A visit with fans from abroad gets us the “wonk” tour: Did you know these tidbits about Orchard House?

You never know what a house can tell you! No matter how many times I visit Orchard House, I always learn something new.

Last Friday I had the privilege of meeting longtime email friends from Paris, France. Charline Bourdin, the author of the first French biography of Louisa May Alcott and the webmaster of a French Louisa May Alcott blog is visiting the United States for the first time. Accompanied by her friend Pierre (who is fluent in English), their purpose was to make a pilgrimage to various Alcott-related sites. First stop: Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Lizzie’s melodeon

Seraphine or Melodeon? You decide ... from http://www.dejean.com/maynard-workshop/concord/index.html

Seraphine or Melodeon? You decide … from http://www.dejean.com/maynard-workshop/concord/index.html

Our tour guide was an elderly woman with a deep knowledge of the family. For example, I learned that Lizzie’s melodeon in the dining room was the one given to her at age 20 by Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows when the family was living in Walpole, NH. Harriet Reisen had mentioned this story in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women and I always wondered if the instrument survived. Eve LaPlante’s book, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother had mentioned the acquisition of a seraphine which is similar in appearance to a melodeon (see previous post). It gave me a special thrill to know that I could see the melodeon that inspired the story of Mr. Laurence’s gift of a piano to Beth. It’s one of my favorite parts of Little Women.

Nieriker-Pratt-Alcott connection

ernst and lulu

Did you know that descendants of Lulu Nieriker are still in touch with Anna Alcott Pratt’s descendants? Reisen had mentioned some trouble between the families because May’s husband Ernst had wanted a larger piece of Louisa’s inheritance. Lulu mentioned in an interview with Madelon Bedell (see The Alcotts: Biography of a Family) that she felt closest to Anna so undoubtedly it was her efforts that maintained the connection.

Direct connection to May Alcott Nieriker

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House met us at the end of the tour, eager to meet the French couple who had traveled so far to tour the house. Jan has established an International Circle of Little Women fans and was delighted to know that Charline and Pierre came from Meudon, a town just outside of Paris where May lived and studied art, eventually getting one of her paintings into the prestigious Paris Salon.

The New Castle at Meudon

The New Castle at Meudon

An Orchard House tour guide, Karen Goodno, had a chance to visit Meudon in search of May’s residence and we got to see her photos. She believes she found the house where May and Ernst lived. Charline and Pierre knew the area well and were very excited.

Jan was thrilled at the offer from Charline and Pierre to begin forging a relationship between Orchard House and the town of Meudon not unlike the sister city relationship Orchard House already enjoys with Nanae Town in Japan. They will stay in contact and work on this.

The “wonk” tour

orchard house in winterAfter a lively conversation Jan gave us the “wonk” tour. See if you knew these interesting facts (and no fair if you worked at Orchard House!):

  • We saw the attic with the secret finished room, the split chimney (done by Bronson) that had been tearing the house apart, the bug-ridden beams (now replaced), and the entrance to the attic over the tenant house addition. Jan noted that that attic still contains nails in the beams showing evidence of fur where dead animals had been hung.
  • I was unaware of the tenant house addition (which had been a separate house on the property that Bronson moved over with logs underneath and attached to the main house – rooms include the gift shop, kitchen, May’s art studio and May’s bedroom). Bronson certainly had a habit of doing that considering he had done the same at Hillside. A portion of a crucial support beam on the second floor by May’s room had been removed to make room for the addition. Jan opened a small door in the ceiling to reveal a steel reinforcement beam shaped in a curve to reconnect the two portions of the beam, running behind the wall.
  • I was also unaware that the foyer had been expanded though upon learning that, I was not surprised. I had always thought it unusual that the foyer was so generous in size. That expansion created the split chimney. The front door was originally much closer to the staircase, and the stairs were to the left of their current position. The chimney had been behind the stairs so Bronson split the chimney so he could move the staircase. He then expanded the foyer so that his wife could have a grand entrance for the family home.
    We smiled at the thought. Bronson was no engineer but he knew how to aesthetically please.
  • The second floor hallway is sporting new wallpaper. The original print was found and samples still existed. It had a unique semi-gloss sheen that was no longer made, except at one wallpaper factory in France! They publicized their partnership with Orchard House in supplying the wallpaper.

