Introducing the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club

Louisa in her room at Hillside, dubbed "Poet's Corner" (illustration by Flora Smith from Joan Howard's bio, The Story of Louisa May Alcott)

Following up on a reader’s suggestion (thanks to Sarah), I am introducing a new feature on Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, the Poet’s Corner
Virtual Book Club
.

How the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club works

  • I will announce the book I plan on reading.
  • You can join in a group read by adding a comment to this post that you are reading the book.
  • I’ll post 2-3 times on the book and you can add your thoughts.
  • If you have thoughts you’d like to put up in a post, email me at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com and I’ll post them.

I want to start with Eight Cousins – it’s a quick read with short chapters (24 in all). It’s available in a variety of ways for free:

Your book suggestions always welcome

Do you have a suggestion for a future Poet’s Corner group read? Email me at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com – I definitely do not have a set reading list!

And suggestions are not limited to books by Louisa – I’d love to explore Jillian’s suggestion of reading books that Louisa read (“Louisa’s Library”) as well.

Topics to discuss

This is a perfect opportunity to follow Susan’s suggestions for discussion topics (principles, ideas, simple situations in the story) plus Sarah’s regarding feminist themes.

This is your book club – I am happy to entertain any suggestions.

Membership

You can opt in or out of the club at any time – just because you commit to one book doesn’t mean you have to commit to the next one.

I am looking forward to reading Eight Cousins with you!


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Personalizing Louisa through the reading of Little Women

Little Women

Responding to my request, I am pleased to present a guest post by Jillian author of the A Room of One’s Own blog. Jillian is exploring the classics and using her blog as a journal, sharing her reactions and insight. As a new student to the classics, I depend heavily on Jillian’s blog to guide me to good reading, and she has never let me down. I know you will appreciate her unique point of view on Louisa’s most successful and far-reaching work, Little Women.

Reading Little Women – a guest blog by Jillian
A Room of One’s Own

When Susan asked me to write a guest blog for her lovely Alcott site, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly talk about — though I was keen to contribute a few words, since I’m all about spreading the Alcott love.

Anyone visiting this blog has either read something by Louisa May Alcott or is curious to meet her. That’s one of the things I truly love about literature — that potential to unite us. Those of us who have read Little Women share the experience of it. We can exchange glances and know that Jo, that Meg, that Amy and Beth lived their lives within our souls for a while. Louisa’s Little Women has been a shared memory between strangers from all over the world for over a century.

I can’t tell you anything about Alcott that Susan hasn’t already said better. (Indeed, when I have a question about Alcott, I generally seek her out.) I’m certainly no expert on Louisa, or her family, or her century, or Transcendentalism. I’ve read one biography and a couple of her shorter works: Hospital Sketches and “Transcendental Wild Oats.” So I can’t even give you a very thorough review of her library.

But I can tell you who my Louisa is.

Before 2010, I had barely heard of Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t care about Concord, though I was fascinated by the Civil War. My interest pulled to the South, though. To Tara and the searing apart of Atlanta — action and all that. (My favorite book is Gone With the Wind.) I certainly never intended to read Little Women. I was a busy, on-the-go 21st century person, more inclined to enjoy the movie than the novel. I added it to my classics project list more as an “I should read this” item than a wish list book that I yearned to explore. It seemed like something I should have read as a little girl, and having not read it felt like a gap. I’d enjoyed the 1994 movie and figured Little Women was a good enough place to start with the classics.

A lot of people have expressed irritation when they read Little Women – not only for a certain turning point in the story which makes me chuckle and applaud Jo March (if you’ve read it – you know!), but for the very “littleness” of the book. I don’t mean that it is itself little, for my copy weighs in at 502 pages. I mean that this century seems to yearn for action, adventure, a snappy opening, a protagonist with an excrutiating decision to make at once, and LOTS of tension.

fashionweekadventures.com

Little Women isn’t like that. More, it’s a window into the world of women in nineteenth century New England. The book is quite didactic – something that bothers some people. Especially in the early chapters, the book seems to focus on how to be a proper little woman and grow up to be a proper wife. But what people miss, I think, is Marmee. A woman who pulls to her daughter Jo early in the novel, sharing with her an inexplicable anger and desire to fight that the other sisters, and Jo’s father, don’t understand. Just like one could read Pride and Prejudice as a love story and miss the side story about Charlotte Lucas, I think one can read Little Women as a didactic novel and miss the nuance in the Jo story.

