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.


“Love and Self-Love,” another early success story for Louisa May Alcott

As I continue to slowly go through Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography and read yet more background, I came upon a story of Louisa’s that related to her  incident at the Mill Dam where she nearly threw herself into the water in despair,  to end her life. That story, “Love and Self-Love” was to begin the turnaround of Louisa’s career.

Any Alcott enthusiast can tell you that one of the classic quotes regarding Louisa May Alcott was the critique from James T. Fields (pictured, right), future editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the premier publication that was a ‘must have’ for any author’s resume (James Russell Lowell was the first editor – he had panned Bronson’s “Orphic Sayings” in the Dial 20 years earlier, and now Bronson was the one to persuade him to take on Louisa’s story).* To be published in the Atlantic Monthly meant that you, as an author, had ‘arrived.’ Fields, upon examining Louisa’s story, “How I Went Out to Service” (see previous post on this short story) had stated, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott, you can’t write!” Years later, “Love and Self-Love” was to be published in that magazine.

I was interested in reading “Love and Self-Love” because of its reference to the incident at Mill Dam (in the story, the young wife of an older man tries to jump to her death off a boat in an act of self-sacrifice, so that her husband could be with the woman she presumed he truly loved). While the attempted suicide was a turning point in the story, it was not the focal point that I had expected. (The Mill Dam incident is also referenced in more detail in Work.)

I am beginning to see a pattern in Louisa’s short story work. The beginning is a little slow as the ground work is laid. It slowly builds so that by the middle, I am anxious to get to the end to find out what happened. I’m never quite sure whether or not her stories will end happily (case in point, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”), and I am certain the road will be long and winding before getting to the end (usually because it seems to take forever for the characters to honestly express their feelings – I must admit I do find the 19th century proprieties to be very frustrating sometimes!).

In this story on a May-December marriage, I enjoyed the first person perspective of the story (the male character, Basil Ventnor, an older man) and his introspection that we, as readers, were privy to. This introspection, I felt, was the more important element of the story. Basil had been asked by a dying friend to marry her 16 year old daughter, Effie so that she would be taken care of. Through his introspection, we learn of his ‘dilemma’ – that while he loved her, he ‘loved’ himself a lot more. It is this self-love (aka self absorption) which drives the story.

In doing a little research on this story, I found that Harriet Reisen in her biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women (page 150, hardcover) suggests that “Love and Self-Love” could actually center around Louisa herself (as Effie) and Bronson (as Basil).  Like Basil, Bronson was cold and distant towards Louisa, always preferring her older sister Anna (perhaps Agnes in the story, the woman that Basil thought he really loved). Louisa was subjected to his disapproval and criticism. However, after the incident at Mill Dam, Reisen contends that Bronson’s attitude towards Louisa changed (certainly realizing that he could have lost her) and comes to appreciate her more. He is much more solicitous towards her and works in practical ways to support and advance her writing (remember that he was the one to present “Love and Self-Love” to James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Monthly). It certainly is an interesting theory and gives the story an added dimension.

I really enjoyed “Love and Self-Love” and can see why Louisa’s career began to turn with its publication. In reading her short stories, I am also especially enjoying the diversity of her writing. There are similar elements certainly in these stories as they are so influenced by the time she lived in, but each story that I’ve read so far takes a very distinct direction. Louisa was a multi-faceted woman and it comes through loud and clear in her writing.

Here’s a great collector’s item – the original issue of the Atlantic Monthly featuring “Love and Self-Love” is for sale online from an antique book seller – there are some interesting comments about the magazine and the story.

*from page 150, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”

I’m currently reading chapter 6 in Susan Cheever’s book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography which focuses on the years of 1863-65 when Louisa would serve as a nurse in the Civil War, and taste her first literary successes. Louisa had been writing her “blood and thunder” tales to earn money for “the pathetic family” and many believe these stories provided escape and pleasure for her as well, even as she referred to them as “rubbish.” I just read my first one, “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” winner of the $1oo prize in 1863 from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a pulp weekly similar to the National Enquirer today (minus the TV and movie celebrities).

