Lizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral

abbaIn my continuing research on Elizabeth Alcott, I find that letters by her mother offer the most poignant moments. I am already obsessed with Lizzie and Abba’s comments act as gasoline on an already roaring fire. I’m told that obsession with a character will produce a good story; I sure hope so!

I believe in using primary sources and since the Alcott family papers are so voluminous, it will be a long time (perhaps years) before I get through everything I want to read. I made the mistake (!) of venturing into the handwritten pages of Bronson Alcott’s journals only to find many more references to Elizabeth than I had thought existed. And we know what a prolific journal writer Bronson was!

I have amassed already a large photographic collection of letters and journal entries which I am slowly going through and transcribing (as the handwriting will allow – some of it is pretty hard to read). I came across this letter from Abba to her brother Samuel Joseph May which brought tears to my eyes:

invalid… Dr. Geist pronounces Lizzy’s care hopeless – “atrophy consumption of the nerves – with wasting of the flesh.” She has failed rapidly lately – sees that dissolution is near – is calmly quiet cheerful waits the great change which shall relieve her misery – I can lay no … of finery on the altar of the Lord than this gentle spirit – I have struggled to save her for the past year; but sometimes before our greatest peace, comes out of hardest strife – and I now feel that my darling will be in safer hands than her mother’s – she wrote in my journal that beautiful hymn of aspiration by Mrs. Flower –

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee
E’en though it be the Cross that raiseth me,
Yet nearer to thee
Nearer to thee

She writes notes to Mary Sewall, Cousin Louisa and persons who are attentive to her – and everybody has been very kind – Mr. Emerson’s carriage and Mrs. Wheeler always at her service. The weather is very fine and exercise has been very important to her but she fails so perceptibly that we try nothing now but comforts – bed and chair, couch, raw beef, milk toast, cocoa, a wood fire day and night, and … looks to greet her beautiful expectant eyes …

Source: Abba to Sam, January 21, 1858; the letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

The idea of Lizzie in her weakened state writing those lyrics in her mother’s journal touched me deeply. I am hopeful the actual page of that journal exists – another treasure to look for at the Houghton Library.

I had read several accounts of Lizzie’s funeral and the singing of her “favorite hymn” and always wondered what it was. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” could possibly be the one (it’s also the hymn played by the band on the sinking Titanic). There’s nothing like music to make a connection.

Here’s a rendition by the Morman Tabernacle Choir.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Text: Sarah Flower Adams, 1805-1848
Music: Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

1.    Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

2.    Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I’d be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

3.    There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

4.    Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

5.    Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

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Into the head and heart of Bronson Alcott: a most surprising and satisfying journey

bronson alcott drawingThe Journals of Bronson Alcott by Odell Shepard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading The Journals of Bronson Alcott, edited by Odell Shepard. I was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved. Let no one judge Bronson Alcott until they have done a thorough study of his life (which I have not yet done but I’ve been reading). This man is far more complex and cannot be summed up in a soundbite. He was a brilliant, original thinker, a lover of life and Spirit and a deeply flawed man. It’s impossible to do a blog post on this book, there’s just too much to ponder. I can only urge you to read for yourself and see what it offers. I can tell you it is the extraordinary evolution of a long and fruitful life with much penetrating commentary and insight on some of the most brilliant people of 19th century America.

View all my Goodread reviews

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

Cathlin Davis on Louisa’s philosophy of life

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

Christie’s personal search for salvation

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

Purpose and acceptance

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

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

Teaching the children

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

John Matteson on Louisa and Emerson

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

How does Emerson deal with artistic genius?

Matteson raised several important questions centered on artistic genius:

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

Fear of genius

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

Contradictions

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

On the outside looking in

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

Violent nature

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

Cleaning it up

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

Final thoughts

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

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

DAY 4 audience laughing 560

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

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series – Louisa as a practicing Transcendentalist

Day Two of the Summer Conversational Series featured a fine array of speakers.

Kristi Lynn Martin and Duty’s Faithful Child

kristi1 560Starting off the morning was Kristi Lynn Martin, a doctoral candidate at Boston University. Martin’s many years of experience as a tour guide at Concord’s finest historical homes (The Old Manse, “Bush” (aka the Emerson homestead) and Orchard House) served her well, giving her a unique insight into lives of the distinguished Transcendentalists that lived there.

