Concord in Autumn: walking the path Louisa walked

Concord, home to Louisa May Alcott. I have been a student of Louisa on and off, for most of my life. Back in August of 2010 I decided to commit myself to study and share my reflections with you. I have so enjoyed all the book discussions and your wonderful comments about our favorite author.

Autumn at its peak in front of the Concord Free Public Library

I have always visited Concord in autumn. Since I’ve immersed my life into Louisa’s, the visits have taken on a mystical quality, most especially in autumn. The colorful falling leaves, brilliant sunshine and crisp air make Louisa more alive to me than ever.

The Concord Free Public Library

Now that I’ve discovered that much of what is at Houghton Library at Harvard University is also available at the Concord Free Public Library through an extensive microfilm collection, I can easily access all I need to research this blog and a future book I wish to write. Concord is only 45 minutes away from home, and also close enough to where I work in Wellesley that I can go there after work to do research.

So today I spent a couple of hours reading Anna’s diary from 1840 (which I will be writing on once I finish it) and then decided to walk the path Louisa and her family walked so many times, from downtown Concord to Orchard House.

Continuing on to Orchard House

I took many pictures which I’m happy to share with you in this slide show.

Being able to read the words of family members in their own handwriting really adds to the mystical connection I feel with the Alcotts.

I am indeed very blessed! I look forward to sharing with you in the future what I’ve discovered from my reading.

In the meantime, enjoy your virtual walk from downtown Concord to Orchard House on a crisp and beautiful October day.

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My 3 days with Louisa (conclusion): Windows into the past, and a lasting memento

When I requested Lizzie’s diary at Houghton Library, I received a thick, bound volume full of many treasures.

Some of those treasures included Anna’s childhood diaries.

Anna is an engaging writer

While Lizzie’s writings read more like lists, Anna’s read like little stories.

Anna was very faithful about keeping her journal and lamented if she missed a day. Sometimes she missed several, and she’d lament about that.

Scenes from her past

What particularly struck me were the scenes she described, opening little windows into the past. Here she describes a walk with Lizzie:

from Boston, Wednesday, October 23, 1839 - “I had a pleasant walk on the Common with Elizabeth and the Rufoellis this morning We played hide behind the trees. The leaves were fallen, and were brown and yellow.” (MS Am 1130.9 (24), Alcott Pratt collection, Houghton Library).

Lively descriptions

This description of a trip from Boston to Scituate on the stage was colorful:

from Scituate to Boston, Wednesday, Septmber 28, 1838 – “The stage came for us this morning and took us and all our baggage. There were a good many passengers inside and on the top. We saw some Indian women at Hingham near where the Steam Boat stops. They had long hair and loose gowns and rings in their ears. One of them was making a basket. It was pleasant sailing in the steam boat. I was glad when we got to our house in Boston, and saw the Russells and the Duttons. Everything seemed strange to me about the house. We played in the garret with Elizabeth and Mary Russell, as we used to before we went to Scituate.” (Ibid)

Visits with the relatives

Living in Boston, there were many visits with Grandfather May, Uncle Samuel May, cousin Louisa Greenwood and Aunt Lucretia. Here she describes a picnic the family attended:

from Scituate, Thursday, September 12, 1838 “We went to a Pic Nic on Afranipit this afternoon, Father, mother, Uncle Samuel, Aunt Lucretia and Louisa went with me, It was four or five miles. The tables were in a grove near the road, and spread with cakes, apples, peaches, melons, raisins and other good things, I liked the music. Uncle Samuel made a short speech to the people. They stood still to hear him. In the evening we played and told stories at Uncle Samuel’s. We came home in the dark. Father carried Elizabeth in his arms.”(Ibid)

Fodder for stories

It occurred to me as a writer that Anna’s stories and descriptions set up great scenes. I could definitely see a children’s writer especially making good use of these sources.

Handwriting tells its own story

Anna’s handwriting, like Lizzie’s, is very neat and consistent. Lizzie’s letters are upright while Anna’s slant; her handwriting flows more easily than Lizzie’s.

Anna’s journals are beckoning me back for further study.

A final note

My three days with Louisa May Alcott were a dream come true. The sense of fellowship created during those conversations at Orchard House was tremendously satisfying and the visit to Houghton was the perfect follow-up. I look forward to my vacation at Christmastime to visit the library again, and to see Orchard House adorned for the holidays.