Little Women is separated into chapters that read like short stories: days in the lives of the March girls and what they faced in 19th century Concord. The stories aren’t so much about plot – as they are warmth and love and survival as women in a world that wanted women to be quiet, be useful, be relatively ornamental, and well… be little. See, that’s what I remember most about Little Women: as much as it felt didactic, there was Jo. Awkward, cranky, boisterous, clumsy, loud Jo who wanted nothing more than to live up to those didactic standards and couldn’t. She is a contrast, and so too, is Little Women. It’s a foundation of who one “should” be as a proper New England woman, written through the eyes of four sisters: an artist, a wife, a musician, and a writer. And oh, that writer — how she doesn’t fit! She loves her sisters, and as slow-rolling as the story is to start, it gets to you, when you realize that this world was Louisa’s, and that sweet Beth was her sister, and that this didactic outpouring is the very world she lived in, and that the writer produced the very book laid open on your 21st century lap.

The title itself gives me shivers. One could read “Little Women” as a commendment of littleness, or one could read it as the very world into which Jo, and likewise, Louisa, had been sat. She adored that world, I think. But she wasn’t quiet, she wasn’t predictable, and she wasn’t little. So the novel reads as a sort of tribute to the place Louisa couldn’t make her own: a world of giving sisters who laugh and hug and dream and try to stay alive while Jo sits insolently gazing out the snow-crusted window, her willful chin working as ardently as it can to stay small and proper and level while her ravenous soul pulls to war and Laurie and running and loudness, and Marmee.

The thing about Little Women is – it stuck with me. Not just the lessons, but the story, the sisters, the sense of comfort and safety and snugness that is Louisa’s novel. I’ve read over sixty books since then, and still I pull to Alcott’s work. Still I count it as a favorite.

My Louisa is a fighter — not so very different from me or Scarlett O’Hara or Mr. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (which surely Louisa read by night in lamplight.) She’s a product of her century and all that she read and all that she lived. While Atlanta was being ripped apart by fire, Louisa was in Massachusetts — writing. She lived that world that I find so fascinating. She lived it from the Northern side, sat between Thoreau and Emerson, under the roof of Bronson Alcott, surrounded by sisters. Little Women is her side of the story — how she coped, and how her three very different sisters faced the same world.

I read that publisher James T. Fields dismissed her work as insignificant once, and advised her to, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” Oh, that makes me angry. I remember learning, as I explored her world, that while she is certainly didactic in Little Women, she is that way because she was told to do it. Apparently books about being a proper wife were what sold, in the nineteenth century, by women writers. And that’s what was expected of Louisa. She wanted to write about ghosts and mystery and thrilling stories, but the men of that world wanted her to write about how to be a proper little woman. What absolutely endears me to Louisa — is that she gave them that. But within it, she gave them Jo March — herself, her soul, a little woman who could not fit into that world, and who desperately yearned to be good enough.

That girl is my Louisa.

This March I intend to re-read Little Women to see what more I can ring from it, and to enjoy alongside it Geraldine Brook’s March and Alcott’s own sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boy’s.

I don’t think I’ll ever again be satisfied with “just the movie.”


Jillian blogs at A Room of One’s Own, where she journals her exploration through classic literature.

Louisa’s calling card

I just found an article from the Rauner Library Blog from Dartmouth College detailing the story behind the calling card. The article features the calling cards of such luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens among others. These cards all have pictures. I never knew anything about the nature of the calling card and found this article quite fascinating. Check it out here: http://raunerlibrary.blogspot.com/2012/01/calling-cards.html


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At a crossroads – here’s where you come in

I need your help. I’m stuck.

I can’t figure where next to take this blog
and I could use your suggestions.

Which direction should this blog go next?