The tour was dreamy and I was on air, never expecting so many delights. Charline taught me a very important lesson that day: it’s okay to ask! Most likely the answer will be “yes!”

We were then off to Fruitlands for a lovely lunch at the Café and a tour of the Fruitlands house. More on that in the next post.

Where is Anna Alcott Pratt’s grave?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACharline posed an interesting question over lunch: Is Anna buried in the Alcott family plot or is she buried in the Pratt plot? Both are at Sleepy Hollow. She couldn’t find the stone and I can’t remember. Comment if you know the answer.

I miss my dear French friend already! I hope we can see each other again soon.

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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.

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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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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.

Rediscovering the late Madelon Bedell, author of The Alcotts Biography of a Family

I just ordered a bunch of new books and needed to rearrange my book shelves to get everything to fit. In the midst of the rearranging, I pulled out my copy of The Alcotts Biography of a Family and discovered a promotional photo of the author, Madelon Bedell, and an interview released by the publisher’s public relations division. Bedell has been on my mind since I found that her papers are now safe at Orchard House. Her biography of the Alcott family was a powerhouse  – a truly scholarly work published in 1980 that revealed at that time, many new and interesting facts and insights about the family. And yet this work is largely ignored by the public and is out of print (though fortunately available on the internet). Those in the ‘know’ appreciate its worth (and cite her work in theirs); I wanted to introduce you to Ms. Bedell in hopes that some of you will think about reading her book.

It’s tantalizing to think of those papers stored at Orchard House, including the only known interview with May’s daughter, Lulu Nieriker Rasim. Will someone perhaps take those papers and finish the work that Bedell was unable to do? I’d love to see it done . . .

Meanwhile, meet Madelon Bedell.

(This interview was part of a promotional package released by Clarkson N. Potter Inc./distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc.)

1.    How did you develop the idea of doing a biography of the Alcotts? And why did you choose to do a family biography instead of concentrating on only one member – Louisa May Alcott, or her father, Bronson Alcott, for instance?

My original idea was to do a series of critical essays on the image of women in the fiction of certain great women authors. I had in mind, Collette, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, and Louisa May Alcott. I decided to start with Alcott because I felt she would be the easiest to handle.

I found her life to be so fascinating that I decided to do a biography of her instead. As part of my research, I began also to study her father, Bronson Alcott. I found him so fascinating that I changed my mind again, and decided to do a dual, father-daughter biography. I worked on this project for some time, but I found it impossible to keep my spotlight focused on these two and their relationship with each other. The other Alcotts kept crowding in. Especially Abby Alcott, the mother, who would not stay in the minor role I had assigned to her, but insisted on intruding herself at nearly every point, sometimes overwhelming the action. After about two years of this kind of struggle, I gave in and decided to do the entire family.

2.    In your prologue, you state: “To find oneself in the lives of other people, long dead, why is this so entrancing an idea? It is the same for both reader and writer of biography, I am convinced: the need for self-validation . . .” If this means that biography explains ourselves to ourselves, how does the Alcott family explain the modern American family?

First of all in many specific ways. There are Bronson’s “infant diaries,” those astonishing records of his pioneering practices in child rearing, which forecast those of today. There’s the marriage of Bronson and Abby, both powerful personalities, a union of peers, in every way; unique then, still unusual today. And the all-female family with its ideals of feminism and independence for the daughters, all that is very modern.

But beyond that, the history of the Alcotts – which turns at every point, on the struggle to maintain the family unity against an inimical society – explains the ideal by which we measure our own families: the American family as a “haven in a heartless world.” Many of our strictures against the contemporary family stem from our disappointment in its failures to meet that ideal, I believe.

Moreover, the basic theme of the book – Bronson Alcott’s struggle against his family – his individualism versus their communalism – is a very modern one. The desire of each member for personal fulfillment meets up with and often must contend with the needs of the family as a whole – don’t we all face this problem, parents and children alike?

3.    The Alcott family history is supposed to be the true story behind the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Exactly how close is the book to real life?

