The Field Trip of a Lifetime! (part one)

I have been anticipating my vacation between Christmas and New Year’s for several months because of a very special field trip I planned – a visit to the Concord Free Public Library where I would come into contact with the actual letters and manuscripts of my favorite author, Louisa May Alcott. The weather was beautiful and warm after the blizzard we had experienced earlier in the week; it was the foreshadowing of an extraordinary day.

The Concord Free Public Library’s William Munroe Special Collections section contains archives of handwritten letters, manuscripts, first edition books and drawings from the Alcott Family which anyone can request to see. All I had to do was ask the main reference librarian who referred me to the Special Collections section in the basement of the library. I want to publicly thank the curator, Leslie Perrin Wilson and her assistant, Constance Manoli-Skocay for their kindness and generosity to this total neophyte. I step very much outside my comfort zone entering this academic arena, much aware of my lack of study and experience, and they went out of their way to to guide me on this wonderful journey.

I knew I would be excited at the prospect of seeing and touching actual letters and manuscripts, but I had no idea just how much it would grip me. I spent several hours at the library in wonder at what I saw, and when I left, my heart was pounding and my head was spinning!

Flower Fables

It started with a request to see certain folders of papers, and the first thing I saw was a collection of fairy stories to Ellen Emerson that would eventually end up in Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables. It was all neatly handwritten by the teenaged Louisa on unlined paper, each line perfectly straight and perfectly spaced. And it was signed “Louy.” Occasionally there was a small edit (a scratched out word). She had hand bound the stories in a pretty folder and it gave me such a special thrill to leaf through the precious little book and read the stories. As a child I had dreams of being an author and used to write little books which I also hand bound. I’m certain the reading of Joan Howard’s book, The Story of Louisa May Alcott, fueled that dream. To hold in my hands a hand bound edition of a book created by Louisa who also dreamed (and became) an author was indeed a spiritual experience.

The Olive Leaf

Next I got a chance to see issue number 2 of the Olive Leaf (the Samuel Pickwick Edition), the family newspaper created by the sisters to cheer the family during their times of poverty. It was set up in 3 columns like a newspaper and included poems and stories.

“Thoreau’s Flute”

One of the most touching papers that I saw was Louisa’s poem about Henry David Thoreau, written in her own hand, entitled “Thoreau’s Flute.” I paused as a I looked at it, knowing how she felt about him. I understood that it took her awhile to process his death and I believe she finally was able to express herself when she became a nurse at the Union Hospital in Georgetown during the Civil War. Another spiritual experience.

Chapters from Little Women

Then I got to see two chapters from part two of Little Women (“Our Foreign Correspondent” and “Heartache”), written on blue paper with fading brown ink (probably was black at one time). There was some edits throughout, such as in this line from “Heartache” – “Oh Teddy, I’m so sorry, so desperately sorry I could slap kill myself if would do any good . . .”

It struck me how difficult it must have been for a publisher to put together a book without errors. Handwriting can be hard to read at times. Louisa’s writing had a pattern that was easy to figure out but I imagine it was still was a challenge. I noticed that the letters all leaned to the left and it occurred to me that she may have written it left handed. In other writings that I saw, her handwriting looked different, leaning to the right. I know she had to resort to writing left handed when her right hand became cramped.

Louisa’s Will

As this post is getting quite long, I will end with Louisa’s last will and testament, picking up in the next post with other extraordinary things I saw.

Louisa’s will was fairly simple considering how much she was worth. It was only a few typed pages (I can imagine today it would have been much longer and a lot more complicated!), dated July 10, 1887. The primary focus was the care of Lulu, making sure that she got the lion’s share of her money. Older sister Anna was named the Executrix of the estate, and her son John, legally adopted by Louisa and renamed John Sewall Pratt Alcott, was given charge of the copyrights. She directed that youngest sister May’s paintings and drawings be kept in the family; upon Anna’s death, the copies May made of certain Turner paintings would be donated to the Art Museum of Boston “as they are the best copies in the Country, and should be seen and used by many.” She did designate that one or two pieces of art be given to May’s husband, Ernest should he desire them.

In the next post . . .

When I post again, I will share more about May as I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing copies of many of her works. Plus, I came upon two especially special letters written by Louisa which touched me so much I hand copied both of them.

Usually Alcott enthusiasts come to Concord to see Orchard House and Sleepy Hollow; I would but definitely add the Special Collections room of the Concord Free Public Library to that list. It’s a visit I will not soon forget.