Don’t miss the special exhibit of rare artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

On Thursday I toured Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was anxious to see the artifacts pictured in The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson and took a vacation day to see them as November can get swallowed up in holiday preparations.

If you live anywhere near Concord and can get to this exhibit, do so. The artifacts are on display only through the month of November.

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

I made a complete list of the artifacts on display. I wish I could show you pictures but taking photos is prohibited at Orchard House; you will need to get a copy of The Annotated Little Women.

Here goes:

In the kitchen:

  • First editions of Hospital Sketches and Little Women
  • Original photos of the Hosmer cottage known as Dove Cote and Orchard House (the one with the unique fence built by Bronson).

In the dining room:

  • A quote from Louisa, handwritten, circa 1869
  • An autographed dance fan including the autographs of Louisa, May and Ellen Emerson.

In the parlor:

  • Three Pickwick Club badges
  • A display dedicated to Anna and John including the original marriage certificate and photographs

In Louisa’s room:

  • Louisa’s homeopathic medicine kit (including a list of ailments treated by the medicines)
  • A lock of Louisa’s hair
  • Sketches of Louisa by May, one familiar (“The Golden Goose”), one not (she has a cat at her feet)
  • A photo of Alf Whitman sitting on the half moon desk
  • Original versions of publicity photos of Louisa circa 1870, 1875, 1880, and two from 1887.
  • An ad for Little Men
  • A sculpture by Daniel Chester French of two owls cuddling–this artifact was acquired just three weeks ago.

In May’s room:

  • Tracings May did of drawings by John Flaxman circa 1857; she then copied the tracings around the moldings of the windows
  • Original watercolor of Ernest Nieriker by May in their Meuden salon – the color was especially brilliant.
  • Original photograph of Alice Bartlett and May.

In the hallway under Lulu’s portrait:

  • An original copy of Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply by May Alcott Nieriker

In Bronson and Abba’s room:

  • Lizzie’s sewing kit, given to her by her father on her twenty-first birthday in 1856, It was surprisingly compact and featured a lovely inscription by Bronson.
  • A little book of Abba’s “Recipes and Simple Remedies” plus two original photos, one I had not seen before taken in 1850 but it is so small that it would be impossible to reproduce. The other was familiar, circa 1858.
  • Sketches of Frederick Pratt by May, one on a rocking horse and the other, playing Lizzie’s melodeon.
  • Small photos of John Pratt as a baby and toddler
  • Original photo of Lulu in the carriage

The best was saved for last–in Bronson’s study:

  • May’s original sketch of Bronson
  • Various original photos of Bronson
  • Original lithograph of the Temple School in Boston
  • And a display containing:
  • A lock of Lizzie’s hair with a tiny inscribed note in her perfect penmanship
  • Another lock of Lizzie’s combined with a lock of Bronson’s
  • Lizzie’s New Testament, an exquisite tiny book which originally belonged to Bronson–he gave it to Lizzie and then it was bequeathed to May.
  • Bronson’s copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, also a tiny book (though a little bigger than the New Testament and a lot thicker) with beautiful engraving

I was grateful for being in a small group so that I could examine each artifact freely. My only wish is for the lighting to have been better as it was a cloudy day and I wanted to see every detail (how I wish I had had my super duper reading glasses!).

I must say that all the different artifacts belonging to Lizzie that were given to her by her father (and especially the two locks of hair entwined) told me much about the special relationship between Bronson and his Psyche.

Don’t miss this great exhibit!

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Fun, surprises and inspiration at John Matteson’s book signing of The Annotated Little Women

This past Sunday, November 8, a group of Alcott enthusiasts had the distinct pleasure of attending a book signing and reading with John Matteson, the editor of The Annotated Little Women at The Concord Bookstore.


louisa may alcott played by Jan TurnquistAs he was about to speak, we were greeted with a surprise guest, “Louisa” (aka Jan Turnquist) herself! She seemed flummoxed at first by our presence and then astonished as she learned we were about to hear about a gorgeous and rich version of her classic novel. We all smiled knowingly. She saw the book and was pleased at the beauty of the volume and then caught sight of Matteson who introduced himself and kissed her hand.

kissing the hand of louisa may alcott

It was a sweet and humorous moment, a great way to begin this reading.