What road do you want this blog to take?

source  “(C) by http://www.martin-liebermann.de”

What are you eager to learn more about?

Post your suggestions and I will consider them and maybe I’ll run with yours! You may even want to guest blog. I would happily welcome that. We have a great community here and it’s time I drew more from you.

What do you want Louisa May Alcott is My Passion to go?


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The art of conversation, Bronson-style

Through his illustrious life, Bronson Alcott used many means to preach and teach his unique message of transcendentalism. In the early part of his career he used his gifts as a teacher to educate the young through the art of conversation (see previous post). As he believed the Divine resided in each child, he sought through Platonic questioning to draw out that spirit and assist the child in discovering that spirit within. He in essence sought to make that child aware of the knowledge that he believed already resided inside.

Closing a door . . .

When Bronson lost the Temple School to controversy (see previous post), he was denied employment as a teacher, both in Boston and in Concord where he and his family resided after the closing of the school.

Known for his strong (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) conviction and principles, Bronson chose to subject himself and his family to abject poverty rather than take on work that would bring in a living wage. He has come under heavy criticism from many for that decision.

. . . and opening a window

Yet there were people who appreciated what Bronson had to offer. After being denied the chance to teach, Bronson took his special art of conversation to adults. Since helacked the ability to write (Emerson wrote, “When he [Bronson] sits down to write all his genius leaves him; he gives you the shell and throws away the kernel of his thought.” (p. 101, The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing , e-book edition)) he employed secretaries to take down what transpired during his conversations – they are recorded in a volume called Notes of Conversations, 1848-1875: Amos Bronson Alcott, edited by Karen English.

Conversation like music

There is also an anonymous account of one such a conversation by a newspaper reporter, the account being known as “An Evening with Alcott.” In Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, John Matteson uses this account to describe Bronson’s art of conversation employing the analogy of music. (Note – all page numbers come from the e-book edition).

A jazz solo

Matteson writes, “Almost by design, an Alcott conversation was evanescent. Like an improvised musical solo, it was produced in order to fill the air with a momentary pulsation, imparting a flash of insight before moving on to the next equally ephemeral spark.” (p. 230). In essence, Matteson is equating Bronson’s conversations to jazz.

from Tablets by Amos Bronson Alcott

Where is it going?

Anyone who has listened to jazz improvisation knows that even though it appears the solo is going nowhere and everywhere, it actually ends up somewhere – at the ear and heart of the listener. You aren’t always sure what you have heard (if you are not a musician yourself), but you know you just experienced something sublime. The skill of the instrumentalist has just led you on a unique journey never to be repeated.

The anonymous newspaper reporter writes of a similar type of experience:
“”Do you remember what he says? Most likely not, or only certain isolated but splendid phrases which shock you as especially out of the common orbit of thought-or, in the strict, not conventional sense of the word, eccentric. But you do not regret that no tangible opinions remain in your memory, like a mellow autumn day, or, like a soft, tender melody, you recall his conversation only as an ethereal and delicate influence.” (pg. 230)

Waiting for people to converse with, and tempting them with apples . . .

Oratory vs. conversation

There is a difference between being a great orator, where you most likely are addressing a large crowd, to conducting a small group conversation. Bronson was not known as a great orator, but in some inexplicable way, he created an atmosphere of intimacy. Graced with great charisma, it is likely Bronson had that special gift for making each individual feel like he (or she, but mostly likely he) was the only one in the room; Bronson was speaking only to him. (p. 230)

Debate or the insertion of partisan views was not permitted:
“When Bronson spoke to an uninitiated audience, he explained to them, that, in his definition, conversation was an endeavor to find points on which a company could sympathize in feeling. He thought it inappropriate for anyone to present his own individual views for the sake of argument or debate.” (p. 231)

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

How much actual “conversing”
was there?

Since most participants found it hard to keep their own point of view out of the conversation and still contribute, there was little actual back and forth: “The author of ‘An Evening with Alcott’ observed that the conversation he witnessed was not a conversation in any ordinary sense, for no one had conversed.” (p. 231)

In many respects, Bronson was on a different plane from his participants, making a two-way dialog nearly impossible.
Still, our friend the reporter was deeply inspired: “He aspired to ‘touching those fine chords in every heart which will inspire them to respond to one’s own experience.’ “
(p. 230)

What must it have been like to listen to a speaker improvise like the finest jazz musician? Has anyone since been able to duplicate that experience?


