Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

I am grateful to be able to attend again the annual Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this year. The theme concerns talent versus genius, and the abundance of genius that existed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

I was not able to take in all five days of the series but I will present the speakers that I was fortunate enough to see.

Was Louisa a genius?

Was Louisa May Alcott a genius or merely a crackerjack professional writer? Was she both? These questions and more were explored during Monday’s session.

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

560 cathlin1

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

The first speaker was a perennial favorite, Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. Dr. Davis probably knows Louisa’s juvenile canon better than anyone with a particular emphasis on her numerous short stories.

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

Dr. Davis is passionate about elevating children’s literature to the level of respect it deserves by highlighting its most prominent authors. Dr. Davis maintained in her presentation “Is it Talent or Genius?” that Louisa’s unique genius was the ability to get inside the mind of the child and voice that child’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Before Louisa, children’s literature presented all-too-perfect children presenting moral teaching through stilted dialog. Dr. Davis compared a sample from Nathanial Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales of a twelve year old’s conversation (stiff, formal, full of long words and complex sentences) to Louisa’s An Old-Fashioned Girl featuring childish conversation laced with slang and grammatical errors; in other words, the way children of that era really talked.

Examples from Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis spelled out the qualities of talent and of genius, displaying them on a poster (see photo). She then took several examples from Louisa’s books and short stories to illustrate. These included Amy and Laurie from Little Women, Rose, Charlie, Phoebe and Mac from Rose in Bloom, Psyche and her little sister from the short story “Pysche’s Art,” Clara from “A Bright Idea” (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Volume V), and Diana and Persis. As you can see from the photo, she listed who she thought had talent and who possessed genius.

560 talent versus genius

 

Louisa herself is on that list.

Louisa’s genius was her genuine love of children, her commitment to truthfulness and accuracy, and her passion. She respected children, never writing “down” to them. These qualities were instantly recognized by her adoring public with the first publication of volume one of Little Women.

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis concluded that Louisa wrote extensively on the subjects of talent and genius. She remarked that preparing for this presentation, she realized that Rose in Bloom is not just about romance but about discovering one’s talent, determining whether or not it is genius, and using it to benefit others. While Louisa did often focus on the fine art talents of music, acting, dancing and painting, she also pointed out those talents which often go unnoticed – the talents for helping others which Rose displayed so well in the story.

True confession

rose in bloomI have a confession to make which has probably been obvious to you who read this blog regularly: I enjoy writing about Louisa more than writing about her books and stories. It is an odd disconnect, one that I am seeking to correct. Having listened to Dr. Davis’s presentation (and later having the pleasure of conversing with her over dinner), I have a better sense of what to look for when I read Louisa’s juvenile works. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into her writing.

You all of course have always known that. I felt that way about Little Women despite Louisa’s protestations about having to write it. Perhaps the author doth protest too much?

Needless to say, I have much catching up to do and a pleasant task it will be!

More to come …

In my next post I will present more about the other presenters in Monday’s session.

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Boston is creating a Literary Cultural District: here are a couple of the places where Louisa May Alcott lived

I am very excited about this since I live an hour out of Boston. There are already many sites in Boston that are related to the Alcotts but having a literary cultural district is very cool. Here is more information about that effort: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/61917-boston-creating-a-literary-cultural-district-spotlight-on-new-england-2014.html

In a quote from the article, the idea grew from a fortuitous conversation:

“The idea for a literary district grew out of a conversation between GrubStreet executive director Eve Bridburg and MCC head Anita Walker when the former bemoaned the fact that even though there is a lot happening culturally in Boston, you don’t often hear about the writers. The goal is to provide a series of walks through Boston’s literary history, while supporting writers and publishers working today. It’s also about including all the literary efforts in the city under one umbrella. “We’re thinking about branding the work that everybody is doing so that there’s one place to look for the literary arts,” says Bridburg, who plans to create a website to go with the district. “There’s a lot going on [in Boston] and everybody’s working in their own little silos.””

