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

I am very excited about this since I live an hour out of Boston. There are already many sites in Boston that are related to the Alcotts but having a literary cultural district is very cool. Here is more information about that effort:

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

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

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

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses

October 2003 20 Pinkney Street, Boston where the Alcotts lived in 1853
Photos by Kim Wells, October 2003, editor Domestic Goddesses

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

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

And Louisa bought a fine home in Louisberg Square:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part four: The All-American Novel makes a cherished dream come true

COVERLittle did Louisa May Alcott know that when she wrote Little Women, her classic book based upon her own family life and their “queer” adventures, she was writing the story that was on the heart of all Americans.

Universal family

It was time when American yearned for its own literature, its own family. The March family was quintessential New England and yet their story transcended New England, having, as Madeleine Stern put it, “a more universal reality than that of a single village.”

The emerging adolescent

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenCharacters were composites, real people sprinkled with fiction. For the first time teenaged readers met themselves: adolescent characters navigating through the daily trials and triumphs, emerging into adulthood.

Four different journeys

Meg begins her own family with John. Jo strikes out on her own as a working woman and writer, living far away from home New York City. Amy evolves into a woman of grace, leaving behind selfish impulses and eventually leading Laurie to his better self. Beth was not destined to enter the world of adults but left behind an example and a spirit that guided her sister Jo to a place where she could reconcile her ambitions with her love of family.

Universal home

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Stern writes, “Then the families of the nation might open the door of Hillside to find not the Marches, but themselves waiting within. Under the roof of one New England home, they would see all the homes of America.”

Surviving manuscript

Writing at astonishing speed (completing one chapter each day), Louisa filled the lined blue papers with a story “that knew no bounds of geography, no limits of time.” Some of this manuscript survives, ready for viewing in the Special Collections room at the Concord Library.

Determined spinster

Louisa_May_AlcottPart two of Little Women, dubbed Good Wives, was written not at Orchard House but in Boston on Brookline Street. The demands of readers were great, such was the price of success, a success she had dreamed of since being a teenager herself. Yes, the girls would marry even though she wished that Jo could have remained like herself, a “literary spinster.” It was not from lack of suitors. George Bartlett, a fellow actor in the local theatricals, offered his help in reading the proofs of the first part of the book and his help was gratefully accepted. His attentions upon the “chronic old maid,” however were politely rebuffed.

A fancy hotel and a simple story

FileHotelBellevue-Boston-BlueBook1905.pngMoving with May into the new Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street, Louisa continue work on the second half of the book while receiving her first royalties totally three hundred dollars for three thousand copies sold. Here she relived the pain of Lizzie’s death, brought Amy and Laurie together in a boat they would pull together and had Professor Bhaer serenade Jo with the song Louisa herself had sung for Mr. Emerson.

Dream come true

Stern writes, “Devoutly Louisa hoped that the new year of 1869 would bring to the Orchard House a happy harvesting from the tears and laughter she had sowed in the book where she had found her style at last.” It would come to pass with a harvest pressed down, shaken together, and running over, as it says in the scriptures. “The long-standing hurts were healed, the reception of the March family into the hearts of New England proved a timely restorative to one who had created that family.”

Dreams do come true (just ask any Red Sox fan!).

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Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part one

madeleine stern lmaI have always maintained that Madeleine B. Stern’s Louisa May Alcott: A Biography is the standard bearer. Tracing the life of Louisa the writer, Stern gives penetrating insight not only into Louisa’s life, but her very essence as a writer. As a writer myself, I have found much wisdom in these pages and have marveled at Louisa’s ability to “simmer a story” in her head while fulfilling duties around the house, and then sitting down later to spill it out, completed on paper, without editing. I try emulate the simmering part, at least, often working out what I want to write vocally as I am driving (yes, I’m one of those crazies you see on the highway, arms flying, face animated with talk. I love my hour long commute!).

The birth of Little Women

little women norton versionRecently I was going through Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) and found Stern’s brilliant chapter on the creation and writing of Little Women. I felt like I was reading it for the first time. I knew I just had to share what I found with you.

Oliver_Optic_-_All_AdriftStern relays the facts of the birth of Little Women, how Thomas Niles of Roberts Bros. urged Louisa to try her hand at a girl’s book, hoping to duplicate the runaway success of the “Oliver Optic” series for boys. I had always wondered why he approached Louisa as she didn’t have any direct experience in writing for juveniles and Stern reveals why:

“She [Louisa] have proved her ability to report observations in Hospital Sketches; she had indicated her powers of appealing to juvenile readers in her editorship of  Merry’s Museum. Could not Miss Alcott combine both talents in a domestic novel that would reflect American life for the enjoyment of American youth? (pg. 434, Little Women, Norton Edition).

