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.

The million dollar question, and the priceless answer

eden's outcasts bigFollowing up with my last post about the lecture I attended at New North Church featuring John Matteson, author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, there is a question I have wanted to ask Matteson since I started reading his book almost two years ago.

How is it that he understood so well the spirituality of Bronson Alcott?

I wanted to know if he had studied religion formally (perhaps gone to seminary) and/or if it was innate in him.

The answer to that question, in fact the whole thrust of the evening, proved to be a major affirmation of a revelation I had experienced a few days ago regarding writing. More on that later.

Response to the question

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

I posed the question and Matteson’s face lit right up. He looked at me intently and never took his eyes off of me as he exclaimed his delight at the question. It was like I was the only person in the room and the connection we made was electric.

Christian Science background

He proceeded to share personal information about his upbringing as a Christian Scientist. For those unfamiliar with Christian Science, Wikipedia says,

“Christian Science is a set of beliefs and practices belonging to the metaphysical–New Thought family of new religious movements. It was developed in the 19th century in the United States by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), and was first described in her book Science and Health (1875), the religion’s central text. Four years later Eddy founded The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts … The religion’s adherents, known as Christian Scientists, subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that spiritual reality is the only reality and that the material world is an illusion.”

Personal connections

Mindy Jostyn

Mindy Jostyn

The moment he said he had been brought up in that tradition I understood. An acquaintance from high school, a multi-talented musician and singer/songwriter named Mindy Jostyn (who sadly passed away some years ago) was also a Christian Scientist. She produced two albums of stirring music, the most notable song being “In His Eyes,” one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard of God proclaiming His love for the individual. She had an aura about her, not just because of her immense talent, but because of the authenticity of her faith.

I knew where Matteson came from instantly. It was an intuitive thing, just as Ralph Waldo Emerson describes it. You just know.

From Christian Science to Transcendentalism

Having been immersed in Christian Science, Matteson went on to study Transcendentalism while at school. Reading Emerson’s essay, “Nature,” he recalls this section:

transparent eyeball“We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

The one to write about Bronson Alcott

He immediately made the connection, understanding intuitively what Emerson was saying. And I, watching him so enthused at being able to share these things with the audience, grasped why he not only understood Bronson Alcott in a unique way, he was meant to write about Bronson.


Matteson in fact, said that he knew that the wondrous transformation that had happened in his life from the study of Transcendentalism, to the writing of Eden’s Outcasts, to the winning of the Pulitzer Prize and beyond, was not a series of random incidents. It was something that came from following his heart and the Spirit within him.


As I listened, I knew Matteson was telling and affirming my own story. I too have been transformed by my study of the Alcotts.


Louisa May Alcott in the garret by Norman RockwellThis blog began as a means of finding other people as interested as I was in Louisa May Alcott. I never intended to be a writer. Since this blog debuted in August of 2010, I have evolved to where I now state unequivocally that I am a writer and I mean to write a book. The problem was how. I could not get my head around the process. I was missing a key element.

The missing piece

The writing of a piece for my monthly column in the local Catholic newspaper about Pope Francis, plus my recent post here about finding solace in Louisa pointed out what was missing. And Matteson affirmed it. It was the heart.

Following the heart

The writing I’ve done that has garnered the most attention has been those pieces I write from the heart. I could not figure out though how to write about the Alcotts and also write from an intensely personal point of view.

Silly, right? It’s obvious how much I love the Alcotts!

Matteson’s own journey

bronson and louisaMatteson described how writing Eden’s Outcasts was an intensely personal experience and I can see why, now knowing his background. He was very involved in fathering his daughter just as Bronson fathered his daughters. He could relate to Bronson, the father.

He also understood the spiritual underpinning of Bronson; he could relate to Bronson, the mystic. Eden’s Outcasts is not only biographical; it’s autobiographical.

A new journey

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

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

And I knew at that moment just how to approach my book which will feature Lizzie and Louisa front and center. My book will be biographical and autobiographical. There are many ways that I relate to both Alcott sisters.

I ran into Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House both at the beginning and end of the evening at New North Church. We mentioned how wonderful the lecture was and I expressed my excitement at Matteson’s response to my question. She replied that I had given him a gift. And I knew I had.

My question may have been worth a million but the answer – priceless.

