Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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Getting to know the women who discovered Louisa’s alias as A. M. Barnard

I discovered a wonderful article about Madeleine Stern and Leona  Rostenberg in a journal for the Independent Online Bookseller’s Association. This group, the IOBA, features articles about antiquarian (aka old) book collectors and sellers.

Rostenberg and Stern are best known for their discovery of Louisa May Alcott’s secret life as A. M. Barnard. Under that pen name she wrote many “blood and thunder” thrillers, considered risqué in her day. Such thrillers include short stories like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” (which won the $100 prize from Frank Leslie’s magazine).

Stern assembled these stories into a book, Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, in 1972.

These “blood and thunder” stories supported Louisa and her family for many years until she wrote Little Women which would make her financially independent for life.

Here then is an excerpt from the article about  Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern – there will be a link at the end of excerpt where you can read the rest.

from the IOBA Standard
The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Rostenberg & Stern: An Appreciation

September 9, 2011
By Christine Lowenstein Fall 2011 (Vol. X, No. 2)

If, like me, you haven’t been born into a family that boasts generations of booksellers, if bookselling isn’t in your blood, you can always learn from the past. Reading the memoirs of those booksellers who came before us can be as edifying as it is entertaining. There are many to booksellers from which to choose, but two in particular can inspire and educate: Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern. Lifelong friends and business partners, the two ran their antiquarian book business, Rostenberg & Stern Rare Books, for 60 years and wrote dozens of books between them. They conducted some of the finest literary scholarship of their time and did much to promote the antiquarian book trade, participating in the ABAA (Rostenberg as President from 1972-1974) and founding the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, held annually since 1960. They may be the only two antiquarian booksellers ever to have a musical penned in their honor, Bookends, written by Katharine Houghton and performed at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch in 2007.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

The American Library Association Louisa May Alcott Project: A DVD and Book Start a Movement

In May of 1868, a publisher asked an author to write a book specifically targeted “for girls.” His plan was twofold: to capitalize on this up-and-coming author’s growing popularity, and to capture a corner of a brand new genre of children’s literature. The author begrudgingly obliged, and ended up producing one of the best selling, and best loved novels of all time. The novel was Little Women and its author, Louisa May Alcott. Little Women made Alcott famous, but pigeon-holed her into the juvenile market when in fact, she had so much more to offer.

Now in 2011, The American Library Association (ALA) in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is launching a bold initiative. With the goal of exposing to the public the multi-faceted and still relevant writings of Alcott, grants have been awarded to 30 libraries around the country for a five-part series of educational programs featuring the 2009 documentary and companion biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, produced and directed by Nancy Porter, and produced and written by Harriet Reisen. (see complete list of libraries in previous post)

On March 4, a national workshop was held at the Omni Parker House in Boston with these librarians and their scholars to kick off this initiative.

Speakers included Porter and Reisen, and preeminent Alcott scholar Professor Daniel Shealy from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Professor Shealy has edited several books on Alcott including her journals and selected letters (along with Joel Myerson and Madeleine Stern), correspondences from Alcott and her sister May from their grand tour of Europe, and commentary from Alcott’s own peers. (see list in My Growing Library).

Jan Turnquist, director of Orchard House (the Alcott home in Concord, MA) spoke briefly about the historic homestead.

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Situated in the Louisa May Alcott room of the Parker House, the participants were introduced to events of the day by Susan Brandehoff of the ALA Public Programs Office. Along with talks by the scheduled speakers, librarians and scholars would have a chance to share program ideas and concerns in breakout sessions. David Weinsten, Senior Program Officer, Division of Public Programs, NEH, also made some opening statements.

The Women Behind Louisa May Alcott
The Woman Behind Little Women

Porter and Reisen then made their presentation, showing clips from the documentary and reading excerpts from the book. Porter gave a brief history of the origins of the documentary, explaining why she and Reisen chose Alcott, saying, “It was the project closest to our hearts.” After 5 years of fundraising and many years of research, the documentary was completed. Screening was delayed so that the book could be completed and in 2009, the film debuted on PBS stations across the country.

Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women showed many sides of Alcott which the public was not so familiar with, such as her service as a Civil War nurse, her success as a pulp fiction writer (“blood and thunder tales” as she dubbed them) under an assumed name (A.M. Barnard), her love life with a Polish lad, and the real story behind the writing of Little Women. Reisen shared stirring excerpts from her book about Alcott’s days as a nurse in the war and how journal entries eventually became Hospital Sketches, the book that would define her realistic writing style, and establish her as a successful author.

The Scope of Alcott’s Writing

Professor Daniel Shealy gave a fascinating talk on the depth and scope of Alcott’s writing. Stating that “Alcott knew her audience well,” he described how easily she adapted to different genres so that she could earn a living as a writer to support her family. Pointing out that “timing is everything,” he described the blossoming of the publishing industry in the mid 19 century, the plethora of new magazines, and the introduction and growth of children’s literature, all of which made it possible for Alcott to succeed in her profession.

Shealy gave a brief outline of several lesser known works to illustrate his point: “The Rival Prima Donnas,” “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” “V.V. or Plots and Counterplots,” and “Behind a Mask”.