A lasting memento

I have to share with you my thrilling memento from my days with Louisa: a personal autograph in my copy of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father from John Matteson. He is aware of the work done here at Louisa May Alcott is My Passion and offered a wonderful word of encouragement.

You can imagine it took a while for my feet to touch the ground after reading this: :-)

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Louisa May Alcott’s summer retreat

A trip to a warehouse bookstore in the middle of nowhere produced a great find! I had just about given up the hope of finding something interesting until this book caught my eye:  Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985, edited by Anne M. Lyell.

What is so significant about Nonquitt? This is where Louisa May Alcott spent her summers in the last years of her life. This book was such a great find because of new pictures of Louisa, her nephews, the cottage she rented and the summer home she eventually purchased.

The book devoted a short chapter (chapter 9, pages 94-97 – all references come from these pages unless otherwise noted.) to Louisa with anecdotal stories of her summers in the southeastern Massachusetts seacoast town near New Bedford.

What brought Louisa May Alcott to Nonquitt?

Recollections from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian suggest that Louisa came to visit the family and fell in love with Nonquitt. He writes:

“I was spending a summer at Nonquitt and she came to visit a friend. I walked over to the cottage and sat an hour with her on the veranda. She was tall, rather rustic looking, dressed in black silk, her shoulders a little bent, her checks somewhat thin, her big, black eyes sparkling now and then with humor or irony.”

Louisa was in her late forties at the time, obviously showing the ravages of her constant battle with her health. Remembering how vibrant she once was, it is sad to read how much her poor health had aged her.

Renting the first cottage

Louisa rented a house in 1881, sharing it with her niece, then 2-year-old Lulu (daughter of younger sister May who had passed away soon after childbirth). Her older sister Anna also summered at the cottage with her two teenage sons, Fred and John.

Anna’s memories

Anna writes, “I went to Nonquit[t] where Louisa had a cottage, a lovely green paradise which offers everything one can wish. Here I rested, and for fun got up theatricals (as usual), charades, etc., and grew quite young and festive, and enjoyed my lark so much I didn’t not want to come home . . . we [Louisa and Anna] take turns and so keep our boys there eight or ten weeks.” (pg. 141, The Alcotts As I Knew Them by Clara Gowing, e-book version).

Still in love with the theatre

Louisa, Anna and sons Fred and John took active part in the summer theatricals (Fred and John are shown in the above picture). Having never outgrown her love of the theatre, Louisa wrote and rewrote scripts and took on the jobs of coach, scenery designer and stage manager.

Summer paradise

Louisa rarely did any serious writing while summering in Nonquit. Mostly she took great pleasure in watching her little niece, Lulu:

“My poppet is a picture of health, vigor and delightful naughtiness. She runs wild in this fine place with some twenty other children to play with – nice babies, well-bred, and with pleasant mammas for me to gossip with.” (from a letter to a friend, 1882)

The Pied Piper of Nonquitt

An anecdote from the New Bedford newspaper speaks of Louisa often out walking with her red parasol in hand, followed by a group of children (she was, of course the famous “Miss Alcott” by this time). The newspaper goes on to say:

“There seemed to be a certain magnetism about her that drew the little ones to her, and it was a familiar sight to see the famous writer seated on her porch, or on a rock on the beach, a dozen or more children grouped around her, while she told children’s stories to them . . . Then when a demand would be made for the retelling of some one particular story, she would purposely change some character or some situation in it. The children would immediately correct her, and tell to her in their own way, the stories she had previously related to them.”

Always writing . . .

Even though Louisa came to vacation in Nonquitt, she could never stop writing. She contributed several short stories to the local paper, the Nonquitt Breeze.

Buying her piece of paradise

In 1883, Louisa purchased her own property,a cottage at the northeast corner of Narragansett and Central Avenue (presently called Old Wharf Road). She recorded in her journal on June 24:

“To Nonquitt with Lulu and K. and John (Pratt), Fixed my house, and enjoyed the rest and quiet immensely. Lulu wild with joy at the freedom . . .” In July she wrote, “Restful days in my little house, which is cool and quiet, and without the curse of a kitchen to spoil it . . .”

Louisa took her meals at the local hotel.

Failing health

By the end of 1885, Louisa was troubled by vertigo and rheumatism. It was then that she began to destroy letters and journals that she didn’t want prying eyes to see.

