Concord in Autumn: walking the path Louisa walked

Concord, home to Louisa May Alcott. I have been a student of Louisa on and off, for most of my life. Back in August of 2010 I decided to commit myself to study and share my reflections with you. I have so enjoyed all the book discussions and your wonderful comments about our favorite author.

Autumn at its peak in front of the Concord Free Public Library

I have always visited Concord in autumn. Since I’ve immersed my life into Louisa’s, the visits have taken on a mystical quality, most especially in autumn. The colorful falling leaves, brilliant sunshine and crisp air make Louisa more alive to me than ever.

The Concord Free Public Library

Now that I’ve discovered that much of what is at Houghton Library at Harvard University is also available at the Concord Free Public Library through an extensive microfilm collection, I can easily access all I need to research this blog and a future book I wish to write. Concord is only 45 minutes away from home, and also close enough to where I work in Wellesley that I can go there after work to do research.

So today I spent a couple of hours reading Anna’s diary from 1840 (which I will be writing on once I finish it) and then decided to walk the path Louisa and her family walked so many times, from downtown Concord to Orchard House.

Continuing on to Orchard House

I took many pictures which I’m happy to share with you in this slide show.

Being able to read the words of family members in their own handwriting really adds to the mystical connection I feel with the Alcotts.

I am indeed very blessed! I look forward to sharing with you in the future what I’ve discovered from my reading.

In the meantime, enjoy your virtual walk from downtown Concord to Orchard House on a crisp and beautiful October day.

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

“I Always Wanted to Be Like Jo.”

Spring in Concord has sprung, not only with budding trees and flowers, but with a plethora of activities celebrating the centennial of one of the oldest home museums in the country, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Little Women discussion panel

On Thursday, March 22 I had the joy of attending the first of three presentations on Little Women, held at the First Parish Church in the center of town. This presentation featured a discussion called “Why I Wanted to Be Jo March.” moderated by a panel of noted Concord residents plus the executive director of Orchard House, Jan Turnquist.

Panelists for the discussion included Concord residents and the executive director of Orchard House. From L to R, Kathy Reticker, Melissa Saalfield, Jan Turnquist, Jiffy Read and Maura Clark.

Click here to  find out more about the panelists and their connection to Little Women.

A room full of fans

While communicating with all of you through this blog is a great pleasure, it was wonderful to be with people in person discussing our passion for Louisa. Most of the audience were senior citizens and they were a well-read group! Although I haven’t read as much as they had, still, I felt right at home.

Jo’s influence

During the evening we discussed Jo March’s significance in the lives of women. Many of the women had read Little Women before the advent of women’s liberation and found Jo’s voice to be unique and strong.

Little Women has been translated into over fifty languages and has impacted women around the world. Jan Turnquist mentioned how many female political leaders from around the world have been influenced by Jo.

One woman’s story

Jan also shared an anecdote of a Korean woman who, after landing at Logan Airport, drove straight to Orchard House because she “had to see it.” Jo March had empowered her life. She had felt like nothing in her society where all the emphasis was on the men. Yet partly due to the reading of  Little Women, she grew up to be a professor. As an adult, she went through difficulties with her husband and felt deep shame. She turned back to Little Women for solace and was empowered again, this time by Marmee.

Universal appeal

The panel discussed the universal appeal of Little Women and why, after over 150 years, the book is still so popular. Jan touched on the morality of the story as appealing to the core values in each of us.  In an age where such core values are constantly being questioned, Little Women acts as a port in the storm, reminding us and comforting us.

Flawed, human characters

Jo, as an example, was a deeply moral girl who was flawed. She was ornery, impatient and outspoken to the point of being rude. She had a violent temper that got her into trouble as evidenced by Chapter 8, “Jo Meets Apollyon.” The authenticity of her humanity rang true with readers as opposed to the “perfect” children depicted in other stories of the time. Jan mentioned an actual book called Goody Two-Shoes as an example.