Click to Tweet & ShareThe million dollar question, and the priceless answer – a lecture on Bronson leads to personal revelation http://wp.me/p125Rp-1rM

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An evening with John Matteson: Bronson Alcott as educator, the family’s relevance, and the author’s personal journey

new north church

The New North Church in downtown Hingham, MA

Hingham, Massachusetts’ New North Church has been running a three-part series on “The Alcotts” featuring Eve LaPlante (Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother), John Matteson (Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father) and Jan Turnquist (executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House and noted portrayer of Louisa May Alcott).

Setting the stage:
Hingham’s relationship to the Alcott family

Yes, that is Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House - maybe she is sitting in Abba's pew ...

Yes, that is Jan Turnquist (2nd row, L), executive director of Orchard House – maybe she is sitting in Abba’s pew …

New North Church set the stage perfectly. Built in 1807, it contains the original box pews and a magnificent mahogany altar. In his introduction Pastor Bill Turpie shared connections that the church and the town had with the Alcotts, including a tantalizing tidbit regarding Abba, who attended services while visiting friends in Hingham just before she married Bronson. One of us could have been sitting in the very pew where she sat!

Hingham hosted other family members as well. Abba’s brother, the Rev. Samuel May, an early abolitionist, studied under Hingham preachers while Bronson Alcott lectured at the Loring Hall shortly after the closing of the Temple School in Boston in 1841.

Bronson Alcott, educator

John Matteson delivers a lecture on Bronson Alcott.

John Matteson delivers a lecture on Bronson Alcott.

John Matteson was the presenter that night and his topic was Bronson Alcott. He is an engaging lecturer mixing infectious passion with bits of dry humor. From the pulpit that towers over the congregation he spoke of Bronson’s educational techniques which consisted of drawing knowledge out of children through the art of conversation. Bronson believed that children were divine celestial beings possessing insight that is long forgotten by adults. Record of a School, compiled by then teaching assistant Elizabeth Peabody and his own Conversations with Children on the Gospels reveal that insight.

School and family

The Temple School

The Temple School

School to Bronson was akin to the home and he sought to create a family atmosphere (one reason why he insisted on having female teaching assistants, to mimic a father and a mother). Under the influence of German philosopher Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s pamphlet “Hints to Parents,” Bronson’s Temple School embodied the comfortable atmosphere of home.

Success and failure

For a time the Temple School flourished until the publication of Conversations with Children on the Gospels. The provocative nature of those conversations proved too much for provincial Boston; that along with the admittance of an African American girl closed the school.

Father and daughter

sample of a letter from Bronson Alcott to Louisa when she was seven.

Sample page of a letter from Bronson Alcott to Louisa on her 7th birthday, from “Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott”

Matteson admires Bronson Alcott but is quick to point out Alcott’s autocratic, manipulative and overbearing style, especially when it came to his own children. Matteson shared a letter written to Louisa for her tenth birthday where Bronson begins by pleading with Louisa to let him into her life (employing guilt) and then pointing out a long list of his daughter’s faults.

The model for Plumfield

little menMatteson then provided an interesting comparison between the Temple School and the fictional Plumfield of Little Men. He concluded that in actuality, Plumfield imitated Fruitlands because of its melding together of family life and school; in essence daily living within a family unit (whether it be a biological or consociate family) constituted education. Temple School presented academics in a more formal setting. The difference, of course is that Plumfield was a rousing success, influencing generations of readers while Fruitlands was a failure.

The state of education today

Matteson concluded his lecture with a lament about education today and the total lack of community that Bronson had advocated. As a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he pointed out that education happens in the classroom alone with little else going between students and teachers in the halls and common areas of the school.

(Click here for related posts on John Matteson’s take on Bronson from Eden’s Outcasts).

Q & A

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

Coming down from the pulpit, Matteson then came to his favorite portion of the program, the question and answer segment. Members of the audience asked terrific questions including these: Did Matteson know of any alumnae from the Temple School that could testify to its efficacy? Why the title of Eden’s Outcasts? Why the focus on Bronson Alcott? Is the Alcott family relevant to today’s world?

A personal journey

Matteson shared that Eden’s Outcasts was in fact, an intensely personal work. At the time of the writing of the book, he was very involved in the raising of his daughter Rebecca, now nineteen and a freshman at Wellesley College. He was able to relate to Bronson as one father to another.