Louisa’s unique abilities

merry's museum 1868Louisa saw no trick in writing for children: simply tell the truth. Describe life as it is, using the real language of children (slang and all). For Louisa, it was a simple calculation. Wisely deciding to write what she knew, she drew upon the rich history of her own childhood.

A model family

Stern describes Bronson’s ideal of the “happy, kind and loving family, a home where peace and gentle quiet abode.” (Ibid, pg. 435). Little Women was to be the depiction of that ideal home. Although the Alcott home life was often be fraught with anxiety and chaos due to poverty, there was plenty to build upon in Little Women based upon the ideal that they attempted to live. On occasion, that ideal did play out.

Knowing their angels

Bronson and Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in Louisa’s ability to relate to children; Waldo, who had seen a teenaged Louisa tell stories to his children, had called her the “poet of children, who knew their angels” (Ibid). Certainly Bronson had something to gain by Louisa’s agreeing to write the story as Robert Bros. promised to publish his book, Tablets, if she agreed. But he had urged her for years to write good stories for children as the nurturing of the minds of the young was nearest and dearest to his heart. If he could no longer do it, perhaps his daughter could take up the mantle through her gift with a story.

Where to begin

Stern writes, “The door was Hillside’s.  Could Louisa open it, recover those despised recollections of childhood, and find in the biography of one foolish person the miniature paraphrase of the hundred volumes of the universal history?” (Ibid)

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

We shall see. To be continued.

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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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Much-needed repairs to The Wayside will close the historic house for two years

Be aware if you are visiting Concord: The Wayside, once known as Hillside to the Alcotts, will be closed for renovations for the next two years. Minuteman National Park which maintains the home has acquired the much-needed funds to effect repairs. Neighborhood walking tours will be given for free by the Wayside tour guides as the work continues.

Here’s a portion of the article by the National Park Service, courtesy of the Concord Patch:

The Wayside, Home of Authors, Closed for Repairs

While the house is closed, NPS rangers will give free neighborhood walking tours.

10-wayside pretty view

The following information was provided by Minute Man National Historical Park.

Do you know what site with literary associations was the first to be preserved by the National Park Service? Do you know where Louisa May Alcott wrote her first published work? Do you know the location of the only home ever owned by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

If you answered The Wayside on Lexington Road in Concord, you would be correct. As part of Minute Man National Historical Park since 1965, it has welcomed visitors for five decades. Now, it will be closed for two years while undergoing much-needed repairs.

Work will include replacing all of the cedar roof shingles, repairing the metal roof on “Hawthorne’s Tower” and replacing the metal roof on the piazza (porch), replacing gutters and downspouts, repointing the stone foundation, repairing the chimneys, restoring ceilings and walls, and replacement of historic wallpaper and carpet.

Click here for the rest of the article.

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Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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My 3 days with Louisa (part 5): Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

My last of three days with Louisa was spent in the most intimate fashion, buried in papers written by the hands of her sisters and father at the Houghton Library at Harvard Square in Cambridge.

What is Houghton like?

Unlike Harvard’s main library, the Grand Dame known as Widener, Houghton is the little sister tucked away behind the Dame. It is formal, yet cozy.

All are welcome

Registering for a pass was simple and quick; Houghton truly welcomes anyone with a sincere desire to learn. After receiving my card, I was ushered into the reading room which was filled with students and scholars lost in research.

Seeing Lizzie’s diary

At last I would get to see what I had been longing for: Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s diary at Hillside. Except for a few short letters, this diary is the only record of length from the “shadow sister.” She began writing it at age eleven.

Difficulty getting beneath the surface

Biographers have had a hard time cracking the nut that is Lizzie. Harriet Reisen in Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women writes:

“The third Alcott daughter is impossible to pin down. She appears never to have asked anything of anybody or of life itself.” (pg. 140, ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)

Commenting directly on the Hillside dairy, Madelon Bedell in The Alcotts Biography of a Family writes:

“One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling and never find it.

So it is too with the girl herself. It was all hidden behind the serene countenance, the robust rosy features and the evasive blue eyes …” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Perhaps they were looking for the wrong thing.

