“Poppy’s Pranks” reveals the childhood of Louisa May Alcott

I am listening for a second time to Harriet Reisen’s fine biography, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women. In discussing Louisa’s childhood Reisen makes many references to a story Louisa wrote for her first children’s series, Morning-Glories and Other Stories. Having little experience with writing children’s stories, Louisa opted to learn by doing, thus preparing her for the job as editor of the children’s magazine, “Merry’s Museum.” As Madeline B. Stern put it, “Five hundred dollars a year would be welcome at Orchard House.” (Louisa May Alcott, A Biography, pg. 163).

This of course begins to set the stage for Alcott’s greatest triumph, Little Women. But back to Louisa’s own childhood …

The story which Reisen refers to is “Poppy’s Pranks.” Both Reisen and Stern note that Poppy’s experiences are Louisa’s.

Of Poppy Louisa writes that she was not necessarily a willful child “but very thoughtless and very curious. She wanted to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere: she feared nothing, and so was continually getting into scrapes.” After reading this story it is a wonder that Louisa’s mother Abba didn’t go completely gray with worry over her little hoiden; Poppy’s escapes are hair-raising!

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

From hanging out a third-story window with her head upside down, to jumping off of the highest beam in the barn at the dare of a friend (and spraining both ankles), to rubbing peppers in her eyes and eating tobacco only to be brought home deathly ill in a wheelbarrow … Poppy’s pranks were legendary. The prank that really got me came as a result of Poppy wishing to imitate country girls by going barefoot. Despite her mother forbidding her to do so, Poppy took off her shoes and proceeded to pierce her foot with a pitchfork. Ouch! Fearful that she would develop lock jaw, a potentially fatal outcome of her accident (suggested to her by her friend Cy), Poppy in dramatic style, prepares for death by bequeathing all her belongings. She is a bit disappointed when she fully recovers. She truly did want to experience everything!

Louisa mixes fact and fiction so skillfully that I am never totally sure what is true. It doesn’t matter. It’s obvious that she was Poppy and must have been a force to contend with in a household where peace was supposed to reign supreme. That force would evolve into the amazing quantity, quality and variety of her writing over her adult life.

We as readers are very fortunate that “Poppy” put her enormous life force to such good use.

You can download Morning-Glories and Other Stories from archive.org — just click on the title. “Poppy’s Pranks” are on page 89.

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A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography

The 1930s was an interesting time in Alcott scholarship. The year 1932 marked the one hundredth year of Louisa’s birth. 1938 not only marked the 50th anniversary of Louisa and Bronson’s death but also the 70th anniversary of the publication of Little Women. Thus in 1937, two important biographies were released – Odell Shepherd’s Pedlar’s Progress on Bronson Alcott (see previous post) and Katharine Anthony’s Louisa May Alcott.

Reception of the biography

alcotts bedellAnthony’s book was not well received. Although deemed substantive and scholarly by reviewer Frederic L. Carpenter (writing for the New England Quarterly in December of 1938), he roundly criticized her need to psychoanalyze Alcott, calling the results “unfortunate” and “ridiculous.”

martha saxton 190That, however, was 1938. More modern biographies by Martha Saxton in 1977 and Madelon Bedell in 1980 conduct their own psychoanalysis which makes for fascinating and often, uncomfortable, reading. This was true as well with Anthony’s book.

Controversies

And yet, Anthony’s book reads like a novel. It was one of the first adult books I read on Louisa (after Martha Saxton and Madeleine Stern). Knowing so much more now after years of research, Anthony’s take on Louisa affirmed much of what I had suspected and raised new controversies. I will focus on two of those controversies for this post.