Sisterhood

The nature of sisterhood and the unique bond of sisters was also suggested as a reason for Little Women‘s enduring popularity. Several of us shared stories of our relationships with our sisters and how Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy mirrored those relationships.

Fitting in

Another reason for the appeal of Jo March is the fact that she didn’t fit in with women of her time; she felt “odd,” “queer.” Yet there was a vigorous spark in Jo that empowered her, enabling her to strike out on her own, writing books and choosing to marry for love.

This point resonated with the women in the room, and with me as well. I have often felt “odd” (and having a daughter who is very mainstream, reinforces that feeling daily! :-)). Yet that “oddness” is also a source of pride and often empowers me to make my mark in the world.

Family ties

The strength of family was also mentioned as a reason for Little Women‘s appeal. Much is made of Louisa’s dedication to her family and her role as chief caretaker and breadwinner. She displayed mixed feelings in her journal writings of this vocation, chaffing to be free yet compelled to take care of them.

Give and take

A mood pillow sold at Orchard House.

Jan reminded us, however, that it was not a one-way street. She pointed out that Louisa’s family was always there for her and knew exactly how to take care of her when she needed them most. Whether it was nursing her back to health after her stint as a Civil War nurse, or respecting her moods and needs to be alone to write (as evidenced by Louisa’s use of the “mood pillow”), Louisa received as much as she gave.

Learning to appreciate the power of Little Women

I walked into that discussion eager to fellowship with Louisa enthusiasts and walked away with a much deeper understanding of why Little Women is such an important book.

A world full of Jo Marches

Having read Little Women as an adult back in 2010, I couldn’t truly appreciate the significance of the book nor its heroine, Jo March. I had chiefly immersed myself in Louisa’s life which blunted Jo’s power for me. And today, the world is full of Jo Marches, thanks to great strides in women’s rights. Jo has perhaps, lost some of that uniqueness.

Most of the women in this group, however, met Jo March before women’s liberation took off in the 1960s. There were few role models for women as unique and empowering as Jo and listening to their stories helped me understand better Jo’s influence.

Is Jo losing her significance?

It made me wonder if Jo will continue to be such a powerful influence. Perhaps in America, she won’t be. But Little Women is still read around the world and judging by the reaction of that Korean woman, there are still many women who will benefit from Jo’s example.

Perhaps not …

It made me think how Little Women could even be considered subversive in cultures where women are still so oppressed. Here again is another example of Louisa May Alcott’s genius in mixing provocative ideas into a sugary mix. No one would ever suspect the power that lies in this simple moral story of four sisters growing up in 19th century New England.

More presentations

If you’re in the area and interested in attending the other two presentations in the series, visit the Events page on this blog for more information.

Has Jo influenced your life? How?


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Quirky Wayside offers a wealth of history: the architecture

When you think about all the different people who lived at The Wayside over the years, it’s no wonder the house has gone through so many changes. Here are some of the more significant ones:

Home of a minuteman

The earliest known date for The Wayside is  c.1700 and was a typical two story, wood frame New England farmhouse (see the official The Wayside website). The front door was where the bay window in the front is now. At some point in the 1700s, Minuteman Samuel Whitney, his wife and children occupied the house. Ceilings inside were low to retain heat and as mentioned by my tour guide, must have been difficult for Whitney who was quite tall. It’s possible he have had to bend over in the rooms! Apparently three current day relatives of Whitney have visited the house and they have had to bend over in some of the rooms.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Home of the Alcotts

In 1845, The Wayside went under its first major renovation with the Alcotts. Bronson enlarged the house by taking a shed, dividing it in two, and attaching it on either end of the house. He also added a portico over the front door. He landscaped the ridge with beautiful terraces which, if you know what to look for, can still be seen today.

Louisa’s own room

The addition allowed for Louisa and Anna to have their own rooms. This was the first time Louisa had her own room and it had a door out to the back where she could run off as she wished into the meadows and up the ridge, flying kites, working off energy by running and whatever else her healthy and strong body would allow.

