Introducing the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club

Louisa in her room at Hillside, dubbed "Poet's Corner" (illustration by Flora Smith from Joan Howard's bio, The Story of Louisa May Alcott)

Following up on a reader’s suggestion (thanks to Sarah), I am introducing a new feature on Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, the Poet’s Corner
Virtual Book Club

How the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club works

  • I will announce the book I plan on reading.
  • You can join in a group read by adding a comment to this post that you are reading the book.
  • I’ll post 2-3 times on the book and you can add your thoughts.
  • If you have thoughts you’d like to put up in a post, email me at and I’ll post them.

I want to start with Eight Cousins – it’s a quick read with short chapters (24 in all). It’s available in a variety of ways for free:

Your book suggestions always welcome

Do you have a suggestion for a future Poet’s Corner group read? Email me at – I definitely do not have a set reading list!

And suggestions are not limited to books by Louisa – I’d love to explore Jillian’s suggestion of reading books that Louisa read (“Louisa’s Library”) as well.

Topics to discuss

This is a perfect opportunity to follow Susan’s suggestions for discussion topics (principles, ideas, simple situations in the story) plus Sarah’s regarding feminist themes.

This is your book club – I am happy to entertain any suggestions.


You can opt in or out of the club at any time – just because you commit to one book doesn’t mean you have to commit to the next one.

I am looking forward to reading Eight Cousins with you!

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Personalizing Louisa through the reading of Little Women

Little Women

Responding to my request, I am pleased to present a guest post by Jillian author of the A Room of One’s Own blog. Jillian is exploring the classics and using her blog as a journal, sharing her reactions and insight. As a new student to the classics, I depend heavily on Jillian’s blog to guide me to good reading, and she has never let me down. I know you will appreciate her unique point of view on Louisa’s most successful and far-reaching work, Little Women.

Reading Little Women – a guest blog by Jillian
A Room of One’s Own

When Susan asked me to write a guest blog for her lovely Alcott site, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly talk about — though I was keen to contribute a few words, since I’m all about spreading the Alcott love.

Anyone visiting this blog has either read something by Louisa May Alcott or is curious to meet her. That’s one of the things I truly love about literature — that potential to unite us. Those of us who have read Little Women share the experience of it. We can exchange glances and know that Jo, that Meg, that Amy and Beth lived their lives within our souls for a while. Louisa’s Little Women has been a shared memory between strangers from all over the world for over a century.

I can’t tell you anything about Alcott that Susan hasn’t already said better. (Indeed, when I have a question about Alcott, I generally seek her out.) I’m certainly no expert on Louisa, or her family, or her century, or Transcendentalism. I’ve read one biography and a couple of her shorter works: Hospital Sketches and “Transcendental Wild Oats.” So I can’t even give you a very thorough review of her library.

But I can tell you who my Louisa is.

Before 2010, I had barely heard of Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t care about Concord, though I was fascinated by the Civil War. My interest pulled to the South, though. To Tara and the searing apart of Atlanta — action and all that. (My favorite book is Gone With the Wind.) I certainly never intended to read Little Women. I was a busy, on-the-go 21st century person, more inclined to enjoy the movie than the novel. I added it to my classics project list more as an “I should read this” item than a wish list book that I yearned to explore. It seemed like something I should have read as a little girl, and having not read it felt like a gap. I’d enjoyed the 1994 movie and figured Little Women was a good enough place to start with the classics.

A lot of people have expressed irritation when they read Little Women – not only for a certain turning point in the story which makes me chuckle and applaud Jo March (if you’ve read it – you know!), but for the very “littleness” of the book. I don’t mean that it is itself little, for my copy weighs in at 502 pages. I mean that this century seems to yearn for action, adventure, a snappy opening, a protagonist with an excrutiating decision to make at once, and LOTS of tension.

Little Women isn’t like that. More, it’s a window into the world of women in nineteenth century New England. The book is quite didactic – something that bothers some people. Especially in the early chapters, the book seems to focus on how to be a proper little woman and grow up to be a proper wife. But what people miss, I think, is Marmee. A woman who pulls to her daughter Jo early in the novel, sharing with her an inexplicable anger and desire to fight that the other sisters, and Jo’s father, don’t understand. Just like one could read Pride and Prejudice as a love story and miss the side story about Charlotte Lucas, I think one can read Little Women as a didactic novel and miss the nuance in the Jo story.