There are already many sites in Boston that concern Louisa May Alcott. The Alcotts moved so many times in their lifetime that it would be almost impossible to gather all the addresses. We do know, however, that in 1853, they lived for a time on Pinckney Street:

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853
Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses http://www.womenwriters.net/domesticgoddess

Pinckney Street boasts other literary residents: “Pinckney Street formed a literary row with the childhood home of Henry David Thoreau at #4, Louisa May Alcott at #20, and Nathaniel Hawthorne at #54.” (from the aforementioned article)

Here is a previous post about a visit to Pinckney Street.

And Louisa bought a fine home in Louisberg Square:

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

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

 

There are so many other landmarks – King’s Chapel where Abba and her family worshipped, the original site of Roberts Brothers which published Little Women and subsequent books by Louisa, and “The Old Corner Bookstore was the original site of the publishing company Ticknor & Fields, founded in 1832, which published Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emerson, Longfellow, and Thoreau. The Atlantic Monthly also got its start there in 1857.” (Ibid)

Such a wonderful way to tour Boston – can’t wait!

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Continuing to trace the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part three: Can you tell what’s real and what is made up?

Little Women  has been called autobiographical because Louisa May Alcott used so many episodes from her own childhood and that of her family to create the story. But where does fact end and fiction begin? Or does it even work like that?

Stern says, “Fact was embedded in fiction, and a domestic novel begun in which the local and the universal were married, in which adolescents were clothed in flesh and blood.”

True or False?

play and amy and joLet’s have a little quiz, True or False – is the following a real episode or fiction? Warning: the answer isn’t always black and white so pick True if it’s more black than white and False if the opposite.

Copy the entire list and then put TRUE or FALSE after the statement and we’ll compare notes.

  1. Hannah the servant
  2. The Christmas play (“The Witches’ Curse, an Operatic Tragedy)
  3. Amy burns Jo’s manuscript
  4. Marmee’s temper
  5. Amy falling through the ice
  6. Jo pinching Meg’s papered locks before the ball
  7. Meg being dressed up as a doll at Annie Moffat’s
  8. Amy bewailing her pickled limes
  9. Beth receiving the piano from Mr. Lawrence
  10. Mr. March’s illness
  11. Jo sells her hair.
  12. Beth wasted away and died peacefully.
  13. Jo published her first story, “The Rival Painters.”
  14. Amy writes her own will.
  15. Jo rejects Laurie’s love.

Answers in the next post. Good luck!

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Questions, questions … (part one)

Before I begin, thank you for your part in the extraordinarily successful launch of my new blog, Be As One: A Single Flow … The stats were encouraging and that’s a massive understatement! Thank you.

Involvement in my new blog dampened my passion for Louisa but only temporarily. It only takes reading a page or two in a biography to fuel the fire back up again.

A question

I am so enjoying reading Madeleine Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography slowly, just a few pages at a time because of the amount of information within. Reading between the lines, I always come up with questions. After reading only six pages yesterday (pages 164-170), I came up with a couple that I hope you can answer.

Women authors and how they approached writing

Here’s the first question: Did other famous women authors such as Jane Austen and Edith Wharton approach writing the way Louisa did, as a business?

From potboilers to children’s stories

Stern suggests the thought process Louisa went through before accepting the job as editor of a children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum. She had little or no experience writing literature for children (with the exception of Flower Fables and The Rose Family). How could “A. M. Barnard,” the potboiler author edit a magazine for children?

The build-up

The owner of Merry’s Museum in rolling out the new and improved version of the magazine touted his new editor as “the brilliant author of Hospital Sketches, who had hardly an equal and who had no superior as a writer for youth in the country.”

He had high expectations and Louisa would live up to them.

What was Louisa thinking?

Stern writes,

Perhaps the editorial work would extend her skill in writing and selecting material. It would at least give her a public that, with the exception of Flower Fables, her stories had never known. Children might prove fruitful critics, and possibly she might be able to combine her editorial responsibilities with writing for Mr. Niles [of Robert Brothers – she had already received his request to write a book for girls]. Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at the Orchard House. Besides, Louisa would have the opportunity of living in Boston to be nearer Mr. Fuller’s office on Washington Street [he is the owner of Merry’s Museum]. Washington Street had marked many a milestone in her varied literary career as “A. M. Barnard” and L. M. Alcott. Perhaps another milestone would be reached. (pg. 164, Louisa May Alcott A Biography)

Learning her trade

Her work on Merry’s Museum showed Louisa that she could learn to write for children and mastered the formula. It gave her the confidence to embark on Little Women.