A threesome at Fruitlands

Charles-Lane

Charles Lane

The first involves the relationship between Abba, Bronson and Charles Lane. Those of us knowledgeable of Fruitlands are aware of the complexity of the relationship between these three. Madelon Bedell has suggested a possible homosexual relationship between Bronson and Charles Lane. Other biographers think perhaps Lane was attracted to Abba despite the fact that he urged Bronson to be celibate. There is no doubt that Abba had many issues with Lane during the utopian experiment. In noting Charles Lane’s curious return to the Alcott family two years after Fruitlands, Anthony describes the difficulties Louisa experienced from this odd arrangement:

“For Louisa, who wished to see everything through her mother’s eyes, this reinstatement of the dragon was devastating. Her letters and diaries of that summer show how piteously distracted was her state of mind. If her mother, having once demolished the beast, had turned the sword in his body, all would’ve been plain sailing. But she saw now that the relation between the three grown-ups was a more complicated situation than she had any idea of and it gave her the feeling of a nerve-racking dilemma.  She wrestled precociously with her mother’s contradictory character, and the struggle made her sometimes despondent and sometimes reckless. The departure of Mr. Lane brought her providential relief.” (Louisa May Alcott, pg. 54)

Carpenter in his review called this section of the book “unpleasantly ambiguous,” wondering if Anthony was suggesting some kind of secret liaison between Lane and Abba since Bronson left for New York during his stay.

Going after Abba Alcott

abbaFor me, it was the beginning of a quiet vendetta against Abba Alcott by Katharine Anthony. With regards to the family’s need to move to Boston due to financial need, Anthony writes,

“A perverse vision had come to Mrs. Alcott while still in Concord. Both of her older daughters were earning wages. Anna was teaching away from home, and Louisa had begun to teach also, having opened a school in the barn. By a reversal of the usual process between parents and children, the girls set an example for their middle-aged mother. Mrs. Alcott, having steadily refused to see the necessity for working prior to her marriage when the necessity for it had been most apparent, now at once saw it very clearly. Just when her family needed her attention most, she decided to go forth and become a wage earner. Their finances had not become any worse, because Anna and Louisa had begun to bring a little money into the home. But Mrs. Alcott’s heroism drove her just at that point to take her spectacular plunge into a life of wage earning.” (Ibid, pg. 74)

Very different take

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Katharine Susan Anthony (from Wikipedia)

Was Anthony’s criticism of Abba influenced by the time the author lived in? Women’s roles were still pretty much confined to the home in the 1930’s. Despite the fact that Anthony was a professor at Wellesley College along with being an accomplished author and scholar, she appeared to judge Abba by rather conventional standards. I am not aware of any other biographer taking the point of view that Abba did not need to go to work in Boston. Anthony insinuates on the next page that Abba’s efforts were not all that successful, citing no records of the reports she wrote on her work that were said to be excellent (such records now exist at the Houghton Library). She discounts the value of Abba’s intelligence office, writing that “The only domestic service job that Mrs. Alcott secured, as afar as we know, is the one she turned over to her daughter Louisa …” (Ibid, pg. 75)

Valuable analysis

Anthony’s various insights throughout Louisa May Alcott are interesting to say the least and they don’t just apply to Louisa. Anthony provides meaningful sketches of each member of the family (and in my opinion, she is one of the few to give Lizzie her due). Her analysis of Louisa is not oppressive or overbearing such as is the case with Martha Saxton (although I believe Saxton’s book has value) because she does not dwell on the amount of detail that Saxton reveals. The point, however, still gets across.

Health issues

louisa readingMuch has been made of Louisa’s health after her service as a nurse in the Civil War. After surviving both typhoid pneumonia and the mercury poisoning from being dosed with calomel, Alcott suffered from a wide variety of physical disorders including pains in her legs, headaches, digestive disorders, vertigo, the loss of her voice, etc. Historians and medical doctors Bert Hirschhorn and Ian Greaves suggested Lupus, an immune disorder, possibly triggered by the mercury poisoning (see Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women)..

Louisa kept careful track in her journals of her health problems and often blamed “nerves” and overwork for her difficulties. Considering the heavy load that she carried in being head of the family and the breadwinner, it is not surprising. In the waning years of her life, she became obsessed with her health as she could find no relief.

Possible cause

Katharine Anthony offers her suggestion for Louisa’s health problems: shell-shock. Citing the Great War and the mental and nervous disorders in the veterans, she surmises that Civil War veterans would have also suffered similar trauma. “It was some form of shock to which Louisa May Alcott succumbed as a hospital nurse in 1862,” she writes (Ibid, pg. 252). Such an injury to the nervous system could afflict the victim for the rest of her life. Anthony also believes Alcott was predisposed to such a condition given her high strung nature.

from alcott.net

Lulu Nieriker, from alcott.net

There is no doubt that Louisa lamented repeatedly in her journal regarding the onslaught of her life and writing (aka, overwork) on her nerves. Between sudden fame for a woman who did not feel worthy, the untimely deaths of John Pratt and May Alcott, the care of May’s daughter and their aging father, and the self-inflicted pressure to continue writing (and earning), it is no wonder Louisa May Alcott had health issues.