Astoundingly so. The cast of characters is the same. Just substitute Bronson and Abby Alcott and their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and Abbie May, for the Reverend and Mrs. March and their four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. There’s hardly an incident in Little Women that doesn’t recall or explain an event in the Alcott family.

What’s more interesting, perhaps, are the points where the novel departs from the real life story. There’s a lot of sentimentalization. The Marches aren’t as poor as the Alcotts – they employ a maid, for example. Nor are they are radical in their social views. The crisis in the family life, which occurred when the Englishman, Charles Lane, tried to separate Bronson from his family, is never referred to.

But I think the most important departure from reality is the departure of the father from the book. The figure of Bronson Alcott dominated the Alcott family scene in real life. In the book, the Reverend March is a pale imitation, who isn’t even present most of the time. When Louisa wrote up the family legend, she turned the family into an all-female society headed by a matriarch, thus removing the riveting sexual tensions which permeated the real scene. In Little Women, for all its realism, you have a fantasy – an adolescent fantasy where women never have to deal with the politics and passions of sex as the Alcott women did.

4.    The Alcotts has been cited as a work of unusual scholarship, filled with new material and fresh insights on this family and the nineteenth century in general. What is this new material and how and were did you find it?

All over the place! Basically, however, it’s material on the characters of Bronson and Abby Alcott which throws a new light on their marriage. I found them both to be much larger personalities than had been supposed. Previous biographers, inspired no doubt by Little Women and its (false) relation to the genteel tradition, had cast them as sexless, passive idealists, who weren’t very interesting.

But I found Bronson to be a driven person, obsessed by sex, who sometimes wrote erotic poetry and conceived a passion in middle age for a woman half his age, Ednah Littlehale; and before that may have had a homosexual attraction toward his English follower, Charles Lane, which, incidentally, his wife was aware of. And Abby herself, her feminism, her radical social theories, her drive for power, her unusual gift for love, all that is exposed for the first time, too.

As for the material behind this – it’s all in their diaries and letters, some 200 volumes of them, stored all these years at Harvard University. You can’t just skim these, unfortunately, but must turn yourself over to them, become the person yourself as you read him or her, and live with them, as they were in their times.

But, then must discard about 90% of all that wonderful material you have discovered, push aside those note cards – keeping them only for reference – and write the story as if it had come from your own mind, fresh and new. To be able to do that is the real challenge of biography.

5.    Your book deals with the various social movements of the nineteenth century of New England – feminism, health reform, the advent of child psychology and the cult of the child, Transcendentalism, the anti-slavery movement, utopian socialism, progressive education. What among these has survived today?

You’ve just named them all. The first half of the nineteenth century was the time when American liberal ideology was formulated. All these movements and the ideas of human growth and liberation, which they represent, were born then.

Our history goes in cycles and so these ideas are apt to go underground for a while and then surge forward again. The 1960’s were almost a repeat of the 1840’s, for example. The movement against the Vietnam War was characterized by the same moral fervor as was the anti-slavery movement of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The scene at the end of The Alcotts when Bronson Alcott takes part in the storming of the state house to rescue a runaway slave might well have taken place in the 1960’s – just substitute a draft register for a slave and the action and all the tumultuous feelings surrounding it are the same.

Or take such ideas as the current interest in holistic medicine. Except in its details it might be a replay of the health reform movement of the 1800’s in which the Alcotts were active. So, too, with feminism (Abby Alcott headed up a petition for women’s suffrage) and of course utopian socialism. Bronson Alcott’s commune at Fruitlands, in Harvard, Massachusetts, was a forerunner of similar groups that exist today.

6.    This is the first volume of your biography of the Alcotts. What will the second book be, and how will you approach it?

This first book deals primarily with the marriage of Bronson and Abby Alcott, and the childhood of the four daughters. The father is the central character (although the mother is the hero), and the theme is the founding of a family – the creation of a legend.

The next volume will deal with the adult lives of the four daughters, and focus on Louisa. The first book was also a social history of the antebellum – pre-Civil War – period in New England. The next one will be a similar account of the postwar period, showing how all those reform movements we talked about in the previous question, were overcome in the baronial capitalism of the Gilded  Age: how Bronson Alcott’s spiritual transcendentalism evolved into his daughter Louisa’s quite material, albeit enlightened capitalism.

