Do Louisa May Alcott’s didactic tales of fantasy have a place in children’s reading today?

2004 Orchard House edition

2004 Orchard House edition

Last December I had the opportunity to tour Orchard House during the Christmas season (see previous post, “A lovely holiday visit to Orchard House, capped off by some great finds!”). The theme of the period decorations was Louisa May Alcott’s “first born,” Flower Fables. To properly prepare for the tour, I decided to read this book.

Learning about a fairy tale pioneer

I had misgivings about reading it at first as I am not a big fan of fantasy tales. I recalled, however, a presentation by Daniel Shealy at the American Library Association workshop on their Louisa May Alcott initiative back in 2011 (see previous post, “The American Library Association Louisa May Alcott Project: A DVD and Book Start a Movement”). Dr. Shealy had stated that Louisa was an often overlooked pioneer of American fantasy and fairy tales. Intrigued by this notion, I dug in.

Tales told to a friend

flower fables from concord libraryLouisa was fifteen when she originally crafted and told these tales to a young Ellen Emerson. Ellen was so taken with them that she demanded they be written down. Louisa complied; the charming little books, handwritten and bound with ribbon can be seen at the Concord Free Public Library in their Special Collections. It gave me a special thrill to actually touch and read them (see previous post, “The field trip of a lifetime).

A safe haven

Yes, the tales are overly sweet. Yes, they are preachy. Yes, they are dated. I read the book, however, very soon after the mind-numbing shooting of scores of school children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I found Louisa’s “preaching” be a safe haven where I could retreat, to a time of more wholesome thoughts and feelings.

Time to revive these stories?

As I read I began to feel an urge to share these tales with children. It reminded me of how I felt after reading some of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag and the urge I had then to ask my local library if I could read some of these stories to children. Many lend themselves to terrific creative activities.

Louisa had a fertile imagination that never lost its childish innocence even as she continued writing such stories in her fifties as she suffered through her illness. The lessons that she imparts may be considered “old-fashioned,” but I found them quite timely.

Fairies and elves in a romantic backdrop

Flower Fables is unique in that it is Louisa’s first published book, written when she was a dreamy teenager. Her exposure to the outdoors through the likes of her father and Henry David Thoreau provide a natural and romantic backdrop rich in detail. She knew her flowers, trees and birds and it was here that she set her tales of fairies, elves and children.

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Here are a few highlights.

Nature and fantasy become one

From “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pg. 40, Flower Fables, Orchard House edition

“… soon through the rippling water came a strange little boat.

It was a lily of the valley, whose tall stem formed the master, while the broad leaves that rose from the roots, and drooped again till they reached the water, were filled with gay little Elves, who danced to the music of the silver lilybells above, that rang a merry peal, and filled the air with their fragrant breath.”

male fairy with mushroomsLouisa’s familiarity with nature was woven effortlessly into the fantasy so that the real world of plants and animals and the imaginary world of elves and fairies became one. It was once said that Thoreau showed her a cobweb and declared that it was a fairy’s handkerchief. His instinctive understanding of the flight of fancy and its relationship to reality nurtured Louisa’s mind and heart. He connected with the child, sparking her desire and feeding her imagination and she was able to share that with countless other children.

A song to God

Continuing from “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pg. 43

“When the sun rose the Fairies, and, with Eva, hastened away to the fountain, whose cool waters were soon filled with little forms, and the air ringing with happy voice, as the Elves floated in the blue waves among the fair white lilies, or sat on the green moss, smoothing their bright locks, and wearing fresh garlands of dewy flowers. At length the Queen came forth, and her subjects gathered round her, and while the flowers bowed their heads, and the trees hushed their rustling, the Fairies sang their morning hymn to the Father of birds and blossoms, who made the earth so fair a home for them.”

It’s easy here to see the transcendental influence on the author. Louisa effortlessly blends in a gentle religious lesson of praise to God, free from denominational identification, theology, rules, etc. It’s just a simple faith from the heart. The transcendental quality, of course, is the connection with nature.

