Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

I am grateful to be able to attend again the annual Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this year. The theme concerns talent versus genius, and the abundance of genius that existed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

I was not able to take in all five days of the series but I will present the speakers that I was fortunate enough to see.

Was Louisa a genius?

Was Louisa May Alcott a genius or merely a crackerjack professional writer? Was she both? These questions and more were explored during Monday’s session.

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

560 cathlin1

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

The first speaker was a perennial favorite, Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. Dr. Davis probably knows Louisa’s juvenile canon better than anyone with a particular emphasis on her numerous short stories.

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

Dr. Davis is passionate about elevating children’s literature to the level of respect it deserves by highlighting its most prominent authors. Dr. Davis maintained in her presentation “Is it Talent or Genius?” that Louisa’s unique genius was the ability to get inside the mind of the child and voice that child’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Before Louisa, children’s literature presented all-too-perfect children presenting moral teaching through stilted dialog. Dr. Davis compared a sample from Nathanial Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales of a twelve year old’s conversation (stiff, formal, full of long words and complex sentences) to Louisa’s An Old-Fashioned Girl featuring childish conversation laced with slang and grammatical errors; in other words, the way children of that era really talked.

Examples from Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis spelled out the qualities of talent and of genius, displaying them on a poster (see photo). She then took several examples from Louisa’s books and short stories to illustrate. These included Amy and Laurie from Little Women, Rose, Charlie, Phoebe and Mac from Rose in Bloom, Psyche and her little sister from the short story “Pysche’s Art,” Clara from “A Bright Idea” (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Volume V), and Diana and Persis. As you can see from the photo, she listed who she thought had talent and who possessed genius.

560 talent versus genius

 

Louisa herself is on that list.

Louisa’s genius was her genuine love of children, her commitment to truthfulness and accuracy, and her passion. She respected children, never writing “down” to them. These qualities were instantly recognized by her adoring public with the first publication of volume one of Little Women.

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis concluded that Louisa wrote extensively on the subjects of talent and genius. She remarked that preparing for this presentation, she realized that Rose in Bloom is not just about romance but about discovering one’s talent, determining whether or not it is genius, and using it to benefit others. While Louisa did often focus on the fine art talents of music, acting, dancing and painting, she also pointed out those talents which often go unnoticed – the talents for helping others which Rose displayed so well in the story.

True confession

rose in bloomI have a confession to make which has probably been obvious to you who read this blog regularly: I enjoy writing about Louisa more than writing about her books and stories. It is an odd disconnect, one that I am seeking to correct. Having listened to Dr. Davis’s presentation (and later having the pleasure of conversing with her over dinner), I have a better sense of what to look for when I read Louisa’s juvenile works. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into her writing.

You all of course have always known that. I felt that way about Little Women despite Louisa’s protestations about having to write it. Perhaps the author doth protest too much?

Needless to say, I have much catching up to do and a pleasant task it will be!

More to come …

In my next post I will present more about the other presenters in Monday’s session.

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New releases coming! New annotated Little Women edited by Daniel Shealy; plus book on Louisa May Alcott and Edith Wharton

Get your credit cards ready! Here are two new exciting releases coming up this year for Louisa May Alcott lovers.

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I found out about this one from Daniel Shealy. We conversed recently about his volume on Louisa’s fantasy stories (which I will be writing about soon).  This looks like a wonderful addition to make to my library: (all the information below comes directly from Amazon.com:

little women annotatedLittle Women: An Annotated Edition

Louisa May Alcott (Author), Daniel Shealy (Editor) Release date: March 25, 2013

Little Women has delighted and instructed readers for generations. For many, it is a favorite book first encountered in childhood or adolescence. Championed by Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Theodore Roosevelt, and J. K. Rowling, it is however much more than the “girls’ book” intended by Alcott’s first publisher. In this richly annotated, illustrated edition, Daniel Shealy illuminates the novel’s deep engagement with issues such as social equality, reform movements, the Civil War, friendship, love, loss, and of course the passage into adulthood.

The editor provides running commentary on biographical contexts (Did Alcott, like Jo, have a “mood pillow”?), social and historical contexts (When may a lady properly decline a gentleman’s invitation to dance?), literary allusions (Who is Mrs. Malaprop?), and words likely to cause difficulty to modern readers (What is a velvet snood? A pickled lime?). With Shealy as a guide, we appreciate anew the confusions and difficulties that beset the March sisters as they overcome their burdens and journey toward maturity and adulthood: beautiful, domestic-minded Meg, doomed and forever childlike Beth, selfish Amy, and irrepressible Jo. This edition examines the novel’s central question: How does one grow up well?