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What were Bronson Alcott’s educational reforms? Here’s a simpler approach

From time to time I have posted about Bronson Alcott, mainly from my reading of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. I had been wanting to find a simpler explanation of Bronson’s educational reforms; they were considered quite radical in his day but over time became incorporated into mainstream educational thought. Just what were these reforms? Clara Gowing’s book, The Alcotts as I Knew Them provided what I was looking for.

Franklin Sanborn, Alcott biographer

Gowing relied exclusively on Franklin Sanborn’s Memoirs of Bronson Alcott.  While I will refer to pages in Gowing’s book regarding quotes, any direct quotes from Bronson were taken from Sanborn’s account.

All the page numbers I am citing here are taken from the e-book version of Gowing’s book.

A mission to educate the young

It is not surprising that Bronson approached education with a religious zeal since at one time he had considered entering the ministry of the Episcopalian Church. The expense involved with training in seminary prevented him from following this course (page 55, The Alcotts as I Knew Them) but he eventually drifted away from formal religion, preferring to carve out his own spiritual path.

Amos Bronson Alcott

Working out his spirituality through educating children

Time spent with the Quakers (p.60) “awakened a desire for purity and real worth, and a delight in exercises of thought and devotion.” It was to have a profound influence on Bronson’s spiritual journey.

Finding the Divine in the child

That journey was very tied in with young children. Bronson believed that the Divine spirit was found in young children and through the apparatus of education, he could, as teacher, draw out that spirit. He would not only enhance his own spiritual journey but would bring out the very best in the children he taught. He believed that once a child was “rightly instructed mentally, morally and physically, they would become the reformers of humanity at home.” (pg. 62). In essence, Bronson wanted to redeem mankind (and himself) through children.

Reforming the administration of discipline

One of the first reforms that Bronson introduced was the near elimination of corporal punishment. While teaching in Bristol, CT, he developed the opinion that gaining the confidence and affection of the children would make them behave – “Constant uniform kindness he claimed was more successful than corporal punishment. Correction was aimed at the mind rather than the body, as it was the mind that committed the error and should receive correction.” (p. 61)

Gowing adds, “One of his methods of punishment was to take part of the correction himself, thus proving that the innocent must suffer with the guilty.” (p. 74).

Growing the child’s conscience

This subtle manipulation of the child was meant to deepen the child’s sense of conscience. Judging from a quote from a student in the Temple School in Boston (p. 75), a deeper sense of conscience was successfully reached through a thoughtful reading and discussion of the scriptures.

Conversations as a  means to draw out knowledge

Another trademark teaching method that Bronson employed was his form of conversation with the children, where he would steer the discussion with questions to draw out the desired answers from the children, thus helping them to discover the answers on their own. Emerson wrote, “Friend Alcott declares that a teacher is one who can assist the child in obeying his own mind, and who can remove all unfavorable circumstances. He believes that from a circle of twenty well-selected children he could draw in their conversation everything that is in Plato, and much better in form than it is in Plato.” (p. 76)

A typical day at school

Gowling outlines a typical day of class in Bronson’s school:

  • The day began at 8 am with an hour of play and socialization in the yard (Bronson was the first in the state to introduce gymnastics).
  • At 9 am the class began with a story by the teacher about some virtue meant to stir desire in the students. The story was discussed including events and experience – lasting an hour. Undoubtedly Bronson employed his conversation techniques during these discussions.
  • Then the next 3 hours were spent conducting  exercises in spelling, reading, definition, drawing, etc. Two additional hours were spent in the afternoon on such exercises. Everything was always presented in a way that would spark interest so that the students engaged on their own initiative. Thus they were happy and interested in their own progress and pursuits. (p. 67)

Submission a necessary element

Bronson believed it was necessary to subdue what he saw as “obstructions to the growth of the mind; these lie in the appetites, passions, desires, and will. Intellectual results will follow the discipline of the sentiments … He who reaches the will and subdues the desires brings the child under his control …” (p. 70)

Stormy career

Bronson’s career as a teacher was never short on controversy, experiencing glorious ups with the Temple School, and many downs, inevitably ending when he courageously admitted a black girl into the Temple School. Parents then concluded that he was “corrupting the youth … by his conversations.” The Temple School closed and Bronson was never to teach in a formal way again.

