“Marmee and Louisa” book discussion: Introduction – why Abba Alcott?

Eve LaPlante’s ancestral link with the Alcotts extends to readers of Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother a unique and intimate connection to this family. In the introduction, she mentions a trunk in her attic, passed down by an aunt. Although it and other treasures have been in the attic for decades, LaPlante was not drawn to it until a few years ago.

Ancestry

LaPlante comes from a long line of distinguished historical figures, two of which she has written about: Anne Hutchinson (American Jezebel), and Judge Samuel Sewall (Salem Witch Judge). Now she would turn to the Alcotts. Related to the family through Louisa May Alcott’s uncle on her mother’s side (the Reverend Samuel Joseph May), LaPlante had in her possession letters, books and other memorabilia that would help her reconstruct the story of a woman who loomed large in the life of Louisa May Alcott: Abigail May Alcott, known from Little Women as Marmee.

Artifacts

The first piece she found was a book with an inscription by “Louie,” dated June 21, 1855 to George May, son of the Reverend May. “Louie” was the boyish nickname given to Louisa in her childhood. She was living Walpole, NH in 1855 where she and older sister Anna would triumph as actresses in the town’s theatricals.

Other items in the trunk included “feathered ladies’ hats and a nineteenth-century quilt,” and packets of letters tied with ribbon, yellowed and brittle due to age, along with books and a bible. Yet another trunk contained letters from Charlotte May, the older sister of George, born a few months apart from Louisa. The two shared a close relationship with Louisa referring to her cousin as her “sister-in-love.” The letters described the escapades of the two teenage girls in Syracuse in the late 1840s.

What compelled LaPlante to write about Abba?

Such discoveries inspired LaPlante to read Louisa’s letters, journals and adult works. It was here where she came across the paradox that would compel her to write her book about the woman behind Louisa May Alcott’s success. Despite stories of Louisa and her father Bronson destroying Abba’s papers, LaPlante discovered journal entries along with a 36-year-long correspondence between Abba and the Reverend May (“Samuel Joseph”), her older brother and lifelong confidant. All are housed at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Other papers survive in the May collection housed at Cornell University. Even a local historian in Maine had letters Abba had written to his great-grandmother.

Abigail May Alcott to Samuel Joseph May, October 3, 1852, Houghton Library at Harvard University MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) and MS AM 2745 (71)

Despite the fact that women were barely mentioned in the public sphere beyond birth, marriage and death, here was a wealth of material from which LaPlante could tell the story of one nineteenth century woman who did not fade away into obscurity. LaPlante contends that it was she more than Louisa’s father Bronson who inspired her daughter not only to write but to become an entrepreneur as a writer. Louisa’s staggering success as a bestselling author is largely due to Abba Alcott.

Encountering historical figures

In reading the introduction to Marmee and Louisa I recalled how I felt after reading many of the letters and journal entries of Alcott family members at Houghton. Seeing the handwriting; knowing that the paper had been handled by iconic historical figures produced an immediate and intimate connection. These people became real, like long lost relatives of mine. It’s that kind of intimacy that makes Marmee and Louisa such a powerful read.

Questions:

  1. How instrumental do you think Abba Alcott was in Louisa’s life? Why?
  2. How do you feel when you read old letters and diaries from long dead family members? If you have had the opportunity to read letters from the Alcotts, what was your reaction?
  3. What do you hope to learn about Abba Alcott?

 

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8 Replies to ““Marmee and Louisa” book discussion: Introduction – why Abba Alcott?”

  1. Thanks for starting this thoughtful discussion, Susan. I always learn from you. You have the clearest, most cogent way of distilling things, and the right amount of reverence along with a very realistic way of looking at the Alcotts.

    A few words in answer to question number 2:
    We really have no old family letters in my heritage, but I do remember in the 60’s when I was growing up, that I used to write every other week to my girl cousins in New Jersey. Back then New York to New Jersey was a “long distance call,” so we children wrote instead. I have many of those letters and the flavor of the times comes through better than any history you can read. This is why I feel that archival letters are so valuable. In the future, there will be no letters to fall back on to fill in the “personal” about historical personages. I don’t keep my emails the way I used to keep my letters.

    As far as the Alcott papers, I think the most amazing thing I have held in my hands is the little cross of Abba and Bronson’s hair, clipped into a journal of Louisa’s, which is at the Houghton Library.

    Re Question #3.
    What I hope to begin to understand about Abba is how much she influenced the creativity of Louisa. Or perhaps, she was the practical one in the household and Bronson was the creative one. I am uncertain about this. I know that she was a wonderful writer (My Heart is Boundless by Eve LaPlante has her writings and they are a great read.) But, without the very famous daughter, the mother’s writings would not be of such interest, I believe. So, I tend to think of Abba in relation to perhaps her greatest creation, Louisa herself.

    1. It’s true, we won’t have many handwritten letters in the future. Whenever someone goes to the trouble of sending me one, it feels very special.

      I tend to that both parents contributed equally with regards to the creative part because they encouraged it in the home. Abba though was the fire, not only because she was pragmatic and resourceful, but because she was the reason. Louisa was driven by love.

  2. I recently re-read Little Women and Good Wives and I remember thinking exactly the same what i thought when I read the books for the first time… no one can have a mother this perfect. But based on everything I know about Louisa she adored her mother and to hear that she was the one who encouraged her to write it all makes sense. We are often drawn to that one family member who encourages us to follow our dreams. In my case it is my sister who always supports me in my artist career. To answer your second question there is nothing like finding old letters and learning new things about people long gone and the third I read Reisen´s biography about Louisa and it was interesting to read Abba´s close relationship with his brother I wonder if that made Louisa to long to have a brother for herself. I´ve really enjoyed your blog and carefully researched articles. I recently wrote about Friedrich to my blog. He is my favorite character in all little women. I mentioned your blog in the sources I hope that is alright with you. https://www.fairychamber.com/blog/little-women-and-tender-masculinity-quest-of-friedrich-bhaer-and-why-my-inner-jo-loves-him

    1. Absolutely okay, thanks for doing so. I was just looking at your post — may I share it on Facebook?
      Louisa almost had a brother in a distant cousin, Llewellyn Willis whom Abba took in right after Fruitlands — he boarded with the family several times and wrote a memoir about his time with them.

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