Lizzie’s favorite hymn, perhaps the one sung at her funeral

abbaIn my continuing research on Elizabeth Alcott, I find that letters by her mother offer the most poignant moments. I am already obsessed with Lizzie and Abba’s comments act as gasoline on an already roaring fire. I’m told that obsession with a character will produce a good story; I sure hope so!

I believe in using primary sources and since the Alcott family papers are so voluminous, it will be a long time (perhaps years) before I get through everything I want to read. I made the mistake (!) of venturing into the handwritten pages of Bronson Alcott’s journals only to find many more references to Elizabeth than I had thought existed. And we know what a prolific journal writer Bronson was!

I have amassed already a large photographic collection of letters and journal entries which I am slowly going through and transcribing (as the handwriting will allow – some of it is pretty hard to read). I came across this letter from Abba to her brother Samuel Joseph May which brought tears to my eyes:

invalid… Dr. Geist pronounces Lizzy’s care hopeless – “atrophy consumption of the nerves – with wasting of the flesh.” She has failed rapidly lately – sees that dissolution is near – is calmly quiet cheerful waits the great change which shall relieve her misery – I can lay no … of finery on the altar of the Lord than this gentle spirit – I have struggled to save her for the past year; but sometimes before our greatest peace, comes out of hardest strife – and I now feel that my darling will be in safer hands than her mother’s – she wrote in my journal that beautiful hymn of aspiration by Mrs. Flower –

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee
E’en though it be the Cross that raiseth me,
Yet nearer to thee
Nearer to thee

She writes notes to Mary Sewall, Cousin Louisa and persons who are attentive to her – and everybody has been very kind – Mr. Emerson’s carriage and Mrs. Wheeler always at her service. The weather is very fine and exercise has been very important to her but she fails so perceptibly that we try nothing now but comforts – bed and chair, couch, raw beef, milk toast, cocoa, a wood fire day and night, and … looks to greet her beautiful expectant eyes …

Source: Abba to Sam, January 21, 1858; the letter comes from the Amos Bronson Alcott Family Letters collection, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (27).

The idea of Lizzie in her weakened state writing those lyrics in her mother’s journal touched me deeply. I am hopeful the actual page of that journal exists – another treasure to look for at the Houghton Library.

I had read several accounts of Lizzie’s funeral and the singing of her “favorite hymn” and always wondered what it was. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” could possibly be the one (it’s also the hymn played by the band on the sinking Titanic). There’s nothing like music to make a connection.

Here’s a rendition by the Morman Tabernacle Choir.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Text: Sarah Flower Adams, 1805-1848
Music: Lowell Mason, 1792-1872

1.    Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

2.    Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
yet in my dreams I’d be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

3.    There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

4.    Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise,
out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
so by my woes to be
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

5.    Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly,
still all my song shall be,
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

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Yentl dared to dream and now, so do I

susanwbailey:

For the first time in my life, I have to courage to dream and dream big. My passion for Louisa May Alcott fuels it. And it’s led me on a thrill ride adventure that gets better every day.

Originally posted on Be As One:

Note: This is a post I wrote nearly a year ago, right after I started this blog. It talks about dreams, and I am happy to report that some of them are already coming true. It is especially sweet for me to read this and know I have been moving forward, confident of what I feel called to do. It took me over fifty years to become confident enough to take a chance and dream, and then work to make the dream come true.

I hope this post inspires you to chase after your dreams too.

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

barbra streisand a happening in central parkRecently I rediscovered early Barbra Streisand and her classic live album, “A Happening in Central Park.” As when I was a child, this performance…

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

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

Sources in the writer’s own hand

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

Worth the effort

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

north shore swampscott MAFrom sister to brother

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

Looking for answers

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

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

Inspired by her surroundings

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

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

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

From iconic Marmee to real mother

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

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

Meat for the starving dog. Stay tuned …

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The vacation of my dreams: 3 days with Louisa May Alcott

What’s your dream for the ultimate summer vacation?

Is it a trip to a new and/or exotic place?

Is it time all to yourself to do whatever you wish?

How about both?

That’s been my dream for many summers and this year, it came true.

New and exotic places

Back in June, our whole family (including two twenty-something children) traveled to Los Angeles to visit with my brother-in-law and his wife. He directs for The Simpsons and has been with the show approximately fifteen years. We did Disneyland, the whole Hollywood thing, and caught up and reconnected with each other. It was wonderful and I still miss them both very much.

Then there was this week.