Little Women is separated into chapters that read like short stories: days in the lives of the March girls and what they faced in 19th century Concord. The stories aren’t so much about plot – as they are warmth and love and survival as women in a world that wanted women to be quiet, be useful, be relatively ornamental, and well… be little. See, that’s what I remember most about Little Women: as much as it felt didactic, there was Jo. Awkward, cranky, boisterous, clumsy, loud Jo who wanted nothing more than to live up to those didactic standards and couldn’t. She is a contrast, and so too, is Little Women. It’s a foundation of who one “should” be as a proper New England woman, written through the eyes of four sisters: an artist, a wife, a musician, and a writer. And oh, that writer — how she doesn’t fit! She loves her sisters, and as slow-rolling as the story is to start, it gets to you, when you realize that this world was Louisa’s, and that sweet Beth was her sister, and that this didactic outpouring is the very world she lived in, and that the writer produced the very book laid open on your 21st century lap.

The title itself gives me shivers. One could read “Little Women” as a commendment of littleness, or one could read it as the very world into which Jo, and likewise, Louisa, had been sat. She adored that world, I think. But she wasn’t quiet, she wasn’t predictable, and she wasn’t little. So the novel reads as a sort of tribute to the place Louisa couldn’t make her own: a world of giving sisters who laugh and hug and dream and try to stay alive while Jo sits insolently gazing out the snow-crusted window, her willful chin working as ardently as it can to stay small and proper and level while her ravenous soul pulls to war and Laurie and running and loudness, and Marmee.

The thing about Little Women is – it stuck with me. Not just the lessons, but the story, the sisters, the sense of comfort and safety and snugness that is Louisa’s novel. I’ve read over sixty books since then, and still I pull to Alcott’s work. Still I count it as a favorite.

My Louisa is a fighter — not so very different from me or Scarlett O’Hara or Mr. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (which surely Louisa read by night in lamplight.) She’s a product of her century and all that she read and all that she lived. While Atlanta was being ripped apart by fire, Louisa was in Massachusetts — writing. She lived that world that I find so fascinating. She lived it from the Northern side, sat between Thoreau and Emerson, under the roof of Bronson Alcott, surrounded by sisters. Little Women is her side of the story — how she coped, and how her three very different sisters faced the same world.

I read that publisher James T. Fields dismissed her work as insignificant once, and advised her to, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” Oh, that makes me angry. I remember learning, as I explored her world, that while she is certainly didactic in Little Women, she is that way because she was told to do it. Apparently books about being a proper wife were what sold, in the nineteenth century, by women writers. And that’s what was expected of Louisa. She wanted to write about ghosts and mystery and thrilling stories, but the men of that world wanted her to write about how to be a proper little woman. What absolutely endears me to Louisa — is that she gave them that. But within it, she gave them Jo March — herself, her soul, a little woman who could not fit into that world, and who desperately yearned to be good enough.

That girl is my Louisa.

This March I intend to re-read Little Women to see what more I can ring from it, and to enjoy alongside it Geraldine Brook’s March and Alcott’s own sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boy’s.

I don’t think I’ll ever again be satisfied with “just the movie.”

Jillian blogs at A Room of One’s Own, where she journals her exploration through classic literature.

Louisa’s calling card

I just found an article from the Rauner Library Blog from Dartmouth College detailing the story behind the calling card. The article features the calling cards of such luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens among others. These cards all have pictures. I never knew anything about the nature of the calling card and found this article quite fascinating. Check it out here:

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At a crossroads – here’s where you come in

I need your help. I’m stuck.

I can’t figure where next to take this blog
and I could use your suggestions.

Which direction should this blog go next?

What road do you want this blog to take?

source  “(C) by”

What are you eager to learn more about?

Post your suggestions and I will consider them and maybe I’ll run with yours! You may even want to guest blog. I would happily welcome that. We have a great community here and it’s time I drew more from you.

What do you want Louisa May Alcott is My Passion to go?

