Louisa May Alcott The Women Who Wrote Little Women by Julian Hawthorne

Check out this fascinating anecdote-rich article by an Alcott contemporary, Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathanial Hawthorne) Written in the 1920s he gives a unique perspective on the popularity of Little Women during the free-spirited flapper era. He also spills some gossip about he and Abby May. :-) Enjoy!

http://clickamericana.com/eras/1920s/louisa-may-alcott-the-woman-who-wrote-little-women-1922

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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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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Last Day of the Summer Conversational Series – Being and Doing: Louisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two)

Cathlin Davis on Louisa’s philosophy of life

cathlin 560Continuing with Day 4 of the series, Professor Cathlin Davis from California State University presented on “Practice Philosophy: ‘I want something to do.’” Through passages from Hospital Sketches, Work, Little Men and some of the rarer short stories (“May Flowers” from A Garland for Girls and “What Becomes of the Pins” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, volume 5), Davis presented a thorough analysis of Louisa’s philosophy for life: work as salvation.

Christie’s personal search for salvation

Davis presented one of my favorite passages from Work where Christie is searching for religion. Work is seen by most as an autobiographical feminist manifesto but often the important spiritual element of the book is overlooked. Davis did a masterful job of tracing the story of Christie showing how she “got religion” by finding meaningful work in her life. Christie has led a hard life and is in need of healing; the protection of the home (and her baby, “Little Hearts-Ease”), something to do (purpose), her tasks in taking care of the greenhouse which generates the income (and surrounds her with nature) and good friends bring that healing.

Purpose and acceptance

Davis continues with Little Men, demonstrating through Demi, Dan and Nan how each found their salvation through their purpose. Demi, the contemplative, surprisingly takes on a practical occupation as a journalist to support his family but still maintains that harmony of body and soul. Dan, a troubled street boy, finds acceptance at Plumfield after traveling a rocky, winding road. Demi’s acceptance of him was most important:

“No honor that [Dan] might earn hereafter would ever by half so precious as the right to teach his few virtues and his small store of learning to the child whom he most respected; and no more powerful restraint could have been imposed upon him than the innocent companion confided to his care …” (Little Men, from Davis’ handout)

Teaching the children

Louisa used her rich imagination in short stories “May Flowers” and “What Becomes of the Pins” to drive home the same point – that purposeful work is the means to salvation. In essence, Louisa was an active contemplative, one who blended being and doing into perfect harmony.

John Matteson on Louisa and Emerson

DAY 4 john 560The series ended with Orchard House favorite John Matteson from John Jay College in New York; he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts. His presentation was titled “Innocence and Experience: Alcott, Moods, and the Emersonian Prism.” Using what Louisa considered to be her most personal book, Matteson demonstrated how Louisa sough to live out the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in her own life.

How does Emerson deal with artistic genius?

Matteson raised several important questions centered on artistic genius:

  • Can Emerson’s masculine philosophy be applied to feminine thinking?
  • Can the philosophy apply to minds in distress?
  • What about self-denial versus self-expression, and self-governance/service to others versus self-exploration of artistic genius?

Fear of genius

Suggesting that Louisa might have battled privately with a bipolar disorder, Matteson traced the life of Sylvia Yule and her mercurial nature as evidenced by her moods. He asserted that Louisa was fearful of the power and mania of her vortexes; Sylvia’s fear of the intensity of Adam Warwick plays out this concern. She sought to “tame” Sylvia as a means of achieving more of a balance as seen in the conventional ending of the 1882 revised edition of Moods where Sylvia resolves to remain with Geoffrey Moore, her husband (in the 1864 version, a younger Louisa felt she had no choice but to kill Sylvia off to consumption). Matteson believes Moods lost its power as Sylvia drew closer to that balance and maturity.

Contradictions

Emerson’s contradicting thinking on the nature of the mind had to have caused confusion for Louisa. Because Emerson did not believe in neat and tidy endings (since everything to him was fluid and open-ended), he could simultaneously hold the belief that all men were part of one universal mind and yet each man is a unique individual. The universal mind connotes community (something Louisa experienced much of in her early life due to Bronson’s views on consociate families); Louisa challenges Emerson as to whether genius can live in community since it does not lead to commonality. Sylvia is an early depiction of Louisa: full of contractions, longing for harmony due to the inner turmoil of her genius.

