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


An interview with Amy Belding Brown, author of Mr. Emerson’s Wife

1. What inspired you to write a fictional account of Lidian and Waldo Emerson?

It took me a long time to decide to write a nocel about Lidian and Waldo.  At first, I just had a lot of questions about Lidian, especially about why she was relatively absent from so many biographies of her husband, so I did a lot of research just to satisfy my curiosity.  Then I began writing poems about Lidian, and short fictional scenes.  When I finally realized I really wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about Lidian, I discussed my options with my agent, and she was the one who encouraged me to write a fictional account rather than straight biography, because that’s what I most enjoy writing.

2. Is Mr. Emerson’s Wife your first book? What made you decide to take on such a project and how long did it take to research and write it?

Actually I wrote several novels before I wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife. Most of them weren’t very good, but a couple were published as light-weight romances back in the 1980’s when my children were young.  (They’re out of print now.)  Mr. Emerson’s Wife was my first foray into historical fiction and I became totally obsessed with it.  I loved doing the research and weaving it into scenes that made the characters come alive in my head and on the page.  I guess the only reason I took it on was because it was so absorbing and after awhile I beame obsessed with bringing Lidian out of the shadows.  It took me about nine years to research and write and revise – but of course I was doing other things, too, including getting my MFA degree.
3. Does a fictional account require the same level of research that a non-fiction or biographical account requires? How is it different writing a novel versus a biography?

Well, I haven’t written a straight biography, but I would say that a good work of historical fiction requires nearly as much research as a biography does.  One difference is that, as a novelist, I let my curiosity lead me.  And, of course, I also allowed my imagination to “fill in the cracks” of the historical record.  There’s so much of anyone’s life that’s hidden from public view, and, while the non-fiction historian can speculate, he or she must be very cautious about putting out information that isn’t documented or verified.   I tried to stay within the historical record for the most part, but I allowed myself to fully imagine many details of personal relationships that were never documented.

4. The balance between sticking to the facts and venturing into your imagination must be delicate. What gives you the confidence to take off from the facts into your imagination?

I don’t know if it’s confidence or folly.  :-) Seriously, though, I think it’s simply the novelist’s drive to fully understand the characters – from the inside out.  I think many of us, when we read a biography on someone who interests us, do the same thing, though we may not think of it as fictionalizing.  For example, we may read about the Alcott family moving so often from one place to another and think about the toll that took on Mrs. Alcott – we may imagine how exhausted she must have been, perhaps as we recall our own experiences of moving.  So my “confidence” comes from a belief that the human experience is universal and that we can understand each other (over time and space) by extraoplating from our own experience and empathizing with someone in different circumstances.  In other words,  putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – which is, fundamentally, an act of the imagination.  (And also a spiritual discipline, in my opinion.)
5. Mr. Emerson’s Wife was more than a love story or a story of fancy about famous real-life characters. What other elements did you weave into the story? For example, was it a commentary on marriage?

Yes, I conceived it as the story of a long-term marriage.  A story about how a woman negotiates the disappointments and challenges of marriage over time.  One thing that struck me as I researched and wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife, was that these people – just like us – changed over time.  So evaluative statements about them may only apply to a few years of their lives.  And I believe the same was true of the  Emerson’s marriage – some biographers say it was “happy” – and I think that is basically true of its last two decades.  But it was pretty rocky from about 1837 to 1850.  In fact, I think Lidian and Waldo might likely have separated if they’d lived in another time and place.

The other thing the book is about is Lidian’s inner conflict.  It’s the same fundamental conflict reflected in Little Women (which is why I think Louisa May Alcott’s book is timeless) – the conflict between domesticity and independence, between a woman’s mind and her heart.  I frankly think this is an inner conflict for most women, even today.  I don’t see Lidian as just a victim of her husband’s domination.   (In fact, Emerson was, for his day, unsually respectful of women.)  But I think she struggled with herself – torn between what she felt was her “duty” and what she felt as her “calling.”  Brenda Ueland, in the 1930’s addressed this issue when she wrote (addressing women), “Menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the Holy Ghost.”  But how many of us put aside our creative work to clean the bathtub?  We may have shining tubs, but at what cost?