Moral lessons

One more passage from “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pgs. 45-46

2girlfairy“They passed on, and Eva saw beside each bed a Fairy, who with gentle hands and loving words soothed the suffering insects. … Then said the Fairy, while she bathed the broken wing — “Love-Blossom, you should not murmur. We may find happiness in seeking to be patient even while we suffer. You are not forgotten or uncared for, but others need our care more than you, and to those who take cheerfully the pain and sorrow sent, do we most gladly give our help. You need not be idle, even though lying here in darkness and sorrow; you can be taking from your heart all sad and discontented feelings, and if love and patience blossom there, you will be better for the lonely hours spent here. Look on the bed beside you; this little dove has suffered far greater pain than you, and all our care can never ease it; yet through the long days he hath lain here, not an unkind word or a repining sigh hath he uttered. Ah, Love-Blossom, the gentle bird can teach a lesson you will be wiser and better for.”

This is a pretty sophisticated lesson! I am in my mid-50s and only just learned it the last time I was sick (because I have a sterling example in a woman I visit each week who suffers from a debilitating disease of the middle ear which causes severe vertigo resulting in dizziness, nausea, headaches and difficulty walking.) Louisa and her sisters “acted out” these lessons with dolls and stuffed toys as shown in Little Women (especially Beth with her invalid and headless doll, Joanna).

Is Beth March out of fashion?

Jo and Beth; illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

Jo and Beth; illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

The heart of the moral lessons in Flower Fables is self-sacrificial love and patient suffering. Both of these are characteristic of Beth in Little Woman and considered “out of fashion” in today’s society. How many times have I heard that “nobody wants to be Beth.” And yet, I keep meeting people, young and old, male and female, who do. Why do people dismiss the Beths of this world when there are many quiet souls who give of themselves because they want to?

Why are these stories still remembered?

This is what I find so compelling about Louisa’s didactic stories. I realize writing of this type was common in the 19th century. The question is what made Louisa’s way of conveying it unique such that her stories are still remembered today?

Stories like these (and the play that ensues) connects people to one another and fosters care of one another. Video games do the exact opposite.

Guess I’m the one who is preaching now!

This is a small taste of what is offered in Flower Fables. In in the next post, I will share a conversation I had with Dr. Shealy about Louisa’s fantasy tales plus highlights from an essay he wrote about this aspect of her work.

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

Channeling a little Thoreau, a little John Denver while gardening

Memorial Day weekend means getting all our gardens into shape.  I’ve got more of a black thumb than green (meaning I’ve killed the vast majority of things I’ve planted :-)) but there are some plants I can keep alive! I decided to rely on the tried and true this year so that my gardens will stay pretty all summer long.

My husband has a thing for fountains and bought a couple for our deck. I love having them and enjoyed filling the deck with plants to accompany the flowing waters. One of the fountains has a light so you can see the flowing water at night – very cool!

Lately I’ve gotten into listening to John Denver and whenever I hear his hit, “Rocky Mountain High,” I feel like he’s singing about a modern day Thoreau. It was nice to have the spirit of Henry with me while digging my fingers into the soil, hoping to add color and new life to our surroundings.

Here’s how it all came out. After the flower slide show, there’s a video I posted of John Denver singing “Rocky Mountain High” at his Wildlife Concert.

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Torn between two lovers

So what’s a girl to do?

Louisa May Alcott is my passion but so are spring birds!

Two weeks out of the year, the spring migrants come through my area. I am fortunate to live in what’s known as a “fly zone” where all sorts of colorful birds with lovely songs spend a few days before continuing on up north to Canada to nest.

The weather is key as to how this all shakes out. All last week we had dreary, gray and cool weather with temperatures in the 50s. Just 300 miles away, temps were in the 70s. The cold front we were stuck in acted like a wall, and the birds were waiting.

