The million dollar question, and the priceless answer

eden's outcasts bigFollowing up with my last post about the lecture I attended at New North Church featuring John Matteson, author of Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, there is a question I have wanted to ask Matteson since I started reading his book almost two years ago.

How is it that he understood so well the spirituality of Bronson Alcott?

I wanted to know if he had studied religion formally (perhaps gone to seminary) and/or if it was innate in him.

The answer to that question, in fact the whole thrust of the evening, proved to be a major affirmation of a revelation I had experienced a few days ago regarding writing. More on that later.

Response to the question

John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.
John Matteson answers questions during his presentation on Bronson Alcott.

I posed the question and Matteson’s face lit right up. He looked at me intently and never took his eyes off of me as he exclaimed his delight at the question. It was like I was the only person in the room and the connection we made was electric.

Christian Science background

He proceeded to share personal information about his upbringing as a Christian Scientist. For those unfamiliar with Christian Science, Wikipedia says,

“Christian Science is a set of beliefs and practices belonging to the metaphysical–New Thought family of new religious movements. It was developed in the 19th century in the United States by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), and was first described in her book Science and Health (1875), the religion’s central text. Four years later Eddy founded The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts … The religion’s adherents, known as Christian Scientists, subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that spiritual reality is the only reality and that the material world is an illusion.”

Personal connections

Mindy Jostyn
Mindy Jostyn

The moment he said he had been brought up in that tradition I understood. An acquaintance from high school, a multi-talented musician and singer/songwriter named Mindy Jostyn (who sadly passed away some years ago) was also a Christian Scientist. She produced two albums of stirring music, the most notable song being “In His Eyes,” one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard of God proclaiming His love for the individual. She had an aura about her, not just because of her immense talent, but because of the authenticity of her faith.

I knew where Matteson came from instantly. It was an intuitive thing, just as Ralph Waldo Emerson describes it. You just know.

From Christian Science to Transcendentalism

Having been immersed in Christian Science, Matteson went on to study Transcendentalism while at school. Reading Emerson’s essay, “Nature,” he recalls this section:

transparent eyeball“We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

The one to write about Bronson Alcott

He immediately made the connection, understanding intuitively what Emerson was saying. And I, watching him so enthused at being able to share these things with the audience, grasped why he not only understood Bronson Alcott in a unique way, he was meant to write about Bronson.


Matteson in fact, said that he knew that the wondrous transformation that had happened in his life from the study of Transcendentalism, to the writing of Eden’s Outcasts, to the winning of the Pulitzer Prize and beyond, was not a series of random incidents. It was something that came from following his heart and the Spirit within him.


As I listened, I knew Matteson was telling and affirming my own story. I too have been transformed by my study of the Alcotts.


Louisa May Alcott in the garret by Norman RockwellThis blog began as a means of finding other people as interested as I was in Louisa May Alcott. I never intended to be a writer. Since this blog debuted in August of 2010, I have evolved to where I now state unequivocally that I am a writer and I mean to write a book. The problem was how. I could not get my head around the process. I was missing a key element.

The missing piece

The writing of a piece for my monthly column in the local Catholic newspaper about Pope Francis, plus my recent post here about finding solace in Louisa pointed out what was missing. And Matteson affirmed it. It was the heart.

Following the heart

The writing I’ve done that has garnered the most attention has been those pieces I write from the heart. I could not figure out though how to write about the Alcotts and also write from an intensely personal point of view.

Silly, right? It’s obvious how much I love the Alcotts!

Matteson’s own journey

bronson and louisaMatteson described how writing Eden’s Outcasts was an intensely personal experience and I can see why, now knowing his background. He was very involved in fathering his daughter just as Bronson fathered his daughters. He could relate to Bronson, the father.

He also understood the spiritual underpinning of Bronson; he could relate to Bronson, the mystic. Eden’s Outcasts is not only biographical; it’s autobiographical.

A new journey

illustration by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard
illustration by Flora Smith from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

And I knew at that moment just how to approach my book which will feature Lizzie and Louisa front and center. My book will be biographical and autobiographical. There are many ways that I relate to both Alcott sisters.

I ran into Jan Turnquist, executive director of Orchard House both at the beginning and end of the evening at New North Church. We mentioned how wonderful the lecture was and I expressed my excitement at Matteson’s response to my question. She replied that I had given him a gift. And I knew I had.

My question may have been worth a million but the answer – priceless.

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7 Replies to “The million dollar question, and the priceless answer”

  1. Amazing, Susan! I am so excited you were able to have that connection with John Matteson and I am glad for you that the experience influenced your own perspective on writing. I know you can write a book about the Alcott’s and I am looking forward to the day I can read it! (P.S. Have you ever thought about writing a memoir, about your process of falling in love with studying Louisa, learning about her, and how that has changed your life?) I think that would be fascinating to read!

    1. p.s. the class that I presented at Norwalk Community College was essentially a presentation of how I fell in love with Louisa through the reading of numerous biographies – the reading list was two pages long! 🙂

  2. This made me smile, too! Yes, what a gift, and like the best gifts, it went two ways and deeply. So lovely to see you trusting your intuition. And I personally love books in which the writer’s story or quest is part of another story.

    Now I wish even more that I’d been at that lecture! So glad you were and we get your spirited telling!

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