June of 1886 was her last visit to Nonquitt before poor health settled in. In a letter to Mary Mapes Dodge (friend, and editor of St. Nichoas Magazine where many of her books had been serialized), Louisa writes:

“Lu and I go to Nonquitt next week; and after a few days rest, I will fire up the old engine and see if it will run a short distance without a break-down.”

She fought against her ill health and finished her last book, Jo’s Boys.

The fate of Louisa’s cottage

In 1888, Louisa died and the nephew she adopted, John Pratt Alcott, inherited the Nonquitt house. In 1907 it was sold to John’s brother Fred who added on to the house.

In 1945 it was moved one block and is owned as of 1987 by Daniel Strohmeier.

The store where I found the book

So where did I find this book?

The store is known as the Book Bear in West Brookfield, MA. They are decidedly old-fashioned, not accepting credit cards and not doing email! They do have a website (click on the name) so you can get an idea of what they have.

I definitely will be visiting again soon!

Nonquitt A Summer Album, 1872-1985 is available online through Amazon and other outlets (the link leads to Amazon). I look forward to reading the rest of this fascinating book.


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Fleshing out Anna Alcott Pratt

Friends and biographers of Anna Alcott Pratt are so busy singing her praises as a loving and selfless daughter, wife and mother that is was hard to find more substantive information. That is, until I came across Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott. Co-authors Jessie Bonstelle and Marian deForest offered journal entries from Anna’s childhood revealing more of her inner life.

Loved even spiders??

Anna’s passages were direct and sweet (I made sure to copy them exactly rather than correct spelling or grammatical errors). Always her father’s daughter, she demonstrated his (and her) love of all of God’s creatures: “We watched a little spider and gave it some water to drink.”

What  made Anna tick?

These next two passages helped me understand what made Anna tick (note: bold is my emphasis):

“Mother went to Boston and Louisa and I cleaned house all day. I love order above all things and I take great pleasure in seeing all neat about the house.”

 “I find I accomplish so much more when I have a plan and certain times for certain things. I never can do things without order. I like to have something planned for every moment of the day, so that when I get up in the morning I may know what to do.”

May wasn’t the only sister to appreciate beauty

Like Meg, Anna appreciated beauty in many forms. In this entry, referring to a book called Miss Bremer’s Brothers and Sisters, Anna writes,

“It is most beautiful such a happy family. I think Miss Bremer would make a lovely mother the mothers in her books are so sweet and she has beautiful ideas about family’s. I love to read natural stories.”

Anna’s appreciation for beauty transcended material things (not so obvious with Meg):

“I read one of Krummacher’s parables in German. I think they are very beautiful, the language is so elegant. I love to hear beautiful words and these stories are told so simply and are full of such sweet thought.”

Vanity, vanity …

A touch of vanity is revealed as she lamented about turning old someday:

“I think it is a dreadful thing to grow old and not be able to fly about . . . it is horrid to think about being an old woman wrinkled and blind. I wish I could keep young forever. I should love to live among those I love and be with them all the time.”

“Silly Stories”

I can see here why Louisa would keep her potboilers a secret from all members of her family:

” . . . Louisa read me a very silly story called “The Golden Cup.” I think there is a great deal of nonsense written now a days, the papers are full of silly stories.”

Dreams and …

Anna, like many pre-teen girls, had her dreams:

I sometimes have strange feelings, a sort of longing after something I don’t know what it is. I have a great many wishes. I spent the day in the usual manner, sewing and studying. In the evening Louisa and I walked through the lane and talked about how we should like to live and dress and imagined all kinds of beautiful things.”

… Aspirations

In a separate entry,

“As for me I am perfect in nothing. I have no genius. I know a little of music, a little of French, German and Drawing, but none of them well. I have a foolish wish to be something great and I shall probably spend my life in a kitchen and die in the poor-house. I want to be Jenny Lind or Mrs. Seguin and I can’t and so I cry.”

Jenny Lind (L) and Mrs. Sequin (R)

A woman of her time

Anna did end up becoming a “household drudge” (her words) but embraced the life willingly. She grew into a graceful, serene and loving wife and mother, fitting easily into the life of women of her time. Memoirs penned by friends (Clara Gowing, Llewellyn Frederick Willis) emphasized again and again her giving nature, her value as a friend, her loyalty as a daughter, and her commitment to her boys.

Love above all

Whether she was raising her children, caring for her aging father and ailing sister, or dealing with a public eager to see “Miss Alcott” or learn from the Sage of Concord, Anna did it all with great love and without complaint, earning the esteem of all who knew her.

