Cathlin Davis on Louisa’s philosophy of life
Continuing with Day 4 of the series, Professor Cathlin Davis from California State University presented on “Practice Philosophy: ‘I want something to do.’” Through passages from Hospital Sketches, Work, Little Men and some of the rarer short stories (“May Flowers” from A Garland for Girls and “What Becomes of the Pins” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, volume 5), Davis presented a thorough analysis of Louisa’s philosophy for life: work as salvation.
Christie’s personal search for salvation
Davis presented one of my favorite passages from Work where Christie is searching for religion. Work is seen by most as an autobiographical feminist manifesto but often the important spiritual element of the book is overlooked. Davis did a masterful job of tracing the story of Christie showing how she “got religion” by finding meaningful work in her life. Christie has led a hard life and is in need of healing; the protection of the home (and her baby, “Little Hearts-Ease”), something to do (purpose), her tasks in taking care of the greenhouse which generates the income (and surrounds her with nature) and good friends bring that healing.
Purpose and acceptance
Davis continues with Little Men, demonstrating through Demi, Dan and Nan how each found their salvation through their purpose. Demi, the contemplative, surprisingly takes on a practical occupation as a journalist to support his family but still maintains that harmony of body and soul. Dan, a troubled street boy, finds acceptance at Plumfield after traveling a rocky, winding road. Demi’s acceptance of him was most important:
“No honor that [Dan] might earn hereafter would ever by half so precious as the right to teach his few virtues and his small store of learning to the child whom he most respected; and no more powerful restraint could have been imposed upon him than the innocent companion confided to his care …” (Little Men, from Davis’ handout)
Teaching the children
Louisa used her rich imagination in short stories “May Flowers” and “What Becomes of the Pins” to drive home the same point – that purposeful work is the means to salvation. In essence, Louisa was an active contemplative, one who blended being and doing into perfect harmony.
John Matteson on Louisa and Emerson
The series ended with Orchard House favorite John Matteson from John Jay College in New York; he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts. His presentation was titled “Innocence and Experience: Alcott, Moods, and the Emersonian Prism.” Using what Louisa considered to be her most personal book, Matteson demonstrated how Louisa sough to live out the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in her own life.
How does Emerson deal with artistic genius?
Matteson raised several important questions centered on artistic genius:
- Can Emerson’s masculine philosophy be applied to feminine thinking?
- Can the philosophy apply to minds in distress?
- What about self-denial versus self-expression, and self-governance/service to others versus self-exploration of artistic genius?
Fear of genius
Suggesting that Louisa might have battled privately with a bipolar disorder, Matteson traced the life of Sylvia Yule and her mercurial nature as evidenced by her moods. He asserted that Louisa was fearful of the power and mania of her vortexes; Sylvia’s fear of the intensity of Adam Warwick plays out this concern. She sought to “tame” Sylvia as a means of achieving more of a balance as seen in the conventional ending of the 1882 revised edition of Moods where Sylvia resolves to remain with Geoffrey Moore, her husband (in the 1864 version, a younger Louisa felt she had no choice but to kill Sylvia off to consumption). Matteson believes Moods lost its power as Sylvia drew closer to that balance and maturity.
Emerson’s contradicting thinking on the nature of the mind had to have caused confusion for Louisa. Because Emerson did not believe in neat and tidy endings (since everything to him was fluid and open-ended), he could simultaneously hold the belief that all men were part of one universal mind and yet each man is a unique individual. The universal mind connotes community (something Louisa experienced much of in her early life due to Bronson’s views on consociate families); Louisa challenges Emerson as to whether genius can live in community since it does not lead to commonality. Sylvia is an early depiction of Louisa: full of contractions, longing for harmony due to the inner turmoil of her genius.
On the outside looking in
It is sad to consider how rigid Victorian society was at the time of Louisa’s life, it was vital it was to “fit in” to narrow expectations (which were even more narrow for women) and yet Louisa by nature was far outside of convention. Sylvia was a frustrated intellect who suffered from an overactive and overwrought mind and a heart that never rested.
Mattteson brought up the fascinating point about nature. Emerson promotes nature as healing and stimulating but what happens when nature becomes turbulent and dangerous? Matteson noted three occasions in Moods where Sylvia encounters this part of nature: the thunderstorm that threatened her company’s boat journey, the brush fire that nearly consumed her and the high tide that nearly swept her out to sea. She is challenging Emerson: what happens when the inner life becomes turbulent and dangerous?
Cleaning it up
In the end, Louisa gives Moods the tidy ending, perhaps not having the courage to explore the more open-ended thinking of Emerson.
The Summer Conversational Series is a wonderful experience of intellectual stimulation and discussion with like-minded people. It’s not just that we discuss Louisa but more on how we discuss life. I have increasingly found it difficult to think like the rest of the world as I read more and more. I was surprised at how much of a Transcendentalist I actually am. Like Louisa, I don’t understand all the thinking of people such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, but intuitively, I know what they were promoting. To me it is a joy to overlay the Transcendentalist way of thinking onto my Roman Catholic faith; it is helping me to embrace the mystic in me, something I once feared.
I made several new friends this week, friends that I will get together with outside of the Conversational series. To be in the company of such thoughtful and caring people, to find that kind of fellowship gave me the kind of vacation I truly enjoy.
My heartfelt thanks to Jan Turnquist, Lis Adams, all the presenters and all the Orchard House volunteers for a week I will never forget.
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4 Replies to “On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Last Day of the Summer Conversational Series – Being and Doing: Louisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two)”
It does indeed sound unforgettable! So happy for you!
Glad you had a great time, Susan! Thanks for your daily updates- I felt like I was there too!