, pg. 186) As Jo witnessed Beth’s physical distress, she “learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition to live for others, and make home happy by the simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.” (Little Women, 185) Meek and too often taken for granted, I contend that Beth is in fact the most powerful character in the novel. Her influence is quiet, but potent. It is Beth who suggests the girls buy Christmas presents for Marmee, rather than themselves (Little Women, pg. 7) It is Beth who sanctions Laurie’s admittance into the Pickwick Club. “Yes, we ought to do it, even if we are afraid,” Beth advises her sisters, “’I say he may come…’ This spirited burst from Beth electrified the club…” and Laurie was voted in unanimously (Little Women, pg. 108). It is Beth who makes the invalid Frank laugh more than he has in “ever so long.” Amy boasts of her sister’s captivating qualities, “Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be…,” Amy, of course “meant ‘fascinating.” (Little Women, 104) Beth’s strength is both a moral power and a useful power.

Lizzie’s sense of humor

lizzie alcott2Alcott scholars have been disappointed in the archival material left by Elizabeth Alcott. Unassuming and private, Elizabeth’s writings are not overtly revelatory when compared to the voluminous journals and letters left by other members of her family. Her family too was troubled by her quiet evasiveness, her father complaining that she hid her “feelings in silence.” (Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 247). Family biographer Bedell wrote, “One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling, and never find it.” (Bedell, pg. 248) This, however, is somewhat of an exaggeration. Alcott biographer John Matteson refers to “spirited arguments” Elizabeth had with a friend over vegetarianism, but he too concludes that Lizzie seemed “never to have wanted more from life than a quiet, comfortable smallness.” (John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, pg 186) Yet, Susan Bailey has uncovered some of Lizzie’s letters in the archives of Houghton Library, which are more telling. There is a passive aggressiveness in some of her letters to her father, the yearning for attention and affection. Other family members’ letters intimate her depression during her final illness, the “natural rebellion” that Louisa hints at in Little Women as well. Lizzie possessed a resiliency and the Alcottian humor of her mother and sisters, too. As she was dying in 1858, Louisa wrote in her journal that Lizzie was trying to keep her sister’s spirits up (The Journals, pg. 88). Louisa also delighted in Lizzie’s letters, telling Anna that Lizzie “writes me the funniest notes.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 9). This sense of humor comes through strongly in one of Lizzie’s extant letters written to her family, while she and her mother Abba were traveling for Lizzie’s health. Lizzie teasingly admonishes her father that if “he grows thinner on her account … I shant write any more letters … and he will not know how I am. It must seem so good not to have to run every minute to my bell or hush all the time. I know you miss your little skeleton very much don’t you.[sic]”. Telling of her journey, she recalled a woman who “put her head” into the carriage “very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long.” She seems to have disliked the impertinent concern of some: “Miss Hinkley came in, and was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me, she will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit,” (Letter, August 6, 1857; see previous post with entire letter) sounding like Louisa.

Was Lizzie actually like Beth?

beth and jo march from little womenDistinctly unlike Beth in Little Women, who “was too shy to enjoy society,” (Little Women, pg. 380) at the seashore, Lizzie was ecstatic at the idea of visiting the ocean. She wrote, “Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn.” Far from not wanting a world beyond her home, she declared that she was “not homesick one grain,” but enjoying herself at the Sewall home in Boston. She reported that she played checkers in the evening, and went often to Boston Common in company with Tom, which was “delightful.” In this letter, Lizzie did not seem to shrink from society, but rather to observe those around her. As with the woman in the carriage, Lizzie wrote of her cousin Mary: “She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food…” Those around Elizabeth seem to have been concerned and solicitous for her comfort and welfare. (Letter, August 6, 1857) Like Beth, Lizzie seemed to make friends wherever she went. Louisa wrote after the funeral that the family had longed for their uncle Samuel May or Theodore Parker to preside over the service, remarking that Parker “loved Lizzie and always missed her face when she was not at church.” (The Letters, 33)

