Little Women in a changing world: Chapter Two of The Afterlife of Little Women– “Waxing Nostalgic 1900-1930,” part one

In the early twentieth century the world was changing at a breathtaking rate. As a country we moved onto the global stage with the Great War. Dazzling technological innovations created time- and work-saving devices along with new entertainment venues. Medical breakthroughs promised longer and healthier lives. Now that day-to-day survival was no longer the all-consuming task, people had time for leisure, to think and to create.

How did Little Women fare in this changing world?

Beverly Lyon Clark, in her book, The Afterlife of Little Women, indicates that people were already waxing nostalgic about Little Women even though the book was only thirty-two years old by 1900. Adults generally found the book to be “old-fashioned” while children continued to love it. (pg. 42).

Do you consider Little Women to be timely despite its age? What about the book transcends time?

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenDespite the book’s enduring popularity, Little Women was not held in high esteem by scholars mostly because children’s literature had not yet attained any status. (pg. 43). Yet G. K. Chesterton notes that there are “few women in England, from the most revolutionary Suffragette to the most carefully preserved Early Victorian, who will not confess to having passed a happy childhood with the Little Women of Miss Alcott.” (pg. 48). The universal appeal of Little Women speaks to Louisa’s genius, a genius nurtured by an upbringing combining progressive ideas with traditional values.

What are the universal themes of Little Women? Why does it still speak to you today?

gamaliel bradfordIn his essay, “Portrait of Louisa May Alcott,” Gamaliel Bradford was one of the few who praised Louisa’s artistry: “The worshippers of art for art’s sake may sneer at her but the great poets don’t necessarily deserve much more of our gratitude than those who make our souls forget by telling charming stories.” (pg. 53-54). Clark notes that Bradford observed that Louisa may have been motivated more out of a sense of duty rather than love to help her family out of poverty.

Do you consider Little Women to be a work of art? Why or why not?

Yet it is the safer traditional values of home and family that maintained the book’s popularity, generating the spinoffs of a Broadway play, two silent films and several novel series. With World War I jading the population, Little Women was likely seen as a return to “the good old days” despite being considered “too sweet” by many in the tumultuous twenties (pg. 49).

The adaptations began with children’s books. Clark writes, “If ‘publishers complain of the scarcity of good books for girls, and their readers say that no successor to Louisa Alcott has yet to come to view,’ then one approach was to reframe Little Women.” (pg. 58). She lists Seven Little Australians (1894) by Ethel Turner, Sisters Three (1900) by Jessie Mansergh, The Little Women Club by Ames Taggart, Four Little Women of Roxby, or The Queer Old Lady Who Lost Her Way (1926) by May Hollis Barton, and the four books in Gabrielle Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-14).

three little womenOf these books Clark found the Three Little Women series to be the “most interesting in how it addresses the cultural moment even as it attests the continuing significance of Little Women … For it harbors inconsistencies that speak to cultural contradictions at the beginning of the century, especially those associated with the occupational opportunities available to the New woman and the continuing expectations of domesticity, at a time when Alcott might be called ‘one of the finest of pioneer American business girls.'” (pg. 62)

A detailed analysis of this series, along with other adaptations and spinoffs (including the Broadway play as we shall see, and the silent films) begs the conclusion that while Louisa was lauded, she was not to be imitated.

What I found most interesting in Clark’s analysis was the differing interpretation of “littleness” in Alcott’s book and Jackson’s. Frances Armstrong has noted that for Alcott littleness at times entailed diminishment but at other time was a means to greatness. In Jackson’s novels–with their “little girls,” “little mothers,” “pretty little rooms,” “trembling little fingers”–diminishment is the rule.” (pg. 67)

Did Jackson miss the deeper spiritual dimension of littleness as described by Alcott? Beth was indeed “little” but she demonstrates largeness in her example of courage with the Hummels, literally risking her life to comfort the dying baby. Her tending to headless doll Joanna provides a metaphor for a more public caring of the disabled, aka, the “least of these.” In exploring the spiritual dimension of littleness, Alcott uncovers its greatness. Judging from Armstrong’s remarks, Jackson appears to have missed that point entirely, reflecting a more secular approach to the story.

