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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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

bronson-abba

Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1953 to 1958. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.

bronson-abba

Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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The reality of the one-room schoolhouse makes Bronson Alcott look pretty good …

Ever long to go to school as a child in a one-room schoolhouse? Sound romantic?

old-brick-one-room-school-house-c-wayne-hennebertThe school of Bronson Alcott’s childhood

Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts: Biography of a Family described the nature of school in the days of Bronson’s childhood (early 1800s in Connecticut). If you were a child, would you want to be where:

  • The unshaded and unprotected house was isolated and “poor in appearance,” measuring only seven feet high and twenty-two by twenty feet in area and furnished with hard benches
  • The house was “particularly exposed to the bleak winds of winter” and the “scorching rays of summers sun” (according to Bronson’s cousin William)
  • Students were crowded around the fireplace to keep warm; green wood sent up “furious fumes of smoke:
  • Students could barely breathe in the summertime because of poor ventilation and heat in the small room
  • “No matter what the season, the air was always dank with noxious fumes.” (Bedell’s words)

one room schoolhouseNot an inviting place

Bedell said it best: “Such was the famous one-room schoolhouse of early America, a place where children were considered, in Jonathan Edwards’ favorite phrase, to be ‘young vipers,’ and in the words of a satire of the times, were taught ‘not to read, but fear and tremble …” (The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 10).

The object of school was to cram facts into the minds of the young. Everything was about memorizing, not about understanding.

Maybe Bronson’s idea of the one-room schoolhouse would intrigue you:

  • books and slateA library of over one hundred volumes
  • The schoolroom decorated with flowers and pine boughs
  • Your own slate and desk
  • Learning geography not from maps of the world but by making a map of the schoolyard
  • Learning arithmetic by assembling beans and blocks of wood rather than writing figures on a blackboard
  • Learning how to read by associating pictures with words
  • Recess! Gymnastics!

(Ibid, pg. 17)

Ahead of his time

This was Bronson’s first classroom in Cheshire, CT. Even though educators came from all over to see it (and one proclaimed it “the best common school in the state—probably in the United States”) local parents did not understand and eventually switched their children to other, more typical schools. Bronson was seen as having too much influence over their children because he took the time to relate to them as cherished human beings.

Good things to come

The Temple School

The Temple School

The herald of greater things to come (the Temple School) and a most opportune meeting (Abba Alcott because of an invitation by brother Samuel Joseph May).

Many of Bronson’s “crazy” educational ideas were eventually incorporated into reforms enacted in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Sometimes I wish I could have experienced Bronson Alcott as a teacher. He must have been amazing.

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Reading is a love affair. Just ask Bronson Alcott.

pilgrim's progressBronson Alcott’s favorite book of a lifetime was John Bunyon’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He discovered it when he and his cousin William had begun to search through the homes of their neighbors for discarded books in order to create their own library. As a small child, tracing his letters in the sand on the floor,  his mind became “fired with the love of letters.” Visiting his uncle Tilly, Bronson saw his first wall full of books. The lifelong love affair had begun.

He found his true love while assembling his library with  William. He wrote the following about it when he was nearly forty:

christian from pilgrim's progress“O charming story! dear delightful book! This book is one of that few that gave me to myself … It is associated with reality. It unites me with childhood and seems to chronicle my Identity, How I was rapt in it How gladly did I seat myself, after the days labours on the farm, in the chimney niche, with the tallow candle in my hand, and pore over its enchanting pages until late in the night! That book was incorporated into the very substance of my youthful being, I thought and spoke through it.” (from The Alcotts: Biography of a Family by Madelon Bedell, pg. 11)

How well Bronson expressed the love story with books that we as readers experience. My little “chimney niche” is the corner of the couch where I have a reading lamp and a stack of pillows to lean on as I read. I also have a special reading chair in my son’s old room in the basement, an overstuffed Laz-e-boy recliner, when I really want to retreat from the world.

Bronson passed down his love to his children, helping to form one of the world’s most beloved writers of children’s books. If that is his only legacy (and it’s not), that’s a fine one indeed.

Where is your “chimney niche?” What book(s) did you read as a child that became your true love?

Have you read The Pilgrim’s Progress? What did you think of it?

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Cynthia Barton’s Transcendental Wife on the life of Abigail Alcott a must read

Reading Eve LaPlante’s duo biography on Abigail and Louisa in Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, I kept seeing references to a little-known book about Abigail titled Transcendental Wife by Cynthia Barton, published in 1996. Having just finished the book, I can see why LaPlante and other Alcott scholars return again and again to this book.