Great relevance

The only known portrait of the Alcott family from www.louisamayalcott.org

The only known portrait of the Alcott family from http://www.louisamayalcott.org

He vigorously affirmed the questioner who asked about the relevance of the Alcotts, pointing to their long and winding road to happiness. With character and talents purified by trial and consistent hard work, most members of the family achieved a form of happiness and success even if it was late in the game. Bronson himself did not start to experience success until after the publication of Little Women in 1868 and he was able to revel in that success for years to come. Louisa toiled in obscurity for some twenty years before hitting the jackpot with Little Women. Younger sister May was on the threshold of success as a professional artist before death took her prematurely.

A definition of happiness that endures

little women with marmeeMatteson believes the Alcotts are relevant because of the values they lived so well: generosity, hard work and a commitment to reform and to each other. Despite all the hardship, the family remained a strong, loving unit. A running theme in Louisa’s novels is that happiness is not necessarily getting what you think you want. In Little Women, none of the sisters got exactly what they wished for when mapping out their “castles in the air.” Yet what they got made them truly happy (and that even accounts for Beth who undoubtedly took the fast track to Heaven.)

A tease …

Having long wanted to ask Matteson a particular question, I got my chance. That question sparked an electric exchange and a watershed moment for me as a writer.

And you’ll have to wait until the next post to find out about that moment!

Click to Tweet & ShareAn evening w/John Matteson: Bronson Alcott as educator, the family’s relevance, & the author’s personal journey http://wp.me/p125Rp-1ra

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First thoughts on March

I decided upon reading March that I would read with an open mind. Fan fiction is a risky business (although calling March “fan fiction” doesn’t feel quite right, it’s a decidedly more serious work). The reader comes in with all kinds of pre-conceived notions and expectations, and the author can quickly fall out of favor if those expectations are not met.

Having read reviews on Amazon, I knew I’d have to keep an open mind.

Taking no prisoners

March is a powerful read; Geraldine Brooks doesn’t pull any punches. Based on the mostly absent character of Mr. March from Little Women, Brooks fleshes out the character, describing his experiences as a chaplain in the Civil War and how it changed him.

Little Women presents such a sanitized version of Mr. March that the reader has no sense of what he’s been through or what makes him tick. He’s a two-dimensional mystery and Brooks seeks to remedy that.

Jumping right in

Right from the start, she dives into the heart of the matter – the consequences of the Civil War (and any war) on the individual soldiers.

War ain’t pretty!

from ohiohistorycentral.org

Chapter 1 is full of very graphic descriptions of injuries and death. Being a rather sensitive soul, I find the need to read over these sections quickly. A leaden feeling in the stomach means memories that will haunt me in the middle of the night. I have a hard enough time sleeping! :-) War, however, is far from pretty and a realistic dose is a good thing.

Mr. March and Bronson Alcott

Chapter 2 gets into one of the major hot buttons of the Civil War – slavery and its abolition. Brooks jumps back in time to a 19 year-old March, working as a peddler in the South. This is where background reading on Bronson Alcott really helps. It so enriched the chapter for me being able to draw the parallels between Alcott and March.

The destructive force of slavery

March meets a slave named Grace whom he finds compelling and attractive – this plays out in a later chapter. He also discovers his vocation as a teacher when he is asked to teach a very bright slave girl how to read.

March and Roots

He then comes face to face with the ugliness of slavery and what it does to both black and white. Corrupting the white slave owner from within, the black slave suffers the consequences. I don’t want to give away too many details but suffice it to say I had a sudden urge to check out the episode of Roots where Kizzy is sold off because she helped a fellow slave to escape by forging a traveling pass. Sandy Duncan’s performance as the plantation owner’s niece, Missy Anne, had always impressed me. Here was the perfect example of how slavery corrupted someone from within. Kizzy felt brutal betrayal from her lifelong friend Missy Anne because Missy Anne failed to “protect her”; Missy Anne felt betrayed as well because Kizzy was “stupid” enough to help a fellow slave escape. Very haunting, just like this chapter.

What was Geraldine Brooks thinking?

It was in Chapter 4, however, where I began to figure out Brooks’ intention for this story. Here March meets Marmee; Brooks writes:

“After the service, her brother presented Miss Margaret Marie Day, whom everyone in the family called by the affectionate childhood name of Marmee.”

