Happy Birthday Bronson and Louisa!

From Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , pages 48-49 by John Matteson

On N0vember 29, 1832, a half hour past midnight, Abba gave birth fo a second daughter, whom Bronson described as “a very fine healthful child . . . a very find, bat, little creature . . . with a firm constitution for building up a fine character.” . . . Bronson, a man not indifferent to signs and portents, found it “a most interesting event” that Louisa May shared her father’s birthday, entering the world on the day he turned thirty-three . . . Was there to be, perhaps, a supernatural bond between that, from the first, transcended that of father and daughter?

From Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women
(Chapter 18 “More Courage and Patience”) by Harriet Reisen

Kneeling by his bedside, she [Louisa] took his hand, kissed it, and placed in it pansies she had brought, saying “It is “Weedy”(her pet name). Then after a moment of silence she asked: “What are you thinking of, dear?” He replied, looking upward, “Up there; you come too!” Then with a kiss she said, “I wish I could go” . . . [Two days later, Louisa joined him.]

Indeed, quite a bond! Happy birthday, Bronson and Louisa. Your lives made a difference to me and so many others. Thank you.

A peak into my mother’s childhood through Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag

After my reading of “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” I decided to dig deeper into Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag and the stories my mother cherished as a young girl.

What I thought would be just light-hearted reading has become a poignant and very enjoyable journey into the past where I am coming to know my mother as a little girl.

“Jimmy’s Cruise in the Pinafore”

The first story in the collection is “Jimmy’s Cruise in the Pinafore.” It’s the story of a poor boy in Boston who has only his mother and sister Kitty. Kitty has been ill and desperately needs to get to the country so she can recover, and the family cannot afford to take her. Their mother works night and day as a seamstress. Jimmy decides to run off to sea so that he can earn the money needed to send Kitty to the country. However, good fortune comes his way: his dear friend Willy (a girl) informs him that the local theater company is auditioning children for their latest production of  “H. M. S. Pinafore” and that they would pay each child $10 per week to be in the production. Jimmy’s heart leaps for joy: $10 a week! He is a good singer, often singing to his sister to comfort her. He tries out and along with Willy, gets into the production. The children have the time of their lives and Kitty makes it to the country with Jimmy’s earnings and gets well again.

This is a very sweet story. Louisa has a way of writing that really tugs at the heart. She paints Jimmy’s despair over Kitty so poignantly and it warmed my heart to see a brother’s concern for his sister.

I loved thinking about the “H. M. S. Pinafore” production as I participated years ago in another famous Gilbert and Sullivan production, “The Pirates of Penzance” (I was in the chorus).

“The Dolls’ Journey from Minnesota to Maine”

The second story is called “The Dolls’ Journey from Minnesota to Maine” and I knew right away this story would have especially appealed to my mother as she loved her dolls.

In this story, the children send their dolls to their aunt as an adventure for the dolls, with the idea that they (Dora and Flora) would return with many tales to tell. Here Louisa really taps into the imagination as the dolls tell of their long and winding road to Aunt Maria via a mailbag on the train, and many mishaps along the way. Louisa has the letters and parcels “talking” with the dolls and that thought just delighted me. Just imagine how much a letter or parcel would have to say could they talk!

In their journey, the dolls meet with many children, one in particular being Midge, a poor child who is dying in the hospital. Again, Louisa’s writing just shines describing this poor girl and I was in tears reading about Midge’s tender care for the dolls despite her illness.

I appreciate how Louisa doesn’t spare children from the harsh realities of life, yet all the while she feeds a child’s imagination.

I haven’t read anything like that since I was a child but I sure wish I had known about these stories when I was a child. My favorite friends were the ones with the wild imaginations (one of them grew up to be the mystery writer Kate Ross). Stories like “The Dolls’ Journey” opens your mind to that kind of flight.

Louisa shows a real understanding of what make children tick even though she hadn’t received Lulu yet when she wrote these stories in 1871. I am constantly impressed and amazed at the wide variety of writing she was capable of doing.

I so enjoyed taking this journey into my mother’s young heart and head while reading these stories, and look forward to reading many more.

An Old-Fashioned Louisa May Alcott Thanksgiving

From Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag comes “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” one of many charming short stories Louisa May Alcott wrote after the success of
Little Women.

Story summary

It’s a simple story of a time long ago and far away (very early 19th century), starring a country family in New Hampshire, “poor in money, but rich in land and love …” Familiar themes but I never grow tired of them, especially when the world today is so full of uncertainty and misery.

