2014 Summer Conversational Series: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius

john matteson1The Conversational series welcomed back a perennial favorite in John Matteson whose Pulitzer-prize winning book Eden’s Outcasts is a standard in Alcott scholarship. He has also written a fine book on Margaret Fuller called The Lives of Margaret Fuller; she was the focus of his presentation entitled “ ‘The Mind in the Full Glow of Power’: Margaret Fuller and the Problem of Female Genius.”

Was Fuller a genius?

Fuller tackled an age-old problem: was genius for men alone? Although Fuller was probably the best-educated woman in America, she denied herself the mantle of genius. It was a source of great consternation to her; more on that a little later.

The evolving definition of genius

Matteson gave a brief history of the definition of “genius” and how it has evolved over the centuries. It was originally associated with pagan belief (coming from a more magic realm) and was considered contrary to the scriptures. It was generally believed that Genius was a personal god, directing the individual, a belief that endured in Fuller’s time. The meaning then morphed into what was considered a “good” genius versus an evil genius. Some felt genius was influenced by the stars.

The root of genius

Matteson pointed out that Genius and Genesis have the same root; Genesis only allows for one genius, God. Genius is polytheistic, each person having it. Therefore, Genius was considered a heresy since it was perceived to be against God.

Influence of Romanticism

samuel taylor coleridgeThe Romantic Movement influenced the change in the definition of genius. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a major influence in the Transcendental Movement, had a lot to say about genius, following up on Kant. Coleridge connected genius to the spiritual and the artistic. Talent was appropriating the knowledge of others whereas genius was original.

Genius and Transcendentalism

Genius to the Transcendentalist was divine in origin. Coleridge felt that genius needed be controlled whereas Emerson saw no need for genius to be hindered. Coleridge felt that genius was for men only but there were feminine traits. Genius is meant to inspire awe and the sublime; thus the results of genius were large and by nature, public, which placed it out of reach of women who never meant to be in the public sphere.

Unfulfilled potential

Fuller’s father was responsible for her incredible education but then felt he had created a “monster” and set her off to finishing school. Although she edited The Dial for Emerson’s Transcendental community, she was never paid for her work. Once she reached New York she was hired by a major newspaper as a correspondent. It was there that her gifts were finally appreciated and compensated.

Was there a genius to be found in America?

margaret fullerFuller felt that America had yet to produce a poetic genius. American literature and knowledge was yet to be respected. She felt that America’s diversity hindered its growth (moral and intellectual) with regards to talent and the higher pursuits. She did not find her criteria of genius being met in any American woman.

Fertile ground for genius

Transcendentalism felt that genius was the ultimate goal; Affiliated with this movement, Fuller used her conversation classes to cultivate and seek out genius in women. She discussed the meaning of gender thoroughly along with the question of genius. She also took up the quest of education for women. She did not see a lot of difference between what girls learned versus what boys learned but as Matteson pointed out, her training was unique. In general the education of girls was broader and shallower. Men were expected to “reproduce” what they learned; this is neglected for women. Fuller took up conversations to cultivate and grow education for women so that they too could “reproduce.”

Fear of genius

Female education led in the opposite direction from genius; male education cultivated talent but not genius. Creating something original was not encouraged, perhaps a leftover bias from the religious culture due to fear of the intellect.

Was genius moral?

Fuller maintained that genius demanded two forces – mad passion and ordered consistency. Genius was not merely to be held in awe but to be feared. While Channing held that genius was the highest order of good, Fuller believed there was a moral indifference with genius sometimes delighting in evil. It occurred to me that if genius was considered amoral, even evil, it would make sense why society would not associate it with women who were commissioned to tame their men and make them adhere to moral values. How could a woman do that and be a genius?

No women geniuses?

the lives of margaret fullerFuller believed that a woman should cultivate her talents and intellect. A female genius was possible but she never was able to identify any woman as such. As an example, Fuller was well versed with music but could not name a woman composer.

Genius out of reach?

Fuller did not believe she was a genius despite the fact that she felt herself to be one of the greatest minds in the country. This was devastating to her. Her father saw the potential and crammed her head with everything possible. Her sense of self and her emotional well-being depended on the growth of her potential. She did not see herself however as original and this was very hard for her.

Did no one measure up?

