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

Click to Tweet & ShareInto the head and heart of Bronson Alcott: a most surprising and satisfying journey http://wp.me/p125Rp-1Cz

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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

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?

Click to Tweet & ShareOn vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Day 2 of Summer Conversational Series – Louisa as practicing Transcendentalist http://wp.me/p125Rp-1w4

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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

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&

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Click to Tweet & ShareOn vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Visiting the home of the master, Ralph Waldo Emerson http://wp.me/p125Rp-1vH

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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

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 …

Click to Tweet & ShareLetter from an anguished mother: Abba writes of her sojourn with Lizzie to the North Shore http://wp.me/s125Rp-5637

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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

From Alcott Memoirs: Bronson from the point of view of a grateful student

In his book, Alcott Memoirs, Dr. Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis spends much time describing the special relationship he shared with Bronson Alcott, and the profound effect Bronson had on Dr. Willis’ life. As a teenage boy, Willis spent many hours in conversation with Bronson and recorded some of these in his journal. Thus we have a recorded conversation with Bronson from the point of view of one of his students.

In a previous post, I had written about John Matteson’s description of Bronson’s conversations (found in Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father). His delightful depiction made me long for some written account that captured the essence of these conversations. I have found such in Alcott Memoirs.

This is just a short example.

Socrates

Even in my youth Mr. Alcott seemed to me always strangely out of place in the midst of the practical utilitarianism of the 19th century, and out of place, too, clad in modern broadcloth. He should have been of the days of Socrates or Seneca and worn the flowing robes of classic Greece or the toga of ancient Rome. He was possessed of a captivating yet almost childlike simplicity of manner and bore about with him an air of serene repose, contrasting sharply with the bustling, business-like manner of most of the literary men of those days.

In person he was tall and spare, his fine head crowned with silvery locks, his complexion remarkable for its clearness and purity, the flesh tints being as clearly white and red as those of an infant …

As a remarkable evidence of the sympathy between the poet and the philosopher another of the latter’s Orphic Sayings seems to me most appropriate, not only for similarity’s sake as an interesting example of a prose and poetical treatment of the same thought, but because the prose outlines the fundamental principles of Mrs. Eddy s Christian Science almost uncannily, despite its predating this doctrine very many years. “Evil has no positive existence. It has usurped a positive place and being in the popular imagination and by the imagination must be made to flee away into negative life. How shall this be done? By shadowing forth in vivid colors the absolute beauty and phenomena of good; by assuming evil not as positive but as negative; the dark back ground and blot in the picture by contrast. God alone is eternal good, eternal truth. Evil, like its prototype darkness, is not a thing at all but the absence of a thing.”

Mr. Alcott lived his philosophy. He believed in it so thoroughly that to his intimates his daily life exemplified this point far more than his teachings or writings. I have read everything his able pen has uttered. My most lasting impressions, however, are the memories of his simple Sunday afternoon talks. Upon these occasions he laid aside the language of his public utterances, substituting simple concise English expressed with such charm and direction that we elder children had no difficulty in fully comprehending him. I recall the general tenor and much of the phraseology of some of these delightful conversations; of one instance my journal records: “There are no limitations to ideas but there are certain principles from which must spring all true ideas and on the basis of which all principles must rest. A departure from these is an emergence at once into difficulties and doubts, into uncertainties and mischances.”

“But,” I asked, “how can one know these principles?”

“They are the light that lighteth every man that cometh in the world,” he replied; “they appeal to every consciousness. It is not because men mistake them that they build upon them errors of philosophy or religion, but because they seek to bend these simple truths to suit conditions that do not accord with them. That is, they endeavor to take these foundation stones out of the Temple of Truth and fit them into a structure of their own. I will give you two or three principles that will be sufficient for your guidance through life, but will be of no avail unless you strive to fit them to your life and make them the foundation stones upon which to build your character.

First: The Infinite Supreme, the creator of all life. God, our Father, and His inseparable co-relative man, our brother.

Second: The divine in the human. This is the undying force within every human soul and its means of growth. It is the destiny of this divine spark to glow and finally shine forth in splendor. There is no power nor circumstance here or here after, that can control the development of this force.

Third: The spirit and all its attributes in man are eternal.”

Mr. Alcott believed it was upon these principles, true in themselves, that false structures, false theological conceptions, among them total depravity, an endless hell of physical torture, immediate sanctification that permitted a murderer from a scaffold to enter the highest heaven, had been built. The result of all these he believed to be the shaping of the future into unnatural condition ; a dead future separated from a living present. As he spoke, he became wonderfully radiant, I well remember. He defined the soul as an entity that, after the body was dead, lived on subject to a higher strata of the same moral, social, and intellectual laws as governed the body ere dissolution. For Jesus the man, Mr. Alcott manifested a loving admiration and a tender regard. It was not worship.

