Abigail May Alcott’s love was her strength

Following up on my last post on Abigail Alcott, I finished transcribing yet another letter from her to Bronson dated January 4, 1858.

Looking for a reply

abbaLizzie is clearly getting worse, her days winding down until her death on March 14. Abba was her primary caregiver, a crushing responsibility in and of itself. But she was also responsible for keeping the family afloat paying the bills, running the household and paying proper attention to her daughters. One of her lifelines was Bronson and his letters to her; when they didn’t come in a timely fashion she grew frantic:

“It is more than a week since your last and I hardly know were to to direct – but I shall feel safer to send to Cincinnati where you will find our last letter – which I am quite sure you will not think worth the stamp on the face of it – but last week was one of my anxious nervous weeks …” The Houghton Library, Abba to Bronson, letter dated January 4, 1858, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

Her concern was certainly understandable considering Lizzie’s declining health.

A lifeline?

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402I used to be put off by the content of Bronson’s letters in his replies to Abba; so much focused upon his conversations, the people he met and his various successes So little focused on his family. That still offends me but I can see how Abba might have found his stories to be a relief, taking her out of her troubled world for a short time of respite. She certainly seemed interested in what he was telling her (not just because they might translate into much-needed income).

Advice born of experience

In Bronson’s defense, he did often write about Lizzie’s condition, giving his daughter urgent advice on keeping her spirits up while admonishing her to eat, advising her not to take cold baths, and reminding her to get outside for fresh air. Bronson spoke from personal experience about the importance of attending to one’s emotional needs as he sank into emotional turmoil and flirted with insanity a couple of times in his life (most notably after Fruitlands and after the move to Boston after living at Hillside).

The true source of Abba’s strength

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersMuch is made of Abba’s intelligence, knowledge and curiosity. There is no doubt that there would be no Louisa May Alcott the author without Marmee. But while Abba’s vibrant mind was a vital parts of her essence, I believe her true strength came from her selfless love of her family as evidenced in these lines:

“How much trouble there is in the world – and the question is constantly before me ‘Who will show us any good.’ You have letters in Buffalo – on all I put ‘Please forward’ at each place. You cannot write too often for comfort – I try to be hopeful for your sake – cheerful for dear Lizzy’s sake and active for the dear girls who alternate between dramatic and the real condition of things …” (Ibid)

A woman’s power

It was love that gave Abba the capacity to stay afloat. Love that prevented her from succumbing to self-absorption which leads to despair (which can be deadly). Love that gave her the courage to step outside of herself and her dreadful situation, granting her the strength to be hopeful for her husband, cheerful for her dying daughter, active and engaged with her other healthy daughters.

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

from the cover of Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Intelligence, curiosity, being well-read and well-informed gave Abba purpose, this is true. But it was her love that gave her that heroic strength she needed to last through those many difficult years. Abba’s love molded and shaped her daughters, all of whom went on live productive, purpose-filled, even happy lives. Even Lizzie who died too soon was infused with a sense of purpose right up to her last days.

Grateful daughter, a story for the ages

It is no wonder that grateful daughter Louisa devoted her life to her Marmee and immortalized her in Little Women. Abba deserved every accolade.

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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

bronson-abba

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

Creating a two-way conversation

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

Just the beginning

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

Bringing a private life to the forefront

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

Setting forth the challenge

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

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

A letter from Abba to Bronson

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

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

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

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

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

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

A glimpse into a heroine

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

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

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

Troubled marriage, great love

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

bronson-abba

Completing her legacy

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

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Lizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral

abbaIn my continuing research on Elizabeth Alcott, I find that letters by her mother offer the most poignant moments. I am already obsessed with Lizzie and Abba’s comments act as gasoline on an already roaring fire. I’m told that obsession with a character will produce a good story; I sure hope so!

I believe in using primary sources and since the Alcott family papers are so voluminous, it will be a long time (perhaps years) before I get through everything I want to read. I made the mistake (!) of venturing into the handwritten pages of Bronson Alcott’s journals only to find many more references to Elizabeth than I had thought existed. And we know what a prolific journal writer Bronson was!

I have amassed already a large photographic collection of letters and journal entries which I am slowly going through and transcribing (as the handwriting will allow – some of it is pretty hard to read). I came across this letter from Abba to her brother Samuel Joseph May which brought tears to my eyes:

invalid… Dr. Geist pronounces Lizzy’s care hopeless – “atrophy consumption of the nerves – with wasting of the flesh.” She has failed rapidly lately – sees that dissolution is near – is calmly quiet cheerful waits the great change which shall relieve her misery – I can lay no … of finery on the altar of the Lord than this gentle spirit – I have struggled to save her for the past year; but sometimes before our greatest peace, comes out of hardest strife – and I now feel that my darling will be in safer hands than her mother’s – she wrote in my journal that beautiful hymn of aspiration by Mrs. Flower –

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee
E’en though it be the Cross that raiseth me,
Yet nearer to thee
Nearer to thee

She writes notes to Mary Sewall, Cousin Louisa and persons who are attentive to her – and everybody has been very kind – Mr. Emerson’s carriage and Mrs. Wheeler always at her service. The weather is very fine and exercise has been very important to her but she fails so perceptibly that we try nothing now but comforts – bed and chair, couch, raw beef, milk toast, cocoa, a wood fire day and night, and … looks to greet her beautiful expectant eyes …

Source: Abba to Sam, January 21, 1858; the letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

The idea of Lizzie in her weakened state writing those lyrics in her mother’s journal touched me deeply. I am hopeful the actual page of that journal exists – another treasure to look for at the Houghton Library.