Little Women: An Annotated Edition offers something for everyone. It will delight both new and returning readers, young and old, male and female alike, who will want to own and treasure this beautiful edition full of color illustrations and photographs.

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Thanks to a husband who totally supports this passion of mine (thank you, Rich!) I found out about this book, scheduled to be released in July of this year:

(from Amazon) Publication Date: July 9, 2013 | Series: Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies

sacramental shoppingSacramental Shopping: Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

(Becoming Modern: New Nineteenth-Century Studies) [Paperback]
Sarah Way Sherman (Author)

Written a generation apart and rarely treated together by scholars, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) share a deep concern with materialism, moral development, and self-construction. The heroines in both grapple with conspicuous consumption, an aspect of modernity that challenges older beliefs about ethical behavior and core identity.

Placing both novels at the historical intersection of modern consumer culture and older religious discourses on materialism and identity, Sarah Way Sherman analyzes how Alcott and Wharton rework traditional Protestant discourses to interpret their heroines’ struggle with modern consumerism. Her conclusion reveals how Little Women‘s optimism, still buoyed by otherworldly justice, providential interventions, and the notion of essential identity, ultimately gives way to the much darker vision of modern materialistic culture in The House of Mirth.

Sarah Way Sherman is an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of New Hampshire.

I just placed my order. :-)

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

“The March Sisters at Christmas:” So, what did you think?

I went into this movie preparing to hate it. I don’t watch Lifetime and am not a huge fan of “chick flicks” (with the exception of “Pretty Woman” – Richard Gere <sigh> :-)

I am also wary of fan fiction surrounding Little Women although The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly and March by Geraldine Brooks were both terrific.

However, “The March Sisters at Christmas” proved to be a very pleasant surprise. Here’s what made it work for me:

Chemistry

These four women were very appealing. Many of my favorite scenes featured the four sisters together. Kudos to director John Stimpson for choosing the right people and creating a real sisterhood that was so key to the original story of Little Women. I also loved the chemistry between Jo and Teddy (and liked the fact that Laurie was known as Teddy). My only complaint was that he was a little too much in the beef cake department. :-)

Twists and turns

I liked the way the movie was not literally faithful to the book but was faithful in spirit.  All the different twists in the movie made perfect sense. Amy as a theatrical rather than an artist worked for me (and coincidentally, she was also portrayed that way in The Little Women Letters) – it brought in both the theatrics from the story and Amy’s artist temperament.

Jo was perfect. My husband at one point said that Jo was “annoying” and she was in the original story – abrasive and bossy, but also generous and kindhearted.

Meg was almost overly motherly, especially towards Beth; I liked the fact that it wasn’t certain at first between Meg and John and that there was another man in the mix.

Beth is a hard character to bring to the 21st century and at times the other sisters seemed to treat her as if she needed therapy because she lacked ambition and confidence. I was glad to see the kindness that is Beth’s most sterling quality brought forth with the Christmas presents.

Plot twists

I loved the brewing feud between Jo and Amy, playing itself out with an “evil” tweet! It wasn’t evident right away how Amy would get her revenge (I thought she was going to cut the power in the house and cause Jo to lose her story) and her injury from the water heater which brought Jo to her senses worked for me.

The writing

I appreciated the fact that the writer(s) had actually studied the book and remained faithful to it while at the same time showing some imagination in how the story would play out in current time. It again confirmed what all us Little Women fans know – that this story is universal.

What didn’t work

What didn’t quite work for me was how Jo and Teddy’s relationship worked out. It seemed like two weeks was not nearly enough time for Teddy to get over Jo and fall in love with Amy. But that’s TV for you! I also felt that Jo’s relationship with Marcus Bhaer was rushed and underdeveloped. Still, I liked the fact that he was the one holding back rather than Jo.

The verdict?

I really enjoyed “The March Sisters at Christmas” and was very pleasantly surprised. It was a lot of fun to watch (especially spotting the scenes from my hometown. And yes, I spotted all the Concord scenes too!).

You can catch “The March Sisters at Christmas” again today at 5pm on Lifetime. I have it on my DVR.