6. Have you written a new book? What is it about and when can we expect to see it?

I have written a new novel.  It’s set in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War in 1676, and revolves around the story of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity by Native Americans at war with the English settlers and her reentry into Puritan society.  One of the reasons I wanted to write about the Puritans was to explore the mindset the Transcendentalists were rebelling against.  It turned out to be fascinating.  The manuscript is currently with my agent.

Visit Amy’s website at http://amybeldingbrown.com

Rediscovering the late Madelon Bedell, author of The Alcotts Biography of a Family

I just ordered a bunch of new books and needed to rearrange my book shelves to get everything to fit. In the midst of the rearranging, I pulled out my copy of The Alcotts Biography of a Family and discovered a promotional photo of the author, Madelon Bedell, and an interview released by the publisher’s public relations division. Bedell has been on my mind since I found that her papers are now safe at Orchard House. Her biography of the Alcott family was a powerhouse  – a truly scholarly work published in 1980 that revealed at that time, many new and interesting facts and insights about the family. And yet this work is largely ignored by the public and is out of print (though fortunately available on the internet). Those in the ‘know’ appreciate its worth (and cite her work in theirs); I wanted to introduce you to Ms. Bedell in hopes that some of you will think about reading her book.

It’s tantalizing to think of those papers stored at Orchard House, including the only known interview with May’s daughter, Lulu Nieriker Rasim. Will someone perhaps take those papers and finish the work that Bedell was unable to do? I’d love to see it done . . .

Meanwhile, meet Madelon Bedell.

(This interview was part of a promotional package released by Clarkson N. Potter Inc./distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.)

1.    How did you develop the idea of doing a biography of the Alcotts? And why did you choose to do a family biography instead of concentrating on only one member – Louisa May Alcott, or her father, Bronson Alcott, for instance?

My original idea was to do a series of critical essays on the image of women in the fiction of certain great women authors. I had in mind, Collette, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, and Louisa May Alcott. I decided to start with Alcott because I felt she would be the easiest to handle.

I found her life to be so fascinating that I decided to do a biography of her instead. As part of my research, I began also to study her father, Bronson Alcott. I found him so fascinating that I changed my mind again, and decided to do a dual, father-daughter biography. I worked on this project for some time, but I found it impossible to keep my spotlight focused on these two and their relationship with each other. The other Alcotts kept crowding in. Especially Abby Alcott, the mother, who would not stay in the minor role I had assigned to her, but insisted on intruding herself at nearly every point, sometimes overwhelming the action. After about two years of this kind of struggle, I gave in and decided to do the entire family.

2.    In your prologue, you state: “To find oneself in the lives of other people, long dead, why is this so entrancing an idea? It is the same for both reader and writer of biography, I am convinced: the need for self-validation . . .” If this means that biography explains ourselves to ourselves, how does the Alcott family explain the modern American family?

First of all in many specific ways. There are Bronson’s “infant diaries,” those astonishing records of his pioneering practices in child rearing, which forecast those of today. There’s the marriage of Bronson and Abby, both powerful personalities, a union of peers, in every way; unique then, still unusual today. And the all-female family with its ideals of feminism and independence for the daughters, all that is very modern.

But beyond that, the history of the Alcotts – which turns at every point, on the struggle to maintain the family unity against an inimical society – explains the ideal by which we measure our own families: the American family as a “haven in a heartless world.” Many of our strictures against the contemporary family stem from our disappointment in its failures to meet that ideal, I believe.

Moreover, the basic theme of the book – Bronson Alcott’s struggle against his family – his individualism versus their communalism – is a very modern one. The desire of each member for personal fulfillment meets up with and often must contend with the needs of the family as a whole – don’t we all face this problem, parents and children alike?

3.    The Alcott family history is supposed to be the true story behind the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Exactly how close is the book to real life?

Astoundingly so. The cast of characters is the same. Just substitute Bronson and Abby Alcott and their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and Abbie May, for the Reverend and Mrs. March and their four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. There’s hardly an incident in Little Women that doesn’t recall or explain an event in the Alcott family.