I had read several accounts of Lizzie’s funeral and the singing of her “favorite hymn” and always wondered what it was. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” could possibly be the one (it’s also the hymn played by the band on the sinking Titanic). There’s nothing like music to make a connection.

Here’s a rendition by the Morman Tabernacle Choir.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Text: Sarah Flower Adams, 1805-1848
Music: Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

1.    Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

2.    Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I’d be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

3.    There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

4.    Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

5.    Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Click to Tweet & ShareLizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral http://wp.me/p125Rp-1CM

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A visit with fans from abroad gets us the “wonk” tour: Did you know these tidbits about Orchard House?

You never know what a house can tell you! No matter how many times I visit Orchard House, I always learn something new.

Last Friday I had the privilege of meeting longtime email friends from Paris, France. Charline Bourdin, the author of the first French biography of Louisa May Alcott and the webmaster of a French Louisa May Alcott blog is visiting the United States for the first time. Accompanied by her friend Pierre (who is fluent in English), their purpose was to make a pilgrimage to various Alcott-related sites. First stop: Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Lizzie’s melodeon

Seraphine or Melodeon? You decide ... from http://www.dejean.com/maynard-workshop/concord/index.html

Seraphine or Melodeon? You decide … from http://www.dejean.com/maynard-workshop/concord/index.html

Our tour guide was an elderly woman with a deep knowledge of the family. For example, I learned that Lizzie’s melodeon in the dining room was the one given to her at age 20 by Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows when the family was living in Walpole, NH. Harriet Reisen had mentioned this story in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women and I always wondered if the instrument survived. Eve LaPlante’s book, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother had mentioned the acquisition of a seraphine which is similar in appearance to a melodeon (see previous post). It gave me a special thrill to know that I could see the melodeon that inspired the story of Mr. Laurence’s gift of a piano to Beth. It’s one of my favorite parts of Little Women.

Nieriker-Pratt-Alcott connection

ernst and lulu

Did you know that descendants of Lulu Nieriker are still in touch with Anna Alcott Pratt’s descendants? Reisen had mentioned some trouble between the families because May’s husband Ernst had wanted a larger piece of Louisa’s inheritance. Lulu mentioned in an interview with Madelon Bedell (see The Alcotts: Biography of a Family) that she felt closest to Anna so undoubtedly it was her efforts that maintained the connection.

Direct connection to May Alcott Nieriker

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House met us at the end of the tour, eager to meet the French couple who had traveled so far to tour the house. Jan has established an International Circle of Little Women fans and was delighted to know that Charline and Pierre came from Meudon, a town just outside of Paris where May lived and studied art, eventually getting one of her paintings into the prestigious Paris Salon.

The New Castle at Meudon

The New Castle at Meudon

An Orchard House tour guide, Karen Goodno, had a chance to visit Meudon in search of May’s residence and we got to see her photos. She believes she found the house where May and Ernst lived. Charline and Pierre knew the area well and were very excited.

Jan was thrilled at the offer from Charline and Pierre to begin forging a relationship between Orchard House and the town of Meudon not unlike the sister city relationship Orchard House already enjoys with Nanae Town in Japan. They will stay in contact and work on this.

The “wonk” tour

orchard house in winterAfter a lively conversation Jan gave us the “wonk” tour. See if you knew these interesting facts (and no fair if you worked at Orchard House!):

  • We saw the attic with the secret finished room, the split chimney (done by Bronson) that had been tearing the house apart, the bug-ridden beams (now replaced), and the entrance to the attic over the tenant house addition. Jan noted that that attic still contains nails in the beams showing evidence of fur where dead animals had been hung.
  • I was unaware of the tenant house addition (which had been a separate house on the property that Bronson moved over with logs underneath and attached to the main house – rooms include the gift shop, kitchen, May’s art studio and May’s bedroom). Bronson certainly had a habit of doing that considering he had done the same at Hillside. A portion of a crucial support beam on the second floor by May’s room had been removed to make room for the addition. Jan opened a small door in the ceiling to reveal a steel reinforcement beam shaped in a curve to reconnect the two portions of the beam, running behind the wall.
  • I was also unaware that the foyer had been expanded though upon learning that, I was not surprised. I had always thought it unusual that the foyer was so generous in size. That expansion created the split chimney. The front door was originally much closer to the staircase, and the stairs were to the left of their current position. The chimney had been behind the stairs so Bronson split the chimney so he could move the staircase. He then expanded the foyer so that his wife could have a grand entrance for the family home.
    We smiled at the thought. Bronson was no engineer but he knew how to aesthetically please.
  • The second floor hallway is sporting new wallpaper. The original print was found and samples still existed. It had a unique semi-gloss sheen that was no longer made, except at one wallpaper factory in France! They publicized their partnership with Orchard House in supplying the wallpaper.