Louisa’s last days were painful, difficult and sad as despair overtook her. The final pages of Louisa May Alcott describe those days with a haunting eloquence as Anthony marvels at Alcott’s ability to continue churning out cheerful and meaningful stories for the young even to her dying day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Those unconventional Alcotts left behind quite the mark

The Alcotts were an atypical Victorian family to be sure. Along with rather unconventional philosophic and religious ideas as to how to live, the family did not subscribe to typical Victorian role models.

alcott family horiz

Role reversal

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

Bronson at the School of Philosophy at Orchard House

To begin with, Bronson’s refusal or inability to work to support his family necessitated that his wife Abba take on the breadwinner role. When her health began to suffer, Louisa took over, spending the rest of her life keeping that “Alcott Sinking Fund” (as she dubbed it) afloat, sacrificing artistic growth, independence and her own health.

Career minded

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

The Alcott daughters were educated and well read. They were encouraged to think, to create, to pursue their dreams. Abba wanted to be sure her girls could support themselves. Both parents encouraged the girls in their career interests with the results being Louisa becoming a best selling author and youngest sister May realizing some success as accomplished painter before she died prematurely.

Run, jump, play!

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Physical activity was very much the norm. The girls were allowed to play like boys, running and jumping, talking long hikes into the woods, playing into the mud and coming home dirty. Louisa writes about her many hair-raising escapades in “Poppy’s Pranks” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag Volume IV. Louisa and May, being the most physically robust of the sisters, continued with physical activity into their adulthood: Louisa took daily runs while May went rowing and horseback riding.

Romance and marriage

Unlike most Victorian parents, Bronson and Abba did not pressure their daughters to marry. Louisa, of course, never took the plunge nor did she consider it even though she had a romance with a man several years her junior in Europe known as Ladislas Wisniewski (although the nature of that romance is in question–see previous post). Despite herself, she did receive at least one marriage proposal.

alcotts as I knew them coverThere are few references even to romance when the sisters were of traditional marrying age. Anna appears to have had some sort of relationship while teaching in Syracuse but she was ultimately rejected. Louisa wrote a single cryptic line in her journal in 1853 about her seventeen-year-old sister Lizzie having a romance with “C.” Clara Gowing, in her book The Alcotts as I Knew Them described it as “A little affair of the heart about that time, which did not meet the approval of her parents …”  May, a flirtatious sort, was the one sister who had many flings, most notably with next door neighbor Julian Hawthorne.

Marriage as rebellion

Pratt-2528Only two of the daughters married and both rather late. Anna married John Pratt when she twenty-nine. In a sense, she rebelled against her family’s unconventional lifestyle, preferring to start a family of her own. She was happily married to John for ten years before he tragically died; they had two sons.

May the cougar?

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

courtesy of louisamay.livejournal.com

May too, rebelled in a sense, opting to remain permanently in Europe rather than being near her family. Career was first and she had rightly determined that she could not become a great artist without living in Europe. She then married a man considerably younger than herself (and successfully lied about her age – the wrong age is on her death certificate since husband Ernest Nieriker provided the information.).

Motherhood

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

May died a few weeks after giving birth and bequeathed her daughter to older spinster sister Louisa. Thus Louisa became a single mother, raising Lulu as her own.

The right to vote

And one more tidbit from this most unusual family: Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It had been a dream she had shared with her mother but sadly Abba did not live to vote herself or see her daughter cast it. She proudly cast it on March 29, 1880, adding “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

The Alcotts thus made their mark, through the vote, through literature, through art, and most especially, through their fascinating family history.

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Don’t miss the special exhibit of rare artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

On Thursday I toured Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. I was anxious to see the artifacts pictured in The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson and took a vacation day to see them as November can get swallowed up in holiday preparations.