The golden circle

Martin’s presentation, called “Duty’s Faithful Child:” Louisa May Alcott and the Transcendance of Transcendentalism covered the many famous thinkers in Louisa’s circle. These people included Ralph Waldo Emerson who sought to gather radical intellectuals like himself into a community, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, the Rev. Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley and of course, Louisa’s father Bronson Alcott.

Louisa’s brand of Transcendentalism

Dubbed “The Newness,” Transcendentalists sought a new spiritual vision beyond traditional religion. Growing discontent with empty ritual and spiritual hollowness, they sought to stretch their minds and hearts, seeking a more invigorating spiritual experience. While Louisa was ambivalent about Transcendentalism, mainly because of her father’s inability to provide for his family, she could not get away from its influence and it shows in her writing, especially her juvenile stories. She transcended the impracticality of Transcendentalism as taught by her father through her writing and reform efforts.

Heartfelt conversion

Louisa experienced a spiritual awakening at a young age while spending time outdoors. Nature had touched her soul, giving her an experience of God that she would never forget. Louisa, however, was like her mother, a pragmatic reformer at heart just like the Mays and Sewells before her (which presenter Eve LaPlante spoke about in the afternoon session – more on that in a bit) and therefore practiced a more practical Transcendentalism. She embraced the self-reliance of Emerson, the principled pragmatism of Thoreau, the moral theology of the Rev. Parker, the dynamic feminism of Fuller and the educational reform of Peabody and her own father.

Important women in the golden circle

Martin went on to demonstrate how Transcendentalism influenced Louisa’s writing through a careful study of Moods, Work and Hospital Sketches. She highlighted the important women in Louisa’s life including her mother Abigail, Margaret Fuller and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (whom Louisa regarded as a feminine ideal, one who exercised her mind and followed her heart while taking care of her husband and seven children).

Stefanie Jochman: Jo’s Transcendental marriage

stefanie1 560Stefanie Jochman was a new presenter to the Summer Conversational Series. She teaches high school at the Notre Dame de la Baie Academy in Wisconsin and is currently pursuing her master’s degree. Her talk, “Professor Bhaer and Mr. Emerson: Jo March’s Transcendent Marriage” provided unique insight into Jo’s relationship with Frederick, and with her mentor and muse in real life, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

How was Professor Bhaer modeled after Emerson?

With the thoroughness of a lawyer, Jochman presented her case with numerous examples of why Professor Bhaer more resembled Emerson even though the popular view has been that Bronson Alcott was the model. There are too many examples to include in this blog post but here are a few:

Bhaer, to Jo, is the hero of her life. His guidance, love and desire to help Jo be the best she can be was much like the kindness Emerson showed to a young Louisa when he allowed her to browse through her library, suggesting appropriate books to stimulate her mind. Bhaer influenced Jo’s writing by frowning on her potboilers and encouraging her to write at a higher level which eventually paid off for her with a successful career as an authoress. Emerson too provided much encouragement to Louisa, suggesting books, giving advice and simply being someone she would wish to emulate.

Lifting the burden

Jochman pointed out a simple example in Little Women demonstrating how Professor Bhaer was introduced to the story by physically lifting the burden of the maid in the boarding house. Jochman compared that act to Emerson’s consistent efforts in lifting the financial burdens of the Alcott family. In one such instance, he supplied the rest of the money needed for the family to purchase Hillside (now known as The Wayside), the home where the family would live for three and one half years. It provided the setting for Little Women and the first truly stable environment for the Alcott children.

Transcendental utopia

Jo and Frederick’s work with boys at Plumfield created a Transcendental utopia. Jochman cited Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay in which he sings the praises of boys and the need to celebrate their childhood through their exposure to nature. Both Alcott and Emerson strongly believed in Nature’s ability to illuminate the mind and this was especially demonstrated in the story of Dan, the boy who struggled the most at Plumfield, and in life. As a small example, in Little Men, Jo set aside a drawer for Dan for his collection of things from nature; during the discussion that followed Jochman’s presentation, previous presenter Kristi Martin shared that Emerson had a similar drawer for his collection of artifacts from nature. This was something she picked up from her years as a tour guide.

Jochman had much more to share and I am hoping to entice her to write some guest posts for this blog so that you can find out more from her presentation.

Eve LaPlante: Family history of personal and social reform

eve1 560Eve LaPlante, author of Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother, gave an intriguing presentation of the family history of reform which was passed down from generation to generation, right down to Louisa. Using her service as a Civil War nurse as documented in Hospital Sketches, LaPlante, a direct descendent of Abigail May Alcott’s family, told stories of relatives from her past who followed a similar pattern to Louisa’s of self-discovery, spiritual introspection and commitment to reform.