On the outside looking in

It is sad to consider how rigid Victorian society was at the time of Louisa’s life, it was vital it was to “fit in” to narrow expectations (which were even more narrow for women) and yet Louisa by nature was far outside of convention. Sylvia was a frustrated intellect who suffered from an overactive and overwrought mind and a heart that never rested.

Violent nature

Mattteson brought up the fascinating point about nature. Emerson promotes nature as healing and stimulating but what happens when nature becomes turbulent and dangerous? Matteson noted three occasions in Moods where Sylvia encounters this part of nature: the thunderstorm that threatened her company’s boat journey, the brush fire that nearly consumed her and the high tide that nearly swept her out to sea. She is challenging Emerson: what happens when the inner life becomes turbulent and dangerous?

Cleaning it up

In the end, Louisa gives Moods the tidy ending, perhaps not having the courage to explore the more open-ended thinking of Emerson.

Final thoughts

The Summer Conversational Series is a wonderful experience of intellectual stimulation and discussion with like-minded people. It’s not just that we discuss Louisa but more on how we discuss life. I have increasingly found it difficult to think like the rest of the world as I read more and more. I was surprised at how much of a Transcendentalist I actually am. Like Louisa, I don’t understand all the thinking of people such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, but intuitively, I know what they were promoting. To me it is a joy to overlay the Transcendentalist way of thinking onto my Roman Catholic faith; it is helping me to embrace the mystic in me, something I once feared.

I made several new friends this week, friends that I will get together with outside of the Conversational series. To be in the company of such thoughtful and caring people, to find that kind of fellowship gave me the kind of vacation I truly enjoy.

DAY 4 audience laughing 560

DAY 4 jan3 560My heartfelt thanks to Jan Turnquist, Lis Adams, all the presenters and all the Orchard House volunteers for a week I will never forget.

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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?

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The million dollar question, and the priceless answer

eden's outcasts bigFollowing up with my last post about the lecture I attended at New North Church featuring John Matteson, author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, there is a question I have wanted to ask Matteson since I started reading his book almost two years ago.

How is it that he understood so well the spirituality of Bronson Alcott?

I wanted to know if he had studied religion formally (perhaps gone to seminary) and/or if it was innate in him.

The answer to that question, in fact the whole thrust of the evening, proved to be a major affirmation of a revelation I had experienced a few days ago regarding writing. More on that later.

Response to the question

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

I posed the question and Matteson’s face lit right up. He looked at me intently and never took his eyes off of me as he exclaimed his delight at the question. It was like I was the only person in the room and the connection we made was electric.

Christian Science background

He proceeded to share personal information about his upbringing as a Christian Scientist. For those unfamiliar with Christian Science, Wikipedia says,

“Christian Science is a set of beliefs and practices belonging to the metaphysical–New Thought family of new religious movements. It was developed in the 19th century in the United States by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), and was first described in her book Science and Health (1875), the religion’s central text. Four years later Eddy founded The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts … The religion’s adherents, known as Christian Scientists, subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that spiritual reality is the only reality and that the material world is an illusion.”

Personal connections

Mindy Jostyn

Mindy Jostyn

The moment he said he had been brought up in that tradition I understood. An acquaintance from high school, a multi-talented musician and singer/songwriter named Mindy Jostyn (who sadly passed away some years ago) was also a Christian Scientist. She produced two albums of stirring music, the most notable song being “In His Eyes,” one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard of God proclaiming His love for the individual. She had an aura about her, not just because of her immense talent, but because of the authenticity of her faith.

I knew where Matteson came from instantly. It was an intuitive thing, just as Ralph Waldo Emerson describes it. You just know.

From Christian Science to Transcendentalism

Having been immersed in Christian Science, Matteson went on to study Transcendentalism while at school. Reading Emerson’s essay, “Nature,” he recalls this section:

transparent eyeball“We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

The one to write about Bronson Alcott

He immediately made the connection, understanding intuitively what Emerson was saying. And I, watching him so enthused at being able to share these things with the audience, grasped why he not only understood Bronson Alcott in a unique way, he was meant to write about Bronson.

Transformation

Matteson in fact, said that he knew that the wondrous transformation that had happened in his life from the study of Transcendentalism, to the writing of Eden’s Outcasts, to the winning of the Pulitzer Prize and beyond, was not a series of random incidents. It was something that came from following his heart and the Spirit within him.

