The Field Trip of a Lifetime! (part two)

To continue with my account of  the field trip of a lifetime, there were many more treasures that I found at the Concord Free Public Library:

A May Alcott Nieriker Exhibition

Regular readers of this blog know of my esteem for May Alcott Nieriker. I discovered (first to my dismay and then to my delight) that the library had held an exhibition of May Alcott Nieriker’s artwork and other artifacts back in late 2008 and early 2009 (dismayed because I missed it, especially when I saw that Daniel Shealy, Joel Myerson (editors of several prominent books on Louisa May Alcott including The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott and The Journals of Louisa May Alcott;  Shealy edited Little Women Abroad and Alcott in Her Own Time) and John Matteson (Pulitzer prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts) made presentations).

The exhibit had quite the effect on the curator of the Special Collections room and her assistant as they became quite taken with May Alcott. They appreciated my interest and the assistant even went to the trouble of bringing out many of the copies of the paintings and drawings that had been included in the exhibition. She also gave me the program which listed each item, and included pictures of May’s artwork (which, as you know, is hard to come by on the internet).

Here’s a link to information about the exhibit.

I also had the privilege of seeing and touching a letter May had written to her mother labeled “My Dearest Mamma,” written from Europe. Her handwriting was far more carefree than Louisa’s, and thus, really hard to read (I have to commend the biographers who have struggled over these handwritten letters, trying to decipher what the writer was trying to say). May was a more carefree individual so it fits that her handwriting reflected her spirit.

There were letters from her husband, Ernest Nieriker, first regarding the birth of her child, and then her death, her final wishes regarding Lulu, and finally a list of her personal effects which were going to the Alcott family. He shares his difficulty in giving up the child: “It is very hard for me to give up now my little Lulu May, when I think to catch glimpses of May in her eyes and admire May’s graceful hands in miniature . . . Nothing will procure me consolation, happiness will be possible when I have joined her in that purer world where separation need be feared no more . . .”

I also saw a letter from Abba and her handwriting surprised me. I wish I was a handwriting expert because Abba’s handwriting was flowing, rushing, rather like a river, more like May’s than Louisa’s; Louisa’s was very controlled and neat, sometimes with hatchet-like marks where she crossed her t’s. Knowing what I know about the lives of these women, it was interesting to see how their handwriting reflected their lives.

Letter to a family member about a family death

The biggest discovery of the day was Louisa’s letter to her cousin Eliza May Wells about the death of her younger sister, Lizzie, mainly because as I began to read it, I had no idea that Lizzie was the subject. And Lizzie has always been of special interest to me.

Noted as the “shadow sister” by biographer Madelon Bedell in her biography, The Alcotts, and the basis for Beth in Little Women, Lizzie is something of a mystery. The more I read about her, the less I know. Beth is certainly a romanticized version of Lizzie (most especially in her death), a loving tribute by her sister. But the real woman is unfortunately someone we will never know despite the fact that she kept journals just like the rest of the family. She never allowed the reader into her inner self. Or perhaps there was no inner self. We will never know.

I was so taken by this letter of Louisa’s that I took out my notebook and copied the letter, word for word. I knew a letter like that must be in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (and it is ) but I didn’t want to take the chance that I wouldn’t be able to find it. It was that important to me.

The other oddity (for me) was that the letter was dated March 19 – my birthday!

Louisa’s prose was simple and poignant. There were familiar details, such as Lizzie putting away her needle because it “felt too heavy,” and there were details I hadn’t known about her funeral, especially the fact that no one was invited except the immediate family and Bronson’s closest Concord friends: “We asked no one to the funeral & sent no word to Boston for we wished to be alone, & father’s friends did all we needed more beautifully & acceptably than any we could have asked & everything was simple & quiet as she would have liked it.”

There was a curious last paragraph: “Dear Eliza perhaps if I asked you now you may be able to forgive & forget whatever un[kind]ness you may believe me guity of, & I hope you may sometime learn to know me as I really am, I have been
Your grateful & loving cousin
Louisa” I wondered if Louisa felt guilty for not inviting her cousin and her family to the funeral, or was there some other issue? If it was the former, it’s too bad she had to burden herself with guilt like that in the  midst of her grief. Here is where a greater knowledge of the mid 19th century would be helpful, and just how important propriety was here.

Letter from a reader regarding Moods

This letter was dated March 19 as well!

Addressed to a “Mr. Ayer,” I hand copied part of this letter as well (the whole letter is included in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott). Knowing the ambivalent relationship she had with her readers, it was interesting to see how she responded to the criticisms of this particular reader. It’s too bad there isn’t a record of his letter as well.

I found an interesting paragraph that described how young women responded to Moods, and it gave a window into Louisa’s now well-known feminist leanings: “I think Moods will do no harm to the pure hearted, & for them alone it was written. That it has done some good I already have proofs in the letters I receive from good women who have tried to d0 their duty, & became meek martyrs instead of happy workers in God’s world; young girls thank me for the warning I have unconsciously given them, & more than one minister has assured me that with all its faults, the book has taught a lesson that many needed to learn.”

These two letters have really peaked my interest in The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott as well as The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. It is revealing to hear Louisa speak in her own, unedited voice (except, of course, for all the letters and journal entries she didn’t let us see!).

Final Oddities

I had mentioned how two of the letters I found were dated March 19, my birthday. Here’s another weird coincidence: an invitation to John Alcott Pratt from Carrie M. Hoyle, secretary of the Louisa M. Alcott Memorial Association dated May 17, 1912. Why odd? Hoyle is my maiden name! I had discovered that little fact in searching for information about my father’s family but to actually see her handwriting . . . that was pretty cool.

So, that’s my awesome field tip! I hope many of you will get a similar chance to go. It’s pretty amazing.


Those who want to become as talented a writer and artist as May was
can find info about classes through an accredited online college
to enhance their knowledge.
It can be rare that someone is as multi-talented as she was.


Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)

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12 Replies to “The Field Trip of a Lifetime! (part two)”

  1. Some excellent details shared here! I love that May’s handwriting is ‘carefree.’

    You really wonder if Lizzie had an inner self? Perhaps, instead, she was very private. As I understand it, the Alcott parents freely read their daughters’ journals. My guess is that Lizzie was clever enough not to share her inner self with prying eyes — however well-meaning they claimed to be.

    (Thanks for sharing all this!) 🙂

    1. It’s funny. When I wrote about whether Lizzie had an inner self, I paused and thought, “maybe she didn’t.” But it’s so unlikely considering how introspective they all were. So I’m with you, she was intensely private and found ways to keep things to herself.

  2. Thank you for this very interesting post. I hope and expect to be in Concord this coming summer and I shall now make a special point of visiting the library. I don’t know whether I’ll ask to see anything special or just express my appreciation for what they are doing there.

    1. I’m sure they’ll appreciate that! I’m sure they like it when people make use of their services. My friend told me recently that librarians probably look forward to meeting people like us who are really interested, and truly appreciate what they can offer. They have all this knowledge and rarely get to share it.

  3. If any of you get to Concord in the summer, consider attending the summer conversations series at Orchard House. Academics and readers young and old mingle on an equal footing, and Alcott scholars are the warmest and most approachable I know of. There are also weekly events. Check the Orchard House website.

    Fruitlands’ website has quite a few May Alcott works from its archives.

  4. I think I know what the unhappy business with cousin Eliza Wells might have been. It’s in my book and it has to do with their cousin Sam Greele. It took a lot of legwork to piece it together. I’d tell it here but it’s complicated.

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