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The art of conversation, Bronson-style

Through his illustrious life, Bronson Alcott used many means to preach and teach his unique message of transcendentalism. In the early part of his career he used his gifts as a teacher to educate the young through the art of conversation (see previous post). As he believed the Divine resided in each child, he sought through Platonic questioning to draw out that spirit and assist the child in discovering that spirit within. He in essence sought to make that child aware of the knowledge that he believed already resided inside.

Closing a door . . .

When Bronson lost the Temple School to controversy (see previous post), he was denied employment as a teacher, both in Boston and in Concord where he and his family resided after the closing of the school.

Known for his strong (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) conviction and principles, Bronson chose to subject himself and his family to abject poverty rather than take on work that would bring in a living wage. He has come under heavy criticism from many for that decision.

. . . and opening a window

Yet there were people who appreciated what Bronson had to offer. After being denied the chance to teach, Bronson took his special art of conversation to adults. Since helacked the ability to write (Emerson wrote, “When he [Bronson] sits down to write all his genius leaves him; he gives you the shell and throws away the kernel of his thought.” (p. 101, The Alcotts as I Knew Them by Clara Gowing , e-book edition)) he employed secretaries to take down what transpired during his conversations – they are recorded in a volume called Notes of Conversations, 1848-1875: Amos Bronson Alcott, edited by Karen English.

Conversation like music

There is also an anonymous account of one such a conversation by a newspaper reporter, the account being known as “An Evening with Alcott.” In Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, John Matteson uses this account to describe Bronson’s art of conversation employing the analogy of music. (Note – all page numbers come from the e-book edition).

A jazz solo

Matteson writes, “Almost by design, an Alcott conversation was evanescent. Like an improvised musical solo, it was produced in order to fill the air with a momentary pulsation, imparting a flash of insight before moving on to the next equally ephemeral spark.” (p. 230). In essence, Matteson is equating Bronson’s conversations to jazz.

from Tablets by Amos Bronson Alcott

Where is it going?

Anyone who has listened to jazz improvisation knows that even though it appears the solo is going nowhere and everywhere, it actually ends up somewhere – at the ear and heart of the listener. You aren’t always sure what you have heard (if you are not a musician yourself), but you know you just experienced something sublime. The skill of the instrumentalist has just led you on a unique journey never to be repeated.

The anonymous newspaper reporter writes of a similar type of experience:
“”Do you remember what he says? Most likely not, or only certain isolated but splendid phrases which shock you as especially out of the common orbit of thought-or, in the strict, not conventional sense of the word, eccentric. But you do not regret that no tangible opinions remain in your memory, like a mellow autumn day, or, like a soft, tender melody, you recall his conversation only as an ethereal and delicate influence.” (pg. 230)

Waiting for people to converse with, and tempting them with apples . . .

Oratory vs. conversation

There is a difference between being a great orator, where you most likely are addressing a large crowd, to conducting a small group conversation. Bronson was not known as a great orator, but in some inexplicable way, he created an atmosphere of intimacy. Graced with great charisma, it is likely Bronson had that special gift for making each individual feel like he (or she, but mostly likely he) was the only one in the room; Bronson was speaking only to him. (p. 230)

Debate or the insertion of partisan views was not permitted:
“When Bronson spoke to an uninitiated audience, he explained to them, that, in his definition, conversation was an endeavor to find points on which a company could sympathize in feeling. He thought it inappropriate for anyone to present his own individual views for the sake of argument or debate.” (p. 231)

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

How much actual “conversing”
was there?

Since most participants found it hard to keep their own point of view out of the conversation and still contribute, there was little actual back and forth: “The author of ‘An Evening with Alcott’ observed that the conversation he witnessed was not a conversation in any ordinary sense, for no one had conversed.” (p. 231)

In many respects, Bronson was on a different plane from his participants, making a two-way dialog nearly impossible.
Still, our friend the reporter was deeply inspired: “He aspired to ‘touching those fine chords in every heart which will inspire them to respond to one’s own experience.’ ”
(p. 230)

What must it have been like to listen to a speaker improvise like the finest jazz musician? Has anyone since been able to duplicate that experience?

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What were Bronson Alcott’s educational reforms? Here’s a simpler approach

From time to time I have posted about Bronson Alcott, mainly from my reading of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. I had been wanting to find a simpler explanation of Bronson’s educational reforms; they were considered quite radical in his day but over time became incorporated into mainstream educational thought. Just what were these reforms? Clara Gowing’s book, The Alcotts as I Knew Them provided what I was looking for.