A time in exile

After moving to Concord and being denied the chance to teach, Bronson prayed to God, “wilt thou permit me to be useful to my fellowmen? . . . How long, O Lord! how long wilt thou try me, by the exclusion from the active duties of Church and State, and more than these, from the discharge of my duties to my neighbors and to my neighbors’ children?” (p. 88)

Lasting effects

Clara Gowing sums it up nicely as to lasting effects of Bronson’s reforms (underscore is my emphasis):

“To one looking over Mr. Alcott’s experience the fact becomes apparent that many of his peculiar ideas and of the methods which he endeavored to introduce in his school and which caused his failure then, have since come into general use.* With all his fanatical and impracticable theories, which often induced ridicule even among his friends, he was pure in heart and character, strong in friendship, and generous to a fault, and his biographer, F. B. Sanborn, says, ‘When he died he left fewer enemies than any man of equal age can have provoked or encountered in so long a career.’ ” (p. 100-101) *as of 1914 when Gowing’s book came out.

Questions regarding Bronson’s techniques

I have to admit that I found some of Bronson’s techniques troubling, in particular his manipulation of the children and what I perceive as a Svengali approach to his teaching (note quotes on submission). While this blog has barely scratched the surface regarding this complex figure in history, we do know that Bronson’s unchecked megalomania proved disastrous regards to Fruitlands and wreaked havic with his family. Yet, his many of his educational reforms were stellar, and as we’ve seen in a previous post, he had an unusual understanding of the childish mind. With that in mind,  I love to know your take:

  • What do you think of Bronson’s educational reforms?
  • What do you think of his methods?
  • Do you see the potential for danger in his methods?
  • Did the results justify the means?

Let’s talk!

Complete list of stories from the Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag series

Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag is a collection of short stories, mostly for children, that Louisa wrote in the 1880s (including stories from her grand tour of Europe with younger sister May). While none of the stories have anything to do with Little Women, the publisher obviously was banking on the title drawing in lots of buyers (and it obviously worked!).

Thanks to one of our readers (Tarissa, In The Bookcase blog) we have the entire list of stories from all 6 volumes of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, all of which are available on the web (just click on the Volume number to get to the stories).

Here is the complete list (note: a permanent link to this list will be posted on the My Growing Library page of this blog):

Volume #1:

  • My Boys
  • Tessa’s Surprises
  • Buzz
  • The Children’s Joke
  • Dandelion
  • Madam Cluck and Her Family
  • A Curious Call
  • Tilly’s Christmas
  • My Little Gentleman
  • Back Windows
  • Little Marie of Lehon
  • My May-Day Among Curious Birds and Beasts
  • Our Little Newsboy
  • Patty’s Patchwork

from Shawl Straps

Volume #2:

Contains a book called ‘Shawl-Straps’ and is divided into 6 parts named:

  • I.  Off
  • II.  Brittany
  • III.  France
  • IV.  Switzerland
  • V.  Italy
  • VI.  London

These are stories from Louisa and May’s grand tour of Europe.

Volume #3:

  • Cupid and Chow-chow
  • Huckleberry
  • Nelly’s Hospital
  • Grandma’s Team
  • Fairy Pinafores
  • Mamma’s Plot
  • Kate’s Choice
  • The Moss People
  • What Fanny Heard
  • A Marine Merry-Making

Volume #4:

  • My Girls
  • Lost in a London Fog
  • The Boys’ Joke, and Who Got the Best of It
  • Roses and Forget-Me-Nots
  • Old Major
  • What the Girls Did
  • Little Neighbors
  • Marjorie’s Three Gifts
  • Patty’s Place
  • The Autobiography of an Omnibus
  • Red Tulips
  • A Happy Birthday