One day I asked him if he thought Jesus held any vital relation to the living present. I cannot recall the details of his reply and my journal does not record it; but I remember that he believed Jesus held as real and significant a relation to humanity as He did when He died centuries before; and unfaltering faith in all the attributes, faculties, and power of the spirit of man compelled him to believe in the interpenetration of two spheres of being; that the law of sympathy alone was sufficiently possible to bring a man under the individual guidance and influence of Jesus Himself.

I remember this was to me an intensely interesting conversation. I was startled by his declaring any living man might truthfully assert, as did Jesus in substance, “I am the cause and producer of all things, for you can place no man outside of infinity.” I think more than any other one thing Mr. Alcott s philosophy influenced my life course. I look back over the hills and valleys of memory and, seeing this, I gratefully acknowledge. As I write the vividness of imprint he made upon my boy mind in many conversations comes back to me as fresh and green as the first leaves in an April wood. (pages 26-27, 53, 57-60, Alcott Memoirs Posthumously Compiled from Papers, Journals and Memoranda of the late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis by E. W. L. & H. B.)

Click to Tweet & ShareFrom Alcott Memoirs: Bronson from the point of view of a grateful student http://wp.me/p125Rp-1hP

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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

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. :-)

Click to Tweet & Share: Two ladies who would change the lives of women forever: Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller http://wp.me/p125Rp-16Q

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

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

This question needs your input . . .

I got a fantastic question from Jillian, a good friend of this blog regarding Bronson and Louisa. I’d love your input:

If Bronson Alcott was a follower of Transcendentalism (self-reliance), why does he scold Louisa May for filling her journal with thoughts of self?

 

I have my theory but I’d like to hear yours first. Go for it!

UPDATE: Great answers so far – just had to post this picture in lieu of Julie’s quoting of Emerson.
(picture credit: Christopher Pearse Cranch, Transparent Eyeball (from Emerson’s “Nature”), from Cranch’s “Scraps” book, ink on paper – c. 1839)


Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

The rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott, part 1 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson has to be one of the most elegant and thoughtful books I have ever read. Matteson is the first Alcott biographer who truly seems to understand the spiritual life and that insight produces a deeper and different view of Bronson Alcott.

I have read as far as the end of the Fruitlands experiment and have taken pages and pages of notes (and I must be a real geek because it has been so fun!). In the reading I’ve done so far, I have viewed through Matteson’s eyes, the rise, fall and redemption of Bronson Alcott. I have also come to appreciate this decidedly difficult and complex man in a whole new way.

Matteson taps into the soul of Bronson Alcott and actually makes him attractive.

The brilliance of this book

This paragraph from the prologue sums up for me why this book is brilliant:

“For Louisa well as for Bronson, life was a persistent but failed quest for perfection. First, she was to labor vainly to conquer her fierce temper and stubborn willfulness, trying to find the paradise that her father always swore lay within her. Then she would struggle to bring happiness and comfort to a family continually besieged by want. Later, she would go to war, doing all in her power, if not to make America a paradise, then at least to make it a place where all people would be free. Still later, as a novelist, she would strive to produce in fiction what she could not bring about in the world: a vision of humanity enriched by personal sacrifice and enlightened by unselfish love. Both Bronson and Louisa May had ambitions of altering the world through literature. In ways that neither anticipated and in widely varying degrees, they succeeded. Yet it was in the lives they lived, rather than in the words they wrote or spoke, that they fought hardest for redemption: both to redeem themselves from their perceived failures and to redeem the world at large from the wickedness that both father and daughter sought earnestly to reform. They wanted perfection. In their search for it, they inevitably discovered flaws both in the world and within themselves. Pursuing paradise, they continually confirmed themselves as Eden’s outcasts.”

A disclaimer

I plan on writing a series of posts about Bronson as interpreted by Matteson but I feel a need to offer a disclaimer first: I am a practicing Catholic and take my faith very seriously. I love the spiritual life and pursue it relentlessly, often with the kind of zeal with which Bronson pursued his.

I felt it important to express this because the thoughts that I will share in this and subsequent posts about Bronson Alcott are filtered through this lens.

It is understood that you, the reader, may see faith and the spiritual life differently, and I’m hoping these posts will spark good conversation.

Reading is in part about learning, and the reading I’ve undertaken since I began this blog has opened my mind up considerably. And rather than discounting my faith, it has enriched it.

The essence of
Bronson Alcott

Because of Matteson’s book, I found myself empathizing with Bronson because in essence, I want what he wanted: to be in communion with God, to emulate Him. Bronson, however, took it a step farther and wanted to be God – this was his conception of paradise, the road to perfection.

Bronson’s idea of redemption

While I share Bronson’s zeal, we certainly did not share the same approach!