Saturday morning, temperatures rose slightly, opening the door. And the birds streamed in!

Every birder dreams of witnessing a “fall-out” where literally, all different kinds of birds rain down upon the observer. I had that experience on Saturday. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Pictured are all the birds I saw in a 2 hour period.

I have to imagine that Henry David Thoreau must have experienced at least one “fall-out” in his lifetime (and probably more). Maybe Louisa experienced it with him (dreamy :-)). Did he talk excitedly to himself as I did watching 2 brilliant red Scarlet Tanagers singing and chasing each other? Thank goodness no one was around to see!

Did he lie on his back to watch the birds so high up in the trees? I did (stupidly, forgetting about the danger of deer ticks!). Glorious! And luckily, I found the two deer ticks on me.

So, in the morning, when I’m indulging in my Louisa passion, reading, writing for this blog, or just writing, I hear the spring birds singing outside, longing to grab my binoculars for another look.

Remember that song, “Torn Between Two Lovers”? That’s me! At least, until the spring migration is over.

What a glorious time of year!

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A last journey on the Sylvia Yule before the winter comes

I had the very rare opportunity yesterday of actually having 2 hours of free time lining up with beautifully warm weather in the middle of October! I jumped on it. :-) I grabbed the Sylvia Yule and went down to the local boat launch to take a final kayak trip before the cold weather settles in.

My husband keeps wishing we had a waterfront home. I think we have the best of both worlds – a home only a few minutes away from water – all the perks without  the work and hassle. Not a bad deal at all. :-) I launched the Sylvia Yule just as the sun was about to set.

We had just had a big rain storm so the water level was high and the current strong, making for a vigorous paddling workout. The colors at sunset were golden and lovely.

I loved how the water reflected the clouds and the sky. I only wish I had been able to capture the Great Blue Heron that I scared off a couple of times. Alas, an iPhone camera can’t do everything! :-)

Of course my head was full of Thoreau (as it always is now when I kayak). This time though I recalled Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute and imagined myself as a young Louisa with Mr. Thoreau in the Musketaquid, listening to music from his flute and the quasi-fairy tale stories he told about the natural world.

And how could I do a post about a kayak trip without quoting Moods? :-)

“All manner of sights and sounds greeted Sylvia, and she felt as if she were watching a Panorama painted in water colors by an artist who had breathed into his work the breath of life and given each figure power to play its part . . . never had she felt so truly her happiest self, for of all the costlier pleasures she had known not one had been so congenial as this, as she rippled farther and farther up the stream and seemed to float into a world whose airs brought only health and peace.

Anxious to reach a certain point, they rowed on into the twilight, growing stiller and stiller as the deepening hush seemed to hint that Nature was at her prayers. Slowly the Kelpie floated along the shadowy way, and as the shores grew dim, the river dark with leaning hemlocks or an overhanging cliff, Sylvia felt as if she were making the last voyage across that fathomless stream where a pale boatman plies and many go lamenting.”

The red, orange and golden leaves, while lovely to look at, sparked a little sadness at the thought of winter approaching. They remind me of the leaves I pressed into wax paper and gave to my mom in the last few months of her life, so she could still see the beauty of the season.

Still, winter makes the spring all that much sweeter. I will need to find a way to appreciate the snow and the storms and find beauty in them also.

This weekend, I will clean off the Sylvia Yule and put her in the basement until the spring. What a glorious way to end the season, filled with wonderful memories of great times drifting down river.

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Children’s story suggests Louisa’s inspiration for her first poem (and inspires a little song)

Remember Louisa May Alcott’s first poem, written when she was 8?

To the First Robin

Welcome, welcome little stranger,
Fear no harm, and fear no danger,
We are glad to see you here,
For you sing, “Sweet Spring is near.”

Now the white snow melts away;
Now the flowers blossom gay;
Come dear bird and build your nest,
For we love our robin best.