Volume #5:

  • Jimmy’s Cruise in the Pinafore
  • Two Little Travellers
  • A Jolly Fourth
  • Seven Black Cats
  • Rosa’s Tale
  • Lunch
  • A Bright Idea
  • How they Camped Out
  • My Little School-Girl
  • What a Shovel Did
  • Clams
  • Kitty’s Cattle Show
  • What Becomes of the Pins

Volume #6:

  • An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving
  • How It All Happened
  • The Dolls’ Journey from Minnesota to Maine
  • Morning-Glories
  • Shadow-Children
  • Poppy’s Pranks
  • What the Swallows Did
  • Little Gulliver
  • The Whale’s Story
  • A Strange Island
  • Fancy’s Friend

Many, MANY thanks to Tarissa for this great piece of research! This is why this blog is nothing without all of you. :-)


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Intimate letters

Well, I haven’t finished it yet but I wanted to share the second anecdotal volume I got from the Worcester Public Library, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest, published in 1914.

Origin of the book – inspired by Jo

Both women felt compelled to compile this little book after a day (and all night long) pilgrimage to Concord and Orchard House. Jo March had been a strong influence in their lives:

“In the case of the two editors, both from early childhood found their inspiration in Jo. One, patterning after her idol, sought success in a stage career, beginning to “act” before a mirror, with a kitchen apron for a train and a buttonhook for a dagger. The other, always with a pencil in hand, first copied Jo by writing ‘lurid tales’ for the weekly sensation papers, and later emerged into Newspaper Row.”

Fruit of the pilgrimage

After visiting Orchard House and pouring over the actual journals and letters of the family, the authors asked permission of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Society to reprint some of the material. After encountering some resistance (“And, asking, they were refused, because of a feeling that the letters and journals were intimate family records, to be read, not by the many, but by the few. This same sentiment withheld the dramatization of “Little Women” for many years.”), Bonstelle and De Forest were finally granted permission after arguing that the Alcotts were public personalities and therefore the intimate family letters and journals belonged to the world.

And thus we have, I believe, the first volume to reveal these letters (except perhaps  for Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals, though I am not sure because I haven’t read her book yet).

Value of the book

Although the book is overly sentimental, there is a lot of value in these letters, especially if you learn to read between the lines.

While I haven’t yet finished the book, I’ve read enough to see the striking difference in tone between the letters Bronson  Alcott wrote to his eldest daughter Anna, and the ones he wrote to Louisa.

Good daughter, bad daughter

Many have said that Anna was Bronson’s favorite for she best represented his personality. She also affirmed his theories about children and the  Divine that resided in them.

Louisa, on the other hand, threw a monkey wrench into those theories.

What resulted was a lifelong silent battle between father and daughter as the daughter sought to live her life authentically while the father tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. The result was a frustrated father and a daughter with a skewed self-image, burdened with guilt.

Bronson writes of Anna, “She is happier, more capable of self control, more docile and obeys from love and faith. She has fine elements for excellence, moral and intellectual.”

And he writes of Louisa, ” “Louisa is practical, energetic. The first imagines much more than she can realize; the second, by force of will and practical talent, realizes all that she conceives—but conceives less; understanding, rather than imagination—the gift of her sister—seems to be her prominent faculty.”

No problem there. But then we get into the letters. Here’s one he wrote to Anna (bold is my emphasis):

Lettters to Anna

“For Anna
1839

You were once pleased, my daughter, with a little note which I wrote you on Christmas Eve, concerning the birth of Jesus. I am now going to write a few words about your own Birth. Mother and I had no child. We wanted one—a little girl just like you; and we thought how you would look, and waited a good while for you to come, so that we might see you and have you for our own. At last you came. We felt so happy that joy stood in our eyes. You looked just as we wanted to have you. You were draped in a pretty little white frock, and father took you in his arms every day, and we loved you very much. Your large bright eyes looked lovingly into ours, and you soon learned to love and know us. When you were a few weeks old, you smiled on us. We lived then in Germantown. It is now more than eight years since this happened, but I sometimes see the same look and the same smile on your face, and feel that my daughter is yet good and pure. O keep it there, my daughter, and never lose it.

