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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Save

Click to Tweet and Share: A blunt, controversial psychological study of Miss Alcott — Katharine Anthony’s 1937 biography http://wp.me/p125Rp-27i

Share on FacebookFacebook-logo-ICON-02

Share on Google+google+

space-holder2

louisa may alcott for widgetAre you passionate about
Louisa May Alcott too?
Subscribe to the email list and
never miss a post!

Keep up with news and free giveaways
on Susan’s books,
Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message,
and River of Grace!

Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

both books for LMA blog widget

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

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?

What would May’s life as a wife, mother and artist have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint.

Jo’s Boys is tinged with sadness. And wistfulness. Louisa worked on Jo’s Boys for seven years beginning in 1879, the year her youngest sister May died six weeks after bearing her daughter Lulu. Abba, known as “Marmee” had died in 1877.

Laurie and Amy’s idyllic life

Chapter Two, “Parnassus” has us visiting the palatial home of Laurie, Amy and Bess, built on the grounds of Plumfield. Louisa goes to great pains to remind the reader that although wealthy, Laurie and Amy put their money to good use. They were “earnest, useful and rich in the beautiful benevolence which can do so much when wealth and wisdom go hand in hand with charity.” (Jo’s Boys, page 26).

Tributes to the family

The home was “full of unostentatious beauty and comfort” which included busts of John Pratt and Beth (lovingly created by Amy) and portraits of Mr. Laurence and Aunt March. A memorial to Marmee consisting of a portrait surrounded by green garland was in the place of honor. Undoubtedly Louisa was writing about Abba with these lines:

little women with marmee“The three sisters stood a moment looking up at the beloved picture with eyes full of tender reverence and the longing that never left them; for this noble mother had been so much to them that no one could ever fill her place. Only two years since she had gone away to live and love anew, leaving such a sweet memory behind her that was both an inspiration and a comforter to all the household.” (Ibid, page 33)

The March sisters versus the Alcott sisters

anna and meg, louisa and joThe March sisters are shadows of the real women upon which they were based. Meg is Anna without Anna’s angst and secret creative urges. Beth is Lizzie without the profound suffering she endured in her death. Jo is Louisa, tamed. Amy is May without the physical energy, ambition, independence and high spirits.

May and Amy

lizzie and beth, may and amyAmy started out like May but like Jo, was tamed. She became a wife and mother, laying aside her ambitions as a professional artist. Like May she was tall and gracious, giving off the impression of beauty even if her features were a bit irregular (remember the nose). Amy however returned from Europe with Laurie while May remained in Europe, pursuing her art with committed passion, eventually knowing success with two paintings put on display in the Paris Salon.

What if …

May married a much younger man and they had a child, Lulu. Tragically, May died six weeks later. We were never to know how this modern, independent, career-minded woman would have blended her work with marriage and mothering.

Louisa gives us a clue of her wish for May in Jo’s Boys.

Louisa’s dream

Amy lived out her dream as an artist by mentoring younger artists. Her own Bess was a committed to art and mother and daughter were devoted to each other and their art. Bess at fifteen resembled Amy with her “Diana-like figure, blue eyes, fair skin, and golden hair, tied up in the same classic knot of curls. Also,–ah! Never-ending source of joy to Amy,–she had her father’s handsome nose and mouth, cast in a feminine mould.” (Ibid, page 28)

Would mother and daughter have gotten along?

may and luluAmy and Bess were much alike: gracious, feminine yet fiercely devoted to their passion. There was a peaceful harmony between them. In real life May and Lulu were also alike both in appearance and personality. Their similarities, however, might not have produced the harmony that Louisa dreamed up for Amy and Bess. Lulu was described by Louisa as willful, physical and spoiled, much like the Amy (and May) of childhood.

May as a mother and artist

All this bring about tantalizing thoughts: how would May have dealt with a younger version of herself? I’m guessing the battles could have been epic and the love fierce and loyal. Nothing was said about Lulu having the artistic ability of her mother so we will never know if they would have shared that passion as Amy and Bess did. It would have been a lot of fun to witness their relationship.

May’s legacy

It’s hard to know whether May died before or after chapter two was written. The poignancy of Louisa’s loss, however, is there in any case. She gives May her happily ever after with her daughter in the guise of Amy with Bess.

How do you think May and Lulu would have gotten along? Could May have juggled career with motherhood?