If you live anywhere near Concord and can get to this exhibit, do so. The artifacts are on display only through the month of November.

from "Recollections of Louisa May Alcott" by Maria S. Porter

from “Recollections of Louisa May Alcott” by Maria S. Porter

I made a complete list of the artifacts on display. I wish I could show you pictures but taking photos is prohibited at Orchard House; you will need to get a copy of The Annotated Little Women.

Here goes:

In the kitchen:

  • First editions of Hospital Sketches and Little Women
  • Original photos of the Hosmer cottage known as Dove Cote and Orchard House (the one with the unique fence built by Bronson).

In the dining room:

  • A quote from Louisa, handwritten, circa 1869
  • An autographed dance fan including the autographs of Louisa, May and Ellen Emerson.

In the parlor:

  • Three Pickwick Club badges
  • A display dedicated to Anna and John including the original marriage certificate and photographs

In Louisa’s room:

  • Louisa’s homeopathic medicine kit (including a list of ailments treated by the medicines)
  • A lock of Louisa’s hair
  • Sketches of Louisa by May, one familiar (“The Golden Goose”), one not (she has a cat at her feet)
  • A photo of Alf Whitman sitting on the half moon desk
  • Original versions of publicity photos of Louisa circa 1870, 1875, 1880, and two from 1887.
  • An ad for Little Men
  • A sculpture by Daniel Chester French of two owls cuddling–this artifact was acquired just three weeks ago.

In May’s room:

  • Tracings May did of drawings by John Flaxman circa 1857; she then copied the tracings around the moldings of the windows
  • Original watercolor of Ernest Nieriker by May in their Meuden salon – the color was especially brilliant.
  • Original photograph of Alice Bartlett and May.

In the hallway under Lulu’s portrait:

  • An original copy of Studying Art Abroad and How to Do It Cheaply by May Alcott Nieriker

In Bronson and Abba’s room:

  • Lizzie’s sewing kit, given to her by her father on her twenty-first birthday in 1856, It was surprisingly compact and featured a lovely inscription by Bronson.
  • A little book of Abba’s “Recipes and Simple Remedies” plus two original photos, one I had not seen before taken in 1850 but it is so small that it would be impossible to reproduce. The other was familiar, circa 1858.
  • Sketches of Frederick Pratt by May, one on a rocking horse and the other, playing Lizzie’s melodeon.
  • Small photos of John Pratt as a baby and toddler
  • Original photo of Lulu in the carriage

The best was saved for last–in Bronson’s study:

  • May’s original sketch of Bronson
  • Various original photos of Bronson
  • Original lithograph of the Temple School in Boston
  • And a display containing:
  • A lock of Lizzie’s hair with a tiny inscribed note in her perfect penmanship
  • Another lock of Lizzie’s combined with a lock of Bronson’s
  • Lizzie’s New Testament, an exquisite tiny book which originally belonged to Bronson–he gave it to Lizzie and then it was bequeathed to May.
  • Bronson’s copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, also a tiny book (though a little bigger than the New Testament and a lot thicker) with beautiful engraving

I was grateful for being in a small group so that I could examine each artifact freely. My only wish is for the lighting to have been better as it was a cloudy day and I wanted to see every detail (how I wish I had had my super duper reading glasses!).

I must say that all the different artifacts belonging to Lizzie that were given to her by her father (and especially the two locks of hair entwined) told me much about the special relationship between Bronson and his Psyche.

Don’t miss this great exhibit!

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“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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Honoring our mothers on Mother’s Day as Louisa honored her Marmee

To Mother

littlewomen00alcoiala_0025I hope that soon,
00 indentdear mother,
You and I may be
In the quiet room my fancy
Has so often made for thee, –
The pleasant, sunny
00 indentchamber,
The cushioned easy-chair,
The book laid for your
00 indentreading,
The vase of flowers fair;
The desk beside the window
Where the sun shines warm
00 indentand bright :
And there in ease and quiet
The promised book you
00 indentwrite;
While I sit close beside you,
Content at last to see
That you can rest,
00 indentdear mother,
And I can cherish thee.

[Louisa later added: “The dream came true, and for the last ten years of her life Marmee sat in peace, with every wish granted, even to the ‘grouping together;’ for she died in my arms.”]

Source: Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary, edited and compiled by Cary Ryan

May we as daughters
care for our mothers as Louisa did.