I prefer to be submissive to God, acknowledging His omnipotence, his superiority over me. I work to release control of my life to Him and follow, trusting in His love that He will lead me to the best end, which is eventual perfection. As it states in Romans 8:38, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (New King James version)

Bronson, however, came at it from the opposite angle, taking a very activist approach and in essence, reinventing the wheel (with Transcendentalism) to achieve perfection. This theme I will explore in subsequent posts regarding his rise as an educator and philosopher, the triumph and eventual fall of the Temple School, and the debacle that was known as Fruitlands.

Different ways of looking at redemption

Bronson believed in redemption as I do. But while I believe I can only be redeemed by simply saying “yes” to God and following Him, Bronson believed he had to redeem himself and teach others how to do the same (beginning with small children). He had to invent a new method.

To be redeemed means submission to a Higher Being and this goes against the natural inclination of man to do for himself. God asks us to forget ourselves and consider ourselves as nothing so that He can transform us into everything, the original image He planned for us before the fall of man and woman in the Garden of Eden.

Bronson had a towering intellect and yet, he never considered submission a possibility. Perhaps the rigid and cold religious climate of his age made that impossible to consider. After all, why would one want to submit to vengeful God bent on punishment? Bronson’s intuition told him that fear of God was not the way. One has to wonder at the possibilities had Bronson been exposed to a more loving God from organized religion in the first place.

Methods and results

Matteson spells out the thoughts and methods Bronson employed to try and achieve both his redemption and the redemption of others. These efforts would end up nearly, literally destroying the man, and it certainly left his family destitute.

There was, in fact, eventual redemption. But it was not what Bronson had fashioned in his mind.

The transcendentalism of Bronson Alcott was a man’s effort to commune with and become Divine.  So much effort.

Maybe there’s less work involved with submission. It ultimately comes down to pride versus humility. There’s no doubt that, after the Temple School and Fruitlands, Bronson was very much “humbled” (subject to interpretation – more to come on that).

In the next post, I will get into just how a poor farm boy from a small and obscure town overcame his background to become that towering intellect. It’s an amazing story.

Your thoughts?


Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Book Review: “Becoming Little Women”

An experiment in a utopian community that only lasted seven months should have easily been forgotten in history, even if it included historically important people. Yet the fascination with Fruitlands continues as evidenced by Richard Francis’ book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia which came out this year. There is no doubt that Fruitlands was a cathartic experience for young Louisa May Alcott.

Fruitlands for children

Considering the extraordinarily complex and bizarre nature of the thinking behind Fruitlands, I was quite surprised to find a children’s book written about that very subject. Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins is an engaging fictional account based on the writings of Alcott family members.

The essence of Fruitlands

Atkins presented the philosophy behind Fruitlands in a concise and simple manner that children could understand (and adults could benefit from). Founded by Transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Englishmen Charles Lane, Fruitlands was meant to help those living in the community to achieve divine perfection through simple living and high-minded thinking. The diet and methods of farming were devised to avoid any action that would support the slavery of humans, and of animals. The community was to live as one family where the children would have many “fathers” and “mothers”; the bonds of human love and family were discouraged in favor of the “consociate” family, meant to achieve a higher, divine form of love.

Becoming Little Women opens with the Alcotts and Lanes moving from Concord to the Fruitlands farm in Harvard during a dreary rain storm. It is a fitting beginning for an experiment not only doomed to failure, but also perpetrating one of the most traumatic crises to strike the Alcott family.

Louisa at 10

Atkins paints a picture of a ten year-old Louisa, full of life, vigor, imagination and stamina. She sits in an apple tree spinning stories and poems while eating apples. She races through woods and fields with her sisters and William, the son of Charles Lane. She dreams up and performs dramatic plays with her sister Anna as a way of releasing the tension of the experience of Fruitlands which was growing darker by the day. Atkins shows a conflicted Louisa, struggling with her temper and tongue, trying to force the square of a vigorous temperament to fit into the circle of her father’s concept of serenity and perfection.

Tragic character portrayal

Becoming Little Women‘s study of characters truly propelled the story. I appreciated her portrayal of the tragic William, abandoned by his mother to be raised by the remote, grim and self-absorbed Charles Lane. There is little written about this young boy so Atkins takes literary freedom to infuse life into him. The result is a believable and sad portrait of a child whose father has little or no regard for him, and who eventually abandons him to a Shaker community for a time. William fades into history and we never know what became of him, but Atkins makes you feel for him and wonder if he ever knew happiness or love. Louisa, in typical big-heartedness, embraced and befriended him, offering him the sisterly affection he had never known.