What I saw

I haven’t yet poured over all of Lizzie’s diary but the reading so far has told me this much:

  • Lizzie liked order in her life.
    Anna wrote in her diary, “”I think I love order and so does my sister Elizabeth.” (from Scituate July 1839, Monday the 25th, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library).
  • Her small, precise and consistently neat handwriting portrays a little girl who was self-contained and conscientious; it suggests a very even temperament (just my opinion, I’m no handwriting expert!)
  • Math was one of her favorite subjects.
    Although I’ve only read a few pages so far, she mentions several times doing “sums in Division.” She writes, “I came into studies and did a few sums in Division. I like to do them very much. It does me some good to do them.” (Hillside, Concord, June 24, 1845, MS Am 1130.9 (24) Houghton Library)
    Lizzie was said to be good at playing the piano; often musicians are good mathematicians. The understanding of music theory comes a lot more easily to a mathematical mind. This is why I call my math genius husband the “official” musician in our house because of his thorough knowledge of music theory. Math baffles me, and so does music theory which is why I play music strictly by ear.
  • Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

    She loved flowers and dolls.
    Lizzie writes of picking flowers and playing with her “dollies” on numerous occasions in her diary. I disagree with Bedell that she showed no “reaction” in her writings; her reactions were subtle. It was plain to this reader anyway that Lizzie appreciated beauty and derived pleasure from picking and studying flowers (recall the Botony report she wrote for Louisa’s family newspaper, The Olive Leaf).

  • She enjoyed observing the world around her and wrote precise notes.
    For a girl who supposedly didn’t have a lot to say, Lizzie wrote detailed entries in her diary.
  • She was very happy at Hillside.
    Lizzie doesn’t have to say that she was happy – it is obvious in the day-to-day rhythm of activities that she describes. Again the even temperament is very evident.
  • She looked upon keeping a journal as a daily homework assignment rather than as a way to express herself; I wonder if she would have done it were it not required of her.
    Several times she mentions writing in her journal because her father asked it of her. Her diary ends with “I now have finished my journal and am going to give it to Mother.” She had fulfilled her obligation.

Intensely private

The open sharing of journals and diaries between family members was commonplace yet Lizzie was uncomfortable with the idea, often refusing. Bedell writes,

“She was too shy to read her earnest, noncommittal little record, even to her parents and sisters.” (pg. 248, The Alcotts Biography of a Family)

Is there a possibility that the more ordinary Lizzie was intimated by the genius that surrounded her? I know how I am around my older sister whom I revere for her take-charge attitude and capableness – I become like mush and always defer. Lizzie, I get you!

A developing theory

These are certainly not earth-shattering (nor original) revelations. It does however, fuel a theory I’ve been simmering in my head: Lizzie was a normal girl of average ability surrounded by, buried by, intense genius. Biographers are looking for that same spark that flickered in Anna, bloomed in May and roared like a bonfire in Louisa. Surely since Lizzie came from the same stock, she’d have that spark of brilliance too.

Not necessarily.

In my household of four, we have three members who are somewhat eccentric and artistic, obsessing over our passions. We live in our own worlds.

The fourth member is the opposite. She has her finger on the pulse of this world and keeps us grounded in it.

Perhaps Lizzie played that role too. I look forward to finding out more as I continue to read her diary.

In the next post I want to share things I found in Anna’s diary. It makes me want to go back for a lot more in my next visit to the “Holy Grail” that is Houghton Library. :-)

Click to Tweet & Share: Houghton Library introduces me to Lizzie Alcott – up close and personal

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

Why is Louisa’s voice so powerful in my life? A childhood recollection

It’s been slow at work the last couple of days so I’ve been able to indulge in reading and research (one of the best perks of my job). It gave me a chance to revisit one of the first biographies I read on Louisa, Louisa May Alcott by Katharine Anthony. Published in 1937, it was one of the early biographies aimed at adults.

I’ve been considering submiting a proposal to Orchard House’s annual Summer Conversational Series, the theme being “Legacy of a Powerful Voice.” There is no doubt Louisa’s voice has been powerful in my life but I never could really pinpoint why.

Anthony’s biography reminded me, especially with the chapter on Louisa’s years at Hillside.

The happy years

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Hillside has always been my favorite period in Louisa’s life. There was stability, harmony, joy and freedom, even some normalcy in the life of the family. She herself refers to the Hillside years as the happiest. It is during this period that I see parallels between her and me that explain why she speaks to my heart so powerfully.