Making sense out of death

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

In Little Women, Beth is able to die peacefully, content in the knowledge that “her life had not been useless.” (Little Women, pg. 427) She entreated Jo to take her place in the household, assuring her, “you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world.” (Little Women, pg. 428) Both Beth and Lizzie’s death is presented as “the good death.” Like “Sylvia” in Alcott’s Transcendental novel Moods, Beth/Lizzie “proved that she did know how to die,” a Thoreauvian principle, that Alcott envisioned as “strength purified and perfected…,” an “unconscious power, which we call influence of character .. which is the nobelest.” Alcott, Louisa May. Moods. (Ed. Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pg. 203) Both Beth and Sylvia’s deaths, perform an Emersonian compensation, in which the true purpose is gained within a seeming loss. It is Beth, the domestic character, who is Jo’s conscious. Beth thus comes to represent true genius in the novel, which in Alcottian terms is the higher conscious that she embodies. In giving writing advice to an admirer, Louisa quoted Michael Angelo: “Genius is infinite patience.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 231) It is Beth/Lizzie who exemplified infinite patience, both in the novel and real life. When Jo finally has success with her writing, it is only when she writes a story with “truth in it,” and she credits her parents and Beth for the goodness that is in her book. (Little Women, pg. 446)

How do you feel about Beth’s role in Little Women? Did she possess genius? Were you surprised at the sauciness of the real life Elizabeth?

Kristi also had many interesting things to say about May Alcott which I will present in the next post.

2014 Summer Conversational Series: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius

john matteson1The Conversational series welcomed back a perennial favorite in John Matteson whose Pulitzer-prize winning book Eden’s Outcasts is a standard in Alcott scholarship. He has also written a fine book on Margaret Fuller called The Lives of Margaret Fuller; she was the focus of his presentation entitled “ ‘The Mind in the Full Glow of Power’: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius.”

Was Fuller a genius?

Fuller tackled an age-old problem: was genius for men alone? Although Fuller was probably the best-educated woman in America, she denied herself the mantle of genius. It was a source of great consternation to her; more on that a little later.

The evolving definition of genius

Matteson gave a brief history of the definition of “genius” and how it has evolved over the centuries. It was originally associated with pagan belief (coming from a more magic realm) and was considered contrary to the scriptures. It was generally believed that Genius was a personal god, directing the individual, a belief that endured in Fuller’s time. The meaning then morphed into what was considered a “good” genius versus an evil genius. Some felt genius was influenced by the stars.

The root of genius

Matteson pointed out that Genius and Genesis have the same root; Genesis only allows for one genius, God. Genius is polytheistic, each person having it. Therefore, Genius was considered a heresy since it was perceived to be against God.

Influence of Romanticism

samuel taylor coleridgeThe Romantic Movement influenced the change in the definition of genius. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a major influence in the Transcendental Movement, had a lot to say about genius, following up on Kant. Coleridge connected genius to the spiritual and the artistic. Talent was appropriating the knowledge of others whereas genius was original.

Genius and Transcendentalism

Genius to the Transcendentalist was divine in origin. Coleridge felt that genius needed be controlled whereas Emerson saw no need for genius to be hindered. Coleridge felt that genius was for men only but there were feminine traits. Genius is meant to inspire awe and the sublime; thus the results of genius were large and by nature, public, which placed it out of reach of women who never meant to be in the public sphere.

Unfulfilled potential

Fuller’s father was responsible for her incredible education but then felt he had created a “monster” and set her off to finishing school. Although she edited The Dial for Emerson’s Transcendental community, she was never paid for her work. Once she reached New York she was hired by a major newspaper as a correspondent. It was there that her gifts were finally appreciated and compensated.

Was there a genius to be found in America?

margaret fullerFuller felt that America had yet to produce a poetic genius. American literature and knowledge was yet to be respected. She felt that America’s diversity hindered its growth (moral and intellectual) with regards to talent and the higher pursuits. She did not find her criteria of genius being met in any American woman.

Fertile ground for genius

Transcendentalism felt that genius was the ultimate goal; Affiliated with this movement, Fuller used her conversation classes to cultivate and seek out genius in women. She discussed the meaning of gender thoroughly along with the question of genius. She also took up the quest of education for women. She did not see a lot of difference between what girls learned versus what boys learned but as Matteson pointed out, her training was unique. In general the education of girls was broader and shallower. Men were expected to “reproduce” what they learned; this is neglected for women. Fuller took up conversations to cultivate and grow education for women so that they too could “reproduce.”

