Dr. Daniel Shealy’s take on Louisa May Alcott’s fantasy stories

louisa may alcott's fairy tales and fantasy storiesI had a lovely phone conversation with Daniel Shealy who has written essays on Louisa’s pioneering efforts as a fairy tale and fantasy writer. He has edited a volume known as Louisa May Alcott’s Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories, which is a complete collection.

I asked him the following questions; the answers are paraphrased but accurately reflect what he thinks.

1. In Louisa’s time, how common it was for children to read about and pretend to be fairies and elves?

While there weren’t any strictly American stories about elves and fairies, there were European stories that made their way over written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Louisa refers to Anderson a couple of times in Little Women (and also in “The Skipping Shoes” from Lulu’s Library). Because there are no manuscripts of Louisa’s journals until the 1860s, (except for pages found at Fruitlands), we can only go by what Ednah Dow Cheney chose to reveal.

It was common for children of that time to imagine they were fairies.

2. What influence did Abigail have on Louisa with regards to stories of fairies and elves?

Again, we don’t know specifically what fantasy books Louisa read as a child (except for the reference to The Neverending Story) but Lydia Marie Child was one of Abba’s best friends and she wrote fantasy. Surely Louisa would have been exposed to that.

3. How much of a role did transcendentalism play in Louisa’s fantasy stories?

Professor Daniel Shealy lays out his case about the extensive range of Louisa May Alcott's writing.
Professor Daniel Shealy lays out his case about the extensive range of Louisa May Alcott’s writing.

Transcendentalism definitely played a role, perhaps in the way Louisa’s imagination worked. The Alcott children were greatly encouraged to read and use their imaginations. It was totally accepted in their family for the children to imagine themselves as characters (and later on this played out in their theatricals). Louisa’s Fruitlands diary makes reference to pretending to be fairies while at Fruitlands.
5. Did the weaving in of the natural world make her fantasy stories unique? 

The detail of description and the naming of the flowers and plants perhaps made it unique. Daniel described Louisa as a pioneer. She didn’t invent the genre of fantasy tales in America but she was one of the first to produce a book of American fairy tales.

Brief overview of children’s literature

Dr. Shealy’s essay furthers the argument. Tracing the history of children’s literature in America, he notes the total lack of books which stimulated the imagination of the child before the 1850s (recalling that Flower Fables was published in 1855). Puritan society frowned on fiction as “lies,” believing that realistic, didactic stories were best. Works such as The New England Primer, John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Babes and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were commonly found in the home.

Impact of Pilgrim’s Progress

pilgrim's progressBronson Alcott counted Bunyan’s book as his all-time favorite and made sure his daughters were equally immersed in it. Results of that immersion are clearly seen in Little Women, right down to the chapter titles (“Jo Meets Apollyon,” Meg Goes to Vanity Fare,” “Castles in the Air,” etc.).

Old World influence

Interest in the growth of children’s literature began to emerge in the 1820s as America sought to better educate their young whom they saw as the future of the nation. Books were still didactic but were more informative in nature. Yet, fantasy literature was beginning to seep in. It had to come over from Europe.

Feeding the New World imagination

mother gooseMother Goose, tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson’s stories became great favorites, soon prompting the writing of American tales. Old habits die hard, thus the heavy emphasis on morals and education permeated these stories. Samuel Goodrich, who published Parley’s Book of Fables in 1836, condemned the European fairy tales, calling them “monstrosities.”

What did Louisa read?

Louisa was most likely exposed to fantasy through Lydia Maria Child, one of her mother’s dearest friends. She produced Rainbows for Children in 1848, keeping in line with the moral and educational emphases. Louisa would have been in her teens at the time. There is evidence of exposure to European tales as well with mentions of Hans Christian Anderson in some of her juvenile works.

Beginning of a new tradition

Wonder-Book-for-Girls-Boys-by-HawthorneMost scholars agree that Nathaniel Hawthorne (who ironically ended up purchasing the Alcott homestead of Hillside in Concord where Louisa lived as a teenager) officially began the tradition of American fairy tales with his two works, A Wonder Book in 1851 and Tanglewood Tales in 1853. Louisa would publish Flower Fables one year later.

The writing of the era

Having grown up in the era of moral fiction and being an avid reader (especially of Charles Dickens), Louisa’s stories reflected her influences. Home schooled by her transcendentalist father whose instruction and philosophy stressed morality, Louisa sought to work out her salvation, so to speak, and earn her father’s approval which was hard to come by in her early years. The deep impression made by those experiences is felt in her juvenile works and fantasy tales.

Parallel tales

Lydia Maria Childs
Lydia Maria Childs

Dr. Shealy points out a clear parallel between the stories in Flower Fables and the work of Lydia Maria Child. In 1844, Child published the first volume of Flowers for Children which included a story titled “The Indolent Fairy.” In the story, Papillon the fairy, not known for her hard work or patience, is ordered by the fairy queen to remain in a cavern until work was completed on “a purer and more brilliant diamond than had ever rested on the brow of moral or fairy.” Papillon learns to appreciate work and enjoy the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Shealy writes, “The use of nature and the emphasis on reform clearly parallel Alcott’s own work. In fact, it is quite possible that Alcott herself had read this tale since her journal indicates her familiarity with Child’s work …”

From voice to paper

512 louisa and thoreau in the woods
illustration by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Flower Fables grew out of an oral tradition. In 1848 while living at Hillside, Louisa taught the neighborhood children including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter Ellen who was so enthralled that she regularly demanded more stories. Shealy writes, “Influenced by her woodland walks with her friend and neighbor Henry David Thoreau, her visits to his cabin at Walden Pond, and her readings in books such as The Story Without an End, Alcott fashioned a fairy world of her own.”

Handmade volumes

Louisa wrote down those stories creating two handmade books, “The Frost King” (the first story in Flower Fables) and “The Fairy Dell.” Shealy describes a green notebook for the former and a manuscript covered with gray marbled paper and bound together with pink ribbon for the latter. Both of these volumes are available for viewing at The Concord Free Public Library in their Special Collections room. In a previous post I wrote, “It was all neatly handwritten by the teenaged Louisa on unlined paper, each line perfectly straight and perfectly spaced. And it was signed “Louy.” Occasionally there was a small edit (a scratched out word). She had hand bound the stories in a pretty folder …”

Community effort

ralph waldo emersonFlower Fables came to print through the help of family and friends. Bronson recorded in his journal in November of 1854, “Today see Briggs, the publisher concerning Louisa’s book Flower Fables which she is printing as a child’s Christmas gift.” Shealy notes that Madeleine Stern suggests that Emerson, through a connection with the publisher’s relative, interceded on Louisa’s behalf. A Miss Wealthy Stevens paid for the book; Louisa had done sewing for her in 1852.

To the most important person of all

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission
Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Louisa dedicated the book to Ellen Emerson, writing: “Hoping that age has not lessened your love for the Fairy folk I have ventured to place your name in my little book …” Louisa was not happy with the illustrations, continuing, “I hope if the fairies tell me any more stories, they will let an Elfin artist illustrate them.”

Where to find out more

Shealy has much more to say about Flower Fables and you can read about it by purchasing his essay from Book Rags or by ordering Louisa May Alcott’s Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories on Amazon; he edited the book and wrote the preface.

Louisa’s fantasy tales are an important part of her canon, revealing a rich imagination. Despite illness and work demands (and demands she placed on herself), she never lost site of the child within her.

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