Your Father”

Gentle instruction

In these little excerpts from a second letter, Bronson offers instruction to Anna:

“First-Your Manners. Try to be gentle . . . Love is gentle: Hate is violent . . . Second: Be Patient . . . Patience is, indeed, angelic; it is the Gate that opens into the House of Happiness . . . Third: Be Resolute: Shake off all Sluggishness, and follow your Confidence as fast as your feelings, your thoughts, your eye, your hand, your foot, will carry you. Hate all excuses: almost always, these are lies. Be quick in your obedience . . . Resolution is the ladder to Happiness . . . Fourth: Be Diligent . . .  Halfness is almost as bad as nothing: be whole then in all you do and say.” (I particularly love the wisdom of being resolute!)

A study in contrasts

And now, notice the difference in tone as Bronson addresses Louisa (this was given to her on her birthday – bold is my emphasis):

“For Louisa
1839

My Daughter,

You are Seven years old to-day and your Father is forty. You have learned a great many things, since you have lived in a Body, about things going on around you and within you. You know how to think, how to resolve, how to love, and how to obey. You feel your Conscience, and have no real pleasure unless you obey it. You cannot love yourself, or anyone else, when you do not mind its commandments. It asks you always to BE GOOD, and bears, O how gently! how patiently! with all endeavors to hate, and treat it cruelly. How kindly it bears with you all the while. How sweetly it whispers Happiness in your HEART when you Obey its soft words. How it smiles upon you, and makes you Glad when you Resolve to Obey it! How terrible its punishments. It is GOD trying in your soul to keep you always Good.

You begin, my dear daughter, another year this morning. Your Father, your Mother, and Sisters, with your little friends, show their love on this your Birthday, by giving you this BOX. Open it, and take what is in it, and the best wishes of

Your Father.

Beach Street,
Friday morning, Nov. 29, 1839.”

On a mission to save

You can see in the illustration all the use of capital letters, exclamation points and underscores revealing the amount of emotion that went into this letter. Bronson was on a mission with Louisa to save her soul: his own words indicate that he felt it his vocation to save all children: “I shall redeem infancy and childhood, and, if a Saviour of Adults was given in the person of Jesus, let me, without impiety or arrogance, regard myself as the Children’s Saviour. Divine are both missions.”

A spirit Bronson could not accept

While I believe his intentions were rooted in love for Louisa, it’s obvious he could not accept her as she was. The willfulness, stubborn tendencies, mood swings, temper, etc. flew in the face of his theories of children as home to the Divine Spirit. This second daughter to him was more like the devil, and he felt compelled to save her.

A father in tune with his children

Yet, there is much to admire about Bronson as a father. His affinity with the childish mind and the attention to the details of their lives is unusual, more maternal than paternal. He knew exactly what made a child tick as shown in this letter to Louisa. She had run away from home (apparently she was with her grandfather – no explanation of how she got there) and he was trying to coax her back (bold is my emphasis):

“Cottage, Sunday June 21st,
1840.

We all miss the noisy little girl who used to make house and garden, barn and field, ring with her footsteps, and even the hens and chickens seem to miss her too. Right glad would father and mother, Anna and Elizabeth, and all the little mates at School, and Miss Russell, the House Playroom, Dolls, Hoop, Garden, Flowers, Fields, Woods and Brooks, all be to see and answer the voice and footsteps, the eye and hand of heir little companion. But yet all make themselves happy and beautiful without her; all seem to say, “Be Good, little Miss, while away from us, and when we meet again we shall love and please one another all the more; we find how much we love now we are separated.”

I wished you here very much on the morning when the Hen left her nest and came proudly down with six little chickens, everyone knowing how to walk, fly, eat and drink almost as well as its own mother; to-day (Sunday) they all came to see the house and took their breakfast from their nice little feeding trough; you would have enjoyed the sight very much. But this and many other pleasures all wait for you when you return. Be good, kind, gentle, while you are away, step lightly, and speak soft about the house;

Grandpa loves quiet, as well as your sober father and other grown people.