Anna ultimately lived the life she chose to live.

If you want to learn more about Anna Alcott Pratt, here are some interesting links:

Were you surprised at Anna’s ambitions? Do you think the character of Meg March does her justice?

Meet the real Meg March

Ever wonder about the woman who inspired the character of Meg March?

About Meg

In Little Women, Meg is the oldest of the March sisters and in all respects, the most mainstream member of the family. She is pretty, dutiful and virtuous, almost old for her age.

Fancy dress

Meg’s major flaw is her yearning for material wealth now that her family is poor. She is cured of this desire when she visits her wealthy friends Sallie Gardiner and the Moffat girls and indulges in the shallow life of the well-to-do. All dolled up for a party, she faces the disapproval of Laurie and recognizes the hollowness of vanity and the value of simpler living.

Meg marries a man as virtuous as herself – hard-working poor John Brooke. They have two children and create a loving home; Meg lives the life of the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman.

Based upon Louisa May Alcott’s oldest sister Anna Alcott Pratt, Meg is prettier but her real-life counterpart was more interesting.

Getting to know you

Born on March 16, 1831 and the eldest of the Alcott sisters, Anna was the most studied baby in history. Her philosopher-educator father Bronson, eager to prove his theory about the divine nature of children, observed her in a scientific way, recording her physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development in the minutest fashion.

Pleasing her father

Infant Anna, always eager to please, picked up on this vibe; her mother Abba noted that Anna “seems as if she is conscious of his observations, and were desirous of furnishing him with an item for his record.” (The Alcotts As I Knew Them, Clara Gowing, p. 43).

Love of acting

Anna inherited her father’s peaceful nature with such a retiring manner that “no one meeting her casually would ever imagine the amount of sentiment and romance in her nature.” (Gowing, p. 107). She loved the theatre and could have been an accomplished actress had she the ambition (partial deafness later in life made acting very difficult though she never lost of love of it).

She and Louisa shared this love of acting, writing plays together and entertaining the family with tableaux and original melodramatic plays such as “Norna, or The Witch’s Curse.”

Unexpected rewards

Although she never pursued acting professionally, it still granted her many rewards, the best being meeting her future husband, John Bridge Pratt. They played the romantic leads in “The Loan of a Lover” and soon became lovers themselves.

Both she and Louisa were powerhouses on the stage but Anna faded into the background once off the stage. She preferred to defer to others and bask in their success.

Love of words

writing

Anna’s abilities weren’t limited to acting. Several books mention her writing skill and her ability to easily learn foreign languages. In Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson quotes family friend Llewellyn Frederick Willis (from his Alcott Memoirs ) regarding Anna, “Skilled in learning languages and a thoughtful writer, she perhaps exceeded all her sisters in terms of her pure intellectual gifts.”

Anna however, lacked ambition. Matteson continues, “Unlike Louisa, however, she lacked the confidence to try to publish them. Her excellent mind was ‘shown more in the appreciation of others than in the expression of herself.’ ” (p. 210 of the ebook).

A quick portrait

Matteson also writes of Anna,

“She was the most even-tempered and amiable of the four. Her sense of humor was keen but without Louisa’s tartness. While she partook enthusiastically in the game of her friends and sisters, her zest was tempered with a sense of dignity. She was more beautiful in her graceful bearing than in her physical features.”

More to come …

In my next post, I will share lesser-known facts about Anna including journal entries she made as a girl that reveal a dreamy pre-teen full of yearning (and even a desire to be famous). We’ll find out in part, what made Anna tick.

Are you finding Anna to be more interesting than Meg March? What did you think of Meg as a character in Little Women?


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Intimate letters

Well, I haven’t finished it yet but I wanted to share the second anecdotal volume I got from the Worcester Public Library, Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott by Jessie Bonstelle and Marian De Forest, published in 1914.

Origin of the book – inspired by Jo

Both women felt compelled to compile this little book after a day (and all night long) pilgrimage to Concord and Orchard House. Jo March had been a strong influence in their lives:

“In the case of the two editors, both from early childhood found their inspiration in Jo. One, patterning after her idol, sought success in a stage career, beginning to “act” before a mirror, with a kitchen apron for a train and a buttonhook for a dagger. The other, always with a pencil in hand, first copied Jo by writing ‘lurid tales’ for the weekly sensation papers, and later emerged into Newspaper Row.”