Louisa in her own room at Hillside, drawn by Flora Smith for Joan Howard's "The Story of Louisa May Alcott" c. 1955.

The room was small but it was very dear to Louisa who longed to have a special place of solitude where she could write her stories. When I read my first Louisa biography as a child (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard) I remember  feeling a strong sense of empathy for Louisa and her desire for a special room of her own where she could let her imagination fly.

The room is now a hallway with a window but I could still feel the energy of Louisa there and took a snapshot of the window just to have it :-).

Home to the Hawthornes

The Alcotts occupied The Wayside for 3 years and then had to move to Boston so that Abba could find work to support the family. The house was sold to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852 where he lived with his family once they had returned from Europe (for a short time, the Alcotts re-occupied a portion of the house while Orchard House was being renovated. The Hawthornes were in Europe during that time.)

A sanctuary

Here’s where the Wayside changed significantly in appearance. The Hawthornes moved the front door to the side, and replaced the original front door with a bay window. A second story was added to the wing which originally housed Louisa’s room, and her room became a hallway with a staircase leading to the second and third floors (thus the window replacing her door). Nathaniel had a 3-story square tower added to the back of the house, using the third floor with its cathedral ceiling as his writing chamber. Unfortunately the troubles of the day (the impending Civil War) impeded his ability to write.

Home to a future saint?

Nathaniel’s daughter Rose Hawthorne Lathrop achieved a notoriety of her own. Rose’s life was marred with tragedy with the death of her young son, and her marriage was an unhappy one. After the death of her husband, Rose joined the convent, eventually founding a Dominican Order which cared for poor cancer patients. Known as Mother Mary Alphonsa, she is on her way to being canonized as a saint.

Home to Margaret Sidney

Nathaniel died in 1864 and the house was sold in 1870. The last major family to purchase the home were the Lothrops, who purchased The Wayside in 1883. Harriet Lothrop, also known as Margaret Sidney, wrote the 5 Peppers series for children; she was married to her publisher, Daniel Lothrop.

The Lothrops modernized the house with town water in 1883, central heating in 1888, and electric lighting in 1904, as well as adding a large piazza on the west side in 1887 (from Wikipedia, The Wayside). The home today reflects the decor of 1904 and retains many original pieces of furniture from the Lothrops and Hawthornes. There are even original light bulbs from the period.

Preserved for the ages

Perhaps the greatest contribution that both Harriet and Margaret Lothrop made to the town of Concord was the preservation of several important historical properties including Orchard House and of course, The Wayside (Margaret Lothrop saves the Wayside; Harriet Lothrop, aka Margaret Sidney, saves homes in Concord). The photo below captures a newspaper article on display at The Wayside with details of the saving of Orchard House.

Louisa at the "Wishing Wheel", drawn by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard c. 1955.

An important home for Louisa

The Wayside captured my imagination and was as interesting to visit as Orchard House. The “Hillside” period of Louisa’s life was always my favorite part of her childhood as she truly began to recognize her gifts as actress, playwright and author. That strength of character that made all of her dreams possible began to exert itself in those teenage years. Joan Howard writes that Louisa made 3 wishes on the “Wishing Wheel”, an old wheel found in the meadow at the top of the ridge. Those wishes were for money, fame, and a tour of Europe, all of which were realized in her lifetime. “Hillside” was the site of many of the escapades in Little Women; seeing this house made those stories come alive even more.

