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.


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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Orchard House: Ghosts, gossip, snow . . . magic! (guest post by Gabrielle Donnelly)

I am thrilled to welcome another guest post from author Gabrielle Donnelly (The Little Women Letters). She shares her recent visit to Orchard House which included a meet-and-greet, a short talk and book signing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My father once remarked, the day after a successful family party, that “laughter will cling to the rafters of a house.”  I’ve always found that this is true, and not only for laughter, but for emotions of all kinds.  I’ve walked into a penthouse office suite in Santa Monica with important furnishings and a sweeping view of the bay, and felt rising to greet me a tidal wave of tedium, frustration and hopelessness; and yet my local supermarket in Venice, a windowless space in an underground parking lot which is staffed with happy people who are always pleased to see me, feels filled to the brim with sunshine.  I’ve visited a Victorian mansion in St. Louis where the elegantly appointed master bedroom hissed marital discord, tension, disappointment; and stayed with my husband in a hotel room in Rome so small that we quite literally had to take turns to walk from the rickety old bed to the dark little bathroom, where we giggled and billed and cooed like honeymooners.

And then there is Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House Museum in Concord, Massachusetts.  Orchard House is a funny, friendly, rambling sort of house on the outskirts of town, two houses knocked into one in fact, with stairways in unexpected places and rooms leading to other rooms leading to more stairways.  It is the home of two families who famously exuded warmth – the real life Alcotts and the fictional Marches – and I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that both sets of ghosts live on there still, and most happily and energetically so.

I have visited Orchard House twice – once many years ago, and once again, this last month.  In between visits, I’ve written a novel, The Little Women Letters, set partly in the present and partly in the world of the Marches.  While I was writing, I spent a lot of time in my imagination in Orchard House – sitting with Jo and her pet rat and her pile of apples up in the garret; receiving groceries with Hannah at the back door in the kitchen; enjoying the fun of a “theatrical” in the dining room, complete with rolling melodrama, a beautiful heroine (that would be Amy) and, of course, the much-prized russet boots that had once belonged to a real actress.  To say that my subsequent visit to the house lived up to my expectations, is akin to describing the Taj Mahal as a cottage in the country.

In an earlier post (A Meet And Greet Full Of Pleasant Surprises, on October 28) Susan has described the evening there that all of us present described as “magical,” where she and I and a bunch of other Louisa May Alcott fans sat in the Alcotts’ dining room in a gathering hosted by the magnificent Lis Adams, Orchard House’s Director of Education, and gossiped shamelessly about both the Alcotts and the Marches, while the rain turned to snow outside and the ghosts of the Marches wandered in and out, ever-busy Jo “flying” around with broom in hand and story in mind, Father strolling through with his head in a book, oblivious to household crises (do we want to canonize him or shake him? – we still can’t decide), Beth smiling quietly from the corner.

These were not frightening ghosts: there are no bad people in Little Women.  There are challenging circumstances: war and poverty, sickness and death, all must be faced and addressed, and, people being people, all have their personal demons – Meg’s vanity, Jo’s hot temper – to acknowledge and conquer.  But the people themselves are all fundamentally good.  And while Susan and I and the Orchard House people sat in that warm and friendly dining room, safe from the weather outside, we all knew without a doubt that the laughter not only from the Alcotts and the Marches, but from their friends the Emersons and the Hawthornes and Thoreau and the Laurences and Aunt March and Sallie Moffat, not to mention the hundreds and thousands of visitors that the house has welcomed since the Alcotts’ time, did not content itself with clinging to the rafters.  It reverberated through the entire building.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A reminder that Orchard House is celebrating their centennial culminating with Memorial Day weekend in 2012. Gabrielle told me that the Colonial Inn off Concord center is nearly booked for that weekend. So if you want to participate in the festivities, you’ll want to make your reservations now.

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Now this would make a great collectible!

Does anybody have this stamp? It came out in 1940. This would be so cool to have. :-)


UPDATE 11/21/11 : I got my stamps today :-)


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What was the 19th century equivalent of the Ladies Home Journal?

