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!

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Into the head and heart of Bronson Alcott: a most surprising and satisfying journey

bronson alcott drawingThe Journals of Bronson Alcott by Odell Shepard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading The Journals of Bronson Alcott, edited by Odell Shepard. I was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved. Let no one judge Bronson Alcott until they have done a thorough study of his life (which I have not yet done but I’ve been reading). This man is far more complex and cannot be summed up in a soundbite. He was a brilliant, original thinker, a lover of life and Spirit and a deeply flawed man. It’s impossible to do a blog post on this book, there’s just too much to ponder. I can only urge you to read for yourself and see what it offers. I can tell you it is the extraordinary evolution of a long and fruitful life with much penetrating commentary and insight on some of the most brilliant people of 19th century America.

View all my Goodread reviews

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Happy birthday! Bronson Alcott at 214, Louisa at 181

Louisa May Alcott had remarked in her journal that memories of her November 29th birthday were not always happy ones.

The gift of self-denial

The Temple School

The Temple School

There’s the famous story of birthday number 3, celebrated at her father’s Temple School where, in the end, she had to deny herself her own birthday treat and give it to a student because there were not enough. Her “gift” was praise and a kiss from her mother for her self-denial. Bitter sweet.

Letter from her father

Then there is this story which I recently discovered in my re-read of Madelon Bedell’s The Alcotts: Biography of a Family. On her tenth birthday, she received this letter from her father:

“The good Spirit comes into the Breasts of the meek and loveful to abide long; anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idelnesses, heedlessness, rude behavior, and all such as these drive it away, o grieve it so that it leaves the poor misguided soul to live in its own obstainate, perverse, proud, discomfort; which is the very Pain of Sin and is in the Bible called the worm that never dies, the gnawing worm, the sting of Conscience.” (The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 244)

Good grief!

bronson to louisa on her 7th birthday

from Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest

Favortism

Bedell maintains that Bronson and Louisa may have been uncomfortable with the implied intimacy of sharing the same birthday, given their tempestuous relationship. In an effort to downplay the meaning, Bronson made sure every member of the family got a gift on their respective 43rd and 10th birthdays: Abba received a new rocking chair, Anna a silver pencil case and gold pen and inkstand, Lizzie two books. The birthday girl received the same gift as her baby sister Abbie: “little stories,” hers being titled “Flora’s Dial.” (Ibid) So only did every family get a gift on their birthdays, but some members got better gifts. How it must have stung Louisa’s heart to see the obvious favoritism Bronson showed towards her older sister (and where the money came from for such extravagance is a mystery).

Gradual reconciliation

512 louisa says goodbye to bronson

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

Yet, over the years, Louisa and Bronson came to appreciate one another as one matured and the other mellowed out. Her sacrifice of health during her Civil War nursing stint showed Bronson that his daughter was of extraordinary character. He was proud of her, and that pride continued through her literary success. It is said that he lived off of Louisa’s success in his subsequent conversation tours but could he have not also just been a proud father?

In the end they would share the closest of intimacies, dying within three days of each other, he inviting her to come “up” with him, pointing heavenward.

Happy birthday Bronson and Louisa!

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

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

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

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

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

one room schoolhouseNot an inviting place

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

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

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

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

(Ibid, pg. 17)

Ahead of his time

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

Good things to come

The Temple School

The Temple School

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

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

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

Click to Tweet & ShareThe reality of the one-room schoolhouse makes Bronson Alcott look pretty good … http://wp.me/p125Rp-1AM

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Reading is a love affair. Just ask Bronson Alcott.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Click to Tweet & ShareA visit with fans from abroad gets us the “wonk” tour: Did you know these tidbits about Orchard House? http://wp.me/p125Rp-1zt

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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 …

Click to Tweet & ShareAbba, Bronson and Lizzie: A slice of family dynamics – what does it tell us? http://wp.me/p125Rp-1ws

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series – Louisa as a practicing Transcendentalist

Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series featured a fine array of speakers.