Her intention

Most provocative! A charming idea, but surely a stretch. Everyone who has cherished Little Women knows that the name of Marmee came from Lousia’s own use of the name for her own mother. Perhaps Brooks means for the name to be used for both as it does sound like a nickname for “mother.” Still, she took a big risk here of alienating readers.

This leads me to believe that Brooks means to be provocative. She wants to poke, prod and shake up the reader so that in no way the reader can remain lukewarm. A strong negative reaction is better than no reaction at all!

I have to admire that kind of courage in a writer; it makes me happy to suspend my expectations and go with the flow of this book.

Death and dying

I plan on using a separate post to explore Chapter 3. Brooks’ view of death is quite different from Louisa May Alcott’s view as shown in Little Women and Hospital Sketches. In the video I posted the other day featuring John Matteson, he read a chapter from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , where Louisa goes off to war. He cites many of the passages from Hospital Sketches that I had planned on re-reading after reading Chapter 3 of March. How timely that that video came along when Chapter 3 was so fresh in my mind. J

Have you read March? Were you able to suspend your expectations? What did you think?

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Hear and see John Matteson discuss Eden’s Outcasts

Here is a video of John Matteson discussing his Pultizer prize-winning biography, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. It appears to have been done at the School of Philosophy at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.


Watching the video while working – Matteson is charming! He says he was told that writing his first book would be a miserable experience. He said it was totally the opposite. It certainly shows in the book! p.s. He’s funny too. :-)


Matteson maintains that Louisa failed to include her father (essentially) in Little Women because she was saving the best material for a book she had planned to write about Bronson that unfortunately never was written. Interesting!

One more update

I haven’t finished this book yet. I’m taking my time because it is so beautiful. Matteson is reading now from Louisa’s time as a nurse, just after John Suhre died, and how she came to write her beautiful tribute to Henry David Thoreau, the poem, “Thoreau’s Flute.” I have read 8 biographies of Louisa and Matteson is the only one who reflects my thoughts about how Louisa deals with and writes about death. I stopped work and kept saying “Yes! Yes!” as he read that section. I can hardly wait to get to that part of the book.

I’ve said it before – Matteson brings a distinctly spiritual element to this book. This is why I was able to come around a bit regarding Bronson – because Matteson understood Bronson’s spirituality and wrote so eloquently about it.

And …

Matteson’s story of how he turned from being a lawyer to a professor and author inspired me. He does it for love of his vocation which again, shines through his work. His classes must be wonderful.

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Meet the real Meg March

Ever wonder about the woman who inspired the character of Meg March?

About Meg

In Little Women, Meg is the oldest of the March sisters and in all respects, the most mainstream member of the family. She is pretty, dutiful and virtuous, almost old for her age.

Fancy dress

Meg’s major flaw is her yearning for material wealth now that her family is poor. She is cured of this desire when she visits her wealthy friends Sallie Gardiner and the Moffat girls and indulges in the shallow life of the well-to-do. All dolled up for a party, she faces the disapproval of Laurie and recognizes the hollowness of vanity and the value of simpler living.

Meg marries a man as virtuous as herself – hard-working poor John Brooke. They have two children and create a loving home; Meg lives the life of the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman.

Based upon Louisa May Alcott’s oldest sister Anna Alcott Pratt, Meg is prettier but her real-life counterpart was more interesting.

Getting to know you

Born on March 16, 1831 and the eldest of the Alcott sisters, Anna was the most studied baby in history. Her philosopher-educator father Bronson, eager to prove his theory about the divine nature of children, observed her in a scientific way, recording her physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development in the minutest fashion.

Pleasing her father

Infant Anna, always eager to please, picked up on this vibe; her mother Abba noted that Anna “seems as if she is conscious of his observations, and were desirous of furnishing him with an item for his record.” (The Alcotts As I Knew Them, Clara Gowing, p. 43).

Love of acting

Anna inherited her father’s peaceful nature with such a retiring manner that “no one meeting her casually would ever imagine the amount of sentiment and romance in her nature.” (Gowing, p. 107). She loved the theatre and could have been an accomplished actress had she the ambition (partial deafness later in life made acting very difficult though she never lost of love of it).