I’m in trouble. There’s an antique store right down the street from my house and already I’ve found two big thick books, one dated 1866 and the other, 1878. The bug of collecting antique books is beginning to take hold!

As I read more and more about Louisa May Alcott, her family and her works, I have become increasingly interested in what made the typical 19th century woman tick.

Of course, there are many versions of “typical.” You have:

  • wealthy women of the Gilded Age (much like the Shaws of
    An Old-Fashioned Girl)
  • poorer women (like Polly of An Old-Fashioned Girl and the March sisters of Little Women)
  • immigrant women
  • black women
  • European women . . .

It’s hard to nail down the “typical” woman. Yet there were publications that depicted the ideal woman and taught women how to emulate that model. And there were how-to books on how to achieve perfect womanhood.

I found two very different books which tackled this issue. They are Godey’s Lady’s Book for 1866 and The Mirror of Womanhood (second edition 1878) by Rev. Bernard O’Reilly. One book addresses the image of the perfect woman through fashion and culture while the other through religion (in this case, Catholicism).

As I deepen my knowledge of Louisa’s work and life, I look forward also to deepening my understanding of 19th century women.

Godey’s Lady’s Book 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book was probably the Ladies Home Journal of its day (or perhaps all those types of magazines combined). Wikipedia describes it in this way:

The magazine was published by Louis A. Godey from Philadelphia for 48 years (1830–1878). Godey intended to take advantage of the popularity of gift books, many of which were marketed specifically to women.[1] Each issue contained poetry, articles, and engravings created by prominent writers and other artists of the time. Sarah Josepha Hale (author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) was its editor from 1837 until 1877 and only published original, American manuscripts. Although the magazine contained work by both men and women, Hale published three special issues which only included work done by women.

At its zenith, the publication boasted having 150,000 subscribers. It was the most popular journal in its day, even at a pricey $3 per issue.

Godey’s Lady’s Book refused to get involved in any way with politics and thus made the mistake of totally ignoring the Civil War. This decision cost the journal one third of its subscribers.

Godey's Fashions for January, 1866

Gorgeous fashions

What immediately struck me as I flipped through the book was the beauty of the illustrations – gorgeous full color foldout fashion plates protected by onion skin paper, and detailed black and white engravings. It is a treasure trove of lovely artwork with exquisite detail, showing off the beauty of the fashions of the day. It made me wonder what our legacy will be, what with emails, photographs and videos replacing these carefully drawn illustrations.

It will be interesting to thumb through the various articles, poems and music that Godey’s offers. At some point Louisa and her sisters probably thumbed through these journals, desiring the dresses, bonnets and jackets (we know that Meg desired finery). Louisa made no secret of the fact that she appreciated fashion, often window shopping when she was in Boston.

I think of Louisa using Godey’s to describe the fashions worn by the Shaws and all the ladies of privilege in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The Mirror of True Womanhood gilded cover

The Mirror of True Womanhood

I often read that Beth in Little Women was the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman, a model of moral perfection. Amy, of course, worked so hard at becoming a true lady, exhibiting grace, taste and little kindnesses towards others.

The Mirror of True Womanhood - beginning of the Table of Contents

Religious themes

This made me want to find out more about what made the perfect woman. It was with that thought that I picked up The Mirror of True Womanhood, published in 1878. I didn’t realize at the time when I purchased it that it was actually geared towards Irish Catholic women and therefore would have a lot of religious overtones (of which I am familiar with, being Catholic).

Hard to be different

But undoubtedly there are universal themes in this book that would apply to the idea of perfect womanhood, the kind that Beth and Amy epitomized. Louisa exhibited ambivalence towards this model, especially in the character of Jo March. She herself grappled much with being a working spinster, sometimes reveling in the independence, while at other times feeling left out and lonely.

Models from the past, and present

At any rate, reading sources from the day about what makes the perfect woman should prove interesting. I shall keep in mind what today’s magazines and media offer as images of the perfect woman. While women have certainly come a long way from the 19th century, I have a feeling I will find many similarities with regards to attitudes about fashion and appearance. We shall see.

In the meantime, enjoy the slide show of the fashion plates and contents of these books.

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