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” is pretty mild stuff if you read it from the perspective of a 21st century reader. It helps to have some idea of what life was like and what was expected of men and women in the 1860s to truly appreciate this story. I know some but found myself wishing (as I did while reading Little Women) that I knew so much more so that I could feel the full impact.

However, I still found it to be a satisfying psychological thriller and marveled yet again at how carefully Louisa lays out the story so that it achieves the maximum effect. It requires some preliminary details which I found a bit boring, but I knew they were necessary for the “good stuff” later on. What I liked was that I never was really sure how this story would end up (and I had to avoid reading the ending in Cheever’s book and in Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask, where this story is found.) As I read on, I became more and more interested and found the very last page of the story to be very satisfying. In one sense the ending was surprising but in another, very typical for Louisa. I’ll leave it for you to find out. 🙂

You can find “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” in Behind a Mask and you can also download it online for free.

As a side note: reading Madeleine Stern’s introduction to Behind a Mask reminded me again of why I love her treatment of Louisa.  It’s so balanced. It maintains that Louisa did have many good moments in her life and was not continually miserable despite her burdens (some self imposed). Martha Saxton’s biography was so depressing, making me feel like Louisa never had a happy day in her life. Cheever’s biography leans that way and often Reisen’s does too. I find it hard to believe that Louisa never found consolation in doing what she was meant to do. Sure, she had a martyr complex from time to time and yes, she suffered from many physical ailments that had no cure, but she also had a spirit bigger than life, a spirit that lived in her writing even if she couldn’t always express that spirit in her daily living. It could be that because Louisa was an actress at heart, she might have been melodramatic sometimes in her perception of things (and she poured a lot of that into her “rubbish”). I also find it hard to believe that there was never a moment of pleasure in writing Little Women. Perhaps there wasn’t, but the story flows so well that it’s hard to believe it was all drudgery. There are so many parts of that book that to me seem truly inspired.

Pardon my indulgence as a fan, having the audacity to hang out my shingle and analyze when likely, I have no idea what I’m talking about. Wouldn’t Louisa be horrified! I can’t help it, she is just so very interesting to me.

Incidentally, one last thing: I posted some links on the corresponding Facebook page to this blog that I think you would be interested in. One of our readers posted on her blog about a book based loosely on Little Women, and there’s a fascinating article about Hannah Ropes, the matron in charge of the hospital where Louisa served as a nurse.


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Louisa May Alcott’s second story from the St. Nicolas magazine invoked a powerful memory

More and more I am amazed at the storytelling power of Louisa May Alcott. I just finished reading two polar opposite stories of hers: “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” found in the book edited by Madeleine Stern called Behind A Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott and “The Eaglet in the Dove’s Nest” in the St. Nicholas Magazine I mentioned in my last post, this section dated January of 1903.

I will write on “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” tomorrow – it was an awesome read! But first I want to write briefly about “The Eaglet in the Dove’s Nest” (if you want to read it, it’s on page 308 in the PDF download of the St. Nicholas Magazine).

The story charmed me immediately because I am a bird lover, something that I learned from my mother. As a family we went on many expeditions together, watching and identifying birds. Every spring we’d make the trek to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA where many famous people are interred. Mount Auburn Cemetery is breathtakingly beautiful in the spring with flowers and exotic trees from all over the world. It’s a haven, an oasis in the middle of the bustling city and the spring migration of birds settles in this idyllic place for a brief period in the month of May, and then move up north to nest. While we’d observe beautiful and unusual birds, we’d take in the flowers and trees, and look at the historic grave sites. It was a trip we eagerly looked forward to every spring.

My parents are gone now and although my sister and I have revisited Mount Auburn since my mother’s passing in April, it wasn’t the same. Still, it made us feel closer to her.

“The Eaglet in the Dove’s Nest” was meaningful for that memory, but for also for another, even more powerful one. One of my mother’s most wonderful traits was in how she would take care of us when we were sick.  Besides having a lifelong interest in all things medical (she worked as a lab assistant in Boston area hospitals before she married my dad), she was caring and compassionate. She often would bring home books from the store with stories like “The Eaglet in the Dove’s Nest” to comfort us when we were sick. Reading this story evoked such a strong memory of that care. I shed a few tears and felt my mother’s love so close to me.

