Summer Conversational Series 2014 Tuesday Sessions: the visuals of Little Women and a lost fantasy

My thanks to Kristi Martin for taking notes and providing pictures for these sessions. Tuesday, July 15 featured Beverly Lyons Clark, Lauren Rizzuto and Kyoko Amano.

Disclaimer: Since I was not there to hear the presentations, I am inserting my interpretation of the notes. Hopefully they are accurate!

Beverly Lyons Clark “The Vortex or the House? Visualizing Jo’s Genius”

the afterlife of little womenBeverly Clark is a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. Her previous work on Alcott includes co-editing Little Women and the Feminist Imagination and editing Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews. Her latest work, The Afterlife of Little Women, will be forthcoming later this year. This book is available on Amazon for pre-sale. (Biography provided by Orchard House).

Clark’s presentation, “The Vortex or the House? Visualizing Jo’s Genius” was illustrated by a vast array of images which were passed around to the audience, thus hampering our note-taker’s efforts to capture some of the presentation. Understandable. 🙂

560 beverly clarkClark discussed the idea of genius as divinely inspired, fitting into the newer idea of genius as something working in collaboration with the Creator. Transcendentalism promoted the idea of the solitary genius, something we see illustrated with Jo March in the garret writing away with her pet rat at her heel. Clark saw the vortex as the space in which Jo (and Louisa) could write. These and other romantic tropes such as genius as a type of possession were discussed.

Clark offered up the idea of genius working through community. This is certainly evident in the Alcott household where the sharing of journals was commonplace. Raised on that kind of openness, Louisa often shared her writings with her family, most notably her first novel Moods which she dubbed her “first child,” a work she literally poured herself into through a lengthy vortex.

Clark passed around illustrations from Little Women showed many different aspects of Louisa’s genius of the story, along with the viewpoint of the illustrators themselves. May Alcott’s drawings were not always accurate (and not just because of her lack of skill in proportion and anatomy at the time); Clark maintained that she rewrote the story or at least not always in unity with it. Curiously there are no drawings of Jo writing.

Hammatt Billings’ illustrations evoke the disarray of the vortex while Frank Merrill’s convey humor and drama. Louisa felt they lacked in expression.

There were different front pieces to the book, sometimes the sisters with Marmee, other times without. The theme, however, was the same: family connectedness and the glorification of domesticity. It was hard to tell if the house images were generic or were based upon Orchard House.

Finally, Clark examined photographs of Louisa, noting that the side views gestured toward the genius. What do you think?

Lauren Rizzuto “Illustrating Artists, Louisa, May, Jo and Amy”

Lauren Rizzuto currently teaches part-time at Simmons College, where in 2012 she earned the MA degree in Children’s Literature. Her presentation for this year’s Conversational Series grows from her earlier research, in which she explored how Little Women negotiates the expectations of two literary genres: the künstlerroman and the sentimental novel. Currently, Lauren is working on a new piece of scholarship — Alcott in the fan fiction domain — which will appear in an edited collection for Salem Press’ Critical Insights series of 2014. (Biography from Orchard House)

560 Lauren RizzutoRizzuto also looked at the illustrating of Little Women. The 1868 frontpiece shows the familial intimacy of the mothers and daughters tethered together (physically touching). A 1962 edition has Amy apart, and reaching out as if drawing or painting the others. This highlighted Amy (rather than Jo) as the artist and was connected to the art of illustrating.

Jo and Amy were compared as artists, judging success by how much the artist was able to exceed her gender role and help support the family. Jo was deemed the more successful as shown in two successive chapters: Amy casts her foot in plaster; Jo’s vortex produces a story. In the end the story wins a monetary reward, which is then helpful to the family. While the family is integral to artistic expression, success in the end depends upon financial reward.

It has been argued however that Amy was more subversive than Jo and the better artist because she did not need parental approval not the stamp of legitimacy that financial gain brings. She has autonomy and artistic independence.

During the question and answer period Rizzuto defended the value of sentimentality as a valid artistic form, citing Hospital Sketches as the example, demonstrating the power of the story because of sentiment. Since sentiment is usually dismissed in proper literary critique, this was an interesting defense.

Kyoko Amano “Creative and Marketing Genius of Louisa May Alcott: From Jamie’s Wonder Book to Will’s Wonder Book”

Kyoko Amano serves as Chair of the English Department at the University of Indianapolis. Her areas of specialization include Louisa May Alcott and her contemporary, Horatio Alger, Jr. Kyoko lives in Greencastle, IN, with her husband and dog. (Biography provided by Orchard House)

560 kyoto anamoAmano used her presentation to compare the never-published Jamie’s Wonder Book (manuscript at Houghton Library) to Will’s Wonder Book. The former was lost by William Ticknor  in 1864; it was found in 1868 and returned to Louisa at her request. She began copying her manuscripts after Jamie’s Wonder Book was lost.

To better understand the systemic change that Louisa brought to children’s literature, Amano covered the history of Nathanial Hawthorne juvenile works; he was more interested in fantasy and Gothic than in the conventions of didactic children’s literature (though he ghost wrote for Peter Parley). Hawthorne is considered the “father of the American Literary Fairytale.” Eustice Bright narrated stories to children. Louisa uses the authentic voice of children to allow for direct interaction with the reader. It was a remarkable breakthrough demonstrated by the amazing number of books sold, especially to young readers.

Both Jamie’s Wonder Book and Will’s Wonder Book tells different versions of  an ant story. In Jamie it is fanciful with the ant relating its story to the child. In Will the Grandmother tells about the ants in scientific detail. Amano believes that had Jamie’s Wonder Book been published, it might have been the work that transformed children’s literature.

Jamie was written when Louisa was twenty-eight, soon after Flower Fables. It was a more innocent time before Louisa began writing in a more realistic voice. The fancy that she exhibited in Jamie and in Flower Fables would continue in her children’s short stories but perhaps lose some of its shimmer because of a woman chastened by the hardships of adulthood and the duty applied to writing children’s literature. Louisa was often conflicted between the money that children’s literature brought in versus the desire to write her great American adult novel.

Coming up …

Regrettably, I do not have any coverage of the Wednesday sessions but I did attend the sessions on Thursday. That post (or series of posts) will come during this week.

One of the Tuesday presenters, Kristi Martin, graciously sent me a copy of her paper which contains some wonderful new insights on both Elizabeth and May Alcott.  Those series of posts will appear after the Thursday sessions.

So, there is a lot more yet to come! Stay tuned …
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