Transcendentalism was infused with the binary, such as genius versus talent, finite versus infinite, etc. In Emerson’s mind one had to be a genius to be a part of his circle; therefore he obviously felt that Fuller was a genius. Fuller tasted all the loneliness of being exceptional but never the satisfaction of being exceptional. If she was not a genius, could anyone achieve it? Her own mind was the yardstick, the utmost development of the female mind and yet she did not believe herself to be a genius; thus there were no women she could call a genius.

Promoting genius

If Fuller could not be a genius, she would promote others who were, using her writing skills; she became a critic (he critic is the younger sibling of genius). She believed as a critic that she must be well-versed in all the forms she critiqued. For example, she could not critique a poem if she was unable to write one herself. The critic must be very observant. Fuller was the chief critic for a NY publication.

The ideal for women and men

Like many women, Fuller believed women were imprisoned by being subservient; she also believed that men too were imprisoned because of this concept. Her ideal was that men and women would relate to each other as equal partners so that both could be freed from convention (something Louisa desired, writing about it in Work A Story of Experience through the marriage of Christie and David). Parties would meet mind to mind; mutual trust would be needed. Seeing marriage as an intellectual communion, it would become a pilgrimage. Fuller married later in life (though a legal marriage has never been confirmed) to Giovanni Ossoli, a younger man she met as a foreign correspondent in Italy. One wonders if she found that intellectual communion she sought in a partner and how that marriage would have fared had she lived longer; tragically she, Giovanni and their baby were drowned in a shipwreck.

Can each of us possess a little genius?

As all of us listened, wondering if genius existed in us or perhaps lamenting that it did not, Matteson ended his presentation on a hopeful note: Fuller did not believe one had to be a genius to possess genius. It is entirely possible to cultivate our own genius.

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Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – the role of Faust

560 steve burby1Continuing with the Monday sessions, Dr. Stephen Burby was a new face on the scene. He currently teaches English in Brentwood, NY and has authored of AP English Language and Composition: An Apex Learning Guide (2004 and 2005 editions) as well as contributing to the production of editions in Barron’s No-Fear Shakespeare series and to their latest edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Faust, Goethe and Louisa

His topic, “Goethe and the Transcendendalists: How Faust Shaped the American Renaissance” traced the history of the Faust myth from its beginnings and through its evolution by the pens of Christopher Marlow, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and finally, Louisa May Alcott.

The myth, the man, the devil

faust and the devilThrough the characters of Johann Faust and the Devil (aka Mephistopheles), the myth began as a folk tale that was used by the Church (mainly the Calvinists) to warn the faithful against the intellectuals and the idea of the individual which could lead anyone into hell. Aimed at the working man, Burby described how the people wanted a “quick laugh”, a “quick tear” and the didactic lesson. In other words, keep it simple. Faust therefore represented the everyman; his fate could be anyone’s fate.

The story

So what did Faust do? Desiring youth and wealth, he sold his soul to the devil in return for twenty-seven years of youth and the “good life.” In the end the devil would have his way with Faust torn to shreds and his soul carted away to hell.

Not exactly subtle, but it served the particular historical period from which it came.

Deeper meaning

560 steve burby2Burby maintains that Faust speaks to us universally which is why the tale was explored more deeply and expanded, first by Christopher Marlowe and then by Goethe.

Marlowe’s take

Marlowe changed the legend in a subtle way by exploring the inner turmoil of Faust who comes to regret his bargain with the devil. The ending remained the same but the torture of Faust was more profound.

Goethe deepens the myth

Goethe took the story a step further. Burby suggested that Goethe was one of the “rock stars” of the era because of his poetry. By the time he took on Faust, it had lived out its usefulness and was often viewed as parody. By using Faust as the jumping off point, he transformed the legend using Faust and the devil as metaphors for striving versus stasis. Goethe not only has Faust repenting of his sin of bargaining with the devil, he also allows Faust to escape his fate. His point was to promote the idea that striving for knowledge, both for the mind and of the self, was important. Stasis was considered “evil” because of its prevention of indivdiual growth and creativity. This was the emerging German romanticism which eventually made its way over to New England, spawning the Transcendentalist movement.

Faust’s salvation and God’s role

Burby described the eternal feminine in the character of Gretchen whom Faust was madly in love with. It is through Gretchen that Faust finds his salvation. Burby also mentioned the comparison between this version of the legend and the story of Job in the Old Testament. In both cases, God makes a deal with the devil regarding the victim. God puts his stamp of approval on both Job and Faust thus justifying the need for struggle and striving.