What a wonderful gift I just received this Christmas from my favorite author! Louisa’s storytelling never feels to strike me emotionally, whether it be fond nostalgia or excitement and surprise at an awesome ending to a suspenseful story (more on that tomorrow with “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment”).

Louisa’s writing is a gift to me and to so many of us.

Stories by Louisa May Alcott in St. Nicholas Magazine

I went searching for Christmas stories penned by Louisa and my search led me to Mary Mapes Dodge’s St. Nicholas Magazine, Volume XXX. This link will send you to Google books where you can read the entire volume online or download it as a PDF (777 pages worth!). Google Books is just amazing!

Mary Mapes Dodge wrote Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates and it was a big seller at the time that Louisa wrote Little Women. Harriet Reisen in her book, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, she notes that Thomas Niles, who as you know, urged Louisa to write this book along with her father Bronson, hoped that Little Women would be the cash cow that Hans Brinker and other works for children such as Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick series and the “Oliver Optic” series of books had been for rival publishers. (page 213 of Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women).

All I originally was looking for were Christmas stories. Instead I found two charming stories, published after Louisa’s death in November of 1902 and January of 1903. One of them, “Lu Sing” was written for the Lulu’s Library series.  Here the young people’s magazine announces these discoveries:

You will notice that Anna’s son Frederick was responsible for presenting the stories for publication and even wrote an introduction to “Lu Sing” which greatly enhances the enjoyment of this story if you are looking for autobiographical references:

“Lu Sing” was such a charming story and I particularly loved the way that Louisa described herself (“Ah Wee”) and sister Anna (“Ah Nah”). Both names were taken from Lulu’s way of pronouncing “Aunt Louisa” and “Aunt Anna.” Louisa’s wry sense of humor was very evident in that portion of the story which you can read beginning on page 128 if you read it in Google  Books, or pg. 202 if you download the PDF file and read it there.

Louisa masks the autobiographical elements (including the fact that Lulu was a regular hellion and not academically inclined) behind a clever backdrop of Chinese culture in the latter part of the 19th century. I remember hearing about this story and how baffled I was that Louisa could write a story about a place she had never visited. Obviously she ‘visited’ China in her reading because there were many fascinating details, such as how the Chinese punished their children for bad behavior (placing them in a willow cage in the river with water up to the neck, and keeping the child there until the child agreed to behave), and how they sent up a prayer by flying a kite (so appropriate when I think of Louisa as a young girl, racing in the meadows behind Hillside, flying kites to work off her boundless energy).

The story is richly illustrated. It’s fun seeing “Ah Wee” and “Ah Nah” portrayed as old Chinese women!

The story had the typical ‘moral pap for the young’  theme that Louisa was so well known for but her imagination amazes me, considering the fact that she was old and sick at the time. Writing still provided that escape from the harsh reality that she often lived in.

In my next post I’ll write about the other story called “The Eagle in the Dove’s Nest.” In the meantime, check out this fascinating magazine on Google Books. What a rich treasury it offers in short stories, puzzles, illustrations, letters from readers, science and nature articles, and the like. There are also pages and pages of advertising. It’s such a terrific snapshot of early 20th century offerings for children.

Like I said before, Google  Books is awesome!

A must read

Our friend Jillian wrote an incredible post on her blog, A Room of One’s Own about Fruitlands and its cast of characters and she called it “Fruity Fruitlands – an Alcott Family Utopia”. I can’t add any words to this, it’s that good. Check it out.

Black and white line drawings in the 1880 version of Little Women

In response to a reader’s question about line drawings in an older version of Little Women, Harriet Reisen suggested that the drawings of Frank Thayer Merrill were perhaps the ones she was thinking of . I found 3 online (2 suggested by Harriet) and each came from an interesting article so I’m posting the links to the articles as well. Harriet mentioned that she was able to use the drawings in her DVD documentary on Louisa May Alcott. She writes, “We used the Merrill drawings in the film because they were in the public domain – and charming.  They illustrated the 1880 edition for which LMA excised the “slang,” such as “I guess” for “I suppose.”  Christopher Columbus!”

Here are the links to the articles:

And here’s a slide show of the 3 drawings:

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