Fear of genius

Female education led in the opposite direction from genius; male education cultivated talent but not genius. Creating something original was not encouraged, perhaps a leftover bias from the religious culture due to fear of the intellect.

Was genius moral?

Fuller maintained that genius demanded two forces – mad passion and ordered consistency. Genius was not merely to be held in awe but to be feared. While Channing held that genius was the highest order of good, Fuller believed there was a moral indifference with genius sometimes delighting in evil. It occurred to me that if genius was considered amoral, even evil, it would make sense why society would not associate it with women who were commissioned to tame their men and make them adhere to moral values. How could a woman do that and be a genius?

No women geniuses?

the lives of margaret fullerFuller believed that a woman should cultivate her talents and intellect. A female genius was possible but she never was able to identify any woman as such. As an example, Fuller was well versed with music but could not name a woman composer.

Genius out of reach?

Fuller did not believe she was a genius despite the fact that she felt herself to be one of the greatest minds in the country. This was devastating to her. Her father saw the potential and crammed her head with everything possible. Her sense of self and her emotional well-being depended on the growth of her potential. She did not see herself however as original and this was very hard for her.

Did no one measure up?

Transcendentalism was infused with the binary, such as genius versus talent, finite versus infinite, etc. In Emerson’s mind one had to be a genius to be a part of his circle; therefore he obviously felt that Fuller was a genius. Fuller tasted all the loneliness of being exceptional but never the satisfaction of being exceptional. If she was not a genius, could anyone achieve it? Her own mind was the yardstick, the utmost development of the female mind and yet she did not believe herself to be a genius; thus there were no women she could call a genius.

Promoting genius

If Fuller could not be a genius, she would promote others who were, using her writing skills; she became a critic (he critic is the younger sibling of genius). She believed as a critic that she must be well-versed in all the forms she critiqued. For example, she could not critique a poem if she was unable to write one herself. The critic must be very observant. Fuller was the chief critic for a NY publication.

The ideal for women and men

Like many women, Fuller believed women were imprisoned by being subservient; she also believed that men too were imprisoned because of this concept. Her ideal was that men and women would relate to each other as equal partners so that both could be freed from convention (something Louisa desired, writing about it in Work A Story of Experience through the marriage of Christie and David). Parties would meet mind to mind; mutual trust would be needed. Seeing marriage as an intellectual communion, it would become a pilgrimage. Fuller married later in life (though a legal marriage has never been confirmed) to Giovanni Ossoli, a younger man she met as a foreign correspondent in Italy. One wonders if she found that intellectual communion she sought in a partner and how that marriage would have fared had she lived longer; tragically she, Giovanni and their baby were drowned in a shipwreck.

Can each of us possess a little genius?

As all of us listened, wondering if genius existed in us or perhaps lamenting that it did not, Matteson ended his presentation on a hopeful note: Fuller did not believe one had to be a genius to possess genius. It is entirely possible to cultivate our own genius.

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Summer Conversational Series 2014: Bronson Alcott as the father of modern child psychology

My thanks again to Kristi Martin for sharing her notes and her photos with this site.

kristina westKristina West’s presentation highlighted the educational work of Bronson Alcott and his role as arguably the father of modern child psychology. This is one workshop I wish I had not missed. West’s careful study of Bronson serves to redeem him as being the villain in the Alcott family to some. While Bronson surely caused his family much consternation and material poverty due to his feelings about working for money, there were many stellar and more esoteric gifts he gave to his family.

Bronson’s writings

West has done a close-reading of selected passages from Bronson’s “Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction,” “Observations on the Spiritual Nurture of my Children,” and “Preface to Conversations with Children on the Gospels.” These were studies of infant behavior and his methods of conversation and observation which were aimed at knowing the child, Bronson considered the development of the whole child: physical, mental, and spiritual. His lack of writing skill prevented publication of his works which is why he is often not given his due. His writing style was flowery and dense, a perfect example being Psyche (a study of third daughter Elizabeth’s soul rather than her day-to-day growth) which West found almost impenetrable; her opinion agrees with Emerson’s criticisms.

Bronson’s brilliance

West believes that “Observations on the Spiritual Nature of my Children” is absolute genius. West’s assessment reminds me a lot of Madelon Bedell’s brilliant work, The Alcotts Biography of a Family; she too felt that Bronson showed genius in the psychological study of children.