How do you think Louisa viewed “littleness?” How do you feel about the character of Beth?

In part two of this post, I will discuss the Broadway play (which, by the way, is available for free through Google Play Books; it’s called “Little Women: A Comedy in Four Acts” by Marion de Forest) and silent films, and the creation of the Orchard House museum home.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women – Fiction, Fame and Romanticism 1868-1900

Continuing our discussion …

Looking at fiction

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenLittle Women was a subversive work in many ways, putting new ideas into the heads of children while managing not to upset their parents. One such idea was its endorsement of reading fiction. According to Beverly Lyon Clark, a leading authority on children’s literature, children were not encouraged to read fiction because of the way it absorbed the mind. Of Little Women‘s influence she writes, “its other oral would seem to endorse the pleasures of subverting adults’ strictures and of reveling in the glory of fiction.” She continues, “the text sets up two models for reading: readers have generally followed Jo’s enthusiastic example for their own reading even if they may endorse the moralizing model when they image how reading Little Women should affect others, especially those others are young.” (pg. 10)

If you read Little Women as a child, what was your reaction to Jo’s love of reading? Perhaps like me, you read it as an adult–did you find Jo’s enthusiasm infectious and if so, how?

Bronson’s influence

Louisa was compelled to write Little Women not only by her publisher but by her father, in part because he was promised publication of his book, Tablets, if she complied. But Bronson’s desire was genuine–he felt certain his daughter could write the perfect children’s book as he had shaped and molded Louisa and her sisters in his own image (or at least, attempted to). At any rate, he knew she would want to please him. While Bronson encouraged his daughters to read fiction, he deplored many of the books of his day. Little Women was to fulfill his desire for the perfect children’s book.

How much of Bronson’s influence do you see in Little Women despite the fact that Mr. March plays such a small role in the story?

I am currently going through my second reading of Little Women (listening, by the way, to a wonderful dramatic reading, available free on Librivox) and I see Bronson’s influence everywhere, from the use of Pilgrim’s Progress as the backdrop to the spiritual and moral lessons in the book. While Louisa could not seem to embody her father in a major character role, Mr. March is quite “present” despite his absence.

Why did Louisa May Alcott seem so approachable?

louisa readingLouisa deplored her fame even as she had wished for such as a child. Why did readers feel so bonded to her? And what was so onerous about it to Louisa?

Clark writes on page 20, “An early twentieth-century biographer declared that Alcott ‘felt the annoyances of glory more that most authors.’ But it seems likely that she was besieged more than most.” She goes on to cite sales of Little Women and writes, “Alcott was also a woman: she would have seemed more approachable than a ‘great man’ would, and … she had no wife or personal assistant to protect her. As an author whose works targeted children (as well as adults), she must have seemed more approachable still. Finally, given how autobiographical her Little Women series was, and given her willingness to call herself Aunt Jo, readers who felt intimate with the fictional Jo March seem to have felt intimate with Alcott. As an obituarist noted, ‘She wrote so much of her own life into books that she was nearer to the public than most writers.'”

Imagine yourself in Louisa’s time–would you have approached her? What would you have said to her? Do you think her fans were too intrusive?

I probably would have been too embarrassed myself to approach her and might have been disappointed in what I saw. I get the sense that Louisa could not always find it within herself to be gracious to fans. An inherently shy woman, the level of fame she experienced must have been excruciating at times. Still, that fame gave her entry into virtually any place where she could hob knob with other well accomplished and famous people. One of the things I most enjoyed about Madeleine B. Stern’s biography was how she described the pleasure Louisa sometimes took in her fame.

pickwick portfolioI think about the five Luken sisters who wrote to Louisa about the newspaper they published that was fashioned after the Pickwick Portfolio. How glorious it must have been to have the author of Little Women endorse your efforts! Louisa even made free contributions to the newspaper, impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the sisters.