Kristi Lynn Martin and Duty’s Faithful Child

kristi1 560Starting off the morning was Kristi Lynn Martin, a doctoral candidate at Boston University. Martin’s many years of experience as a tour guide at Concord’s finest historical homes (The Old Manse, “Bush” (aka the Emerson homestead) and Orchard House) served her well, giving her a unique insight into lives of the distinguished Transcendentalists that lived there.

The golden circle

Martin’s presentation, called “Duty’s Faithful Child:” Louisa May Alcott and the Transcendance of Transcendentalism covered the many famous thinkers in Louisa’s circle. These people included Ralph Waldo Emerson who sought to gather radical intellectuals like himself into a community, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, the Rev. Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley and of course, Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott.

Louisa’s brand of Transcendentalism

Dubbed “The Newness,” Transcendentalists sought a new spiritual vision beyond traditional religion. Growing discontent with empty ritual and spiritual hollowness, they sought to stretch their minds and hearts, seeking a more invigorating spiritual experience. While Louisa was ambivalent about Transcendentalism, mainly because of her father’s inability to provide for his family, she could not get away from its influence and it shows in her writing, especially her juvenile stories. She transcended the impracticality of Transcendentalism as taught by her father through her writing and reform efforts.

Heartfelt conversion

Louisa experienced a spiritual awakening at a young age while spending time outdoors. Nature had touched her soul, giving her an experience of God that she would never forget. Louisa, however, was like her mother, a pragmatic reformer at heart just like the Mays and Sewells before her (which presenter Eve LaPlante spoke about in the afternoon session – more on that in a bit) and therefore practiced a more practical Transcendentalism. She embraced the self-reliance of Emerson, the principled pragmatism of Thoreau, the moral theology of the Rev. Parker, the dynamic feminism of Fuller and the educational reform of Peabody and her own father.

Important women in the golden circle

Martin went on to demonstrate how Transcendentalism influenced Louisa’s writing through a careful study of Moods, Work and Hospital Sketches. She highlighted the important women in Louisa’s life including her mother Abigail, Margaret Fuller and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (whom Louisa regarded as a feminine ideal, one who exercised her mind and followed her heart while taking care of her husband and seven children).

Stefanie Jochman: Jo’s Transcendental marriage

stefanie1 560Stefanie Jochman was a new presenter to the Summer Conversational Series. She teaches high school at the Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Wisconsin and is currently pursuing her master’s degree. Her talk, “Professor Bhaer and Mr. Emerson: Jo March’s Transcendent Marriage” provided unique insight into Jo’s relationship with Frederick, and with her mentor and muse in real life, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

How was Professor Bhaer modeled after Emerson?

With the thoroughness of a lawyer, Jochman presented her case with numerous examples of why Professor Bhaer more resembled Emerson even though the popular view has been that Bronson Alcott was the model. There are too many examples to include in this blog post but here are a few:

Bhaer, to Jo, is the hero of her life. His guidance, love and desire to help Jo be the best she can be was much like the kindness Emerson showed to a young Louisa when he allowed her to browse through her library, suggesting appropriate books to stimulate her mind. Bhaer influenced Jo’s writing by frowning on her potboilers and encouraging her to write at a higher level which eventually paid off for her with a successful career as an authoress. Emerson too provided much encouragement to Louisa, suggesting books, giving advice and simply being someone she would wish to emulate.

Lifting the burden

Jochman pointed out a simple example in Little Women demonstrating how Professor Bhaer was introduced to the story by physically lifting the burden of the maid in the boarding house. Jochman compared that act to Emerson’s consistent efforts in lifting the financial burdens of the Alcott family. In one such instance, he supplied the rest of the money needed for the family to purchase Hillside (now known as The Wayside), the home where the family would live for three and one half years. It provided the setting for Little Women and the first truly stable environment for the Alcott children.

