Little Women – the grand accident

I really loved what Susan Cheever had to say in her chapter on Little Women in Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography. I had  found myself wondering why Little Women was the standout book from this prolific author, seeing that it was written under such duress, and I think Cheever really hit on it. Here’s what she says, in part (page 200):

“Great writing will always be a mystery. Why now, after everything she had been through, reluctantly tackling a novel for young girls, did Louisa May Alcott get suddenly catapulted into greatness? There are two kinds of artists — those who seek and those who find. The day she sat down to write during that may of 1868, Louisa seem to shift from being an artist pushing towards meaning to being an artist able to relax and discover meaning — the way Michelangelo purportedly said that he discovered his statues embedded in the marble he carved.”

On the next page she goes on to describe how the insights of great work and the insights of great inventions can go hand in hand, often happening ‘by accident.’ Her example is Alexander Graham Bell, discovering the telephone because of an accident spilling battery acid (page 201). He called for help to his assistant Tom Watson (Cheever’s great grandfather) and he heard Bell through the wires in the next room. She then quotes Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared  mind.”

She then goes on to write:

“If great works and great inventions happen by accident, careful research can also often show that the accident has been prepared for for years. It was Bell’s understanding of sound, partly developed in his years of work with the deaf, that made  him understand the pings he heard through the wire. Man’s accidents are God’s purposes, as Sophia Peabody might remind us. From the perspective of 1868, the writing of Little Women looked like an accident. Because of the accidental coming together of Alcott’s need for a publisher, her concern for her parents, Thomas Nile’s jealousy of other publishers’ successes with children’s books, Bronson Alcott’s unpublished manuscript, and a dozen other things, in May of 1868, Louisa May Alcott, after much stalling finally sat down and started writing Little Women.
Yet the accidents that caused the writing of Little Women, seen in hindsight, look more like destiny . . .”

This fits right in with a philosophy that has been growing stronger by the day in my life – you can’t plan greatness. Instead, you have to be awake and alert to when the wave comes along, and then you jump on board. Sometimes you will have to jump on board out of duty and obligation, and the work may seen dull and burdensome. But if you ride the wave and do the work, then the rewards will come.

I blogged about this earlier today on my spiritual blog. In the Roman Catholic missal, today’s readings focus on the time when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple and the 2 prophets, Simeon and Anna, recognized the infant as the Messiah. I focused on Anna and how her ‘accidental’ meeting of Mary, Joseph and Jesus was actually destiny, something she had prepared herself for all her life. She rode the wave and met whom she believed was the long awaited Messiah! (see post on my spiritual blog).

Hard work is always necessary and inspiration helps. But being awake and alert in the present moment – that, I think, is the missing link, the key to greatness. It was fortunate for the world that Louisa caught that wave and wrote Little Women.


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