Louisa the Romantic

jo writing (norman rockwell)As much as Louisa denied adopting the philosophy of her father, she could not prevent herself from living it. As Transcendentalism was influenced by the Romantic era in Europe, it makes perfect sense that drama queen Louisa (who I believe also had a martyr complex) would adopt such colorful images of herself as the artist possessed by her writing in the garret. She could not escape her upbringing no matter how hard she tried. She was excessively pragmatic in order to undo the damage of her father’s way of living that so deprived the family of material necessities and basic security. But at the same time her upbringing oozed through her writing and this is what attracted so many readers. It was so different, deep and inspiring to girls leading dull and limited lives. Jo March represented a breaking out of sorts, not only with seeking a career over marriage, but in her basic personality: her reading habits, the way she behaved, her use of the vernacular, and just the very fact that she lived her tomboy desires openly. Jo may not have always been the most likable character but she was real.

What is it about Jo March that attracts you? How has she inspired you?

I admit that Jo has not always been my favorite sister. I was first attracted to Beth as a child and always associated her name with beauty. As an adult I came to appreciate Amy as I learned more about her real counterpart, May. But now that I have become a writer, Jo is speaking to me. She hides out in the garret; I hide out in my cellar room decorated with posters of Norman Rockwell paintings of Jo. I love the whole romantic image of Jo as a writer and an artist. I relate to her bad temper, her unbridled enthusiasm and her desire to lead an uncompromising, authentic life.

There is much more in Chapter One but I will leave that for you to read in The Afterlife of Little Women. The next post will dive into Chapter Two: Waxing Nostaligic 1900-1930.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women: “Everybody’s Aunt 1868-1900″

the afterlife of little womenTime for a deep dive! Let’s examine the introduction and Chapter One of The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark.

First a disclaimer. This and subsequent posts on The Afterlife of Little Women is a summary of the notes I scribbled on the pages of Beverly Lyon Clark’s book; I am giving you the highlights of my reading experience. I cannot trace my opinions to any particular source; they simply come from my immersion in Louisa May Alcott’s life and works. Feel free to prove me wrong; the idea of this free-for-all is to have a lively discussion. Many of you know way more than I do!

Let’s begin …

Introduction

I first loved this quote from page 4: “… at the turn of the previous century, reading was both ‘an esteemed practice’ and ‘a wellspring of aspiration'; indeed, ‘at once study and play. A source of knowledge and pleasure, public performance and private dreaming, reading opened up space like no other.”

How many of you still find that true today?

It occurs to me that reading can still be that virtual trip to exotic places, interesting people and new ideas. It’s finding that quiet space to let it happen that is the challenge with technology always competing for our time.

In the introduction Clark writes, “Alcott’s critical reputation was still at a low point, but Little Women continued to be popular … Alcott’s standing … changed since 1960, in the wake of the feminist movement and of the publication of Alcott’s lost thrillers …” (pg. 7)

paulineWhy was Little Women so popular, so loved by so many, and yet couldn’t merit the critical acclaim of serious literature? Why was its author summarily dismissed as merely a children’s writer until the revelation of her potboilers?

It is ironic to me that it was her so-called “rubbish” that brought her the serious attention she deserved. It’s like she had to become a “bad girl” in order to be respected. And yet today these potboilers would be akin to the Harlequin romance.

I realize that the whole genre of children’s literature did not gain respect until recently; perhaps Little Women‘s critical standing will improve on that account.

Chapter One: Becoming Everyone’s Aunt, 1868-1900

Louisa_May_AlcottOn page 9, Clark quotes Louisa’s famous line: “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

Of this quote I would like to make two points:

First, Louisa had great difficulty in being recognized as a serious artist. While they generally cited “the thorough reality of her characters, her ‘power of intense realization and portraiture,’ ‘her thorough genuineness and steady adherence to the real,’ her being ‘truer to nature than a veritable narrative of actual events … [her work was] healthy and vigorous,'” they did not equate this with art: “Enthusiasm for the lifelikeness of Alcott’s work had its dangers; it could readily lead to dismissal of her writing as artless, a mere transcription of reality.” (pg. 33)

Why is this so? Why was it not “artistic” to represent a vibrant reality brimming with emotion? Is this still true today?