In a delightful children’s picture book, Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute, authors Julie Dunlap and Marybeth Lorbiecki offer an intriguing suggestion as to what inspired Louisa to write her first poem, and discover “her own inner music – a wild melodious river of words that could carry her wherever she longed to be” (p. 29).

The setting

Dunlap and Lorbiecki’s charming story begins in Concord when the Alcotts lived at the Hosmer cottage (pre-Fruitlands). Right away they introduce the idea of Louisa’s exuberant spirit as the seven year-old girl  jumps from the ceiling beam of the Hosmer farm because of a dare from Cyrus Hosmer. The consequences included two sprained ankles and the writing of a long list of rules (given by her father) on the things “good” girls are supposed to do. Here it’s revealed how tedious Louisa finds the exercise of writing.

This would soon change.

Enter Mr. Thoreau

Because Louisa’s older sister Anna was being taught by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John at Concord Academy, the Alcott girls had the good fortune of accompanying Mr. Thoreau on nature field trips.

Magic time

The authors did a wonderful job of describing Mr. Thoreau’s oddities (“Some even said he combed his hair with a pine comb.”). He had a magical way of opening up the world of nature to the children, mixing a fairy tale mentality (describing a cob web as a fairy’s handkerchief) and the soothing sounds of his flute. It is the music he played on this flute that particularly captures Louisa’s heart. She noticed too that Henry jotted down quick notes in a notebook about what was seen along the way. Did he write such magical words in that notebook?

Life changing

Henry David Thoreau opened up a whole new world to Louisa, one that beautifully accommodated her boundless physical energy. Louisa discovered how freeing the outside world could be. She soon found the indoors with its chores and rules confining, especially during the long, cold winter. But while she could be outside, she reveled in all her experiences with Mr. Thoreau, from berry picking to excursions in his boat, the Musketaquid, to his stories about elves dancing on toadstools.

Unlocking the door

Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute does such a beautiful job of setting the stage for Louisa’s first experience of creative self-expression. Knowing personally the power of music, I could feel the sense of longing inside  brought to life by Mr. Thoreau’s flute. It was a key that unlocked the door to the rest of her life.

The birth of a poem

I found myself shedding a tear when, after the long cold winter, the first signs of spring awoke the writer in her which produced her first poem. It fueled my own longing to allow those creative urges inside of me to be expressed more fully.

An inspiration to children . . .

Even though Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute is a children’s picture book (and the pictures by Mary Azarian are beautiful), there is plenty of good and accurate biographical information in this story.

I would hope that any child would be inspired to unlock their door to creativity by reading this wonderful book.

And adults

I immediately went to Amazon and bought Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute – I wanted a keepsake to remind me not to suppress, but to develop and express, my artistic, musical and writing abilities.

A simple song

Here’s a little fruit from my reading, a very simple little melody for “To the First Robin.”  I made a rough recording of it on my iPod and I thought I’d share it with you.

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Thoreau and mysticism – Nature as a highway to the Divine

I’ve just started reading a thick volume on contemplative prayer (Fire Within by Thomas Dubay, SM), based upon the writings of two giants in this area, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Both were Carmelites,  and both hailed from Spain.

Many Spanish scholars believe that St. John is the greatest poet and writer of prose in the Spanish language (Fire Within, Thomas Dubay, SM, pg. 34). When I started reading about this saint and his intense interest in nature, I immediately thought about Henry David Thoreau.

I had mentioned in a previous post that Thoreau seemed like a contemplative. In reading about St. John of the Cross, I saw a lot of similarities, at least on the surface, between Thoreau and St. John:

St. John:

“He loved going outdoors and praying immediately from the book of creation lying before his eyes. It is said of him that he would be found in his cell with elbows on the windowsill, gazing, in absorbed prayer, upon the flowers during the day or the stars at night. ” (Fire Within, page. 33)

” ‘Oh woods and thickets,
Planted by the hand of my Beloved!
O green meadow
Coated, bright, with flowers,
Tell me, has He pass by you?’
[poetry by St. John]
Because creation shouts the Creator to the attentive heart, the man of woman who sets out on a serious pursuit of God uses the finite order as a stepping-stone to the infinite.” (Ibid, pg. 50)

Thoreau (from “Walking”):

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absoutely free from all wordly engagements. “

“We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world . . .”