Takes you to another time

I never was a fan of descriptive writing, wishing instead for the plot line to simply proceed. This story’s descriptions however, folded me into its time and place such that the Bassett farmhouse was a home I truly wanted to visit and live in, even for a short time:

“The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fireplace roared a cheerful fire; on the walls hung garlands of dried apples, onions, and corn; up a loft from the beams shone crook-necked squashes, juicy hams, and dried venison . . . Savory smells were in the air; on the crane hung steaming kettles; and down among the red embers copper saucepans simmered, all suggestive of some approaching feast.”

Dinner with the Bassetts

The story line is simple: Mother and Father are called away suddenly the day before Thanksgiving because Grandma was “failin’ fast,” leaving their 8 children behind. The oldest girls, Tilly and Prue, decide to finish the dinner though they had never made a turkey with stuffing before, nor had they ever cooked plum pudding. All doesn’t turn out perfectly (after all, young inexperienced girls in the kitchen can lead to disaster) but at the end of the day, everyone is happy, warm and fed. And the cooks have much to laugh about.

Personal reflection

The Bassetts are certainly the portrait of an ideal family (rather like the more modern-day Cleavers) with all 8 children getting on well with each other. Everyone is happy and healthy. We all know that moments like this were likely few and far between (and still are).

But in this messy, modern world of broken homes, people out of work, threats looming from abroad, and traditional values seemingly trashed, I found “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” to be the perfect escapist pleasure.

It doesn’t need analysis nor critique – it’s just meant to be enjoyed.

Memories

The copy I have of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag belonged to my mother and dates back to 1929 (with those exquisite 1920s illustrations). As I turned the pages, I thought of my mother turning those same pages while allowing her active imagination to plant her in the midst of the Bassett family and home. She may not be with me anymore but she lives in my heart, my memories, and in her beloved books which now grace my shelves.

You can read “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” in its entirety on Google Books.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!


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DVR Alert!

The 1948 version of Little Women with June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor is showing on Thanksgiving morning at 7:45 am on TCM. Set your alarms (or in my case, the DVR!).


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This question needs your input . . .

I got a fantastic question from Jillian, a good friend of this blog regarding Bronson and Louisa. I’d love your input:

If Bronson Alcott was a follower of Transcendentalism (self-reliance), why does he scold Louisa May for filling her journal with thoughts of self?

 

I have my theory but I’d like to hear yours first. Go for it!

UPDATE: Great answers so far – just had to post this picture in lieu of Julie’s quoting of Emerson.
(picture credit: Christopher Pearse Cranch, Transparent Eyeball (from Emerson’s “Nature”), from Cranch’s “Scraps” book, ink on paper – c. 1839)


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Cooking, and eating, like Louisa May Alcott

I was supposed to go to a wreath-making get-together up in New Hampshire but had to bail out because of family commitments. I was supposed to bring a treat and since the hostess loves Louisa as I do, I thought I’d make Apple Slump as I had found the recipe online.

Here's how it looks before cooking - apples with cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar, covered with a gooey dough mixture. Yum!

Yum, love raw dough!

I decided, what the hey, I’ll try it on my family. Louisa was right – it’s not a particularly glamorous looking treat, but it sure looks good! Especially the dough! :-)

I got recipe from Miss Party’s blog – she says it’s the actual recipe Louisa used – here’s what she wrote:

Louisa May Alcott’s delicious autumn dessert!

Miss Party loves a strong-willed, 19th century woman who can stand on her own two lace-up boots –’cause she paid for them herself! Louisa May Alcott, was just that kind of plain-speaking, hard-working woman and writer. Due to ongoing financial troubles and her own nature, she also spent the better part of her life as the primary caretaker for her beloved parents and sisters.

Here's the finished product.No wonder Louisa called Orchard House "Apple Slump!"

During her years at the Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, where Little Women and many other fine books were written, Louisa often made her delicious Apple Slump dessert from their own apples gathered in the fall. The Alcott family routinely held philosophy discussions over dessert with open-minded friends, philosophers and writers. Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne were all regulars at their dining table. Later in the evening, with the dining room as their stage, Louisa and her sisters performed poetry readings or melodramas written by Louisa, as guests watched from the adjoining parlor.

Miss Party’s loves the imagery of those great thinkers, writers, and poets, men and women, sitting around the table sharing a simple dessert together discussing their lofty thoughts and ideas. She imagines Louisa in some lively discussion with her good friend, Thoreau, every time she prepares her Apple Slump. Perhaps this perfect autumn dessert will have you espousing something witty at your next dinner party, too!

“Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.” ~ Louisa May Alcott

Go to Miss Party’s site for the receipt and enjoy!
(permanent link can also be found on the Other Sites of Interest page)


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The rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott, part 1 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson has to be one of the most elegant and thoughtful books I have ever read. Matteson is the first Alcott biographer who truly seems to understand the spiritual life and that insight produces a deeper and different view of Bronson Alcott.