Affirmation

As I listened, I knew Matteson was telling and affirming my own story. I too have been transformed by my study of the Alcotts.

Evolution

Louisa May Alcott in the garret by Norman RockwellThis blog began as a means of finding other people as interested as I was in Louisa May Alcott. I never intended to be a writer. Since this blog debuted in August of 2010, I have evolved to where I now state unequivocally that I am a writer and I mean to write a book. The problem was how. I could not get my head around the process. I was missing a key element.

The missing piece

The writing of a piece for my monthly column in the local Catholic newspaper about Pope Francis, plus my recent post here about finding solace in Louisa pointed out what was missing. And Matteson affirmed it. It was the heart.

Following the heart

The writing I’ve done that has garnered the most attention has been those pieces I write from the heart. I could not figure out though how to write about the Alcotts and also write from an intensely personal point of view.

Silly, right? It’s obvious how much I love the Alcotts!

Matteson’s own journey

bronson and louisaMatteson described how writing Eden’s Outcasts was an intensely personal experience and I can see why, now knowing his background. He was very involved in fathering his daughter just as Bronson fathered his daughters. He could relate to Bronson, the father.

He also understood the spiritual underpinning of Bronson; he could relate to Bronson, the mystic. Eden’s Outcasts is not only biographical; it’s autobiographical.

A new journey

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

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

And I knew at that moment just how to approach my book which will feature Lizzie and Louisa front and center. My book will be biographical and autobiographical. There are many ways that I relate to both Alcott sisters.

I ran into Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House both at the beginning and end of the evening at New North Church. We mentioned how wonderful the lecture was and I expressed my excitement at Matteson’s response to my question. She replied that I had given him a gift. And I knew I had.

My question may have been worth a million but the answer – priceless.

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A visit to Fruitlands where Louisa took up the family cross

at the bottom of a steep hill

at the bottom of a steep hill

Back in October I took a trip to Fruitlands in Harvard, MA, only about 40 minutes from my home. That visit sparked a long period of binge reading on the subject which is why, in the dead of winter, I’m only getting around to writing about that visit now.

A paradox

Having immersed myself in Louisa’s life over the past two and one half years, Fruitlands is pregnant with meaning. It’s a paradox – beautiful and open yet oppressive as I reflect on past events. In the summer of 1843, a new kind of family representing the hope of Utopia moved into the then red, ramshackle farmhouse nestled in a valley, at the end of a primitive and steep drive, deliberately isolated from the outside world.

The players

Accompanying Bronson Alcott and wife Abba were their daughters: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth and May. Charles Lane came with his young son William. Other members of this “consociate” family were Joseph Palmer, Isaac Hecker, Samuel Larned, Abraham Everett (aka Abraham Woods or Wood Abraham) and Samuel Bower. The only other woman to join, Ann Page, came later.

23-joseph-and-nancy-palmer.jpg

22-charles lane and isaac hecker

The books

Clara Endicott Sears is the foundress of the now Fruitlands Musuem, having bought up the land in the early 1900s and written a book about the experiment, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands. Her book is one of the few (if not the only one) that includes the journal writings of different members of the group beyond Alcott and Lane.

bronson-alcotts-fruitlands-cover-and-inside-with-copyright

It also includes Louisa’s take on the experiment, the satirical Transcendental Wild Oats, plus diary entries from Anna and Louisa during their time there.

atkins-francisThese books led to a young adult novel, Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins (see previous post) and finally Richard Francis’ tour de force, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. This last book is densely packed with information and as a result, riddled with sticky notes which I still have to sort through.  Eventually I will share what I learned from this marvelous book (see previous posts).

Revealing writings

Louisa’s diary entries reveal a ten year-old girl who was already reform-minded, introspective and conscious of her faults. There are numerous references to her quick temper and deep regret as in this passage from September 1, 1843:

“I felt sad because I have been cross to-day and did not mind Mother. I cried, and then I felt better …” (pg. 107, Bronson Alcott’s Fruitlands by Clara Endicott Sears).

And yet in the same passage, she shows her astuteness:

“Father asked us what was God’s noblest work. Anna said men, but I said babies. Men are often bad; babies never are.” (Ibid, pg. 106)

Louisa was not afraid to speak her mind and possibly earn the disfavor of her father; Anna however always wanted to please him.