7.    Which member of the Alcott family is your favorite?

If I had one, I would never tell anyone, not even myself. A biographer is like a parent. He/she must never play favorites, or the goal – the lives to be nourished and developed – will be lost.

The Alcotts Biography of a Family in hardcover was 416 pages in length and sold for $15.95. I wonder what the price would have been today . . .

Meeting Amy Belding Brown, author of “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

I had the privilege yesterday of meeting author Amy Belding Brown who as you know, wrote the historical novel, Mr. Emerson’s Wife , based upon the lives of Waldo and Lidian Emerson and their relationships with Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and other famous Transcendentalists.

Sharing lattes together at a local cafe/country store, Amy and I found we have a lot of interests in common, among them being the history of religion in New England. She has researched this subject extensively (specifically Puritanism, aka Calvinism, now the United Church of Christ, or the Congregational Church, and Unitarianism) so naturally I was an eager listener. I’ve blogged several times about wishing to discover more about Transcendentalism and why it had such an impact, given that it is pretty hard to nail down. Learning about what religion was like in earlier times is critical to that understanding.

Receiving her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts in 2002, Amy work for a few years at Orchard House, thus being privy to its many treasures. She now teaches writing to freshmen students at Worcester and Fitchburg State Universities. I appreciated her remarks in this regard, that she felt she could make more a difference in the lives of students from state universities rather than teach at more prestigious private schools. That’s the true heart of a teacher.

She also teaches at the Worcester Institute for Senior Education, and writes in her spare time, having  just finished a book on King Philip’s War (find out more about King Philip’s War here).

I had to ask Amy if she favored Thoreau in some way as I felt he came off better in than Emerson did in Mr. Emerson’s Wife; she wouldn’t admit to “liking” Thoreau better (which was what I asked) but admitted that his writings were easier to relate to. I agree.

We discussed how Mr. Emerson’s Wife was far more than a potentially tragic love story between two people who could never get together; it was really a commentary on marriage, both in the 19th century, and now. There are many truths in the married life of Waldo and Lidian that apply to married couples today. This, I believe, is the true and more universal appeal of the book (although the love story is very compelling).

We spoke too about the lost writings of Madelon Bedell who wrote an outstanding scholarly biography called The Alcotts Biography of a Family back in 1980 (I was lucky enough to get a promo copy from the newspaper office I worked for :-)). This was the first of a two volume work; unfortunately she died of cancer before the second book was completed. Harriet Reisen was able to track down Bedell’s papers, specifically the last known interview with the then 96 year-old Lulu Nieriker (the only living person to have known Louisa May Alcott personally) shortly before she died in 1975 (see her grave here). That interview is documented in Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women.

At a later date, I am going to interview Amy more specifically about Mr. Emerson’s Wife; she is buried with school work right now so we’ll have wait until after exams in May.

One of the main reasons why I started this blog was to meet other enthusiasts and this has come true in ways I could never have imagined. After only 9 months on the web, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion has introduced me to many fascinating people and the richness of the written word which I had lost after my childhood. This venture has brought me more joy than I could have dreamed of and we’re just beginning!

The Field Trip of a Lifetime! (part two)

To continue with my account of  the field trip of a lifetime, there were many more treasures that I found at the Concord Free Public Library:

A May Alcott Nieriker Exhibition

Regular readers of this blog know of my esteem for May Alcott Nieriker. I discovered (first to my dismay and then to my delight) that the library had held an exhibition of May Alcott Nieriker’s artwork and other artifacts back in late 2008 and early 2009 (dismayed because I missed it, especially when I saw that Daniel Shealy, Joel Myerson (editors of several prominent books on Louisa May Alcott including The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott and The Journals of Louisa May Alcott;  Shealy edited Little Women Abroad and Alcott in Her Own Time) and John Matteson (Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts) made presentations).