The tour was dreamy and I was on air, never expecting so many delights. Charline taught me a very important lesson that day: it’s okay to ask! Most likely the answer will be “yes!”

We were then off to Fruitlands for a lovely lunch at the Café and a tour of the Fruitlands house. More on that in the next post.

Where is Anna Alcott Pratt’s grave?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACharline posed an interesting question over lunch: Is Anna buried in the Alcott family plot or is she buried in the Pratt plot? Both are at Sleepy Hollow. She couldn’t find the stone and I can’t remember. Comment if you know the answer.

I miss my dear French friend already! I hope we can see each other again soon.

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Unpublished Letters: A long letter from Lizzie Alcott to the family from the Sewall household in Boston

Here is a long letter from Elizabeth Alcott, written just before she and Abba left for the North Shore. They are staying at the home of Tom and Mary Sewall in Boston. It was written on August 6, 1857.

The letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

Again, while most of this letter was legible (despite the fact it was written with a pencil!), there were some words I could not make out and I’ve indicated as such with either “…” if I couldn’t read it at all or (?) if I questioned the word. I have not corrected spelling but make correct punctuation.

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

Dear Family,

from commons.wikimedia.org

Boston in 1857, from commons.wikimedia.org

Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn, but as it cools more will not stay so long, but mother says it looks very inviting there and I am to eat fish and get well. So far pretty well with me, not homesick one grain, ‘tis so quiet here, my nerves are not disturbed. It is breakfast time now, mine will be chicken, which I rather like best of all, though I have had beef, steak once, and muttan broth which I find has done me much good. I have had but one of the old distressed times, and hope there’ll be no more. Mary [Sewall] is kindness itself, and wished to spend some money of Fannie’s for me, has given me out of it a nice bottle of Native Wine, and Tom gave me some dyspepsia biscuits which I can eat a little of soaked. Then I have eaten a few blackberries, oranges and yesterday Tom brought me some delicious Bananas. I have only had one lazy morning when I laid in bed, but like a sensible girl have usually risen at seven to breakfast at the open window, breathing the salt air. I dress, undress, comb out my hair, unpack my trunk, pack it again, eat a little, play a little, and as a great variety take a stitch or two. Tom [Sewall] and mother and I play checkers of an evening or I lie and dose on the sofa till nine when the Sewells retire and Ma and I go to our couches also. Mother is the lovingest, and kindest of nurses to me, (cannot make out word) every little want and cannot do enough it seems. It seems a stupid way for her to be spending her summer but she seems content. We cannot see but a little of the waterfront from our window as large, stable is home built, and the street is contoured (?) some way very pretty stylish houses. I took a little walk to the end of the street and surveyed them not knowing they were there. We see the house cars going most every minute on the bridge, and past them driving from the depot. The Doctor will see me before I go to L. [Lynn] and I’m quite sure he’ll say I look some better, but I grow very thin indeed but gaining strength makes up for it and I think of being weighed before going. Aunt Connie is so pleasant I shall probably make her a little visit. William and Robie Stearns board near, he came in one evening and Mary means to have some whist some evening here. They are very scraggly funny boys. Mary gave me a nice silver (something) of fannies. –She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food, watching every morsel as if it were too dainty for my consumption but is so thoughtful too, making me little nice saucers of sago with wine in it and sometimes reading loud. We really have had funny days, they will be quite different at L. [Lynn] I guess, but as pleasant I dare say.