So, what did you think?
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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

Follow-up on new movie based on Little Women

I was unable to go to the filming that’s taking place in my home town of Grafton but it has been covered and I thought you’d like to see how it’s progressing:

Lights! Camera! Action! ‘Orchard House’ Hits Grafton Common

Actors and crew wait for the rain to clear before shooting a night scene outside of One Grafton Common for “Orchard House.” Photo Credit: Jennifer Lord Paluzzi

Click to Tweet & Share: Update on “Orchard House” the movie, a modern update of “Little Women” http://wp.me/p125Rp-18m

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

Join the discussion: Little Women – Feminist Novel?

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Jo and Laurie from the 1880 version of Little Women

During the month of July Nancy from The Silver Threads blog is hosting the discussion of Little Women at A Year of Feminist Classics.

She proposes that the book puts forth opposing messages: a feminist message of independence and self-expression, and a message of social conformity. She asks, which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? Her proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

What do you think? Click here to join in the conversation.

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Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge Update

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comHow are you doing on the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge? I’ve been pecking away at the Little Women re-read along with a re-read of Louisa May Alcott: A Biography by Madeleine Stern. I’ve been keeping a casual reading journal for the latter and I’ll share some from that.

Still the best biography

Louisa May Alcott A Biography still stands for me as the definitive biography on Louisa. It was originally published in 1950 and updated in 1996.

Stern doesn’t waste a line – each one is pregnant with information! Yet, as dense as this book is, it doesn’t read as dry or scholarly, but more like a novel, and from the point of view of Louisa.

Reading from different perspectives

The first time I read this book I felt like I got into Louisa’s head and heart, living her life with her. I felt very sad when the book was done because the visit was too. But it was immensely satisfying.

This time I see it a new way. Stern’s thrust for the biography is Louisa the writer.  Every single event in her life revolves around how she can write about it. As an apprentice writer, I find this book to be an amazing teaching tool .

Here’s some examples of how Stern interpreted events as fodder for writing:

Life at Hillside

Stern describes the family’s life at Hillside as the culmination of so many of the things that fed Louisa’s happier writing. Little Women, which was based on part on that life, is a shining example.

Hillside had given Louisa a foundation of  stability to lean on for comfort during the leaner times, and fodder to draw upon for future stories.

Reading leads to doubt

Stern describes a crisis of confidence on young Louisa’s part as she read more and more of Emerson’s books from his library. She saw her limitations and stopped writing in her journal. Abba steps in to encourage her with a note in her journal:

“I’m sure your life has many fine passages well worth revealing and to me they are always precious … Do write a little each day, dear, but if a line, to show me how bravely you begin the battle, how patiently you wait for the rewards sure to come when the victory is nobly won.”

Turning the common into the extraordinary

Stern maps out Louisa’s influences, from Thoreau for Flower Fables to the Music Hall and divas Madame Sontag and Jenny Lind for The Rival Prima Donnas, written for The Saturday Evening Gazette. She writes, “surely no experience was too unimportant to serve as grist for the author’s mill …”

In her twenties, Louisa was leading a fairly uneventful life of hard work, mostly doing things she didn’t want to do. Such a grind could snuff out the inner life but not so with Louisa. Sterns writes of Louisa’s life fueling her ambition all the more: she meant to earn her living as a writer and therefore never missed an opportunity to develop life into a story.

It shows that you can lead a common life and still pull out the uncommon insights that turn these things into the extraordinary. You just need to have the eyes to see. Louisa excelled at that skill.

That’s my update for now. Are you participating in the challenge and if so, what are you reading?

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Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge – What I’m reading

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comThe In The Bookcase blog is holding a Louisa May Alcott summer reading challenge so you know I have to participate! :-)

Here’s what I plan on reading:

1. Finish my re-read of Little Women
(and Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips)

2. Finish my re-read of Louisa May Alcott:
A Biography
* by Madeleine B. Stern
(Also Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion by Madeline B. Stern and Leona Rostenberg since Leona’s discovering of Louisa’s alter ego, A. M.  Barnard, was made while Madeline was researching her biography)

3. Finish Eight Cousins

4. Read Work: A Story of Experience

5. At least start Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals,
edited by Ednah Cheney

Come and do this with me!

Just click on the picture above to find out more about this challenge. It’s really easy and should make for a nice summer. And, it’s a very appropriate way to celebrate the centennial of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House as a museum. :-)

What do you plan on reading?

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