My 3 days with Louisa May Alcott (part three): John Matteson talks about his two favorite ladies

Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson

This was the day I was waiting for.

Ever since I started reading Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, I have been dying to talk to John Matteson.

His penetrating insights into Bronson and Louisa have forever changed the way I look at them (most especially Bronson).

Unique understanding

In my opinion, he is the only biographer I’ve read who commands an understanding of spirituality, a necessary part of the puzzle when analyzing the life of the complex, often exasperating Bronson Alcott.

Matteson has referred to Bronson as a mystic. Mystics often teeter between sanity and madness; Bronson certainly fit that description.

The Lives of Margaret Fuller

Since writing Eden’s Outcasts, Matteson has released a new book called The Lives of Margaret Fuller.

Brilliant mind

Fuller, probably the most intellectually brilliant of the transcendentalists, has largely been ignored. Yet her treatise on women’s rights, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, inspired many feminists including Susan B. Anthony. Fuller’s book was the first major feminist work in the United States (source: Wikipedia).

First foreign correspondent

Matteson mentioned that Fuller, in spending her final years in Italy, was not only the first female foreign correspondent for a newspaper, she was the first foreign correspondent, period.

Links between Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

He thus used his lively presentation to discuss his two favorite ladies, Louisa and Margaret, and the ties between them.

Not necessarily colleagues

Louisa and Margaret didn’t actually know each other. Twenty-two years her senior, Fuller had left Concord by the time Louisa was twelve.

First meeting

But they had met. There is a bit of lore from Eden’s Outcasts about the first meeting between the two in 1840 when Fuller was introduced to Bronson’s “model children.”

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

As the introduction was about to take place, those children came racing to the front of the house in active play. Louisa, acting the part of the horse, pulled the wagon carrying Anna (the proper young lady), Lizzie (the dog, barking as loudly as her little voice would allow) and baby Abby May. Upon seeing their father with Margaret, Louisa stubbed her toe and fell, dumping all the occupants out of the wagon. Much laughter ensued amongst the tangle of legs. Louisa’s mother Abba grandly announced, “Here are the model children, Miss Fuller!” (Eden’s Outcasts, page 209, ebook)

Similar ideas through different approaches

Louisa and Margaret may not have been friends or colleagues but they both had similar ideas about the right of a woman to determine her own destiny, and how this would benefit the greater community. Where they differed was in their approach. Margaret the philosopher favored cultivating oneself while Louisa the pragmatist, emphasized service. She believed a woman could still fulfill her duty while cultivating her intellect.

Louisa praises housework

Providing a simple illustration, Matteson cited a letter Louisa had written in which she lauds housework as a great opportunity to think on and discuss high-minded topics. She herself often “simmered stories” while fulfilling her domestic duties.

Their vision of women’s rights

Both women agreed that women’s rights were not necessarily for the individual but for the community. It was deeper than gaining economic opportunities (although such opportunities certainly facilitated independence).

Complex fathers

Amos Bronson Alcott

Louisa and Margaret were also alike in the kind of support (or lack of) that they received from their fathers. Both women received a rich education from their fathers and were consistently encouraged to use it.

Both women also had fathers who were poor providers.

Persistent poverty and its consequences

Bronson’s lack of ability (some say desire) to provide financially for his family is legendary. He was incapable and unwilling to work for a living wage and the family was destitute for years.

Matteson remarked that the constant poverty gave Louisa a “depression-era mindset” where she obsessed over money, counting every penny. She overworked herself with constant writing long after the fame and fortune that came from Little Women.

Humiliation through dependence

In Margaret’s case, it was a father who reneged on his responsibility to secure a will before he died. This left Margaret, her mother and her siblings at the mercy of her father’s brothers who took control of the property and finances, forcing Margaret and her family into the humiliating position of being dependent on them. Inevitably these legal problems deprived her of educational opportunities.

Rising above their circumstances

Despite these difficulties both women fought for a better life for themselves, their families and most especially for society. The education so generously bestowed on them by their fathers bore its fruit through the written (and in Margaret’s case, also the spoken) word. Theirs was a message of women’s rights, autonomy, and reform.

In the next post, I will detail Margaret and Louisa’s vision for women and the benefit to society as laid out by John Matteson in his presentation.

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

Join the discussion: Little Women – Feminist Novel?

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Jo and Laurie from the 1880 version of Little Women

During the month of July Nancy from The Silver Threads blog is hosting the discussion of Little Women at A Year of Feminist Classics.

She proposes that the book puts forth opposing messages: a feminist message of independence and self-expression, and a message of social conformity. She asks, which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? Her proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

What do you think? Click here to join in the conversation.

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A continuing discussion on An Old-Fashioned Girl

Cover design by Kathryn Delaney, Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton, The Pink Bonnet

Better late than never, I finally finished An Old-Fashioned Girl! And I have lots to say about it through several posts in the next few days.

