Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

bronson-abba

Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1953 to 1958. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.

bronson-abba

Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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

Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

It feels like a lifetime since I started reading March by Geraldine Brooks a little over a month ago. Between this work and The Glory Cloak by Patricia O’Brien, my way of thinking has gone through a transformation. Fortunate, because otherwise, I never could have appreciated March.

Opening the mind

Historical fiction has proven to be a game-changer, slowing opening my mind like a can opener struggling over a can of tuna fish. My black and white approach to the world is changing as I learn how to embrace the shades of gray that life often is.

It takes a lot more courage to live in a gray-shaded world. March has shown me that.

Not for the faint of heart

As stated in a previous post, Geraldine Brooks’ writing is aggressive: poking, prodding and shaking the reader out of complacency. March is not a leisurely spring read.

The book opens with a letter March is writing to Marmee and the girls, taken from Little Women. Quickly the story moves from “sweet words” to gruesome descriptions of battle and desperate escape. Right away March is placed in a compromising position in his effort to save a dying soldier, eventually having to let him go as they struggle together to cross the river. This is only one of many events that will torment March with guilt.

Motivation

As in Little Women, March is portrayed as an idealistic minister and dedicated abolitionist. Brooks recalls her motivation for writing March in an article by Linda Sickler of the Savannah Morning News:

“I was interested in what happens to idealists at war, people who go to war because of highly idealistic beliefs, but then find their ideals challenged by the very nature of war,” Brooks says. “I was thinking about this in the context of the Civil War.

“Then I remembered the absent father in Alcott’s novel, about whom we hear very little, except that he has enlisted to minister to the Union troops,” she says. “It seemed to me he would be an excellent vehicle through which to explore this question.”

March and Bronson Alcott

Brooks delves into the life of Bronson Alcott as the means of fleshing out March. It’s the obvious choice and a perfect one to boot: Bronson is the poster boy of impractical idealists.  In an interview for the PBS American Masters documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, Brooks admitts to an “immense soft spot” for Bronson. She also points out the difficulty of living day-to-day with such an idealist but contends that “they’re the ones that make the moral strides that lead humanity forward in its thinking … [Bronson] moved the bar to where we’ve all caught up with him now.”

Drawing upon real life

Bronson’s life story, beginning with his youth at Spindle Hill, followed by his career as a peddler, and culminating with his vocation as an educator and reformer, shapes the life of March. Brooks uses this history to create a convincing story of a loss of innocence and a fall from grace.

Ongoing themes

March explores several themes including the horror and insanity of war, the loss of innocence through moral failure, the meaning of courage and the necessity of compromise.

Interpretations of war

I couldn’t help but make a comparison between Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and March when it came tothe descriptions of war, injury and death. Disquieting and disturbing, Brooks paints the consequences of war with a broad brush of senselessness and cruelty while Louisa manages to draw out nobility and meaning in the midst of the chaos. Undoubtedly the eras in which these two works were written explain the differences in interpretation but I found myself longing for the comfort that Louisa provides.

Innocence lost

March’s loss of innocence and its consequences constitute the heart of the book. The clash of idealism with reality is violent, and the result is that the idealist is quickly reduced to a very frail man with feet of clay.

Not only are March’s values challenged in the public arena with the war and slavery, but in the private as well with regards to fidelity. Although March is deeply in love with his wife Marmee, he is also in love with a slave woman he meets in his youth, Grace Clement. Having met her on one of his peddling trips, he now keeps a lock of her hair along with the locks of Marmee and his daughters, in an envelope close to his bosom.

The meaning of courage

Lapses in courage haunt March as well. Fear and his instinct for survival undercut his idealism, resulting in two deaths and great suffering for others. In lamenting his own weakness, March recalls the daughter with the deepest capacity for courage, his little Mouse, Beth.

Overcoming her extreme shyness, Beth befriends a slave girl, Flora, hidden in the March home. Beth is the only one Flora will open up to. As a result of the strong bond between them, Beth summons the courage to protect her by standing up to the magistrate who wants to take Flora away.

