In May of 1868, a publisher asked an author to write a book specifically targeted “for girls.” His plan was twofold: to capitalize on this up-and-coming author’s growing popularity, and to capture a corner of a brand new genre of children’s literature. The author begrudgingly obliged, and ended up producing one of the best selling, and best loved novels of all time. The novel was Little Women and its author, Louisa May Alcott. Little Women made Alcott famous, but pigeon-holed her into the juvenile market when in fact, she had so much more to offer.
Now in 2011, The American Library Association (ALA) in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is launching a bold initiative. With the goal of exposing to the public the multi-faceted and still relevant writings of Alcott, grants have been awarded to 30 libraries around the country for a five-part series of educational programs featuring the 2009 documentary and companion biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women, produced and directed by Nancy Porter, and produced and written by Harriet Reisen. (see complete list of libraries in previous post)
On March 4, a national workshop was held at the Omni Parker House in Boston with these librarians and their scholars to kick off this initiative.
Speakers included Porter and Reisen, and preeminent Alcott scholar Professor Daniel Shealy from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Professor Shealy has edited several books on Alcott including her journals and selected letters (along with Joel Myerson and Madeleine Stern), correspondences from Alcott and her sister May from their grand tour of Europe, and commentary from Alcott’s own peers. (see list in My Growing Library).
Jan Turnquist, director of Orchard House (the Alcott home in Concord, MA) spoke briefly about the historic homestead.
Situated in the Louisa May Alcott room of the Parker House, the participants were introduced to events of the day by Susan Brandehoff of the ALA Public Programs Office. Along with talks by the scheduled speakers, librarians and scholars would have a chance to share program ideas and concerns in breakout sessions. David Weinsten, Senior Program Officer, Division of Public Programs, NEH, also made some opening statements.
The Women Behind Louisa May Alcott
The Woman Behind Little Women
Porter and Reisen then made their presentation, showing clips from the documentary and reading excerpts from the book. Porter gave a brief history of the origins of the documentary, explaining why she and Reisen chose Alcott, saying, “It was the project closest to our hearts.” After 5 years of fundraising and many years of research, the documentary was completed. Screening was delayed so that the book could be completed and in 2009, the film debuted on PBS stations across the country.
Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women showed many sides of Alcott which the public was not so familiar with, such as her service as a Civil War nurse, her success as a pulp fiction writer (“blood and thunder tales” as she dubbed them) under an assumed name (A.M. Barnard), her love life with a Polish lad, and the real story behind the writing of Little Women. Reisen shared stirring excerpts from her book about Alcott’s days as a nurse in the war and how journal entries eventually became Hospital Sketches, the book that would define her realistic writing style, and establish her as a successful author.
The Scope of Alcott’s Writing
Professor Daniel Shealy gave a fascinating talk on the depth and scope of Alcott’s writing. Stating that “Alcott knew her audience well,” he described how easily she adapted to different genres so that she could earn a living as a writer to support her family. Pointing out that “timing is everything,” he described the blossoming of the publishing industry in the mid 19 century, the plethora of new magazines, and the introduction and growth of children’s literature, all of which made it possible for Alcott to succeed in her profession.
Shealy gave a brief outline of several lesser known works to illustrate his point: “The Rival Prima Donnas,” “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment,” “V.V. or Plots and Counterplots,” and “Behind a Mask”.
In describing her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales written for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s young daughter, Ellen, Shealy maintained that Alcott’s tales redefined fantasy even though the tales are still largely ignored today. Alcott’s fantasies, set in nature, contained a strong moral fiber that was missing from the more famous European fairy tales of authors such as Grimm. She continued to write fantasy right up until her death in 1888.
Shealy pointed out another side of Alcott that makes her so relevant today – her dedication to social reform and women’s rights. She did not believe in a separate “women’s sphere,” so popular in the 19th century, but believed that women needed to be financially independent. Decidedly a spinster, she wrote at length about marriage and its affect on women and men (since in the 19th century, marriage made women the property of their husbands). She was a passionate abolitionist, holding radical views about the true equality of all races.
Brainstorming at Breakout Sessions
After an hour for lunch, the librarians and scholars attended breakout sessions to discuss ideas for programs. Programs needed to fit into a five-part criterion: (see ALA website for detailed list)
- Louisa May Alcott: Through Her Eyes – A community-wide library event focusing on the life, work, and times of Louisa May Alcott
- Louisa May Alcott Wrote That? Reading and scholar-led discussion of Alcott’s lesser-known works
- Louisa May Alcott: Literary Phenomenon and Social Reformer
- Film screening – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
- Reading and discussion of the biography – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
Some of these ideas included day-long festivals (“Alcott Extravaganza” and “LouisaFest”) featuring costumes, food and music of the period, children’s activities, tours, story-telling and dramatic presentations. There was a thematic trend to the programming including a focus on the Civil War, health and fitness (Alcott was a runner and a vegetarian), the impact of 19th century clothing (most especially corsets) on women and what Alcott revealed in her writing about that topic, women in the military, women’s rights and the vote, the abolition of slavery, and writing in the 19th century including Transcendentalist writings and pulp fiction.
Issues regarding the logistics of some of the criterion were discussed and ironed out both in the breakout sessions, and in the general group discussion at the end of the day.
Beyond the workshop . . .
By the end of the workshop, participants were fired up to begin their programs in their home libraries. A camaraderie fueled by everyone’s enthusiasm and love of Alcott was palpable. A Google list, established before the workshop, will work to keep everyone informed of the progress of the programs, and the reaction from the public. Ultimately is it hoped that a richer understanding of the scope and depth of both Louisa May Alcott’s writings and her extraordinary life will be conveyed to the public, sparking greater interest in this pioneer woman author and her lesser known works.