Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.

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.

The American Library Association Louisa May Alcott Project: A DVD and Book Start a Movement

In May of 1868, a publisher asked an author to write a book specifically targeted “for girls.” His plan was twofold: to capitalize on this up-and-coming author’s growing popularity, and to capture a corner of a brand new genre of children’s literature. The author begrudgingly obliged, and ended up producing one of the best selling, and best loved novels of all time. The novel was Little Women and its author, Louisa May Alcott. Little Women made Alcott famous, but pigeon-holed her into the juvenile market when in fact, she had so much more to offer.

Now in 2011, The American Library Association (ALA) in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is launching a bold initiative. With the goal of exposing to the public the multi-faceted and still relevant writings of Alcott, grants have been awarded to 30 libraries around the country for a five-part series of educational programs featuring the 2009 documentary and companion biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, produced and directed by Nancy Porter, and produced and written by Harriet Reisen. (see complete list of libraries in previous post)

On March 4, a national workshop was held at the Omni Parker House in Boston with these librarians and their scholars to kick off this initiative.

Speakers included Porter and Reisen, and preeminent Alcott scholar Professor Daniel Shealy from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Professor Shealy has edited several books on Alcott including her journals and selected letters (along with Joel Myerson and Madeleine Stern), correspondences from Alcott and her sister May from their grand tour of Europe, and commentary from Alcott’s own peers. (see list in My Growing Library).

Jan Turnquist, director of Orchard House (the Alcott home in Concord, MA) spoke briefly about the historic homestead.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Situated in the Louisa May Alcott room of the Parker House, the participants were introduced to events of the day by Susan Brandehoff of the ALA Public Programs Office. Along with talks by the scheduled speakers, librarians and scholars would have a chance to share program ideas and concerns in breakout sessions. David Weinsten, Senior Program Officer, Division of Public Programs, NEH, also made some opening statements.

The Women Behind Louisa May Alcott
The Woman Behind Little Women

Porter and Reisen then made their presentation, showing clips from the documentary and reading excerpts from the book. Porter gave a brief history of the origins of the documentary, explaining why she and Reisen chose Alcott, saying, “It was the project closest to our hearts.” After 5 years of fundraising and many years of research, the documentary was completed. Screening was delayed so that the book could be completed and in 2009, the film debuted on PBS stations across the country.

Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women showed many sides of Alcott which the public was not so familiar with, such as her service as a Civil War nurse, her success as a pulp fiction writer (“blood and thunder tales” as she dubbed them) under an assumed name (A.M. Barnard), her love life with a Polish lad, and the real story behind the writing of Little Women. Reisen shared stirring excerpts from her book about Alcott’s days as a nurse in the war and how journal entries eventually became Hospital Sketches, the book that would define her realistic writing style, and establish her as a successful author.

The Scope of Alcott’s Writing

Professor Daniel Shealy gave a fascinating talk on the depth and scope of Alcott’s writing. Stating that “Alcott knew her audience well,” he described how easily she adapted to different genres so that she could earn a living as a writer to support her family. Pointing out that “timing is everything,” he described the blossoming of the publishing industry in the mid 19 century, the plethora of new magazines, and the introduction and growth of children’s literature, all of which made it possible for Alcott to succeed in her profession.

Shealy gave a brief outline of several lesser known works to illustrate his point: “The Rival Prima Donnas,” “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” “V.V. or Plots and Counterplots,” and “Behind a Mask”.

In describing her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales written for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s young daughter, Ellen, Shealy maintained that Alcott’s tales redefined fantasy even though the tales are still largely ignored today. Alcott’s fantasies, set in nature, contained a strong moral fiber that was missing from the more famous European fairy tales of authors such as Grimm. She continued to write fantasy right up until her death in 1888.

Shealy pointed out another side of Alcott that makes her so relevant today – her dedication to social reform and women’s rights. She did not believe in a separate “women’s sphere,” so popular in the 19th century, but believed that women needed to be financially independent. Decidedly a spinster, she wrote at length about marriage and its affect on women and men (since in the 19th century, marriage made women the property of their husbands). She was a passionate abolitionist, holding radical views about the true equality of all races.

Brainstorming at Breakout Sessions

After an hour for lunch, the librarians and scholars attended breakout sessions to discuss ideas for programs. Programs needed to fit into a five-part criterion: (see ALA website for detailed list)

  • Louisa May Alcott: Through Her Eyes – A community-wide library event focusing on the life, work, and times of Louisa May Alcott
  • Louisa May Alcott Wrote That? Reading and scholar-led discussion of Alcott’s lesser-known works
  • Louisa May Alcott: Literary Phenomenon and Social Reformer
  • Film screening – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
  • Reading and discussion of the biography – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

Some of these ideas included day-long festivals (“Alcott Extravaganza” and “LouisaFest”) featuring costumes, food and music of the period, children’s activities, tours, story-telling and dramatic presentations. There was a thematic trend to the programming including a focus on the Civil War, health and fitness (Alcott was a runner and a vegetarian), the impact of 19th century clothing (most especially corsets) on women and what Alcott revealed in her writing about that topic, women in the military, women’s rights and the vote, the abolition of slavery, and writing in the 19th century including Transcendentalist writings and pulp fiction.