“For I believe that climate does thus react on man — as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences? Or is it unimportant how many foggy days there are in his life? I trust that we shall be more imaginative; that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher and more ethereal, as our sky — our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains — our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests, — and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.”

I wonder, did Thoreau ever read anything by St. John of the Cross? Is there any record of him reading such things? And if anyone can recommend an essay or portion of a book where Thoreau talks about the interior revelations he received from spending time in Nature, I’d love to know.

Was Thoreau a romantic? Final thoughts on “Walking”

Much has been said about how unconventional Henry David Thoreau was. Although brilliant he was solitary, decidedly different, very blunt, not especially attractive physically, and he was prone to “queer” habits such as climbing trees, imitating bird calls and the like.

Yet women did find Thoreau attractive. Louisa May Alcott had a schoolgirl crush on him, and based characters in her books on him, most especially Adam Warwick, her doomed lover in Moods, and David Sterling in Work: A Story of Experience.

Sophia Foord, a naturalist and boarder at Hillside, the Alcott family home during Louisa’s teenage (and happiest) years, actually proposed marriage to a horrified Thoreau who brushed her aside.

Except for a failed attempt at love with Ellen Sewall (where he competed with his brother John for her affections), and a possible romantic interest in Lidian Emerson, Thoreau was not a ladies’ man. But I do maintain that he was a romantic.

Thoreau wrote passionately in his essay,  “Walking,” about traveling west, commenting that he usually positioned his feet west to south-west because “The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” He adds, “We go eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race, — we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” While Thoreau protested the idea of Manifest Destiny (the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean – Wikipedia) especially because of the Mexican-American War (which annexed Texas and permitted another slave state), it does seem that at least philosophically, he embraced the idea of heading west. And here’s where the romantic in him showed its face:

Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a west as distant and as fair as that into which the Sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow. We dream all night of those mountain ridges in the horizon, though they may be of vapor only, which were last gilded by his rays. The island of Atlantis,and the islands and gardens of the Hesperides, a sort of terrestrial paradise, appear to have been the Great West of the ancients, enveloped in mystery and poetry. Who has not seen in imagination, when looking into the sunset sky, the gardens of the Hesperides, and the foundation of all those fables?

Not to be a killjoy, but what about all the hardships pioneers faced going out west? Many many thousands of people died from disease, starvation and battles with Native Americans. It was a tremendous struggle just to survive. I was surprised  in the romanticism and naivety that Thoreau seemed to exhibit but I was glad to see that he had such an optimistic spirit. He cites Sir Francis Head, an English traveler:

 “The heavens of America appear infinitely higher — the sky is bluer — the air is fresher — the cold is intenser — the moon looks larger — the stars are brighter — the thunder is louder — the lightning is vivider — the wind is stronger — the rain is heavier — the mountains are higher — the rivers larger — the forests bigger — the plains broader.”

This line made me laugh:

” . . .  the traveller can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts.”

Um, ever hear of black bears?? Or bobcats??

It got me to thinking about the experiment at Walden. I still think it was a noble experiment but isn’t it true that he brought his laundry to his mother at the family homestead in Concord? :-)

I know that going west for Thoreau was as much about allegory as it was about actually traveling there. The east represented the Old World and Old World (e.g. old ideas and narrow-minded and conventional) thinking whereas the west represented a broadening of one’s horizon and the possibility of reconnecting again with Nature – Sir Francis said it perfectly.

What’s the point of all this? Just that Thoreau was many things: brilliant thinker and writer, transcendentalist, abolitionist and government protester (and willing to go to jail over it), surveyor, pencil maker, innovator, naturalist – a man who said much and truly walked the walk. I would just like to add that he was also a romantic. Bombastic at times, but definitely a romantic.

