Quilting, Annie Leibovitz and Louisa May Alcott

Check out these pictures from a quilter, Patalier: Never Far from a Needle and Thread. She recently saw Annie Leibovitz’s book, Pilgrimage and remarked on the scenes from Orchard House. She has some marvelous pictures comparing Leibovitz’s with her own treasures (and she has some cool stuff!). Here’s a teaser:

“I loved the book immediately.  But there are two photographs that just captured my heart; a hanky embroidered by Louisa May Alcott with her initials and  a page of the journal by her father, Bronson, with the outlines of his and Louisa May’s hands. 

A cord of familiarity was struck.  I ran to the files to pull out my own piece of Louisa May Alcott history.  I had acquired a grouping of signatures on cloth from an autograph auction in the 90’s …”

Be sure and check out her pictures, they are really cool! Click here to see them.

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Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage exhibit opens at the Concord Museum

As a followup to yesterday’s post about the wonderful conversation presented at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House by Annie Leibovitz and Doris Kearns Goodwin, here is a report by the MetroWest Daily News on the opening of the exhibit, beginning with a teaser:

Revealing a dramatic departure from her [Leibovitz's] meticulously staged portraits, the photographs in “Pilgrimage’’ are celebratory, capturing singular details and moments that reveal her absent subjects in profound, moving and sometimes wacky ways.

A photo in Orchard House of three early 19th century dolls that belonged to the Alcott sisters conjures images of the rich imaginative life of the family headed by offbeat scholar Bronson Alcott. A glass container of stuffed birds in a house associated with poet Emily Dickinson suggests the hermetic nature of her verse. (written by Chris Bergeron/Daily News staff, MetroWest Daily News)

You can read the article in its entirety here: An artist’s ‘Pilgrimage’: Annie Leibovitz opens new exhibit


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Iconic, and Real: Annie Leibovitz and Doris Kearns Goodwin visit Orchard House

Tuesday was a memorable day.

Imagine the pleasure of attending a conversation with Annie Leibovitz and Doris Kearns Goodwin, hosted at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. Approximately 200 people had that pleasure, gathered in an array of tents on the lawn of the Alcott home.

It was the kickoff event for an exhibition of photos from Leibovitz’s acclaimed book Pilgrimage to be held at the Concord Museum from June 28 through September 23.

Departure from the norm

What is unique about this book is its departure from Leibovitz’s usual portrait subjects. In Pilgrimage she photographed homes, rooms and objects that held special significance for certain important historical figures. Each room, each inanimate object tells a story, a story drawn forth with Leibovitz’s unique skill. In many cases, a new story is told.

Icons and “just folks”

Leibovitz and Goodwin shared entertaining, humorous and thoughtful anecdotes of their amazing careers. They were both very natural and unassuming. Leibovitz was not shy about revealing her lack of knowledge initially about some of the things she photographed for Pilgrimage. She was reflective and self-deprecating. Goodwin, a 37-year resident of Concord has a warmth and winning sense of humor that permeated all her stories. She has passed her love of history down to her children, most especially with her son, a popular teacher in the Concord Public Schools.

Personal anecdotes

Here are some of the stories they shared:

  • Goodwin admitted to feeling intimidated when she was asked to write the introduction to Pilgrimage. Explaining how photographs convey meaning differently from words, she wondered if she’d have anything worthwhile to add. Obviously, she did!
  • Leibovitz experienced the same wonder and magic that so many Orchard House visitors express. She could feel the energy and the spirit of the Alcott family throughout the house
  • Goodwin, in commenting on photos Leibovitz had taken of places and objects used by presidents she has written about (Lincoln, FDR), admitted to seeing nuances she had not seen before in these homes. Considering the fact that she spent, on average, ten years researching and writing the various books on these men, that is quite an extraordinary admission!
  • Leibovitz looked for Lincoln’s log cabin but sadly, found that it didn’t exist. She had difficulty deciding which hat of Lincoln’s she would feature in the book as all were fascinating to her. The one she chose bears Lincoln’s fingerprints!
  • Leibovitz shared a wonderful story about photographing Queen Elizabeth (that session was featured in the American Masters program about Leibovitz’s career). She thought the queen had a lot of spunk and was amazed to learn that she does her own hair and makeup. During the session, she actually suggested that the queen pose without her crown! The queen graciously agreed, though she eventually ended up putting the crown back on.
  • In commenting about another very famous subject, Leibovitz quipped that Elvis never threw anything away, having “warehouses full of stuff.” And why did Elvis point a gun at his TV and shoot? Because Robert Goulet was on it!