She and Louisa shared this love of acting, writing plays together and entertaining the family with tableaux and original melodramatic plays such as “Norna, or The Witch’s Curse.”

Unexpected rewards

Although she never pursued acting professionally, it still granted her many rewards, the best being meeting her future husband, John Bridge Pratt. They played the romantic leads in “The Loan of a Lover” and soon became lovers themselves.

Both she and Louisa were powerhouses on the stage but Anna faded into the background once off the stage. She preferred to defer to others and bask in their success.

Love of words


Anna’s abilities weren’t limited to acting. Several books mention her writing skill and her ability to easily learn foreign languages. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson quotes family friend Llewellyn Frederick Willis (from his Alcott Memoirs ) regarding Anna, “Skilled in learning languages and a thoughtful writer, she perhaps exceeded all her sisters in terms of her pure intellectual gifts.”

Anna however, lacked ambition. Matteson continues, “Unlike Louisa, however, she lacked the confidence to try to publish them. Her excellent mind was ‘shown more in the appreciation of others than in the expression of herself.’ ” (p. 210 of the ebook).

A quick portrait

Matteson also writes of Anna,

“She was the most even-tempered and amiable of the four. Her sense of humor was keen but without Louisa’s tartness. While she partook enthusiastically in the game of her friends and sisters, her zest was tempered with a sense of dignity. She was more beautiful in her graceful bearing than in her physical features.”

More to come …

In my next post, I will share lesser-known facts about Anna including journal entries she made as a girl that reveal a dreamy pre-teen full of yearning (and even a desire to be famous). We’ll find out in part, what made Anna tick.

Are you finding Anna to be more interesting than Meg March? What did you think of Meg as a character in Little Women?

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The art of conversation, Bronson-style

Through his illustrious life, Bronson Alcott used many means to preach and teach his unique message of transcendentalism. In the early part of his career he used his gifts as a teacher to educate the young through the art of conversation (see previous post). As he believed the Divine resided in each child, he sought through Platonic questioning to draw out that spirit and assist the child in discovering that spirit within. He in essence sought to make that child aware of the knowledge that he believed already resided inside.

Closing a door . . .

When Bronson lost the Temple School to controversy (see previous post), he was denied employment as a teacher, both in Boston and in Concord where he and his family resided after the closing of the school.

Known for his strong (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) conviction and principles, Bronson chose to subject himself and his family to abject poverty rather than take on work that would bring in a living wage. He has come under heavy criticism from many for that decision.

. . . and opening a window

Yet there were people who appreciated what Bronson had to offer. After being denied the chance to teach, Bronson took his special art of conversation to adults. Since helacked the ability to write (Emerson wrote, “When he [Bronson] sits down to write all his genius leaves him; he gives you the shell and throws away the kernel of his thought.” (p. 101, The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing , e-book edition)) he employed secretaries to take down what transpired during his conversations – they are recorded in a volume called Notes of Conversations, 1848-1875: Amos Bronson Alcott, edited by Karen English.

Conversation like music

There is also an anonymous account of one such a conversation by a newspaper reporter, the account being known as “An Evening with Alcott.” In Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, John Matteson uses this account to describe Bronson’s art of conversation employing the analogy of music. (Note – all page numbers come from the e-book edition).

A jazz solo

Matteson writes, “Almost by design, an Alcott conversation was evanescent. Like an improvised musical solo, it was produced in order to fill the air with a momentary pulsation, imparting a flash of insight before moving on to the next equally ephemeral spark.” (p. 230). In essence, Matteson is equating Bronson’s conversations to jazz.

from Tablets by Amos Bronson Alcott

Where is it going?

Anyone who has listened to jazz improvisation knows that even though it appears the solo is going nowhere and everywhere, it actually ends up somewhere – at the ear and heart of the listener. You aren’t always sure what you have heard (if you are not a musician yourself), but you know you just experienced something sublime. The skill of the instrumentalist has just led you on a unique journey never to be repeated.

The anonymous newspaper reporter writes of a similar type of experience:
“”Do you remember what he says? Most likely not, or only certain isolated but splendid phrases which shock you as especially out of the common orbit of thought-or, in the strict, not conventional sense of the word, eccentric. But you do not regret that no tangible opinions remain in your memory, like a mellow autumn day, or, like a soft, tender melody, you recall his conversation only as an ethereal and delicate influence.” (pg. 230)

Waiting for people to converse with, and tempting them with apples . . .