Through the examples of March and Beth, Brooks demonstrates the need for self-sacrifice as the only means by which courage can be drawn. March discovers to his deep shame and horror that he does not have that capacity. Impractical idealist that he is, he never takes into account how lofty ideas will play out in the arena of life.

Compromise

March is not the only character who is all too human.

Part One of the book is narrated by March but switches to Marmee’s voice in Part Two since March is lying desperately ill in the hospital. Marmee, as depicted in Little Women, goes quickly to Washington to be by his side. It is here that she too discovers the idealist with the feet of clay.

She learns of his relationship with Grace by meeting the woman in person. Marmee learns through Grace of the horrors her husband faced during his service, details of which he never conveyed in his letters.

His compromises with regards to fidelity and truth leave Marmee feeling betrayed and angry. Soon, however, she finds that she too must compromise on the truth when it comes time to write to her girls of their father’s progress. It is this questioning of herself that causes Marmee to compromise on her anger and rededicate herself to her husband. Recognition of mutual brokenness ultimately preserves the union.

The verdict?

March is a compelling, albeit uncomfortable, read. Brooks does a masterful job of integrating the history of the Alcotts along with the story of Little Women to create a multi-layered, epic story with deeply moving characters. Every element of this story is painted in shades of gray, challenging the lofty idealism of the characters often portrayed in black and white terms. The true strength of the characters lies in their ability to adapt to the changing landscape. Fidelity is challenged but not sacrificed.

I am a reader who is evolving. March has proven to be an important stepping stone to a more sophisticated and critical approach to reading. It is an excellent companion to Little Women, providing a decidedly adult approach. It broadens and deepens the story of the March family.

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First thoughts on March

I decided upon reading March that I would read with an open mind. Fan fiction is a risky business (although calling March “fan fiction” doesn’t feel quite right, it’s a decidedly more serious work). The reader comes in with all kinds of pre-conceived notions and expectations, and the author can quickly fall out of favor if those expectations are not met.

Having read reviews on Amazon, I knew I’d have to keep an open mind.

Taking no prisoners

March is a powerful read; Geraldine Brooks doesn’t pull any punches. Based on the mostly absent character of Mr. March from Little Women, Brooks fleshes out the character, describing his experiences as a chaplain in the Civil War and how it changed him.

Little Women presents such a sanitized version of Mr. March that the reader has no sense of what he’s been through or what makes him tick. He’s a two-dimensional mystery and Brooks seeks to remedy that.

Jumping right in

Right from the start, she dives into the heart of the matter – the consequences of the Civil War (and any war) on the individual soldiers.

War ain’t pretty!

from ohiohistorycentral.org

Chapter 1 is full of very graphic descriptions of injuries and death. Being a rather sensitive soul, I find the need to read over these sections quickly. A leaden feeling in the stomach means memories that will haunt me in the middle of the night. I have a hard enough time sleeping! :-) War, however, is far from pretty and a realistic dose is a good thing.

Mr. March and Bronson Alcott

Chapter 2 gets into one of the major hot buttons of the Civil War – slavery and its abolition. Brooks jumps back in time to a 19 year-old March, working as a peddler in the South. This is where background reading on Bronson Alcott really helps. It so enriched the chapter for me being able to draw the parallels between Alcott and March.

The destructive force of slavery

March meets a slave named Grace whom he finds compelling and attractive – this plays out in a later chapter. He also discovers his vocation as a teacher when he is asked to teach a very bright slave girl how to read.

March and Roots

He then comes face to face with the ugliness of slavery and what it does to both black and white. Corrupting the white slave owner from within, the black slave suffers the consequences. I don’t want to give away too many details but suffice it to say I had a sudden urge to check out the episode of Roots where Kizzy is sold off because she helped a fellow slave to escape by forging a traveling pass. Sandy Duncan’s performance as the plantation owner’s niece, Missy Anne, had always impressed me. Here was the perfect example of how slavery corrupted someone from within. Kizzy felt brutal betrayal from her lifelong friend Missy Anne because Missy Anne failed to “protect her”; Missy Anne felt betrayed as well because Kizzy was “stupid” enough to help a fellow slave escape. Very haunting, just like this chapter.