One critic from Scribners in 1871 got it right: “‘She is entitled to greater praise as an artist than has been bestowed upon her; ultimately she will be recognized as the very best painter, genre of the American domestic life in the middle classes; the very faithfulness, the aliveness–there ought to be that word–of her pictures prevents their having full justice done on them at once.'” (pg. 34)

If, as a reader, being moved to tears, laughing out loud and seething with outrage is not considered sophisticated and artistic, then count me in as unschooled, naive perhaps on what constitutes true art.

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).Isn’t art meant to challenge, to disturb, to move the heart? Doesn’t Little Women accomplish this in the guise of a simple children’s book? What do you think?

Second point: It occurred to me that to Louisa, her unusual upbringing was in fact her “normal.” What seemed mundane to her was fascinating to her readers. The only girls she knew well were her sisters, each outstanding in their own way. Her parents openly encouraged activities that most parents did not: free self expression (unless it involved anger or selfishness), cultivation of the imagination and the interior spiritual life, and independent thinking.

How I wish I could have read Little Women from the mindset of a typical girl of the 1860’s! I read it far too late, having already immersed myself in the author’s life, and I missed the book’s impact.

What was your initial reaction to Little Women when you first read it? Did you find the ideas in the book exciting, different, radical? Why did you feel that way?

Enough for now. Stay tuned for more discussion on Chapter One of The Afterlife of Little Women.

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Little Women Devotee Feast! Book Review: The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark

In 1868, a writer desperate to pull her family out of a lifetime of poverty sits down at the tiny half-moon desk in her bedroom to begin work on the book she has dreaded writing. Assigned by her publisher to write a “girl’s” book, Louisa May Alcott draws upon the lives of the only girls she ever knew: herself and her sisters. Declaring their childhood experiences “queer,” she writes a semi-autobiographical account of portions of her life through the characters of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and the brother she always longed for, Laurie. Little Women is an instant bestseller, catapulting this relatively unknown author into fame and fortune.

the afterlife of little womenThe Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark documents the stunning and continuing impact of this children’s book around the world and throughout history. This book is a sumptuous feast for every devoted Little Women/Louisa May Alcott fan. Clark, professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wheaton College and one of the leading authorities on children’s literature has put together the go-to book about the impact of Little Women on the world since its publication in 1868.

Clark takes the 147 years of the novel’s life and divides it into four historical periods:

  • Becoming Everyone’s Aunt, 1868-1900
  • Waxing Nostalgic, 1900-1930
  • Outwitting Poverty an War, 1930-1960
  • Celebrating Sisterhood and Passion since 1960

What Little Women shows us

By peering through the lens of Little Women‘s aftermath, we get a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of the day and how American society in particular saw itself. Though this lens we witness the evolution of children’s literature and its impact on Alcott’s standing as a serious writer. One point becomes clear: in the end it doesn’t matter whether Little Women is considered “great literature”; it is here to stay.

The “softening” of Little Women

Clark’s descriptions of the numerous offshoots of Little Women (including books, plays, musicals, movies and television programs) reveal a reoccurring theme: that of softening the enigmatic Jo March in favor of a focus on traditional home and family. This “softening” began with the author, allowing herself to be marketed as “Aunt Jo” by her publisher, and Roberts Brothers trifling with the text for a revised edition of the book in 1880. Edited were many of the colloquialisms in favor of a more polished dialogue. Character descriptions were modified to reflect gender ideals (as in calling Marmee “tall” rather than “stout” and “noble-looking” rather than “not particularly handsome.”) (pg. 24). As a smart businesswoman intent on making a profit, proper marketing was always in the forefront of Alcott’s mind, and her publisher’s as well. Jo March had to be maintained as a “safe” inspiration for girls.

Fun!

The Afterlife of Little Women is a must-read on so many levels. Let’s begin with the “fun” factor:

Detailed analyses of just about every derived book (including spinoffs and online fan fiction), play, musical (including an opera), movie and television program ever made about Little Women

  • Statistics regarding sales of the book throughout the years from countries around the world
  • Discussion of famous people influenced by Little Women
  • A listing and discussion of adult and juvenile biographies of Alcott
  • Translations and interpretations of the book
  • Analyses of the various illustrations
  • And of course, reviews of the work

The Afterlife of Little Women is a wonk’s paradise: every detail you ever wanted (and then some) is included in this thoroughly researched book. It documents not only the public’s response to Little Women but also those of scholars, critics and librarians. There are times when the statistical information becomes excessive but overall this does not distract from the enjoyment of this work.