Elizabeth says often, “Oh I wish I could see Louisa, when will she come home, Mother?” And another feels so too; who is it?

Your
Father.”

Attention to detail

His  notice of such detail endeared him to me. Yes, he was manipulating his daughter (and often this manipulation became dangerous) but how many fathers take the time to notice these little things in the lives of their children? This is usually the mother’s strength (and in this family, it was).

This is just a taste of Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott. It doesn’t appear to offer much at first glance, but if you’re a detective like me, there is a lot to find.

Have you ever read any of the letters and/or journals of the Alcott family? What was your impression?

Click to Tweet & Share: Read intimate letters between the Alcott children & their parents http://wp.me/p125Rp-IL


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Getting to know the Alcotts through neighbors and friends

Between my trip to the Worcester library and the new Nook, I have been buried! Tons of reading all at once (which means tons of notetaking, and tons of fun!).  As I come up for air, I wanted to share with you some new rather old books I found.

A treasure trove from the library

I want to first say again how much I appreciate librarians! The ladies at the Worcester Public Library went above and beyond the call of duty and gave me a treasure trove! I had asked for a couple of books that dated back to the early 1900s (which meant they were in the basement). When I arrived at the desk to pick them up, one woman came over apologetically, explaining that she couldn’t find one of the books I’d requested, but would I mind these? She had 2 other books in addition to the one I asked for, and these books had flown under the radar, not even being mentioned in the library’s catalog. I knew I had struck gold!

Fascinating anecdotes

These books were by neighbors and near contemporaries of the Alcotts and their anecdotal stories make for entertaining and insightful reading. I was longing to read the perspective of people who had actually lived during the period (or shortly thereafter). Contemporaries offer a unique point of view since they were a part of the period. A random sentence here and there from such a source can open up new avenues to explore.

So here’s what those wonderful ladies gave to me:

The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing

First there was The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing (available in epub and PDF format at Google Books). Miss Gowing was a neighbor of the Alcotts and around the same age as Louisa. They first met in their twenties.

Clara Gowing, friend of the Alcotts, wrote a memoir of her time with them.

Here is a short biography (more like a reference letter) of Miss Gowing.

Simple memories

This book was full of reminiscences of events large and small in the life of the Alcotts. The scene depicted on the cover shows Louisa leaping the fence of Orchard House to see an artist friend who is sketching the homestead. Obviously Louisa’s physical prowess made quite the impression!

Bronson’s reforms laid out

I have long desired a simplified version of Bronson Alcott’s educational reforms and this book provided it. It was like Bronson for dummies and I needed that! I’ll be posting on this chapter soon.

The elder sister comes out
from behind

Most every member of the family was given their own chapter (with the exception of Elizabeth). So it was a welcome surprise to read a chapter devoted to Louisa’s older sister Anna. Even though Anna followed the more traditional path of women in the 19th century, she was still gifted with many of the same talents as Louisa, but with a quiet and tranquil personality. I’ve often thought she was worthy of more study. More than one author has commented that Anna actually had a greater writing talent than Louisa but lacked the drive and ambition. I will write about my findings from this chapter also in a future post.

More tidbits about Lizzie

I wish a chapter had been dedicated to Elizabeth but I was happy to see that yet again,  that same enticing tidbit came up regarding a possible short-lived romance ended by parental disapproval. I hope to be able to find out more about that romance and perhaps why her parents disapproved. Lizzie lived and died by her parents so their approval must have been so important to her. I can only imagine the fallout considering her sensitive nature.

The best part? The book was short with large type and I whipped through it at breakneck speed. It was nice to be able to read like that for a change.

In my next post, I will describe the other book those lovely ladies at the Worcester Public Library gifted me with. I still have to finish it and should soon, if I could just stop taking notes!

Whoever thought research could be this much fun? :-)


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Ohh! I want her!

Gotta have this kitty:

Want to adopt her? I’m afraid my Jenny would not tolerate another queen! Here’s more information.

I wonder . . . would Louisa today would be classified as one of those “crazy cat ladies?” :-)


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