The same passage also demonstrates how reform-minded she was becoming in her reaction to a story read to her by Bronson which demonstrated why the rich need to be kind to the poor. Louisa wrote, “I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people.” (Ibid)

She finds a moment at bedtime up in her cramped attic room to appreciate the natural world: “As I went to bed the moon came up very brightly and looked at me.” (Ibid, pgs. 106-7)

Playtime

The girls would often pretend they were fairies or go berry picking.

The girls would often pretend they were fairies or go berry picking.

Other journal entries describe hours of play spent running up and down hills, gathering nuts and berries and pretending:

“I ran in the wind and pretended to be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all.” (Ibid, pg. 107)

Change of weather

views of Mounts Monadnock and Wachusett

views of Mounts Monadnock and Wachusett

When the climate was agreeable, Fruitlands was a paradise (except perhaps for Abba who had to do the lion’s share of the work). Beautiful mountain vistas, rich forests, sparkling streams and long walks in the fields complemented the sense of warmth and community that Bronson and Charles Lane wanted to cultivate. Despite the rigors of living at Fruitlands (among other things a totally Vegan diet without the benefit of coffee, tea, sugar and butter; scratchy, lightweight linen for clothing so as not to rob the sheep of their wool or use cotton created by slave labor; sparse usage of animals for farming; strict rules and an over-abundance of “high-minded talk” along with an under-abundance of hand to the plow) and the difficult personalities involved, the community appeared to be thriving.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, after visiting during the summer wrote, “They look well in July; we will see them in December.” (Ibid, pg. 69) He had provided financial help though later commented that “Their whole doctrine is spiritual but they always end with saying, Give us much land and money.” (Wikipedia, Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Emerson was prophetic in his assessment of Fruitlands; when the temperature cooled and the snows came, life grew unbearably austere due to a lack of food, heat and warm clothing (although there was still an abundance of “high-minded talk”). One by one, the residents of Fruitlands abandoned the community leaving behind the destitute Alcotts, Charles Lane and his son. Eventually the property would be sold, Bronson and Charles Lane would part company, and the surviving family unit of Alcotts would be sorely tested.

Impressionable child

There is no doubt among Alcott biographers that Fruitlands was a very formative time in Louisa’s life. Nothing escaped the sensibilities of this ten year-old, most especially the burden of Fruitlands on her mother and the mounting tension between her parents which threatened separation.

She saw the amount of work Abba took of, caring for all the residents plus any visitors who dropped in, often unannounced. Bronson and Charles Lane frequently left the farm on trips to promote their utopian community (which provided no monetary income). One time they left when the grain was ready to be harvested. Louisa writes in Transcendental Wild Oats:

512 fruitlands - gathering the grain

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

“About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away. An easterly storm was coming up and the yellow stacks were sure to be ruined. Then Sister Hope [Abba] gathered her forces. Three little girls, one boy (Timon’s son) [William, Charles Lane’s son], and herself, harnessed to clothes-baskets and Russia-linen sheets, were the only teams she could command; but with these poor appliances the indomitable woman got in the grain and saved food for her young, with the instinct and energy of a mother-bird with a brood of hungry nestlings to feed.” (Ibid, pgs. 166-167).

Soul mates

Louisa and her mother understood each other and leaned on each other. The daughter internalized the anxiety and frustration of the mother and watched as her father failed to provide, leading the family to the brink of starvation. Louisa witnessed the strength of her mother who eventually led the family away from Fruitlands to safety while the father collapsed emotionally (although Richard Francis in Fruitlands The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia disputes this, claiming that Louisa invented or exaggerated her father’s response to the failure of the experiment to enhance the storyline of Transcendental Wild Oats  – see page 259).

Assuming the family cross

An exchange between Louisa (in 1843, then eleven) and Abba in Louisa’s journal signals the unspoken promise Louisa made to take care of her mother for the rest of her life:

Dear Louy,
I enclose a picture for you which I always liked very much, for I have imagined that you might be just such an industrious daughter & I such a feeble but loving mother, looking to your labor for my daily bread. Keep it for my sake, & your own, for you and I always like to be grouped together.
Mother

Louisa responds with a poem:

To Mother

I hope that soon dear mother, you & I may be
In the quiet room my fancy has so often made for thee,
The pleasant sunny chamber, the cushioned easy chair,
The books laid for your reading, the vase of flowers fair.
The desk beside the window where the sun shines warm and bright,
And there in ease and quiet, the promised book you write,
While I sit close beside you, content at least to see,
That you can rest dear mother, & I can cherish thee.