May we as mothers be as fortunate as Abba
in having Louisa as a daughter.

In a sentence, can you describe the legacy your mother left you?

Further thoughts on May Alcott Nieriker, a thoroughly modern woman

While researching May and Ernest’s home in Meudon, France (see previous post), I had a chance to read May’s thoughts in her letters home from Caroline Ticknor’s book, May Alcott A Memoir. May was a happy newlywed reflecting on her perfect life with gratitude. In one sense she was blissfully naive but her charm was precisely the way she always viewed life as a glass half full.

Her flight to Europe thanks to Louisa’s help set May free from Victorian womanhood. She hesitated about leaving that final time as her mother was quite feeble but it was Abba who pushed her to go. One might say that Abba saw this daughter as the one who would truly be set free, thus realizing her mother’s hopes and dreams.

A diehard European

may portraitMay had no intention of returning to America: “For myself this simple artistic life is so charming, that America seems death to all aspirations or hope of work … Meudon seems a Paradise. With Ernest, and pictures, I should not care if I never saw a friend or acquaintance again. It is the perfection of living; the wife so free from household cares, so busy, and so happy.” (pg. 267, Ibid)

A different view of marriage

May and Louisa both witnessed their parents’ marriage and while Louisa feared the institution as a result, May had a different take: “I think of how she [Abba] married for love and struggled with poverty and all possible difficulties and came out gloriously at last, all the stronger and happier for so mastering circumstances, and this gives me courage, hoping her example will be always a safe guide for me.” (pg. 268, Ibid)

May is nothing if not blunt: “In my case it will be easier to be brave, because Ernest is a practical, thrifty businessman; he is young, ambitious, with real faculty instead of an impractical philosopher.” (Ibid). Ouch!

Same home life, different lives

Amy March of Little WomenMay certainly benefited from being the baby of the family. By the time she was born Bronson had lost interest in the obsessive scientific study of his children and she reaped the rewards of his seeming neglect. Her upbringing was the most normal of the four daughters.

She was too young to have experienced the trauma of Fruitlands* (see addendum) and was deliberately sheltered from many of the problems and added responsibilities brought on by the family’s poverty. Louisa took on the mantle and May was just as happy to allow it. While Louisa was jealous of May’s carefree life and sometimes resented the burdens associated with being the head of the household, she would not delegate responsibilities to May. There were times when she called her younger sister home to help with her parents but she also financed May’s trip to Europe and encouraged her to develop her talents.

Free from her family

Day 3 May Alcott a Memoir - Opposites AttractIt is no wonder then that May naively assumed that her mother had “mastered her circumstances” on her own power. Without Louisa’s support as breadwinner,  best friend and caretaker, Abba might not have triumphed. May saw the results without truly understanding the sacrifices made by her older sister. With wounds too deep and fresh, Louisa could not dare to undertake marriage. May, free from such wounds, embraced it wholeheartedly.

One life transformed, another life saved

from alcott.net

from alcott.net

Living across the ocean in France May was free from the responsibilities of caring for her family. It was not without cost. Failing to read the signs and return home before her mother died caused her great guilt and bitter grief. Yet two years after Abba’s death, May was able to move on into a new life while Louisa grew mired in the old, having lost her purpose for living. May’s choice would ultimately benefit Louisa with new hope and a new life as mother to May’s daughter Lulu.

It was the greatest gift the youngest sister could have given to her Lu.

*Addendum:

A sharp reader on the Facebook page (Kristi) suggested that although May was just a toddler, she would still have absorbed the trauma of Fruitlands and beyond in some subconscious way, suggesting that new research “may offer a potential shift in our understanding of how Fruitlands may have impacted May.”

This got me to thinking about her strong drive to become an artist. If we were to look at this from from the subconscious, perhaps Fruitlands and what transpired after that fueled May’s ambition. Art was certainly a great way to get away from the family troubles both in her head and in the practical ways that she maneuvered invites to the homes of her wealthy Sewall and May relatives. She saw art was her way to escape the ugliness around her (both physically and emotionally) and to create a life for herself which was more to her liking. And I would say that she was immensely successful, more so than Louisa who was never able to truly enjoy her life for very long.

This is why I love doing this blog, because of you! Thank you Kristi for that suggestion.

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