Leading to places unknown

Leibovitz admitted that “Pilgrimage required a different mindset.” Rather than plan in advance, she allowed the project to lead her along to its own conclusion (Goodwin noted that everything in the book is connected with one thing leading to another and then another). The project came at the right time in her life as Leibovitz was working through difficult personal and financial issues. She seemed reflective as she described looked for meaning in the past. The book helped her “save her work” by saving her creativity.

Mastering her craft

Leibovitz’s work on Pilgrimage helped her master digital photography, finding that it offered an enticing flexibility that traditional photography did not.

Reverence towards history

Turnquist commented that both Leibovitz and Goodwin show great respect towards their historical subjects which is not always done. They sought to get people to think, creating an empathetic connection to the person, the homes they lived in, and the objects they used.

Q & A

After the conversation, the floor was opened to the audience for questions. I asked about the three dolls in the nursery of Orchard House, commenting that Lizzie’s doll in particular told me a lot about someone of whom we have precious few hard facts (she created the doll and May painted the face). Leibovitz lit up at the question, eager to share a story. She felt compelled to photograph the dolls together, for they seems as “little women,” never to be separated. The couch they were on was in great need of repair and restoration. She ended up restoring it (much to the delight of the Orchard House staff) with a black, horsehair fabric, and photographed the dolls in May’s room.

Magical. Truly magical. I was thrilled to have Leibovitz and Goodwin autograph my copy of Pilgrimage. I can hardly wait to go through it.

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

Introducing “From the Garret”

This blog has certainly been a journey! When I first started, all I wanted to do was share my love of Louisa with other fans. I never thought I would grow to love reading and writing as much as I do. It’s been a creative renaissance!

Different writers’ blogs that I follow (Jeff Goins, Michael Hyatt, Jeannine Atkins) suggest that sharing what you write with others is an excellent way to grow as a writer. So I am taking the plunge with a new page on this site,From the Garret.

Free, downloadable PDF files

The pieces featured From the Garret are longer pieces longer than the typical blog post format. They are available to you for free in PDF format. All stories and essays are free to Simply click on the title of the story or essay to download. Not all writing will directly relate to Louisa May Alcott but all work is certainly inspired by her.

Your comments are welcome

Each story or essay will be presented as a blog post so that you can leave comments. All stories will be archived on the From the Garret page. Feedback, positive or negative, is appreciated (so long as it’s polite and constructive).

Citation of work

You can also cite my work, just please give full credit to the work (Title, author, date published) and contact me to let me know. The ego boost is nice! ;-)

Your original work will also be welcome

I will also feature stories, poems and essays from Louisa May Alcott is My Passion readers. Write to me to find out how your story can be considered for publication on this blog. Stories must relate to the subject matter of the blog or be inspired by Louisa May Alcott to be considered. Every so often I will issue a challenge for writing. Let’s share the wealth!

Here is my first essay, based upon The Glory Cloak which I have posted on before. Click on the title to download the file.

Game Changer How One Book Changed My Perspective on History

Based on a reading of The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien
Submitted on June 26, 2012
Author: Susan Bailey
Format: Essay
Download PDF file

Can’t download the PDF? Write to Susan at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com to have one sent to you.

Have you ever read a book that transformed your way of thinking? Did it teach you to probe, question and read between the lines? In this essay, I write about such a book, The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, and how this historical fiction novel of Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton changed forever the way I view historical facts and how I read Little Women and other such quasi-autobiographical accounts by Alcott.

Happy reading! What did you think?

Click to Tweet and shareSusan Bailey of Louisa May Alcott is My Passion Blog has released an ebook, “Game Changer” – get it free! http://wp.me/p125Rp-10i

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

The boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life

From the pages of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag comes an intriguing memoir of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life, “My Boys.”

From one “boy” to another

Louisa had always preferred the company of boys and wished she had been born one herself.  She particularly favored the age when boys were “regarded as nuisances till they are twenty-one.” Enjoying the rough and raw edges of adolescent boys, she writes:

“I like boys and oysters raw; so, though good manners are always pleasing, I don’t mind the rough outside burr which repels most people, and perhaps that is the reason why the burrs open and let me see the soft lining and taste the sweet nut hidden inside.”

Finding acceptance

Louisa herself was certainly rough and raw and found acceptance with boys that age that she didn’t find with her own peers. Her manner was considered “queer” (her word) by most who felt she didn’t fit the mold of a Victorian woman but boys readily embraced her queerness. In Louisa, they found a friend and intimate confidant who embraced and accepted them. It was a way of accepting herself.

Fact or fiction?