All business

Stern presents Louisa as a hard-headed business woman with mercenary designs. Many have lamented how she did not want to write Little Women but she did, for the money. And that’s not all bad.

Great instincts

Louisa had an instinct for business even though she had no experience in the business world, nor did she actually known many in that world. Yet she made very smart decisions with regards to writing, trying any genre she could, hoping she would find the one she’d eventually master.

Mastery

Little Women proved that she could; she became The Children’s Friend.

I find it quite interesting that she seemed to know all the right decisions to make in order to make her “business” of writing successful.

And that’s why I posed the question of whether or not other successful women authors of that time and before, had approached writing in this way.

I admit that I am not well-read beyond Louisa May Alcott so I’d love to know, from you, about these other women and how they made a go of their writing.

In the next post, I’m going to pose the second question question regarding younger sister May, prompted by a single line in Madeleine Stern’s book.

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Update

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comHow are you doing on the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge? I’ve been pecking away at the Little Women re-read along with a re-read of Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern. I’ve been keeping a casual reading journal for the latter and I’ll share some from that.

Still the best biography

Louisa May Alcott A Biography still stands for me as the definitive biography on Louisa. It was originally published in 1950 and updated in 1996.

Stern doesn’t waste a line – each one is pregnant with information! Yet, as dense as this book is, it doesn’t read as dry or scholarly, but more like a novel, and from the point of view of Louisa.

Reading from different perspectives

The first time I read this book I felt like I got into Louisa’s head and heart, living her life with her. I felt very sad when the book was done because the visit was too. But it was immensely satisfying.

This time I see it a new way. Stern’s thrust for the biography is Louisa the writer.  Every single event in her life revolves around how she can write about it. As an apprentice writer, I find this book to be an amazing teaching tool .

Here’s some examples of how Stern interpreted events as fodder for writing:

Life at Hillside

Stern describes the family’s life at Hillside as the culmination of so many of the things that fed Louisa’s happier writing. Little Women, which was based on part on that life, is a shining example.

Hillside had given Louisa a foundation of  stability to lean on for comfort during the leaner times, and fodder to draw upon for future stories.

Reading leads to doubt

Stern describes a crisis of confidence on young Louisa’s part as she read more and more of Emerson’s books from his library. She saw her limitations and stopped writing in her journal. Abba steps in to encourage her with a note in her journal:

“I’m sure your life has many fine passages well worth revealing and to me they are always precious … Do write a little each day, dear, but if a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Turning the common into the extraordinary

Stern maps out Louisa’s influences, from Thoreau for Flower Fables to the Music Hall and divas Madame Sontag and Jenny Lind for The Rival Prima Donnas, written for The Saturday Evening Gazette. She writes, “surely no experience was too unimportant to serve as grist for the author’s mill …”

In her twenties, Louisa was leading a fairly uneventful life of hard work, mostly doing things she didn’t want to do. Such a grind could snuff out the inner life but not so with Louisa. Sterns writes of Louisa’s life fueling her ambition all the more: she meant to earn her living as a writer and therefore never missed an opportunity to develop life into a story.

It shows that you can lead a common life and still pull out the uncommon insights that turn these things into the extraordinary. You just need to have the eyes to see. Louisa excelled at that skill.

That’s my update for now. Are you participating in the challenge and if so, what are you reading?

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Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

A trip to a warehouse bookstore in the middle of nowhere produced a great find! I had just about given up the hope of finding something interesting until this book caught my eye:  Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985, edited by Anne M. Lyell.

What is so significant about Nonquitt? This is where Louisa May Alcott spent her summers in the last years of her life. This book was such a great find because of new pictures of Louisa, her nephews, the cottage she rented and the summer home she eventually purchased.

The book devoted a short chapter (chapter 9, pages 94-97 – all references come from these pages unless otherwise noted.) to Louisa with anecdotal stories of her summers in the southeastern Massachusetts seacoast town near New Bedford.

What brought Louisa May Alcott to Nonquitt?