Click to Tweet & ShareWhat would May’s life have been like had she lived? Jo’s Boys gives us a hint. http://wp.me/p125Rp-1FP

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

Cynthia Barton’s Transcendental Wife on the life of Abigail Alcott a must read

Reading Eve LaPlante’s duo biography on Abigail and Louisa in Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, I kept seeing references to a little-known book about Abigail titled Transcendental Wife by Cynthia Barton, published in 1996. Having just finished the book, I can see why LaPlante and other Alcott scholars return again and again to this book.

Just about Abigail

transcendental wife cynthia barton0001Transcendental Wife is difficult to find but well worth the effort. Devoted to the life of Abigail May Alcott, Barton writes with economy staying laser focused on her subject which is Abigail alone. If you want to find out more about Louisa, you won’t find it here, at least not directly. By learning about Abigail, you will see how and why Louisa emerged to be the woman and writer she is now known to be.

No victim

The unintended tendency of biographers has been to portray Abba as a perennial victim of her difficult husband Bronson. Barton instead emphasizes Abigail’s hard fought victories, revealing a woman strengthened in her sense of self through adversity. The grueling poverty endured by the family as a result of a failed utopian experiment (Fruitlands) and a husband unable and/or refusing to support his family serves to hone Abba into a strong and independent woman. Once doubting her abilities to support her family both financially and emotionally, she emerges the victor.

Unyielding

abbaIn Barton’s description, Abba is, in fact, complicit with Bronson. She loved him to the end, for his principles and his dedication to them, and as a man. This was despite her many misgivings about his schemes and his inability to provide for the family. But as Barton pointed out during Abba’s stint as a social worker in Boston, Abba was equally dedicated to her principles and like Bronson, “failed” in her employment because of those principles: “Neither she nor Bronson would compromise their ideals. Both had found suitable work [he as headmaster of the Temple School, she as a social worker]; both had failed because of ‘the false requisitions of society …’” (Transcendental Wife, pg. 153)

Equal standing

Abba’s growing confidence in her abilities allowed her to evolve to a position of equality with her husband in every respect. Once worshipping Bronson’s morality and spirituality as a disciple, she grew to understand that her own practical brand of morality, of philanthropy, was equal in goodness to his mystical ideals. She was just as committed to reform as he. They both practiced their principles in the extreme, often placing their family in jeopardy, he condemning them to poverty, she exposing them to small pox and scarlet fever.

The ultimate reformer

abbaThe most compelling chapter in the book documents Abba’s work as a social worker, laying out a relentless and powerful argument demonstrating her commitment to reform. Abba’s view of reform gave the poor a name. They were not the masses, they were individuals who came into her home and partook of her bread. They were the young girls counseled to avoid a life of prostitution in favor of honorable employment. They were the hard luck cases, those who were out of work due to their own fault. They were even the much maligned Irish who, once Abba came to know them individually, were worthy of a new start.

A life well lived

Barton uses the last chapter to show the success of Abigail’s struggles. Pouring herself into her girls, she was able to take great pride in their success as useful, productive and happy women: Anna, content and competent in her chosen domestic life, Louisa, world-famous author and dutiful daughter, fulfilling her promise to care for her mother to the end, and May, accomplished artist, happily married and independent living her dream in Europe.

Deeply loved

abba graveAbba carried Lizzie in her heart, longing to be buried next to her in Sleepy Hollow. That wish was eventually granted. Louisa recalled a visit to the cemetery, “Among the tall grass over her breast a little bird had made a nest. Empty now, but a pretty symbol of the refuge that tender bosom always was for feeble and sweet things. (Ibid, pg. 172)

Transcendental Wife can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble but it is pricey. It’s worth the cost however if you are seriously interested in the Alcott family; I highly recommend this book as essential reading. It is cited by many Alcott scholars and for good reason.

Click to Tweet & ShareCynthia Barton’s Transcendental Wife on the life of Abigail Alcott a must read http://wp.me

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

New book: Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy: it’s gorgeous!

I just received my copy of Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy and I was stunned by the beauty of the book!

LW Shealy1 combined

Don’t be fooled by the cover –
it doesn’t begin to tell the story.

This is a gorgeous oversized edition (9.6 x 9.3 x 2 inches) with an elegant choice of typefaces. It is filled with color plates, letters written by Louisa and her publisher Thomas Niles and commentary on each page which enhances the reading experience.

Informative essays

Shealy introduces the book with an interesting essay about the extensive revisions made to the text between its original publication in 1868 and the revised version in the 1880s. In many respects the revisions were a response to negative criticism about the slang Alcott used throughout the book being a poor example for children! Fortunately Shealy uses the original text which is more vibrant and real.