Just about Abigail

transcendental wife cynthia barton0001Transcendental Wife is difficult to find but well worth the effort. Devoted to the life of Abigail May Alcott, Barton writes with economy staying laser focused on her subject which is Abigail alone. If you want to find out more about Louisa, you won’t find it here, at least not directly. By learning about Abigail, you will see how and why Louisa emerged to be the woman and writer she is now known to be.

No victim

The unintended tendency of biographers has been to portray Abba as a perennial victim of her difficult husband Bronson. Barton instead emphasizes Abigail’s hard fought victories, revealing a woman strengthened in her sense of self through adversity. The grueling poverty endured by the family as a result of a failed utopian experiment (Fruitlands) and a husband unable and/or refusing to support his family serves to hone Abba into a strong and independent woman. Once doubting her abilities to support her family both financially and emotionally, she emerges the victor.

Unyielding

abbaIn Barton’s description, Abba is, in fact, complicit with Bronson. She loved him to the end, for his principles and his dedication to them, and as a man. This was despite her many misgivings about his schemes and his inability to provide for the family. But as Barton pointed out during Abba’s stint as a social worker in Boston, Abba was equally dedicated to her principles and like Bronson, “failed” in her employment because of those principles: “Neither she nor Bronson would compromise their ideals. Both had found suitable work [he as headmaster of the Temple School, she as a social worker]; both had failed because of ‘the false requisitions of society …’” (Transcendental Wife, pg. 153)

Equal standing

Abba’s growing confidence in her abilities allowed her to evolve to a position of equality with her husband in every respect. Once worshipping Bronson’s morality and spirituality as a disciple, she grew to understand that her own practical brand of morality, of philanthropy, was equal in goodness to his mystical ideals. She was just as committed to reform as he. They both practiced their principles in the extreme, often placing their family in jeopardy, he condemning them to poverty, she exposing them to small pox and scarlet fever.

The ultimate reformer

abbaThe most compelling chapter in the book documents Abba’s work as a social worker, laying out a relentless and powerful argument demonstrating her commitment to reform. Abba’s view of reform gave the poor a name. They were not the masses, they were individuals who came into her home and partook of her bread. They were the young girls counseled to avoid a life of prostitution in favor of honorable employment. They were the hard luck cases, those who were out of work due to their own fault. They were even the much maligned Irish who, once Abba came to know them individually, were worthy of a new start.

A life well lived

Barton uses the last chapter to show the success of Abigail’s struggles. Pouring herself into her girls, she was able to take great pride in their success as useful, productive and happy women: Anna, content and competent in her chosen domestic life, Louisa, world-famous author and dutiful daughter, fulfilling her promise to care for her mother to the end, and May, accomplished artist, happily married and independent living her dream in Europe.

Deeply loved

abba graveAbba carried Lizzie in her heart, longing to be buried next to her in Sleepy Hollow. That wish was eventually granted. Louisa recalled a visit to the cemetery, “Among the tall grass over her breast a little bird had made a nest. Empty now, but a pretty symbol of the refuge that tender bosom always was for feeble and sweet things. (Ibid, pg. 172)

Transcendental Wife can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble but it is pricey. It’s worth the cost however if you are seriously interested in the Alcott family; I highly recommend this book as essential reading. It is cited by many Alcott scholars and for good reason.

Click to Tweet & ShareCynthia Barton’s Transcendental Wife on the life of Abigail Alcott a must read http://wp.me

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part four: The All-American Novel makes a cherished dream come true

COVERLittle did Louisa May Alcott know that when she wrote Little Women, her classic book based upon her own family life and their “queer” adventures, she was writing the story that was on the heart of all Americans.

Universal family

It was time when American yearned for its own literature, its own family. The March family was quintessential New England and yet their story transcended New England, having, as Madeleine Stern put it, “a more universal reality than that of a single village.”

The emerging adolescent

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenCharacters were composites, real people sprinkled with fiction. For the first time teenaged readers met themselves: adolescent characters navigating through the daily trials and triumphs, emerging into adulthood.

Four different journeys

Meg begins her own family with John. Jo strikes out on her own as a working woman and writer, living far away from home New York City. Amy evolves into a woman of grace, leaving behind selfish impulses and eventually leading Laurie to his better self. Beth was not destined to enter the world of adults but left behind an example and a spirit that guided her sister Jo to a place where she could reconcile her ambitions with her love of family.