The exhibit had quite the effect on the curator of the Special Collections room and her assistant as they became quite taken with May Alcott. They appreciated my interest and the assistant even went to the trouble of bringing out many of the copies of the paintings and drawings that had been included in the exhibition. She also gave me the program which listed each item, and included pictures of May’s artwork (which, as you know, is hard to come by on the internet).

Here’s a link to information about the exhibit.

I also had the privilege of seeing and touching a letter May had written to her mother labeled “My Dearest Mamma,” written from Europe. Her handwriting was far more carefree than Louisa’s, and thus, really hard to read (I have to commend the biographers who have struggled over these handwritten letters, trying to decipher what the writer was trying to say). May was a more carefree individual so it fits that her handwriting reflected her spirit.

There were letters from her husband, Ernest Nieriker, first regarding the birth of her child, and then her death, her final wishes regarding Lulu, and finally a list of her personal effects which were going to the Alcott family. He shares his difficulty in giving up the child: “It is very hard for me to give up now my little Lulu May, when I think to catch glimpses of May in her eyes and admire May’s graceful hands in miniature . . . Nothing will procure me consolation, happiness will be possible when I have joined her in that purer world where separation need be feared no more . . .”

I also saw a letter from Abba and her handwriting surprised me. I wish I was a handwriting expert because Abba’s handwriting was flowing, rushing, rather like a river, more like May’s than Louisa’s; Louisa’s was very controlled and neat, sometimes with hatchet-like marks where she crossed her t’s. Knowing what I know about the lives of these women, it was interesting to see how their handwriting reflected their lives.

Letter to a family member about a family death

The biggest discovery of the day was Louisa’s letter to her cousin Eliza May Wells about the death of her younger sister, Lizzie, mainly because as I began to read it, I had no idea that Lizzie was the subject. And Lizzie has always been of special interest to me.

Noted as the “shadow sister” by biographer Madelon Bedell in her biography, The Alcotts, and the basis for Beth in Little Women, Lizzie is something of a mystery. The more I read about her, the less I know. Beth is certainly a romanticized version of Lizzie (most especially in her death), a loving tribute by her sister. But the real woman is unfortunately someone we will never know despite the fact that she kept journals just like the rest of the family. She never allowed the reader into her inner self. Or perhaps there was no inner self. We will never know.

I was so taken by this letter of Louisa’s that I took out my notebook and copied the letter, word for word. I knew a letter like that must be in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (and it is ) but I didn’t want to take the chance that I wouldn’t be able to find it. It was that important to me.

The other oddity (for me) was that the letter was dated March 19 – my birthday!

Louisa’s prose was simple and poignant. There were familiar details, such as Lizzie putting away her needle because it “felt too heavy,” and there were details I hadn’t known about her funeral, especially the fact that no one was invited except the immediate family and Bronson’s closest Concord friends: “We asked no one to the funeral & sent no word to Boston for we wished to be alone, & father’s friends did all we needed more beautifully & acceptably than any we could have asked & everything was simple & quiet as she would have liked it.”

There was a curious last paragraph: “Dear Eliza perhaps if I asked you now you may be able to forgive & forget whatever un[kind]ness you may believe me guity of, & I hope you may sometime learn to know me as I really am, I have been
Your grateful & loving cousin
Louisa” I wondered if Louisa felt guilty for not inviting her cousin and her family to the funeral, or was there some other issue? If it was the former, it’s too bad she had to burden herself with guilt like that in the  midst of her grief. Here is where a greater knowledge of the mid 19th century would be helpful, and just how important propriety was here.

Letter from a reader regarding Moods

This letter was dated March 19 as well!

Addressed to a “Mr. Ayer,” I hand copied part of this letter as well (the whole letter is included in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott). Knowing the ambivalent relationship she had with her readers, it was interesting to see how she responded to the criticisms of this particular reader. It’s too bad there isn’t a record of his letter as well.

I found an interesting paragraph that described how young women responded to Moods, and it gave a window into Louisa’s now well-known feminist leanings: “I think Moods will do no harm to the pure hearted, & for them alone it was written. That it has done some good I already have proofs in the letters I receive from good women who have tried to d0 their duty, & became meek martyrs instead of happy workers in God’s world; young girls thank me for the warning I have unconsciously given them, & more than one minister has assured me that with all its faults, the book has taught a lesson that many needed to learn.”