In describing her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales written for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s young daughter, Ellen, Shealy maintained that Alcott’s tales redefined fantasy even though the tales are still largely ignored today. Alcott’s fantasies, set in nature, contained a strong moral fiber that was missing from the more famous European fairy tales of authors such as Grimm. She continued to write fantasy right up until her death in 1888.

Shealy pointed out another side of Alcott that makes her so relevant today – her dedication to social reform and women’s rights. She did not believe in a separate “women’s sphere,” so popular in the 19th century, but believed that women needed to be financially independent. Decidedly a spinster, she wrote at length about marriage and its affect on women and men (since in the 19th century, marriage made women the property of their husbands). She was a passionate abolitionist, holding radical views about the true equality of all races.

Brainstorming at Breakout Sessions

After an hour for lunch, the librarians and scholars attended breakout sessions to discuss ideas for programs. Programs needed to fit into a five-part criterion: (see ALA website for detailed list)

  • Louisa May Alcott: Through Her Eyes – A community-wide library event focusing on the life, work, and times of Louisa May Alcott
  • Louisa May Alcott Wrote That? Reading and scholar-led discussion of Alcott’s lesser-known works
  • Louisa May Alcott: Literary Phenomenon and Social Reformer
  • Film screening – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
  • Reading and discussion of the biography – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Some of these ideas included day-long festivals (“Alcott Extravaganza” and “LouisaFest”) featuring costumes, food and music of the period, children’s activities, tours, story-telling and dramatic presentations. There was a thematic trend to the programming including a focus on the Civil War, health and fitness (Alcott was a runner and a vegetarian), the impact of 19th century clothing (most especially corsets) on women and what Alcott revealed in her writing about that topic, women in the military, women’s rights and the vote, the abolition of slavery, and writing in the 19th century including Transcendentalist writings and pulp fiction.

Issues regarding the logistics of some of the criterion were discussed and ironed out both in the breakout sessions, and in the general group discussion at the end of the day.

Beyond the workshop . . .

By the end of the workshop, participants were fired up to begin their programs in their home libraries. A camaraderie fueled by everyone’s enthusiasm and love of Alcott was palpable. A Google list, established before the workshop, will work to keep everyone informed of the progress of the programs, and the reaction from the public. Ultimately is it hoped that a richer understanding of the scope and depth of both Louisa May Alcott’s writings and her extraordinary life will be conveyed to the public, sparking greater interest in this pioneer woman author and her lesser known works.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”

I’m currently reading chapter 6 in Susan Cheever’s book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography which focuses on the years of 1863-65 when Louisa would serve as a nurse in the Civil War, and taste her first literary successes. Louisa had been writing her “blood and thunder” tales to earn money for “the pathetic family” and many believe these stories provided escape and pleasure for her as well, even as she referred to them as “rubbish.” I just read my first one, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” winner of the $1oo prize in 1863 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a pulp weekly similar to the National Enquirer today (minus the TV and movie celebrities).

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” is pretty mild stuff if you read it from the perspective of a 21st century reader. It helps to have some idea of what life was like and what was expected of men and women in the 1860s to truly appreciate this story. I know some but found myself wishing (as I did while reading Little Women) that I knew so much more so that I could feel the full impact.

However, I still found it to be a satisfying psychological thriller and marveled yet again at how carefully Louisa lays out the story so that it achieves the maximum effect. It requires some preliminary details which I found a bit boring, but I knew they were necessary for the “good stuff” later on. What I liked was that I never was really sure how this story would end up (and I had to avoid reading the ending in Cheever’s book and in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask, where this story is found.) As I read on, I became more and more interested and found the very last page of the story to be very satisfying. In one sense the ending was surprising but in another, very typical for Louisa. I’ll leave it for you to find out. :-)

You can find “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” in Behind a Mask and you can also download it online for free.

As a side note: reading Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask reminded me again of why I love her treatment of Louisa.  It’s so balanced. It maintains that Louisa did have many good moments in her life and was not continually miserable despite her burdens (some self imposed). Martha Saxton’s biography was so depressing, making me feel like Louisa never had a happy day in her life. Cheever’s biography leans that way and often Reisen’s does too. I find it hard to believe that Louisa never found consolation in doing what she was meant to do. Sure, she had a martyr complex from time to time and yes, she suffered from many physical ailments that had no cure, but she also had a spirit bigger than life, a spirit that lived in her writing even if she couldn’t always express that spirit in her daily living. It could be that because Louisa was an actress at heart, she might have been melodramatic sometimes in her perception of things (and she poured a lot of that into her “rubbish”). I also find it hard to believe that there was never a moment of pleasure in writing Little Women. Perhaps there wasn’t, but the story flows so well that it’s hard to believe it was all drudgery. There are so many parts of that book that to me seem truly inspired.

Pardon my indulgence as a fan, having the audacity to hang out my shingle and analyze when likely, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Wouldn’t Louisa be horrified! I can’t help it, she is just so very interesting to me.

Incidentally, one last thing: I posted some links on the corresponding Facebook page to this blog that I think you would be interested in. One of our readers posted on her blog about a book based loosely on Little Women, and there’s a fascinating article about Hannah Ropes, the matron in charge of the hospital where Louisa served as a nurse.