Issues regarding the logistics of some of the criterion were discussed and ironed out both in the breakout sessions, and in the general group discussion at the end of the day.

Beyond the workshop . . .

By the end of the workshop, participants were fired up to begin their programs in their home libraries. A camaraderie fueled by everyone’s enthusiasm and love of Alcott was palpable. A Google list, established before the workshop, will work to keep everyone informed of the progress of the programs, and the reaction from the public. Ultimately is it hoped that a richer understanding of the scope and depth of both Louisa May Alcott’s writings and her extraordinary life will be conveyed to the public, sparking greater interest in this pioneer woman author and her lesser known works.

ALA announces grants to 30 libraries for Louisa May Alcott outreach

How about this for exciting news??

Originally posted on the ALA website
For Immediate Release
Tue, 01/04/2011 – 14:12

Contact: Angela Thullen
Public Programs Office (PPO)

CHICAGO – The American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced that 30 libraries will receive $2,500 grants to support five reading, viewing and discussion programs featuring the documentary “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women” and the companion biography of the same name.

The library outreach program for “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women,” a collaboration among NEH, the ALA Public Programs Office and Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen for Filmmakers Collaborative, has been designated as part of NEH’s We the People initiative, exploring significant events and themes in our nation’s history and culture and advancing knowledge of the principles that define America. Funding was provided by a major grant from NEH to the ALA Public Programs Office.

The selected libraries, listed in alphabetical order by state, are:

1. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif.
2. Oceanside Public Library, Oceanside, Calif.
3. Poudre River Public Library District, Fort Collins, Colo.
4. Broward County Library, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
5. Atlanta-Fulton Public Library, Atlanta.
6. Berry College Memorial Library, Mount Berry, Ga.
7. University of Idaho Library, Moscow, Idaho
8. Milner Library, Illinois State University, Normal, Ill.
9. Rooney Library, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Ind.
10. Drake Community Library, Grinnell, Iowa
11. Western Kentucky University Libraries, Bowling Green, Ky.
12. Hingham Public Library, Hingham, Mass.
13. Rochester Hills Public Library, Rochester, Mich.
14. Mid-Continent Public Library, Independence, Mo.
15. Wayne Public Library, Wayne, N.J.
16. Octavia Fellin Public Library, Gallup, N.M.
17. Oneida Public Library, Oneida, N.Y.
18. University at Buffalo Libraries, Buffalo, N.Y.
19. New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.
20. Sandusky Library, Sandusky, Ohio
21. Noble Public Library, Noble, Okla.
22. Multnomah County Library, Portland, Ore.
23. Elizabethtown Public Library, Elizabethtown, Pa.
24. Snowden Library, Lycoming College, Williamsport, Pa.
25. Providence Public Library, Providence, R.I.
26. Ned R. McWherter Library, University of Memphis, Memphis, Tenn.
27. Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas
28. Orem Public Library, Orem, Utah
29. Brownell Library, Essex Junction, Vt.
30. Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis.

Louisa May Alcott is recognized around the world for her novel “Little Women,” but Alcott is scarcely known as the bold, compelling woman who secretly wrote sensational thrillers, lived at the center of the Transcendentalist and Abolitionist movements and served as a Civil War army nurse. The film, biography and library programs will re-introduce audiences to Alcott by presenting a story full of fresh insights, startling discoveries about the author and a new understanding of American culture during her lifetime. The 30 selected libraries will present five reading, viewing and discussion programs focused on Alcott, her body of work and her era. Libraries will enlist a lead project scholar with expertise in 19th-century American history or literature to help present and plan programs. For more information, visit www.ala.org/louisamayalcott.

The ALA Public Programs Office promotes cultural and community programming as an essential part of library service in all types and sizes of libraries. Successful library programming initiatives have included “Let’s Talk About It” reading and discussion series, traveling exhibitions, film discussion programs, the Great Stories CLUB, Live! @ your library and more. Recently, the ALA Public Programs Office developed www.ProgrammingLibrarian.org, an online resource center bringing librarians timely and valuable information to support them in the creation of high-quality cultural programs for their communities. For more information on the ALA Public Programs Office, visit www.ala.org/publicprograms.

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities. NEH grants enrich classroom learning, create and preserve knowledge and bring ideas to life through public television, radio, new technologies, exhibitions and programs in libraries, museums and other community places. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

I see on the list that 2 of the libraries receiving grants are within striking distance of where I live, I would love to attend something like that!

Congratulations to Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter for the usage of their fine DVD and book on Louisa which we have discussed here on this blog (see DVD review, see book review).