Thus the legend of Faust has moved from concrete to the symbolic. What did Louisa do with the story?

A pleasure to indulge

Louisa enjoyed writing her “trash,” her potboilers, giving her a chance to express a side of herself she could not express in public. It was a creative vent for her passion, anger, sense of injustice, and for romance.

Two stories based on the myth

long fatal love chase2She devoted two books to the subject of Faust: A Long, Fatal Love-Chase and A Modern Mephistopheles. In each case she wrote about Faustian bargain more explicitly. The latter was discovered in the 1990s and published to great success; the story had been considered too risqué in Louisa’s time. In the story, Rosamond makes a deal with the devil for a year of adventure and Phillip Tempest comes along. When she realizes she cannot save him, she seeks to escape him. The novel turns from the legend to a gothic chase in which the heroine dies in the end. Phillip however suffers the harsher fate knowing he will never be reunited with his lover again.

The most lurid of them all

a modern mephistophelesA Modern Mephistopheles was published anonymously as part of a series in 1877, allowing Louisa to indulge in the lurid which she so enjoyed. The story deals with lust, deception and greed, touching on the controversial with references to sexuality and drug use, the deal is made between the starving poet Felix Canaris and the devil, Jaspar Hellwyze. The poet becomes celebrated and then lives a desolute life. It turns out he never wrote the poetry in the first place so he takes his name off the volume to free himself. The devil falls in love with the poet’s wife Gladys and feels remorse over the havoc he caused.

How much of Louisa was in the story?

Burby posed an interesting question: could A Modern Mephistopheles be about Louisa and her art? Do each of the four central characters represent parts of her whole?

As masculinity was thought to have created evil, it was also believed that it needed to be tempered by the eternal feminine. Louisa, being “masculine” in her thinking, often longing to be a boy, was right in the middle of this conflict. Her father complicated matters by exhibiting more feminine traits than his daughter. While I haven’t read A Modern Mephistopheles it would be interesting to approach it with this thought in mind.

Needless to say, Dr. Burby challenged all of us with his excellent and spirited presentation.

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A clash of civilizations, a loss of one’s heritage, and the courage to change: A review of Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Note: When Amy Belding Brown asked me to review her latest book, I jumped at the chance; Mr. Emerson’s Wife had been a game-changing book for me. I smiled when I read of her interest in finding out more about Puritan life since Transcendentalism, explored in her previous book, was a strong reaction to that life. I had the same curiosity. Knowing about the beliefs of New Englanders in the beginning enriches the history and understanding of Transcendentalism and all other religious history in New England. A piece of trivia as well: John Hoar who figures in this book originally owned Orchard House nearly two hundred years before Bronson Alcott purchased it. Hoar sheltered Indians on his property; future generations of Hoars were neighbors of the Alcotts.

See the end of this review for a book giveaway!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

amy belding brown latte shop-1The last time I saw Amy Belding Brown, we were having coffee at a shop in the center of picturesque Grafton, Massachusetts talking about Mr. Emerson’s Wife (see previous post). It turns out Brown had lived in my hometown all this time and I never knew. At that get-together she talked about a new historical novel she was working on which covered the period of King Phillip’s War. Having no knowledge of that war I was to discover that in fact, that period of history was right on my doorstep, not only in the present, but in my past as well.

Setting

flight of the sparrowFlight of the Sparrow, set for release on July 1, goes back to the beginning of the Puritan settlement in Massachusetts, using historical fiction to portray the devastating consequences of the epic clash between the English and the Native American. The setting is King Phillip’s war, taking place in the mid 1670’s; its consequences are played out through one Puritan woman and one Nipmuc man.

Main characters

Mary Rowlandson was the wife of a minister in the town of Lancaster. Brown’s main character is based upon a real-life woman whose experiences are documented in a book she co-wrote called The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed, Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (available here as text and here as ebook). This religious memoir of her three months as an Indian captive was the first “best-seller” in English America (pg. 329).

James Printer, also known as Wowaus, came from Hassanamesit, a Praying Indian settlement founded by John Elliot who translated the Bible for the Indians to aid in their conversion to Christianity. The remains of Hassanemesit are located in my hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts.

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James Printer helped to set the type for the first edition of Mary Rowlandson’s book. For a time after the war he resided in the sole remaining Praying Indian settlement, Natick, just one town over from my childhood home of Wellesley.

