Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

I am grateful to be able to attend again the annual Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this year. The theme concerns talent versus genius, and the abundance of genius that existed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

I was not able to take in all five days of the series but I will present the speakers that I was fortunate enough to see.

Was Louisa a genius?

Was Louisa May Alcott a genius or merely a crackerjack professional writer? Was she both? These questions and more were explored during Monday’s session.

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

560 cathlin1

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

The first speaker was a perennial favorite, Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. Dr. Davis probably knows Louisa’s juvenile canon better than anyone with a particular emphasis on her numerous short stories.

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

Dr. Davis is passionate about elevating children’s literature to the level of respect it deserves by highlighting its most prominent authors. Dr. Davis maintained in her presentation “Is it Talent or Genius?” that Louisa’s unique genius was the ability to get inside the mind of the child and voice that child’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Before Louisa, children’s literature presented all-too-perfect children presenting moral teaching through stilted dialog. Dr. Davis compared a sample from Nathanial Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales of a twelve year old’s conversation (stiff, formal, full of long words and complex sentences) to Louisa’s An Old-Fashioned Girl featuring childish conversation laced with slang and grammatical errors; in other words, the way children of that era really talked.

Examples from Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis spelled out the qualities of talent and of genius, displaying them on a poster (see photo). She then took several examples from Louisa’s books and short stories to illustrate. These included Amy and Laurie from Little Women, Rose, Charlie, Phoebe and Mac from Rose in Bloom, Psyche and her little sister from the short story “Pysche’s Art,” Clara from “A Bright Idea” (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Volume V), and Diana and Persis. As you can see from the photo, she listed who she thought had talent and who possessed genius.

560 talent versus genius

 

Louisa herself is on that list.

Louisa’s genius was her genuine love of children, her commitment to truthfulness and accuracy, and her passion. She respected children, never writing “down” to them. These qualities were instantly recognized by her adoring public with the first publication of volume one of Little Women.

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis concluded that Louisa wrote extensively on the subjects of talent and genius. She remarked that preparing for this presentation, she realized that Rose in Bloom is not just about romance but about discovering one’s talent, determining whether or not it is genius, and using it to benefit others. While Louisa did often focus on the fine art talents of music, acting, dancing and painting, she also pointed out those talents which often go unnoticed – the talents for helping others which Rose displayed so well in the story.

True confession

rose in bloomI have a confession to make which has probably been obvious to you who read this blog regularly: I enjoy writing about Louisa more than writing about her books and stories. It is an odd disconnect, one that I am seeking to correct. Having listened to Dr. Davis’s presentation (and later having the pleasure of conversing with her over dinner), I have a better sense of what to look for when I read Louisa’s juvenile works. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into her writing.

You all of course have always known that. I felt that way about Little Women despite Louisa’s protestations about having to write it. Perhaps the author doth protest too much?

Needless to say, I have much catching up to do and a pleasant task it will be!

More to come …

In my next post I will present more about the other presenters in Monday’s session.

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6 thoughts on “Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

  1. Gina says:

    I’m sure she was proud to cash that check ;). I don’t think she hated the children’s books she wrote but I do t think her heart was in it 100%. It was a means to an end. Her family was financially secure because of them.

    She kinda reminds me of Nicholas Sparks who hates being called a romance writer yet you don’t see him changing genres cause it pays the bills.

  2. I’m so glad you got to go to some of these lectures. And I, too, hope it’s not just wishful thinking that makes us want to believe Louisa was proud of her great work, as well as the money it made. I think she was so taught to see pride as being bad that she found it hard to express it even when earned and with an ample helping of humility.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Agreed. She had to justify her art with being the breadwinner and it makes me wonder what would have happened had the family not required her money to survive and then thrive. Would she have had the motivation to pursue writing? Undoubtedly the family need molded her professionalism and gave her “permission” to write.

  3. Jill Fuller says:

    Susan, I’m the same way. I have always loved Louisa more than I love her writing (except for Little Women of course!) While I’ve always recognized that she was a trailblazer in her writing, since she wrote about children and women in such a progressive way, I’ve still found it difficult to read with a modern sensibility- stilted, overly moral, and a bit predictable. Now I want to go back and try again! I especially find it interesting to compare her stories to similar ones of the time- I’m sure that makes a lot of difference in seeing how much of a trailblazer she really was! Thanks for posting notes on this discussion!

    • susanwbailey says:

      Just like me! Now I don’t feel so weird. :-) Cathin Davis’ presentation showed me just how much more there is to see in her juvenile writing. I too found it kind of formulaic and I knew all the back stories by heart so I was kind of jaded in that area too. It will be interesting to go back and take a second, more critical look. Glad you’re enjoying the series!

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