Franklin Sanborn, Alcott biographer

Gowing relied exclusively on Franklin Sanborn’s Memoirs of Bronson Alcott.  While I will refer to pages in Gowing’s book regarding quotes, any direct quotes from Bronson were taken from Sanborn’s account.

All the page numbers I am citing here are taken from the e-book version of Gowing’s book.

A mission to educate the young

It is not surprising that Bronson approached education with a religious zeal since at one time he had considered entering the ministry of the Episcopalian Church. The expense involved with training in seminary prevented him from following this course (page 55, The Alcotts as I Knew Them) but he eventually drifted away from formal religion, preferring to carve out his own spiritual path.

Amos Bronson Alcott

Working out his spirituality through educating children

Time spent with the Quakers (p.60) “awakened a desire for purity and real worth, and a delight in exercises of thought and devotion.” It was to have a profound influence on Bronson’s spiritual journey.

Finding the Divine in the child

That journey was very tied in with young children. Bronson believed that the Divine spirit was found in young children and through the apparatus of education, he could, as teacher, draw out that spirit. He would not only enhance his own spiritual journey but would bring out the very best in the children he taught. He believed that once a child was “rightly instructed mentally, morally and physically, they would become the reformers of humanity at home.” (pg. 62). In essence, Bronson wanted to redeem mankind (and himself) through children.

Reforming the administration of discipline

One of the first reforms that Bronson introduced was the near elimination of corporal punishment. While teaching in Bristol, CT, he developed the opinion that gaining the confidence and affection of the children would make them behave – “Constant uniform kindness he claimed was more successful than corporal punishment. Correction was aimed at the mind rather than the body, as it was the mind that committed the error and should receive correction.” (p. 61)

Gowing adds, “One of his methods of punishment was to take part of the correction himself, thus proving that the innocent must suffer with the guilty.” (p. 74).

Growing the child’s conscience

This subtle manipulation of the child was meant to deepen the child’s sense of conscience. Judging from a quote from a student in the Temple School in Boston (p. 75), a deeper sense of conscience was successfully reached through a thoughtful reading and discussion of the scriptures.

Conversations as a  means to draw out knowledge

Another trademark teaching method that Bronson employed was his form of conversation with the children, where he would steer the discussion with questions to draw out the desired answers from the children, thus helping them to discover the answers on their own. Emerson wrote, “Friend Alcott declares that a teacher is one who can assist the child in obeying his own mind, and who can remove all unfavorable circumstances. He believes that from a circle of twenty well-selected children he could draw in their conversation everything that is in Plato, and much better in form than it is in Plato.” (p. 76)

A typical day at school

Gowling outlines a typical day of class in Bronson’s school:

  • The day began at 8 am with an hour of play and socialization in the yard (Bronson was the first in the state to introduce gymnastics).
  • At 9 am the class began with a story by the teacher about some virtue meant to stir desire in the students. The story was discussed including events and experience – lasting an hour. Undoubtedly Bronson employed his conversation techniques during these discussions.
  • Then the next 3 hours were spent conducting  exercises in spelling, reading, definition, drawing, etc. Two additional hours were spent in the afternoon on such exercises. Everything was always presented in a way that would spark interest so that the students engaged on their own initiative. Thus they were happy and interested in their own progress and pursuits. (p. 67)

Submission a necessary element

Bronson believed it was necessary to subdue what he saw as “obstructions to the growth of the mind; these lie in the appetites, passions, desires, and will. Intellectual results will follow the discipline of the sentiments … He who reaches the will and subdues the desires brings the child under his control …” (p. 70)

Stormy career

Bronson’s career as a teacher was never short on controversy, experiencing glorious ups with the Temple School, and many downs, inevitably ending when he courageously admitted a black girl into the Temple School. Parents then concluded that he was “corrupting the youth … by his conversations.” The Temple School closed and Bronson was never to teach in a formal way again.