The connection of family

john matteson talksMatteson went on to speak of his personal connection to Little Women, and how the importance of family brought him to know and write about the Alcotts. He shared of his years as a struggling grad student, married and with a daughter. He became a stay-at-home dad all the while wondering how he would advance in his career as he saw colleagues publishing papers and making names for themselves. This season of waiting would end up becoming a rich time of formation.

Approached for a book project

Publishing his first essay in 2001 in the New England Quarterly (an essay which had nothing to do with the Alcotts), Matteson was approached by a literary agent who wanted to discuss a book project. Matteson had no particular book in mind but the agent in his wisdom, continued to work with him. A book on nineteenth century Utopian communities was decided upon and Matteson began his research by visiting Fruitlands where he first encountered Bronson Alcott. As they say, the rest is history.

Family parallels

eden's outcasts bigMatteson was fascinated by Bronson and decided to write the book about him. As he researched the family, he came to know Louisa and saw some amazing parallels between his life and that of Bronson, both teachers and “quixotic” fathers intimately involved in the raising of strong, “verbal” daughters; for one thing, the age difference between father and daughter were nearly the same (off by just seventeen days).

And thus, the idea of Eden’s Outcasts, a biography of Bronson and daughter Louisa, was born. It would go on to win the Pulitzer prize. Quite a feat for a first book!

How The Annotated Little Women came to be

Annotated-LITTLE-WOMEN_978-0-393-07219-8The love affair between Matteson and the Alcotts continued with his work on The Annotated Little Women. Published by Norton, Matteson was approached by the company to produce this book which is part of their ongoing series of annotated classics. Originally thinking the book would be a simple project, it ended up being an intense and amazing discovery of endless and fascinating connections between the fictional world of the March family and the reality of the Alcotts.

Intimate connections

No other book, not The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland nor any other classic can boast the intimate connections that Little Women can. There are no silver slippers from Oz but there are real artifacts from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The coffers were opened to Matteson revealing astonishing links: Meg’s (Anna’s) wedding dress, Louisa (Jo) and Lizzie’s (Beth) sewing kits, May’s (Amy’s) foot cast, Abba’s (Marmee) chess set … the list goes on and on; Matteson connected such artifacts to actual passages in Little Women. These artifacts, not normally available for public viewing, are on display at Orchard House during the month of November. Photographs of these mementos appear throughout The Annotated Little Women.

Stories and more stories

reacting to miss alcott

photo by Kristi Martin

Matteson told fascinating stories about some of the other 220 illustrations in the book. He cited a passage where Amy, writing from Europe, described a purple dress (which she thought horrid) worn by the Empress of France. Matteson then gave the background: how a chemist discovered the color of magenta, how the Emperor Napoleon III had won a military victory in the town of Magenta, and how the Empress wore magenta dresses in honor of husband whenever she could to honor him in public.

He spoke about the seemingly random inclusion of a photograph of a queen from Hawaii whom Louisa happened to spot during her trip to Europe–Amy writes of this in her letters home to her family.

Personal story that resonates

By far the most interesting connection was the inclusion of a precious artifact belonging to Matteson, a simple autograph of Bronson with the phrase, “Follow the Highest!” (found on page 347). Earlier in his talk Matteson spoke of an unfavorable review of Eden’s Outcasts by Publisher’s Weekly, leaving him feeling dejected. It took the wisdom of his then thirteen-year-old daughter to remind him of his reason for writing the book: because he had something unique to say and people needed to hear it.