Universal home

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Stern writes, “Then the families of the nation might open the door of Hillside to find not the Marches, but themselves waiting within. Under the roof of one New England home, they would see all the homes of America.”

Surviving manuscript

Writing at astonishing speed (completing one chapter each day), Louisa filled the lined blue papers with a story “that knew no bounds of geography, no limits of time.” Some of this manuscript survives, ready for viewing in the Special Collections room at the Concord Library.

Determined spinster

Louisa_May_AlcottPart two of Little Women, dubbed Good Wives, was written not at Orchard House but in Boston on Brookline Street. The demands of readers were great, such was the price of success, a success she had dreamed of since being a teenager herself. Yes, the girls would marry even though she wished that Jo could have remained like herself, a “literary spinster.” It was not from lack of suitors. George Bartlett, a fellow actor in the local theatricals, offered his help in reading the proofs of the first part of the book and his help was gratefully accepted. His attentions upon the “chronic old maid,” however were politely rebuffed.

A fancy hotel and a simple story

FileHotelBellevue-Boston-BlueBook1905.pngMoving with May into the new Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street, Louisa continue work on the second half of the book while receiving her first royalties totally three hundred dollars for three thousand copies sold. Here she relived the pain of Lizzie’s death, brought Amy and Laurie together in a boat they would pull together and had Professor Bhaer serenade Jo with the song Louisa herself had sung for Mr. Emerson.

Dream come true

Stern writes, “Devoutly Louisa hoped that the new year of 1869 would bring to the Orchard House a happy harvesting from the tears and laughter she had sowed in the book where she had found her style at last.” It would come to pass with a harvest pressed down, shaken together, and running over, as it says in the scriptures. “The long-standing hurts were healed, the reception of the March family into the hearts of New England proved a timely restorative to one who had created that family.”

Dreams do come true (just ask any Red Sox fan!).

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Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part three: Can you tell what’s real and what is made up?

Little Women  has been called autobiographical because Louisa May Alcott used so many episodes from her own childhood and that of her family to create the story. But where does fact end and fiction begin? Or does it even work like that?

Stern says, “Fact was embedded in fiction, and a domestic novel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood.”

True or False?

play and amy and joLet’s have a little quiz, True or False – is the following a real episode or fiction? Warning: the answer isn’t always black and white so pick True if it’s more black than white and False if the opposite.

Copy the entire list and then put TRUE or FALSE after the statement and we’ll compare notes.

  1. Hannah the servant
  2. The Christmas play (“The Witches’ Curse, an Operatic Tragedy)
  3. Amy burns Jo’s manuscript
  4. Marmee’s temper
  5. Amy falling through the ice
  6. Jo pinching Meg’s papered locks before the ball
  7. Meg being dressed up as a doll at Annie Moffat’s
  8. Amy bewailing her pickled limes
  9. Beth receiving the piano from Mr. Lawrence
  10. Mr. March’s illness
  11. Jo sells her hair.
  12. Beth wasted away and died peacefully.
  13. Jo published her first story, “The Rival Painters.”
  14. Amy writes her own will.
  15. Jo rejects Laurie’s love.

Answers in the next post. Good luck!

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Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part two: Lots of borrowing

little women in the garretLouisa May Alcott was never bashful about borrowing from previous stories to flesh out Little Women. Several short stories set the stage for the classic: “The Sisters’ Trial” (four sisters, Leonore, Agnes, Ella and Amy facing going out to work to deal with the family’s poverty), “A Modern Cinderella” (depicting Anna and John as Laura and Di), “In the Garret,” a poem featuring Nan, Lu, Bess and May, and “Living on an Omnibus” which introduced the poor Hummels (pgs. 435, 437, Little Women Norton Edition, from Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine B. Stern).

Dull?

Mining her vast storehouse of memories, Louisa transcribed her childhood, mixing fiction seamlessly with fact to create a compelling story. Both she and Thomas Niles, her publisher, felt the book was “dull” after the first twelve chapters, but Niles’ niece and other children who read the manuscript had different ideas. Louisa may not have enjoyed the creative satisfaction of churning out Little Women as she had with her A. M. Barnard thrillers, but her pen was creating sheer lightning in the guise of simple truth and family devotion.