The better parent?

West maintained that Bronson believed he understood the children better than their mother, and criticized her parenting methods. From what I’ve read, seeing that Abba was almost constantly either pregnant or post-partum, it would be understandable if she was high strung. Bronson was able to take the time to read to his daughters and play with them; Bedell notes this in her book. This kind of care extended to Bronson’s students.

The use of conversation

The Temple School

The Temple School

West called attention to the problem of conversation as an analytic tool of observation because of the influence in leading the children. Bedell maintained that Bronson manipulated the children through the art of conversation, molding them into what he wanted them to be. But there is no doubt the children gained a great deal through his teaching.

Bronson as genius

West argued that Bronson was a genius for his exceptional originality of thought and Bedell agreed. West expressed the concern during the question and answer porition that Bronson is largely misunderstood because no one reads what he actually wrote. I agree with this having taken a turn at reading his journals as presented by Odell Shepard. While some of the metaphysical and esoteric writings went right over my head, much of his journals that Shepard chose to share were enlightening, especially his later somewhat prophetic writings on other writers around him such as Emerson and Thoreau.

Gaining perspective

West also believed that Bronson had trouble finding perspective on himself and lacked a sense of humor. It is unfortunate that it took so long for him to learn how to write so that others could understand what he meant. I believe that as he got older and experienced death and loss in his family, that he gained that perspective.

More to come!

My thanks again to Kristi for these notes. More to come as I discuss the presentations of Anne-laure François, John Matteson and Olivia Milch. Stay tuned!

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Summer Conversational Series 2014 Tuesday Sessions: the visuals of Little Women and a lost fantasy

My thanks to Kristi Martin for taking notes and providing pictures for these sessions. Tuesday, July 15 featured Beverly Lyons Clark, Lauren Rizzuto and Kyoko Amano.

Disclaimer: Since I was not there to hear the presentations, I am inserting my interpretation of the notes. Hopefully they are accurate!

Beverly Lyons Clark “The Vortex or the House? Visualizing Jo’s Genius”

the afterlife of little womenBeverly Clark is a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. Her previous work on Alcott includes co-editing Little Women and the Feminist Imagination and editing Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews. Her latest work, The Afterlife of Little Women, will be forthcoming later this year. This book is available on Amazon for pre-sale. (Biography provided by Orchard House).

Clark’s presentation, “The Vortex or the House? Visualizing Jo’s Genius” was illustrated by a vast array of images which were passed around to the audience, thus hampering our note-taker’s efforts to capture some of the presentation. Understandable. :-)

560 beverly clarkClark discussed the idea of genius as divinely inspired, fitting into the newer idea of genius as something working in collaboration with the Creator. Transcendentalism promoted the idea of the solitary genius, something we see illustrated with Jo March in the garret writing away with her pet rat at her heel. Clark saw the vortex as the space in which Jo (and Louisa) could write. These and other romantic tropes such as genius as a type of possession were discussed.

Clark offered up the idea of genius working through community. This is certainly evident in the Alcott household where the sharing of journals was commonplace. Raised on that kind of openness, Louisa often shared her writings with her family, most notably her first novel Moods which she dubbed her “first child,” a work she literally poured herself into through a lengthy vortex.

Clark passed around illustrations from Little Women showed many different aspects of Louisa’s genius of the story, along with the viewpoint of the illustrators themselves. May Alcott’s drawings were not always accurate (and not just because of her lack of skill in proportion and anatomy at the time); Clark maintained that she rewrote the story or at least not always in unity with it. Curiously there are no drawings of Jo writing.

Hammatt Billings’ illustrations evoke the disarray of the vortex while Frank Merrill’s convey humor and drama. Louisa felt they lacked in expression.

There were different front pieces to the book, sometimes the sisters with Marmee, other times without. The theme, however, was the same: family connectedness and the glorification of domesticity. It was hard to tell if the house images were generic or were based upon Orchard House.

Finally, Clark examined photographs of Louisa, noting that the side views gestured toward the genius. What do you think?