(pgs. 107-108, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott, edited by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian DeForest)

It was a promise that would set Louisa on a course that not only achieved its goal but surpassed it beyond her wildest dreams.

Come and visit Fruitlands with me:

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In the next post, I will share the impressions of some of the Fruitlands residents as detailed by Clara Endicott Sears.

Click to Tweet & ShareA visit to Fruitlands where Louisa took up the family cross http://wp.me/p125Rp-1i1

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Just when you think there is nothing more to find … something is found!

I got this exciting piece of news today from the Louisa May Alcott Society:

New Alcott Letter at the Concond Free Public Library

by Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator, William Munroe Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library

Sometimes a single letter or journal entry can open a window on the past in a way unanticipated by its writer.  The William Munroe Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library recently acquired a letter that captures significant detail about the world of Concord author Louisa May Alcott late in 1880.  Funded by the Library Corporation (the private, non-profit entity that owns and stewards the library’s buildings, grounds, and special collections), this purchase now forms part of a collection of Alcott, Nieriker, and Pratt letters gathered by the library from several sources over the years.

Leslie Perrin Wilson (in yellow). Photo Credit copyright 2009 Rich Stevenson, Local Color Images, from http://www.concordma.com

Leslie Perrin Wilson (in yellow). Photo Credit copyright 2009 Rich Stevenson, Local Color Images, from http://www.concordma.com

On November 8, 1879, May Alcott Nieriker—Louisa’s youngest sister, an artist who had fallen in love and married while studying abroad—gave birth to a daughter in Meudon, outside Paris.  The baby was named Louise Marie in honor of her famous aunt.  May died seven weeks after the birth, having expressed her wish that her sister Louisa be entrusted with raising the child.  Little “Lulu” arrived in Boston on September 19, 1880 and was welcomed by her loving Concord family.

Emily Fairbanks Talbot, recipient of the letter, from http://www.homeoint.org/photo/t/talbotit.htm

Emily Fairbanks Talbot, recipient of the letter, from http://www.homeoint.org/photo/t/talbotit.htm

Grandfather Bronson Alcott embarked upon his final Western tour in October, less than a month later.  Moreover, Sophie Nieriker—May’s sister-in-law, who had accompanied Lulu on her voyage across the Atlantic—found Concord’s “gossip & want of manners” (as Louisa wrote in her journal) hard to endure.  Louisa consequently moved her family to Boston for the winter.  She rented the Pinckney Street house of her cousin Elizabeth Sewall Willis Wells.  Apparently from there, on December 30, 1880 she wrote the letter that has just come to the library.  Its recipient was Emily Fairbanks Talbot, a fellow supporter of women’s voting rights and the wife of a homeopathic physician.

In the letter, Louisa reveals that she had asked Mrs. Talbot for assistance in hiring household help following a “domestic upheaval.”  She mentions that measles and sore throats are making the rounds, “so I mount guard over the precious baby as I don’t want her to add any other worry to the teething trial.”  She refers to the Homeopathic Hospital (visited by Mrs. Wells) and to dining with Mrs. Hosmer (Laura Whiting Hosmer, a homeopathic physician who lived in Concord and a good friend and correspondent of Louisa May Alcott).  She announces archly that “a grand coffee party is the next maddeningly exciting event in Concord.”  And, finally, she comments on the recent engagement of Samuel Ripley Bartlett and Eva Myrtle Whitcomb.

This last Concord tidbit has local meaning for the Concord Free Public Library, where Miss Sarah Ripley Bartlett—daughter of the engaged couple, who were married in 1881—served as librarian from 1920 to 1953.  The new letter thus connects with Bartlett family papers in the Special Collections as well as with Alcott holdings in print and manuscript.

In signing off, Louisa Alcott dismissed her four-page missive as “rambling notes.”  Nevertheless, the letter does, in fact, touch upon key people and concerns in the author’s life at just that moment.  Many such humble letters in the aggregate are the stuff of which biography is made.

 The letter will be on exhibit at the Concord Free Public Library until the end of January. My thanks to Leslie for granting permission to publish her article, and to the Louisa May Alcott Society for initially sharing it with its members.

Click to Tweet & ShareJust when you think there is nothing more to find … something is found! http://wp.me/p125Rp-1mX

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