Book recommendation: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women by Gloria Delamar

The last time I went to Concord I feasted at the Concord Free Public Library and took out 4 books that are usually hard to come by. One of them was Jeannine Atkins’ Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands and another was Louisa May Alcott and Little Women by Gloria Delamar. I had originally taken out the latter because of chapter called “Louisa’s lyrics to songs.” As a singer and songwriter, that caught my eye. I had only intended to read that section of the book but ended up deciding to read the whole thing. I am really glad I did!

Delamar’s book is quite unique. She devotes the first half to a biography of Louisa, which I just finished. Then she does a treatment of Little Women, citing reviews of the time plus past and more current critical analysis. The last section (which includes the chapter on lyrics) discusses her legacy.

I have read 7 biographies on Louisa and foolishly thought there was no more to learn. Wrong again! I am learning that each biographer has their own style, point of view, and particular interests which allows for new facts and theories to arise. Delamar seemed especially interested in Louisa’s poetry and her work for women’s rights. After reading this section, I developed a whole new appreciation for Louisa’s verses as a form of self expression. And I learned new details of her very active work for women’ rights. According to Delamar, it was a mission as dear to her as writing.

Delamar’s foreward was also of interest as she spelled out the various ways a biography can be written:
  • recollection (with first hand knowledge of the subject, i.e. Ednah Dow Cheney’s book)
  • psychological interpretations (Martha Saxton’s method which I believe was over the top)
  • taking facts and fictionalizing the subject (which makes for more informal reading) and finally
  • making it a synthesis of carefully researched and documentable events, authentic dialog, and fiction techniques.

She chose the final method. It read very well and reminded me of Madeleine Stern’s treatment in Louisa May Alcott: A Biography. As in Stern’s book, Delamar presented a balanced picture of Louisa where she appears to have enjoyed parts of her life, and even experienced satisfaction in her skill as a juvenile writer. Because the facts of Louisa’s life are so interesting, there’s really no need to add anything further.

I have never been a big fan of poetry but I enjoyed Louisa’s in the context in which they were presented. Delamar sketched the back story for each poem which made it more meaningful. I was very moved by verses Louisa wrote about family members, most especially her poem on May shortly after her death. She also wrote two lovely poems about  her father which revealed a deep love and understanding of the man. Her poem in memoriam for Marmee was outstanding too. It again  leads me to conclude that some of Louisa’s best work centers around death. Death has a way of stripping away all masks, pretense and defenses. Those who have experienced the death of a loved one and were not afraid to embrace it often find it to be a transforming experience that exposes one’s vulnerability. For those who can express it, death can lead to great insight. Thus, Louisa’s understanding of death and her ability to embrace it despite the pain it caused produced her most honest and poignant writing (for example, in Hospital Sketches, chapter 4, “A Night”).

Louisa worked hard for women’s rights and Delamar presented many new details. For example, several biographers have written briefly about Louisa working to register women to vote in Concord for the upcoming school committee election. We usually hear about Louisa’s frustration at trying to get women to register. Delamar gave further details on how 20+ women registered, and 20 actually voted. The men allowed them to vote first and after the women voted, declared the election was over. Only the women’s votes were counted. Quite a show of support from the men!

So often we read of Louisa “despising” Little Women and writing “moral pap for the young.” While this likely is true, Delamar presents another angle, of an author who discovered she could learn to adjust her style to suit young readers and who took satisfaction in her skill. Louisa is shown to have appreciated the influence she had on young people with Delamar presenting touching letters from young readers. In one case a family of 5 girls and 2 boys started their own newspaper much like the Pickwick Papers from Little Women. The Luken sisters asked Louisa if she wanted to subscribe and she gladly said yes and even contributed pieces to the paper. There were several correspondences shared. Louisa knew she was making a difference in the lives of these girls thus promoting the cause of independence for women through this small act.

Louisa was big-hearted and took after Marmee in her desire to do good for others. Besides her many charitable acts, her writing was a way of giving.

The biographical section concludes with her death and a poem about love which shares her own thoughts. When I finished this section, my head was full of Louisa as I pondered her poems. I gained a great deal of insight into her heart and mind.

“Just the facts, m’am” is a famous line from the old Dragnet TV series. Sometimes the facts alone and the writer’s words are enough to paint a deep and lively portrait.

p.s. After writing this post, I look up Gloria Delamar and discovered she’s a poet! That explains a lot. 🙂

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4 Replies to “Book recommendation: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women by Gloria Delamar”

  1. This one sounds great. I love that it shows a warmer side to Louisa’s relationship with her fiction March family. A part of me wants to believe she enjoyed that part of her life, and the lasting mark she left for children (and “little women”.) 🙂

    1. I firmly believe that she did not “despise” Little Women as Martha Saxton maintains in her bio. There are so many parts of Little Women that are inspired – how could someone write like that if they hate what they are writing. Undoubtedly it started out as a job that she did not want to do, but I think she eventually got into it. Delamar says that Louisa taught herself to write juvenile literature and found she was good at it. When you’re good at something, don’t you feel some enjoyment or at least take some satisfaction in a job well done? IMHO, I believe she experienced both.

  2. I have just finished this book myself, inspired mostly by your review of it. I found the section on her lyrics for songs particularly interesting. Have these been performed? They reminded me of your own “Robin” song.

    I was also interested in the various commentators she quoted in the chapter on relevance. Some were marvelously wrong-headed, complaining that a 19th century novel was a 19th century novel!

    Thank you for pointing me toward this book.

    1. I actually bought the book because of that section but I haven’t actually finished the book yet! I had a stack of books I had taken out from the Concord library and had to try and finish them (and I ended up buying them all!). I really liked Delamar’s emphasis on Louisa’s poetry especially where Delamar is a poet. It was cool.

      Glad you enjoyed the book!

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