A time in exile

After moving to Concord and being denied the chance to teach, Bronson prayed to God, “wilt thou permit me to be useful to my fellowmen? . . . How long, O Lord! how long wilt thou try me, by the exclusion from the active duties of Church and State, and more than these, from the discharge of my duties to my neighbors and to my neighbors’ children?” (p. 88)

Lasting effects

Clara Gowing sums it up nicely as to lasting effects of Bronson’s reforms (underscore is my emphasis):

“To one looking over Mr. Alcott’s experience the fact becomes apparent that many of his peculiar ideas and of the methods which he endeavored to introduce in his school and which caused his failure then, have since come into general use.* With all his fanatical and impracticable theories, which often induced ridicule even among his friends, he was pure in heart and character, strong in friendship, and generous to a fault, and his biographer, F. B. Sanborn, says, ‘When he died he left fewer enemies than any man of equal age can have provoked or encountered in so long a career.’ ” (p. 100-101) *as of 1914 when Gowing’s book came out.

Questions regarding Bronson’s techniques

I have to admit that I found some of Bronson’s techniques troubling, in particular his manipulation of the children and what I perceive as a Svengali approach to his teaching (note quotes on submission). While this blog has barely scratched the surface regarding this complex figure in history, we do know that Bronson’s unchecked megalomania proved disastrous regards to Fruitlands and wreaked havic with his family. Yet, his many of his educational reforms were stellar, and as we’ve seen in a previous post, he had an unusual understanding of the childish mind. With that in mind,  I love to know your take:

  • What do you think of Bronson’s educational reforms?
  • What do you think of his methods?
  • Do you see the potential for danger in his methods?
  • Did the results justify the means?

Let’s talk!

Complete list of stories from the Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag series

Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag is a collection of short stories, mostly for children, that Louisa wrote in the 1880s (including stories from her grand tour of Europe with younger sister May). While none of the stories have anything to do with Little Women, the publisher obviously was banking on the title drawing in lots of buyers (and it obviously worked!).

Thanks to one of our readers (Tarissa, In The Bookcase blog) we have the entire list of stories from all 6 volumes of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, all of which are available on the web (just click on the Volume number to get to the stories).

Here is the complete list (note: a permanent link to this list will be posted on the My Growing Library page of this blog):

Volume #1:

  • My Boys
  • Tessa’s Surprises
  • Buzz
  • The Children’s Joke
  • Dandelion
  • Madam Cluck and Her Family
  • A Curious Call
  • Tilly’s Christmas
  • My Little Gentleman
  • Back Windows
  • Little Marie of Lehon
  • My May-Day Among Curious Birds and Beasts
  • Our Little Newsboy
  • Patty’s Patchwork

from Shawl Straps

Volume #2:

Contains a book called ‘Shawl-Straps’ and is divided into 6 parts named:

  • I.  Off
  • II.  Brittany
  • III.  France
  • IV.  Switzerland
  • V.  Italy
  • VI.  London

These are stories from Louisa and May’s grand tour of Europe.

Volume #3:

  • Cupid and Chow-chow
  • Huckleberry
  • Nelly’s Hospital
  • Grandma’s Team
  • Fairy Pinafores
  • Mamma’s Plot
  • Kate’s Choice
  • The Moss People
  • What Fanny Heard
  • A Marine Merry-Making

Volume #4:

  • My Girls
  • Lost in a London Fog
  • The Boys’ Joke, and Who Got the Best of It
  • Roses and Forget-Me-Nots
  • Old Major
  • What the Girls Did
  • Little Neighbors
  • Marjorie’s Three Gifts
  • Patty’s Place
  • The Autobiography of an Omnibus
  • Red Tulips
  • A Happy Birthday

Volume #5:

  • Jimmy’s Cruise in the Pinafore
  • Two Little Travellers
  • A Jolly Fourth
  • Seven Black Cats
  • Rosa’s Tale
  • Lunch
  • A Bright Idea
  • How they Camped Out
  • My Little School-Girl
  • What a Shovel Did
  • Clams
  • Kitty’s Cattle Show
  • What Becomes of the Pins

Volume #6:

  • An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving
  • How It All Happened
  • The Dolls’ Journey from Minnesota to Maine
  • Morning-Glories
  • Shadow-Children
  • Poppy’s Pranks
  • What the Swallows Did
  • Little Gulliver
  • The Whale’s Story
  • A Strange Island
  • Fancy’s Friend

Many, MANY thanks to Tarissa for this great piece of research! This is why this blog is nothing without all of you. 🙂

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