What role did feminism really play?

I had two small quibbles with this book. First there seems to be an insinuation of twenty-first century feminism into the discussion, particularly with regards to plays and movies produced about Little Women in the early and mid twentieth century. Perhaps this was unconscious on Clark’s part but it appears that fault is assigned to these productions for their focus on the more mainstream themes of domesticity and romance rather than Jo’s artistic goals and independent spirit. It’s likely the mainstream audience of that era was simply not ready for the more feminist message of the story. It does however demonstrate just progressive Alcott was.

I was also disappointed that the many adult Alcott biographies that have emerged since the 1960’s received small mention (since this is a pet interest of mine). Eden’s Outcasts was singled out along with Madeleine B. Sterns’ definitive biography. I was however quite surprised that Eve LaPlante’s Marmee and Louisa did not warrant a mention; nor did Martha Saxton’s controversial work or Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter’s PBS documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women.

These are hardly fatal flaws; this book was a most entertaining and informative read (engaging this reader in a wonderful “conversation” with each page book as evidenced by the numerous comments, questions and underscores).

Little Women lives!

Little Women is a work that quite likely was an accident of genius. Clark’s book plumbs that genius through the incredible depth of interpretation explored by illustrators, reviewers, teachers, librarians, scholars and devoted fans alike. It is this level of interest that continues to ensure Little Women’s viability. The Afterlife of Little Women shows clearly why this fascinating and endearing book continues to be read and cherished as a classic.

You can find The Afterlife of Little Women on the Johns Hopkins University Press website or on Amazon.

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

In a series of posts I will be exploring each historical period covered in The Afterlife of Little Women and hope to engage all of you in a lively discussion. We will start with chapter one in a few days. Hopefully some of you will have had the opportunity to purchase and read this book. I look forward to your comments.

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See(k)ing Little Women

susanwbailey:

clarkI hope to be receiving a copy of this book from the publisher in the next few weeks and I’m really looking forward to the read! In the meantime, here are some thoughts from the author, Beverly Clark.

 

Originally posted on Johns Hopkins University Press Blog:

Guest post by Beverly Lyon Clark

When I detoured from another project to work on The Afterlife of “Little Women”I didn’t realize how long it would take—or how much fun I’d have. (Thank you, Louisa May Alcott—and happy almost-birthday!)

It’s been a treasure hunt, first of all. Consider the lost 1919 film version of the novel. No, I didn’t find a copy in some musty vault. But the film had left a paper trail in scores of newspapers and magazines. Not to mention the lobby cards advertised on eBay and the photograph in the archives of the Academy of Motion Pictures. My favorite newspaper notice focused on the love triangle between Jo March, her neighbor Laurie, and Professor Bhaer—who comes upon Jo “in the arms of another” but “wasn’t a quitter,” thanks to his “collegiate experience” . . . Doesn’t exactly sound like Alcott’s novel. Whether or not…

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Elizabeth’s form of genius; Beth’s power in Little Women (guest post by Kristi Martin)

Warning: this is a long post but I believe, well worth the time. I was so fascinated when I first heard the presentation at the Summer Conversational Series that I opted not to take notes and just enjoy it!)

560 kristi martin

Kristi Martin

At the recent Summer Conversational Series, Kristi Marti (tour guide de force; she has been a guide at nearly every major historical home in Concord) presented her paper on the genius exhibited in each of the Alcott sisters. Normally we don’t think of genius extending to the quieter sisters Anna and Elizabeth; Kristi presented a compelling argument in favor of Lizzie’s form of genius which extends in the character of Beth March in Little Women. Kristi was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper, a portion of which I am presenting here as a guest post.

