Why Louisa May Alcott has Dorothea Dix to thank for her nursing career

Here’s an interesting article about Dorothea Dix, the powerhouse behind the organizatio of women nurses for the Civil War (the first time women were allowed to serve as nurses). Louisa May Alcott served under Dix:

“ . . . Thirty-year-old Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women who nursed at Union Hospital in Washington, admired [Dorothea] Dix but steered clear of her personally, admitting that “no one likes her and I don’t wonder.”

Here’s the link to the full article by Judith Giesberg of the New York Times:
Ms. Dix Comes to Washington.

Louisa’s first successful book, Hospital Sketches, was based upon her experiences as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, DC. She also wrote other essays and stories based upon her Civil War experiences which is compiled in a book called Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War (contains Hospital Sketches).

For those of you who live within earshot of Concord, there’s a free lecture taking place at The Wayside (next door to Orchard House) on May 25 at 7 pm called “Writing the Civil War.” Check out the Events page for details (scroll down to MASSACHUSETTS). I hope to attend, maybe I’ll see some of you there! While the subject matter is of great interest, seeing The Wayside is just as much of a draw since so much of Little Women was based on Louisa’s life at that house (formerly known as Hillside).

An Old-Fashioned Girl circa 1926

My book arrived yesterday in the mail and I was so happy to have it back in my library! I look forward to reading this book. It seems so appropriate to have an 85 year-old copy of a book with the title, An Old-Fashioned Girl. I’ve assembled all the illustrations into a slide show; they are drawn by Eleanore Abbott. Beautiful plates very typical for that era.  Here’s a little information from her from this website which also has more of her illustrations:

Elenore Plaisted was born in Lincoln, Maine, in 1875, later marrying Yarnell Abbott. She studied in Pennsylvia and Paris before entering the famous Drexel Institute in 1899, where she studied with Howard Pyle. Her illustrations appeared in many magazines of the time, such as Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Magazine, and Scribner’s. She also illustrated books such as Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island, Johann David Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson, Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl, and did a color treament of Tenniel’s engravings for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And, of course, Grimm’s Fairy Tales. She combined a childlike, vigorous imagination with a surpassing skill with watercolors. She died in 1935, and we wish we knew more about her.

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Yay, I’m so excited!

I found something wonderful today and it makes up for something dumb that I did last year, before I started this blog, and before I knew just how passionate I was about Louisa May Alcott.

My sister, brother and I spent last spring cleaning out our parents’ house and in the course of things, we gave away some books . . . can you guess the dumb thing I did? Yup, I gave away my mother’s copy of Louisa’s An Old Fashioned Girl! It was a beautiful book with a color cover and color plates, dating back to the 1920’s. I can’t believe I gave it away and it’s haunted me ever since. I never thought I’d see it again . . .

Until now! I found it online and it wasn’t expensive either. I bought it and I can’t wait for it to arrive. :-) The owner posted a bunch of pictures:

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While it’s not my mom’s copy, it’s just like hers and so appropriate that it come on the eve of the anniversary of her passing. Thanks Mommy!

The essence of Fruitlands: a return to the Garden of Eden

Note: the following post is based upon the introduction to Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia by Richard Francis, pages 2-11). Anything that has been italicized is my own conclusion, not Francis’. I will be including thoughts that I have as it relates to my understanding of Christianity and how it relates to Transcendentalism. Remember that I am no expert! Your thoughts and comments would be most helpful to my understanding and the accuracy of these posts. Thanks!

Continuing my study (and struggling to understand) in this public forum . . .

Fruitlands was an effort to create Utopia by returning to the Garden of Eden. Transcendental thinkers Bronson Alcott in Massachusetts and James Pierrepont Greaves in England both felt that man could achieve the Garden of Eden (redemption) again through diet and high-minded ideals (note that this is totally bypassing the whole idea of the need for God’s grace with regards to redemption). In essence, man comes back to total union with God entirely through his own efforts, the complete opposite of what Christianity teaches.

How did Alcott and Greaves see the story of the Garden of Eden? Francis in Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia maintains the following:

  • The story of Genesis was taken literally. Adam and Eve were real, they were our first parents.
  • The world of Genesis was depicted as perfect, where man was pristine, innocent and one with nature (notice no mention of being one with God)
  • The Fall of Man took place because (are you ready?) man ate the wrong food! If this dietary slip-up could be rectified (by avoiding cooked food such as meat; dairy products, tea, coffee and alcohol; only living on fruit, raw vegetables and water), the Garden could be reinstated and people would become perfect again. (There is no mention of the fact that Adam and Eve broke relations with God because they did what He asked them not to do – eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There is no mention of the pride of Man nor his desire to become like God (the essence of the temptation from the serpent)).
  • Society as it stood was not worth replacing; it had to be reinvented. Thus, the idea of a Utopian society (a new Garden of Eden) was born.
  • Eden then was to be reclaimed by an austere manner of living, eating and thinking. (It was not achieved by depending upon the grace of God, but upon the will of the individual).
  • The desire was to become one again with nature as the belief was that all things are interconnected. Connection with nature equaled connection with God.