Oratory vs. conversation

There is a difference between being a great orator, where you most likely are addressing a large crowd, to conducting a small group conversation. Bronson was not known as a great orator, but in some inexplicable way, he created an atmosphere of intimacy. Graced with great charisma, it is likely Bronson had that special gift for making each individual feel like he (or she, but mostly likely he) was the only one in the room; Bronson was speaking only to him. (p. 230)

Debate or the insertion of partisan views was not permitted:
“When Bronson spoke to an uninitiated audience, he explained to them, that, in his definition, conversation was an endeavor to find points on which a company could sympathize in feeling. He thought it inappropriate for anyone to present his own individual views for the sake of argument or debate.” (p. 231)

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

How much actual “conversing”
was there?

Since most participants found it hard to keep their own point of view out of the conversation and still contribute, there was little actual back and forth: “The author of ‘An Evening with Alcott’ observed that the conversation he witnessed was not a conversation in any ordinary sense, for no one had conversed.” (p. 231)

In many respects, Bronson was on a different plane from his participants, making a two-way dialog nearly impossible.
Still, our friend the reporter was deeply inspired: “He aspired to ‘touching those fine chords in every heart which will inspire them to respond to one’s own experience.’ “
(p. 230)

What must it have been like to listen to a speaker improvise like the finest jazz musician? Has anyone since been able to duplicate that experience?

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Finding an ally and a lifelong partner: Bronson Alcott, part 4 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Part 4 of a series on Bronson Alcott: his rise, fall and redemption, based on reflections from John Matteson’s biography Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

If you want to refresh your memory on previous posts in this series, here are the links:

Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Read discussion question here
Read Part Three there

An important connection is made

Bronson Alcott’s first school in Cheshire, CT began to fail and yet, the door was opening to greater opportunities. Thanks to the efforts of Bronson’s cousin William (see Part Two for details on William and his influence on Bronson), Samuel May received a report of Bronson’s accomplishments (page 29).

Samuel May

Samuel May, son of Colonel Joseph May and brother to Abba (Bronson’s future wife), led the Unitarian church in Brooklyn, CT. The Mays were a prominent Boston family descended from the Sewalls and Quincys (his great-aunt Dorothy had been married to John Hancock).

Bronson wins over the reformer . . .

May had the heart of a true reformer and was an important and influential man: a great connection for Bronson which William helped to forge. May was impressed by William’s report and wanted to meet  Bronson.

Bronson could be very charming and coupled with his passion for education, impressed May deeply when they met. Samuel wrote of Bronson, “I have never . . . been so taken possession of by any man I ever met. He seemed to me like a born sage and saint.”  Bronson had found his ally.

 . . . and the reformer’s sister

Abigail May

Abba also found Bronson’s charms irresistible: “his upright carriage; his gracious, almost overly elaborate manners; the quick, playful uplift of his head; and his profound earnestness.” (page 31)

Beyond the attraction, Abba, a well-read woman of strong intellect, was inspired by Bronson’s mind, his love of learning and reading, and his passion for educational reform.

She and Bronson would eventually marry after a very long courtship. Abba stood by his side literally through thick and thin, defending his right to live by his principles despite the detrimental effect they would have on their family life. There is no doubt that behind this man was a great woman.

Read more about Abba here.

One more attempt in CT

But before that union, Bronson would continue to explore his options as an educator. Bolstered by Samuel May’s approval, Bronson attempted another school, this time in Bristol, CT (page 30). Parents in Bristol were even less tolerant of Bronson’s educational practices and the school quickly failed.

William Ellery Channing

On to Boston, and opportunity

It was then that Bronson knew he had to go to Boston, a center of intellectual activity and enlightenment. During this period (and perhaps for the last time in our country’s history), the intellectual leaders were found in the pulpit (page 33). Bronson pursued his enlightenment by listening to the great ministers of the day, most especially William Ellery Channing of the Unitarian Church.

Affirmation from Unitarianism

The Unitarian faith seemed to fit right in with Bronson’s educational ideas. Matteson writes, “Channing routinely emphasized the paternal nature of God and implied that the world was a school for the spirit in which human beings were the pupils . . . Channing saw God as both father and teacher, a view that dovetailed precisely with Alcott’s ideas of education.”