From “Beth’s Stage-Struck!”: The Alcott Sisters and “the Difference Between Talent and Genius,” presented on Monday, July 14, 2014 at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House:

Surrounded by genius

560 kristi teaching2The daughters of Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott were no strangers to “Genius.” Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May were immersed within a community of New England’s most renowned literary and artistic intellects, with Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and artist Washington Allston among their parents’ dignified and intimate friends. Indeed, Hawthorne and Emerson were the Alcott family’s sometime neighbors in Concord, with Thoreau living in the same town. Like the four muses, each of the four sisters possessed striking talents in different branches of the arts: Anna possessed a passion for theater, Louisa had a gift of words and expression, which took a literary bent; Elizabeth was a musician; and, the youngest, May, was an accomplished artist …

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kristi weaves her discussion of the Alcott sisters in with the fictional March sisters. Here she begins her discussion of Beth’s importance to the story, and the real life young woman Beth was based upon:

Beth’s unsung role in Little Women

jo and beth… But Jo does have a conscience. As Beth lay ill with scarlet fever, Jo tells Laurie, “Beth is my conscience, and I can’t give her up.” (Little Women, pg. 188) With Beth confined to her sick bed it becomes clear that quiet, shy, and domestic Beth has perhaps the largest sphere of influence in the novel. “Everyone missed Beth. The milkman, baker, grocer, and butcher… even those who knew her best were surprised to find how many friends shy little Beth had made.” (Little Women, pg. 186) As Jo witnessed Beth’s physical distress, she “learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition to live for others, and make home happy by the simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.” (Little Women, 185) Meek and too often taken for granted, I contend that Beth is in fact the most powerful character in the novel. Her influence is quiet, but potent. It is Beth who suggests the girls buy Christmas presents for Marmee, rather than themselves (Little Women, pg. 7) It is Beth who sanctions Laurie’s admittance into the Pickwick Club. “Yes, we ought to do it, even if we are afraid,” Beth advises her sisters, “’I say he may come…’ This spirited burst from Beth electrified the club…” and Laurie was voted in unanimously (Little Women, pg. 108). It is Beth who makes the invalid Frank laugh more than he has in “ever so long.” Amy boasts of her sister’s captivating qualities, “Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be…,” Amy, of course “meant ‘fascinating.” (Little Women, 104) Beth’s strength is both a moral power and a useful power.

Lizzie’s sense of humor

lizzie alcott2Alcott scholars have been disappointed in the archival material left by Elizabeth Alcott. Unassuming and private, Elizabeth’s writings are not overtly revelatory when compared to the voluminous journals and letters left by other members of her family. Her family too was troubled by her quiet evasiveness, her father complaining that she hid her “feelings in silence.” (Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 247). Family biographer Bedell wrote, “One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling, and never find it.” (Bedell, pg. 248) This, however, is somewhat of an exaggeration. Alcott biographer John Matteson refers to “spirited arguments” Elizabeth had with a friend over vegetarianism, but he too concludes that Lizzie seemed “never to have wanted more from life than a quiet, comfortable smallness.” (John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, pg 186) Yet, Susan Bailey has uncovered some of Lizzie’s letters in the archives of Houghton Library, which are more telling. There is a passive aggressiveness in some of her letters to her father, the yearning for attention and affection. Other family members’ letters intimate her depression during her final illness, the “natural rebellion” that Louisa hints at in Little Women as well. Lizzie possessed a resiliency and the Alcottian humor of her mother and sisters, too. As she was dying in 1858, Louisa wrote in her journal that Lizzie was trying to keep her sister’s spirits up (The Journals, pg. 88). Louisa also delighted in Lizzie’s letters, telling Anna that Lizzie “writes me the funniest notes.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 9). This sense of humor comes through strongly in one of Lizzie’s extant letters written to her family, while she and her mother Abba were traveling for Lizzie’s health. Lizzie teasingly admonishes her father that if “he grows thinner on her account … I shant write any more letters … and he will not know how I am. It must seem so good not to have to run every minute to my bell or hush all the time. I know you miss your little skeleton very much don’t you.[sic]”. Telling of her journey, she recalled a woman who “put her head” into the carriage “very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long.” She seems to have disliked the impertinent concern of some: “Miss Hinkley came in, and was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me, she will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit,” (Letter, August 6, 1857; see previous post with entire letter) sounding like Louisa.