Answers to the quiz

Here are the answers to the quiz from the last post:

  1. Name the minuteman who occupied The Wayside in the early 1700s. Samuel Whitney
  2. How many of the published authors out of the 12 can you name (I’ve only been able to name 6 so far)?
    These are the 6 I could think of: Louisa May Alcott, Bronson Alcott, May Alcott Nieriker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Margaret Sidney
  3. Who was the woman who would eventually become one of the first social workers in Boston? Abba May Alcott
  4. Name the two women activists. Mother and daughter: Abba and Louisa May Alcott
  5. Who would eventually go off to service in the Civil War as a nurse? Louisa May Alcott
  6. Name the philosopher. Bronson Alcott
  7. Which daughter of a famous author was to become a nun on the road to sainthood? What was her name as a nun and what order did she found? What charitable work did they perform? Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Mother Mary Alphonsa, Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, caring for poor cancer patients
  8. Which two women fought to preserve several key historical homes in Concord? Which homes were saved? Harriet and Margaret Lothrop (Harriet Lothrop is the author Margaret Sidney)
  9. One of the women preservationists taught at a famous college – who was it and what was the name of the college? Margaret Lothrop, she taught for many years at Stanford University.


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Tapping into my inner Thoreau; play-acting as Sylvia Yule

It’s vacation time again with more opportunities to visit Concord. The more times I visit, the more I want to see.

A trip down the Sudbury River to Great Meadows

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

I enjoy kayaking very much and so took a trip down the Sudbury River, launching from the bridge off of Lowell Road, just off of Concord center. My plan was to paddle to the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a prime place to go birdwatching. I used to go there as a child with my parents to watch birds, and in later years, traveled with the bird group from our parish, led by our parish priest! He was a true birder, visiting Plum Island on the North Shore of Massachusetts in March – great time to see ducks and shore birds, but the weather can be most inhospitable! Only the serious birder goes there. :-)

Introducing the “Sylvia Yule”

The “Sylvia Yule” begins its trip on the Sudbury River in Concord

I bought my own kayak this summer so that I could get out more and decided to christen it the “Sylvia Yule.” The chapters in Moods that Louisa May Alcott devoted to the boat/camping trip of Sylvia, Adam, Geoffrey and her brother Max (and where Adam and Geoffrey both fell in love with Sylvia) described to perfection what it is like to paddle a boat on a river like the Sudbury. The kayak appeals to me because it places you so close to the water. I feel like I am one with the water.

Practicing Thoreau’s methods

Needless to say, Thoreau too was very much on my mind. His discourse in his “Walking” essay, about becoming one with nature and allowing it to penetrate your inner being certainly was a reality during this trip.

Sites of interest along the way

About to pass under the Old North Bridge, site of the first battle of the American Revolution

As an extra treat, I was able to travel under the Old North Bridge, the place where the first battle of the American Revolution took place. I was also able to dock and take a tour of Minuteman National Park. The Old Manse was conveniently next door and I got to see it too. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new bride Sophia Peabody lived there for a time and legend has it they proclaimed their love for each other by carving their initials into the glass of a window with her diamond ring.

I hope you enjoy the slide show I’ve assembled of my tour of the Sudbury in beautiful Concord.

p.s. if any of you know flowers, I’d love if you could identify the flowers I photographed at Great Meadows. I’m sure they’re quite common but my knowledge of flowers is pitiful. :-)

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Coming to Concord this summer? Here’s some recommendations

The Wayside, home to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Alcotts

I just created a page with personal recommendations of places to visit and things to do while visiting Concord, Massachusetts. The one thing I could not recommend is hotels because I live too close to Concord to have stayed overnight.

Here’s some recommendations for those of you who want to indulge in living history (to me, that’s fun :-)):

Come Visit Concord . . .

Was Thoreau a romantic? Final thoughts on “Walking”

Much has been said about how unconventional Henry David Thoreau was. Although brilliant he was solitary, decidedly different, very blunt, not especially attractive physically, and he was prone to “queer” habits such as climbing trees, imitating bird calls and the like.

Yet women did find Thoreau attractive. Louisa May Alcott had a schoolgirl crush on him, and based characters in her books on him, most especially Adam Warwick, her doomed lover in Moods, and David Sterling in Work: A Story of Experience.