Laurie’s composite

Characters and settings from the book were composites of real people and events. Stern writes of Laurie:

Laurie would inherit from Ladislas [Wisniewski, Louisa’s love interest from her first tour of Europe] his curly black hair and big black eyes, his musical skill, and his foreign background, while Alf [Whitman, a lifelong friend from Louisa’s theater days] would endow him with high spirits and a sober kind of fascination. (Ibid, pg. 436).

laurie2

A stew of plays

“The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy,” performed by the March sisters on Christmas night consisted of the following:

She [Louisa] would take Hagar from “The Unloved Wife,” Hugo from “Norna; or, The Witch’s Curse,” Zara from “The Captive of Castile,” and miraculous potions from “Bianca,” evolving a composite melodrama entitled “The Witch’s Curse, an Operatic Tragedy.” (Ibid)

comic tragedies2-horz

Personal letters and writings

Mr. March’s letters came from Bronson’s writings while living at “Concordia” (just before they embarked on Fruitlands) while Marmee’s notes to her daughters originated from jottings in the girls’ various journals. Louisa’s “The Olive Leaf,” a family newspaper created while the family lived in destitution in Boston as a means of entertainment, became “The Pickwick Portfolio,” carrying with it the various Dickensian characters. (Ibid)

Real? Fiction? Who cares?

What was real and what was fiction? Did Amy (May) really burn Jo’s (Louisa’s) manuscript? Did she really fall through the ice? Did Anna have the experience of Meg, being dressed up like a doll by her wealthy friends? Stern writes,

It scarcely mattered. Fact was embedded into fiction, and a domestic noel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood. (Ibid, pg. 437)

Mining for gold

The deeper one digs, the more universal will be the concept. This is advice I was given from a successful writer. And while Louisa may have felt she was only regurgitating old memories, she was in fact, digging deep into a mine and producing gold. It merely took representing adolescent girls as they really were, warts and all.

Much more to come …

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part one

madeleine stern lmaI have always maintained that Madeleine B. Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography is the standard bearer. Tracing the life of Louisa the writer, Stern gives penetrating insight not only into Louisa’s life, but her very essence as a writer. As a writer myself, I have found much wisdom in these pages and have marveled at Louisa’s ability to “simmer a story” in her head while fulfilling duties around the house, and then sitting down later to spill it out, completed on paper, without editing. I try emulate the simmering part, at least, often working out what I want to write vocally as I am driving (yes, I’m one of those crazies you see on the highway, arms flying, face animated with talk. I love my hour long commute!).

The birth of Little Women

little women norton versionRecently I was going through Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) and found Stern’s brilliant chapter on the creation and writing of Little Women. I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I knew I just had to share what I found with you.

Oliver_Optic_-_All_AdriftStern relays the facts of the birth of Little Women, how Thomas Niles of Roberts Bros. urged Louisa to try her hand at a girl’s book, hoping to duplicate the runaway success of the “Oliver Optic” series for boys. I had always wondered why he approached Louisa as she didn’t have any direct experience in writing for juveniles and Stern reveals why:

“She [Louisa] have proved her ability to report observations in Hospital Sketches; she had indicated her powers of appealing to juvenile readers in her editorship of  Merry’s Museum. Could not Miss Alcott combine both talents in a domestic novel that would reflect American life for the enjoyment of American youth? (pg. 434, Little Women, Norton Edition).

Louisa’s unique abilities

merry's museum 1868Louisa saw no trick in writing for children: simply tell the truth. Describe life as it is, using the real language of children (slang and all). For Louisa, it was a simple calculation. Wisely deciding to write what she knew, she drew upon the rich history of her own childhood.

A model family

Stern describes Bronson’s ideal of the “happy, kind and loving family, a home where peace and gentle quiet abode.” (Ibid, pg. 435). Little Women was to be the depiction of that ideal home. Although the Alcott home life was often be fraught with anxiety and chaos due to poverty, there was plenty to build upon in Little Women based upon the ideal that they attempted to live. On occasion, that ideal did play out.

Knowing their angels

Bronson and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in Louisa’s ability to relate to children; Waldo, who had seen a teenaged Louisa tell stories to his children, had called her the “poet of children, who knew their angels” (Ibid). Certainly Bronson had something to gain by Louisa’s agreeing to write the story as Robert Bros. promised to publish his book, Tablets, if she agreed. But he had urged her for years to write good stories for children as the nurturing of the minds of the young was nearest and dearest to his heart. If he could no longer do it, perhaps his daughter could take up the mantle through her gift with a story.

Where to begin

Stern writes, “The door was Hillside’s.  Could Louisa open it, recover those despised recollections of childhood, and find in the biography of one foolish person the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the universal history?” (Ibid)

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

We shall see. To be continued.

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