“My Boys” was written after Little Women and probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There is no way of verifying the facts. However, the story reveals a warm and bighearted woman who, despite her desire to remain single, did on occasion, require the intimacy of a close friendship.

Let’s meet some of the boys in Louisa May Alcott’s life:

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Frank

Frank was Louisa’s first “well-beloved” boy. Meeting him at the age of seven, he became her constant playmate. He insisted on testing her mettle with a bit of bullying, trying his best to make her cry “by slapping my hands with books, hoop-sticks, shoes, anything that came along capable of giving a good stinging blow.” It was with great pride that Louisa did not, and he respected her for it: “‘She’s a brave little thing, and you can’t make her cry.”

Beginning with Frank, Louisa competed with any boy who was up to the challenge. She prided herself with being able to drive a hoop as tall as she around the Boston Common better than any boy.

Frank ultimately broke her little heart through betrayal, breaking up the friendship. Yet despite the pain, Louisa remembered him fondly in the story.

Christy

Here was a boy in whom Louisa could place her confidence. She met Christy while visiting relatives away from home and found him to be a tremendous source of solace. Punished by the matron for being naughty, she is banished to the garret to ponder her sins. Being Louisa, she lashed herself endlessly with guilt. Christy offers sweet solace:

“Seeing the tragic expression of my face, he said not a word, but, sitting down in an old chair, took me on his knee and held me close and quietly, letting the action speak for itself. It did most eloquently; for the kind arm seemed to take me back from that dreadful exile, and the friendly face to assure me without words that I had not sinned beyond forgiveness.”

Augustus

Louisa refers to “Gus” as her “first little lover, and the most romantic of my boys.” Fifteen at the time, she was again visiting, away from her family. Gus was seventeen and made overtures, inviting her to go berry picking. They discussed novels and poetry, and he serenaded her with his accordion while out boating.

Louisa speaks of him in a very soft and sentimental manner; it sounds like a typical summer romance. They kept in touch from time to time after parting but tragically, Augustus died young. It made me wonder if the relationship would have continued, perhaps matured, had he lived.

Alf Whitman

Louisa met Alf later in life, she being considerably older than he. He was motherless and thus, she reached out as a caring Mama. They met during her tenure with the Concord Dramatic Union (now the Concord Players), performing as Dolphus and Sophy Tetterby in the “Haunted Man” by Charles Dickens. They formed a fast and lasting friendship even after he married and had children, she always referring to Alf as Dolphus in her letters.

Certainly the two connected through their mutual interest in acting, acting being one of Louisa’s strongest passions.

According to Louisa, Laurie was based on a combination of Alf Whitman and Ladislas Wisniewski.

Alf is considered one of the inspirations for Laurie in Little Women. Louisa writes to Alf, “… I put you into my story as one of the best & dearest lads I ever knew! “Laurie” is you & my Polish boy “jintly” [sic jointly]” (from The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; associate editor Madeleine Stern).

Louisa’s Polish Boy, Ladislas Wisniewski

“Laddie” is the boy that invites the most speculation. At twenty, Laddie was thirteen years Louisa’s junior when they met in Vevey, Switzerland during Louisa’s first trip to Europe. Although again, the affection appears motherly on Louisa’s part (and he even referred to her as his “little Mamma”), it is obvious this boy meant the most to her.

Louisa’s service as a nurse in the Civil War heightened her motherly instincts, attracting her to young men who had served, especially those who were sickly. Laddie had served in the Polish Revolution and was suffering from a respiratory illness that was possibly life-threatening.

Laddie was something of a prankster, appealing to Louisa’s sense of humor. His skill as a pianist spoke to her heart.

The two companions found ways to communicate despite the language barrier: she struggled with French while he learned  English. Theirs was a warm and intimate relationship sharing their interests and passions.

The fortnight that the two spent in Paris had tongues wagging. Some scholars believe Louisa might have had a full-blown romance with Laddie.  Certainly being escorted by a young man without a chaperone all around the romantic city was daring (although she defends the action as proper, citing her age).

Louisa writes poignantly of their parting:

“… I drew down his tall head and kissed him tenderly, feeling that in this world there were no more meetings for us. Then I ran away and buried myself in an empty railway carriage, hugging the little cologne bottle he had given me.”

Laddie was to be, in part, the inspiration for Laurie (as shown by Laurie’s ability as a pianist, his European background and experiences, and his pranks).

Why adolescent boys?

So why was Louisa attracted to adolescent boys? As previously stated, she found a kindred spirit in boys this age and they accepted her wholeheartedly. With boys, she could be herself.