Final Thoughts on “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

Reading the last few words, I slowly closed Mr. Emerson’s Wife and felt a welling up inside of emotion. I was so tied to the character of Lidian Jackson Emerson that I felt they were her emotions too.

This is how Amy Belding Brown’s book hit me. I lived inside of Mr. Emerson’s Wife for the last couple of weeks, crawling inside the head, the skin and the heart of Lidian Jackson Emerson. I loved Mr. Emerson as she loved him, felt the bitter disappointment and anger of promises not kept, and swooned over Henry David Thoreau, sensing the touching of souls as he and Lidian grew closer to each other.

A growing appreciation for words

There are times when I am so grateful I am a slow reader! Although this book could be read very quickly, it shouldn’t be. I savored every line, for the first time really appreciating the art of writing and how beautifully words could express thoughts, feelings and actions.

The value of words has been on my mind a lot lately. In my spiritual reading, I read how Jesus Christ is known in the gospel of John as The Word. In a book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, the Orthodox priest writes about idle talk and how words can be as equally life affirming and devastating, and how we as humans are the only creatures gifted with the ability to make words. It’s an awesome gift that carries a solemn responsibility.

Books like Mr. Emerson’s Wife fill me with desire to savor more words, and to commit more words to paper (and computer). I am eternally grateful to Meg North who suggested on her blog that aspiring writers should have their trusty notebook and favorite pen with them at all times. I do (in fact I have separate notebooks for different things I’m researching, and each has its own favorite pen). I love composing on the computer but there’s something very organic and cool about writing with a pen and getting the smudged ink on my fingers.

But I digress. I’d like to offer some final thoughts on Lidian Jackson Emerson and her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as imagined by Amy Belding Brown (with a lot of historical facts to back up her theories).

Among my top favorite books

Mr. Emerson’s Wife is the most emotionally engaging book I’ve ever read and ranks right up there with my other top 3: Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Little Women. Gone With the Wind was a sweeping epic with fascinating characters and a take on the South by a true southerner which challenged some of my perceptions about the pre and post Civil War South. It was the most fun I’d ever had reading. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the right book at the right time as my children were the same age as Harry, Hermione and Ron (and my Stephen is like Harry). That synchronicity will unfortunately never happen again. And I reveled in the domestic spirituality, sisterhood and semi-autobiographical nature of Little Women.

An honest commentary on marriage

Mr. Emerson’s Wife moved me so because Brown made Lidian, Waldo and Henry leap off the pages straight into my mind and heart. They truly were flesh and blood people to me, navigating the complexities of marriage, friendship, life, death and love in Victorian New England. Brown wrote an honest and balanced commentary on marriage which not only applied then, but applies today. Despite the fact that I’ve enjoyed an unusually happy marriage for the last 32 years, I could still keenly identify with some of the trials that Lidian went through with Mr. Emerson (as she called him). The world still revolves around the man on occasion in this ‘enlightened’ age. Yet, because of this book, I felt compelled to remark to my husband  how truly lucky I was to have him as my lifelong companion; I came to appreciate our marriage even more.

Awakened feminism

This book awoke in me a renewed care and concern for women and their place in the world. The political nature of feminism today long ago turned me off to women’s issues (particularly the obsession with Pro Life/Pro Choice – I am Pro Life). When I was a young mother, I felt left behind by feminists, feeling undervalued as a mother and wife. While reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife, I sensed that my eyes were opening, seeing things around me (even in my own family) that told me the battle for women’s rights (particularly in the area of health) is far from over. I feel a much stronger obligation to guide my 22 year old daughter in the right direction, making sure that she is tending to her education and her development. Fortunately she already has a strong sense of herself and does not base her entire existence upon having a man in her life (even though she is in a serious relationship with a wonderful young man).