Transcendental utopia

Jo and Frederick’s work with boys at Plumfield created a Transcendental utopia. Jochman cited Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay in which he sings the praises of boys and the need to celebrate their childhood through their exposure to nature. Both Alcott and Emerson strongly believed in Nature’s ability to illuminate the mind and this was especially demonstrated in the story of Dan, the boy who struggled the most at Plumfield, and in life. As a small example, in Little Men, Jo set aside a drawer for Dan for his collection of things from nature; during the discussion that followed Jochman’s presentation, previous presenter Kristi Martin shared that Emerson had a similar drawer for his collection of artifacts from nature. This was something she picked up from her years as a tour guide.

Jochman had much more to share and I am hoping to entice her to write some guest posts for this blog so that you can find out more from her presentation.

Eve LaPlante: Family history of personal and social reform

eve1 560Eve LaPlante, author of Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, gave an intriguing presentation of the family history of reform which was passed down from generation to generation, right down to Louisa. Using her service as a Civil War nurse as documented in Hospital Sketches, LaPlante, a direct descendent of Abigail May Alcott’s family, told stories of relatives from her past who followed a similar pattern to Louisa’s of self-discovery, spiritual introspection and commitment to reform.

In the beginning

Beginning with Judge Samuel Sewell, LaPlante told the story of his heartfelt repentance after the Salem Witch Trials. Judge Sewell, then in his forties, examined his heart through prayer and realized the wrong he had committed in condemning men and women as witches without hard evidence. He devoted himself to reform as a result, writing the first tract (which cited the Bible) condemning the practice of slavery. LaPlante also mentioned another document written years later which unfortunately no longer exists where Judge Sewell defended the idea that women as well as men went to heaven, their physical bodies being resurrected like their male counterparts. This amazingly went against the theology of the day which insisted only men went to heaven.

Forsaking wealth for a healthy soul

Joseph May, father to Abigail, married Dorothy Sewell, great-granddaughter of Judge Sewell. In his thirties, Joseph May, then a successful entrepreneur, lost his business and his money in a bad land deal. After a protracted depression, May turned away from the pursuit of money, calling it unhealthy for the soul. He was not a social reformer like Judge Sewell but believed in personal interior conversion.

Pioneering abolitionist

His son Samuel Joseph May was an influential reformer. Ordained as a Unitarian minister, Samuel Joseph went through a dramatic overnight conversion in his thirties regarding his views on slavery. He became the first to preach from the pulpit against slavery, something which caused his father much consternation. Joseph May endured much ridicule from his neighbors for his son’s views. Samuel Joseph May was also the first to preach on women’s suffrage.

Like brother, like sister

Samuel’s sister, Abigail emulated her brother and took reformation to heart as well. Marrying Bronson Alcott (whom Samuel introduced to Abigail) against the wishes of her father, Abigail admired Bronson’s principles and similar heart for reform. She envisioned a life in equal partnership with Bronson, promoting educational reform. Although their life together didn’t turn out as she had hoped, she was able to pass the idea of social reform down to her daughter Louisa who then struck out on her own as a reformer for the first time in her service as a Civil War nurse.

What we can see in Hospital Sketches

A collection of Louisa’s letters to her family about her war experience was serialized and eventually created her most successful book to date, Hospital Sketches. Critics agree that it was Hospital Sketches that revealed Louisa’s writing voice, relaying with humor and poignancy her real life experiences getting to and then serving in Washington at the Union Hotel Hospital following one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. LaPlante’s analysis of the writing of Hospital Sketches as a vehicle by which Louisa’s true self emerges spawned a lively discussion of the text (including a remembrance of Gabrielle Donnelly’s spirited reading of a portion of the first chapter). The mixture of humor with moving descriptions of suffering and death (including one John Suhre whom Louisa loved) demonstrated the many wonderful facets of Louisa’s writing and personality.

It was another full day of thought-provoking talks, conversation and fellowship with fellow Louisa lovers. Does it get any better than this?

Click to Tweet & ShareOn vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Day 2 of Summer Conversational Series – Louisa as practicing Transcendentalist http://wp.me/p125Rp-1w4

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!