What was Geraldine Brooks thinking?

It was in Chapter 4, however, where I began to figure out Brooks’ intention for this story. Here March meets Marmee; Brooks writes:

“After the service, her brother presented Miss Margaret Marie Day, whom everyone in the family called by the affectionate childhood name of Marmee.”

Her intention

Most provocative! A charming idea, but surely a stretch. Everyone who has cherished Little Women knows that the name of Marmee came from Lousia’s own use of the name for her own mother. Perhaps Brooks means for the name to be used for both as it does sound like a nickname for “mother.” Still, she took a big risk here of alienating readers.

This leads me to believe that Brooks means to be provocative. She wants to poke, prod and shake up the reader so that in no way the reader can remain lukewarm. A strong negative reaction is better than no reaction at all!

I have to admire that kind of courage in a writer; it makes me happy to suspend my expectations and go with the flow of this book.

Death and dying

I plan on using a separate post to explore Chapter 3. Brooks’ view of death is quite different from Louisa May Alcott’s view as shown in Little Women and Hospital Sketches. In the video I posted the other day featuring John Matteson, he read a chapter from his book, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father , where Louisa goes off to war. He cites many of the passages from Hospital Sketches that I had planned on re-reading after reading Chapter 3 of March. How timely that that video came along when Chapter 3 was so fresh in my mind. J

Have you read March? Were you able to suspend your expectations? What did you think?

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Eight Cousins: Educating Rose

Uncle Alec affected big changes in Rose’s life as chapters 7 and 8 of Eight Cousins demonstrate.

Joy lacking

“Rose and her Aunts”, frontispiece illustration to the first edition, Roberts Bros, Boston, 1875 (Wikipedia)

Early in the book, there were several reasons why Rose was a timid, teary child (the untimely death of her dear father, too many “cooks in the kitchen” with all her aunts, etc.). Much of the joy had been taken out of her life and most especially in her education.

Too preachy?

Bronson Alcott’s presence is strongly felt in Louisa’s commentary on Rose’s education. Eight Cousins seems to be full of such commentaries (remember chapter 5, A Belt and a Box). I can see why readers complain about the preachy nature of her books for children.

The “Miss Power” approach to education

Illustration by Robert Doremus

Rose loved studying with her father but found the boarding school and Miss Power oppressive:

“I used to understand a great deal better when papa taught me a few lessons than when Miss Power hurried me through so many . . .”

Uncle Alec chose a wonderful way to describe the problem:

“ . . . I find and I dare say it would be if the benighted lady did not think it necessary to cram her pupils like Thanksgiving turkeys, instead of feeding them in a natural and wholesome way. It is the fault with most American schools, and the poor little heads will go on aching till we learn better.”

The voice of Bronson

Uncle Alec is obviously the mouthpiece of Louisa’s own father who proposed many educational reforms. Louisa has a talent for taking the often obtuse way Bronson would record his ideas and making them understandable for children.

A gift of gab

Fred Willis & Louisa; Illustration by Flora Smith

A frequent boarder with the Alcotts, Frederick Llewellyn Willis (who became like a brother to the girls) wrote in his Alcott Memoirs that “Mr. Alcott’s table talks were constantly delightful . . . he took especial care to so discourse that the youngest listener might comprehend and fully understand.” He quotes a child as saying, “I love to hear him talk. He is so plain and tells me so much I didn’t know, fastening it on to what I know.”

Talk doesn’t translate into writing

Perhaps this is how Louisa was able to distill her father’s philosophy of education into simpler form. It’s a shame that Bronson’s writing could not capture the magic of his dialog with children!

Everyday lessons

Like Bronson, Uncle Alec uses the experiences of everyday life to teach Rose her lessons:

  • A boat trip out on the harbor ends with a visit to a ship in from Hong Kong where Rose meets two men from China and soaks up the local color.
  • Alec helps Rose sort through her account book to teach her how to manage her financial affairs. Rose has a terrible time with figures but swears she will “hunt up her old arithmetic and perfect herself in the first four rules, before she read any more fairy tales.”
  • Rose reads aloud to her uncle who feigns tiredness; he is so enchanted with her skill that he asks her to read some more.