I have read as far as the end of the Fruitlands experiment and have taken pages and pages of notes (and I must be a real geek because it has been so fun!). In the reading I’ve done so far, I have viewed through Matteson’s eyes, the rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott. I have also come to appreciate this decidedly difficult and complex man in a whole new way.

Matteson taps into the soul of Bronson Alcott and actually makes him attractive.

The brilliance of this book

This paragraph from the prologue sums up for me why this book is brilliant:

“For Louisa well as for Bronson, life was a persistent but failed quest for perfection. First, she was to labor vainly to conquer her fierce temper and stubborn willfulness, trying to find the paradise that her father always swore lay within her. Then she would struggle to bring happiness and comfort to a family continually besieged by want. Later, she would go to war, doing all in her power, if not to make America a paradise, then at least to make it a place where all people would be free. Still later, as a novelist, she would strive to produce in fiction what she could not bring about in the world: a vision of humanity enriched by personal sacrifice and enlightened by unselfish love. Both Bronson and Louisa May had ambitions of altering the world through literature. In ways that neither anticipated and in widely varying degrees, they succeeded. Yet it was in the lives they lived, rather than in the words they wrote or spoke, that they fought hardest for redemption: both to redeem themselves from their perceived failures and to redeem the world at large from the wickedness that both father and daughter sought earnestly to reform. They wanted perfection. In their search for it, they inevitably discovered flaws both in the world and within themselves. Pursuing paradise, they continually confirmed themselves as Eden’s outcasts.”

A disclaimer

I plan on writing a series of posts about Bronson as interpreted by Matteson but I feel a need to offer a disclaimer first: I am a practicing Catholic and take my faith very seriously. I love the spiritual life and pursue it relentlessly, often with the kind of zeal with which Bronson pursued his.

I felt it important to express this because the thoughts that I will share in this and subsequent posts about Bronson Alcott are filtered through this lens.

It is understood that you, the reader, may see faith and the spiritual life differently, and I’m hoping these posts will spark good conversation.

Reading is in part about learning, and the reading I’ve undertaken since I began this blog has opened my mind up considerably. And rather than discounting my faith, it has enriched it.

The essence of
Bronson Alcott

Because of Matteson’s book, I found myself empathizing with Bronson because in essence, I want what he wanted: to be in communion with God, to emulate Him. Bronson, however, took it a step farther and wanted to be God – this was his conception of paradise, the road to perfection.

Bronson’s idea of redemption

While I share Bronson’s zeal, we certainly did not share the same approach!

I prefer to be submissive to God, acknowledging His omnipotence, his superiority over me. I work to release control of my life to Him and follow, trusting in His love that He will lead me to the best end, which is eventual perfection. As it states in Romans 8:38, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (New King James version)

Bronson, however, came at it from the opposite angle, taking a very activist approach and in essence, reinventing the wheel (with Transcendentalism) to achieve perfection. This theme I will explore in subsequent posts regarding his rise as an educator and philosopher, the triumph and eventual fall of the Temple School, and the debacle that was known as Fruitlands.

Different ways of looking at redemption

Bronson believed in redemption as I do. But while I believe I can only be redeemed by simply saying “yes” to God and following Him, Bronson believed he had to redeem himself and teach others how to do the same (beginning with small children). He had to invent a new method.

To be redeemed means submission to a Higher Being and this goes against the natural inclination of man to do for himself. God asks us to forget ourselves and consider ourselves as nothing so that He can transform us into everything, the original image He planned for us before the fall of man and woman in the Garden of Eden.

Bronson had a towering intellect and yet, he never considered submission a possibility. Perhaps the rigid and cold religious climate of his age made that impossible to consider. After all, why would one want to submit to vengeful God bent on punishment? Bronson’s intuition told him that fear of God was not the way. One has to wonder at the possibilities had Bronson been exposed to a more loving God from organized religion in the first place.

Methods and results

Matteson spells out the thoughts and methods Bronson employed to try and achieve both his redemption and the redemption of others. These efforts would end up nearly, literally destroying the man, and it certainly left his family destitute.

There was, in fact, eventual redemption. But it was not what Bronson had fashioned in his mind.

The transcendentalism of Bronson Alcott was a man’s effort to commune with and become Divine.  So much effort.

Maybe there’s less work involved with submission. It ultimately comes down to pride versus humility. There’s no doubt that, after the Temple School and Fruitlands, Bronson was very much “humbled” (subject to interpretation – more to come on that).

In the next post, I will get into just how a poor farm boy from a small and obscure town overcame his background to become that towering intellect. It’s an amazing story.

Your thoughts?


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