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

I am making many a pretty mat for her (can’t make out the word) and amuse myself waiting for meal times which do not come very often to me now.  The daguerreotypes are often looked at, and quite a treasure. You have been very good about writing, and Father’s one (?) letter is treasured by one much with its loving words and advice to me. Dear he grows thinner on my account tell him if so I shant write any more letters, or (can’t make out the word) mother and he will not know how I am at all. 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. I am not homesick and Ma lives in comparative closeness (?) at any rate is enjoying the quiet. She is going to roam about a little this morning, to the Dr’s and  (can’t make out the word) Shaws, who I hope will give her some goodies or cash for me. I kiss Tom every night, and he is very tender of me and kind. I feel so bad about the hurried little hug which I had from father. I was so confused with the many faces that I barely realized we were off. A woman put her head in very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long. She stared her fill and not discomposing myself at all I stared at her. She soon retired to (something) perhaps, Mr. Stone was politeness itself and inquired often if I was comfortable or if he could do anything. I reposed quite nicely at my ease and though my head ached did not feel as much as I thought. Ate my chicken with a relish and troubled myself about nobody. Mother darkened the window with our shawl and we were in a little house (?). Tomorrow will be an era for me. I take a warm salt water bath and it seems long to wait, but I let things take their time and am as dosy (?) & patient as possible. I have been three hours writing this, in little pieces, but my eyes do not serve me well, somedays not any enough to read your letters. I read father’s myself however, and it came quite unexpectantly yesterday, & I rejoiced. You can’t write too often, will not Abbie sometimes. 6 o’clock I had a beautiful warm bath, and oh it was so good. I felt much refreshed, it was just I wanted. Ma gave m a divine scrubbing and all was done quick, and they sent me to bed. I had a nap, and felt better, well enough to write a little more. 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. I shall eat my tea now and cannot write more in my letter. Evening mother want to Panorama and met some friends. Mary read to me a dosy (?) story. Friday morn – I feel pretty bright this morning. I tried a broiled tomato for breakfast, relished much, am getting so tired of meat, wish I could change for other. George W is coming to see me. It’s a lovely morning. Boston seems quite pleasant. I shall take a little walk onto the corner of the mall just peep about a bit I think as the common is delightful. Tom asks me often to go. The weather is fine, very cool & delightful. We shall go I guess on Monday & think you will not yet get another letter from me in Boston. Goodbye dear folks, write often to your little skeleton and make her happiness. I am not quite so blue as I imagined I might be which is a gain.

Click to Tweet & ShareA long letter from Lizzie Alcott to the family from the Sewall household in Boston http://wp.me/p125Rp-1×3

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Abba, Bronson and Lizzie: a slice of family dynamics – what does it tell us?

In 1853, Elizabeth Alcott suffered a bout of depression. She was seventeen at the time and the family was destitute, living in Boston and constantly on the move. Abba wrote the following to Bronson about the episode:

lizzie alcott2“Elizabeth is in rather better spirits but it seems as if there had been some collapse of the brain – at times she seems immovable, almost senseless. Louisa and I both relieve her of all the work and send her to walk – but there is a great struggle going on in her mind about something. I try not to be curious. She could not bear to be sent from home and here nothing interests her. I should like to send her to take drawing lessons but do not see my way clear now.” Abba to Bronson, November 19, 1853 Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (26)

Previous to this depression, Elizabeth had always been known to her family as Little Tranquility: sweet, happy and harmonious. To her father, she was utter perfection. While at Fruitlands, Elizabeth turned eight and Bronson dedicated this Ode to her:

Fruitlands, Harvard, Mass. June 24, 1843

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

IV

… Before us stands displayed
In raiment of a maid,
Unstained and pure her soul
As when she left the Whole …

V
… And be a flower that none shall pluck away
A rose in Fruitlands quiet dell
A Child intent in doing well;
Devote, secluded from all sin
Fragrant without, & fair within,
A plant matured in Gods device
An Amaranth in Paradise (pgs. 105-106, The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

Bronson wrote this letter to Elizabeth when she was five:

Concord, June 24, 1840

“My very dear little girl,
     You make me very happy every time I look at your smiling pleasant face–and you make me very sorry every time I see your face look cross and unpleasant. You are now five years old. You can keep your little face pleasant all the time, if you try, and be happy yourself, and make every body else happy too. Father wants to have his little girl happy all the time.” (pg. 50, The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

from bronson to lizzie 5th birthday

from Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott edited by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest

Fast forward to 1853 and notice how each parent perceives Elizabeth just before she suffers from the depression:

Abba to Bronson August 8, 1853 (she was in Syracuse visiting with her brother Sam):

abba“I feel no anxiety about home but hope you will remember that Lizzy must be cared for in many little ways or the work will oppress her. I shall write to her on Sunday [referring to a letter dated August 8, 1853].” Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (26) August 5, 1853

Check out Bronson’s response:

Bronson to Abba, June 19, August 10, 1853

amos bronson alcott“Elisabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail; the apartments all [word] their tidy mistress whose housekeeping throughout, for ought I can see, vies favorably with that of the absent Matron alike in neatness promptitude and efficiency to the credit of her teacher, and comfort of guests. So please spare all anxieties and spend the century, if you can with the friends whose hospitalities you are gone from us to embosom …” (p. 166 The Letters of Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Hernstedt)

I have my own ideas on this but would love to hear yours first. What do you see here?

Note

I read this last passage a while back, taken by Bronson’s admiration for Elizabeth. But now, reading it as a response to Abba’s request, I have a completely different feeling about it. All the more reason why I wish someone would collect the family letters and present them in a book showing the letters to and responses back from various family members, in essence, giving us a real conversation. Reading the response to the letter oftentimes completely changes the context of what you’ve read.