Enter the dreaded Aunt Jane

When Aunt Jane stops in to visit, she is very critical of Alec’s methods (although she is judging without having actually seen them). Jane is the very strict member of the Aunt-Hill; she is a great believer of the Miss Powers method of teaching, bragging that her sons hit the books all day long.

Rose shows her!

Jane assumes that Rose has been petted to death by her uncle and wasting her time reading “trash” with him, but Rose has the last laugh when asked about her lessons:

“I’ve had five to-day, ma’am . . . Navigation, geography, grammar, arithmetic, and keeping my temper.”

Aunt Jane blown away!

She then proceeds to show off her knowledge of China after her visit to the boat from Hong Kong which shocks Jane:

“The effect of this remarkable burst was immense . . . it entirely took the wind out of Aunt Jane’s sails; it was so sudden, so varied and unexpected, that she had not a word to say. The glasses remained fixed full upon Rose for a moment, and then, with a hasty ‘Oh, indeed!’ the excellent lady bundled into her carriage and drove away, somewhat bewildered and very much disturbed”

A triumph indeed!

Needless to say, Alec and Rose enjoyed their triumph thoroughly:

“She would have been more so if she had seen her reprehensible brother-in-law dancing a triumphal polka down the hall with Rose in honour of having silenced the enemy’s battery for once”

Bronson, I’m sure, would have been quite pleased as well.

This book is fun but . . . do you find Eight Cousins to be preachy? Does it bother you?


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The art of conversation, Bronson-style

Through his illustrious life, Bronson Alcott used many means to preach and teach his unique message of transcendentalism. In the early part of his career he used his gifts as a teacher to educate the young through the art of conversation (see previous post). As he believed the Divine resided in each child, he sought through Platonic questioning to draw out that spirit and assist the child in discovering that spirit within. He in essence sought to make that child aware of the knowledge that he believed already resided inside.

Closing a door . . .

When Bronson lost the Temple School to controversy (see previous post), he was denied employment as a teacher, both in Boston and in Concord where he and his family resided after the closing of the school.

Known for his strong (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) conviction and principles, Bronson chose to subject himself and his family to abject poverty rather than take on work that would bring in a living wage. He has come under heavy criticism from many for that decision.

. . . and opening a window

Yet there were people who appreciated what Bronson had to offer. After being denied the chance to teach, Bronson took his special art of conversation to adults. Since helacked the ability to write (Emerson wrote, “When he [Bronson] sits down to write all his genius leaves him; he gives you the shell and throws away the kernel of his thought.” (p. 101, The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing , e-book edition)) he employed secretaries to take down what transpired during his conversations – they are recorded in a volume called Notes of Conversations, 1848-1875: Amos Bronson Alcott, edited by Karen English.

Conversation like music

There is also an anonymous account of one such a conversation by a newspaper reporter, the account being known as “An Evening with Alcott.” In Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, John Matteson uses this account to describe Bronson’s art of conversation employing the analogy of music. (Note – all page numbers come from the e-book edition).

A jazz solo

Matteson writes, “Almost by design, an Alcott conversation was evanescent. Like an improvised musical solo, it was produced in order to fill the air with a momentary pulsation, imparting a flash of insight before moving on to the next equally ephemeral spark.” (p. 230). In essence, Matteson is equating Bronson’s conversations to jazz.

from Tablets by Amos Bronson Alcott

Where is it going?

Anyone who has listened to jazz improvisation knows that even though it appears the solo is going nowhere and everywhere, it actually ends up somewhere – at the ear and heart of the listener. You aren’t always sure what you have heard (if you are not a musician yourself), but you know you just experienced something sublime. The skill of the instrumentalist has just led you on a unique journey never to be repeated.