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Summary of story

After the town of Lancaster is attacked and burned, Mary is taken captive along with her three children by the Nipmuc tribe (her husband Joseph was away at the time). In the course of the battle, her sister Elizabeth is wounded and then killed by fire, Mary herself is wounded, and her youngest daughter Sarah is also wounded mortally; she would die several days later as the captives are led away bound with rope. Mary carries Sarah as far as she can, struggling to ease her daughter’s pain, knowing there is nothing she could do to save her. Adding to her burden is her separation from her other daughter Marie and son Joss.

Living in sheer terror from moment to moment during that march, Mary experiences unexpected kindness from James Printer, who frees her from the rope around her neck. It would prove to be the first of several encounters for Mary with this mysterious, handsome and compassionate man.

Collision of cultures

During the first half of Flight of the Sparrow, Brown describes Mary’s captivity, weaving in detailed, colorful and honest descriptions of Native American life. Presenting the beauty and nobility along with the cruelty, Brown brings us into the increasing turmoil of Mary’s mind and heart. Terrified of and angry with her captives one moment, she finds herself admiring their way of life in the next. She gradually accepts Indian ways, from the freestyle way of dress to time spent outdoors, finding solace in the beauty that had before eluded her. She experiences the growing pains of a personal horizon expanding, a heart growing, and the old orderly and rigid ways of her life slowly falling away. In her captivity she discovers a freedom of movement and thought denied to her as a Puritan woman. It is a freedom she will sorely miss when she returns to English society. She is frightened to discover that her rock-solid Christian faith, regimented by spoken prayers and long scripture passages, is failing her. In the end she tries to bargain with James Printer to stay with the tribe when her time to be ransomed arrives.

Personal involvement

There is of course one other problem: Mary has developed feelings for James and the feelings are mutual. She is able to talk with him freely, expressing herself in ways she never could with her husband Joseph. She finds herself thinking of him and wishing to stay with him despite her status as a married woman.

Inner turmoil

Brown does an excellent job of presenting the moral dilemmas Mary faces both in her captivity and her restoration to the English. I struggled with her status as a slave and the cruelty she endured and yet rejoiced too at the unexpected generosity and kindness of the captors towards that slave. I empathized with Mary’s painful and yet exhilarating transformation as she grew to accept and then love her life with the Indians. I mourned as she was separated from James, the man she truly loved, having to return to the oppressive life she led with Joseph, whom she no longer loved. I felt her grief over Sarah and her concern for her other missing children, her longing to be back with the Indians and her surprising loss of personal freedom as she returned to her old life of repression, rules and propriety. I mourned the loss of her faith and her inability to transcend her Puritan ingraining which favored the letter of the law over than the spirit. While she was able to embrace that all peoples are children of God thus deserving respect and compassion, she could not see that God himself existed beyond the Bible and spoken prayers.

Turmoil of a nation

The empathy did not stop with the individual characters. Brown expands that empathy to an entire nation of people who, because they lost King Phillip’s war to the English, had their way of life taken from them. Although Brown is equally honest regarding the horrific actions of both sides in the war, the consequences for the Indians prove to be the most heartbreaking.

The value of the story

The depth of research that went into the creation of Flight of the Sparrow was evident in the compelling and authentic telling of the story. Brown is not hemmed in by the facts but rather uses those facts as a means of letting her imagination create a multi-layered and emotionally satisfying story. The life journeys of Mary and James not only touch the heart but challenge the mind as well. Just as Mr. Emerson’s Wife exposed and expanded my narrow way of thinking, Flight of the Sparrow caused me to search my heart when it came to meeting and knowing people who are not like me. While Brown’s aim may have been to tell a story about a period she was not familiar with so that she could learn more about her herself and her New England heritage, she has provided that service to this reader as well.

Visit Amy Belding Brown’s website for links to sites carrying Flight of the Sparrow.

Win a free copy of Flight of the Sparrow! Be the first to comment on this post and you will win!

For a quick history of the setting for the story, visit these sites:

Grafton, Massachusetts

Natick, Massachusetts

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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.

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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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Letter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore

lizzie alcott2Work is progressing, albeit slowly, on my book project. I am enjoying all aspects of the process from the thinking and planning while I drive (I’m one of those crazies that talks to myself all the time), to the research, to the paragraphs percolating in my head, to the final writing. I’m falling more in love with my characters if that is possible. I enjoy their company and their voices inside my head.