What’s more interesting, perhaps, are the points where the novel departs from the real life story. There’s a lot of sentimentalization. The Marches aren’t as poor as the Alcotts – they employ a maid, for example. Nor are they are radical in their social views. The crisis in the family life, which occurred when the Englishman, Charles Lane, tried to separate Bronson from his family, is never referred to.

But I think the most important departure from reality is the departure of the father from the book. The figure of Bronson Alcott dominated the Alcott family scene in real life. In the book, the Reverend March is a pale imitation, who isn’t even present most of the time. When Louisa wrote up the family legend, she turned the family into an all-female society headed by a matriarch, thus removing the riveting sexual tensions which permeated the real scene. In Little Women, for all its realism, you have a fantasy – an adolescent fantasy where women never have to deal with the politics and passions of sex as the Alcott women did.

4.    The Alcotts has been cited as a work of unusual scholarship, filled with new material and fresh insights on this family and the nineteenth century in general. What is this new material and how and were did you find it?

All over the place! Basically, however, it’s material on the characters of Bronson and Abby Alcott which throws a new light on their marriage. I found them both to be much larger personalities than had been supposed. Previous biographers, inspired no doubt by Little Women and its (false) relation to the genteel tradition, had cast them as sexless, passive idealists, who weren’t very interesting.

But I found Bronson to be a driven person, obsessed by sex, who sometimes wrote erotic poetry and conceived a passion in middle age for a woman half his age, Ednah Littlehale; and before that may have had a homosexual attraction toward his English follower, Charles Lane, which, incidentally, his wife was aware of. And Abby herself, her feminism, her radical social theories, her drive for power, her unusual gift for love, all that is exposed for the first time, too.

As for the material behind this – it’s all in their diaries and letters, some 200 volumes of them, stored all these years at Harvard University. You can’t just skim these, unfortunately, but must turn yourself over to them, become the person yourself as you read him or her, and live with them, as they were in their times.

But, then must discard about 90% of all that wonderful material you have discovered, push aside those note cards – keeping them only for reference – and write the story as if it had come from your own mind, fresh and new. To be able to do that is the real challenge of biography.

5.    Your book deals with the various social movements of the nineteenth century of New England – feminism, health reform, the advent of child psychology and the cult of the child, Transcendentalism, the anti-slavery movement, utopian socialism, progressive education. What among these has survived today?

You’ve just named them all. The first half of the nineteenth century was the time when American liberal ideology was formulated. All these movements and the ideas of human growth and liberation, which they represent, were born then.

Our history goes in cycles and so these ideas are apt to go underground for a while and then surge forward again. The 1960’s were almost a repeat of the 1840’s, for example. The movement against the Vietnam War was characterized by the same moral fervor as was the anti-slavery movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The scene at the end of The Alcotts when Bronson Alcott takes part in the storming of the state house to rescue a runaway slave might well have taken place in the 1960’s – just substitute a draft register for a slave and the action and all the tumultuous feelings surrounding it are the same.

Or take such ideas as the current interest in holistic medicine. Except in its details it might be a replay of the health reform movement of the 1800’s in which the Alcotts were active. So, too, with feminism (Abby Alcott headed up a petition for women’s suffrage) and of course utopian socialism. Bronson Alcott’s commune at Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, was a forerunner of similar groups that exist today.

6.    This is the first volume of your biography of the Alcotts. What will the second book be, and how will you approach it?

This first book deals primarily with the marriage of Bronson and Abby Alcott, and the childhood of the four daughters. The father is the central character (although the mother is the hero), and the theme is the founding of a family – the creation of a legend.

The next volume will deal with the adult lives of the four daughters, and focus on Louisa. The first book was also a social history of the antebellum – pre-Civil War – period in New England. The next one will be a similar account of the postwar period, showing how all those reform movements we talked about in the previous question, were overcome in the baronial capitalism of the Gilded  Age: how Bronson Alcott’s spiritual transcendentalism evolved into his daughter Louisa’s quite material, albeit enlightened capitalism.

7.    Which member of the Alcott family is your favorite?

If I had one, I would never tell anyone, not even myself. A biographer is like a parent. He/she must never play favorites, or the goal – the lives to be nourished and developed – will be lost.

The Alcotts Biography of a Family in hardcover was 416 pages in length and sold for $15.95. I wonder what the price would have been today . . .