Sophia Foord, a naturalist and boarder at Hillside, the Alcott family home during Louisa’s teenage (and happiest) years, actually proposed marriage to a horrified Thoreau who brushed her aside.

Except for a failed attempt at love with Ellen Sewall (where he competed with his brother John for her affections), and a possible romantic interest in Lidian Emerson, Thoreau was not a ladies’ man. But I do maintain that he was a romantic.

Thoreau wrote passionately in his essay,  “Walking,” about traveling west, commenting that he usually positioned his feet west to south-west because “The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” He adds, “We go eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race, — we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” While Thoreau protested the idea of Manifest Destiny (the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean – Wikipedia) especially because of the Mexican-American War (which annexed Texas and permitted another slave state), it does seem that at least philosophically, he embraced the idea of heading west. And here’s where the romantic in him showed its face:

Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a west as distant and as fair as that into which the Sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow. We dream all night of those mountain ridges in the horizon, though they may be of vapor only, which were last gilded by his rays. The island of Atlantis,and the islands and gardens of the Hesperides, a sort of terrestrial paradise, appear to have been the Great West of the ancients, enveloped in mystery and poetry. Who has not seen in imagination, when looking into the sunset sky, the gardens of the Hesperides, and the foundation of all those fables?

Not to be a killjoy, but what about all the hardships pioneers faced going out west? Many many thousands of people died from disease, starvation and battles with Native Americans. It was a tremendous struggle just to survive. I was surprised  in the romanticism and naivety that Thoreau seemed to exhibit but I was glad to see that he had such an optimistic spirit. He cites Sir Francis Head, an English traveler:

 “The heavens of America appear infinitely higher — the sky is bluer — the air is fresher — the cold is intenser — the moon looks larger — the stars are brighter — the thunder is louder — the lightning is vivider — the wind is stronger — the rain is heavier — the mountains are higher — the rivers larger — the forests bigger — the plains broader.”

This line made me laugh:

” . . .  the traveller can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts.”

Um, ever hear of black bears?? Or bobcats??

It got me to thinking about the experiment at Walden. I still think it was a noble experiment but isn’t it true that he brought his laundry to his mother at the family homestead in Concord? :-)

I know that going west for Thoreau was as much about allegory as it was about actually traveling there. The east represented the Old World and Old World (e.g. old ideas and narrow-minded and conventional) thinking whereas the west represented a broadening of one’s horizon and the possibility of reconnecting again with Nature – Sir Francis said it perfectly.

What’s the point of all this? Just that Thoreau was many things: brilliant thinker and writer, transcendentalist, abolitionist and government protester (and willing to go to jail over it), surveyor, pencil maker, innovator, naturalist – a man who said much and truly walked the walk. I would just like to add that he was also a romantic. Bombastic at times, but definitely a romantic.

Take a tour of the final resting place of the Alcotts

There’s a terrific article on the Concord Patch written by a licensed Concord tour guide, Harry Beyer. He takes you on a tour of the Alcott family plot at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Here’s a teaser from the article:

Louisa May was an active abolitionist, helping to shelter runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. She was also an early feminist. Protesting the exclusion of women from Concord’s 1875 Centennial parade and ceremony at Old North Bridge (the celebration at which Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue was unveiled), she wrote “It was impossible to help thinking, that there should have been a place for the great granddaughters of Prescott, William Emerson, John Hancock, and Dr. Ripley, as well as for … the scissors that cut the immortal cartridges” for the shot heard round the world. “It seemed to me that … the men of Concord had missed a grand opportunity of imitating those whose memory they had met to honor.”

Here’s the link to the article where you can read more and see the grave markers for each family member.

I thought it was very curious (and very cool) that of all the biographies written about the Alcotts, Beyer recommends Madelon Bedell’s book, The Alcotts Biography of a Family. I’d love to know why . . . I left a comment on the post inquiring, hopefully he’ll answer.