Sources in the writer’s own hand

Primary sources are vital to historical research; I was taught this by my seventh grade social studies teacher. I remember feeling excited when she explained that our textbooks would include original writings from those who formed and shaped our country. I’ve never lost that thrill of reading something written long ago, especially when you can read the person’s own handwriting.

Worth the effort

Lately I’ve been immersed in letters written by Abba to Bronson, her brother Samuel Joseph, and her daughters Louisa and Anna. I had requested and received PDF scans of several letters from the helpful librarians at Houghton Library and felt like I had won the lottery! The beauty of PDF files is that they can be easily enlarged, a necessity since Abba’s handwriting is so difficult to read. My respect for the tenacity of Eve LaPlante went up tenfold as I struggled over each word. Her compilation, My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother is truly the product of blood, sweat and tears, making it all the more valuable.

north shore swampscott MAFrom sister to brother

One such letter, addressed to “My dear Brother” is dated August 25, 1857, written from Lynn, Massachusetts.  Abba had taken Elizabeth to an area known as the North Shore so that her daughter could experience the supposed healing effects of the ocean. My mother was born in Lynn; her family (the Breeds) was established in the seacoast city in the 1630s. She grew up in Lynn and neighboring Swampscott, another town where Abba and Elizabeth stayed during their sojourn. This is of personal importance because Abba cites a Dr. Newhall from Lynn as treating Lizzie during their stay. Because there were many marriages between Breeds and Newhalls over the years, I have a strong suspicion that I may be related to Dr. Newhall. I am currently researching that possibility and will report back if I find that we are kissin’ cousins. :-)

Looking for answers

Abba wrote the following to Samuel Joseph regarding Lizzie’s condition (note that I couldn’t make out all the words and therefore left some out. I have corrected some small punctuation errors):

littlewomen00alcoiala_0421We have been in Lynn now about three weeks – Lizzy’s vacillating condition has left me from day to day in doubt what to write about … The first week was warm and pleasant and the change was grateful to her – she eat [ate], slept and lived more naturally than I have known her to do for 6 months – but the last two weeks have been cold, rainy, dispiriting me and her – and most unfavorable for her. Dr. Newhall (Charles’ Dr.) thought it best to remove her immediately back – thinks her lungs are slightly diseased and that the comforts of house and the society of her family are now all important … Aunty Bond sent Dr. Charles [Windship] down – he gives a different opinion … that Lizzy is in every way failed – but that she has no not even incipient disease of the lungs – her nervous weakness operates on the brain and lungs … pathetically – that another week of fine weather may produce a most salient effect – for I remain till next Mon. This will prove the experiment a gain or a failure – it will end (?) my faith in human science and my pocket of human dreams. I work on as hopefully as I can … such a scientific must – it seems to me the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess. (AMA to SMJ 25 August 1857 fro MS Am 1130.9 (25), Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Inspired by her surroundings

After writing such a distressing account, she waxes philosophical as she contemplates the scenery:

ocean wavesThe change of scene has been very beneficial to me. I had become morbidly apprehensive … in judgment and action. The very sight of the ocean has restored me to a sense of marginal (?)  power. From our … irritations, our faithless anxiety bubbles (?) before the immensity of ocean, the grandeur of rocks (?), … the feel that order, and Beauty, love and power around, that it is the order of Supreme law – the beauty of sublime art – the love of uniform (?) good will – the Power of eternal Night. Our own dependence it is so apparent – our helplessness so unmistakable we exclaim … from pure instinct truly a Lord liveth – and loveth! (Ibid)

Reading that made me think of how often she and Bronson, especially in the early days, must have sat together, sharing similar thoughts.

From iconic Marmee to real mother

Reading Abba’s letters in her own hand transforms her from the literary icon of Marmee to a flesh and blood person. Often I feel like I am reading letters written by my own mother or grandmother when I read hers. I recall from Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother that LaPlante described the poor condition of Abba’s eyesight so I can understand why her handwriting might be difficult to read. It’s amazing she could write letters at all considering the condition of her eyes!

That helpful Houghton librarian sent me a final tantalizing tease in her email, to quote: “there are a lot of other letters that deal with Lizzie’s collapse and the sojourn to the North Shore.”

Meat for the starving dog. Stay tuned …

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