Lauren Rizzuto “Illustrating Artists, Louisa, May, Jo and Amy”

Lauren Rizzuto currently teaches part-time at Simmons College, where in 2012 she earned the MA degree in Children’s Literature. Her presentation for this year’s Conversational Series grows from her earlier research, in which she explored how Little Women negotiates the expectations of two literary genres: the künstlerroman and the sentimental novel. Currently, Lauren is working on a new piece of scholarship — Alcott in the fan fiction domain — which will appear in an edited collection for Salem Press’ Critical Insights series of 2014. (Biography from Orchard House)

560 Lauren RizzutoRizzuto also looked at the illustrating of Little Women. The 1868 frontpiece shows the familial intimacy of the mothers and daughters tethered together (physically touching). A 1962 edition has Amy apart, and reaching out as if drawing or painting the others. This highlighted Amy (rather than Jo) as the artist and was connected to the art of illustrating.

Jo and Amy were compared as artists, judging success by how much the artist was able to exceed her gender role and help support the family. Jo was deemed the more successful as shown in two successive chapters: Amy casts her foot in plaster; Jo’s vortex produces a story. In the end the story wins a monetary reward, which is then helpful to the family. While the family is integral to artistic expression, success in the end depends upon financial reward.

It has been argued however that Amy was more subversive than Jo and the better artist because she did not need parental approval not the stamp of legitimacy that financial gain brings. She has autonomy and artistic independence.

During the question and answer period Rizzuto defended the value of sentimentality as a valid artistic form, citing Hospital Sketches as the example, demonstrating the power of the story because of sentiment. Since sentiment is usually dismissed in proper literary critique, this was an interesting defense.

Kyoko Amano “Creative and Marketing Genius of Louisa May Alcott: From Jamie’s Wonder Book to Will’s Wonder Book”

Kyoko Amano serves as Chair of the English Department at the University of Indianapolis. Her areas of specialization include Louisa May Alcott and her contemporary, Horatio Alger, Jr. Kyoko lives in Greencastle, IN, with her husband and dog. (Biography provided by Orchard House)

560 kyoto anamoAmano used her presentation to compare the never-published Jamie’s Wonder Book (manuscript at Houghton Library) to Will’s Wonder Book. The former was lost by William Ticknor  in 1864; it was found in 1868 and returned to Louisa at her request. She began copying her manuscripts after Jamie’s Wonder Book was lost.

To better understand the systemic change that Louisa brought to children’s literature, Amano covered the history of Nathanial Hawthorne juvenile works; he was more interested in fantasy and Gothic than in the conventions of didactic children’s literature (though he ghost wrote for Peter Parley). Hawthorne is considered the “father of the American Literary Fairytale.” Eustice Bright narrated stories to children. Louisa uses the authentic voice of children to allow for direct interaction with the reader. It was a remarkable breakthrough demonstrated by the amazing number of books sold, especially to young readers.

Both Jamie’s Wonder Book and Will’s Wonder Book tells different versions of  an ant story. In Jamie it is fanciful with the ant relating its story to the child. In Will the Grandmother tells about the ants in scientific detail. Amano believes that had Jamie’s Wonder Book been published, it might have been the work that transformed children’s literature.

Jamie was written when Louisa was twenty-eight, soon after Flower Fables. It was a more innocent time before Louisa began writing in a more realistic voice. The fancy that she exhibited in Jamie and in Flower Fables would continue in her children’s short stories but perhaps lose some of its shimmer because of a woman chastened by the hardships of adulthood and the duty applied to writing children’s literature. Louisa was often conflicted between the money that children’s literature brought in versus the desire to write her great American adult novel.

Coming up …

Regrettably, I do not have any coverage of the Wednesday sessions but I did attend the sessions on Thursday. That post (or series of posts) will come during this week.

One of the Tuesday presenters, Kristi Martin, graciously sent me a copy of her paper which contains some wonderful new insights on both Elizabeth and May Alcott.  Those series of posts will appear after the Thursday sessions.

So, there is a lot more yet to come! Stay tuned …
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Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – the role of Faust

560 steve burby1Continuing with the Monday sessions, Dr. Stephen Burby was a new face on the scene. He currently teaches English in Brentwood, NY and has authored of AP English Language and Composition: An Apex Learning Guide (2004 and 2005 editions) as well as contributing to the production of editions in Barron’s No-Fear Shakespeare series and to their latest edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Faust, Goethe and Louisa

His topic, “Goethe and the Transcendendalists: How Faust Shaped the American Renaissance” traced the history of the Faust myth from its beginnings and through its evolution by the pens of Christopher Marlow, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and finally, Louisa May Alcott.