Recollections from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian suggest that Louisa came to visit the family and fell in love with Nonquitt. He writes:

“I was spending a summer at Nonquitt and she came to visit a friend. I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda. She was tall, rather rustic looking, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her checks somewhat thin, her big, black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony.”

Louisa was in her late forties at the time, obviously showing the ravages of her constant battle with her health. Remembering how vibrant she once was, it is sad to read how much her poor health had aged her.

Renting the first cottage

Louisa rented a house in 1881, sharing it with her niece, then 2-year-old Lulu (daughter of younger sister May who had passed away soon after childbirth). Her older sister Anna also summered at the cottage with her two teenage sons, Fred and John.

Anna’s memories

Anna writes, “I went to Nonquit[t] where Louisa had a cottage, a lovely green paradise which offers everything one can wish. Here I rested, and for fun got up theatricals (as usual), charades, etc., and grew quite young and festive, and enjoyed my lark so much I didn’t not want to come home . . . we [Louisa and Anna] take turns and so keep our boys there eight or ten weeks.” (pg. 141, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, e-book version).

Still in love with the theatre

Louisa, Anna and sons Fred and John took active part in the summer theatricals (Fred and John are shown in the above picture). Having never outgrown her love of the theatre, Louisa wrote and rewrote scripts and took on the jobs of coach, scenery designer and stage manager.

Summer paradise

Louisa rarely did any serious writing while summering in Nonquit. Mostly she took great pleasure in watching her little niece, Lulu:

“My poppet is a picture of health, vigor and delightful naughtiness. She runs wild in this fine place with some twenty other children to play with – nice babies, well-bred, and with pleasant mammas for me to gossip with.” (from a letter to a friend, 1882)

The Pied Piper of Nonquitt

An anecdote from the New Bedford newspaper speaks of Louisa often out walking with her red parasol in hand, followed by a group of children (she was, of course the famous “Miss Alcott” by this time). The newspaper goes on to say:

“There seemed to be a certain magnetism about her that drew the little ones to her, and it was a familiar sight to see the famous writer seated on her porch, or on a rock on the beach, a dozen or more children grouped around her, while she told children’s stories to them . . . Then when a demand would be made for the retelling of some one particular story, she would purposely change some character or some situation in it. The children would immediately correct her, and tell to her in their own way, the stories she had previously related to them.”

Always writing . . .

Even though Louisa came to vacation in Nonquitt, she could never stop writing. She contributed several short stories to the local paper, the Nonquitt Breeze.

Buying her piece of paradise

In 1883, Louisa purchased her own property,a cottage at the northeast corner of Narragansett and Central Avenue (presently called Old Wharf Road). She recorded in her journal on June 24:

“To Nonquitt with Lulu and K. and John (Pratt), Fixed my house, and enjoyed the rest and quiet immensely. Lulu wild with joy at the freedom . . .” In July she wrote, “Restful days in my little house, which is cool and quiet, and without the curse of a kitchen to spoil it . . .”

Louisa took her meals at the local hotel.

Failing health

By the end of 1885, Louisa was troubled by vertigo and rheumatism. It was then that she began to destroy letters and journals that she didn’t want prying eyes to see.

June of 1886 was her last visit to Nonquitt before poor health settled in. In a letter to Mary Mapes Dodge (friend, and editor of St. Nichoas Magazine where many of her books had been serialized), Louisa writes:

“Lu and I go to Nonquitt next week; and after a few days rest, I will fire up the old engine and see if it will run a short distance without a break-down.”

She fought against her ill health and finished her last book, Jo’s Boys.

The fate of Louisa’s cottage

In 1888, Louisa died and the nephew she adopted, John Pratt Alcott, inherited the Nonquitt house. In 1907 it was sold to John’s brother Fred who added on to the house.

In 1945 it was moved one block and is owned as of 1987 by Daniel Strohmeier.

The store where I found the book

So where did I find this book?

The store is known as the Book Bear in West Brookfield, MA. They are decidedly old-fashioned, not accepting credit cards and not doing email! They do have a website (click on the name) so you can get an idea of what they have.

I definitely will be visiting again soon!

Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985 is available online through Amazon and other outlets (the link leads to Amazon). I look forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book.


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