Looking out intently at his audience, he urged us all to do the same: “Follow the Highest!” Many of us left that book signing with far more than an autograph inscribed in our books.

a cherished signed copy

photo by Kristi Martin

Thank you John Matteson for retaining that true teacher’s heart so present in the spirit of Amos Bronson Alcott.

p.s. Don’t miss the special exhibit of artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House only through the month of November. See locks of hair from Louisa and Lizzie, Abba’s chess set, Lizzie’s sewing box and New Testament, and more!

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Unearthing some golden nuggets from the Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson

Annotated-LITTLE-WOMEN_978-0-393-07219-8I could not leave this book without revealing a few of John Matteson’s wonderful insights into Little Women and Louisa May Alcott. I will begin with the introduction, “Little Pilgrims.”

Reflecting real life

Little Women retains its importance in part because it recognizes that many of our most potent enemies lie within us and that life is far more likely to call us to vanquish our vanity, selfishness, or ill temper than to battle actual evil wizards and slay physical dragons.”

Right away Matteson reveals the true value of Little Women—that it is a story about each of us; this is the foundation of the book’s enduring popularity.

christian fights apollyonMatteson cites complaints from critics about that realism, beginning with a famous quote from The Ladies’ Repository: “It is not a Christian book. It is religion without spirituality, and salvation without Christ.” He also notes the offense of a reviewer for Zion’s Herald at the “dis-spiritualizing of Bunyan’s great allegory [The Pilgrim’s Progress],” citing the epic symbolism of Christian’s battle with Apollyon as being reduced to a common “conflict with an evil temper.”

amadeusThis reminds me of a scene from Milos Forman’s academy award-winning film, “Amadeus” where Mozart is arguing before the Emperor regarding the value of an opera in the vernacular (German) about everyday people: “Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus… people so lofty they sound as if they sh*t marble!” If you notice in the movie, the regular folks are singing Mozart’s music while the “loftier” compositions of the court composer Salieri are long forgotten.

Thus it is with Little Women: Louisa May Alcott tapped into the hearts and lives of her young readers, winning over generation after generation.

Reflecting Alcott’s overall optimism

Matteson asserts that Little Women, unlike other famous coming-of-age stories (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye), maintains an optimistic outcome after growing up for the March sisters despite the difficulties of getting there (not unlike in The Pilgrim’s Progress): “Each has found the position, more, importantly, the work that will lead her to a life well lived.”

He goes on to write,

“Indeed, even the demise of Beth can be seen not as a succumbing to death, but as a transcendent triumph over it. Because of the quiet courage and grace with which she faces the end, her passing feels less like a defeat than an apotheosis.”

Little Women reflects Louisa’s persistent optimism in the face of her own difficult life: despite grinding poverty and ill health, life can still be good.

Creative solution to a difficult character problem

One last nugget: Louisa’s ingenious solution regarding the inclusion of her father into the story.

Many have theorized as to why Bronson (aka Mr. March) was not in the forefront of the story along with the rest of the family: Bronson was too difficult a personality to include. The relationship between father and daughter was too complex (some even surmise that Louisa resented her father). The story was meant to be about women directing their own lives.

Some or all could be true. Matteson maintains that Bronson was very much included in Little Women through the clever use of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the book Bronson most cherished:

“Alcott wanted to keep her father’s values—his love of self-sacrifice, his transcendence of earthly appetites, and his belief that the goal of life is spiritual purification—very much in view. A key device for doing so was to use The Pilgrim’s Progress as a leitmotif in Little Women. Observing both the hellish trials and heavenly potentials of human existence, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a fatherly book: one that teaches, cajoles, sets high standards, and demands the best of those it would instruct. It is, in all these features, similar to Bronson Alcott himself. In the same ways, it resembles Little Women.”

Amos_Bronson_Alcott hildreth-horz

I’ve just scratched the surface of this introduction—you’ll have to dig out the rest yourself. You can find The Annotated Little Women on Amazon (don’t forget to leave a review after you read it!)