A room of one’s own

The first was Louisa getting her own room. A space to call one’s own was important to both of us. I finally got my own room at around the same age and it meant the world to me. Going through my “horse phase” at the time unlocked my creativity and I expressed it in a variety of ways, beginning with filling my new room with pictures of horses that I drew.

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

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was my favorite book and love of that story spurred me on to write my own sequel. It was such fun writing that book that I wrote others. I had also discovered my other favorite book, The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard and I pictured the illustration of Louisa sitting in her “Poet’s Corner” writing stories. I felt a kinship with her.

Best friends

Anthony mentions that one of Louisa’s best friends was a neighborhood boy, Cyrus Hosmer whom she had met earlier while staying at the Hosmer Cottage. Louisa spoke of him fondly saying, “Cy was a comrade after my own heart.” My first best friend was also a boy who lived next door. While Louisa and Cyrus enjoyed wild physical escapades, Dolph and I enjoyed our adventures through our imaginations. Dolph was exceedingly intelligent,  having an imagination that just wouldn’t quit. We could entertain each other for hours on end. Every other friend seemed boring by comparison.


Louisa first started acting back at Still River (just after Fruitlands). Illustration by Flora Smith.

Like Louisa I loved putting on plays.  I organized all the theatricals and while we didn’t have Hillside’s barn, we did have our basement.. We’d stage our favorite fairy tales  (mine was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where I played the Wicked Queen).

Spies, stories and fashion

As I grew older, this playacting continued through a friendship with the smartest girl in the school who matched Dolph in the imagination department. The other kids made fun of her (and I had too) because she was so unusual but once I got to know her, I knew we would enjoy many an adventure. Playing the part of exotic British spies a la Diana Rigg in The Avengers, Kathy and I would spend whole days acting out impromptu TV episodes. We wrote plays together, and we pretended we were fashion designers, designing our own book of exotic clothes.

Tomboy in name only

I only wished I had been athletically inclined like Louisa. I wasn’t well coordinated and it made me very cautious when it came to climbing trees and other physical activities. I envied Louisa’s daring but alas, could only live her escapades in my dreams.

Hillside as a haven

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

After re-reading Katharine Anthony’s biography, I could see why Louisa counted her years at Hillside as her happiest. It was the one time in her life when she could truly be herself, and it was before she would take on the heavy mantle of family provider.

Anthony used the words “fierce,” “hoyden,” and “wild” to describe Louisa; I would say she had a personality that was bigger than life. She was permitted to live a life that freed her as much as possible from convention and duty. Free to run and romp, she had the license to work out her physical and emotional energies. She was also given space to indulge in her rich inner life which produced a flurry of stories and plays. Nature’s expanse and beauty continually revived her spirits, and best of all, her dear family was living in harmony.

I too had those advantages. Around the same age as Louisa, I reveled in mine as she did in hers.

Joan Howard’s biography became very dog-eared. Every time I read the chapter on Hillside I would relive those happy memories. I would then finish the book and dream bigger dreams.

What’s your connection to Louisa?
How has her voice been powerful in your life?

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Quirky Wayside offers a wealth of history: the architecture

When you think about all the different people who lived at The Wayside over the years, it’s no wonder the house has gone through so many changes. Here are some of the more significant ones:

Home of a minuteman

The earliest known date for The Wayside is  c.1700 and was a typical two story, wood frame New England farmhouse (see the official The Wayside website). The front door was where the bay window in the front is now. At some point in the 1700s, Minuteman Samuel Whitney, his wife and children occupied the house. Ceilings inside were low to retain heat and as mentioned by my tour guide, must have been difficult for Whitney who was quite tall. It’s possible he have had to bend over in the rooms! Apparently three current day relatives of Whitney have visited the house and they have had to bend over in some of the rooms.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Home of the Alcotts

In 1845, The Wayside went under its first major renovation with the Alcotts. Bronson enlarged the house by taking a shed, dividing it in two, and attaching it on either end of the house. He also added a portico over the front door. He landscaped the ridge with beautiful terraces which, if you know what to look for, can still be seen today.

Louisa’s own room

The addition allowed for Louisa and Anna to have their own rooms. This was the first time Louisa had her own room and it had a door out to the back where she could run off as she wished into the meadows and up the ridge, flying kites, working off energy by running and whatever else her healthy and strong body would allow.

Louisa in her own room at Hillside, drawn by Flora Smith for Joan Howard's "The Story of Louisa May Alcott" c. 1955.