Was Lizzie actually like Beth?

beth and jo march from little womenDistinctly unlike Beth in Little Women, who “was too shy to enjoy society,” (Little Women, pg. 380) at the seashore, Lizzie was ecstatic at the idea of visiting the ocean. She wrote, “Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn.” Far from not wanting a world beyond her home, she declared that she was “not homesick one grain,” but enjoying herself at the Sewall home in Boston. She reported that she played checkers in the evening, and went often to Boston Common in company with Tom, which was “delightful.” In this letter, Lizzie did not seem to shrink from society, but rather to observe those around her. As with the woman in the carriage, Lizzie wrote of her cousin Mary: “She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food…” Those around Elizabeth seem to have been concerned and solicitous for her comfort and welfare. (Letter, August 6, 1857) Like Beth, Lizzie seemed to make friends wherever she went. Louisa wrote after the funeral that the family had longed for their uncle Samuel May or Theodore Parker to preside over the service, remarking that Parker “loved Lizzie and always missed her face when she was not at church.” (The Letters, 33)

Making sense out of death

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

In Little Women, Beth is able to die peacefully, content in the knowledge that “her life had not been useless.” (Little Women, pg. 427) She entreated Jo to take her place in the household, assuring her, “you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world.” (Little Women, pg. 428) Both Beth and Lizzie’s death is presented as “the good death.” Like “Sylvia” in Alcott’s Transcendental novel Moods, Beth/Lizzie “proved that she did know how to die,” a Thoreauvian principle, that Alcott envisioned as “strength purified and perfected…,” an “unconscious power, which we call influence of character .. which is the nobelest.” Alcott, Louisa May. Moods. (Ed. Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pg. 203) Both Beth and Sylvia’s deaths, perform an Emersonian compensation, in which the true purpose is gained within a seeming loss. It is Beth, the domestic character, who is Jo’s conscious. Beth thus comes to represent true genius in the novel, which in Alcottian terms is the higher conscious that she embodies. In giving writing advice to an admirer, Louisa quoted Michael Angelo: “Genius is infinite patience.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 231) It is Beth/Lizzie who exemplified infinite patience, both in the novel and real life. When Jo finally has success with her writing, it is only when she writes a story with “truth in it,” and she credits her parents and Beth for the goodness that is in her book. (Little Women, pg. 446)

How do you feel about Beth’s role in Little Women? Did she possess genius? Were you surprised at the sauciness of the real life Elizabeth?

Kristi also had many interesting things to say about May Alcott which I will present in the next post.

2014 Summer Conversational Series: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius

john matteson1The Conversational series welcomed back a perennial favorite in John Matteson whose Pulitzer-prize winning book Eden’s Outcasts is a standard in Alcott scholarship. He has also written a fine book on Margaret Fuller called The Lives of Margaret Fuller; she was the focus of his presentation entitled “ ‘The Mind in the Full Glow of Power’: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius.”

Was Fuller a genius?

Fuller tackled an age-old problem: was genius for men alone? Although Fuller was probably the best-educated woman in America, she denied herself the mantle of genius. It was a source of great consternation to her; more on that a little later.

The evolving definition of genius

Matteson gave a brief history of the definition of “genius” and how it has evolved over the centuries. It was originally associated with pagan belief (coming from a more magic realm) and was considered contrary to the scriptures. It was generally believed that Genius was a personal god, directing the individual, a belief that endured in Fuller’s time. The meaning then morphed into what was considered a “good” genius versus an evil genius. Some felt genius was influenced by the stars.

The root of genius

Matteson pointed out that Genius and Genesis have the same root; Genesis only allows for one genius, God. Genius is polytheistic, each person having it. Therefore, Genius was considered a heresy since it was perceived to be against God.

Influence of Romanticism

samuel taylor coleridgeThe Romantic Movement influenced the change in the definition of genius. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a major influence in the Transcendental Movement, had a lot to say about genius, following up on Kant. Coleridge connected genius to the spiritual and the artistic. Talent was appropriating the knowledge of others whereas genius was original.

Genius and Transcendentalism

Genius to the Transcendentalist was divine in origin. Coleridge felt that genius needed be controlled whereas Emerson saw no need for genius to be hindered. Coleridge felt that genius was for men only but there were feminine traits. Genius is meant to inspire awe and the sublime; thus the results of genius were large and by nature, public, which placed it out of reach of women who never meant to be in the public sphere.