I have already written a few posts about this book which you can find here.

I have to admit that the book lost me somewhere in the middle, before the story transitioned into Polly’s adult life. What brought me back in was a combination of listening to chapters at work (thanks to Librivox), and the discovery of Victorian Domesticity – Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott by Charles Strickland at the Concord Free Public Library. This book was a godsend, filling in all those historical gaps which helped me to understand the context of this book, and all of Louisa May Alcott’s writing (I will be writing more about this book when I finish it).

In Chapter 7, Polly ends her long visit with the Shaw family and heads on back home. Louisa then moves the timeline up in chapters 8 and 9 by 6 years so that 14 year-old Polly is now 20 and a working girl. We find Fanny as a 22 year-old lady of fashion, somewhat dissatisfied with her life. Tom is off at college, and Maud has turned 12.

Here’s where the story got interesting. It was not hard to read between the lines and see what Louisa’s core beliefs were about women, men, and families both wealthy and poor. And Strickland’s book offered great background into life in 19th-century America.

From the 19th Century American Woman blog – click on picture to visit

Chapter 9 opens describing Polly’s life as a working girl, teaching music to individual students. Her days are long, and her life is lonely. The “friends” she made through Fanny shun her because she works. Poor Polly even believes that Tom has snubbed her although that was because of Trix, Tom’s fiance (and a classic portrait of the lady of fashion that Louisa so disapproves of – more about that in later posts).

Reading this chapter reminded me of the first time I saw a classic Joan Crawford movie, “Mildred Pierce,” made in the 1945. In the movie, Mildred has been dumped by her husband and must go out to work. She has a talent for cooking and eventually gets so good at it that she opens her own restaurant. By midway through the movie she is somewhat of a restaurant tycoon, owning a small chain. By today’s standards, she is a smashing success and worthy of praise.

But in the movie, she is treated as a second-class citizen by all who know her, most especially her incredibly spoiled and bratty daughter, Veda who believes her mother to be “common.” (There is much more to this movie and I highly recommend it – great film noir).

I was surprised at the parallels between Polly’s experiences in the 1870s and Mildred’s in the 1940s, telling me that not a lot had changed. It’s really over the last 50 years that women have begun to be regarded favorably because they work (that’s my generation!).

While the baby boomer generation has come under a lot of criticism of late (much of it justified), we did achieve much greater autonomy for women. My daughter’s generation is the first to truly benefit. Yet, they don’t know the history and the struggle that women have gone through to achieve these ends, and they take their new-found freedom for granted, even squandering it!

How ironic. And it’s ironic too that Louisa probably would not be pleased at the ways of society today. As women have been navigating that oh-so-tricky road of trying to “have it all,” the family has suffered. There is confusion for women and for men regarding their roles, and much still needs to be worked out.

Louisa, however, thought the nuclear family sacred. This belief runs through all of her juvenile writing as seen in Little Women and in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

She also, however, believed that women needed to find purpose in their lives, rather than live the life of fashion (as Fanny was doing, and she was increasingly unhappy with her rudderless life). Polly found that purpose in her work, and also, in her desire to do all she could to help the Shaw family discover what they were missing in their family – appreciation and love for each other. It was the perfect balance of Louisa’s beliefs -  work is good in providing purpose and meaning, and tending to the family with complete devotion also brings purpose and meaning.

According to Strickland in Victorian Domesticity, An Old-Fashioned Girl had some pretty radical ideas about women, albeit gently presented. It amazes me how Louisa’s juvenile works were so widely read and loved and makes me wonder if the public actually read between the lines. Yet I imagine the message got through in a subliminal fashion, which was her intention. And she called this moral pap! Louisa was pretty darn clever.

More to come . . .


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Louisa May Alcott part of study on women authors and domesticity

I found a wonderful article about a book featuring Louisa May Alcott and 3 other women authors in a study on American women authors’ domesticity. Here is an excerpt from the article – the link is at the end of the excerpt so you can read the whole article:

Newswise — Brooklyn, NY — The ways in which four major American women writers — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton — dealt with their domestic roles and how they portrayed this domesticity in their work is the focus of a new book by New York City College of Technology (City Tech) Professor Caroline Hellman . . . Domesticity and Design in American Women’s Lives and Literature: Stowe, Alcott, Cather, and Wharton Writing Home.

“My book is the story of independent female authors who had unusual relationships with home; they moved frequently either to repeatedly begin anew the processes of designing and decorating or to avoid domestic obligation altogether,”she says.

Hellman adds that it is also “the story of these women authors creating female characters who had strikingly different relationships with domesticity as they contended with significant burdens of housekeeping in an oppressive domestic environment.”

Link to the rest of the article