Anna as a flesh-and-blood young girl

Atkins also fleshed out Louisa’s older sister Anna. Often portrayed in real life as saintly and the mirror image of her father, Atkins digs into Louisa’s portrayal of her as Meg in Little Women, rounding her out as sometimes vain, envious of others, and competitive with Louisa for the approval of her parents. Anna emerges as a believable girl of twelve with a vibrancy often missing from other accounts.

Marmee’s trial

Abba Alcott or “Marmee” is painted as the endless workhorse, carrying the true burden of Fruitlands while the men wiled away endless hours in high-minded talk. Many accounts of Fruitlands paint Abba as the reason why the experiment failed because of her fierce devotion to her immediate family. Atkins paints a realistic portrait of Abba, heroic in her efforts, yet stressed,  bitter and often desperate as she tried to reach Bronson and bring him back down to earth to face reality. Women being so restricted in their actions as they were in this era, Abba is shown constantly pushing the edge of the envelope to save her family, even considering separating from her husband to save her children.

Grown-up issues for children

I felt vested in these people as they struggled through this experiment in utopian living. Fruitlands was more like Purgatory than Eden, and through these vibrant characters, I felt their joys and conflicts, tensions and traumas.

Atkins deals with the very grown-up issues of family conflict that can lead to separation, the struggle to live up to parental expectations, and the consequences of living with people who have little regard for the needs of others. Most of what happened in the story felt authentic and age appropriate although there was one event which felt a bit too “current” and too adult for a children’s novel.

Learning from children’s books

I enjoy reading children’s novels because of their ease of reading (the big type helps too!) and I often learn a great deal from them. It was, after all, a children’s novel that introduced me to my passion for Louisa in the first place (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard). :-)

Therefore I highly recommend Jeannine Atkin’s Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands as an enjoyable read and a way to feel the experience of Fruitlands and mid 19th century living.

In my next post, I will share an interview with Jeannine, finding out more about how she fleshed out these characters and came to write a children’s book about a difficult subject.


Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

A clear introduction to Transcendentalism . . .

. . . and in only about 500 words! This is from the Spiritual Travels blog:

The Hippies of Nineteenth-Century America

Posted on August 19, 2011 by lori

Spending time with Bronson Alcott yesterday made me realize that before moving forward we need to get a bit clearer on what that ten-dollar word “Transcendentalism” means. Spoiler alert: abstract ideas ahead.

I’ve asked my philosopher husband, Bob Sessions, to tell us everything we need to know about Transcendentalism in 500 words (how hard can this be?). Here’s his response:

As Lori has written in previous posts, there’s a school of philosophy lurking behind the Concord stories she’s been telling. Emerson gathered artists and intellectuals to discuss, develop, and live Transcendentalism.

So what is this home-grown philosophy with such an imposing title? Having come of age in the 1960s I recognize many familiar themes in their project.  One might say, in fact, that the  Transcendentalists were the hippies of their day.  They believed in free love and being close to nature, they turned away from both traditional religion and materialism, and their central goal was self-realization of the individual by transcending the ego to attain union with the whole.

Henry David Thoreau (Wikipedia Commons image)

For those of you who recall the 1960s counter-culture, there’s a lot that is familiar about the Concord scene of the 1840-50s: Bronson Alcott’s refusal to accept the idea of private property, his commune Fruitlands, and his radical vegetarianism; Thoreau’s desire to follow the guidance of nature; and Hawthorne’s searing critiques of the dominant religion.

Even if reference to the 1960s doesn’t resonate for you, much of what the Transcendentalists sought remains central to the spiritual lives of many seekers today.  Thoreau is famous for suggesting that beneath the surface of everyday life there is a deeper, more coherent reality that can only be accessed by a kind of intuition, and that if we use this natural intuitive faculty we will gain a conscious union of our individual psyche (Atman in Sanskrit) with the world psyche (Brahman).  You can see that Emerson and his friends learned much from Eastern thought, which was just becoming known in the West during their day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Wikipedia Commons image)

Like many people in our time, members of Emerson’s “genius circle” were not atheists, but their focus was on the individual as the spiritual center of the universe. They believed that if we truly know ourselves we will have the knowledge we need to comprehend nature, history, and, ultimately, the cosmos itself.  Like Neo-Platonists, Transcendentalists believed that the structure of the universe literally duplicates the structure of the individual, and that nature is a living mystery full of signs.

Our 19th-century Transcendentalists knew full well the suffering and evils of human life, but rather than buy the Original Sin perspective of the Calvinists and Puritans, they believed that if people lived up to their promises—that is, if they attained self-realization—much suffering and evil would disappear.

Concord’s Transcendentalist community ended with the onslaught of the Civil War and the deaths of its charismatic and brilliant stars.  If you’re like me, though, a century and a half later their attempts to live fully human lives still resonate.  I highly recommend you re-visit their writings even if you cannot travel to Concord.  They got a lot of things right.


Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter