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

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

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

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

Was Louisa a genius?

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

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

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Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

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

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

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

Examples from Louisa’s stories

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

560 talent versus genius

 

Louisa herself is on that list.

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

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

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

True confession

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

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

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

More to come …

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

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“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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Introducing beautiful new British editions of Louisa May Alcott classics

Hesperus Press, an independent London-based publisher is reissuing the most beloved of Louisa May Alcott’s works on June 27th  with beautiful new covers:

hesperus press little women collection 2014

british little women good wives

british little men jo's boys

These would make a wonderful addition to any Little Women collection. Visit www.hesperuspress.com for more information; you can follow @hesperuspress on Twitter.

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Alcott Immersion Warning: the wondrous things that can happen when you study too much!

After four years of constant reading, study, writing and pondering on one family, I think I understand now how actors prepare for their roles, and the subsequent consequences of their immersion into their characters.

Taking on the Louisa persona

I’m acquainted with a couple of people (Jan Turnquist and Marianne Donnelly) who, as actresses, take on the role of Louisa May Alcott to share with school children and adults alike in various educational venues. They dress like Louisa, walk as she might have walked, speak like they imagine she would have spoken. They share her stories, her feelings, her passions, her humor, her pathos and every audience is treated to a living, breathing Louisa.

jan turnquist-horz

Jan Turnquist (L) and Marianne Donnelly as Louisa May Alcott

It makes me wonder just how much of Louisa they have integrated into themselves. I’ve emailed them to ask and will share their answers with you as they come.

Who is your literary heroine?

Are you immersed in Louisa? Or perhaps Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson or Charlotte or Emily Bronte? How about Margaret Mitchell? Do you find yourself becoming like your literary heroine?

jane-austen-horz-horz

Jane, Charlotte, Emily B., Emily D. and Margaret

While I am no actor, I certainly know now what it is like to immerse yourself into a character and to have that character become a part of you. For me it is not only Louisa but Lizzie as well.

Channeling Lizzie Alcott

I’ve read Lizzie’s letters (some of which I have shared with you, see previous posts) and I’ve read family letters about Lizzie. I know of her suffering and struggles. I know how much her family and friends loved her and why. And I find myself wishing to emulate her.

lizzie alcott2Lizzie as comforter

Recently I had to go into the hospital for a minor surgical procedure (which ended well). With each person that I encountered, from the nurses to the anesthesiologist to the surgeon himself, I found myself channeling Lizzie, working to be as kind as I imagined she had been. I tried to be of good cheer, using humor to diffuse fear as I imagined she might have done. It came as naturally as breathing. I found her presence inside of me to be a great comfort.

This was not the first time I had channeled Lizzie while in the hospital. Last year after a car crash I found myself in the ER, doing the same thing.

Now I find I am inadvertently channeling Louisa as well, in my writing.

Loss, grief, transformation … and Louisa

The book I am working on to be published sometime in late 2015 or early 2016 is on loss, grief and transformation. As this has been the story of my life since my mother passed away four years ago, I find easy to write about the subject. I do not fear loss or grief and know that transformation is life-giving and empowering, filling my heart with joy and gratitude.

Louisa’s mostmemorable writing

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”
historicaldigression.com

I always found Louisa’s writing on this same subject to be her most brilliant. Poignant, hopeful, gritty, honest and moving, her work has resonated with me and consoled me. Some of her most memorable writing is about noble John Suhre’s death in Hospital Sketches. Generations of girls and women have wept openly over the death of good Beth March in Little Women. I found great comfort in Christie Devon’s experience of her dead husband David in Work A Story of Experience when a breeze blew past his flute, creating music and a sense of his presence in the room.

Grieving through reading and writing

I only recently realized that I write about loss, grief and transformation as a way of grieving over my mother. I never cried at length over losing her, never felt despair, never felt lost. I always wondered what was wrong with me that I didn’t grieve in the usual way much as I loved her. I now know that I am working through my grief in my writing.

Louisa_May_AlcottThe art inherent in grief

Louisa did the same when she lost Lizzie. She was intimately involved in Lizzie’s care, staying up all night to give her sister the strength she needed to endure her suffering. When Lizzie died Louisa was relieved that her sister was “well at last,” past her pain into a new and glorious eternal existence. After an initial spell of despair, Louisa admitted that she didn’t miss Lizzie as much as she thought she would indicating that her sister helped her spiritually. Louisa worked through her grief in her writing. She as much as admits it in Hospital Sketches (get quote). There is no doubt that Beth March is in fact, the perfected Lizzie.

My expert guide

Louisa worked through her grief in her writing and she is teaching me how to do the same. I am channeling the writing I admire most from my literary heroine and it gives me shivers to recognize that connection. My own humble work is a mere shadow of Louisa’s but it is comforting to know that I am following an expert guide.

  • What literary figure do you admire?
  • How have you immersed yourself in her life (or his)?
  • What traits have you inadvertently taken on?

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Spring finally arrives in New England! A virtual kayak trip for city dwellers

This gallery contains 13 photos.

Originally posted on Be As One:
Many of you around the country endured a harsh winter (especially you in the Midwest). Endless snow. Frigid temperatures. Dreary dark and shortened days. Our winter here in New England was long and hard and spring has been slow to come. But finally, Spring is here! Some of you nature…

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