Doing whatever I wished

I had four days off all to myself as my husband’s vacation time was used up. I indulged in my passion and spent a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation.

It far exceeded all my expectations and stoked the fire of my passion all the more.

How does one spend a Louisa May Alcott-themed vacation? If you live near Concord and Cambridge, that’s easy!

Summer Conversation Series

I spent the first two days at Orchard House for their annual Summer Conversation Series. Speakers included Eve LaPlante, (whose new book, Marmee and Louisa The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother will be a blockbuster) and John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.

I will offer individual posts for these two speakers. Their presentations just blew me away!

Becoming part of the family

I got to reconnect with my dear friend Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters and made many new friends.

The best part was being able to spend two days with people as passionate about Louisa as I am. I felt like I was at home.

The picture features, L to R, front: Sylvia Willis and Gabrielle Donnelly; back: Lis Adams, director of Education at Orchard House, and Jan Turnquist, Executive Director.

Affirmation

Feeling incredibly empowered and affirmed in my writing with regards to this blog and the book project I’ve undertaken, I felt like God was shouting at me, “Yes, yes, you can do this, I want you to do this!”

The Summer Conversation Series far exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to share with you highlights from LaPlante’s and Matteson’s presentations.

Detour to Walden

Having taken my kayak, the Sylvia Yule with  me for the trip, I stopped at Walden Pond to observe the place where Henry David Thoreau made his mark.

The pond is small and the water pristine. I saw the cove where Thoreau had built his little house and marveled at the beauty.

The day was incredibly hot and every nook and cranny of the pond was filled with swimmers. Several people were swimming across the pond.

I too did my share of swimming,  never wanting to leave the warm and clear water.

I will have to come back and walk the trail and see the pile of stones where  Thoreau’s house once stood.

The Holy Grail – Houghton Library

Next it was the long-awaited trip to Houghton Library at Harvard University. I have longed to go there ever since I visited the Special Collections room at the Concord Library (see previous posts, part one and part two).

Shaky knees!

I was excited and scared all at once. Harvard is the home to some of the greatest scholars in the world. Who was I to go visit their library? I was surprised when I got to the train station and found my knees literally shaking! (It didn’t help that station had a huge, long, drop to the bottom where the subway was and the escalator was excruciatingly slow! I felt like I did sitting in a seat in the back row of an old theatre, where you feel pitched forward, really to fall into the audience. It was terrifying!)

The grounds where giants walked

Arriving at Harvard, I felt a surge wash over me as I thought of all the great minds that had walked the campus, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. The courtyard was crowded with students and visitors from all over the world.

They are now my family

Little Women illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Upon arriving at the library, I sat down in the reading room and ordered the first batch of papers that I wanted to read.

The first time I read papers handwritten by Louisa (back at the Concord Library), it felt mystical, spiritual. This time as I read diaries by Anna and Lizzie, it felt like I was reading the words of family members.

And I knew The Alcott family was now an integral part of my family.

Details coming …

In the next post, I’ll share details of Eve LaPlante’s reading of her new book. Mark November 6 on your calendar (and not just because it’s Election Day!) – her book will be available then.

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See a letter written by Louisa to her publisher regarding a sequel to Little Women

In conjunction with an exhibit at the Houghton Library at Harvard University entitled  Louisa May Alcott: Family Life & Publishing Ventures, Alcott scholars Daniel Shealy and Joel Myerson contributed a post to Houghton’s blog called “You’ve Got Mail” (highlighting various letters from Houghton’s vast collection) regarding a sequel to Little Women.

Here’s a tease. Be sure and click on the link to see the actual letter written by Louisa to Thomas Niles, her publisher.

You’ve Got Mail: Little Women II: Wedding Marches

Because Little Women is embedded in the American mind as a classic children’s book, readers often forget that Louisa May Alcott always viewed herself as a professional author who wrote in order to make money, much of which went to help support her parents and sisters, and later, nephews and a niece. Between 1868, when Little Women was published, and 1886, when Alcott recorded her last royalty statement, she received $103,375 from her publisher, Roberts Brothers. During that same stretch they printed 846,291 copies of her books, and between 1868 and 1898, when the firm was bought by Little, Brown, and Company, they printed 597,827 copies of Little Women in all its various formats. In comparison, Henry James earned $58,503 during the same period, and Herman Melville was paid, from all American and British sales of his books, $10,444.33 during his entire lifetime.

Click here to see the letter and the rest of the article.

Thanks to Two Nerdy History Girls: Breakfast Links: Week of May 21, 2012
By Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott for the tip!

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
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