Fruit of the pilgrimage

After visiting Orchard House and pouring over the actual journals and letters of the family, the authors asked permission of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Society to reprint some of the material. After encountering some resistance (“And, asking, they were refused, because of a feeling that the letters and journals were intimate family records, to be read, not by the many, but by the few. This same sentiment withheld the dramatization of “Little Women” for many years.”), Bonstelle and De Forest were finally granted permission after arguing that the Alcotts were public personalities and therefore the intimate family letters and journals belonged to the world.

And thus we have, I believe, the first volume to reveal these letters (except perhaps  for Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals, though I am not sure because I haven’t read her book yet).

Value of the book

Although the book is overly sentimental, there is a lot of value in these letters, especially if you learn to read between the lines.

While I haven’t yet finished the book, I’ve read enough to see the striking difference in tone between the letters Bronson  Alcott wrote to his eldest daughter Anna, and the ones he wrote to Louisa.

Good daughter, bad daughter

Many have said that Anna was Bronson’s favorite for she best represented his personality. She also affirmed his theories about children and the  Divine that resided in them.

Louisa, on the other hand, threw a monkey wrench into those theories.

What resulted was a lifelong silent battle between father and daughter as the daughter sought to live her life authentically while the father tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. The result was a frustrated father and a daughter with a skewed self-image, burdened with guilt.

Bronson writes of Anna, “She is happier, more capable of self control, more docile and obeys from love and faith. She has fine elements for excellence, moral and intellectual.”

And he writes of Louisa, ” “Louisa is practical, energetic. The first imagines much more than she can realize; the second, by force of will and practical talent, realizes all that she conceives—but conceives less; understanding, rather than imagination—the gift of her sister—seems to be her prominent faculty.”

No problem there. But then we get into the letters. Here’s one he wrote to Anna (bold is my emphasis):

Lettters to Anna

“For Anna
1839

You were once pleased, my daughter, with a little note which I wrote you on Christmas Eve, concerning the birth of Jesus. I am now going to write a few words about your own Birth. Mother and I had no child. We wanted one—a little girl just like you; and we thought how you would look, and waited a good while for you to come, so that we might see you and have you for our own. At last you came. We felt so happy that joy stood in our eyes. You looked just as we wanted to have you. You were draped in a pretty little white frock, and father took you in his arms every day, and we loved you very much. Your large bright eyes looked lovingly into ours, and you soon learned to love and know us. When you were a few weeks old, you smiled on us. We lived then in Germantown. It is now more than eight years since this happened, but I sometimes see the same look and the same smile on your face, and feel that my daughter is yet good and pure. O keep it there, my daughter, and never lose it.

Your Father”

Gentle instruction

In these little excerpts from a second letter, Bronson offers instruction to Anna:

“First-Your Manners. Try to be gentle . . . Love is gentle: Hate is violent . . . Second: Be Patient . . . Patience is, indeed, angelic; it is the Gate that opens into the House of Happiness . . . Third: Be Resolute: Shake off all Sluggishness, and follow your Confidence as fast as your feelings, your thoughts, your eye, your hand, your foot, will carry you. Hate all excuses: almost always, these are lies. Be quick in your obedience . . . Resolution is the ladder to Happiness . . . Fourth: Be Diligent . . .  Halfness is almost as bad as nothing: be whole then in all you do and say.” (I particularly love the wisdom of being resolute!)

A study in contrasts

And now, notice the difference in tone as Bronson addresses Louisa (this was given to her on her birthday – bold is my emphasis):

“For Louisa
1839

My Daughter,

You are Seven years old to-day and your Father is forty. You have learned a great many things, since you have lived in a Body, about things going on around you and within you. You know how to think, how to resolve, how to love, and how to obey. You feel your Conscience, and have no real pleasure unless you obey it. You cannot love yourself, or anyone else, when you do not mind its commandments. It asks you always to BE GOOD, and bears, O how gently! how patiently! with all endeavors to hate, and treat it cruelly. How kindly it bears with you all the while. How sweetly it whispers Happiness in your HEART when you Obey its soft words. How it smiles upon you, and makes you Glad when you Resolve to Obey it! How terrible its punishments. It is GOD trying in your soul to keep you always Good.

You begin, my dear daughter, another year this morning. Your Father, your Mother, and Sisters, with your little friends, show their love on this your Birthday, by giving you this BOX. Open it, and take what is in it, and the best wishes of

Your Father.