In my last post on this book, I will highlight some of the biographical information.

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“Loves Mankind, Hard on People” – Bronson Alcott, Mr. Keating, and the Dangers of Putting Ideals before Students

Featured Image -- 7263


This an amazing post from one of our readers, a young educator who spoke for the first time at the Summer Conversational Series this summer. She certainly made me rethink “Dead Poet’s Society,” one of my favorite movies.

Originally posted on edreverie:

Orchard HouseI have spent the last week at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, attending their annual Summer Conversational Series. (As an aside, it is my second year attending the SCS, and it’s an amazing experience. If you haven’t been, and you area fan of the Alcott’s, transcendentalism, philosophy, or education, you really need to go!)

Anyway, there are SO many things I have taken from this week that I will probably be writing about for a long while. However, there is a certain phrase that stuck with me especially, and is where I will begin the first of many SCS 2015 reflections.

At Thursday’s SCS session, John Matteson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts, took questions and led discussion on “all things Alcott.” Bronson Alcott became a subject of conversation here, and he was subject to criticism (as Bronson Alcott seems to always be) for…

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Louisa Links of the Week (formerly known as Fun and Fascinating Links)

Lots of great links this week!

Through the month of May, the Concord Public Library is celebrating 160 years of Flower Fables, Louisa May Alcott’s first book. They will have displays (including the first edition of the book), children’s activities and a visit with “Louisa” herself in the form of Jan Turnquist, executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. come and join in the fun!  Go to the Events page for more details.

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

On a wonderful site called “Stuff You Missed in History Class” is a podcast about Bronson Alcott and May Alcott Nieriker.

bronson and may

And here is a re-broadcast from the BBC about the life of Louisa. The program is called “Great Lives”, which asks a guest to choose their hero from history and then brings in an expert to talk about the person. Thanks to Hilary from England for this link.

Finally, two new episodes from The March Family Letters:

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Remember this painting of The Wayside where the Little Women actually grew up? Artist Joyce Pyka sends us an update

You may recall an artist’s rendition of The Wayside, originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott after the home was purchased with Abba Alcott’s inheritance.

Although Orchard House is the physical setting for Little Women, artist Joyce Pyka, like many of us Alcott fans, knows that many of the childhood stories of the girls took place at Hillside.

Pyka has been revealing her envisioning of The Wayside with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie in various stages:

Little Women 10 26 2014 fixed by Joyce Pyka


detail laurie

Here’s the latest version:

640-wayside clearer 3 31 2015

Pyka reports that the painting should be done by summer and yes, prints will be available for sale. Sign me up!

Here are previous blog posts on the painting.

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Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women – Fiction, Fame and Romanticism 1868-1900

Continuing our discussion …

Looking at fiction

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenLittle Women was a subversive work in many ways, putting new ideas into the heads of children while managing not to upset their parents. One such idea was its endorsement of reading fiction. According to Beverly Lyon Clark, a leading authority on children’s literature, children were not encouraged to read fiction because of the way it absorbed the mind. Of Little Women‘s influence she writes, “its other oral would seem to endorse the pleasures of subverting adults’ strictures and of reveling in the glory of fiction.” She continues, “the text sets up two models for reading: readers have generally followed Jo’s enthusiastic example for their own reading even if they may endorse the moralizing model when they image how reading Little Women should affect others, especially those others are young.” (pg. 10)

If you read Little Women as a child, what was your reaction to Jo’s love of reading? Perhaps like me, you read it as an adult–did you find Jo’s enthusiasm infectious and if so, how?

Bronson’s influence

Louisa was compelled to write Little Women not only by her publisher but by her father, in part because he was promised publication of his book, Tablets, if she complied. But Bronson’s desire was genuine–he felt certain his daughter could write the perfect children’s book as he had shaped and molded Louisa and her sisters in his own image (or at least, attempted to). At any rate, he knew she would want to please him. While Bronson encouraged his daughters to read fiction, he deplored many of the books of his day. Little Women was to fulfill his desire for the perfect children’s book.