In the beginning

Beginning with Judge Samuel Sewell, LaPlante told the story of his heartfelt repentance after the Salem Witch Trials. Judge Sewell, then in his forties, examined his heart through prayer and realized the wrong he had committed in condemning men and women as witches without hard evidence. He devoted himself to reform as a result, writing the first tract (which cited the Bible) condemning the practice of slavery. LaPlante also mentioned another document written years later which unfortunately no longer exists where Judge Sewell defended the idea that women as well as men went to heaven, their physical bodies being resurrected like their male counterparts. This amazingly went against the theology of the day which insisted only men went to heaven.

Forsaking wealth for a healthy soul

Joseph May, father to Abigail, married Dorothy Sewell, great-granddaughter of Judge Sewell. In his thirties, Joseph May, then a successful entrepreneur, lost his business and his money in a bad land deal. After a protracted depression, May turned away from the pursuit of money, calling it unhealthy for the soul. He was not a social reformer like Judge Sewell but believed in personal interior conversion.

Pioneering abolitionist

His son Samuel Joseph May was an influential reformer. Ordained as a Unitarian minister, Samuel Joseph went through a dramatic overnight conversion in his thirties regarding his views on slavery. He became the first to preach from the pulpit against slavery, something which caused his father much consternation. Joseph May endured much ridicule from his neighbors for his son’s views. Samuel Joseph May was also the first to preach on women’s suffrage.

Like brother, like sister

Samuel’s sister, Abigail emulated her brother and took reformation to heart as well. Marrying Bronson Alcott (whom Samuel introduced to Abigail) against the wishes of her father, Abigail admired Bronson’s principles and similar heart for reform. She envisioned a life in equal partnership with Bronson, promoting educational reform. Although their life together didn’t turn out as she had hoped, she was able to pass the idea of social reform down to her daughter Louisa who then struck out on her own as a reformer for the first time in her service as a Civil War nurse.

What we can see in Hospital Sketches

A collection of Louisa’s letters to her family about her war experience was serialized and eventually created her most successful book to date, Hospital Sketches. Critics agree that it was Hospital Sketches that revealed Louisa’s writing voice, relaying with humor and poignancy her real life experiences getting to and then serving in Washington at the Union Hotel Hospital following one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. LaPlante’s analysis of the writing of Hospital Sketches as a vehicle by which Louisa’s true self emerges spawned a lively discussion of the text (including a remembrance of Gabrielle Donnelly’s spirited reading of a portion of the first chapter). The mixture of humor with moving descriptions of suffering and death (including one John Suhre whom Louisa loved) demonstrated the many wonderful facets of Louisa’s writing and personality.

It was another full day of thought-provoking talks, conversation and fellowship with fellow Louisa lovers. Does it get any better than this?

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Visiting the home of the master, Ralph Waldo Emerson

During my vacation this week I will be attending the Summer Conversational Series sponsored by Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The theme is “Chaos, Cosmos, and the Oversoul” The Influence of Transcendental Philosophy on the Life and Writing of Louisa May Alcott. Speakers include Gabrielle Donnelly (author of The Little Women Letters), Eve LaPlante (author of Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother and My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother), John Matteson (Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father) and many others from around the world.

ralph-waldo-emerson-house-concord-maThe obvious first step if one is to immerse oneself in Transcendentalism is to visit the home of the master, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I had that privilege on Saturday.

Elegant Federal Colonial

I do have a day job and it’s in real estate. I work for an independent brokerage, Rutledge Properties in Wellesley, MA. I am not an agent; instead I support agents with marketing materials and advertising. I love my job because I get to see so many beautiful homes.

side of Bush (Emerson house) 560

The large windows to the left of the carriage entrance belong to the Dining Room and upstairs nursery.

From a realtor’s perspective, “Bush,” the name given to the Emerson home is a pure joy. Originally built as a summer home for the Coolidge family, Emerson purchased the home in July of 1835 after marrying Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, MA. Anxious to make it a central meeting place for philosophers and thinkers, he spent money he had inherited from his first wife Ellen Tucker’s estate and landscaped the grounds which even today are lush, private and inviting.

Light-filled home

I was taken by the high ceilings, well-proportioned rooms and large windows. The house was flooded with light and was adorned with beautiful period details including carved arches, custom bookshelves and molding. In 1872, the house nearly burned to the ground but thanks to the help of neighbors, it was saved, along with his valuable papers and books from the study.