Beach Street,
Friday morning, Nov. 29, 1839.”

On a mission to save

You can see in the illustration all the use of capital letters, exclamation points and underscores revealing the amount of emotion that went into this letter. Bronson was on a mission with Louisa to save her soul: his own words indicate that he felt it his vocation to save all children: “I shall redeem infancy and childhood, and, if a Saviour of Adults was given in the person of Jesus, let me, without impiety or arrogance, regard myself as the Children’s Saviour. Divine are both missions.”

A spirit Bronson could not accept

While I believe his intentions were rooted in love for Louisa, it’s obvious he could not accept her as she was. The willfulness, stubborn tendencies, mood swings, temper, etc. flew in the face of his theories of children as home to the Divine Spirit. This second daughter to him was more like the devil, and he felt compelled to save her.

A father in tune with his children

Yet, there is much to admire about Bronson as a father. His affinity with the childish mind and the attention to the details of their lives is unusual, more maternal than paternal. He knew exactly what made a child tick as shown in this letter to Louisa. She had run away from home (apparently she was with her grandfather – no explanation of how she got there) and he was trying to coax her back (bold is my emphasis):

“Cottage, Sunday June 21st,
1840.

We all miss the noisy little girl who used to make house and garden, barn and field, ring with her footsteps, and even the hens and chickens seem to miss her too. Right glad would father and mother, Anna and Elizabeth, and all the little mates at School, and Miss Russell, the House Playroom, Dolls, Hoop, Garden, Flowers, Fields, Woods and Brooks, all be to see and answer the voice and footsteps, the eye and hand of heir little companion. But yet all make themselves happy and beautiful without her; all seem to say, “Be Good, little Miss, while away from us, and when we meet again we shall love and please one another all the more; we find how much we love now we are separated.”

I wished you here very much on the morning when the Hen left her nest and came proudly down with six little chickens, everyone knowing how to walk, fly, eat and drink almost as well as its own mother; to-day (Sunday) they all came to see the house and took their breakfast from their nice little feeding trough; you would have enjoyed the sight very much. But this and many other pleasures all wait for you when you return. Be good, kind, gentle, while you are away, step lightly, and speak soft about the house;

Grandpa loves quiet, as well as your sober father and other grown people.

Elizabeth says often, “Oh I wish I could see Louisa, when will she come home, Mother?” And another feels so too; who is it?

Your
Father.”

Attention to detail

His  notice of such detail endeared him to me. Yes, he was manipulating his daughter (and often this manipulation became dangerous) but how many fathers take the time to notice these little things in the lives of their children? This is usually the mother’s strength (and in this family, it was).

This is just a taste of Little Women Letters from the House of Alcott. It doesn’t appear to offer much at first glance, but if you’re a detective like me, there is a lot to find.

Have you ever read any of the letters and/or journals of the Alcott family? What was your impression?

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Getting to know the Alcotts through neighbors and friends

Between my trip to the Worcester library and the new Nook, I have been buried! Tons of reading all at once (which means tons of notetaking, and tons of fun!).  As I come up for air, I wanted to share with you some new rather old books I found.

A treasure trove from the library

I want to first say again how much I appreciate librarians! The ladies at the Worcester Public Library went above and beyond the call of duty and gave me a treasure trove! I had asked for a couple of books that dated back to the early 1900s (which meant they were in the basement). When I arrived at the desk to pick them up, one woman came over apologetically, explaining that she couldn’t find one of the books I’d requested, but would I mind these? She had 2 other books in addition to the one I asked for, and these books had flown under the radar, not even being mentioned in the library’s catalog. I knew I had struck gold!

Fascinating anecdotes

These books were by neighbors and near contemporaries of the Alcotts and their anecdotal stories make for entertaining and insightful reading. I was longing to read the perspective of people who had actually lived during the period (or shortly thereafter). Contemporaries offer a unique point of view since they were a part of the period. A random sentence here and there from such a source can open up new avenues to explore.

So here’s what those wonderful ladies gave to me:

The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing

First there was The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing (available in epub and PDF format at Google Books). Miss Gowing was a neighbor of the Alcotts and around the same age as Louisa. They first met in their twenties.

Clara Gowing, friend of the Alcotts, wrote a memoir of her time with them.

Here is a short biography (more like a reference letter) of Miss Gowing.