There is a good collection of letters from the family that could be compiled in this way. Somehow I have a feeling several of these letters will be transcribed by me for my project. I’m actually getting much better at reading Abba’s scrawl. :-)

We’ll see …

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Elisabeth Alcott through the eyes of her father

lizzie alcott2By the time Elisabeth Sewall Alcott was born, Bronson had moved on from chronicling the daily activities of his daughters to exploring the soul. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson writes that “Elizabeth was fairer than her elder sisters and … was the model of serenity that Bronson had vainly hoped Anna and Louisa would be. (pg. 84, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, ebook)” Calling his work “Psyche, or The Breath of Childhood” (aka “An Evangele”), Bronson “with naïve eagerness, plunged into his impossible task.” (Ibid)

Bronson’s ideal

Elisabeth and Bronson were soul mates. While Anna was often referred to as his favorite (with the vast majority of his letters to his children addressed to her), he appears to have placed Lizzie on a higher plane. Anna was a real child with virtues and faults; Lizzie was theoretical, just like “Psyche.”

High standards

In an Ode he wrote to her at Fruitlands on her eighth birthday (most of which had nothing to do with his little girl), note the heights to which he places her (underscoring is my emphasis):

IV

fruitlands smHither we all repair
Our hope and love, to bear,
To celebrate
In rustic state,
Mid’st this refulgent whole
The joyful advent of an angel soul,
That, twice four years ago
Our mundane life to know,
Descended from the upper skies
A presence to our very eyes,
And now before us stands
And asketh at our bounteous hands
Some tokens of our zeal
In her celestial weal
Before us stands displayed
In raiment of a maid,
Unstained and pure her soul
As when she left the Whole

That doth this marvellous scene unrol [sic]
And day by day doth preach
The Gospels meant for each

That on this solid sphere
Designed for mortals were.

V
amaranth-767690… And be a flower that none shall pluck away
A rose in Fruitlands quiet dell
A Child intent in doing well;
Devote, secluded from all sin
Fragrant without, & fair within,
A plant matured in Gods device
An Amaranth in Paradise
(The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott edited by Richard Herrnstadt, pg. 105-106)

Granted, this was Fruitlands and Bronson was at the zenith of his Transcendental zeal but subsequent letters to Lizzie (and they are few) rarely point out character flaws. No doubt the polar opposite of the letters he wrote to Louisa!

Idolized

Even as an emerging adult, Lizzie was idolized by her father as shown in this letter dated August 10, 1853):

“Elisabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail; the apartments all [word] their tidy mistress whose housekeeping throughout, for ought I can see, vies favorably with that of the absent Matron alike in neatness promptitude and efficiency to the credit of her teacher, and comfort of guests.” (Ibid, pb. 166)

Anxious yet absent father

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Invalid_-_Louis_Lang_-_overallDuring my visit to Houghton last Saturday (see previous post), I came across several references to Lizzie’s illness in Bronson’s letters. Although far from home (and inexplicably slow in returning there), he was deeply concerned about her welfare, as shown in this letter from November of 1857:

“Keep me informed of every matter pertaining to your welfare. And let me hear weekly if you can command the leisure from our imposed cares. Elisabeth’s condition you cannot fail to state. To her, and all, much love.” (Houghton Library, Amos Bronson Alcott papers MS Am 1130.9 (4))

Bronson is greatly concerned about Lizzie’s weight loss and refers to it consistently in his letters from 1857, in very exacting form (underscoring is my emphasis):

 “Anna promised and so will write: and the Invalid shall add her fortnight’s gain, if she can, in the pounds avoirsdupois and ounces exact, by the inevitable standard. Hoping for the good tidings from the family group, and that soon, I remain Yours, and Theirs ever …” (Ibid, November 20, 1857)

Advice to the Invalid

tumblr_mhneo1aZRC1r94vvxo1_500In a longer passage, Bronson offers advice to Abba regarding Lizzie’s care:

“I mean to have some quiet talk with Dr. Jackson, who comes up this afternoon from Glen Haven, and learn something helpful to Elisabeth if he has any information for us. Of one thing I am certain already: she must use water–warm water even–with great discretion now in her present enfeebled state, having no heat to spare in too frequent bathing; and be sure she never bathes in cold water, or before going to bed. The beef tea experiment she need not report.–Keep yourself warm, my Child, take fresh air as you can safely, ride rather than walk at present, keep the good watch and consult our experiences about your food, and sleep, and occupations, and, more than all else, encourage good hopes, esteeming yourself gaining as your spirits waken and your interest in life and the little things becomes more active and freshens from week to week. I do not say, day by day. You will have ebbs and langours, and little discouragements, but the months will measure gain, to you, if not in flesh just yet or weight, in comfort and slow mitigation of the old troubles; the cure working itself out for you in the reasonable manner and time. Not to lose is great gain, and the pledge of restoration. So be a good Child and get well in the best way.–And write me, sometimes about your day’s occupations and any thing you care to communicate. But be careful about using your eyes, or any of your poor senses, rashly or too long at once, Take care of the draughts of air, and practice your usual caution in every thing. I shall write to you now an then, and have you much in mind.” (Ibid, November 21, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pgs. 263-264)

Remaining positive

spoon with medicineBronson, naturally, is very concerned about Lizzie’s state of mind. What I found surprising was the total lack of reference to prayer or calling on God for assistance, strength or consolation. Lizzie was expected to use her own will to make herself better. Here is another example:

 “… Dear Lizzy. I shall hear particulars always gladly, not sadly now. As soon as may be, dispense with the pellets and powders, and find the strength that can feed itself and increase on the virgin substances–the social influences–friendly food for body and soul.” (Ibid, December 1, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott, pg. 267)

Gentle scolding

In this letter, dated December 14th of that same year, Bronson is obviously receiving news from Abba that Lizzie is resisting treatment. There is an added sense of urgency to this passage with a strong (and rare) admonition from Bronson:

 “I am anxious to hear. Your last letter brought agreeable news. Lizzy must replenish her Spirit by all good helps: flesh and weight will come–it may be so slowly and imperceptibly as to tell nothing to the senses and or the scales for some time–but she must not expect Nature to rally from such a shock forthwith to bring the health she so desires. Pray let me know just how she is, and how she Behaves by Night and by day. I can excuse every thing. Only she must take the part of painstaker about herself, and not defeat the helps and hopes of careful nurses and kindred, by any imprudences of hers. I will not talk for  for [erasure]–my precious patient, but come home to see it, eye to eye, if she will not mind me otherwise.” (Ibid, December 14, 1857; also The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott pgs. 269-270)

Rare words from a teenaged Lizzie

I was fortunate to find a rare letter from Lizzie written when she was seventeen. It is short and sweet, revealing little on the surface. However, I was stunned at her handwriting, so meticulous, not changed much from her Hillside journal except that it was even neater. Each line is perfectly straight. It looks like fine and simple typography. Yet between the lines of sweetness there is a sense of pathetic longing for her beloved, the ever absent father (I wish I had permission from Houghton to post the picture I took of the letter, but I don’t have it):

Dearest father,
I suppose the letters should not go without a word from me, as I promised I would write, We were all so happy this morning to get your beautiful letter, telling how pleasantly you were living, and of your success. We live along here without you, but I am sure miss you very much. Annie is very good about writing and so we get her pleasant letters every week, and I wish we heard as often from the dear father; but I suppose you are very busy, tho am sure, do not forget us. Your loving Lizzie.
(Houghton Alcott family additional papers, 1724-1927 MS Am 2745 (71)

Keeping vigil

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402When the passing finally came in March 14, 1858, Bronson’s beloved passed into eternity; he kept an all-night vigil by the wasted body that remained behind:

Bronson Alcott sat up with the body of his child all night. No one else approached him. His little lost Psyche, who had seemed to him in her infancy the most promising of all his daughters, alone kept him company. One of the brightest auguries of his life had vanished with her loss. (Katharine Anthony, Louisa May Alcott, pg. 89)

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A day at Houghton: Getting to know the inner Bronson through his own hand

houghtonEver since last July I have dreamed of the day I could return to the Houghton Library at Harvard and Saturday was that day. I had made a connection with one of the librarians who had supplied me with scans of three of Abba’s letters (see previous post). She told me that a collection of letters assembled in a book and labeled for Bronson might hold clues on Lizzie. It’s again a case of hidden in plain view. She is on a quiet crusade to properly catalogue each letter.

This librarian’s instinct was correct. A careful reading of Bronson’s letters did indeed present many clues and opened up a Pandora’s box of questions as well. But first, I want to share insights into Bronson that came to light by reading these letters.

The value of handwritten letters

It continues to amaze me how much of a difference it makes reading primary sources. A letter, penned by the hand of an iconic historical figure does much to make that figure a real flesh-and-blood person. In a sense they become smaller, in a good way, by becoming peers. Since the Alcotts lived during the time of my great-grandparents, it feels like I’m reading letters from them.

from smallnotes.library.virginia.edu - (MSS 7052-c, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

from smallnotes.library.virginia.edu – (MSS 7052-c, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

It disturbs me to think of what future historians will be missing out on by not having handwritten accounts. Our digital age of endless photos, videos and email create a barrier between the person we are studying and ourselves. A sterile email cannot compare with a letter written with the tip of a quill pen on textured paper, letters written in either beautiful broad strokes (Bronson), hapless scrawl (Abba) or picture-perfect script in totally straight lines (Lizzie). A rare letter by Lizzie, written when she was seventeen, revealed so much more by seeing the handwriting than by just revealing the words. This I will get into in the next post.

Many admirers

What first surprised me about the letters were the numerous ones addressed to Bronson from admirers. Often he is gently (or not so gently) mocked for his Conversations but in this collection there were not only letters but small printed flyers announcing his Conversations with the average price of a ticket being three dollars. In conversations he proposed from Walpole in August, 1856, the topic discussed was the Private Life (Descent, Home, Health, Pursuits,Victories). The flyer states, “The discussions, it will be perceived, are suited to select companies, and invite the protection of the parlour, and the presence of ladies particularly.” (Letterbooks of ABA Houghton MS Am 1130.9 (3)).

Flawed business plan

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402The letters from admirers spoke about the meaningful nature of his Conversations; many of these people extended invitations for him to come to their town to speak. There were informal expense sheets showing the costs of holding these Conversations which made it plain why Bronson never made any money. His audiences were of necessity, small and intimate. Thus, the ticket sales barely paid for the expenses since he did not command the level of fees of his friend Emerson.

Similar experience

I had a flash of understanding and felt great kinship with Bronson and his Conversations. Before I got into writing I was a musician, writing and singing Christian music. I too preferred the intimate settings and I too had a very niche audience (which pretty much guaranteed intimate settings!). The mainstream audience didn’t understand the kind of music I played which I presented more as prayer. But, like Bronson I had my small group of admirers who wrote nice letters and invited me to their towns to perform. Over a sixteen year period I performed live and recorded a series of self-published CD. I never turned a profit but did manage to pay for everything out of my earnings. The music I offer for sale on my website still brings in a little profit which I now use to indulge my Louisa passion.

I approached my music with the same level of commitment as did Bronson with his Conversations. The difference, of course, is that I was gainfully employed and did music on the side as a passionate hobby.

Disciples of Bronson

Bronson had his “disciples.” One young man wrote two long letters to Bronson demanding a reply despite the fact that it was early 1858 and Bronson’s daughter Elizabeth was dying. The man was either clueless, or just unaware of the turmoil in Bronson’s life. His letters were filled with mystical proclamations which he obviously felt were brilliant (but likely were not). Bronson did eventually reply.

Anxious about the home front

In 1857 and 1858 during Lizzie’s illness, Bronson was in the Midwest conducting his Conversations. His frequent letters to Abba detailed the people he met and the success or failure of his efforts. It was clear, however, that there was an underlying anxiety about all that was occurring at home. While Bronson felt compelled to conduct his Conversations (and many would question that compulsion, myself included), his letters also demonstrated deep concern (which included advice and admonitions to Lizzie). I saw his detailed discussions of business as a means of putting off the more difficult discussion of reality. Usually that took place at the end of the letters.

Difficult patrons

And business had to continue. I recall one letter from a man in April of 1858 who had received notice from Bronson that he would have to delay his coming (as Lizzie had died in March). After the brief, perfunctory mention of sympathy, the man launched into all the inconveniences he encountered in trying to reschedule. Complaining that he had to “notify each person individually,” he demonstrated an incredible smallness of mind and heart.

Gracious sympathy

lizzieThere were others, however, who were magnanimous. A certain William Russell from Lancaster, MA was also informed of a delay in meeting Bronson and his response was as follows:

Mrs. R. and I sympathise (sic) deeply with Mrs. Alcott and yourself in the experience through which you have have been called to pass in the loss of your daughter Elizabeth. Her peculiar traits of mind and character impressed us very deeply with their indications of ample promise for a noble and generous development. Judging from our own experience, however, I think we can assure you that while such a loss leaves a deep felt sense of privation, the solid consolation will from year to year of life, be strengthening in the heart, that such of its treasures are imperishable. Many of your serenest and happiest hours will be those in which the Beloved returns, in the silence of the soul, to irradiate it with her presence. (Ibid)

He too had sick daughter (Mary), a son studying away from home and two additional daughters named coincidentally, Anna and Lizzie.

Moment of truth

One letter from Bronson dated March 2, 1857 made a particularly strong impression. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson had made reference to it.  Bronson describes seeing the play, “Medea,” and the impression it made on him:

“The play is exciting, yet enjoyable with all its appalling accompanyments (sic). I wished Anna with me and my family, yet the Spectacle of the Sacrifice would have been too much for my wife, and the tenderhearted Elizabeth, suggesting events too vividly, perhaps, of home experiments and the courage of Principle. I had “Fruitlands” before me, and ideas there celebrated and played out to the applauding snows – the tragedy of ox-team and drifting Family wailing their woes to winding winds. You shall imagine the sequel and the rest.” (Ibid)

It is quite rare to see Bronson express regrets about his actions; the only other time I can recall was after Abba had died and he had a chance to read her journals. Knowing how blunt Abba could be, it is no wonder that Bronson felt compunction about his behavior during their marriage after reading them. The light of revelation that shines on the soul once truth is faced can be searing.

Shedding light on the mystery

In the next post I will get into the advice and admonitions that Bronson sent to Lizzie through his letters. I have a feeling that much can be learned about this mysterious Alcott daughter through a careful scrutiny of the writings of her beloved soul mate.

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Letter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore

lizzie alcott2Work is progressing, albeit slowly, on my book project. I am enjoying all aspects of the process from the thinking and planning while I drive (I’m one of those crazies that talks to myself all the time), to the research, to the paragraphs percolating in my head, to the final writing. I’m falling more in love with my characters if that is possible. I enjoy their company and their voices inside my head.

Sources in the writer’s own hand

Primary sources are vital to historical research; I was taught this by my seventh grade social studies teacher. I remember feeling excited when she explained that our textbooks would include original writings from those who formed and shaped our country. I’ve never lost that thrill of reading something written long ago, especially when you can read the person’s own handwriting.

Worth the effort

Lately I’ve been immersed in letters written by Abba to Bronson, her brother Samuel Joseph, and her daughters Louisa and Anna. I had requested and received PDF scans of several letters from the helpful librarians at Houghton Library and felt like I had won the lottery! The beauty of PDF files is that they can be easily enlarged, a necessity since Abba’s handwriting is so difficult to read. My respect for the tenacity of Eve LaPlante went up tenfold as I struggled over each word. Her compilation, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother is truly the product of blood, sweat and tears, making it all the more valuable.

north shore swampscott MAFrom sister to brother

One such letter, addressed to “My dear Brother” is dated August 25, 1857, written from Lynn, Massachusetts.  Abba had taken Elizabeth to an area known as the North Shore so that her daughter could experience the supposed healing effects of the ocean. My mother was born in Lynn; her family (the Breeds) was established in the seacoast city in the 1630s. She grew up in Lynn and neighboring Swampscott, another town where Abba and Elizabeth stayed during their sojourn. This is of personal importance because Abba cites a Dr. Newhall from Lynn as treating Lizzie during their stay. Because there were many marriages between Breeds and Newhalls over the years, I have a strong suspicion that I may be related to Dr. Newhall. I am currently researching that possibility and will report back if I find that we are kissin’ cousins. :-)

Looking for answers

Abba wrote the following to Samuel Joseph regarding Lizzie’s condition (note that I couldn’t make out all the words and therefore left some out. I have corrected some small punctuation errors):

littlewomen00alcoiala_0421We have been in Lynn now about three weeks – Lizzy’s vacillating condition has left me from day to day in doubt what to write about … The first week was warm and pleasant and the change was grateful to her – she eat [ate], slept and lived more naturally than I have known her to do for 6 months – but the last two weeks have been cold, rainy, dispiriting me and her – and most unfavorable for her. Dr. Newhall (Charles’ Dr.) thought it best to remove her immediately back – thinks her lungs are slightly diseased and that the comforts of house and the society of her family are now all important … Aunty Bond sent Dr. Charles [Windship] down – he gives a different opinion … that Lizzy is in every way failed – but that she has no not even incipient disease of the lungs – her nervous weakness operates on the brain and lungs … pathetically – that another week of fine weather may produce a most salient effect – for I remain till next Mon. This will prove the experiment a gain or a failure – it will end (?) my faith in human science and my pocket of human dreams. I work on as hopefully as I can … such a scientific must – it seems to me the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess. (AMA to SMJ 25 August 1857 fro MS Am 1130.9 (25), Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Inspired by her surroundings

After writing such a distressing account, she waxes philosophical as she contemplates the scenery:

ocean wavesThe change of scene has been very beneficial to me. I had become morbidly apprehensive … in judgment and action. The very sight of the ocean has restored me to a sense of marginal (?)  power. From our … irritations, our faithless anxiety bubbles (?) before the immensity of ocean, the grandeur of rocks (?), … the feel that order, and Beauty, love and power around, that it is the order of Supreme law – the beauty of sublime art – the love of uniform (?) good will – the Power of eternal Night. Our own dependence it is so apparent – our helplessness so unmistakable we exclaim … from pure instinct truly a Lord liveth – and loveth! (Ibid)

Reading that made me think of how often she and Bronson, especially in the early days, must have sat together, sharing similar thoughts.

From iconic Marmee to real mother

Reading Abba’s letters in her own hand transforms her from the literary icon of Marmee to a flesh and blood person. Often I feel like I am reading letters written by my own mother or grandmother when I read hers. I recall from Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother that LaPlante described the poor condition of Abba’s eyesight so I can understand why her handwriting might be difficult to read. It’s amazing she could write letters at all considering the condition of her eyes!

That helpful Houghton librarian sent me a final tantalizing tease in her email, to quote: “there are a lot of other letters that deal with Lizzie’s collapse and the sojourn to the North Shore.”

Meat for the starving dog. Stay tuned …

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Little Women in Dinan, France

susanwbailey:

This is a wonderful post on Daniel Shealy’s book, Little Women Abroad, and especially singles out May Alcott’s experience as an artist in Europe. The blogger provides a map of places to visit and many photos of the different sites Louisa and May visited.

Originally posted on American Girls Art Club In Paris:

little women abroadLittle Women Abroad, edited by Daniel Shealy (University of Georgia Press, 2008), is a wonderful account of the Alcott sisters’ trip to Europe together in 1870. Most readers will be interested in the travels and insights of the most famous sister, Louisa May Alcott, but for an artist, the real thrill is to see France through her little sister Abigail May’s eyes.

Most of us know Amy, the precocious little sister in Little Women who dreamed of becoming an artist. Few of us know much about Louisa’s real little sister Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (“May”), who did indeed grow up to be an accomplished artist. Unfortunately, May’s story ends tragically. She married at the age of 38, only to die one year later after giving birth to her first child.

May Alcott began to study art in 1856 when she was just sixteen years old. She studied with Stephen…

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