Private museum, family-owned

“Bush” is still privately owned by the Emerson family and was opened as a museum in 1930. Most of the furniture belongs to the family. The study has been recreated since the original furnishings were moved across the street to the Concord Museum. The family, recognizing the worth of Waldo’s study, felt the furnishings would be safer from fire at the brick museum.

Encountering the spirit of Emerson

study Emerson house 560

Emerson’s study

Upon entering the home, I was greeted by a tall staircase and long hallway. Waldo’s study was to the right which surprised me; I had assumed the parlor would be located there. In the study the tour guide showed us a picture of the room with Emerson in it, taken in the 1870s. Each person, including myself, took a long, lingering look at that photo, imagining Waldo sitting in his rocking chair writing or greeting guests.

Favorite rooms

My favorite rooms in the home were the dining room, the nursery (which was directly above the dining room) and the master bedroom (which contained a gorgeous eighteenth century high boy). Each of those rooms featured enhanced floor to ceiling bay or bow windows, added on to the house when it was repaired after the fire. The perfect half-moon-shaped bow window in the master bedroom overlooked the back yard. Each of us lingered in that part of the room, enjoying the lush, green views of trees and grape arbors planted by then-boarder Henry David Thoreau. I memorized every line and detail of that window and imagined myself thinking wonderful thoughts and writing great things in that setting.

The softer side of Henry David Thoreau

thoreau's grape arbor at Emerson's house 560

Grape arbor planted by Henry David Thoreau

The nursery contained an extraordinary artifact, a dollhouse furnished and constructed for Lidian and Waldo’s children by Thoreau who boarded at the house for many years. Henry took a chest of drawers, removed the backs and then created windows with outdoor views fashioned from pictures out of a child’s storybook. He built much of the furniture: perfect chairs, tables, couches and beds. The dollhouse told a compelling story of a softer side to Thoreau, the one that loved children and understood so well what they enjoyed.

Hall of pictures

There were various pictures on the wall, drawings and photographs of children and family friends. The most compelling was a quite modern pose of Edith and Edward Emerson when they were around nine or ten. A beautiful crayon drawing of Ellen and Edith was displayed in the master bedroom. Ellen would not pose for a photograph so this is the only depiction of her as a young girl. A large portrait of her at forty-two can be seen in the parlor and another equally large painting of her in her sixties stands in the “Hall of Pictures” by the stairs.

Backyard paradise

yard Emerson house 560

The backyard

Upon leaving the house my friends and I spent several minutes in the back yard, imagining Waldo walking the two miles to Walden Pond via a direct path from his garden. A very loud Brown Thrasher (who refused to show himself to this frustrated birder!) serenaded us from an ancient and unusual tree. A small rabbit kept us company and I hoped that the formidable cat I had spotted from the dining room window earlier would not trouble this little creature.

I now find my mind wandering back to that peaceful, lovely home time and time again. It was perfect beginning to a week devoted to Transcendentalism.

The New York Times featured a slide show of the interior of the home: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/09/15/garden/0916emerson-slideshow.html

The pictures accompanied an article about a couple who were caretakers of the home for three years: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/16/garden/16emerson.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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My 3 days with Louisa May Alcott (part four): connections between Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

Note: This post is longer than usual. I had considered running it in two installments but thought it would lessen the impact of its message by doing that.

So sit back with a cup of coffee, relax and read. :-)

Two ladies,
same vision

Two New England feminists, both heavily influenced by transcendentalism.

Both in the company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott.

Both very reform-minded.

Both would forever change history for women.

Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller were neither friends nor colleagues yet they shared a similar passion for women’s rights, believing it was best for society.

Continuing with the theme of yesterday’s post, Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson drew connections between these two women while highlighting their different approaches.

What was Margaret Fuller’s vision for women?

Margaret Fuller, much like Bronson, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. She was the most passionate of the transcendentalists, that passion often spilling over to the individuals themselves.

Much more than a flirt …

Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is titillating to read about her intense relationships with Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne (not a transcendentalist, but he did base the heroine of The Scarlett Letter on Margaret – see Wikipedia on Margaret Fuller) but it is also distracting. Margaret may have been a flirt but she was brilliant.

Living her words

A woman’s voice was needed in the Transcendentalist movement and she brought it. While Bronson and Emerson talked a great game regarding the value and worth of women, Margaret lived it, educating women through her writing and her brand of “conversations.”

The vision laid out

Women in the Nineteen Century is Margaret’s tour de force, where she lays out her vision for women.