The anonymous newspaper reporter writes of a similar type of experience:
“”Do you remember what he says? Most likely not, or only certain isolated but splendid phrases which shock you as especially out of the common orbit of thought-or, in the strict, not conventional sense of the word, eccentric. But you do not regret that no tangible opinions remain in your memory, like a mellow autumn day, or, like a soft, tender melody, you recall his conversation only as an ethereal and delicate influence.” (pg. 230)

Waiting for people to converse with, and tempting them with apples . . .

Oratory vs. conversation

There is a difference between being a great orator, where you most likely are addressing a large crowd, to conducting a small group conversation. Bronson was not known as a great orator, but in some inexplicable way, he created an atmosphere of intimacy. Graced with great charisma, it is likely Bronson had that special gift for making each individual feel like he (or she, but mostly likely he) was the only one in the room; Bronson was speaking only to him. (p. 230)

Debate or the insertion of partisan views was not permitted:
“When Bronson spoke to an uninitiated audience, he explained to them, that, in his definition, conversation was an endeavor to find points on which a company could sympathize in feeling. He thought it inappropriate for anyone to present his own individual views for the sake of argument or debate.” (p. 231)

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

How much actual “conversing”
was there?

Since most participants found it hard to keep their own point of view out of the conversation and still contribute, there was little actual back and forth: “The author of ‘An Evening with Alcott’ observed that the conversation he witnessed was not a conversation in any ordinary sense, for no one had conversed.” (p. 231)

In many respects, Bronson was on a different plane from his participants, making a two-way dialog nearly impossible.
Still, our friend the reporter was deeply inspired: “He aspired to ‘touching those fine chords in every heart which will inspire them to respond to one’s own experience.’ “
(p. 230)

What must it have been like to listen to a speaker improvise like the finest jazz musician? Has anyone since been able to duplicate that experience?


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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?

Click to Tweet & Share: Read intimate letters between the Alcott children & their parents http://wp.me/p125Rp-IL


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Book Review: Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary

Since a children’s biography (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard) introduced me to Louisa, I have a special fondness for children’s books on the subject. During a recent trip to the Worcester Public Library, I discovered Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary, edited by Cary Ryan with illustrations by Mark Graham. It was the perfect introduction to Louisa’s voice, greatly whetting my appetite for more.

Setup of the book

The book’s chapters are arranged by theme and therefore the information is not in chronological order. Since the story jumps around quite a bit, it could be confusing for a newcomer to Louisa’s life. However, a 13 year-old reviewer on Amazon commented that the book made her want to read more, so I would say the author did her job.

There is, sadly, little that remains of Louisa’s earliest journal entries so I appreciated the author’s commentary surrounding them. I also appreciated clarifications of intent, and the spelling and grammar corrections.

Louisa’s own voice

In these scant entries I hear a voice that is spirited, fierce, poignant, sometimes confused and deeply burdened with guilt. Louisa’s moods are legendary and even in these short passages you see the swings:

Sunday, September 21st, Fruitlands
“Father and Mr. Lane have gone to N[ew] Hampshire to preach. It was very lovely . . . Anna and I got supper. In the eve I read [Oliver Goldsmith’s] “[The] Vicar of Wakefield.” I was cross to-day and I cired when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the wold. But I don’t, and so am very bad.” (pages 3 and 4)

Tomboy Louy

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

The spirited and fierce Louisa wrote, “I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.”
(page 1).

Writing as a release

I got the impression that writing in her journal was therapeutic for Louisa; I know the benefits of that therapy having employed the method a great deal during my adolescence. But at least my journal was private. Imagine having your father commenting in the margins, and frowning upon your self-expression, condemning it as “selfish”!

Her poem about ruling her inner self and trying to find peace demonstrates this use of writing as a means to keep her chaotic inner life in order:

My Little Kingdom (pages 8 and 9)

A little kingdom I possess
where thoughts and feelings dwell,
And very hard I find the task
of governing it well;
For passion tempts and troubles me,
A wayward will misleads,
And selfishness its shadow casts
On all my words and deeds.

How can I learn to rule myself,
to be the child I should,
Honest and brave, nor ever tire
Of trying to be good?
How can I keep a sunny soul
To shine along life’s way?
How can I tune my little heart
To sweetly sing all day?