Lidian’s struggles

Lidian struggled with a brilliant and revered husband who was often cold and indifferent (and yet entertained the vivacious Margaret Fuller on regular occasions, inviting her to live in their home, and taking long walks at night with her, both lost in discussion). She competed with the memory of a young, beautiful and saintly first wife whom Emerson spoke of frequently in a voice filled with grief and loss. Her own excellent mind and creative energies were subjugated to her husband’s whims and demands with little regard to her needs. Suffering much injustice, her frustration at times was very high (especially when she had to hold her tongue) and I felt that frustration keenly. A successful marriage, of course, does take two and Brown subsequently, does not place all the blame on Emerson as Lidian could wield a sharp tongue and could be demanding and unforgiving in her own way. She also made the mistake of being lost in her children at the expense of her husband. Marriage is, if anything, a delicate balance.

Lidian and Waldo experienced several devastating losses in their married life, beginning with the death of Waldo’s younger brother Charles, Henry’s brother John, and culminating with the loss of their first-born son Waldo at the tender age of 5. Grief can sometimes bring couples together but in this case, it drove them apart. Emerson’s reaction to grief was to shut down and shut out the world, losing himself in intellectual and philosophical pursuits, while Lidian needed to express her feelings. This along with other things caused her to turn to Henry David Thoreau for consolation and friendship.

Thoreau came across as a much warmer man than I had imagined even though he was also equally brilliant, complex and contradictory. I had always thought of him as so solitary that he never formed really close relationships but he obviously did. And rather than give away too much of the story, I leave you to find out for yourself by reading this wonderful book.

Ready to read more

I am not ready yet to leave the world of Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller and plan on reading more about each of them. I am intrigued by Emerson’s motivations for abandoning traditional Christianity and the ministry in favor of developing his own way (which did not necessarily lead to God). And I’m getting more and more interested in Thoreau and what makes him tick. I am grateful to any book that deepens my desire to learn.

Finally, as I continue to read Louisa May Alcott’s Moods, I am struck by the irony of how that book is also about one woman loving two men (men based on Emerson and Thoreau). Unfortunately Moods now rings a little hollow as the characters are not so deeply developed and the writing is strained and over-thought. I will still finish Moods but I don’t expect it to affect me in the same way. I only wish Louisa had discovered her realistic writing style when she wrote this story.

Be sure and visit Amy Belding Brown’s website – she details how she wrote the book and shares stories about the many influential (and unsung) heroines of Transcendental Concord.

and p.s. I may get the privilege of meeting Ms. Brown over the weekend for coffee and conversation, stay tuned . . .

Need book recommendations about Transcendentalism

I would like to read some basic books on Transcendentalism and its famous writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Fuller, etc.) that are not too scholarly (for now) just to get a better, objective idea of what the tenants of it are. I had started reading American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever and was enjoying it but after reading the scathing reviews on Amazon about the many errors and unsupported theories in the book, I no longer wish to read it.

I also need recommendations on good, basic and reliable books on life in the 19th century for the average man and woman. Intellectually I understand that the Concord writers were revolutionary but I want to understand it emotionally (ideally from the point of view of an average 19th century man or woman – is that possible?). I am particularly interested in books about what Christian spirituality was like at the time as I know that Louisa’s spiritually was considered fairly radical.

I am beginning to suspect that my own spirituality and way of looking at life both have been very much influenced by Transcendentalism (gee, big surprise considering I’ve lived all my life in eastern and central Massachusetts) through my mother especially (she was loosely Unitarian and grew up in Lynn and Swampscott, also known as the North Shore in MA). I was raised Roman Catholic (through my dad) and very much practice it and consider it the core of my life but I feel so at home too reading Thoreau and seeing the Transcendentalist threads especially in Moods. The spirituality that Louisa espoused in Little Women felt very familiar and was very attractive to me (the spirituality that I gleaned from reading between the lines).

So, any suggestions? I’m all ears . . . :-)