Matteson laid out Margaret’s demand for full rights for women, well beyond the political and economic; this would include equality spiritually and intellectually.

Bringing virtue to the marketplace

A reformer at heart, she believed that women needed to be in marketplace in order to bring about reform. Taking the traditional role of the wife leading the husband to greater virtue, she extends it out to the greater society: women in business would lead the marketplace (and the men in it) to greater virtue.

Man versus Men, Woman versus Women

Margaret was a philosopher greatly influenced by Transcendentalism. She, like Bronson Alcott, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. Part of that perfection involved gender. Daily reality had placed men and women in narrow roles and neither gender was free because of what she called, “debased living.”

Note that the original title of Women in the Nineteenth Century had been “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women”; it was originally a series of essays serialized in The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine that Margaret edited for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Effects on marriage

The distortion of the genders in turn, warped the institution of marriage Margaret believed that the dependency of women on men had debased marriage and sex. She remained single for several years until she had a child with Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family. While it is assumed they were married but there is no hard evidence that they did (source: Wikipedia).

Lead by deeds

Placing reform above all else, Margaret felt that women did not necessarily need to rule but to lead by example. In order to do that, it was imperative not to impede the soul. Each man and woman had to be free to realize their full potential, be who they were meant to be.

Benefits to society

This freedom, however, was not meant just to satisfy individual wants. Here Margaret led by example. She denounced not only the treatment of women but African and Native Americans as well. She advocated for reform in prisons, visiting women in Sing Sing in October of 1844 and even staying overnight (source: Wikipedia). She raised concerns for the homeless, especially in New York (Ibid).

On the same page

If you are familiar with Louisa’s beliefs on women and reform, you can see in similarities already between the two women from Matteson’s description of Margaret’s vision.

Louisa’s vision for women and society

Spiritual father …

Louisa came from one of the founders of Transcendentalism, Bronson Alcott. He was all about spirituality, perfection and becoming divine.

… and reformer mother

But she also came from her mother Abba, a pragmatic reformer. Unlike her philosophical husband whose head was in the clouds, Abba practiced her Christianity day to day, often giving to others out of her family’s own want (Bronson practiced this also, believing that God would always provide).

Bronson exuded serenity as he sought to perfect himself. Abba passionately wrestled with life and others to bring forth reform. Her most noteworthy efforts were in Boston in the 1840s as one of the first social workers.

Societal change needed

Coming from such a background, it is no wonder that Louisa felt that society must be reordered. It began with freeing the slaves.

Belief coming from experience

Matteson noted an incident when Louisa was 3 which most likely opened her eyes to African Americans as equals. While living in Boston, she fell into the Frog Pond; she was rescued by a black boy. She notes in her writings that this boy lit the flame of abolition in her heart.

Living out that belief

Throughout her life, Louisa helped her parents shield and transport runaway slaves to Canada; their home in Concord, known then as Hillside, was on the underground railroad.

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

With pride, Louisa notes that she served tea to John Brown’s widow at Orchard House.

An rare open statement

Louisa didn’t usually state her feminist views blatantly in her fiction writing. One exception was Hospital Sketches where she writes, “I’m a woman’s rights woman, and if any man had offered help in the morning, I should have condescendingly refused it, sure that I could do everything as well, if not better, myself.” (from Chapter 1, Hospital Sketches)

Another was a short story, “Happy Women.” This excerpt explains in a nutshell Louisa’s vision for womanly happiness:

This class is composed of superior women who, from various causes, remain single, and devote themselves to some earnest work; espousing philanthropy, art, literature, music, medicine, or whatever task taste, necessity, or chance suggests, and remaining as faithful to and as happy in their choice as married women with husbands and homes.

Subterfuge in her writing

Most of the time she teased out her views in her writing. She would describe the lives of purposeful women who earned their keep and remained independent. Matteson described the importance of work to Louisa saying that life was full of work that needs to be done, and it needs to be done by both sexes.

Becoming the best she can be

Louisa believed as did Margaret that women needed to develop themselves for if a woman developed her talent fully and used it for others, she would be happy. And just as Margaret led by example, so did Louisa, becoming a best-selling author.

Using her bully pulpit

In that position, Louisa could wield a lot of influence and she took every advantage to use it. While Jo March is often cited as the best example of an independent woman, Matteson used the example of Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl who takes her well-off, bored and disgruntled friend Fanny to visit her sisterhood of working, purpose-filled women. Fanny’s life is changed forever after seeing that life could be so much more than the emptiness of parties and fashion.