The myth, the man, the devil

faust and the devilThrough the characters of Johann Faust and the Devil (aka Mephistopheles), the myth began as a folk tale that was used by the Church (mainly the Calvinists) to warn the faithful against the intellectuals and the idea of the individual which could lead anyone into hell. Aimed at the working man, Burby described how the people wanted a “quick laugh”, a “quick tear” and the didactic lesson. In other words, keep it simple. Faust therefore represented the everyman; his fate could be anyone’s fate.

The story

So what did Faust do? Desiring youth and wealth, he sold his soul to the devil in return for twenty-seven years of youth and the “good life.” In the end the devil would have his way with Faust torn to shreds and his soul carted away to hell.

Not exactly subtle, but it served the particular historical period from which it came.

Deeper meaning

560 steve burby2Burby maintains that Faust speaks to us universally which is why the tale was explored more deeply and expanded, first by Christopher Marlowe and then by Goethe.

Marlowe’s take

Marlowe changed the legend in a subtle way by exploring the inner turmoil of Faust who comes to regret his bargain with the devil. The ending remained the same but the torture of Faust was more profound.

Goethe deepens the myth

Goethe took the story a step further. Burby suggested that Goethe was one of the “rock stars” of the era because of his poetry. By the time he took on Faust, it had lived out its usefulness and was often viewed as parody. By using Faust as the jumping off point, he transformed the legend using Faust and the devil as metaphors for striving versus stasis. Goethe not only has Faust repenting of his sin of bargaining with the devil, he also allows Faust to escape his fate. His point was to promote the idea that striving for knowledge, both for the mind and of the self, was important. Stasis was considered “evil” because of its prevention of indivdiual growth and creativity. This was the emerging German romanticism which eventually made its way over to New England, spawning the Transcendentalist movement.

Faust’s salvation and God’s role

Burby described the eternal feminine in the character of Gretchen whom Faust was madly in love with. It is through Gretchen that Faust finds his salvation. Burby also mentioned the comparison between this version of the legend and the story of Job in the Old Testament. In both cases, God makes a deal with the devil regarding the victim. God puts his stamp of approval on both Job and Faust thus justifying the need for struggle and striving.

Thus the legend of Faust has moved from concrete to the symbolic. What did Louisa do with the story?

A pleasure to indulge

Louisa enjoyed writing her “trash,” her potboilers, giving her a chance to express a side of herself she could not express in public. It was a creative vent for her passion, anger, sense of injustice, and for romance.

Two stories based on the myth

long fatal love chase2She devoted two books to the subject of Faust: A Long, Fatal Love-Chase and A Modern Mephistopheles. In each case she wrote about Faustian bargain more explicitly. The latter was discovered in the 1990s and published to great success; the story had been considered too risqué in Louisa’s time. In the story, Rosamond makes a deal with the devil for a year of adventure and Phillip Tempest comes along. When she realizes she cannot save him, she seeks to escape him. The novel turns from the legend to a gothic chase in which the heroine dies in the end. Phillip however suffers the harsher fate knowing he will never be reunited with his lover again.

The most lurid of them all

a modern mephistophelesA Modern Mephistopheles was published anonymously as part of a series in 1877, allowing Louisa to indulge in the lurid which she so enjoyed. The story deals with lust, deception and greed, touching on the controversial with references to sexuality and drug use, the deal is made between the starving poet Felix Canaris and the devil, Jaspar Hellwyze. The poet becomes celebrated and then lives a desolute life. It turns out he never wrote the poetry in the first place so he takes his name off the volume to free himself. The devil falls in love with the poet’s wife Gladys and feels remorse over the havoc he caused.

How much of Louisa was in the story?

Burby posed an interesting question: could A Modern Mephistopheles be about Louisa and her art? Do each of the four central characters represent parts of her whole?

As masculinity was thought to have created evil, it was also believed that it needed to be tempered by the eternal feminine. Louisa, being “masculine” in her thinking, often longing to be a boy, was right in the middle of this conflict. Her father complicated matters by exhibiting more feminine traits than his daughter. While I haven’t read A Modern Mephistopheles it would be interesting to approach it with this thought in mind.