The room was small but it was very dear to Louisa who longed to have a special place of solitude where she could write her stories. When I read my first Louisa biography as a child (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard) I remember  feeling a strong sense of empathy for Louisa and her desire for a special room of her own where she could let her imagination fly.

The room is now a hallway with a window but I could still feel the energy of Louisa there and took a snapshot of the window just to have it :-).

Home to the Hawthornes

The Alcotts occupied The Wayside for 3 years and then had to move to Boston so that Abba could find work to support the family. The house was sold to Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852 where he lived with his family once they had returned from Europe (for a short time, the Alcotts re-occupied a portion of the house while Orchard House was being renovated. The Hawthornes were in Europe during that time.)

A sanctuary

Here’s where the Wayside changed significantly in appearance. The Hawthornes moved the front door to the side, and replaced the original front door with a bay window. A second story was added to the wing which originally housed Louisa’s room, and her room became a hallway with a staircase leading to the second and third floors (thus the window replacing her door). Nathaniel had a 3-story square tower added to the back of the house, using the third floor with its cathedral ceiling as his writing chamber. Unfortunately the troubles of the day (the impending Civil War) impeded his ability to write.

Home to a future saint?

Nathaniel’s daughter Rose Hawthorne Lathrop achieved a notoriety of her own. Rose’s life was marred with tragedy with the death of her young son, and her marriage was an unhappy one. After the death of her husband, Rose joined the convent, eventually founding a Dominican Order which cared for poor cancer patients. Known as Mother Mary Alphonsa, she is on her way to being canonized as a saint.

Home to Margaret Sidney

Nathaniel died in 1864 and the house was sold in 1870. The last major family to purchase the home were the Lothrops, who purchased The Wayside in 1883. Harriet Lothrop, also known as Margaret Sidney, wrote the 5 Peppers series for children; she was married to her publisher, Daniel Lothrop.

The Lothrops modernized the house with town water in 1883, central heating in 1888, and electric lighting in 1904, as well as adding a large piazza on the west side in 1887 (from Wikipedia, The Wayside). The home today reflects the decor of 1904 and retains many original pieces of furniture from the Lothrops and Hawthornes. There are even original light bulbs from the period.

Preserved for the ages

Perhaps the greatest contribution that both Harriet and Margaret Lothrop made to the town of Concord was the preservation of several important historical properties including Orchard House and of course, The Wayside (Margaret Lothrop saves the Wayside; Harriet Lothrop, aka Margaret Sidney, saves homes in Concord). The photo below captures a newspaper article on display at The Wayside with details of the saving of Orchard House.

Louisa at the "Wishing Wheel", drawn by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard c. 1955.

An important home for Louisa

The Wayside captured my imagination and was as interesting to visit as Orchard House. The “Hillside” period of Louisa’s life was always my favorite part of her childhood as she truly began to recognize her gifts as actress, playwright and author. That strength of character that made all of her dreams possible began to exert itself in those teenage years. Joan Howard writes that Louisa made 3 wishes on the “Wishing Wheel”, an old wheel found in the meadow at the top of the ridge. Those wishes were for money, fame, and a tour of Europe, all of which were realized in her lifetime. “Hillside” was the site of many of the escapades in Little Women; seeing this house made those stories come alive even more.

Answers to the quiz

Here are the answers to the quiz from the last post:

  1. Name the minuteman who occupied The Wayside in the early 1700s. Samuel Whitney
  2. How many of the published authors out of the 12 can you name (I’ve only been able to name 6 so far)?
    These are the 6 I could think of: Louisa May Alcott, Bronson Alcott, May Alcott Nieriker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Margaret Sidney
  3. Who was the woman who would eventually become one of the first social workers in Boston? Abba May Alcott
  4. Name the two women activists. Mother and daughter: Abba and Louisa May Alcott
  5. Who would eventually go off to service in the Civil War as a nurse? Louisa May Alcott
  6. Name the philosopher. Bronson Alcott
  7. Which daughter of a famous author was to become a nun on the road to sainthood? What was her name as a nun and what order did she found? What charitable work did they perform? Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Mother Mary Alphonsa, Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, caring for poor cancer patients
  8. Which two women fought to preserve several key historical homes in Concord? Which homes were saved? Harriet and Margaret Lothrop (Harriet Lothrop is the author Margaret Sidney)
  9. One of the women preservationists taught at a famous college – who was it and what was the name of the college? Margaret Lothrop, she taught for many years at Stanford University.

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