Life turned into classic fiction

A second essay includes photos of each of the main players from the Alcott family. Alcott drew from the deep well of her personal life to bring Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee and Laurie to life. Shealy includes analysis of the era, fascinating anecdotes and great trivia.

Here is a summary from Amazon about the book:

LW Shealy2Little Women has delighted and instructed readers for generations. For many, it is a favorite book first encountered in childhood or adolescence. Championed by Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Theodore Roosevelt, and J. K. Rowling, it is however much more than the “girls’ book” intended by Alcott’s first publisher. In this richly annotated, illustrated edition, Daniel Shealy illuminates the novel’s deep engagement with issues such as social equality, reform movements, the Civil War, friendship, love, loss, and of course the passage into adulthood.

The editor provides running commentary on biographical contexts (Did Alcott, like Jo, have a “mood pillow”?), social and historical contexts (When may a lady properly decline a gentleman’s invitation to dance?), literary allusions (Who is Mrs. Malaprop?), and words likely to cause difficulty to modern readers (What is a velvet snood? A pickled lime?). With Shealy as a guide, we appreciate anew the confusions and difficulties that beset the March sisters as they overcome their burdens and journey toward maturity and adulthood: beautiful, domestic-minded Meg, doomed and forever childlike Beth, selfish Amy, and irrepressible Jo. This edition examines the novel’s central question: How does one grow up well?

Little Women An Annotated Edition offers something for everyone. It will delight both new and returning readers, young and old, male and female alike, who will want to own and treasure this beautiful edition full of color illustrations and photographs.

I am hoping to get permission to show you some of the inside of this book. Stay tuned …

If you love Little Women, you will want this edition as a keepsake to pass down to future generations.

Click to Tweet & ShareNew book: Little Women An Annotated Edition, edited by Daniel Shealy: it’s gorgeous! http://wp.me/p125Rp-1s1

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

Companion volume to Marmee and Louisa includes newly discovered private writings

As mentioned in a previous post, a new dual biography on Louisa and her mother is coming out in November called Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante. LaPlante’s website indicates that previously undiscovered private papers were found which form the basis of her book. These papers are being made available through a companion volume called My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother.

The description on Amazon.com reads as follows:

Edited by award-winning biographer Eve LaPlante, a collection of the letters and diaries of Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Abigail—a forward-thinking feminist whose advice and example profoundly shaped her famous daughter

In this riveting compilation of Abigail May Alcott’s previously undiscovered and unexplored private writings, biographer Eve LaPlante annotates the letters, poems, recipes, and diaries of the real-life inspiration behind “Marmee” of Little Women, one of the most famous mother figures in American literature.

This companion volume to LaPlante’s groundbreaking Marmee & Louisa covers everything from writing (Abigail’s own ambitions as well as her daughter’s) to family life and the expectations of society. Full of wit and charm, Abigail’s private letters offer a moving, intimate portrait of a woman intellectually ahead of her time who found herself trapped in an unrewarding marriage and who would transfer her wisdom and ambition to her talented daughters, Louisa most of all.

In beautiful prose (a biographer once pointed out that “In some ways, Abby was a better writer than her more famous daughter”), this fantastic new collection lays bare the unparalleled love that Abigail held for her family, in the process restoring a powerful female voice too long lost to history.

As indicated by one of our readers, LaPlante will be featured at the Orchard House Summer Conversational Series taking place July 15-19.

I’ll be there, how about you?

The excitement grows … 🙂

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter

New book on Louisa and Abba

Yet another new book is coming out about Louisa and this time it pairs her off with her mother. Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante is due out November 6, 2012 according to Amazon.com.

LaPlante reveals how Abigail May Alcott (Marmee) was the true force behind Louisa’s writing success. Drawing upon old and new sources  (previously undiscovered family journals and letters), she portrays Abba as the strong, assertive pioneer feminist that became one of the country’s first social workers. Dispelling forever the myth that Bronson was the main influence, LaPlante shows Abba to be Louisa’s champion, encouraging her daughter to write and pursue her dream.

The most tantalizing aspect of this new work is the discovery of new primary sources, especially journals previously thought destroyed. This eager reader hopes those journals belong to Abba for Abba was considered by some to be an even better writer than Louisa.

Marmee & Louisa can be found on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; you can read much more about this upcoming book on LaPlante’s website.

I just pre-ordered my copy and I can’t wait!

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
Send an email to louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com
to subscribe, and never miss a post!
Facebook Louisa May Alcott is My Passion
More About Louisa on Twitter