Needless to say, Dr. Burby challenged all of us with his excellent and spirited presentation.

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Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

I am grateful to be able to attend again the annual Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this year. The theme concerns talent versus genius, and the abundance of genius that existed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

I was not able to take in all five days of the series but I will present the speakers that I was fortunate enough to see.

Was Louisa a genius?

Was Louisa May Alcott a genius or merely a crackerjack professional writer? Was she both? These questions and more were explored during Monday’s session.

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

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Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

The first speaker was a perennial favorite, Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. Dr. Davis probably knows Louisa’s juvenile canon better than anyone with a particular emphasis on her numerous short stories.

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

Dr. Davis is passionate about elevating children’s literature to the level of respect it deserves by highlighting its most prominent authors. Dr. Davis maintained in her presentation “Is it Talent or Genius?” that Louisa’s unique genius was the ability to get inside the mind of the child and voice that child’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Before Louisa, children’s literature presented all-too-perfect children presenting moral teaching through stilted dialog. Dr. Davis compared a sample from Nathanial Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales of a twelve year old’s conversation (stiff, formal, full of long words and complex sentences) to Louisa’s An Old-Fashioned Girl featuring childish conversation laced with slang and grammatical errors; in other words, the way children of that era really talked.

Examples from Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis spelled out the qualities of talent and of genius, displaying them on a poster (see photo). She then took several examples from Louisa’s books and short stories to illustrate. These included Amy and Laurie from Little Women, Rose, Charlie, Phoebe and Mac from Rose in Bloom, Psyche and her little sister from the short story “Pysche’s Art,” Clara from “A Bright Idea” (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Volume V), and Diana and Persis. As you can see from the photo, she listed who she thought had talent and who possessed genius.

560 talent versus genius

 

Louisa herself is on that list.

Louisa’s genius was her genuine love of children, her commitment to truthfulness and accuracy, and her passion. She respected children, never writing “down” to them. These qualities were instantly recognized by her adoring public with the first publication of volume one of Little Women.

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis concluded that Louisa wrote extensively on the subjects of talent and genius. She remarked that preparing for this presentation, she realized that Rose in Bloom is not just about romance but about discovering one’s talent, determining whether or not it is genius, and using it to benefit others. While Louisa did often focus on the fine art talents of music, acting, dancing and painting, she also pointed out those talents which often go unnoticed – the talents for helping others which Rose displayed so well in the story.

True confession

rose in bloomI have a confession to make which has probably been obvious to you who read this blog regularly: I enjoy writing about Louisa more than writing about her books and stories. It is an odd disconnect, one that I am seeking to correct. Having listened to Dr. Davis’s presentation (and later having the pleasure of conversing with her over dinner), I have a better sense of what to look for when I read Louisa’s juvenile works. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into her writing.

You all of course have always known that. I felt that way about Little Women despite Louisa’s protestations about having to write it. Perhaps the author doth protest too much?

Needless to say, I have much catching up to do and a pleasant task it will be!

More to come …

In my next post I will present more about the other presenters in Monday’s session.

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In search of Bronson Alcott’s birthplace

I am pleased to present this guest post by Laurel Langdon who has discovered the exact location of Bronson Alcott’s birthplace.

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Nagging question. Did anyone really know where Bronsons birthplace was? Numerous biographies vaguely mentioned Wolcott or Spindle Hill Connecticut.

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I live in Darien CT and recently drove one hour north to visit the Wolcott Historical Society. I was greeted by a wonderful woman who informed me that she knew the exact location. Spindlehill is a portion of Wolcott and the family home had been at the corner where Spindlehill and Beach Roads meet. She said the address of 348 Beach Rd. would get me there directly. Although there is a modern farmhouse on the property, I was excited to see a plaque marking the spot.

plaqueThis area is now very urban surrounded by subdivision houses. It is extremely hilly and rocky. It is a steep drive up Beach Road. Louisa accompanied Bronson to this site in September 1882. I pity the poor horse that pulled that carriage.

There is a wonderful article about this place if you visit the home page of Wolcotthistory.org . Tap on “history” that leads to a series of articles. Tap on the Amos Bronson Alcott article and it will display an extensive history complete with an old postcard of the old farm.

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