Her infatuations with Emerson and Thoreau offer a second explanation: safety. As a young girl “in love” with older men, she could enjoy her innocent and private fantasies without ever having to act out on them. Later, as an older spinster, she could seek out the intimate male companionship she desired without having to consider marriage and all its pitfalls.

In both cases, she never had to tread into the dangerous territory of sexual relations.

It is ironic that her younger sister May also engaged in a relationship with a younger man (Ernest Nieriker) and ended up marrying him!

Recalling the massive crush I had on my French teacher in middle school, I can attest to the satisfying nature of a fantasy relationship. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity to become friendly with this man but I deliberately kept my distance, thus preserving the fantasy. It remains a pleasant memory.

Why do you think Louisa sought out the company of teenage boys?

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Hidden treasures in Connecticut

Bronson Alcott’s birthplace at Spindle Hill, Wolcott, Connecticut

I just found this cool article about hidden historical treasures in Connecticut. Here’s a tantalizing tidbit – makes me want to go and look for it:

” ‘There are abandoned graveyards in many towns. In Wolcott there’s a cemetery, hidden in brush, that is the final resting place of members of the Alcott family.’ [says Collinsville author David Leff] including forebears of Louisa May Alcott and Bronson Alcott.”

A hidden graveyard … hmmm, another trip to add to my Alcott-related vacation which begins July 18.

This is David Leff’s book, Hidden in Plain Site. You can find out more on his website.

Click here to read the rest of the article

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Louisa May Alcott, scrapbook-style

I loved this scrapbook image of Louisa and wanted to share it with you. It comes from a cool website called Studio Girls Scrapbookgraphics and it’s a  public scrapbooking forum.

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Brontë Sisters Power Dolls!

Hah! Louisa would have loved this:

I wish these action figures actually existed, great idea!

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The million words of Bronson Alcott

Yikes!

Care to guess how many pages there are in these books? And guess what 95% of those many words are about. Goodness!

Fortunately, I’m only looking for references to Lizzie. Curious thing – there are many letters to Anna and Louisa but hardly any directly to Lizzie or May (except when all the sisters are addressed). And few references to Lizzie at all, except when she’s dying.

She really was the shadow sister! The mystery continues …

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Update

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comHow are you doing on the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge? I’ve been pecking away at the Little Women re-read along with a re-read of Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern. I’ve been keeping a casual reading journal for the latter and I’ll share some from that.

Still the best biography

Louisa May Alcott A Biography still stands for me as the definitive biography on Louisa. It was originally published in 1950 and updated in 1996.

Stern doesn’t waste a line – each one is pregnant with information! Yet, as dense as this book is, it doesn’t read as dry or scholarly, but more like a novel, and from the point of view of Louisa.

Reading from different perspectives

The first time I read this book I felt like I got into Louisa’s head and heart, living her life with her. I felt very sad when the book was done because the visit was too. But it was immensely satisfying.

This time I see it a new way. Stern’s thrust for the biography is Louisa the writer.  Every single event in her life revolves around how she can write about it. As an apprentice writer, I find this book to be an amazing teaching tool .

Here’s some examples of how Stern interpreted events as fodder for writing:

Life at Hillside

Stern describes the family’s life at Hillside as the culmination of so many of the things that fed Louisa’s happier writing. Little Women, which was based on part on that life, is a shining example.

Hillside had given Louisa a foundation of  stability to lean on for comfort during the leaner times, and fodder to draw upon for future stories.

Reading leads to doubt

Stern describes a crisis of confidence on young Louisa’s part as she read more and more of Emerson’s books from his library. She saw her limitations and stopped writing in her journal. Abba steps in to encourage her with a note in her journal:

“I’m sure your life has many fine passages well worth revealing and to me they are always precious … Do write a little each day, dear, but if a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Turning the common into the extraordinary

Stern maps out Louisa’s influences, from Thoreau for Flower Fables to the Music Hall and divas Madame Sontag and Jenny Lind for The Rival Prima Donnas, written for The Saturday Evening Gazette. She writes, “surely no experience was too unimportant to serve as grist for the author’s mill …”

In her twenties, Louisa was leading a fairly uneventful life of hard work, mostly doing things she didn’t want to do. Such a grind could snuff out the inner life but not so with Louisa. Sterns writes of Louisa’s life fueling her ambition all the more: she meant to earn her living as a writer and therefore never missed an opportunity to develop life into a story.

It shows that you can lead a common life and still pull out the uncommon insights that turn these things into the extraordinary. You just need to have the eyes to see. Louisa excelled at that skill.

That’s my update for now. Are you participating in the challenge and if so, what are you reading?

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