Research has a way of taking you places you never thought to go. I recently rereaded a 1937 biography of Louisa May Alcott by Katherine Anthony (of which I will write about in a future post) and started to wonder why so much came out about the Alcott family that year.
An era of the Alcotts
Odell Shepherd’s book on Bronson Alcott was also published in 1937. It then occurred to me that both books came out just before the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Louisa and Bronson, who died only a few days apart from each other after Bronson mysteriously invited Louisa to follow him “up” during their last visit together.
That led me to look again at the various artifacts I saw at The Wayside in Concord (specifically the North Bridge Center) where there were several newspaper accounts dating from the same period. The centenary of Louisa May Alcott’s birth was celebrated in Concord in 1932:
A very special guest
And in 1935 when the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association gathered for its annual meeting, they announced the visit during that year of a particular VIP:
Louisa as micro-journalist
And, in the midst of these newspaper clippings, I discover a small article which sheds light on the origins of the Pickwick Portfolio from Little Women (aka, The Olive Leaf in real life):
To my delight and surprise, the book referenced, Lilliputian Newspapers by James D. Henderson, was available for download from archive.org. Thus I was able to read firsthand about the origins of “The P.C. and the P.O.”
Creating a diversion
Those who have familiarized themselves with Louisa’s life recall the time in Boston when the sisters were in their teens and twenties when the family lived in acute poverty. To keep her family in good cheer, Louisa created a newspaper in 1849 (when she was seventeen) called The Olive Leaf, in honor of a favorite periodical, The Olive Branch. There were several issues, all available at the Houghton Library at Harvard University — the first issue is replicated in its entirety in Chapter 10 of Little Women. Each sister took the role of a Dickensian character from The Pickwick Papers:
- Anna/Meg as Samuel Pickwick
- Louisa/Jo as Augustus Snodgrass
- Lizzie/Beth as Tracey Tubman
- May/Amy as Nathaniel Winkle.
In Lilliputian Newspapers, James D. Henderson reveals that in fact, Louisa created the newspaper when she was twelve in 1844. Henderson writes, “The Pickwick was a manuscript newspaper, in size 10 and 8 inches, and comprised four pages, two columns to a page, entirely written by hand.” (pg. 60, Lilliputian Newspapers). Two issues were published between 1844 and 1845 when the family lived at Still River and Concord. Louisa wrote the early issues but when it changed to The Olive Leaf, all four sisters contributed.
Henderson noted the Weekly Report of their behavior (from “very good” to “good” to “middling” to “bad”) and this invitation:
“THE DUSTPAN SOCIETY will meet on Wednesday next, and parade in the upper story of the Club House. All members to appear in uniform, and shoulder their brooms at nine precisely.” (Ibid, pgs. 62-63)
Ode to Marmee
If you are lucky enough to see or obtain a copy of Lilliputian Newspapers, you will see a reproduction of the original copy of The Pickwick, found in the pocket of the inside of the back cover. The reproduction was made possible by Miss Beatrice Gunn, formerly of the Youth’s Companion, a magazine to which Louisa often contributed. The Concord Journal reprinted the poem featured in the “Poet’s Corner:”
James Henderson’s book was published in 1936. Lots of good stuff during the 1930’s. I look forward to sharing with you soon about Katherine Anthony’s biography which is surprisingly frank and objective.
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17 Replies to “Origin of the P.C. and the P.O. from Little Women — it started earlier than you think.”
How wonderful! I’m always so happy to read these posts and so glad to know Katherine Anthony has written something that I’ll want to read. As to the Pickwick Portfolio, I don’t think movie casters read it very well when hiring actresses to play Jo, because other than Katharine Hepburn, all the actresses are from 5′ (June Allyson) to 5’3″ (Winona Ryder.) Amazing how many short women grab for that part like bridesmaids for the bouquet. According to Eve LaPlante, Louisa was 5’6″ and had brown eyes, according to photographs and verbal accounts in the family. May was said to be the tallest, some thought 5’9″ but that isn’t to be proven so far. Anyhow, I find all these tidbits endlessly interesting. Please keep them coming! God bless you, from Elizabeth.
I am very curious to hear about the Katherine Anthony biography!
Posting either today or tomorrow — I was going through it last night and came up with pages of notes! Need to come up with a decent summary. 🙂
Thank you for sharing this post! How fascinating to know of the Pickwick’s origins, and that Louisa had been a young journalist from the beginning! I love that she and her sisters started the Pickwick. This really resonates with me – a group of friends and I restarted our school newspaper when we were around 13-14, it was such great fun. Really appreciate the depth of your research and sharing.
Thank you! My sister and I started a neighborhood newspaper when I was 12 and I was also involved with the school newspaper in 6th grade. It foretold the future — I worked for several years for weekly and daily newspapers, first on the production side creating ads, and now on the writing side with articles and a monthly column.
I’d love to see the reproduction of The Pickwick that comes with this book — I’ll have to check that out.
Hi Susan – just wanted to check whether it would be OK for me to include a link to your blog within the ‘resources’ section of my novel? (I’d like to include a list of Little Women and Louisa May Alcott resources for those who are interested in exploring further.)
I would be honored! Please cite it as “Louisa May Alcott is My Passion blog, written by Susan Bailey, http://www.louisamayalcottismypassion.com.”
Wonderful, thanks! I was thinking of something like this…?
Bailey, Susan. http://www.louisamayalcottismypassion.com
Blog on all things Louisa May Alcott and Little Women – articles featuring in-depth research by a newspaper columnist passionate about Alcott.
Would this be accurate…?
(Just to follow the conventions of the others on the list.)
Can you make it instead “author and newspaper columnist”? I have two published books that you can see in the left hand column of the blog. Wouldn’t be an author without Louisa! 🙂
Hi Susan! Sure, not a problem! I completely agree – would not have written this either if it weren’t for her!
what fun to find such a treasure 🙂 Louisa was a real writing talent!
It is so interesting to see all the different kinds of writing LMA did, from novels to stories to newspapers!
She was so versatile! The one thing she said she could not do was write biography — she had to write from her imagination.
I’m the opposite — I can write about factual stuff and even do memoir but I can’t write fiction. I wish I could but I don’t actually read that much fiction. Someday when I emerge from the research rabbit hole I will have to treat myself to more fiction. 🙂
I find a free web and download, file:///storage/emulated/0/360Browser/download/SavedPage/Full%20text%20of%20%22Louisa%20May%20Alcot%22.mht
so I can read a 1937 biography of Louisa May Alcott by Katherine Anthony
It is very interesting, and Katherine Anthony’s some opinion about Louisa same as me, more than eighty years ago! Incredible
I think Katharine Anthony’s bio is underrated. I like it very much. Her thoughts on Louisa experiencing shell shock is on target (an older term for PTSD). Anthony is not sentimental but quite objective.