These two letters have really peaked my interest in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott as well as The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. It is revealing to hear Louisa speak in her own, unedited voice (except, of course, for all the letters and journal entries she didn’t let us see!).

Final Oddities

I had mentioned how two of the letters I found were dated March 19, my birthday. Here’s another weird coincidence: an invitation to John Alcott Pratt from Carrie M. Hoyle, secretary of the Louisa M. Alcott Memorial Association dated May 17, 1912. Why odd? Hoyle is my maiden name! I had discovered that little fact in searching for information about my father’s family but to actually see her handwriting . . . that was pretty cool.

So, that’s my awesome field tip! I hope many of you will get a similar chance to go. It’s pretty amazing.

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Those who want to become as talented a writer and artist as May was
can find info about classes through an accredited online college
to enhance their knowledge.
It can be rare that someone is as multi-talented as she was.

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Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)


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The Field Trip of a Lifetime! (part one)

I have been anticipating my vacation between Christmas and New Year’s for several months because of a very special field trip I planned – a visit to the Concord Free Public Library where I would come into contact with the actual letters and manuscripts of my favorite author, Louisa May Alcott. The weather was beautiful and warm after the blizzard we had experienced earlier in the week; it was the foreshadowing of an extraordinary day.

The Concord Free Public Library’s William Munroe Special Collections section contains archives of handwritten letters, manuscripts, first edition books and drawings from the Alcott Family which anyone can request to see. All I had to do was ask the main reference librarian who referred me to the Special Collections section in the basement of the library. I want to publicly thank the curator, Leslie Perrin Wilson and her assistant, Constance Manoli-Skocay for their kindness and generosity to this total neophyte. I step very much outside my comfort zone entering this academic arena, much aware of my lack of study and experience, and they went out of their way to to guide me on this wonderful journey.

I knew I would be excited at the prospect of seeing and touching actual letters and manuscripts, but I had no idea just how much it would grip me. I spent several hours at the library in wonder at what I saw, and when I left, my heart was pounding and my head was spinning!

Flower Fables

It started with a request to see certain folders of papers, and the first thing I saw was a collection of fairy stories to Ellen Emerson that would eventually end up in Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables. It was all neatly handwritten by the teenaged Louisa on unlined paper, each line perfectly straight and perfectly spaced. And it was signed “Louy.” Occasionally there was a small edit (a scratched out word). She had hand bound the stories in a pretty folder and it gave me such a special thrill to leaf through the precious little book and read the stories. As a child I had dreams of being an author and used to write little books which I also hand bound. I’m certain the reading of Joan Howard’s book, The Story of Louisa May Alcott, fueled that dream. To hold in my hands a hand bound edition of a book created by Louisa who also dreamed (and became) an author was indeed a spiritual experience.

The Olive Leaf

Next I got a chance to see issue number 2 of the Olive Leaf (the Samuel Pickwick Edition), the family newspaper created by the sisters to cheer the family during their times of poverty. It was set up in 3 columns like a newspaper and included poems and stories.

“Thoreau’s Flute”

One of the most touching papers that I saw was Louisa’s poem about Henry David Thoreau, written in her own hand, entitled “Thoreau’s Flute.” I paused as a I looked at it, knowing how she felt about him. I understood that it took her awhile to process his death and I believe she finally was able to express herself when she became a nurse at the Union Hospital in Georgetown during the Civil War. Another spiritual experience.

Chapters from Little Women

Then I got to see two chapters from part two of Little Women (“Our Foreign Correspondent” and “Heartache”), written on blue paper with fading brown ink (probably was black at one time). There was some edits throughout, such as in this line from “Heartache” – “Oh Teddy, I’m so sorry, so desperately sorry I could slap kill myself if would do any good . . .”

It struck me how difficult it must have been for a publisher to put together a book without errors. Handwriting can be hard to read at times. Louisa’s writing had a pattern that was easy to figure out but I imagine it was still was a challenge. I noticed that the letters all leaned to the left and it occurred to me that she may have written it left handed. In other writings that I saw, her handwriting looked different, leaning to the right. I know she had to resort to writing left handed when her right hand became cramped.