Unfulfilled potential

Fuller’s father was responsible for her incredible education but then felt he had created a “monster” and set her off to finishing school. Although she edited The Dial for Emerson’s Transcendental community, she was never paid for her work. Once she reached New York she was hired by a major newspaper as a correspondent. It was there that her gifts were finally appreciated and compensated.

Was there a genius to be found in America?

margaret fullerFuller felt that America had yet to produce a poetic genius. American literature and knowledge was yet to be respected. She felt that America’s diversity hindered its growth (moral and intellectual) with regards to talent and the higher pursuits. She did not find her criteria of genius being met in any American woman.

Fertile ground for genius

Transcendentalism felt that genius was the ultimate goal; Affiliated with this movement, Fuller used her conversation classes to cultivate and seek out genius in women. She discussed the meaning of gender thoroughly along with the question of genius. She also took up the quest of education for women. She did not see a lot of difference between what girls learned versus what boys learned but as Matteson pointed out, her training was unique. In general the education of girls was broader and shallower. Men were expected to “reproduce” what they learned; this is neglected for women. Fuller took up conversations to cultivate and grow education for women so that they too could “reproduce.”

Fear of genius

Female education led in the opposite direction from genius; male education cultivated talent but not genius. Creating something original was not encouraged, perhaps a leftover bias from the religious culture due to fear of the intellect.

Was genius moral?

Fuller maintained that genius demanded two forces – mad passion and ordered consistency. Genius was not merely to be held in awe but to be feared. While Channing held that genius was the highest order of good, Fuller believed there was a moral indifference with genius sometimes delighting in evil. It occurred to me that if genius was considered amoral, even evil, it would make sense why society would not associate it with women who were commissioned to tame their men and make them adhere to moral values. How could a woman do that and be a genius?

No women geniuses?

the lives of margaret fullerFuller believed that a woman should cultivate her talents and intellect. A female genius was possible but she never was able to identify any woman as such. As an example, Fuller was well versed with music but could not name a woman composer.

Genius out of reach?

Fuller did not believe she was a genius despite the fact that she felt herself to be one of the greatest minds in the country. This was devastating to her. Her father saw the potential and crammed her head with everything possible. Her sense of self and her emotional well-being depended on the growth of her potential. She did not see herself however as original and this was very hard for her.

Did no one measure up?

Transcendentalism was infused with the binary, such as genius versus talent, finite versus infinite, etc. In Emerson’s mind one had to be a genius to be a part of his circle; therefore he obviously felt that Fuller was a genius. Fuller tasted all the loneliness of being exceptional but never the satisfaction of being exceptional. If she was not a genius, could anyone achieve it? Her own mind was the yardstick, the utmost development of the female mind and yet she did not believe herself to be a genius; thus there were no women she could call a genius.

Promoting genius

If Fuller could not be a genius, she would promote others who were, using her writing skills; she became a critic (he critic is the younger sibling of genius). She believed as a critic that she must be well-versed in all the forms she critiqued. For example, she could not critique a poem if she was unable to write one herself. The critic must be very observant. Fuller was the chief critic for a NY publication.

The ideal for women and men

Like many women, Fuller believed women were imprisoned by being subservient; she also believed that men too were imprisoned because of this concept. Her ideal was that men and women would relate to each other as equal partners so that both could be freed from convention (something Louisa desired, writing about it in Work A Story of Experience through the marriage of Christie and David). Parties would meet mind to mind; mutual trust would be needed. Seeing marriage as an intellectual communion, it would become a pilgrimage. Fuller married later in life (though a legal marriage has never been confirmed) to Giovanni Ossoli, a younger man she met as a foreign correspondent in Italy. One wonders if she found that intellectual communion she sought in a partner and how that marriage would have fared had she lived longer; tragically she, Giovanni and their baby were drowned in a shipwreck.

Can each of us possess a little genius?

As all of us listened, wondering if genius existed in us or perhaps lamenting that it did not, Matteson ended his presentation on a hopeful note: Fuller did not believe one had to be a genius to possess genius. It is entirely possible to cultivate our own genius.

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