Simple memories

This book was full of reminiscences of events large and small in the life of the Alcotts. The scene depicted on the cover shows Louisa leaping the fence of Orchard House to see an artist friend who is sketching the homestead. Obviously Louisa’s physical prowess made quite the impression!

Bronson’s reforms laid out

I have long desired a simplified version of Bronson Alcott’s educational reforms and this book provided it. It was like Bronson for dummies and I needed that! I’ll be posting on this chapter soon.

The elder sister comes out
from behind

Most every member of the family was given their own chapter (with the exception of Elizabeth). So it was a welcome surprise to read a chapter devoted to Louisa’s older sister Anna. Even though Anna followed the more traditional path of women in the 19th century, she was still gifted with many of the same talents as Louisa, but with a quiet and tranquil personality. I’ve often thought she was worthy of more study. More than one author has commented that Anna actually had a greater writing talent than Louisa but lacked the drive and ambition. I will write about my findings from this chapter also in a future post.

More tidbits about Lizzie

I wish a chapter had been dedicated to Elizabeth but I was happy to see that yet again,  that same enticing tidbit came up regarding a possible short-lived romance ended by parental disapproval. I hope to be able to find out more about that romance and perhaps why her parents disapproved. Lizzie lived and died by her parents so their approval must have been so important to her. I can only imagine the fallout considering her sensitive nature.

The best part? The book was short with large type and I whipped through it at breakneck speed. It was nice to be able to read like that for a change.

In my next post, I will describe the other book those lovely ladies at the Worcester Public Library gifted me with. I still have to finish it and should soon, if I could just stop taking notes!

Whoever thought research could be this much fun? :-)


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A sweet letter to young fans of Little Women from “Meg”

I came across this very sweet letter from Anna Alcott Pratt to some young admirers of Louisa after she had written Little Women. It’s very revealing as to how she felt about her sisters, and herself. To me she seems hard on herself but most people don’t think they are as good as their family and friends think they are.

The letter is an excerpt from Daniel Shealy’s book, Alcott in Her Own Time, page 19. Here is the link to the excerpt.

Oftentimes I wish Anna hadn’t dropped out of sight after she married. She was a very interesting person in her own right.

An Artist without the Temperament: How Rare!

writing

In reading May’s accounts of her travels and adventures, and hearing how other family members saw her, it occurs to me that May Alcott Nieriker is the first artist I’ve ever ‘met’ that didn’t have the artist temperament.

How do I know? I should know, I’ve been ‘blessed’ with one. :-) My art teacher in 9th grade whom I greatly respected, wrote on my report card that I had one. Years later I met a photographer at a newspaper I worked at. This teacher had acted as his mentor; my photographer friend was deeply impressed that this teacher bestowed such an honor on me.

And what is the artist temperament? Someone who has this temperament tends to be very sensitive and emotional. Life is a constant series of storms and calm seas, back & forth and back & forth. You’re plagued with doubts and insecurities; you’re driven by your passions. You get lost in your creative moment and that’s how you create art or music or literature. Finding balance and peace can be a real challenge.

I find my artist temperament to be a bit scary so I back off from it when I see it coming. That’s probably why I’ve never created anything I consider to be artistically significant. It changes me into someone I don’t want to know, and believe me, nobody else wants to know me either!

Sound familiar? It should to anyone familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s life of turbulence. She was given a king-sized dose of artist temperament. Unlike me, she wasn’t afraid to embrace it. Her description of the vortex she would enter when writing sometimes sounds very tempting to enter into. I’ve only allowed that to happen over the course of a few hours and it is exhilarating, at the time. After I come out of it, I’m irritable, more self-centered than usual, inpatient, and hard to live with. Remembering Louisa’s ‘mood’ pillow (love that idea!), our favorite author had that problem in a big way.

I have since found that age and the deepening of my faith in God has helped to calm the waters and I’m happy with that.

And what of May? She seems to have been spared this temperament, despite the fact that she was a gifted artist, very focused, ambitious, devoted to her studies and her work. How did she ever pull it off? That would have been a great story to chronicle! I do believe she was born under a lucky star – lucky in that she inherited the best of her parents’ genes. While Anna and Lizzie had too much of Bronson in them (the placid part), Louisa had too much of Abby. May had a good measure of both – the fierce life force of Abby, smoothed over by the serenity that was Bronson, while getting the gift of art from both. Now that’s a lucky break!