Monday’s session of the Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House was lively, funny and thought-provoking. A fellowship of sisters (and some brothers) gathered to enjoy talks from Gabrielle Donnelly, Kathleen Harsy and Kyoko Amano.
Gabrielle Donnelly on Louisa’s health
Donnelly, the author of the popular The Little Women Letters, presented “Louisa May Alcott, Courageous Heroine: Never ill before this time and never well afterward.” She traced Louisa’s health history, beginning with her tomboy days when she would fall out of trees and run like a horse. Bringing in Hospital Sketches, Donnelly spoke of Louisa’s service as a Civil War nurse and the price she paid with her health after she suffered from typhoid pneumonia. Suffering for twenty-five years until her death at 55, Louisa experienced a multitude of ills (see previous post). Unable to regain her own vigor, she poured that same vigor into memorable characters such as Jo March, her sister Amy and Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl.
A new look at Amy March
Donnelly focused for a time on Amy March and the physical abilities she demonstrated in Little Women such as rowing and horseback riding. Her alter ego May Alcott was a physically active woman who was an accomplished horsewoman. In her letters from Europe, May recounted rowing across the Thames. Donnelly remarked on how unremarkable Amy was in the second half of Little Women until suddenly she burst forth as a passionate, dynamic woman. May was such a woman whose sheer force of personality attracted many admirers. A successful artist in Europe, May’s abilities were toned down in the character of Amy but Louisa did honor the work of her sister, demonstrating how a sketch Amy did of Laurie prompted him to search his heart and change his slovenly ways.
A taste of Louisa’s humor
The highlight of the presentation was Donnelly’s exhilarating read of a section of Hospital Sketches when Tribulation Periwinkle finds herself in Boston desperately trying to get her ticket for the train to take her to Washington. Donnelly had us all in stitches as she playacted Nurse Periwinkle and the different people she met along the way. The reading brought out Louisa’s humor in a fresh new way.
Kathleen Harsy and environmental education
The second presentation was made by Kathleen Harsy, a high school teacher from the Chicago area. Her presentation was titled “Forgetting and Finding Our Place: Environmental Education’s Role in Ending Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Speaking on a timely (and yet age old) topic, Harsy presented a passionate argument for the need to reacquaint students with the outdoors. Citing the example of the vegetable garden she and fellow teachers developed at the Riverside-Brookfield High School, Harsy spoke of the educational benefits of getting children back out into the natural world. She focused in particular on ADHD children and how getting back to nature improved their condition.
Push and pull
A surprising aspect of Harsy’s talk was the amazing resistance environmental education receives from parents and administrators who are too focused on test scores. A lively discussion ensued among us about the need for a more holistic approach to education; we expressed fears for children today being able to think for themselves and to think creatively. We all agreed that the Transcendentalists were on to something with their insistence that each of us get back in touch with the natural world.
Eric Sawyer: Music and Transcendentalism
After lunch we were privileged to hear from Eric Sawyer, a composer who was commissioned to write a concerto based on the Transcendentalist thinkers. He discussed his process for composing the piece which will be presented in Concord on October 18 and 19 by Triple Helix, three women who play piano, cello and violin. Sawyer focused on three Transcendentalists, assigning them to instruments: Emerson to the piano, Bronson Alcott to the cello and Margaret Fuller to the violin.
Kyoko Amano and the birth of social reform
The afternoon presentation was given by Kyodo Amano and it focused on “Women’s Place in Social Reform: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott.” Her fascinating talk traced the history of social reform, rising up out of the Unitarian faith tradition with reformers Joseph Tuckerman and Samuel Joseph May, both relatives of Abba Alcott. Citing Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and Alcott’s Little Men, Amano described the creation of reform schools for orphaned boys, mostly from immigrant families. Thinkers such as Lydia Maria Child (a best friend of Abba Alcott’s) believed that the focus on crime needed to shift from punishment to prevention with the best way being taking in young boys from the street before they had a chance to commit crimes, often out of necessity because of their family’s abject poverty.
Women, family and reform
Amano spoke of women’s roles in reform citing Jo Bhaer from Little Men. Plumfield School was an extended family where Jo and Professor Bhaer were mother and father to the boys they took in. Amano cited Nat and Dan in particular, both street boys. Dan was a troubled boy who created problems at Plumfield and had to be sent away; he eventually comes back into the fold, changed by the parental love and guidance shown to him by Jo and Professor Bhaer.
Even though the reform movement was born from a religious tradition, Amano made the point that both Hawthorne and Alcott presented a more generic Christianity in their novels. Neither spoke of any necessity to convert characters to a particular religion (such as converting Catholics to Protestantism). Amano also suggested that Nat and Dan were in fact immigrants judging from certain descriptions and details in Little Men but that Alcott played down that aspect, making that too generic.
After the talks we all gathered together for impromptu conversation. There is nothing sweeter than a true meeting of the minds and hearts which this get-together delivers.
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