Giving your best

Louisa was also greatly valued sacrifice. Like Margaret, a woman’s right to reach her potential was not just for herself; she was to give her best to those around her. This belief plays out again and again in her books.

Duty’s faithful child

Bronson distrusted Louisa’s selfless intentions until she became a nurse. When he saw how she was willing to give up her own life for others by nursing, he wrote his famous sonnet to her, “Duty’s Faithful Child.”

Using her right to vote

Matteson ended his lively presentation with an ironic anecdote. Noting that Louisa was the first woman to register and then to vote in Concord, he quipped that the registrar gave her a literacy test! She also was required to sign her name to prove she could write.

It was the one time in her life that she was in a hurry to pay her taxes so she could qualify. :-)

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The vacation of my dreams: 3 days with Louisa May Alcott

What’s your dream for the ultimate summer vacation?

Is it a trip to a new and/or exotic place?

Is it time all to yourself to do whatever you wish?

How about both?

That’s been my dream for many summers and this year, it came true.

New and exotic places

Back in June, our whole family (including two twenty-something children) traveled to Los Angeles to visit with my brother-in-law and his wife. He directs for The Simpsons and has been with the show approximately fifteen years. We did Disneyland, the whole Hollywood thing, and caught up and reconnected with each other. It was wonderful and I still miss them both very much.

Then there was this week.

Doing whatever I wished

I had four days off all to myself as my husband’s vacation time was used up. I indulged in my passion and spent a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation.

It far exceeded all my expectations and stoked the fire of my passion all the more.

How does one spend a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation? If you live near Concord and Cambridge, that’s easy!

Summer Conversation Series

I spent the first two days at Orchard House for their annual Summer Conversation Series. Speakers included Eve LaPlante, (whose new book, Marmee and Louisa The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother will be a blockbuster) and John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.

I will offer individual posts for these two speakers. Their presentations just blew me away!

Becoming part of the family

I got to reconnect with my dear friend Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters and made many new friends.

The best part was being able to spend two days with people as passionate about Louisa as I am. I felt like I was at home.

The picture features, L to R, front: Sylvia Willis and Gabrielle Donnelly; back: Lis Adams, director of Education at Orchard House, and Jan Turnquist, Executive Director.

Affirmation

Feeling incredibly empowered and affirmed in my writing with regards to this blog and the book project I’ve undertaken, I felt like God was shouting at me, “Yes, yes, you can do this, I want you to do this!”

The Summer Conversation Series far exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to share with you highlights from LaPlante’s and Matteson’s presentations.

Detour to Walden

Having taken my kayak, the Sylvia Yule with  me for the trip, I stopped at Walden Pond to observe the place where Henry David Thoreau made his mark.

The pond is small and the water pristine. I saw the cove where Thoreau had built his little house and marveled at the beauty.

The day was incredibly hot and every nook and cranny of the pond was filled with swimmers. Several people were swimming across the pond.

I too did my share of swimming,  never wanting to leave the warm and clear water.

I will have to come back and walk the trail and see the pile of stones where  Thoreau’s house once stood.

The Holy Grail – Houghton Library

Next it was the long-awaited trip to Houghton Library at Harvard University. I have longed to go there ever since I visited the Special Collections room at the Concord Library (see previous posts, part one and part two).

Shaky knees!

I was excited and scared all at once. Harvard is the home to some of the greatest scholars in the world. Who was I to go visit their library? I was surprised when I got to the train station and found my knees literally shaking! (It didn’t help that station had a huge, long, drop to the bottom where the subway was and the escalator was excruciatingly slow! I felt like I did sitting in a seat in the back row of an old theatre, where you feel pitched forward, really to fall into the audience. It was terrifying!)

The grounds where giants walked

Arriving at Harvard, I felt a surge wash over me as I thought of all the great minds that had walked the campus, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. The courtyard was crowded with students and visitors from all over the world.

They are now my family

Little Women illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Upon arriving at the library, I sat down in the reading room and ordered the first batch of papers that I wanted to read.

The first time I read papers handwritten by Louisa (back at the Concord Library), it felt mystical, spiritual. This time as I read diaries by Anna and Lizzie, it felt like I was reading the words of family members.

And I knew The Alcott family was now an integral part of my family.

Details coming …

In the next post, I’ll share details of Eve LaPlante’s reading of her new book. Mark November 6 on your calendar (and not just because it’s Election Day!) – her book will be available then.

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