Bronson believed himself to be a type of spiritual father, encouraging the divine in the child through his words and example.

A new school with a benefactor

Finding affirmation for his thinking, Bronson began a school on Common Street in Boston in 1828 with Channing as benefactor (page 34). In an attempt to best approach Pestalozzi’s domestic model of school being like family, Bronson hired a female assistant.

In that same year, Bronson was to meet another Unitarian minister, one who would become his benefactor for life. I will continue on this topic in Part 5.

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Birth of a visionary educator: Bronson Alcott, part 3 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Part 3 of a series on Bronson Alcott: his rise, fall and redemption, based on reflections from John Matteson’s biography Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

If you want to refresh your memory on previous posts in this series, here are the links:

Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Read discussion question here

The beginning

Bronson Alcott’s life as a teacher began quite modestly in 1823 as a schoolmaster in Cheshire, CT (page 26).

Teaching was not regarded very highly as a professional field and thus it was not required for teachers to have any formal training.

This made it easy for Bronson to take up the profession after he realized that peddling was not going to lead him closer to God (coincidentally his peddling was falling on hard times).

Birth of a lifelong passion

Teaching immediately resonated with Bronson and he came to believe there was no more important work to be done than educating the young. Surpassing even that of preaching  Alcott commented that “Early education was the enduring power.” (pg. 26).

This passion for teaching would stay with him throughout his life, shaping his professional, philosophical and child-rearing ideals (pg. 26). Education would lead him down the road to his glory, his downfall, and his inevitable redemption.

Bronson’s educational influence

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

It was during this period that Bronson became familiar with educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

Pestalozzi, a native of Zurich who was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau,  believed that people were innately intelligent. This belief shaped the idea that it was more fruitful to coax that intelligence out of a person rather than cram that person with information. (page 26)

The domestic nature of education

Pestalozzi’s writings not being in English, Bronson relied on English pamphlets based upon Pestalozzi’s writings known as Hints to Parents. These pamphlets were key to Bronson’s development of the gentle conversational style used to draw out his students. Hints to Parents also maintained the importance of a domestic atmosphere in the schoolroom, not unlike that of a well-run home.

Pilgrim’s Progress fits right in

Hints to Parents paralleled the moral teachings of Bronson’s beloved Pilgrim’s Progress, exhorting parents to “deafen themselves to the judgments of a corrupt and vanity-ridden world.” (page 27). Hints urged a religious-type zeal in parents with regards to educating their children, stressing the equal importance of imparting virtues and academic knowledge.

Pestalozzi in the classroom

Implementing Pestalozzi

Inspired by what he read,  Bronson sought to implement Pestalozzi’s principles in the Cheshire, CT school.

  • He worked to make the physical environment comfortable, decorating the classroom with flowers and greens, and affording each child his or her own desk (versus the long tables with hard benches).
  • He scrounged together a library of over 100 books.
  • He used art, music and games to liven up the learning environment, making the classroom a welcoming place.
  • Corporal punishment was rarely used. (page 27)

Failure leads to opportunity

Cheshire was in a very rural part of  Connecticut and parents were not quite up to all these changes. The school inevitably failed but not before it attracted the attention of  Samuel May of Boston, brother of Abba (Bronson’s future wife).  May was very taken with Bronson and his ideas and would end up supporting him in future efforts.

We know, of course, what came of Bronson’s meeting Abba.

In part 4, I will explore Bronson’s relationship with Samuel May and the winding path it led him on.

Point of Trivia: Did you know Bronson instituted the idea of recess? I just learned this yesterday on my umpteenth tour of Orchard House. :-)

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The rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott, part 1 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson has to be one of the most elegant and thoughtful books I have ever read. Matteson is the first Alcott biographer who truly seems to understand the spiritual life and that insight produces a deeper and different view of Bronson Alcott.

I have read as far as the end of the Fruitlands experiment and have taken pages and pages of notes (and I must be a real geek because it has been so fun!). In the reading I’ve done so far, I have viewed through Matteson’s eyes, the rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott. I have also come to appreciate this decidedly difficult and complex man in a whole new way.

Matteson taps into the soul of Bronson Alcott and actually makes him attractive.