Louisa’s Will

As this post is getting quite long, I will end with Louisa’s last will and testament, picking up in the next post with other extraordinary things I saw.

Louisa’s will was fairly simple considering how much she was worth. It was only a few typed pages (I can imagine today it would have been much longer and a lot more complicated!), dated July 10, 1887. The primary focus was the care of Lulu, making sure that she got the lion’s share of her money. Older sister Anna was named the Executrix of the estate, and her son John, legally adopted by Louisa and renamed John Sewall Pratt Alcott, was given charge of the copyrights. She directed that youngest sister May’s paintings and drawings be kept in the family; upon Anna’s death, the copies May made of certain Turner paintings would be donated to the Art Museum of Boston “as they are the best copies in the Country, and should be seen and used by many.” She did designate that one or two pieces of art be given to May’s husband, Ernest should he desire them.

In the next post . . .

When I post again, I will share more about May as I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing copies of many of her works. Plus, I came upon two especially special letters written by Louisa which touched me so much I hand copied both of them.

Usually Alcott enthusiasts come to Concord to see Orchard House and Sleepy Hollow; I would but definitely add the Special Collections room of the Concord Free Public Library to that list. It’s a visit I will not soon forget.

Stories by Louisa May Alcott in St. Nicholas Magazine

I went searching for Christmas stories penned by Louisa and my search led me to Mary Mapes Dodge’s St. Nicholas Magazine, Volume XXX. This link will send you to Google books where you can read the entire volume online or download it as a PDF (777 pages worth!). Google Books is just amazing!

Mary Mapes Dodge wrote Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates and it was a big seller at the time that Louisa wrote Little Women. Harriet Reisen in her book, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, she notes that Thomas Niles, who as you know, urged Louisa to write this book along with her father Bronson, hoped that Little Women would be the cash cow that Hans Brinker and other works for children such as Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick series and the “Oliver Optic” series of books had been for rival publishers. (page 213 of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women).

All I originally was looking for were Christmas stories. Instead I found two charming stories, published after Louisa’s death in November of 1902 and January of 1903. One of them, “Lu Sing” was written for the Lulu’s Library series.  Here the young people’s magazine announces these discoveries:

You will notice that Anna’s son Frederick was responsible for presenting the stories for publication and even wrote an introduction to “Lu Sing” which greatly enhances the enjoyment of this story if you are looking for autobiographical references:

“Lu Sing” was such a charming story and I particularly loved the way that Louisa described herself (“Ah Wee”) and sister Anna (“Ah Nah”). Both names were taken from Lulu’s way of pronouncing “Aunt Louisa” and “Aunt Anna.” Louisa’s wry sense of humor was very evident in that portion of the story which you can read beginning on page 128 if you read it in Google  Books, or pg. 202 if you download the PDF file and read it there.

Louisa masks the autobiographical elements (including the fact that Lulu was a regular hellion and not academically inclined) behind a clever backdrop of Chinese culture in the latter part of the 19th century. I remember hearing about this story and how baffled I was that Louisa could write a story about a place she had never visited. Obviously she ‘visited’ China in her reading because there were many fascinating details, such as how the Chinese punished their children for bad behavior (placing them in a willow cage in the river with water up to the neck, and keeping the child there until the child agreed to behave), and how they sent up a prayer by flying a kite (so appropriate when I think of Louisa as a young girl, racing in the meadows behind Hillside, flying kites to work off her boundless energy).

The story is richly illustrated. It’s fun seeing “Ah Wee” and “Ah Nah” portrayed as old Chinese women!

The story had the typical ‘moral pap for the young’  theme that Louisa was so well known for but her imagination amazes me, considering the fact that she was old and sick at the time. Writing still provided that escape from the harsh reality that she often lived in.

In my next post I’ll write about the other story called “The Eagle in the Dove’s Nest.” In the meantime, check out this fascinating magazine on Google Books. What a rich treasury it offers in short stories, puzzles, illustrations, letters from readers, science and nature articles, and the like. There are also pages and pages of advertising. It’s such a terrific snapshot of early 20th century offerings for children.

Like I said before, Google  Books is awesome!