The question I have is this: did Transcendentalists like Alcott and Greaves feel that being one with nature (and thus one with the Divine) made them equal with the Divine because they were one?

Why did people such as Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson explore this entirely different way of thinking? Francis maintains that Transcendentalism had its roots in religious controversy (Calvinism was giving way to Unitarianism but the Transcendentalists wanted to go further – more on this in future posts). The movement also was reacting to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of cities  leading to people’s alienation from their natural surroundings (causing social injustice, poverty and environmental deterioration).

Transcendentalism was in itself, a revolution of thought. Many of these thoughts could be termed “crazy” but beneath that craziness, there’s more than a shred of truth.  Francis does a magnificent job of pulling out that truth. I shake my head while I read, incredulous at the absurdity of the ideas, and then I have an “ahh” moment when Francis unearths the truth behind the absurdity.

He believes that many ideas acted out at Fruitlands are relevant today such as environmental concerns, the interconnectedness of all things, opposition to slavery, women’s rights and the belief in civil disobedience.

Hoping this post makes sense; despite all the notetaking, this stuff is pretty hard to work through. Your comments would be most appreciated, especially if I am misunderstanding something!

Diving into Transcendentalism via Fruitlands

Talk about jumping off a cliff! That’s what I feel like I’ve done with Richard Francis’ Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia . I wanted to learn more about Transcendentalism and feel like I’m practically drowning in it. But oh is it ever interesting!

Disclaimer: I am writing as a student, just learning. I am hardly an expert on Transcendentalism!

Transcendentalist thinking can be quite incoherent at times. Francis has a wonderful way of taking their way of thinking and summing it up on one pithy concluding sentence often punctuated with his dry wit. Because of this, I have a greater understanding (though I may still have trouble writing about it!).

The idea of Fruitlands developed in a fascinating way through connections made between Europe and New England. Here are the main players:

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And here are the main points:

  • Beginning with German philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, the movement germinates in England with James Pierrepont Greaves, Henry Gardiner Wright, William Oldham and Charles Lane.
  • Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson has rejected Unitarianism for a different way of thinking and Bronson Alcott has founded Temple School, based upon this same Pestalozzi.
  • Alcott releases his book about Temple School (thanks to the hard work of his unpaid assistant Elizabeth Peabody) called Record of a School ; this is how Greaves learns of the school. As the Temple School is failing (due in part to the release of a second controversial book, Conservations with Children on the Gospels), Greaves writes to Alcott.
  • Greaves, having been totally taken with Alcott’s work with the Temple School, developes his own school, naming it Alcott House, and invites Alcott to England to see for himself. Francis writes:

[Greaves writes to Alcott] ” . . . thus triggering a transatlantic cross-fertilization of ideas that ultimately led to Lane and Wright joining
forces with Alcott in Massachusetts to conduct their experiment in
living a good life.”
(page 5, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia)

  • Thus, the founding of Fruitlands.

You may notice a use of words in this post relating to plants and vegetation (“germinates”, “cross-fertilization”) – this is no accident. In the next post, I’ll get into how much Transcendentalism was based on plants and vegetation, and why becoming a vegan was such an important part of it, especially for Bronson Alcott.

As crazy as Transcendental thought can sound, there are some interesting truths in it and many parallels (albeit contorted) between it and Christianity.  Francis’ book makes a case for the relevancy of Fruitlands in its recognition of the worth of the vegetarian diet and in caring for the land which we’ll get into in future posts.

Bronson Alcott continues to be the most confusing and difficult character I have ever come across. His brilliance as a thinker is offset by his overt narcissism, causing a criminal neglect of his family’s needs. He is the man I love to hate to love, if that makes any sense! :-)

More information about Orchard House’s centennial celebration

Here’s an article from Boston.com about the upcoming celebration of Orchard House’s 100th birthday as a moment to the Alcott family:

By Sarah Thomas, Town Correspondent

The Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association is celebrating its centennial anniversary, marking 100 years since the group formed to purchase and restore the beloved Concord author’s home of Orchard House.

Celebrations will kick off this July, with a weeklong conversation series featuring local authors, and continue to the official 100th anniversary next year of the grand opening of Orchard House, according to a release from the association . . .

Continue reading by clicking this link

The picture is just a thumbnail of the much bigger picture on the site. One of these people is directly related to Louisa. Check out the picture on the site and see if you can guess which one . . .

This 10th grader gets an “A” in my book

Check out this industrious teenager! Theresa Schafer, a midwest 10th grade student, has developed a one woman play highlighting the life of Amos Bronson Alcott and his contributions to education. Teresa plays Louisa and has done exhaustive research on her subject using primary sources. She aims to show how one person can make a difference.

Here’s more information on this industrious, budding historian.

from the Lowell Milken Center website