I got this exciting piece of news today from the Louisa May Alcott Society:
New Alcott Letter at the Concond Free Public Library
by Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator, William Munroe Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library
Sometimes a single letter or journal entry can open a window on the past in a way unanticipated by its writer. The William Munroe Special Collections of the Concord Free Public Library recently acquired a letter that captures significant detail about the world of Concord author Louisa May Alcott late in 1880. Funded by the Library Corporation (the private, non-profit entity that owns and stewards the library’s buildings, grounds, and special collections), this purchase now forms part of a collection of Alcott, Nieriker, and Pratt letters gathered by the library from several sources over the years.
On November 8, 1879, May Alcott Nieriker—Louisa’s youngest sister, an artist who had fallen in love and married while studying abroad—gave birth to a daughter in Meudon, outside Paris. The baby was named Louise Marie in honor of her famous aunt. May died seven weeks after the birth, having expressed her wish that her sister Louisa be entrusted with raising the child. Little “Lulu” arrived in Boston on September 19, 1880 and was welcomed by her loving Concord family.
Grandfather Bronson Alcott embarked upon his final Western tour in October, less than a month later. Moreover, Sophie Nieriker—May’s sister-in-law, who had accompanied Lulu on her voyage across the Atlantic—found Concord’s “gossip & want of manners” (as Louisa wrote in her journal) hard to endure. Louisa consequently moved her family to Boston for the winter. She rented the Pinckney Street house of her cousin Elizabeth Sewall Willis Wells. Apparently from there, on December 30, 1880 she wrote the letter that has just come to the library. Its recipient was Emily Fairbanks Talbot, a fellow supporter of women’s voting rights and the wife of a homeopathic physician.
In the letter, Louisa reveals that she had asked Mrs. Talbot for assistance in hiring household help following a “domestic upheaval.” She mentions that measles and sore throats are making the rounds, “so I mount guard over the precious baby as I don’t want her to add any other worry to the teething trial.” She refers to the Homeopathic Hospital (visited by Mrs. Wells) and to dining with Mrs. Hosmer (Laura Whiting Hosmer, a homeopathic physician who lived in Concord and a good friend and correspondent of Louisa May Alcott). She announces archly that “a grand coffee party is the next maddeningly exciting event in Concord.” And, finally, she comments on the recent engagement of Samuel Ripley Bartlett and Eva Myrtle Whitcomb.
This last Concord tidbit has local meaning for the Concord Free Public Library, where Miss Sarah Ripley Bartlett—daughter of the engaged couple, who were married in 1881—served as librarian from 1920 to 1953. The new letter thus connects with Bartlett family papers in the Special Collections as well as with Alcott holdings in print and manuscript.
In signing off, Louisa Alcott dismissed her four-page missive as “rambling notes.” Nevertheless, the letter does, in fact, touch upon key people and concerns in the author’s life at just that moment. Many such humble letters in the aggregate are the stuff of which biography is made.
The letter will be on exhibit at the Concord Free Public Library until the end of January. My thanks to Leslie for granting permission to publish her article, and to the Louisa May Alcott Society for initially sharing it with its members.
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