I had the pleasure last night of attending a presentation by Elise Hooper regarding her new book, The Other Alcott (see previous post for review). Among the many interesting aspects of her talk was the idea of women and artistry and the difficulty in claiming your vocation as an artist.
Elise pointed out that what made May’s story particularly interesting to her was the fact that May was not overshadowed by a man but by another woman, and her own sister to boot! Hooper recalled chapter one of The Other Alcott in which Little Women is published to rave reviews for the writing while the illustrations are roundly panned. As the baby sister seeking not only to emerge from her sister’s shadow but also to be taken seriously for her own talent, the public’s response to her drawings must have been humiliating.
This episode sets up the dual premise of the book – claiming ownership of one’s creativity, and sibling rivalry.
A great challenge
Elise spoke at length of the obstacles that women in the nineteenth century faced in fulfilling vocations that fell outside of wife and mother. While women of today certainly have an easier time pursuing careers, we know that with all the hats we have to wear it still is a tremendous challenge.
Learning to own it
Elise and I spent a lovely dinner together before the presentation to discuss this subject. We both admitted to the difficulty of claiming the title of “writer” and “artist.” It was so much easier to say we were craftsmen, something that she pointed out to me as I explained why I often don’t consider myself to be a “true” writer because I am not compelled to write for its own sake, but rather, to use writing as a tool to speak to things I care about (and in that respect, it is a compulsion). She then gently pointed out how I was viewing my writing as a craft rather than art and she is right. I went on to explain how I love the editing process best where I think of myself as a potter with clay, shaping the meaning, tweaking the words, and infusing a bit of poetry into the prose. After I shared that with her, we both agreed it was in fact, art.
Spokesperson for May
Along with Elise’s love of the Alcotts, her own background as an Art History major, amateur painter and high school teacher of English and History uniquely qualifies her to explore May’s life through the vehicle of fiction. There was an infectious nature to her presentation that told me this story was her own as well in many ways. It’s a universal theme highlighted in The Other Alcott.
The book and our encounter reminded me of a common phenomenon in Louisa’s books – the sisterhood. We think first of the March sisters in Little Women and how each of them had her specific role to play in the development of the other three. We recall Polly Milton (An Old-Fashioned Girl) and her sisterhood of poor, single, working women and how their purpose-filled lives shaped Fanny’s growth into a useful and contented woman. And then there is Christy Devon (Work: A Story of Experience) who emerges from the grief she suffered due to the loss of her husband to create a supportive group of women meant to build each other up so as to reach out to others in the world.
I am reminded of such a sisterhood every time I get together with other Alcott enthusiasts. I see the wonderful support given to each member of our group (whether it is here on the blog or at gatherings such as the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House) as we pursue our creative vocations. I know I would be nowhere in my writing were it not for the support I have received especially through the Louisa May Alcott Society along with this blog community.
And this, in part, I think, explains the continuing appeal of Louisa May Alcott. The themes she espoused in her writings some 150 years ago still resonate with women today despite all the changes in our world. Some things, fortunately, never change.
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