How much of Bronson’s influence do you see in Little Women despite the fact that Mr. March plays such a small role in the story?

I am currently going through my second reading of Little Women (listening, by the way, to a wonderful dramatic reading, available free on Librivox) and I see Bronson’s influence everywhere, from the use of Pilgrim’s Progress as the backdrop to the spiritual and moral lessons in the book. While Louisa could not seem to embody her father in a major character role, Mr. March is quite “present” despite his absence.

Why did Louisa May Alcott seem so approachable?

louisa readingLouisa deplored her fame even as she had wished for such as a child. Why did readers feel so bonded to her? And what was so onerous about it to Louisa?

Clark writes on page 20, “An early twentieth-century biographer declared that Alcott ‘felt the annoyances of glory more that most authors.’ But it seems likely that she was besieged more than most.” She goes on to cite sales of Little Women and writes, “Alcott was also a woman: she would have seemed more approachable than a ‘great man’ would, and … she had no wife or personal assistant to protect her. As an author whose works targeted children (as well as adults), she must have seemed more approachable still. Finally, given how autobiographical her Little Women series was, and given her willingness to call herself Aunt Jo, readers who felt intimate with the fictional Jo March seem to have felt intimate with Alcott. As an obituarist noted, ‘She wrote so much of her own life into books that she was nearer to the public than most writers.'”

Imagine yourself in Louisa’s time–would you have approached her? What would you have said to her? Do you think her fans were too intrusive?

I probably would have been too embarrassed myself to approach her and might have been disappointed in what I saw. I get the sense that Louisa could not always find it within herself to be gracious to fans. An inherently shy woman, the level of fame she experienced must have been excruciating at times. Still, that fame gave her entry into virtually any place where she could hob knob with other well accomplished and famous people. One of the things I most enjoyed about Madeleine B. Stern’s biography was how she described the pleasure Louisa sometimes took in her fame.

pickwick portfolioI think about the five Luken sisters who wrote to Louisa about the newspaper they published that was fashioned after the Pickwick Portfolio. How glorious it must have been to have the author of Little Women endorse your efforts! Louisa even made free contributions to the newspaper, impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the sisters.

Louisa the Romantic

jo writing (norman rockwell)As much as Louisa denied adopting the philosophy of her father, she could not prevent herself from living it. As Transcendentalism was influenced by the Romantic era in Europe, it makes perfect sense that drama queen Louisa (who I believe also had a martyr complex) would adopt such colorful images of herself as the artist possessed by her writing in the garret. She could not escape her upbringing no matter how hard she tried. She was excessively pragmatic in order to undo the damage of her father’s way of living that so deprived the family of material necessities and basic security. But at the same time her upbringing oozed through her writing and this is what attracted so many readers. It was so different, deep and inspiring to girls leading dull and limited lives. Jo March represented a breaking out of sorts, not only with seeking a career over marriage, but in her basic personality: her reading habits, the way she behaved, her use of the vernacular, and just the very fact that she lived her tomboy desires openly. Jo may not have always been the most likable character but she was real.

What is it about Jo March that attracts you? How has she inspired you?

I admit that Jo has not always been my favorite sister. I was first attracted to Beth as a child and always associated her name with beauty. As an adult I came to appreciate Amy as I learned more about her real counterpart, May. But now that I have become a writer, Jo is speaking to me. She hides out in the garret; I hide out in my cellar room decorated with posters of Norman Rockwell paintings of Jo. I love the whole romantic image of Jo as a writer and an artist. I relate to her bad temper, her unbridled enthusiasm and her desire to lead an uncompromising, authentic life.

There is much more in Chapter One but I will leave that for you to read in The Afterlife of Little Women. The next post will dive into Chapter Two: Waxing Nostaligic 1900-1930.

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