Dear Father, help me with the love
that casteth out my fear;
Teach me to lean on thee, and feel
That thou art very near,
That no temptation is unseen
No childish grief too small,
Since thou, with patience infinite,
Doth soothe and comfort all.

I do not ask for any crown
But that which all may win
Nor seek to conquer any world
Except the one within.
Be thou my guide until I find,
Led by a tender hand,
Thy happy kingdom in myself
And dare to take command.

Always at war

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

Her father Bronson’s attempts to mold Louisa into his ideal fueled the war within herself. (page 12) Instead of appreciating her strong will, creative and physical energies, and her passion, she instead condemned herself as “proud”, “”wilful” and “selfish”. It is a testament to her resourcefulness that she found a way to express herself (and edify the world) by means of caring for her “pathetic family,” even if it did create a prison of obligation from which she could never escape.

Bronson in a nutshell

Ryan did a great job in summing up Bronson’s education contributions. I marvel at anyone who can sum up succinctly what this man had to offer! She begins with a quote from Little Women on page 11:

“If [Demi] is old enough to ask the questions he is old enough to receive true answers. I am not putting the thoughts into his head, but helping him unfold those already there. These children are wiser than we are, and I have no doubt the boy understands every word I have said to him.”
Mr. March of his grandson, Little Women

She then writes:

“Bronson Alcott believed that a child’s ‘divine nature’ could be “awakened” by dialogues between teacher and pupil – question-and-answer conversations that “unfolded” what was already within the child. As Louisa wrote, ‘My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child’s nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strassburg goose, with more than it could digest.’ “

Ideal versus reality

Cary Ryan does a wonderful job of summing up the ideal vs. the reality of Bronson’s teaching methods, demonstrating again how Bronson’s ego so got in the way. She likens his Q &A’s to “bullying sessions” where he imposes his own divine nature on his daughters and students, believing his divine nature is superior to theirs. Another sign of a narcissistic personality disorder? He could have accomplished so much more had he been free of this demon!

A sad truth

Charles Lane

One of the most poignant entries by Louisa was this dialog between her and the notorious Charles Lane, Bronson’s partner at Fruitlands:

(I made Mr. Lane’s questions bold to distinguish them from Louisa’s answers)

How can you get what you need?
By trying.

How do you try?
By resolution and perseverance.

How gain love?
By gentleness.

What is gentleness?
Kindness, patience, and care for other people’s feelings.

Who has it?
Father and Anna.

Who means to have it?
Louisa, if she can.

And Louisa adds years later, “She never got it.” (page 14)

Love and self-love

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

What immediately struck me was Louisa’s entry years after the initial one – did she ever feel that she “gained” love as she, by her own admission, never achieved “gentleness?” How pathetic that she was taught such a narrow definition of love, both on being loved and how to be loving. Surely the untiring care she showed her family in such practical ways was giving love too, even if it wasn’t “gentle.” Susan Cheever in her biography Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography had suggested that Louisa never felt truly loved and I had discounted it because Abba in particular made such an effort to help and support her. But perhaps Cheever is right after all – Louisa herself may have never felt truly loved. How sad.

What did young Louisa read?

This book was a great beginning resource for finding out what Louisa read in her childhood. As I am on a quest this year to read some of what she read, I found that to be very helpful. Some examples are:

  • The Judicious Father (no author mentioned)
  • Rosamond by Maria Edgeworth
  • The Home by Frederika Bremer
  • Kenilworth and Heart of Mid-Lothian by Sir Walter Scott
  • Philothea by Lydia Marie Child

Big as all outdoors

As a final thought, Cary Ryan ended the book with Louisa’s personal encounter with God out in the woods and meadow (I’ve listed it as my favorite quote on this blog – you can see it in the right hand column) (page 35). Having gotten a deeper sense of how big a personality she really was, it makes perfect sense that she found God in the outdoors, the only space big enough to allow her to express her true self. And we can only find God when we are truly ourselves.

Have you read Louisa’s journals and/or letters? What are your impressions?


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