The brilliance of this book

This paragraph from the prologue sums up for me why this book is brilliant:

“For Louisa well as for Bronson, life was a persistent but failed quest for perfection. First, she was to labor vainly to conquer her fierce temper and stubborn willfulness, trying to find the paradise that her father always swore lay within her. Then she would struggle to bring happiness and comfort to a family continually besieged by want. Later, she would go to war, doing all in her power, if not to make America a paradise, then at least to make it a place where all people would be free. Still later, as a novelist, she would strive to produce in fiction what she could not bring about in the world: a vision of humanity enriched by personal sacrifice and enlightened by unselfish love. Both Bronson and Louisa May had ambitions of altering the world through literature. In ways that neither anticipated and in widely varying degrees, they succeeded. Yet it was in the lives they lived, rather than in the words they wrote or spoke, that they fought hardest for redemption: both to redeem themselves from their perceived failures and to redeem the world at large from the wickedness that both father and daughter sought earnestly to reform. They wanted perfection. In their search for it, they inevitably discovered flaws both in the world and within themselves. Pursuing paradise, they continually confirmed themselves as Eden’s outcasts.”

A disclaimer

I plan on writing a series of posts about Bronson as interpreted by Matteson but I feel a need to offer a disclaimer first: I am a practicing Catholic and take my faith very seriously. I love the spiritual life and pursue it relentlessly, often with the kind of zeal with which Bronson pursued his.

I felt it important to express this because the thoughts that I will share in this and subsequent posts about Bronson Alcott are filtered through this lens.

It is understood that you, the reader, may see faith and the spiritual life differently, and I’m hoping these posts will spark good conversation.

Reading is in part about learning, and the reading I’ve undertaken since I began this blog has opened my mind up considerably. And rather than discounting my faith, it has enriched it.

The essence of
Bronson Alcott

Because of Matteson’s book, I found myself empathizing with Bronson because in essence, I want what he wanted: to be in communion with God, to emulate Him. Bronson, however, took it a step farther and wanted to be God – this was his conception of paradise, the road to perfection.

Bronson’s idea of redemption

While I share Bronson’s zeal, we certainly did not share the same approach!

I prefer to be submissive to God, acknowledging His omnipotence, his superiority over me. I work to release control of my life to Him and follow, trusting in His love that He will lead me to the best end, which is eventual perfection. As it states in Romans 8:38, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (New King James version)

Bronson, however, came at it from the opposite angle, taking a very activist approach and in essence, reinventing the wheel (with Transcendentalism) to achieve perfection. This theme I will explore in subsequent posts regarding his rise as an educator and philosopher, the triumph and eventual fall of the Temple School, and the debacle that was known as Fruitlands.

Different ways of looking at redemption

Bronson believed in redemption as I do. But while I believe I can only be redeemed by simply saying “yes” to God and following Him, Bronson believed he had to redeem himself and teach others how to do the same (beginning with small children). He had to invent a new method.

To be redeemed means submission to a Higher Being and this goes against the natural inclination of man to do for himself. God asks us to forget ourselves and consider ourselves as nothing so that He can transform us into everything, the original image He planned for us before the fall of man and woman in the Garden of Eden.

Bronson had a towering intellect and yet, he never considered submission a possibility. Perhaps the rigid and cold religious climate of his age made that impossible to consider. After all, why would one want to submit to vengeful God bent on punishment? Bronson’s intuition told him that fear of God was not the way. One has to wonder at the possibilities had Bronson been exposed to a more loving God from organized religion in the first place.

Methods and results

Matteson spells out the thoughts and methods Bronson employed to try and achieve both his redemption and the redemption of others. These efforts would end up nearly, literally destroying the man, and it certainly left his family destitute.

There was, in fact, eventual redemption. But it was not what Bronson had fashioned in his mind.

The transcendentalism of Bronson Alcott was a man’s effort to commune with and become Divine.  So much effort.

Maybe there’s less work involved with submission. It ultimately comes down to pride versus humility. There’s no doubt that, after the Temple School and Fruitlands, Bronson was very much “humbled” (subject to interpretation – more to come on that).

In the next post, I will get into just how a poor farm boy from a small and obscure town overcame his background to become that towering intellect. It’s an amazing story.

Your thoughts?

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